Venerable Master Cheng Yen (TC: 證嚴法師, PY: Zhèngyán) (11 May 1937-) is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun, teacher and philanthropist.In 1966, Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu-Chi Foundation, commonly known as Tzu-Chi; its motto is “instructing the rich and saving the poor”. Later, Cheng Yen’s Charity, Medicine, Education, and Culture Missions developed, and to the present the Tzu-Chi Foundation has become involved in international disaster relief, bone marrow donation, environmental protection, and community volunteering.
She was born with the given name Wang Jinyun (王錦雲) in 1937 in Chingshui Village in Taichung County in Taiwan. Her uncle was childless, so she was given to be raised by her aunt and uncle. As early as 1945, she had to experience people’s pain and helplessness at the age of eight when she had to look after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months. At the age of 23, her father died suddenly from brain hemorrhaging caused by a stroke. It was in searching for a burial place for him that Cheng Yen first came into contact with the Buddhist Dharma.She left home in 1961 to travel through eastern Taiwan with a friendly nun by the name of Master Hsiu Tao. In February 1963, she became the disciple of her mentor, the Venerable Master Yin Shun, who gave her the dharma name of Cheng Yen and the courtesy name of Huichang. Yin Shun also gave her the great expectation of “doing all for the Buddhist religion and for all beings”, which is written with six characters in Chinese. From then on, these six characters became the highest ideals for Cheng Yen in belief, teaching, and practice.In May 1963, shortly after receiving her initiation as a nun, she went to Pu Ming Temple in Hualien County to continue her spiritual formation. As a part of that formation, she recited the Lotus Sutra, which she revered, every day and copied it every month. It was during her six months there during which she vowed to commit herself to the Lotus Sutra and the “Path of the Bodhisattvas.”
It is said that there are two watershed events that inspired Master Cheng Yen to take the power of Buddhism and use it to help people in the material world. The first is when she had a now-famous discussion with three Roman Catholic nuns at Pu Ming temple in 1966. While the nuns admitted the profundity of Buddhist teachings, they noted that the Catholic Church had helped people around the world by building schools and hospitals. “But what has Buddhism done for society?” Those words made Master Cheng Yen realize that Buddhism had to do more than just simply cultivate the soul.The other watershed event occurred in the same year while on a visit to a hospital in Fonglin (鳳林). After seeing blood on the hospital floor, she learned that a Yuanjhumin (Taiwanese Aboriginal) woman had a miscarriage. They were forced to carry the pregnant woman back up the mountain after they could not afford the eight thousand New Taiwan Dollars deposit.These events led Master Cheng Yen to establish the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, which is now known as the Tzu Chi Foundation, in 1966 and the first Tzu Chi Hospital in Hualien in 1986.
Founding of Tzu Chi
Main article: Tzu ChiTo meet the needs of the poor in eastern Taiwan, Master Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association on April 14, 1966. Master Cheng Yan encouraged her thirty followers to save fifty cents (US$.02) from their grocery money every day. They would put this money into little savings banks made from bamboo. When posed with the question, “Why should we save fifty cents every day? Isn’t it easier to save fifteen dollars per month?” Master Cheng Yen replied, shaking her head, “It’s not the same. If you save once a month, then you only show your compassion once a month. Even though the fifty cents you save daily is not of great value, you accumulate the spirit of helping and loving others every day.” Tzu Chi’s beginnings were humble. In the first year, fifteen families were helped by thirty followers.Unlike most Buddhist orders, Tzu Chi nuns do not take donations for themselves. Rather, in the early days, they worked for their food by farming, weaving gloves, making diapers and electrical circuit breakers, among other products.
By 1970, Master Cheng Yen came to the realization of the link between poverty and illness after spending six years among the poor of eastern Taiwan. Seeing this, she resolved to tackle the problem and begin Tzu Chi’s medical mission.Tzu Chi’s first medical outreach occurred in 1972 when a free clinic was opened in Hualien. In the fifteen years of this outreach, more than 140,000 consultations occurred.
Plans to build a 600-bed general hospital were developed in 1979 to provide service to the underserved eastern coast of Taiwan. Despite initial setbacks both in funding for the hospital and finding an acceptable site. Ground was broken on the site eventually chosen on February 5, 1983 at a ceremony officiated by then Provincial Governor (later President) Lee Tung-Hui. However, two weeks after ground was broken, Master Cheng Yen received a letter from the military telling her that the property was needed by the military and that construction would have to stop.Minister of the Interior Lin Yang-kang helped to obtain a new site. A second groundbreaking occurred on April 2, 1984 at the new site. Construction was completed and the hospital opened on August 17, 1986.Tzu Chi has since built hospitals in Yuli, Hualien County; Dalin, Jiayi County; Guanshan, Taidong County; and Xindian, Taipei County. A sixth hospital is nearly complete in Tanzi, Taichung County.
In order to address the shortage of nurses on Taiwan’s east coast, and expand the ongoing medical mission, Master Cheng Yen resolved to build the TzuChi College of Nursing. With the assistance of many people, it was founded on September 17, 1989 in Hualien. It was the first private nursing college in Taiwan to waive tuition for selected courses, in addition to providing full scholarships for qualified Taiwan aborigines students. Students not only learn the technical skills of nursing, they are also imbued with the spirit of compassion and given a humanitarian education. Despite the Buddhist nature of Tzu Chi, Aboriginal Christian pastors have been hired to minister to the large proportion of Yuanjhumin students, many of whom are Christian, who study at the college. They are also present to preserve native culture and languages.
Master Cheng Yen’s commitment to improving access to medical care was continued by the beginning of a Bone Marrow Registry. Her deep feeling for those patients with blood related diseases moved her in this direction in 1992. She referred to the concept of “saving a life without bringing harm to self.” This effort to register bone marrow donors won the endorsement of Taiwan’s government in 1993, when it revamped organ donation laws paving the way for bone marrow donation in the country. This registry became a division of the new Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center, which was founded to improve research and treatment capabilities. By August 2005, Tzu Chi had registered more than 274,000 marrow donors and had matched close to one thousand recipients with compatible donors around the world.
Continuing the Mission of Medicine that Master Cheng Yen has been so dedicated to, she established the Tzu Chi College of Medicine in 1994. This college grew into Tzu Chi University in 2000.Concurrently, she also appealed to Taiwanese people to donate their bodies for medical training, attempting to dispel traditional taboos in the process. As a result of this appeal, public support for body donations surged nationwide. Consequently, at the Tzu Chi College of Medicine, there is one body for every four students to study as opposed to one body for every two hundred students at one school. Tzu Chi’s College of Medicine ratio is the lowest in the country.In 1995, the Athletic Drug Testing Center was established at the request of the Ministry of Education and went into operation in 1996 during a national sporting event when gold medal winners were tested for banned drugs.
Master Cheng Yen has referred to relief work in China as “Building a Bridge of Love.” Tzu Chi’s China relief program began in 1991 when devastating floods hit central and eastern China. Despite the cross-Strait political situation, Cheng Yen was able to open up avenues to assist Chinese people who were in desperate need.Master Cheng Yen referred to the initial obstacles that came from both sides of the strait as the “two problems and four difficulties.” In Taiwan, it was difficult to convince Taiwanese to help the Chinese, and in China, it was difficult to convince government officials normally wary of religious organizations from accepting Tzu Chi.The four difficulties were:
- difficulty in travel to China (due to the lack of direct links)
- psychological pressure
- work was physically taxing
- difficult to communicate with Chinese officials
Despite these obstacles, Cheng Yen has seen the dream of building bridges across the strait through humanitarian assistance realized. This being the first major effort at international relief aid, it also allowed Tzu Chi to develop its principles of delivering aid. Tzu Chi volunteers are not to discuss business, politics, or preach religion while giving aid.Master Cheng Yen’s philosophy includes the notion that not only are those receiving assistance benefiting materially by receiving the aid, but those delivering the aid are also spiritually rewarded when they see the gratitude in the eyes and smiles of the recipients.
Master Cheng Yen has directed Tzu Chi to participate in numerous other relief projects around the world, including sending teams to Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami as well as to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake in their northern mountains. The later was done despite poor relations between the governments of the two countries.Other relief projects have taken place in Mongolia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand, Rwanda, Cambodia, North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Vietnam, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and numerous other countries.
Parts of Taiwan were devastated by Typhoon Herb in 1996. This storm caused the worst flooding in Taiwan in thirty years. Cheng Yen called on thousands of volunteers to provide aid to those affected by the floods. This effort gave impetus to creating a nation-wide volunteer program where volunteers are registered according to where they live with the goal of “neighbors helping neighbors.” Central Taiwan was devastated by the powerful ChiChi Earthquake in September 21, 1999. Cheng Yen called on Tzu Chi volunteers to do everything they could for the victims. This time, assistance went beyond immediate relief assistance. Believing that education is vital for children and must not be interrupted, ten billion New Taiwan Dollars were raised to rebuild fifty schools in the affected areas within three years. In the interim, Tzu Chi provided temporary classrooms so children could continue their education while their schools were being repaired and rebuilt.In recent years, Tzu Chi has mobilized within hours to help people affected by typhoons and other natural disasters in Taiwan by delivering prepared meals, drinking water, and providing financial assistance to help victims replace what has been lost.
Cheng Yen launched the Da Ai (Great Love) Television Station in 1998. The goal behind this effort was to provide television that was free from violence, war, exploitation, and other negative things that pollute the human spirit.Da Ai continues to operate today. Commercial-free, it operates twenty-four hours a day and is partially funded by a nationwide recycling effort. Individuals and corporations also provide donations to allow the channel to maintain its commercial-free status.Da Ai features non-political news generally free of negativity and violence, teaching lectures from Cheng Yen and serial programs designed to extol the virtues of living a good life, often profiling people who made major changes in their life for the better.
Although Cheng Yen is approaching the age of seventy, she can not be accused of slowing down her active work pace. She broadcasts “Morning at Dawn” every week-day morning. This 25-minute address is both teaching and inspirational. Every evening, she gives another twelve-minute address. She rises early morning and often receives visitors. She actively oversees the many projects that Tzu Chi operated throughout Taiwan. To accomplish this, she makes monthly trips encircling the country to see what volunteers are doing to better the lives of those they assist.
- 1986: Receives “Huashia Medal of the First Order”
- 1991: Receives Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
- 1993: Conferred Honorary Doctorate Degree by the Chinese University of Hong Kong
- 1996: Tzu Chi receives the “Interior Ministry’s First Class Honorary Award.”
- 1996: Tzu Chi receives the “Foreign Affairs Medal of the First Order.”
- 1996: Tzu ChiReceives the “Huaguang Award of the First Order.”
- 2000: Honored with the Noel Foundation Award
- 2001: Received the first “Presidential Culture Award”
- 2001: Selected as one of 26 “Heroes from Around the World” and featured on the “Wall of Honor” in Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum.
- 2001: Receives “National Medal of the Second Order” from the President of El Salvador
- 2001: Conferred Honorary Doctorate in Social Science by Hong Kong University
- 2002: Awarded “Distinguished Woman in Buddhism” by World Buddhist University in Thailand
- 2002: Conferred “Honorary Doctorate Degree in Socio-Cultural Studies” by National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.
- 2003: Receives the Presidential Second Order of the Brilliant Star Award, Taiwan.
- 2004: Receives the 2004 Asian American Heritage Award for Humanitarian Service by the Asian American Federation of California (AAFC)