Meeting the Dharma Master

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AS I mentioned last week regarding the Tzu Chi Foundation, I went to Taiwan to meet the Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the Buddhist nun who initiated it to become one of the world’s most widespread humanitarian organizations.

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It was a simple matter of coming to the Tzu Chi Headquarters in Hualien, eastern Taiwan, to meet her. We had requested for an audience after learning of the work of the Tzu Chi Foundation. It was readily granted for which we paid our way to Taiwan. Tzu Chi Foundation volunteers use their own means on trips, assignments and general Tzu Chi business. We did likewise.

We were ushered into a simple receiving room where she sat on a white padded chair in her gray robes and close-cropped hair of a Buddhist nun. She has a light brown complexion, more Southern Chinese rather than the fair complexion of Northern Chinese. Her face is serene and unlined, she has deepset eyes. We were a mere six feet away from her sitting on chairs and heard her without need of a microphone.

We were a small group of seven Filipinos together with an even smaller group of three 19-year-old Nepalese boys, victims of the recent earthquake there, with Tzu Chi volunteers who accompanied us. After making welcome remarks, she asked for any comments or questions. She was ready to listen rather than give a homily.

One of the Nepalese boys brought up the issue of animal sacrifice and she replied that animals were part of our natural environment and an indispensable part of our lives as living beings helping us. They are part of the critical environmental advocacy of Tzu Chi who believe that we have to co-exist with the Earth, giving the Earth her due and keeping our own lives safe by not abusing or killing plants and animals. In practical terms, no animal is killed for food. Tzu Chi members are vegetarians. All recyclable materials are collected and re-invented into something useful ­­­— from plastic bottles (made into polyester blankets and clothes) to old appliances that repaired instead of being discarded, or if unrepairable, extracting the valuable materials still within from electronics to metal. Also, a major work is the building and tending of gardens and open spaces for communities where Tzu Chi is present.

The Taipeh Tzu Chi Hospital has open space planned, cultivated and maintained for the public as a park.

I brought a handwoven Yakan cloth as a present wrapped in paper with too much adhesive tape (anti-environmental item). When I gave it to the Dharma Master she tried to open it delicately, working the tape to open the package without damaging the paper. There was just too much tape so I impulsively suggested she should just tear the paper. Environmental error on my part, paper is to be re-used and re-cycled as she gently said and laughed. A lesson for me given in the Buddhist way with great love.

The Dharma Master knows much about the Philippines as well as the rest of the world. She is constantly reading and communicating with her Tzu Chi volunteers present in numerous countries. She is the source of wisdom to her congregation of nuns and thousands of volunteers. She was a Magsaysay Awardee in 1991 but did not travel to Manila. She still makes occasional trips around Taiwan only by train. She is in her 70’s and must conserve her strength and health.

In the Tzu Chi Headquarters there are vast auditoriums for religious meditation and worship but no temples except for a small room designated as such with two enamel Buddhas. This small prayer room was built and paid for by Master Cheng Yen’s mother, who used the dowry she had put aside for her daughter, who chose not to marry but devote herself to Buddhism by becoming a Buddhist nun. The headquarters itself consists of pavilion after pavilion featuring extensive wooden floors. As customary, everyone discarded shoes and used soft soled socks given to pad about. Orchids and greenery are all over the pavilions and corridors which also have open spaces and gardens in between. The environment is very much a part of the Tzu Chi Foundation lexicon and reality.

She had lunch with us sitting at our table, saying a prayer before the meal and eating slowly and meditatively. There was silence, no conversation, in gratitude for what the Earth gave us and in respect to our reverential consumption of what was given.

Tzu Chi volunteers are a joy to be with – happy, focused on being humanitarian, environmental, in tune with what Buddhism can be and can give to today’s world, our world.

The Dharma Master is revered but not idolized. We did not see any portraits of her in the headquarters. She is an unobtrusive but commanding and influential presence that leads the way to good works, environmental care and compassion for every human being, every living thing. It was a humbling, instructive and inspiring look at what the Tzu Chi Foundation is.

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