Her extraordinary and amazing efforts in reaching out and helping the poor have earned her the title “Mother Teresa of Asia,” which is proven by her undying love and compassion for the poor and the suffering.
Devotion to Buddhism Leads to Tzu Chi Foundation
Her charitable organization, the Tzu Chi Foundation, has experienced such growth and success that it has become one of the leading disaster relief organizations in the world, and has conducted relief projects in almost every major and minor disaster in the world—from the Phuket tsunami to the New Zealand earthquake. The Tzu Chi Foundation’s growth has also resulted in the establishment of larger branches: the Charity sector, Medicine sector, Education sector, and the Culture Missions sector.
Cheng’s philosophy in life has been greatly influenced by her Buddhist background. She believes in the value of all life. Her passion and desire throughout her existence center on the preservation of life and the undying search for peace and harmony. She has this great love for her fellow human beings, and has always had a desire for each one to be equally prosperous. This became the central theme of the Tzu Chi Foundation, which aims to “instruct the rich and save the poor.”
She deeply believes that every person has the capability of having the same great compassion as the Buddha—not just ‘sympathizing’ with them, but actually reaching out and taking time to help relieve the suffering with their concrete actions.
Cheng teaches her disciples what she learned from her master: that it is through the act of compassion that one experiences the fullness of one’s life, and that brings him or her inner peace and happiness that will help that person pave the way for a peaceful and harmonious society.
Aside from having a compassionate heart, Master Cheng also believes in applying wisdom in whatever one does, even in a charitable deed. She firmly teaches that without wisdom, all acts of charity will but become vain. This philosophy has enabled Cheng to successfully grow the Tzu Chi Foundation and garner a great amount of supporters for their cause.
Due to the success of Cheng’s charitable work, she has received numerous awards, the most notable being her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is known as the Nobel Prize of Asia.
She has received outstanding recognition for her service, and has built a reputation for being one of the most honorable philanthropists in the world. She has also received multiple honorary doctorates from various schools, which recognize her as a compassionate and wise leader.
Master Cheng Yen’s Birthday
Cheng was born as Wang Jinyun in the Taichung County of Formosa (now known as Taiwan) in May 14, 1937. Her parents were very poor, and were trying to feed ten children already by the time Cheng was born. Because of this, Cheng was given up for adoption by her parents to Wang Tien-sun, who was an uncle on her father’s side.
Cheng Yen’s Early Life
Little did Cheng or her parents knew that this act would probably be the greatest thing that would bring change to her life. Wang Tien-sun and his wife did not have any children and wanted one so much, that when they received Cheng into their life, they devoted themselves to loving and caring for little Cheng. As Cheng grew up, Wang Tien-sun and his wife showered much love and care to the young Cheng; she would always consider them as her real parents due to the experiences that she had with them.
Not long after Cheng was born, Wang Tien-sun brought her and his wife to Fengyuan and settled there. He started a business in the movie industry as an owner of a movie theatre. The business soon prospered and Wang began owning multiple movie theatres.
Master Cheng grew up having a prosperous life and enjoyed the wealth of her adoptive father, who cared for her greatly. However, aside from teaching her the importance of gaining wealth, her parents never failed to teach Cheng the purpose of it—for the benefit of others, most of all, her family. Life was good for Cheng and her parents, until she reached around six or seven years old and the Second World War broke out.
Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, Cheng’s education was cut short. She was only able to finish six years of formal schooling. By 1944, Formosa came under attack by the Allied Forces, and the Japanese soldiers stationed there started looting the households.
Wang Tien-sun and his family were also affected, with several of his movie theatres destroyed by either looting or bombing. Fortunately, they were able to escape with their lives intact, unlike some of their neighbors who died from the bombings or the mistreatment of the Japanese soldiers. By 1945, at the close of the Second World War, Wang resumed his business, while Cheng stopped studying altogether, stayed at home, and assisted her father in his business.
The Second World War brought a tremendous strain on Cheng’s life. She was only five years old when the war broke out, and witnessed the horror and destruction in her surroundings. During the closing years of the war, Cheng saw the devastation caused by the numerous air raids on their villages; this imprinted a sense of hatred for war in the young Cheng’s mind, and birthed a deep compassion for the suffering people, something that would come out many years later in her life.
Her Buddhist Faith Saves Her Mother
When Cheng was 15 years old, a crisis struck her family. Her mother became extremely ill and had to be brought to the hospital. The doctors who took care of Cheng’s mother conducted tests, and informed Cheng and Wang Tien-sun that in order to save her mother, she would have to go through a risky operation. Although Wang Tien-sun had the money to pay for the operation, he did not want to risk the life of her wife for an operation that couldn't guarantee his wife’s recovery.
Not knowing what to do, Cheng went home and prayed in front of their altar, beseeching Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, to heal her mother of the disease. While she was praying, Cheng made a promise to willingly give up 12 years of her own life in exchange for the recovery of her mother. Eventually, her mother did successfully recover without having to go through the operation, greatly amazing the doctors who were watching over her.
In an interview made with Cheng many years later, she recalled how prior to her mother’s healing, right after she was prayed, the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin appeared to her in a dream and gave Cheng a packet of medicine which she administered to her mother. This happened for the next two nights, and by the fourth morning, Cheng realized that her mother was already being healed.
Master Cheng’s Revived Faith in Buddhism
This incident sparked a change in Cheng’s life. After her mother was released from the hospital, Cheng decided to devote her life to serving the Bodhisattva. She committed herself to focusing on the spiritual life and becoming a vegetarian, as well as serving as a Buddhist nun. When her mother objected, Cheng tried to run away and live in a temple, but after three days, her mother found her and brought Cheng home.
Initially, Cheng was greatly disappointed with her mother’s decision to stop her from devoting her life to the very person who saved her mother from death, but eventually she learned that at that point, the best way for her to serve the Bodhisattva was to take care of her family—she had five younger siblings, most of them were still young. When she came to this realization, she decided to stay with her family and help in her father’s business.
Although she was happy with helping in the family business, Cheng knew that she was made for more. When Cheng was 23 years old, she went with her father to make rounds in the movie theatres. While doing the rounds, her father suddenly complained of not feeling well; minutes later, he was struck down by a stroke.
This greatly surprised Cheng and the family, as Wang Tien-sun never showed any signs of illness prior to this incident. Twenty-four hours later, at age 51, Wang Tien-sun died. This shocked Cheng greatly, who came to ponder upon the futility of human life. She began to doubt the very nature of life, asking questions such as, “Why is life so transient?” and “Where is life’s true meaning?”
The Quote that Changed Cheng’s Life
Cheng and the other members of the family mourned for Wang Tien-sun, and while she was looking for a place to bury her father, she came across a group of nuns who introduced her to the Buddhist Dharma. While at the temple, she asked one of the nuns what makes a woman happiest. The nun replied, “The happiest woman is someone who can carry a grocery basket.” This startled Cheng, who thought to herself, “What do you mean? I carry a grocery basket every day, yet I am so unhappy.” When she tried to ask for confirmation from the nun, the nun simply told her to come back the moment she finally understands.
Cheng Yen Becomes a Buddhist Nun
After the death of her father, Cheng took over the family business and continued to manage the movie theatres. Under her care, the business continued to prosper, and Cheng became the primary breadwinner of her family. In spite of the success that she was experiencing in the family business, Cheng felt that she was not doing enough.
Remembering the teachings of the Buddhist nuns that she met during her father’s funeral, Cheng gradually felt the need to extend the love that she has for her family to the society—and eventually to all humanity.
As the weeks went by, Cheng felt a growing concern about the plight of the suffering people around her. She then recalled the statement that the Buddhist nun made regarding the meaning of true happiness, and became happy when she finally realized what the nun meant—it was not the physical act of carrying a grocery basket that brought real happiness, but the significance of a woman who took charge of her own fate. Upon this realization, Cheng finally decided to break away from the comfortable yet ‘mediocre’ life and embarked on a spiritual journey that would teach her the meaning of life.
At this time, Cheng’s siblings were older and could very well take care of themselves. And so, upon discussing the decision with her siblings, they agreed to take over the family business and let Cheng go, even without the consent of their mother, who was still reluctant about Cheng becoming a Buddhist nun.
In 1961, Cheng left home and joined a small group of nuns and other like-minded women led by Master Xiudao, who seemed to be travelling aimlessly. They took a train ride that brought them south, to a temple in a desolate and mountainous region in the southwest portion of the island. They eventually made their temporary abode in the temple and took up an ascetic life.
Devoted to becoming spiritual truth seekers, they learned Buddhist sutras. Although they did not have money, they refused to accept the offerings that were given by the nearby villagers. Instead, they lived on the wild plants that they found in the nearby forest, as well as on leftover peanuts and yams that were scavenged from farmer’s fields. Although life was very simple and at times difficult, Cheng found the kind of peace and happiness that she did not find in her years of living in prosperity and wealth.
However, in spite of having the kind of life that she really wanted, Cheng was not content because she was not a proper nun yet. In order to be one, she had to be initiated by a teacher-monk and ordained by a senior monk. And so, Master Xiudao, along with Cheng and her companion nuns, moved eastwards, looking for a temple or monastery that would take them in. They eventually found the town of Hualien in the eastern coast of Taiwan, where they settled.
A Hut for a Monastery
They tried to look for a temple where they could live, but no temple would accept them because of the monks’ reluctant attitude towards initiating young people who did not have the consent of their parents. Because of this, Cheng and her fellow nuns built a small hut near a local shrine and did odd jobs to support themselves. They continued to study and meditate on the Buddhist texts while living there. In 1962, Cheng had her hair shaved to signify that she broke off with her past and that she committed herself to a new life of spiritual devotion.
It was during Cheng’s time in living in the small hut that a famous story about her and her companions was told. In this story, a team of local firemen spotted flames rising above a small hut just near the shrine, and rushed to the area to see what was happening. Upon their arrival, the fire fighters were astonished when they found out that there was no fire, only six young women, including Cheng, who were chanting sutras in their hut.
Cheng Yen’s Quest for a Monastic Ordination
This earned Cheng and her group the reverence of the populace; nevertheless, they continued about their business quietly, not seeking fame or publicity. Cheng’s desire to be a fully-fledged nun empowered her to study the Buddhist canon and to continue in her search for a senior monk who would ordain her.
After several months of seeking, in 1963, Cheng came across the Lin Chi Temple in Taipei. When she tried to request for a full monastic ordination, the monks there turned her down because she did not have a master that oversaw her commitment. According to tradition, in order to become a nun, a woman must have been a disciple of a master for at least two years prior to the ordination. Although Cheng was under the tutelage of Master Xiudao, the monks did not recognize her authority. Cheng left the temple that day, disappointed for not qualifying for the ordination.
In spite of this, Cheng did not quit looking for a master. She continued searching across the city and eventually came across a chance encounter with Venerable Yin Shun, the master at a Buddhist lecture hall in the city. Yin Shun was a revered abbot in the city and was highly respected by the young Cheng who asked him to become her master. With only an hour before the closing of the registration, Yin Shun accepted Cheng as his disciple and gave her the name “Cheng Yen,” which was a symbol of her commitment to the life bereft of worldliness. He told Cheng:
“Now that you are a Buddhist monastic, remember always to work for Buddhism and for all living beings. What we do for the Buddha, we do for all living things.”
Finally becoming a fully ordained nun, Cheng went back to her companions in Hualien to continue her spiritual formation and journey. She and her disciples lived in a straw hut and continued to pursue a life of study and religious devotion. Her reputation grew steadily to the point that she was called Shih (Master), and was often asked to perform religious rites, where she never once asked for any donations or fees for conducting the ceremonies, nor did she accept alms for herself.
She taught and encouraged her followers not to ask for food, but rather to earn money by sewing baby shoes, knitting sweaters and making small animal feed bags. They also grew their own food by planting rice, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. As their movement grew, Cheng named them the Pure Abode of Still Thoughts.
Although the monastic life brought serenity and peace to Cheng, she felt that she was not yet doing what she was called to do. Looking at her surroundings, Cheng pondered at the thought that there was still much that she could give out to the people. Back in the sixties, Hualien was a very rough town, and many of its inhabitants were poor and struggled to get by every day.
Doing Philanthropy all the Way from the Monastery
At one point, Cheng made a visit to a friend of hers who was sick in a small private hospital. Upon entering the hospital, she saw a trail of blood in the hallway. She later on learned that a woman who travelled for eight days just to get to the hospital had a miscarriage because of being denied treatment for not having the money to pay the advance deposit. Witnessing this heartless regard for humanity shook Cheng to her core.
Remembering the Buddhist teachings of showing compassion to the suffering and saving the lives of people, Cheng made a decision in her heart to do something about the situation of mankind in whatever reach she can. This desire was further fueled with her encounter with three Catholic nuns, who argued that while Buddhist teachings were indeed profound, the religion itself did nothing more to change the world than teaching love and compassion. They did not do good works to contribute to society and practice their beliefs.
Cheng did not waste time to act. Upon returning to the monastery, she encouraged her disciples about the desire that she had in helping the lives of those who were suffering from affliction. By this time, she already had quite a number of women from the town who visited them frequently to ask for counsel and participate in their religious activities. It was in this reality that Cheng came across the idea of tapping into the generosity of those women. She gave these women jars made of bamboo so they can put in whatever amount of money they willed to give.
Cheng used the money they collected to fund the group’s charitable efforts. They also started putting the income from the things they sold to the charity fund. Although their initial efforts were small, they never got discouraged nor did they ever thought of quitting. They kept on using whatever money they collected to help the people they could reach.
The Tzu Chi Buddhist Contribution Society
Eventually, through word of mouth, the movement slowly yet steadily grew, and started to reach more and more citizens. They started assisting different people: from elderly people who lived alone, poor people who cannot pay for medical treatment, to victims of crime or accidents. This established their reputation among the community, with people stating that every amount they received were being sent to charitable efforts.
This resulted in the work greatly spreading, and the number of those who sponsored and contributed to The Pure Abode of Still Thoughts grew to such a point that Cheng realized she must formalize the creation of the charitable organization. In 1966, Cheng formally established the Tzu Chi (which meant ‘compassion’ and ‘mercy’) Buddhist Contribution Society.
The beginnings of the Tzu Chi Foundation were humble, but it was through their honest and passionate desire to contribute to positive change in society that the organization started to grow radically. Initially, Cheng kept the Tzu Chi Foundation and The Pure Abode separately, but as the number of volunteers and supporters grew, she decided to merge the two groups, with The Pure Abode being the spiritual center of the foundation. Through the Tzu Chi Foundation, Cheng was able to put the Buddhist teachings of love and compassion into action, by helping those who were suffering and in need.
Tzu Chi Foundation Hospital and University
In the seventies, Cheng formed the medical mission wing of the Tzu Chi Foundation as a result of her realizing the link between illness and poverty. In 1972, the Tzu Chi Foundation conducted its first medical outreach by opening a free clinic in Hualien. This grew spontaneously to other cities, and overtime, over 150,000 people have come to get medical consultation in these centers.
This medical missions wing eventually grew, resulting in the establishment of the Tzu Chi Hospital (which grew into a chain of hospitals encompassing six cities in Taiwan), the Tzu Chi College of Nursing (which was the first nursing college in Taiwan that waived tuition fees for select courses), a bone marrow registry program, and the Tzu Chi College of Medicine, which grew into becoming the Tzu Chi University in 2000.
Aside from the work in the medical missions’ field, the Tzu Chi Foundation has also involved itself in many international relief operations. One of the first relief efforts that the foundation conducted was in 1991, when the central and eastern plains of China were devastated by strong floods.
Referred to by Cheng as an act of “building a bridge of love,” the movement traversed the cross-Strait political situation and came into mainland China to help those who were desperately in need. And although they encountered a number of problems along the way (due to the political unrest between China and Taiwan, as well as the distrust of government officials who were wary of organizations such as the Tzu Chi Foundation), they did not stop from giving aid to the people who were suffering, as Cheng believed that compassion was never bound by politics or race.
Becoming a Multi-Awarded Buddhist Nun
This brought Cheng and the Tzu Chi Foundation to the attention of the international audience, and that same year, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, which was tantamount to Asia’s Nobel Prize. From this time on, the Tzu Chi Foundation’s international relief wing grew, spreading to countries such as Ethiopia, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Mongolia, Nepal, Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Argentina, Thailand, and numerous other countries. They also actively participated in the relief operations during the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake.
Although the Tzu Chi Foundation grew internationally, they never forgot to aid the very country they were born in. During the devastation of Typhoon Herb in 1996, Cheng and the members of the Tzu Chi Foundation, along with the thousands of volunteers that were called in to help, gave assistance to those who were affected by the typhoon. Their actions sparked a nationwide volunteer program that Cheng referred to as the goal of “neighbors helping neighbors.”
The Da Ai Satellite Television
In 1999, after the powerful Jiji Earthquake devastated the central area of Taiwan, the Tzu Chi Foundation volunteers were among the very first respondents who provided relief goods to the affected communities. Aside from bringing relief supplies, the foundation also raised funds for the reconstruction of the destroyed schools.
In 1998, Cheng and the Tzu Chi Foundation established the Da Ai Satellite Television, which aimed to give television service free from violence, war, exploitation, fear, and things that can negatively affect the human spirit and pollute it. Through the partial support of a nationwide recycling effort, Da Ai still continues to air its television shows today, shows that are wholesome and exalt the virtues of having a good life and making life good for other people.
Currently, at 75 years old, Cheng Yen still continues to actively engage in the work of her foundation, providing help and support to those who are in need. Her compassion and love for all people have greatly helped her continue her work all throughout these years, empowering her to never quit from bringing peace, love, and joy to every person she meets and reaches.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Tzu Chi Foundation
- Tzu Chi Teacher Association
- Tzu Cheng Faith Corps
- Tzu Chi International Humanitarian Aid Association
- Tzu Chi International Medical Association
- Tzu Chi Collegiate Association
Awards and Achievements
- 1986: Awarded the Huashia Medal of the First Order
- 1991: Received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
- 1994: Awarded the Eisenhower Medallion by the People to People International
- 1995: Received the Executive Yuan Cultural Award
- 1996: Received the Interior Ministry’s First Class Honorary Award
- 1996: Awarded the Foreign Affairs Medal of the First Order
- 1996: Received the Huaguang Award of the First Order
- 1998: Received the International Human Rights Award from the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation
- 2000: Received the Life Award from the Noel Foundation
- 2001: Received the Presidential Culture Award
- 2001: Included in the 26 Heroes from Around the World by the National Liberty Museum at Philadelphia
- 2001: Awarded the National Medal of the Second Order by the president of El Salvador
- 2002: Received the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award
- 2003: Received the Presidential Second Order of the Brilliant Star Award
- 2004: Received the Asian American Heritage Award for Humanitarian Service
- 2007: Won the Niwano Peace Prize for Humanitarian Service
- 2008: Awarded the Merit Medal by the World Fellowship of Buddhists
- 1993: Honorary Doctorate from the Chinese University Hong Kong
- 2001: Honorary Doctor of Social Science from Hong Kong University
- 2002: Honorary Doctor of Socio-Cultural Studies from the National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan
- 2011: Honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of the East, Philippines