JULY 3, 2000  

Cheng Yen

Founder, Tzu Chi Foundation -- Taiwan

Cheng Yen begins each day at 3:50 a.m., awakening from a floor mat in her monastery outside Taiwan's mountainous coastal city of Hualien. She meditates, does an hour's worth of work, then has a sparse breakfast at 6 a.m. Her daily routine may be that of a simple Buddhist nun, but Master Cheng, as she is known, is one of the most powerful people in Taiwan. She is the founder and leader of the Buddhist charity organization Tzu Chi, or ''Mercy, Relief,'' which boasts 4 million members--one-fifth of Taiwan's population.

Through three decades of good works, Yen has changed the role of Buddhism in Taiwan from one of meditation and retreat to one of activism and engagement. She now has an army of 25,000 volunteers working at poverty alleviation, health care, and education--in dozens of countries, not just Taiwan. Her standing in Taiwan is so high that all three presidential candidates in the March election traveled to Hualien to seek her blessing.

Her foundation gained international prominence because of its quick response to the September, 1999, earthquake in Taiwan that killed 2,400 people. The quake struck at 1:52 a.m.; by 5 a.m., Tzu Chi members had arrived at disaster sites to function like a local Red Cross, sheltering, feeding, and counseling tens of thousands of quake victims. ''We are very deep into all layers of society,'' says Tzu Chi volunteer James Wang. ''We are well organized, so we can react right away.''

Even now, nine months after the quake, Tzu Chi is still stepping into what usually is a government role in reconstruction efforts: Its volunteers plan to rebuild 45 schools destroyed by the quake--and this time make them earthquake-proof. ''You can't rely on the government to do everything,'' says Cheng, a soft-spoken 63-year-old woman with a shaved head and the long, elegant hands of a Mandarin. ''The people have to do something, to take care of the part the government does not do.''

Indeed, it was inadequate government services that helped prompt Cheng to start her foundation in the first place. Back in 1966 as a young nun, she visited a hospital and saw a pool of blood on the floor--from a woman who had miscarried after being turned away for lack of money. Cheng was struck with ''overwhelming sadness,'' according to a Tzu Chi publication, and wondered what she could do to overcome such suffering.

A short time later, three Roman Catholic nuns tried to get her to convert to Catholicism, saying that their religion was better at caring for people than Buddhism because it built schools and hospitals. The publication quotes them as saying that Buddhist teachings were profound, ''but what has Buddhism done for society?'' At that moment, Cheng vowed to remain a Buddhist but to build schools and hospitals, too. And she vowed to make sure that everyone--even those without money for treatment--could use them.

DIRECT RELIEF. Cheng built up Tzu Chi gradually from a small shack and a group of women followers who saved a little each day out of their grocery money. It is now a huge organization. Tzu Chi took in $300 million in donations last year, half of it specifically targeted for earthquake victims.

Cheng has organized Tzu Chi so that all donations can be channeled directly to relief efforts. Overhead costs and salaries for its 570-member staff are met by sales of Cheng's inspirational books and tapes and endowments from wealthy members. In addition to its relief work abroad--including in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere in Asia--Tzu Chi runs a number of civic projects in Taiwan, ranging from providing monthly welfare checks to 4,000 needy families to pushing an environmental agenda that it estimates has recycled enough paper to save 3.5 million trees. All volunteers are banned from lying, smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, fornicating, gambling, and participating in politics.

For all its good works at home, Tzu Chi has been criticized in the local media for its relief efforts in China. Cheng has worked on the mainland for the past nine years, with activities in 19 of its 35 provinces. Cheng shrugs off concern about whether a Taiwan organization should be helping the mainland while its politicians threaten the island with war. ''We don't care about politics,'' says Cheng. ''There is no reason to love some people less than others, and mainland Chinese are people, too. Buddhism teaches us to take care of people, to take care of society.'' She's doing that--and then some.

A Chat with Cheng Yen

Buddhist Master Cheng Yen founded the Tzu Chi Foundation in 1966 and has seen it grow into an international organization with a 25,000-member volunteer corps building hospitals, schools, and other charitable works. She recently spoke with Asia Editor Sheri Prasso at her Buddhist monastery in Hualien. Translation and assistance was provided by Taipei-based reporter Dan Nystedt. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Why is Tzu Chi's work necessary?
A: Tzu Chi is a religious organization. Religious organizations should teach people how to develop their own love and then how to spread that love to others in a way that has meaning and impact in their lives. The Buddha not only taught Buddhist doctrine, he taught people how to put that doctrine into practice in the real world.

Q: If Taiwanis government already offers national health insurance and other services to people in Taiwan, why is more needed from Tzu Chi?
A: Our government does a good job taking care of people, but you can't rely on the government to do everything. People [the general populace] have to do something. They have to be taught that they can do something. When people discover the power of their own individual spirit, and that power is brought together with others, then all is possible...people can take care of the part the government does not do.

At the time we built the hospital, most hospitals in Taiwan required a deposit before treatment...but that wastes a lot of time and delays first aid. A lot of needy people get sick but don't have the money to see a doctor, then their illness becomes more serious. As their health worsens, effective treatment becomes more expensive, and the situation [gets worse and worse]. The same goes for laborers. When a poor laborer gets injured and refuses medical care for lack of money to pay the bill, they may become handicapped later on.

Q: Why is this work important to you personally?
A: Nothing is more valuable than life. The most important thing is to respect life and help people. The greatest tragedy in life is human suffering. If there were no suffering, society would be perfect. When everyone is happy, only then am I happy. When everyone is healthy, only then am I healthy. When human suffering ends, my suffering ends.

Q: Many people have compared you to Mother Teresa. Do you compare yourself to her?
A: I don't think comparisons are necessary. I love and respect Mother Teresa. But it is not necessary to compare us. Everyone's life "value" is different, Mother Teresa has hers, and I have mine. Everyone has their own mission in life. The most important thing is to complete that mission.

Q: Where do you see Tzu Chi 10 to 20 years down the road?
A: We don't plan 10 or 20 years into the future. We build everything the best we can because we hope the things we do today will last a thousand years. We walk the path of truth. We build everything carefully, step by step, the best we can. We don't waste time, not even a minute, because we hope the things we do today last forever. The most important thing is to grasp the moment at hand and take care of what is happening now.

Q: Some people in Taiwan have criticized Tzu Chi for doing aid work in mainland China, saying things like, "Why do you help China when the Chinese intimidate us and shoot missiles over Taiwan?" How do you respond to that criticism?
A: Love is no different between people. There is no reason to love some people less than others. Mainlanders are people, too. Tzu Chi doesn't only help in mainland China, we help people all over the world. Wherever there is suffering, Tzu Chi is there to help. We don't care about politics. Besides, our ancestors come from China, we are of the same blood. On May 27, we will send a group to Ethiopia to provide medical treatment to a village there and to assess the damage caused by the recent drought.

Q: In the past, Buddhist priests and nuns in Taiwan spent their time cultivating themselves only, and not entering society to help people. For example, meditating in mountain monasteries. But you are different. You came down from the mountain to work with the people. Are you the first Buddhist cleric to do that?
A: I can't really say whether I was first or not. I do not know what other Buddhists were doing throughout Taiwan when I came to Hualien. But I can tell you that Buddhism teaches us to take care of people, to take care of society and ease suffering by spreading the spirit of Buddhism. So I went to the people. I know that today, other groups have been busy building schools and other things, but we build hospitals and the medical schools to go with them. That's not easy, it takes money to hire good doctors, it's very difficult.