HIGHLIGHTS

  • 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 Society.
  • 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.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her reawakening Taiwan’s modern people to the ancient Buddhist teachings of compassion and charity.”

 CITATION

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 Society.

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 Society flourished.

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 charity.

 RESPONSE

This is the most honored occasion in my life. Unfortunately, I am unable to witness personally the magnificence of this awards presentation and to extend my sincere gratitude to all who have shown their love and kindness to me. However, even though I am in Taiwan, I can feel the care and concern extended to me by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation and the encouragement given to me by all the distinguished guests at this awards ceremony. Your support and well wishes make me more aware of my responsibilities.

The ancient sages and worthy monks of China have said that no great event under heaven can be achieved by a single person alone in a single moment; instead, it is accomplished by collective efforts from one person to another, from one generation to the next. The achievements that have resulted from the twenty-seven years of work of the Tz’u Chi (Compassion and Mercy) Buddhist Contribution Society must be directly attributed to all the Buddhist disciples, the Tz’u Chi committee and members, as well as all the kind-hearted lay people of our Society. Although this award is presented to me today, the actual honor and glory should belong to each member of the Tz’u Chi Buddhist Contribution Society.

Caring for others and providing relief to the poor and the sick symbolize the radiance of humanity and illumine man’s benevolent nature. This nature is evidenced in our daily life when we see many successful people among us who are unhesitatingly helping others. It is these people who are taking practical action to create tangible benefits to improve our society materially and spiritually, thus elevating the people’s quality of life. It is our hope that we can gather all goodhearted people to lead and guide our society in a spirit of universal love toward friendliness and harmony. In this way, we can purify our human nature by living in a land of “common wealth.” I believe everyone assembled here for this significant ceremony must share similar high aspirations with me.

I am very grateful to those who have given me this honor today. There are a lot of people who are suffering in this world and are in need of assistance. Therefore, I would like to donate half of the award stipend given me to the government of the Philippines for the victims of the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruptions. The other half will be given to the Tz’u Chi Buddhist Contribution Society for its relief purposes.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the Magsaysay Foundation for the award given me, which symbolizes the highest honor for a social worker. The Philippines is a beautiful country, and her people are friendly and sincere. Regretfully, I am unable to visit this beautiful land due to personal reasons. However, as the Chinese saying goes, “Good friends feel close together even though they are actually far apart.” And opportunities for us to meet will certainly arise.

Peace and good health to everyone, and prosperity to the great Filipino nation.

 BIOGRAPHY

“The sutras are the Way, and the Way is to be walked upon.”

— Shih CHENG YEN

For Buddhists, “everyday is the beginning of becoming a new person,” teaches Shih (Master) CHENG YEN. The past is irrelevant. Moreover, dwelling on the past brings “pain, hate, anger.” CHENG YEN applies this wisdom to her own life and rarely discusses her childhood; indeed she says she has forgotten all about it. As a result, the early period of her life is shrouded in mist. But what does emerge from the few short sketches published about her and the reminiscences of her companions is a tale befitting the Buddhist sage and modern miracle worker that she has become.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)