Douglas & McIntyre

Book details:

May 2007
ISBN 978-1-55365-216-8
6" x 9"
240 pages
Religion / Buddhism REL007000
Biography & Autobiography / Biography
$22.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre


The Life and Times of Nobel Prize-nominee Venerable Master Cheng Yen

Excerpt / Additional Content

from chapter one: a tough beginning

1} Making the Great Resolution

Challenge: Is it possible to uphold one’s principles when one barely has enough to eat?

“Adversity is like the grindstone used for polishing jade: if you don’t use it, the jade won’t shine.” - Master Cheng Yen


Today Tzu Chi is a popular, well-supported organization. Master Cheng Yen’s followers are all over the world, but few people know that forty years ago, she had nothing. Leading an ascetic life, the petite nun wholeheartedly carried out her spiritual cultivation in a tiny wooden hut behind Pu Ming Temple in Hualien, located on the east coast of Taiwan. Despite her destitution, she resolved not to accept disciples, not to accept offerings from followers, and not to perform Buddhist rituals to earn money.

Although it was always a matter of course for Buddhist monks and nuns to ask for alms and receive offerings from lay followers, Master Cheng Yen decided to uphold the conviction of Zen Master Pai Chang (720–814): “No work, no meal.” Even though she was penniless and had no skills to make a living, she resolutely chose to decline all offerings—a choice that brought her much hardship and suffering.


Is it possible to hold firm to one’s principles when they are at odds with the harsh reality that one has no money or food? “No” is the answer for most people, but “yes” was the Master’s reply. Instead of recoiling from the hardship and withdrawing from her principles, she searched unrelentingly for different ways to support herself. First, she grew vegetables, a skill she had acquired while staying at Tzu Yun Yen Temple before she became a nun. In 1965, the Master and three other disciples had plowed the barren fields behind Pu Ming Temple to grow peanuts and vegetables to feed themselves. They spent the whole day working in the field with the only exception of studying sutras. Master Cheng Yen’s first disciple, Te Tzu, was extraordinarily unyielding in the face of difficulties. When Te Tzu was unable to borrow a water buffalo from nearby farmers, she simply took its place, put the heavy yoke on her shoulders, and started plowing the field.

Even with such hard work, food was scarce and living quarters were cramped. Often the revenue earned from the crops—they sold what was left after consumption—was not enough to pay for the fertilizer needed to grow them. Sometimes, Master Cheng Yen and the other three nuns had only some white rice and a small piece of tofu cut into four pieces and soaked in salty water for dinner. The single bed they shared was so tiny that to fit on it the four of them had to lie on their sides and huddle together like shrimps.

Since farming alone could not earn them enough money for food, the Master sold sweaters she had knitted, concrete sacks she had converted into small animal feed bags, chrysanthemums she had grown, and baby shoes, cotton gloves, clothes, diapers, ceramics, and plastic flowers that she had made. She and the other nuns tried every possible means to earn a little income.

Even today, the nuns at the Abode of Still Thoughts, the headquarters of the Tzu Chi Foundation, still uphold the rule of “No work, no meal.” They grow vegetables, make candles, and produce bean powder, a sort of dietary supplement. Royalties from Master Cheng Yen’s books are also an important source of revenue for the nuns.

Effects and Reflections

For the past forty years, the self-sufficiency of the Master and her followers has had a great influence on all Tzu Chi members. Seeing that the Master and the other nuns declined all offerings, gritted their teeth, and sustained themselves through the most destitute times, Tzu Chi members are certain that the nuns would never put a penny of donations into their own pockets. Such selfless devotion has won the respect of all members and as a result has inspired them to donate wholeheartedly their money and time for charitable activities.

The journey of life is not always a smooth ride. Many people have been defeated by or have compromised with the setbacks they faced. However, Master Cheng Yen chose resolutely to walk on the path that she felt was right. She set a good example for us to follow—we should not quit easily when our choices and principles are bitterly challenged by hardships and difficulties. Many great thinkers, scientists, religious practitioners, or social reformers throughout history fearlessly and joyfully upheld their resolutions regardless of the adversity and trials life brought to them. Eventually, they broke through the valley of darkness and shed light onto the world. Because of them, civilization has developed and human glory has shone forth.

2 } The Tzu Chi Foundation is born

Challenge: Can one carry through a moment of enthusiasm to long-term action?

“Knowledge begins actions, while actions complete knowledge.” - Wang Yang-Ming, 15th-century Chinese philosopher


We tend to sympathize with people in unfortunate circumstances, but how many of us transform this feeling into concrete actions and reach out to help the needy? And what kinds of strength can such sympathy generate?

In 1966, Master Cheng Yen was visiting the sick father of a follower in a hospital in Fenglin Township. On her way out of the ward, she saw a pool of blood on the floor and wondered where it had come from. She inquired and was told that it had been left behind by a Taiwanese aboriginal woman who had had a miscarriage. The woman’s relatives had carried her for eight hours from their remote mountain village to the hospital, only to be turned away because they could not pay the security deposit of US $200. The Master’s heart ached when she heard this story. For a long time she worried whether that aboriginal woman was dead or alive. The incident taught her the importance of money in doing charitable work and prompted her to raise money to save the suffering.


For a nun who refused to accept offerings from followers or perform Buddhist ceremonies for pay, raising funds to help people was no easy task. Yet the vivid memory of the blood left behind by the aboriginal woman prompted Master Cheng Yen to make a vow: she resolved to put the compassionate spirit of Buddhism into action, so that preventable tragedies like this one could be avoided. As the Master thought of Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion—a bodhisattva with a thousand eyes to see the suffering in the world and a thousand hands to reach out to help the needy—she realized that if five hundred kindhearted people could come together, there would be one thousand eyes and one thousand hands. If each of these people extended a helping hand wherever they saw suffering, they would truly be the omnipresent Kuan Yin Bodhisattva.

After careful calculations, the Master explained her plan to her followers. There were four nuns, including the Master, living in the Abode, and two old lay followers. If each of them sewed one pair of baby shoes each day, together they would earn an extra sixty cents a day, which is US $18 each month or US $200 a year. This money would be enough to help someone like the aboriginal woman who’d miscarried. If each of Master Cheng Yen’s thirty lay followers were to set aside two cents from their grocery money each day and save it in bamboo “piggy banks,” together they would save US $11.25 each month. This idea of saving just two cents from one’s grocery money to save a life gradually spread throughout the markets in Hualien and to other counties in Taiwan. More and more people responded to the Master’s creative charity campaign, and on March 24, 1966, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation was established with the purpose of helping the needy.

As time went by, more and more members of the foundation asked Master Cheng Yen to accept them as her disciples. Originally, wanting only to quietly cultivate her own spirituality and not be involved with worldly affairs, she had vowed not to take in disciples. However, to realize her commitment to helping the needy, she withdrew this vow, accepting disciples on condition that they become members of the foundation and shoulder its social relief work. The number of disciples soared rapidly. Consequently, the charity work of the foundation developed step by step.

Effects and Reflections

As the saying goes, “Practicing what one knows is not easy.” Indeed, not many people put their thoughts of compassion into action. When seeing the suffering of others or the unfair treatment they are subjected to, we might feel sad or angry. And then what do we do? Do we put our sympathy into action, or just leave it as a thought? The challenge is to take action and make a difference. Upholding one’s principles is hard, but breaking one’s strictly held principles and beliefs is even harder. In order to follow the Buddha’s teachings and help the poor, Master Cheng Yen quietly dropped her insistence on only doing her own spiritual cultivation and on not accepting disciples. What amazes people is that she could come up with the brilliant idea of saving two cents a day—a wise, simple, and effective way to put the Buddha’s compassion into practice. Ever since then, every penny of the donations raised by foundation members has been used for charity work.

Master Cheng Yen has never regretted her choice to devote her life to relieving suffering, and this noble spirit has motivated many people to pitch in and help others through the foundation. Whenever they see someone in need of assistance, Tzu Chi members immediately reach out, with the thought, “If I don’t reach out to help, who will?” The story of the pool of blood teaches us that nothing will change if we do not act on the thoughts of compassion and enthusiasm we have at this very moment.

Another example of someone who has made a difference by putting compassion into action is Albert Schweitzer, a great humanitarian of the twentieth century. Although he was an accomplished theologian, philosopher, and musician before the age of thirty, Schweitzer resolved to enroll in medical school after reading an article on the shortage of missionaries and medical facilities in the Congo. After becoming a doctor, he established a hospital in French Equatorial Africa from which he could serve and cure poor, sick people in Africa. Dr. Schweitzer’s courage and decisiveness not only realized his ideal of helping the needy, but also continues to inspire people throughout the world. If every one of us could feel for others and bravely reach out to help, then this defiled world could surely become a Pure Land.