No matter what role they play in a changing society, Tzu Chi commissioners continue to show their most inspiring characteristic--their loving concern for people.
The changes over time have left their marks on the faces of Tzu Chi's senior commissioners--a few more wrinkles, and eyes radiating a lot more wisdom. Old, middle-aged and young commissioners, all wearing the same navy blue chi-pao (a traditional gown for women), still walk through unsightly alleys to visit poor families. And they are as enthusiastic and energetic as ever.
A grassroots approach
In its early stages, the Tzu Chi Foundation was a local charity organization in a traditional society. It was founded near Hualien, a small town on the backward, undeveloped east coast of Taiwan, isolated by the vast mountain ranges of central Taiwan. Because of limited transportation, man power and resources, Master Cheng Yen
and her followers began their charity work by giving rice to the poor in neighboring communities.
Housewives with their shopping baskets in hand would gather in a corner of a market in Hualien to chat and tell one another that there was a Buddhist nun who wanted to help the poor. Each of the housewives donated NT$0.50 (then just over one US cent) each day to support the charity work.
That was how Tzu Chi started. It was 1966, a time when U.S. economic aid was coming to an end and when Taiwan’s economy was about to enter a period of rapid expansion.
During the early years, those housewives went out to raise funds and to visit poor families. They themselves were only moderately well-off, and they did all this merely to help their dharma master, that Buddhist nun, to do some good deeds. Because of their limited man power and financial resources, their charity could only be a local effort. But as they followed their master visiting people everywhere, rain or shine, every day was a memorable, worthwhile experience.
From their limited endeavors in raising funds and caring for the needy in their own area, those first commissioners went further and became concerned for the larger welfare of society. Thus was formed Tzu Chi's core concept of "Respect all life and care for the poor."
The physical strength of those commissioners may have diminished over time, but their traditional Tzu Chi spirit has continued on unabated. Chitchat at tea parties
When the decision was made in 1979 to construct the Tzu Chi General Hospital
, the donations of NT$0.50 a day were no longer enough to build the hospital and to meet the other demands of society. The role of the commissioners thus began to change. They traveled everywhere to raise funds and to invite other kind, loving hearts to join them. Their efforts not only enabled Tzu Chi to complete the hospital, but also attracted more and more people to recognize and support this work of love.
Their efforts were aided by rapid developments in communication and transportation. Steady industrialization and commercialization beginning in the 1970s had already transformed Taiwan's traditional agricultural society. In 1980, the North Link Railway from Taipei to Hualien was completed, and more and more air routes from Hualien to other cities were inaugurated. The name of Tzu Chi traveled across the mountains and reached every corner of Taiwan. Tzu Chi membership increased enormously.
"Our Master does not have a strong body, but the burden on her shoulders is so heavy. Whenever I see her, my heart aches and I feel like crying. But it's no use to shed tears. We should transform our tears into strength." Such are the heartfelt thoughts of commissioners who were certified in the 1980s and who are now the backbone of Tzu Chi.
The main task and objective of the commissioners was now to raise more funds to build the hospital and to get more people to join Tzu Chi. Since most of them were housewives, they did not have to worry about their own family finances and they had plenty of time. Their common interest in Tzu Chi was a strong bond. At the market, in the office, or at wedding parties, wherever Tzu Chi people gathered, there were endless Tzu Chi stories to talk about.
The method of acquiring new members by searching out old acquaintances or by talking individually to strangers on a bus was now too slow. A new "tea party" approach was developed. Don't underestimate those small gatherings. A cozy place, some tasty snacks, plus chatty women who enjoyed sharing their experiences were very effective in filling the hearts of those present with the warmth of the Tzu Chi spirit.
As the commissioners gained experience in raising funds and visiting the poor, they also unconsciously acquired leadership skills. The Master's sayings circulated among the commissioners and their trainees. What they learned from the Master's wisdom compensated for the many hardships and setbacks they encountered. The sharing of experiences developed strong ties between the commissioners and their trainees and made them feel like family.Shouldering an ever heavier responsibility
Since the 1980s, to meet the challenge of making Tzu Chi known to more people, commissioners have had to constantly update their own knowledge about Tzu Chi and play a more public role. Most importantly, they must be able to speak in front of large audiences to explain what Tzu Chi is all about.
In 1986, Tzu Chi General Hospital began to operate and a new cultural center was established in Taipei. In 1989, the Jing Si Hall of the United States branch was completed and other overseas branches and liaison offices were established. With extended missions that included medicine, education, and culture in addition to charity, Tzu Chi entered a new era.
The new, more pluralistic society in Taiwan provided Tzu Chi more room to grow. In order to meet new demands, it was necessary to have a more organized structure. Therefore, commissioners were assigned to units according to their functions--such as public relations, finance, audio-visual, or visiting the poor--in order to make the foundation more efficient in its operations, work assignments and man power mobilization.
The activities of the commissioners are no longer limited to fund-raising and visiting the poor. Master Cheng Yen's public speeches attract audiences of over ten thousand people at a time. That does not compare to small tea parties with only forty to fifty guests. The foundation's new responsibilities, such as resource recycling, international relief, community volunteerism, all need to be promoted by the commissioners.
Middle-aged commissioners are well aware of the changes that have taken place in society. They have to absorb information quickly in order to grasp the pace of development within Tzu Chi, while at the same time interacting with and learning from a large variety of professionals.
For instance, when the Tzu Chi television station (Daai TV) was inaugurated, volunteers with a knowledge of the audio-visual industry came from all over Taiwan to act as consultants and pioneers. After being trained and directed by specialists from the mass media, unsophisticated country people who had earlier joked about a pen being heavier than a hoe began sharpening their pencils. Others who before knew nothing about cameras shouldered advanced photographic equipment and tried to give television viewers all kinds of information about Tzu Chi.
In order to advocate bone marrow and body donations, medical volunteers had to learn about recent medical research and advances so that they could explain the necessity of such donations and help with the blood test drives. Even for visiting the poor, commissioners had to take lessons from social workers to acquire counseling skills.
In recent years, people often see news reports about Tzu Chi's relief efforts in disasters such as typhoons, gas explosions or airplane crashes. A new system of community volunteers has also been set up to work with schools and government offices relating to environmental protection activities and community celebrations of holidays and festivals. The public image of the foundation has become better known and its social responsibilities have become heavier.
Commissioners who were afraid to speak in public no longer have any fear when they are promoted to team leaders and must explain to large audiences what Tzu Chi is doing. Those who participate in international relief missions not only have to adapt to the difficulties and inconveniences in third world nations, but must also study foreign languages and communication skills and learn to deal with any contingencies.
The sense of accomplishment generated by fulfilling these different missions has enabled those housewives to grow. Now each of them can take charge of a special task and speak on behalf of Tzu Chi.
To commissioners, Tzu Chi means more than just giving as a Buddhist. It means a lifetime of learning.New blood, new dynamics
As the pace of social change speeds up, Tzu Chi must run faster as well. With the entrance of new commissioners and professionals, the work of the foundation must be divided up with the right people in the right positions. The organization has become more active, more energetic and more pluralistic.
With the development of special functional units within Tzu Chi and its work expanding into many new areas, there is an urgent need for new blood and talent. Over the past few years, the number of new commissioners has been increasing considerably. Not all of them are Buddhists, but all identify themselves with Tzu Chi's core concepts. They can all find space within Tzu Chi to apply their skills.
In the early years, each of the commissioners helped out in all of the activities. Now it can no longer be like that. Most of the new commissioners are office workers. They cannot devote themselves to Tzu Chi as wholeheartedly as did the senior commissioners. Since their time is divided, they can only contribute to the field they are most familiar with. Some of them, for instance, like to work with sign language, some specialize in teaching the Master's Jing Si Aphorisms, some are talented in the arts, and others are good at planning activities.
Moreover, the new commissioners' ideas and ways of thinking represent Taiwan's new society. Their concepts of administration, organizing activities and employing scientific methods to do things reflect the efficiency and speed that modern society requires. Either in the promotion of an idea or in planning and executing an activity, they are in tune with the times, and because of that they are more easily accepted by the people.
"Tzu Chi needs professionals, or else it will fall behind," says Sister Lo Mei-Chu, who has guided many new commissioners for years. "Our future direction is to let everybody apply their skills, regardless of where their talents lie. The most important thing is that they all support the good deeds done by Tzu Chi."
"Tzu Chi is like a big tree," says Chang Shun-Hua. "We, the old roots, have the responsibility to protect the young shoots and nourish them with the Tzu Chi spirit."
Junior commissioners are aware of the difference between themselves and the earlier commissioners. "The senior commissioners are full of spirit, and they have a strong sense of duty and cooperation," says commissioner Tsai Tsung-hung, director of the Tzu Chi Youth Corps Association. "They are models for us to learn from."
Some new commissioners have lofty ideals and great enthusiasm. They are assertive, but withdraw more easily when they encounter setbacks, unlike the senior commissioners who are always steadfast in their devotion. Chiang Shu-Yi, another junior commissioner says, "The senior commissioners' unfailing commitment to the Tzu Chi spirit and to Buddhism is very touching."
Generally speaking, junior commissioners emphasize the implementation of their own ideas. They are rational and confident, and they care more about whether things are done well. They are quite different from their seniors, who are gentle, modest and care more about the harmony of the organization.
The different pulse of the times creates different characteristics. To accommodate all kinds of personalities and their differences and to transform them into a power of growth is the key and secret of a successful organization.
Translated by Norman Yuan
Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Summer 1999