The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation was established in May of 1966 in Taiwan. “Tzu Chi” is Chinese for “compassionate relief,” and this sect of Taiwanese Buddhism functions not just as a faith based institution, but also an international service organization. The Tzu Chi Foundation’s mission is to help others achieve wellbeing, and, “to relieve the suffering of those in need, and create a better world for us all.”
Tzu Chi’s primary message is, “Love Saves,” which originates from Master Cheng Yen’s teachings: “By saving to give to others we can change the world.”
In the mid-twentieth century, a Buddhist nun, her disciples, and thirty housewives in Taiwan witnessed people suffering and wondered how they could help. The nun, Master Cheng Yen, believed that if each woman saved two pennies each day and made a vow to do good deeds, then a lot could be accomplished. That day, each housewife took home a coin bank made of bamboo and vowed to save her money, “the essence of their love and good wishes,” and to do good. Members of the Tzu Chi community believe that “material deprivation as well as ‘spiritual poverty’” causes suffering, “so Tzu Chi not only provides physical relief, but also advocates the development of altruistic love for others, and selfless giving through volunteering.”
Debbie Cheng, one of Master Cheng Yen’s followers, founded the New Jersey chapter of the Tzu Chi Foundation in 1992, one of the first chapters in the United States. Their facility is 27,000 square feet, and includes a bookstore, prayer areas, many classrooms, storage space, their charity food pantry, and ample parking.
Master Cheng Yen was born in Taiwan in 1937. Throughout her childhood, she witnessed the suffering of World War II, of her mother and brother who both were very ill, and of her father, who died suddenly. The suffering she experienced and saw in others led her to pursue a more fervent commitment to the Buddha Dharma. When she was twenty-five years old, she was ordained as a Buddhist nun. Her spiritual mentor, Master Yin Shun, instructed her to, “‘remember always to work for Buddhism and for all living beings.’ And this is precisely what she has been doing ever since, with self-discipline, diligence, frugality, perseverance, and at root, expansive love for all.”
“In founding Tzu Chi, her wish was to give ordinary people the chance to actualize their compassion, and find inner peace and joy while saving the world.” – Biography of Dharma Master Cheng Yen
Master Cheng Yen’s interpretations of the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of Immeasurable Meaning have greatly influenced Tzu Chi ideology. In understanding the Lotus Sutra, Cheng Yen focuses on the Four Infinite Minds: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In her writing and teaching, she talks about how Dharma is as expansive as the ocean, and how we can use skillful means to walk the Bodhisattva Path from our afflictions to the opposite shore. The Four Infinite Minds help to accept the Dharma into our hearts and to listen, contemplate, and practice as the Buddha instructed. Cheng Yen teaches that infinite loving kindness is a great love in our hearts for all, and that practicing loving kindness means creating blessings so others may attain happiness and, “giving according to the needs of sentient beings.” Infinite compassion is having sympathy for all those who suffer, and working to enable others to attain liberation of the mind. Infinite joy is delight in seeing others attain joy and open their hearts to the Dharma, despite all challenges. Infinite equanimity means respecting all beings, daring not look down on others, and seeing no distinctions between people so as to not develop hate or aversion.
Further, Cheng Yen teaches that the weakening of a sentient being’s spiritual aspirations is letting their Bodhi-seedling wilt, and instead it must be nourished by the Dharma as water. Her teachings allow members of the Tzu Chi community to coexist with everything else in the world, like many lamps that together produce the greatest brightness, for every person has a pure Buddha heart. “The saying ‘Our mind is clear and translucent, and our vows are as vast as the endless void. Our conviction is unwavering for countless eons,’ is the foundation of the Tzu Chi dharma teachings.”
Tzu Chi is of the Mahayana order of Buddhism. There are eight main tenets of Tzu Chi’s global mission: charity, medicine, education, humanist culture, international relief, bone marrow donor registry, environmental protection, and their volunteers, all of which are founded in Buddhist philosophy and teachings.
“We strive to act morally, be mindful and self-aware, and seek to attain ultimate wisdom, or enlightenment (“bodhi” in Sanskrit). Our goal is to awaken great compassion for all beings in our hearts, and to walk a loving path of selfless action serving others.”– Tzu Chi Teachings
Members of the Tzu Chi community in New Jersey and around the world, “cultivate sincerity, uprightness, faith, honesty, precepts, samadhi, and wisdom.” They have “karmic affinities” with Tzu Chi, having “nurtured enlightened love” in past lives and bringing that love yet again as they encourage others to become living bodhisattvas, “and walk the Tzu Chi Path to serve for the greater good.” Tzu Chi volunteers live frugally, nurture and cultivate spirituality and compassion, and “walk together on the path of compassion and wisdom.”
“We believe that all beings are equal and everyone has an innate Buddha-nature. Practicing kindness and compassion, one can see Buddhism clearly.”– Master Cheng Yen, April 2008
Chapters of the Tzu Chi Foundation have contributed to many large scale and local charitable efforts. Internationally, Tzu Chi Foundation has worked to provide relief to those displaced by nature disasters, most notably in South America. In the United States, Tzu Chi members donated to the families of those affected by 9/11. In New Jersey, after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, Tzu Chi volunteers “worked with 12 different local townships and distributed $2,141,700 to 3,605 families, benefitting 11,708 people.”
“We started with nothing when Tzu Chi was established in 1966. Acting on the belief that innate love resides in everyone, I encouraged my followers to save 50 cents (US$0.02) in a bamboo bank every day to help the needy. We started our mission of charity from this humble beginning.” – Master Cheng Yen, June 2013
The Tzu Chi chapter in Cedar Grove, New Jersey was integral in the relief efforts made for families affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Today, this chapter continues its dedication to helping local families. Volunteers at the Cedar Grove Tzu Chi chapter work with the township of Cedar Grove to assess the needs of the community and how they can best contribute. The Tzu Chi food pantry is one of the most successful initiatives that the community sponsors. They work with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which feeds over nine thousand people every year. Further, the Tzu Chi chapter in Cedar Grove hosts an annual interfaith service every Thanksgiving. They translate local news from English into Chinese and post it on their website, making it more accessible to members of the community.
The Tzu Chi chapter in Cedar Grove services the Mid-Atlantic Region (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala), with a particular emphasis on local families. Their food pantry, one of their most effective programs, provides food to all kinds of families in need, called “care recipients.” Care recipients are people of all ages and national origin, who speak any language. Many non-Buddhists receive assistance from Tzu Chi through the food pantry, which serves as a bridge to the rest of the community. Volunteers show people how much they love and how they can to learn to love too. Similarly, the community does not constrain access to just Taiwanese, Buddhist, or Chinese speaking people. While the constituency is mostly composed of Chinese speaking Americans, recruitment only asks about what languages a volunteer speaks, and education produced by this community focuses not on members’ ethnicity, but on non-judgment. One interview features a white man named Chris who got involved because he was, at first, just interested in Buddhism. In his interview, he discusses how Buddhism fostered within him a spirit for caring for people. He believes, because of his time spent volunteering at Tzu Chi, that when you look at a person deeply, he or she has an inner pureness there no matter their personality.
Before they established positive relationships with other members of the Cedar Grove community, Tzu Chi developed from humble, somewhat controversial roots. Debbie Cheng recounts Tzu Chi’s first meeting, where over four hundred people gathered, and continued to gather for weekly tea and sign language practice. In the nineties, her home was constantly bustling, so much so that neighbors complained and involved attorneys. They worked to find a location big enough for their growing community and to get the township’s approval for religious and educational use. One member, Jackson Chen, recounts that fifteen years ago, there was no Buddhism and no Chinese presence in Cedar Grove. Now, Tzu Chi services more than four thousand families every year.
Tzu Chi is an incredible Buddhist community and charitable organization that works to reduce suffering locally and internationally.
“With open hearts and helping hands, our volunteers are here to serve you.”– Tzu Chi Foundation
The World of Tzu Chi, “Mid-Atlantic Region,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/region/mid-atlantic/
The World of Tzu Chi, “Global Tzu Chi History,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/history/
The World of Tzu Chi, “Biography of Dharma Master Cheng Yen,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/blog/biography-of-dharma-master-cheng-yen/
The World of Tzu Chi, “Master Cheng Yen’s Teachings,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/teachings/
The World of Tzu Chi, “Our Mission,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/mission/
The World of Tzu Chi, “How It All Began,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/lovesaves/?locId=418dyd59186
The World of Tzu Chi, “The Heart of Tzu Chi,” updated 2016, http://www.tzuchi.us/video/videos/the-heart-of-tzu-chi/
Master Cheng Yen, “The Vow of Tzu Chi Commissioners,” published April 28, 2008, http://tw.tzuchi.org/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=281&Itemid=289&lang=en
Tzu Chi Foundation, “Tzu Chi Dharma Teachings (Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings), published May 25, 2007, http://tw.tzuchi.org/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=309%3Atzu-chi-dharma-teachings-sutra-of-immeasurable-meanings&catid=101%3Aphilosphy&Itemid=265&lang=en
Tzu Chi Foundation, “Great Love and Lasting Compassion,” published March 4, 2016, http://www.tzuchi.org.tw/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1368%3Agreat-love-and-lasting-compassion&catid=116%3Atzu-chi-path&Itemid=324&lang=es
Tzu Chi Foundation, “Living Worthwhile Lives,” published June 12, 2013, http://www.tzuchi.org.tw/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1111%3Aliving-worthwhile-lives&catid=82%3Amiscellaneous&Itemid=326&lang=es