Tzu Chi Foundation : Master Cheng Yen

Compassionate Love

Great Compassion In Action

Author Good Guy's Bamboo "Bank" Coinbox From Tzu Chi

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Tzu Chi Foundation : Master Cheng Yen

The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation is well-known throughout Asia. Tzu Chi for short. This year, 2016, Tzu Chi celebrates its 50th anniversary. The name, "Master Cheng Yen" is equally famous, and revered by those who know this person. Everyone in the Chinese speaking world knows Master Cheng Yen, or respectfully addressed as Dharma Master Cheng Yen; and reveredly addressed as Shang Ren ( 上人) by her millions of worldwide followers. Shang Ren ( 上人) literally means "top person" in Mandarin Chinese. Here the term “Master” is used in neutral form; for Master Cheng Yen is a Buddhist nun residing in her home country, Taiwan. From her base in Hualien, the mountainous eastern region of Taiwan, Master Cheng Yen coordinates her great compassionate relief work across the globe. This article is about Dharma Master Cheng Yen and her organization, the Tzu Chi Foundation. Master Cheng Yen is unquestionably the most respected person in the whole of Taiwan!

Master Cheng Yen started her life mission in a very humble and insignificant manner. In her book, “Master of Love and Mercy” she wrote about her guilt-feeling having to move her ailing father from one place to another until his death. And on another occasion, she was overwhelmed with sadness when she saw blood on the hospital floor. On enquiry, she was told that a mother had suffered a miscarriage but was rejected for admission because she had no money to pay for treatment. This led Master Cheng Yen to resolve that one day she would save all the poor and trodden, while educate the rich to donate to noble causes.

From scratch, in 1966, Master Cheng Yen rounded up her friends and started sewing baby shoes for sale. At the same time she encouraged her initial 30 housewife followers to save 50 cents (US 2 cents) a day from their grocery allowances. Each day they would drop the coins in bamboo coin containers called "bamboo bank", and as the saying goes, "the rest is history".

The proceeds and savings would be used for helping those who were suffering. During that first year, fifteen deserving families benefitted from the savings and collections. From that meagre enterprise and frugal savings, which began in a wooden hut, donations began to build up until what it is today, the Tzu Chi Foundation. Now, it is believed that one in every five Taiwanese is a donor to Tzu Chi!

Tzu Chi in Chinese, literally means “compassion relief”. It is based on the Buddhist principle of compassion. Compassion for all living beings; not only human beings but all living beings in the world. Master Cheng Yen, being the founder of the Tzu Chi Foundation is also its head or Chief Executive. Needless to say, Master Cheng Yen is the spiritual motivator and mentor of the Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to serve with compassion and to give with joy to all who are suffering, irrespective of race or religious belief. The official name in Chinese is 慈济基金会 (Cíjì Jījīnhuì). However, it is simplified as Tzu Chi, as referred globally. The iconic Tzu Chi lotus-shaped green logo is equally famous and recognizable worldwide. Tzu Chi Foundation is now one of the largest NGOs and international humanitarian organizations in the world, and holds a special consultative status since July 19, 2010, with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC).

Tzu Chi at last count, with a membership of four million, has over 10 million donors with 2 million active volunteers worldwide. It has 372 stand-alone chapters all over the world in at least 47 countries, with the USA having the most field offices, 99 in all. Total donations raised are difficult to ascertain, as each center is self –sustained. The homeland Taiwan being the biggest donor with $313 million raise in a year. About 30% of contributions come from overseas. Estimates give the total of over $30 million contributed worldwide, with the largest group of donors from my country, Malaysia. I am proud to assume that the largest group within Malaysia is from my home island of Penang, where many Tzu Chi supporters are from very wealthy background! One would not fail to notice that all the Tzu Chi centres in Penang are located on prime land!

The Penang Government, in 2012, bestowed the highest civilian honor to Master Cheng Yen in recognition for Tzu Chi’s 19 years of excellent service to the people of Penang. Currently, Malaysia has 2,569 certified volunteers.

Tzu Chi "Compassionate Relief"

Tzu Chi means literally "compassion relief". It is too well-known that Buddhists talk about compassion, but glaringly not putting the concept into action. It was Master Chen Yen who initiated the concept of "Humanizing Buddhism", or in Buddhist parlance, walking the living "Bodhisattva Path". Compassion without action leaves a void in helping others in distress. Relieving others from distress with ulterior motives is not compassion. It is the mission of Tzu Chi to implement "Relief with compassion" that makes the organization so unique and universally accepted and respected. Tzu Chi provides "compassion relief" to whoever are in distress, anywhere in the world, irrespective of religions or none, without expecting anything in return. The reward is in the smiles of those being helped! In fact the Chinese character for "relief" has an emphasis on "immediate". So the appropriate translation for "Tzu Zhi" is "Immediate Relief With Compassion".

Master Cheng Yen

Master Cheng Yen With Her Mentor, Ven Master Yin Shun

Tzu Chi : Master Cheng Yen And Humanizing Buddhism

Master Cheng Yen was born on 11 May, 1937 which means she is 79 years old, this year 2016. Master Cheng Yen is fondly compared with Mother Teresa by the Western media. My personal opinion is that we should not compare people with our flawed understanding and standards. Mother Teresa was Mother Teresa. And Master Cheng Yen is Master Cheng Yen. What I would say is that both personalities are embodiments of purity, virtue, compassion and universal love. If ever there is a comparison, then I would say she is the embodiment of the virtues of Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. “Kuanyin” actually means “surveying the sound”, meaning, “ one who surveys the world for the sound of sorrow and gives a compassionate helping relief”. Master Cheng Yen, the one who surveys the sound of sorrow and gives a helping hand with love and compassion.

Of course, the Master herself will not accept or approve this comparison and I may be chided for being disrespectful to Kuanyin. I must apologize in advance.

At the age of 23, after much difficulty finding a willing spiritual mentor, she was ordained as a Buddhist nun under the able guidance of the late Venerable Master Yin Shun. Venerable Master Yin Shun was a strong advocator of the concepts of “humanizing” Buddhism and the "Living Bodhisattva" Path . Buddhism traditionally has been, and still is, an inward-looking spiritual philosophy, emphasizing on self-cultivation and meditation to experience inner peace of mind and to gain insight into life and existence. Master Yin Shun’s vision was to bring Buddhist ideals to the people through service and compassion. This was the foundation with which Master Cheng Yen laid forth when she started with the humble “50-cent” mission. Service and help with a smile, with compassion, with kindness, with joy and with sincerity and humility. The mission is to bring Buddhist humanism to the people, to the society, to the world. Not proselytizing, but sharing Buddhist ideals of compassion and sincerity to relieve the suffering of the less fortunate in times of needs and in times of disasters, irrespective of color or creed.

Master Cheng Yen’s daily schedule starts from the very early morning at 3.45am and stretches past 10 in the evening; with only very short breaks of 15 minutes each time, for meals and rest. Her busy schedule is fully booked months ahead to meet people from all walks of life from all over the world, from volunteers, donors, media people, to politicians. Master Cheng Yen does not travel overseas due to health constraint. However, Master Cheng Yen communicates daily with her worldwide supporters and followers through video conferencing and by daily broadcasting on Tzu Chi’s very own international tv network, the satellite Da Ai Tv. “Da Ai” means “Great Love” in Chinese. This Da Ai satellite tv broadcast is one of the mainstream communication media to spread Tzu Chi’s message of “inspiring Great Love around the world”.

She is also a passionate speaker, always speaking with a soft tone but with authority, conviction and full of charisma. You can listen to her in the youtube video below. The Master has spoken so widely on so many topics. Her words of wisdom and encouragement have been compiled into a book titled “Jing Si Aphorisms”. “Jing Si” means “still thoughts”. The book has been translated into 11 languages and sold millions of copies. Quotations from the book are made into posters just like those motivational posters, and are pasted everywhere in shops around Taiwan.

Tzu Chi Free Eye Clinic, Phillippines

The Blue Angels Of Tzu Chi

Christian Zulus Blue Angels Visiting Taiwan

The Master referred the African Tzu Chi volunteers as "Black Pearls" which are more valuable than the ordinary "white" ones.
The Master referred the African Tzu Chi volunteers as "Black Pearls" which are more valuable than the ordinary "white" ones.

Blue Angels In Haiti

Tzu Chi And Its Activities

The most outstanding characteristic in Tzu Chi is its efficiency in its operations, both in administration and relief activities. Tzu Chi has 2 million volunteers and only 800 paid workers who can actually find better paid jobs elsewhere but are happy serving the organization here. Whereas the Red Cross has only 1 million volunteers but 34,000 paid workers!

Tzu Chi started off as a group with the compassionate mission to help people who were in distress. Now Tzu Chi encompasses a very wide spectrum of humanitarian services grouped into four missions:

1. Charity : International relief, bringing hope to people in need.

2. Medicine : Free clinic, dialysis facilities, hospital, hospice, bone marrow donation.

3. Education : From preschool to university and medical college, instilling wholesome values in youths, promote education overseas.

4. Humanistic Culture : Humanity, communication and media coverage, community volunteers, environment protection. Environmental protection is now a major mission of Tzu Chi, of which recycling projects are the main focus.

Tzu Chi has a greater mission apart from providing compassionate reliefs. It aims to transform lives with love, sincerity and compassion. Wherever Tzu Chi went, it sowed seeds of compassion and love, and those being helped were able to change their outlook in life to be better persons as well. Tzu Chi is best known globally for its international relief work during times of calamities and natural disasters. However there are other areas which Tzu Chi has shown great success. Master Cheng Yen purposely chose Hualien, the less habitable mountainous eastern region of Taiwan to build her first hospital. Today Hualien is the hub of Tzu Chi’s international activities. In terms of education, Tzu Chi has her own comprehensive program from preschool to university level. It also has its own medical colleges.

Tzu Chi has built many hospitals and schools worldwide. It has also completed many life-saving projects throughout the world. The most notable project is the one in Gangsu province in West China, in the very harsh Loess Plateau where it is virtually deplete of vegetation. The region is like a desert and only has rain during two months in a year. The major life threatening problem is storage of water. In 1997, Tzu Chi embarked on the program of building special water cisterns to store water. By 2007, over 13,000 water cisterns were built for the inhabitants. In addition Tzu Chi also built two schools and donated rice to 4500 families during the winter of 2007.

Tzu Chi started its overseas disaster relief in 1991 in Bangladesh, when a huge typhoon devastated the country. Later that same year, Tzu Chi brought a large-scale relief to eastern China when the area was hit by floods. Tzu Chi has specially trained relief volunteers including doctors and other medical personnel, always on the ready to spring into immediate actions whenever and wherever disasters strike. It has seen actions in over 70 countries and brought timely relief to all of them. Such is the reputation of Tzu Chi that its volunteers were able to enter difficult countries like Rwanda, North Korea, Cambodia and Kosovo.

The fascinating fact is that Tzu Chi has always been able to deliver aids personally and directly to the affected recipients. The aids are always personally hand-delivered to the recipients. In this manner the volunteers can witness for themselves the positive results of their efforts. On the other hand, those receiving the direct aids can feel the sincerity and compassion of their helpers. This approach helps in changing lives with love, sincerity, humility and compassion.

The emergency reliefs do not end after the aids are distributed. There is always the post-disaster reconstruction that Tzu Chi will continue to assist. Building dwelling houses, schools and clinics are top priorities in post reconstruction. After the 2004 devastating Indian Ocean tsunami , Tzu Chi began post-tsunami reconstruction in Indonesia, especially in Bandar Acheh, and even built mosques for the local Muslims.

Other more notable disaster reliefs that Tzu Chi volunteers were amongst the first to provide hands-on compassionate reliefs were the Haiti earthquake, Sri Lanka and Indonesia tsunami, Sichuan earthquake, Chile earthquake, Mongolia famine, Phillippines flood, Turkey earthquake, Nepal earthquake, Myanmar floods, Ecuador earthquake and Hurricane Catrina.

Tzu Chi has a very well organized and coordinated international relief program. That is why Tzu Chi’s international reliefs are always timely and effective. It is based on five core principles:

1. Directness : Aid must be given hands-on directly to the recipients.

2. Priority : Go to areas that needed most urgently.

3. Respect : All volunteers must respect the lifestyle, culture, tradition and custom of the locals. Volunteers are to behave like friends with humility and not to appear superior than the locals.

4. Timeliness : Aids must be delivered quickly and effectively.

5. Practicality : Proper and thorough assessment of the local needs and conditions , including post reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The Blue Angels In Malaysia

Distributing Xmas Presents In Brazil

Tzu Chi Volunteers In Durban, South Africa

The Ubiquitous Blue And White Uniform

Whenever and wherever you see a group of people wearing the ubiquitous blue and white uniform, you see friendly and smiling faces. These are the Tzu Chi volunteers, with blue shirts and white pants. Whenever I saw them especially in shopping complexes holding donation boxes with a smile on their faces, I held them in high esteem. I always remember once, while I was coming down the escalator, I saw an elderly lady standing by herself and holding a Tzu Chi donation box right in front of the escalator, with the Tzu Chi trademark of a smiling face. I deeply regretted not putting a donation into the box she was holding. Well, happily I now have a Tzu Chi "bamboo" coin box in my home and also I am now contributing my energy in the local Tzu Chi recycling activites.

These selfless and fully committed volunteers have undergone stringent training on Tzu Chi’s principles of compassionate service. We can say that they are no “ordinary” people. They are the “Blue Angels” of Tzu Chi. By virtue of their striking blue shirts, they are hailed as the “Blue Angels” of Tzu Chi. In fact the Blue Angles refer their uniform as “blue sky, white clouds” (藍天白雲 (lántiān báiyún, lit. 'blue sky, white clouds'). And their occasional white cabs with the green Tzu Chi emblem. Even the uniform has a significant meaning befitting the wearer. Tzu Chi volunteers are reminded to keep their minds as wide and open as the blue sky; and their actions as pure and clean as the white clouds.

David Liu In Action In Tacloban, Philippines

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The Tzu Chi Logo

Tzu Chi Headquarters In Hualien, Taiwan (The Main Jing Si Hall). Note The Unique 3-layered Roof Structure.

Tiny pebbles covering one of the pillars

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The Green Logo Of Tzu Chi And The Unique Architecture Of Its Buildings

The Chinese junk inside a lotus is the famous Tzu Chi logo, usually in green color. Lotus is one of the popular images of Buddhism. The eight petals (four on each side) signify the Buddhist Eightfold Path, the path leading to enlightenment, which Tzu Chi members use as their guide.

The semi-circular frame inside the petals represents the lotus seed-pod which will produce more flowers and bear fruits, creating a better society through good deeds and pure thoughts.

The ship in the shape of a Chinese junk in the seed-pod, signifies Tzu Chi’s compassionate effort to bring reliefs to all suffering beings throughout the whole world.

The Tzu Chi building is equally fascinating. You will notice similarities in its architecture wherever the building is situated. The striking feature is the roof design. It has the shape of the Chinese 人 ( rén ) meaning “people”. And three “rens” (众 zhòng) means many people. I think it is specially designed to signify the priority mission of Tzu Chi; “to serve people”.

Another subtle feature usually passed unnoticed is the external plastering of the building which is covered with millions of beads of tiny pebbles. This signifies the greatness and strength of great numbers of people when contributing together in harmony.

A Vast Reservoir Of Financial Donations

Apart from the millions of ordinary donors, Tzu Chi has a wide circle of very famous and rich supporters around the world. In Taiwan, Stan Shih and Ken Tai, two co-founders of Acer Inc are supporters of Tzu Chi. One of the founding brothers of Tingyi Holdings, the world’s largest instant-noodle maker is also contributing to Tzu Chi. Another supporter is Walter Huang of Texma International, a garment manufacturer for U S brands such as JC Penney, Gap, and Tommy Hilfiger. And in Indonesia, a Christian business tycoon Franky Widjaja and his son Eka Tjipta Widjaja of Sinar Mas conglomerate are committed supporters of Tzu Chi. During the 2004 tsunami, they spearheaded Tzu Chi’s relief efforts in Indonesia, especially in Bandar Acheh.

There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of wealthy entrepreneurs within the Tzu Chi circle worldwide. As far as financial standing is concerned Tzu Chi has been very well endowed with the support of all these wealthy entrepreneurs. In fact Tzu Chi also conduct courses for business people called “Living camps for entrepreneurs”.

The Absolute Funding Principle

Tzu Chi has always placed priority on control of public donations and public accountability. This is to ensure that every cent donated is accounted for. Despite its stringent financial accounting, there are still criticisms over its financial management.

The donor is usually asked to chose which specific area his donation is to be used, and the donation goes directly and specifically into that account. All Tzu Chi volunteers are not paid. In fact, they have to pay for everything themselves while performing Tzu Chi duties. All public donations are exclusively used for the specific areas of humanitarian and relief work.

The nuns under the lineage of Rev Cheng Yen observe the culture of “no work no food” principle. They are self-sufficient as they produce their own food sources as well as doing other income-generating activities. They do not use any fund from the public donations for their upkeeping.

Tzu Chi’s Very Innovative “Cash-For-Relief” Program

In August 2012, Tzu Chi innovated a special program called “Cash-for-work” in the Philippines to solve the problems of clearing up the mess caused by the great floods. The area involved was Marikina City in Metro Manila. Tzu Chi paid each local resident volunteer 400 pesos (about US$10) a day for the work done. This very innovative idea was to kick-start the cleaning-up process, and at the same time to provide cash for those who participated. This brought about immediate results both in terms of sanitation and economics, as well as boosting the morale of the affected residents. The cleaning-up prevented the spread of diseases and paved the way for businesses to resume; while the provided cash enabled economic activities to increase. It was an immediate success.

This “cash-for-work” program was similarly adopted following the Ecuador earthquake in May 2016, initially in two cities. It was such an overwhelming success that the Mayor of another city requested similar Tzu Chi’s help. For work done, Tzu Chi paid each resident volunteer US$15 a day.

This concept of “cash-for-work” program was further broadened into “cash-for-relief” program. The concept was to solve immediate problems promptly and at the same time helping the community to resume normal life in the shortest time possible. So the “cash-for-work” program becomes part of the “cash-for-relief” program.

A new idea for this “cash-for-relief” program was implemented in the Syrian refugee problem in Turkey recently this year (2016). There were many problems administering medical aids for the Syrian refugees, chief of which was the language problem between the local Turkish doctors and the Syrian refugee patients. Tzu Chi decided to search for displaced Syrian doctors who were refugees themselves and to employ them as doctors. Initial result was the identification of one Syrian doctor; and he was immediately employed by Tzu Chi to treat his fellow refugees. This not only resolved the medical aid problems but also enabled the Syrian doctor to resume his professional work as well as restoring his professional dignity.

Cash-For-Relief Program Ecuador Earthquake Recovery

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Malaysia, Easily The Largest Branch Outside Taiwan

I think Malaysia is easily the largest branch of Tzu Chi outside Taiwan, both in terms of donating members and volunteers. It is believed that Tzu Chi Malaysia has over a million donating members and 10,000 volunteers!

This means Penang, (see below) is most likely the biggest supporter of Tzu Chi outside Taiwan. Tzu Chi history in Malaysia is quite fascinating. It started with a Taiwanese business couple who set up a garment business in Malacca, Malaysia in 1988. From there the couple David Liu and his wife Echo Chien started Tzu Chi activities. Now, David Liu is the Senior Commissioner of Tzu Chi's Kuala Lumpur/Selangor branch. He is now contributing full time in Tzu Chi, and has donated his 3.8 acre land and factory to Tzu Chi. This Malacca Tzu Chi campus now houses a free clinic, education center, kindergarten, recycling center, community hall and admin office. David Liu now spends more time abroad being appointed as overseas special envoy of Master Cheng Yen. His wife Echo Chien is now the CEO of the KL/Selangor branch of Tzu Chi.

Penang Has A Special Place For Tzu Chi

In my home island of Penang, Malaysia, there are also quite a number of very successful and extremely wealthy business tycoons who are supporters and contributors to Tzu Chi. I can safely say in terms of the ratio of population/geographical size to Tzu Chi properties, Penang has the highest figure. It is also no exaggeration to note that all the Tzu Chi properties in Penang are located on first grade prime land of huge commercial value! It looks like Penang has a special place for Tzu Chi.

Apart from the stylish main building built a few years ago, two huge similarly designed buildings are now nearing completion. One just next to the existing building, and the other within walking distance from it. All three properties are located on highly desired prime land. How they managed to acquire these properties is fascinating. I have good reasons to deduce that these prime properties must have been donated by well-wishers who owned them.

The new building next to the existing center will be used for education purposes and social activities. Tzu Chi has a kindergarten operating nearby, and this will be shifted to this new building once completed. Apart from this, Tzu Chi will initiate other social activities free of charge or by donation for the general public. Activities such as yoga, flower arrangement and artwork will be the first amongst many other social activities in the pipeline.

The other new building nearby will cater for health and medical services, such as dialysis services and health education. I am certain that if ever the Malaysian government allows Tzu Chi to operate a full-fledged hospital, Tzu Chi will definitely take up the offer. There will be no problem for Tzu Chi to embark on this hospital project as it has vast experience on this field as well. (In Malaysia, government approval is needed to operate a hospital.)

It is really awesome to note that all these buildings were built solely from members' donations. These are not ordinary buildings but very large and well-designed structures which easily will cost millions of Ringgit (dollars) to build. Public donations/fun are only used to purchase other peripherals, and in this case, mainly for the purchase of dialysis machines.


The iconic greyish buildings of Tzu Chi cannot be missed if one passes by them. In addition, the design of all Tzu Chi buildings maintains a standard concept of high sloping roofs, depicting the Chinese character "人" ( rén ) meaning "people".

Recently, the Penang State Government signed a "Memorandum of Understanding on Disaster Management" with Penang Tzu Chi whereby Tzu Chi will cooperate with the state on matters of disaster management. Tzu Chi is highly regarded for its vast knowledge and experience in disaster management, with its effective, meticulous and fast response. We, in Penang are really very fortunate and are safe under the ambit of Tzu Chi Penang, if ever there is any disaster here; "touch wood".

In 2012, the state of Penang awarded its highest civil honor to Master Cheng Yen in acknowledgment of the Tzu Chi Foundation`s contributions to Malaysia. The title ”Datuk Seri”, which was conferred upon the Master, is the highest honor which the Governor can grant to individuals in recognition of their services to the country and specifically to Penang.

Main Tzu Chi Building In Penang, Malaysia. (The little girl is my granddaughter)

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Two New Sprawling Tzu Chi Buidings In Penang

New Education And Multi-Purpose Building Next To The Main Building
New Education And Multi-Purpose Building Next To The Main Building | Source
New Medical/Dialysis Building
New Medical/Dialysis Building | Source
Another View Of The New Medical/Dialysis Building
Another View Of The New Medical/Dialysis Building | Source
Another View Of The New Medical/Dialysis Building
Another View Of The New Medical/Dialysis Building | Source

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Comments 4 comments

Lipnancy profile image

Lipnancy 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

I really enjoyed your hub. I was a fundraiser for 12 years and I know how difficult it can be to keep any foundation going.


Aunts oriole 2 years ago

I am greatly enlightened after reading your well researched article. Great article.


Kang Gary 2 years ago

I would like to share here about Catholicism in Tzu Chi world. When Tzu Chi Hospital in Hualien, a remote area of Taiwan was completed, the very first doctor that volunteered to help Master Cheng Yen to run the hospital is a Catholic. This doctor is still serving in that hospital (or maybe other Tzu Chi hospital), and he is a Catholic till now, and adopt Master Cheng Yen's teachings (ie Buddhism) as his path of life.Actually, this doctor made known his intention to Master Cheng Yen that he wanted to 'convert' from being a Catholic to a Buddhist, but was told by Master that, by all means, he can adopt her teachings and be her deciple, but advised him to continue his duty as a Catholic by attending Sunday church services.This is the kind of spirit we have in Tzu Chi, or rather in Buddhism, which I see it as to place priority in 'substance' over 'form' of our faiths. Our faith in whatever religions or beliefs should not be a knot in our hearts that will constraint ourselves on having love and compassion on other people and living beings. Essentially, this is why Master Cheng Yen is so well respected by all.


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 19 months ago from Philippines

What a lovely article about Dharma Master Cheng Yen. I was fortunate to visit Taiwan with Tzu Chi volunteers, and we went to the main house in Hualien. To my shock, Master Cheng Yen dined with us. This is an amazing organization that thrives on helping others at their greatest time of need and providing donations and compassion when people have been bereft of hope. I very much enjoyed reading about Master Cheng's life:).

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