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CIJI , or Tzu Chi (from the Wade-Giles transliteration; in English, Compassion Relief), is a lay Buddhist movement founded in Taiwan under monastic leadership that has a mission of relieving suffering through secular action. Since the 1990s the movement has become one of the largest formal associations in Taiwan; it is also growing internationally, mainly within the Chinese diaspora. The founder and the leader is the Venerable Zhengyan (Cheng Yen) (1937), a Buddhist nun hailed as "the Mother Teresa of Asia" who has received international awards for "reawakening Taiwan's modern people to the ancient Buddhist teachings of compassion and charity." Her work and influence through Tzu Chi provides disaster relief for victims throughout the world. The movement is commonly known in Chinese as [Fojiao] Ciji gongde hui ([Buddhist] Compassion Relief Merits Society, or, as translated by the organization, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association), although its official title is Fojiao ciji jijinhui (The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation).


Compassion Relief's origins emerged from the experiences of Zhengyan. Born in 1937 in the town of Chingshui (Qingshui), Taizhong county in west central Taiwan, Zhengyan grew up in a middle-class mercantile family. Compassion Relief literature says that at age sixteen, Zheng-yan vowed to Bodhisattva Guanyin (Avalokiteśvara) that she would give up twelve years of her life in exchange for her mother's recovery from a stomach ulcer. Her mother was, ostensibly, cured miraculously without surgerysurgery that was life-threatening at that timeand Zhengyan became a vegetarian, as she had also vowed to do. However, the idea of pursuing the Buddhist priesthood did not occur to her until her father suddenly died of a stroke in 1960, and after she had encountered a local Buddhist nun, the Venerable Xioudao. This nun inspired her to restore the priesthood's economic autonomy and, most importantly, to see Buddhism as the path toward a universal vocationa vocation that can never be achieved by a woman within the limit of a family.

Zhengyan left home to become a Buddhist nun. After two years of wandering around various temples, she arrived in 1962 at a small temple of Bodhisattva Dizang (Kitigarbha) in Hualian, a town located in a backwater section of eastern Taiwan. Following the local practice, she took a learned layperson as her teacher, though she shaved her own head and studied scripture by herself.

At an accidental encounter in 1963 in Taipei, the well-known secularizing and reformist scholar-monk Yinshun (1906) granted Zhengyan's request that he be her tonsure master. Yinshun gave her a new Dharma-name, "Zhengyan" and the advice that would later guide her immense vocation, telling her, "Be committed to Buddhism and to all living beings!"

Zhengyan completed the precepts, returned to Hualian, and meditated daily on the Lotus Sūtra for half a year in solitude and austerity in a humble straw hut behind the Bodhisattva Dizan temple. In 1964 Zhengyan began to lead her few disciples and to lecture on the Four Books, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Emperor Liang's Penance. In contrast to the traditional Chinese Buddhist priests who rely on alms, Zhengyan and her disciples supported themselves by subcontracting handicraft work from factories, thus abiding by the Baizhang Huaihai's dictum of "no toil, no meal."

Two events in Hualian in 1966 induced Zhengyan to found Compassion Relief. One day at a hospital, Zhengyan saw a pool of blood in the hallway and inquired about it. She was told that an aboriginal woman had experienced a miscarriage. Although her family spent eight hours carrying her to the hospital, she received no treatment because she could not afford the NT (New Taiwan) $8,000 (about U.S.$200) deposit. The unfortunate woman had died, leaving the blood on the floor. Zhengyan nearly fainted upon learning about such a tragedy and asked herself: "How could humans be so cruel to each other?" (Chen Huijian, 1998, p. 28).

The second trigger occurred when three missionizing Catholic nuns came to convert Zhengyan and "save the betrayal of the God" (Chen Huijian, 1998, p. 29). Instead, Zhengyan convinced them that Buddha's compassion was as great as the universal love of the lord God. But the Catholic nuns then asked why Buddhists, with their concept of universal love, tended to concentrate only on improving themselves rather than build schools or hospitals as the Christians did?

On April 14, 1966, Compassion Relief was founded in Hualian. At that time, it consisted of Zhengyan, her five monastic disciples, and thirty housewives. Their goal was to establish a charity fund to provide relief and defray medical costs for the poor. The housewives each donated NT$0.50 (about U.S.$0.013) every day from their grocery money and proselytized among their families and friends. The nuns made handicrafts whose sale supported the monastic order and added to the relief fund.


Compassion Relief developed slowly in its first decade. By 1979, the Venerable Zhengyan had resolved that building a general hospital should be the long-term mission of Compassion Relief. The nine-hundred-bed hospital was open in Hualian in 1986, one year before Taiwan lifted martial law. This was followed by Compassion Relief's rapid growth across the island at the start of the 1990s, when Taiwan was emerging as a developed economy and democratic polity. By 2000, Compassion Relief claimed over four million members worldwide (of these, about two million were in Taiwan). Although these numbers may have been exaggerated, Compassion Relief is clearly one of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, where the total Buddhist population was about 4.9 million as of 2000. In Taiwan at the start of the twenty-first century, Compassion Relief was running two state-of-the-art Western hospitals (the second one in Dalin, in Jiayi county in western Taiwan), a secular educational system ranging from elementary school to a university with a medical school, a television channel and publishing houses, and the largest databank of bone-marrow donations in Asia. The foundation was also giving away NT$5.4 billion (over US$157 million in 1999 dollars) in charity each year, much of it internationally.

Since 1990, Compassion Relief has become increasingly transnational. It has overseas branches among Chinese communities in about thirty countries and has delivered relief to disaster victims in over thirty countries around the world. Compassion Relief runs free clinics in California and Hawai'i and a dialysis center in Penang, Malaysia. Large branches in Western countries such as the United States run weekend schools that teach Mandarin and traditional characters to youngsters of Chinese heritage. Since 1991, Compassion Relief has delivered help to disaster victims in over fifty countries around the world. Such accomplishments have won Zhengyan several international awards, among them the Philippine Magsaysay Award, a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Noel Foundation Life Award, and an honorary doctorate in the social sciences from the University of Hong Kong.

Zhengyan's mission has expanded to include the Four Great Compassion Relief Missions and the four "footprints." The Four Great Missions (si da zhiye ) are charity (on-site investigation, evaluation, and long-term care); medical care (e.g., building hospitals); education (e.g., building a university and organizing a Compassion Relief teachers' association and youth corps); and culture (e.g., Compassion Relief publications and television). The additional four footprints (jiaoyin ) are international disaster relief, bone-marrow drives (collecting bone-marrow samples for an international database and transplantation), environmentalism (e.g., sorting garbage for recycling), and community volunteerism (e.g., cooperating with government social workers to provide local elders with long-term care). In contrast with the often ad hoc nature of Buddhist charity and its emphasis on spiritual rather than material relief in Chinese societies, Compassion Relief has established a reputation for searching out causes and mobilizing for effective implementation of concrete assistance.

The Compassion Relief headquarters remains in Zhengyan's residential monastery in Hualian, called the Still Thoughts Abode (jinsi jinshe ). A triad configuration depicting Buddha Śākyamuni and the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Kitigarbha is enshrined in the main hall, and the monastery consisted of fewer than two hundred nuns in 2003. Under Zhengyan's charismatic leadership, the Compassion Relief umbrella organization has basically two divisions: the foundation and its staff on the one hand; and the volunteers, including the nuns, on the other hand. The foundation consists of six hundred staff members and has the largest endowment of any foundation in Taiwan, controlling about NT$12 billion (U.S.$350 million) in funds, solely from fund-raising. The volunteer organization has about seventeen thousand commissioners (weiyuan ) worldwide who proselytize for Compassion Relief, seeking to follow its principles of sincerity, integrity, trust, and honesty. About 70 percent of the commissioners are women. Male participation has rapidly increased, however, since around 1990, resulting in the formation of a male auxiliary team, the Faith Corps, in 1992. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the team had about eighteen hundred members. All Compassion Relief core members, including commissioners and members of the Faith Corps and Youth Corps, abide by the Ten Compassion Relief Precepts that consist of the five basic Buddhist precepts and another five precepts, which include such modern disciplines as not smoking, not drinking, not gambling, following traffic regulations, respecting parents, and speaking gently. The disciplines also bar participation in politics or demonstrations.

Compassion Relief followers concentrate on building a "pure land" in this world through secular actions. Their objectives are incorporated in the expression, "May all minds be purified, may society be peaceful, and may there be no disaster in this world." The Buddhist teaching is to be carried out; in Compassion Relief, only action counts, and its followers often say, "Just do it!" They view Zhengyan's mission as providing skillful methods that enable thousands of people to walk on the path of bodhisattva, to embody the bodhisattva' s ideal of relieving the suffering, that is, to humanize Buddhist teachings and bring the bodhisattva s into this world. Compassion Relief collectivity embodies the bodhisattva' s thousand eyes and thousand hands that carry out relief projects across political and ethnic borders; as exemplified in the Buddha's words: "Great compassion for those who are known and unknown, boundless mercy for all beings."

Zhengyan teaches classic Buddhist texts, but the most important book in Compassion Relief is her book, Still Thoughts. First published in 1989, it had gone through one hundred printings by 1992, with over one million copies having been sold by 2001. Still Thoughts is a collection of quotes from Zhengyan's teaching and sermons given at various times throughout her career. The quotes are brief paragraphs and concise sentences of Buddhist teaching, in plain words and set in the context of modern life. It is considered the "bible" upon which Compassion Relief followers model their speeches and conduct. Still Thoughts has been translated into English and German.

The significance of Compassion Relief for contemporary Buddhism is many-faceted. It is not only an example of Buddhist women's leadership and secularized Buddhism but also demonstrates a model of contemporary Buddhism's response to globalization: the global vision of its mission was an adaptation to, and a manifestation of, the role of religion in a context of intensified global communications. The result of Compassion Relief's global mission has been to put Buddhism on the world map, crossing borders through international outreach programs. This global mission is made possible by organizing the resources of the Chinese, and especially the Taiwanese, diaspora and channeling it into an active religious diaspora for universal causes.

See Also

Buddhist Ethics; Missions, article on Buddhist Missions; Nuns, article on Buddhist Nuns.


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C. Julia Huang (2005)