Cheng Yen begins each day at 3:50 a.m., awakening from a floor mat in her monastery outside Taiwan's mountainous coastal city of Hualien. She meditates, does an hour's worth of work, then has a sparse breakfast at 6 a.m. Her daily routine may be that of a simple Buddhist nun, but Master Cheng, as she is known, is one of the most powerful people in Taiwan. She is the founder and leader of the Buddhist charity organization Tzu Chi, or "Mercy, Relief," which boasts 4 million members--one-fifth of Taiwan's population.
Through three decades of good works, Yen has changed the role of Buddhism in Taiwan from one of meditation and retreat to one of activism and engagement. She now has an army of 25,000 volunteers working at poverty alleviation, health care, and education--in dozens of countries, not just Taiwan. Her standing in Taiwan is so high that all three presidential candidates in the March election traveled to Hualien to seek her blessing.
Her foundation gained international prominence because of its quick response to the September, 1999, earthquake in Taiwan that killed 2,400 people. The quake struck at 1:52 a.m.; by 5 a.m., Tzu Chi members had arrived at disaster sites to function like a local Red Cross, sheltering, feeding, and counseling tens of thousands of quake victims. "We are very deep into all layers of society," says Tzu Chi volunteer James Wang. "We are well organized, so we can react right away."
Even now, nine months after the quake, Tzu Chi is still stepping into what usually is a government role in reconstruction efforts: Its volunteers plan to rebuild 45 schools destroyed by the quake--and this time make them earthquake-proof. "You can't rely on the government to do everything," says Cheng, a soft-spoken 63-year-old woman with a shaved head and the long, elegant hands of a Mandarin. "The people have to do something, to take care of the part the government does not do."
Indeed, it was inadequate government services that helped prompt Cheng to start her foundation in the first place. Back in 1966 as a young nun, she visited a hospital and saw a pool of blood on the floor--from a woman who had miscarried after being turned away for lack of money. Cheng was struck with "overwhelming sadness," according to a Tzu Chi publication, and wondered what she could do to overcome such suffering.
A short time later, three Roman Catholic nuns tried to get her to convert to Catholicism, saying that their religion was better at caring for people than Buddhism because it built schools and hospitals. The publication quotes them as saying that Buddhist teachings were profound, "but what has Buddhism done for society?" At that moment, Cheng vowed to remain a Buddhist but to build schools and hospitals, too. And she vowed to make sure that everyone--even those without money for treatment--could use them.
DIRECT RELIEF. Cheng built up Tzu Chi gradually from a small shack and a group of women followers who saved a little each day out of their grocery money. It is now a huge organization. Tzu Chi took in $300 million in donations last year, half of it specifically targeted for earthquake victims.
Cheng has organized Tzu Chi so that all donations can be channeled directly to relief efforts. Overhead costs and salaries for its 570-member staff are met by sales of Cheng's inspirational books and tapes and endowments from wealthy members. In addition to its relief work abroad--including in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere in Asia--Tzu Chi runs a number of civic projects in Taiwan, ranging from providing monthly welfare checks to 4,000 needy families to pushing an environmental agenda that it estimates has recycled enough paper to save 3.5 million trees. All volunteers are banned from lying, smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, fornicating, gambling, and participating in politics.
For all its good works at home, Tzu Chi has been criticized in the local media for its relief efforts in China. Cheng has worked on the mainland for the past nine years, with activities in 19 of its 35 provinces. Cheng shrugs off concern about whether a Taiwan organization should be helping the mainland while its politicians threaten the island with war. "We don't care about politics," says Cheng. "There is no reason to love some people less than others, and mainland Chinese are people, too. Buddhism teaches us to take care of people, to take care of society." She's doing that--and then some.