Master Cheng Yen (Chinese: 證嚴法師; pinyin: Zhèngyán Fǎshī) is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni), teacher, and philanthropist. She was a student and follower of Master Ying Shun, a major figure in the development of Humanistic Buddhism in Taiwan. In 1966, Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, ordinarily referred to as Tzu Chi. Cheng Yen started Tzu Chi as a group of thirty housewives who saved money to help needy families. The organization later became one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world, eventually becoming the largest Buddhist organization in Taiwan.
Cheng Yen is considered to be one of the most influential figures in the development of modern Taiwanese Buddhism. In Taiwan, she is popularly referred to as one of the "Four Heavenly Kings" of Taiwanese Buddhism, along with her contemporaries Master Sheng-yen of Dharma Drum Mountain, Master Hsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan and Master Wei Chueh of Chung Tai Shan.
Cheng Yen was born "Chin-Yun Wong" (Chinese: 王錦雲; pinyin: Wáng Jǐnyún) in 1937 in Kiyomizu Town, Taikō District, Taichū Prefecture, Japanese Taiwan (modern-day Qingshui, Taichung City, Taiwan). Unlike most of the other prominent Taiwanese Buddhist leaders, Cheng Yen was born in Taiwan rather than mainland China. Her uncle was childless, so she was given to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Cheng-Yen grew up during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan during World War II, where she witnessed the devastating effects of war and experienced the bombings in Taiwan. These experiences were credited as contributing to what she regarded as the truth behind the concept of impermanence. In 1945, when she was eight years old, she looked after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months, and so learned more closely about people's pain and helplessness. At the age of 23, her father died suddenly from brain blood vessel disorder that brought about hemorrhaging and stroke. It was in searching for a burial place for him that Cheng Yen first came into close contact with the Buddhist Dharma, associated doctrines, and Buddhist scriptures (sutras). After her father's death, Cheng Yen took over managing her father's theaters and became financially responsible for her family.
Upon deciding to become a nun, Cheng Yen ran away to a temple in 1960, fearing that if she were to ask leave in advance, she might not be permitted to go. After her first attempt at running away, her mother found her three days later and brought her back home. She ran away from home a second time in 1961. She left to travel through eastern Taiwan with a friendly nun by the name of Master Xiūdào (修道法師). Cheng Yen followed a nontraditional route to becoming a nun, traveling for two years with Master Xiūdào. Cheng Yen even shaved her own head before she had been officially ordained a nun. After traveling for two years, Cheng Yen decided that she needed to become an ordained nun in order to continue her lifestyle. She went to the Lin Chi TempleYin Shun, whom she asked to be her mentor. He accepted her request, an hour before the registration closed. In February 1963, she became the disciple of her mentor, the Venerable Master Yin Shun, who gave her the dharma name of Cheng Yen and the courtesy name of Huìzhāng (慧璋). Yin Shun also gave her the expectation of "doing all for the Buddhist religion and for all beings", which is written with six characters in Chinese. These six characters became the highest ideals for Cheng Yen in belief, teaching, and practice.to register for ordination, but was turned down because she did not have a master. Typically, to become a nun in Taiwan, one must be the disciple of a master for two years before ordination. Cheng Yen encountered Venerable Master
In May 1963, shortly after receiving her ordination as a nun, she went to Pu Ming Temple (普明寺) in Hualien County to continue her spiritual formation. As a part of that formation, she recited the Lotus Sutra, which she revered, every day and transcribed every month. It was during her six months there that she vowed to commit herself to the Lotus Sutra and the "Path of the Bodhisattvas."
Master Cheng Yen was heavily influenced by the Lotus Sutra, which she called the culmination of the Buddha's teachings. Master Cheng Yen's initial exposure to the Lotus Sutra happened when she left her family in Fengyuan, Taichung County, and stayed away from the world by lodging in a small hut in Taitung County, in eastern Taiwan. While in Taitung, she accidentally found a Japanese version of the Lotus Sutra, and was pleased with what the book said. Later, she had a friend bring back a Japanese copy of the Lotus Sutra (Myoho Renge Kyo) from Japan, and was inspired by the Muryōgi Kyō, or what is better known as the Innumerable Meanings Sutra, which is traditionally regarded as the prologue to the Lotus Sutra. The Innumerable Meanings Sutra addresses human problems, weather behavior, and psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual issues.
Miscarriage of Taiwanese Aborigine
There were two watershed events that occurred in 1966 that are credited with having inspired Cheng Yen to found Tzu Chi. The first event occurred while Cheng Yen was visiting a hospital in Fenglin. After seeing blood on the hospital floor, she learned that a Taiwanese aborigine woman had a miscarriage. They were forced to carry the pregnant woman back up the mountain after they could not afford the 8000 New Taiwan dollar deposit. The aborigine woman later died. This story actually became source of a legal case in the early 2000s. While Cheng Yen never mentioned the name of the doctor when telling the story, one of her followers did, resulting in a defamation suit against Cheng Yen by the doctor's family.
Encounter with Roman Catholic Nuns
The second event was a now-famous discussion Cheng Yen had with three Roman Catholic nuns at Pu Ming temple in 1966. While the nuns admitted the profundity of Buddhist teachings, they noted that the Catholic Church had helped people around the world by building schools and hospitals and inquired, "But what has Buddhism done for society?". The discussion is credited with having made Master Cheng Yen realize that Buddhism had to do more than simply encourage the private cultivation of people's souls.
Founding the Tzu Chi Foundation
Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, and the encounters with the Taiwanese aborigine woman and the Roman Catholic nuns, Master Cheng Yen established the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation on 14 May 1966 in an endeavor to help the poor of east Taiwan. The organization started when Cheng Yen encouraged her followers, consisting of thirty housewives, to save fifty cents (US$0.02) from their grocery money every day and store them in bamboo savings banks to help needy families. When posed with the question, "Why can't we give once a week?" Master Cheng Yen replied, "Because giving is a practice and we need to give every day. If we have a yearning or a positive desire in us, we must nourish it and bring it to fulfillment. Just as Buddha was guided by a noble desire to help others, we too can listen to those who are sad or help those who are in pain." In the first year, fifteen families were provided with aid by the initial thirty followers.
Tzu Chi expanded its work from helping needy families to medical aid in 1970. In 1986 Tzu Chi established its first Hospital in Hualien. Tzu Chi has since built hospitals in Yuli, Hualien County; Dalin, Jiayi County; Guanshan, Taidong County; and Xindian, New Taipei City.
Tzu Chi experienced modest growth in the first two decades of its establishment, it grew to 293 members in 1968 and by 1986 had just 8,000 members. However, with the surge in popularity of Humanistic Buddhism in Taiwan in the late 1980s and 1990s, Tzu Chi enjoyed a rapid expansion in membership alongside several other major Taiwanese Buddhist organizations. From 1987 to 1991 Tzu Chi membership doubled in size each year, by 1994 it boasted a membership of 4 million members.
Tzu Chi is most well known for its work in disaster relief, Cheng Yen's philosophy includes the notion that not only are those receiving assistance benefiting materially by receiving the aid, but those delivering the aid are also spiritually rewarded when they see the gratitude in the eyes and smiles of the recipients. Tzu Chi's first major disaster relief effort was in 1991, when it undertook relief operations after severe floods hit central and eastern China. One of the most iconic attributes of Tzu Chi disaster relief efforts is that volunteers not only provide short term aid but also partake in long term projects to rebuild the communities affected. Tzu Chi often builds new homes, schools, hospitals, and places of worship (including churches and mosques for non-Buddhists) for victims following a disaster. As of 2015, Tzu Chi has provided disaster relief aid to over 85 countries worldwide.
A significant fraction of funds raised by Tzu Chi revolves around environmentally friendly goals such as the encouragement of recycling and using reusable items to reduce waste. As of 2014, the foundation operates over 5,600 recycling stations.
Tzu Chi has grown to become a significant actor in civil society, Tzu Chi is not only the largest Buddhist organization in Taiwan, but also Taiwan's largest owner of private land. As of 2013, the organization was estimated to have approximately 10 million members worldwide, and chapters in 47 countries.
Da Ai Television
In January 1998, Cheng Yen launched Da Ai (literally "Great Love") Satellite Television (慈濟大愛電視台; Cí jì Dà Ài Diàn Shì Tái) a 24-hours in daily of satellite television station. Da Ai is commercial free and operates twenty-four hours a day. It is funded by donations as well as partially by Tzu Chi's recycling programs. Da Ai features non-political news, lectures from Cheng Yen and serial programs focused on the virtues, often profiling people who made major changes in their life for the better.
Cheng Yen makes a broadcast every morning in an address known as "Wisdom at Dawn" and makes another address in the evening. She wakes up around 3:45 am to start her activities, such as receiving visitors, and overseeing Tzu Chi's projects throughout Taiwan. She often makes monthly trips around the country to check in on Tzu Chi's projects and activities.
Awards and recognition
- 1986: Receives the "Huashia Medal of the First Order" in Taiwan.
- 1991: Receives the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in The Philippines.
- 1993: Conferred Honorary Doctorate Degree by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
- 1994: Receives Eisenhower Medallion by the People to People International.(PTPI Founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower)
- 1995: Receives the "Executive Yuan (Cabinet) Cultural Award, Taiwan.
- 1996: Receives the "Interior Ministry's First Class Honorary Award"in Taiwan.
- 1996: Receives the "Foreign Affairs Medal of the First Order"in Taiwan.
- 1996: Receives the "Huaguang Award of the First Order"in Taiwan.
- 1998: Receives the International Human Rights Award by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation .(UNPO)
- 2000: Honored with the Noel Foundation Life Award.
- 2001: Received the first "Presidential Culture Award"in Taiwan.
- 2001: Selected as one of 26 "Heroes from Around the World" and featured on the "Wall of Honor" in Philadelphia's National Liberty Museum.
- 2001: Receives "National Medal of the Second Order" from the President of El Salvador.
- 2001: Conferred Honorary Doctorate in Social Science by Hong Kong University.
- 2002: Receives the "Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award" by World Buddhist University in Thailand.
- 2002: Conferred "Honorary Doctorate Degree in Socio-Cultural Studies" by National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.
- 2003: Receives the Presidential Second Order of the Brilliant Star Award, Taiwan.
- 2004: Receives the 2004 Asian American Heritage Award for Humanitarian Service by the Asian American Federation of California .(AAFC)
- 2007: Receives the 24th Niwano Peace Prize for Humanitarian Service by The Niwano Peace Foundation in Japan.Recipient Page
- 2008: The WFB Merit Medal from World Fellowship of Buddhists
- 2011: Conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities by the University of the East, Manila, Philippines