During their remarkable dash to
prosperity, Taiwanese have learned that rapid economic development can exact
a costly social price. In their giddy race to accumulate and spend, once
cherished-traditions governing family and social life seem to lose their
importance; the newly affluent grow callous and indifferent to those left
behind or waylaid by disease or calamity. Yet, by reminding Taiwanese of
their Buddhist roots, Shih (Master) CHENG YEN has stirred the public
conscience and tapped a powerful force for good.
Touched by tragedy as a youth, CHENG YEN came early to spiritual awareness.
More than once she tried to flee her mother's home in Taichung to seek the
religious life. Finally, striking out for Taiwan's remote east coast at the
age of twenty-three, she succeeded. In the harbor city of Hualien, she
became a nun and immersed herself in Buddhist meditation and good works. In
1966, with five other women, she founded the Tz'u Chi Buddhist Contribution
Supporting themselves by sewing baby clothes and surviving on meager
portions of tofu (bean curd) and rice, CHENG YEN and her followers
encouraged housewives to save their small change for charity and directed
their donations to the city's poor. A simple temple complex built a few
years later, on land given by CHENG YEN's mother, became the group's
permanent home. In time, their selfless example and CHENG YEN's impassioned
exhortation to follow Buddhist teachings inspired others to give, and the
Toiling daily among Hualien's have-nots, CHENG YEN was struck by the link
between sickness and poverty. Illness of a breadwinner could quickly reduce
a family to penury, yet Hualien's rudimentary hospitals refused to treat
anyone who could not pay. Moreover, Taipei's advanced hospitals were too far
away for the timely treatment of complex cases. In 1979 CHENG YEN resolved
to build a modern hospital for Hualien. By then, membership in the Tz'u Chi
Society had expanded to tens of thousands; the hospital fund grew rapidly.
Opened in 1986, the Tz'u Chi Buddhist General Hospital is staffed by some of
Taiwan's best-trained doctors and is fitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
At CHENG YEN's gentle urging, its patients are treated lovingly as family.
The hospital refuses no one; those who cannot afford its fees are readily
assisted by the Society.
Today, CHENG YEN and her twenty-six disciples—who support themselves by
candlemaking—follow an austere regimen of work and meditation. They take
nothing from the Society. Every penny contributed to the latter is
meticulously acknowledged and goes directly to support the organization's
projects, making it Taiwan's most trusted charity. Indeed, well over a
million people have now joined the Society and in 1990 alone they
contributed some U.S.$22 million. Such funds have enabled CHENG YEN to add
250 rooms to the hospital and assist more than ten thousand needy families
and disaster victims each year. (When calamity strikes, her volunteers are
often the first ones on the scene.) Recently she opened a nursing school
where poor girls can learn a worthy calling. She now plans to build a
full-fledged university in Hualien, plus a center of Buddhist culture.
Through local branches of the Tz'u Chi Buddhist General Hospital, CHENG YEN
hopes eventually to bring modern hospital services to people throughout
Taiwan. At the heart of CHENG YEN's burgeoning social service empire is the
simple message of love and care for fellow human beings. She urges donors to
give not just money but time—time ministering directly to the poor and sick.
Following her example, Taiwanese of all stations, and numbering in the
thousands, now do.
Unfazed by her growing celebrity, the frail but the tireless
fifty-four-year-old CHENG YEN says simply, "I am led by the power of
religion, which is immeasurable."
In electing Shih CHENG YEN to receive the 1991 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes her reawakening
Taiwan's modern people to the ancient Buddhist teachings of compassion and