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Cheng Yen

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Cheng Yen (simplified Chinese: 证严法师; traditional Chinese: 證嚴法師; pinyin: Zhèngyán Fǎshī; born 11 May 1937) is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni), teacher, and philanthropist. She is often called the "Mother Teresa of Asia." In 1966, Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, commonly known as Tzu Chi; its motto is "instructing the rich and saving the poor". Later, Cheng Yen's Charity, Medicine, Education, and Culture Missions developed, and to the present the Tzu Chi Foundation has become involved in international disaster relief, bone marrow donation, environmental protection, and community volunteering.

Master Cheng Yen

Early life

Cheng Yen was born Wáng Jǐnyún[4] (王錦雲) in 1937 in Qingshui in Taichung County (now part of Taichung City), Taiwan. Her uncle was childless, so she was given to be raised by her aunt and uncle. She had first hand experience of suffering because she was raised in Japan-controlled Taiwan during World War II. She witnessed the devastating effects of war and even experienced bombings in Taiwan. These experiences taught Cheng Yen the truth behind the concept of impermanence. As early as 1945, she had to experience people’s pain and helplessness at the age of eight when she had to look after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months. At the age of 23, her father died suddenly[1] from brain hemorrhaging caused by a stroke. It was in searching for a burial place for him that Cheng Yen first came into contact with the Buddhist Dharma. 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 had to run away to a temple because she feared that her mother would not allow her to go. After her first attempt of running away, her mother found her three days later and brought her back home. The second time she ran away from home was in 1961. She left to travel through eastern Taiwan with a friendly nun by the name of Master Xiūdào (修道). 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 with her lifestyle. She went to the Lin Chi Temple to register for ordination. They turned her down because she did not have a master. Typically, to become a nun, one must be the disciple of a master for two years before ordination. Fortunately, Cheng Yen encountered Venerable Master Yin-shun, whom she asked to be her master. 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 great expectation of "doing all for the Buddhist religion and for all beings", which is written with six characters in Chinese. From then on, these six characters became the highest ideals for Cheng Yen in belief, teaching, and practice. In May 1963, shortly after receiving her initiation as a nun, she went to Pu Ming Temple 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 copied it 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.”


During the time of the earthly stay of the Buddha, there was no written language yet. The Buddha's teachings were verbal. Later, disciples, kings, and scholars compiled his teachings. The Fourth Compilation happened approximately 700 years after the earthly stay of the Buddha ended. The foundation of Master Cheng Yen's version of Buddhism, the Sutra of Lotus, was compiled during this Compilation. Master Cheng Yen's initial exposure to the Sutra of Lotus happened when she abandoned her earthly (and reasonably wealthy) family in Fengyuan, 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 immensely enlightened by the Mu Ryo Gi Kyo, "the Sutra of U Liang Yi", or "the Sutra of Immeasurable Righteousness".) The serenity and clarity of heart derived from the book gave the Master tremendous Buddhist happiness (Fa Shi). According to the Master, the Lotus Sutra is the culmination of the Buddha's teachings, while the Sutra of Immeasurable Righteousness (U Liang Yi) is the precursor to the Lotus Sutra. The Sutra of Immesurable Righteousness deals with human problems, weather behavior, and psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual issues. There were two watershed events that inspired Cheng Yen to take the power of Buddhism and use it to help people in the material world. The first is when she had a now-famous discussion 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. “But what has Buddhism done for society?” Those words made Master Cheng Yen realize that Buddhism had to do more than simply encourage the private cultivate of people's souls. The other watershed event occurred in the same year, 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. These events led Master Cheng Yen to establish the Buddhist Compassion Relief]] Tzu Chi Foundation, which is now known as the Tzu Chi Foundation, in 1966. The Foundation established its first Tzu Chi Hospital in Hualien in 1986.

Founding of Tzu Chi

To meet the needs of the poor in eastern Taiwan, Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association on 14 April 1966. Cheng Yan encouraged her thirty followers to save fifty cents (US$0.02) from their grocery money every day. They would put this money into little savings banks made from bamboo. 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.” Tzu Chi’s beginnings were humble. In the first year, fifteen families were helped by thirty followers. Unlike most Buddhist orders, Tzu Chi nuns (bhikkhunis) do not take donations for themselves. Rather, in the early days, they worked for their food by farming, weaving gloves, making diapers and electrical circuit breakers, among other products.

Medical mission

Development of a medical mission

By 1970, Cheng Yen came to the realization of the link between poverty and illness after spending six years among the poor of eastern Taiwan. Seeing this, she resolved to tackle the problem and begin Tzu Chi’s medical mission. Tzu Chi’s first medical outreach occurred in 1972 when a free clinic was opened in Hualien. In the fifteen years of this outreach, more than 140,000 consultations occurred.

Tzu Chi Hospital

Plans to build a 600-bed general hospital were developed in 1979 to provide service to the underserved eastern coast of Taiwan. Despite initial setbacks both in funding for the hospital and finding an acceptable site. Ground was broken on the site eventually chosen on 5 February 1983 at a ceremony officiated by then Provincial Governor (later President) Lee Teng-Hui. However, two weeks after ground was broken, Cheng Yen received a letter from the military telling her that the property was needed by the military and that construction would have to stop. Minister of the Interior Lin Yang-kang helped to obtain a new site. A second groundbreaking occurred on 2 April 1984 at the new site. Construction was completed and the hospital opened on 17 August 1986. Tzu Chi has since built hospitals in Yuli, Hualien County; Dalin, Jiayi County; Guanshan, Taidong County; and Xindian, New Taipei City. A sixth hospital is nearly complete in Tanzi District, Taichung City.

Nursing college

In order to address the shortage of nurses on Taiwan's east coast, and expand the ongoing medical mission, Cheng Yen resolved to build the Tzu Chi College of Nursing. With the assistance of many people, it was founded on 17 September 1989 in Hualien. It was the first private nursing college in Taiwan to waive tuition for selected courses, in addition to providing full scholarships for qualified Taiwan aborigine students. Students not only learn the technical skills of nursing, they are also imbued with the spirit of compassion and given a humanitarian education. Despite the Buddhist nature of Tzu Chi, aboriginal Christian pastors have been hired to minister to the large proportion of aborigine students, many of whom are Christian, who study at the college. They are also present to preserve native culture and languages.

Bone marrow program

Cheng Yen’s commitment to improving access to medical care was continued by the beginning of a bone marrow registry. Her deep feeling for those patients with blood related diseases moved her in this direction in 1992. She referred to the concept of “saving a life without bringing harm to self.” This effort to register bone marrow donors won the endorsement of Taiwan’s government in 1993, when it revamped organ donation laws paving the way for bone marrow donation in the country. This registry became a division of the new Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center, which was founded to improve research and treatment capabilities. By August 2005, Tzu Chi had registered more than 274,000 marrow donors and had matched close to one thousand recipients with compatible donors around the world.

College of Medicine

Continuing the Mission of Medicine that Cheng Yen has been so dedicated to, she established the Tzu Chi College of Medicine in 1994. This college grew into Tzu Chi University in 2000. Concurrently, she also appealed to Taiwanese people to donate their bodies for medical training, attempting to dispel traditional taboos in the process. As a result of this appeal, public support for body donations surged nationwide. Consequently, at the Tzu Chi College of Medicine, there is one body for every four students to study as opposed to one body for every two hundred students at one school. Tzu Chi’s College of Medicine ratio is the lowest in the country. In 1995, the Athletic Drug Testing Center was established at the request of the Ministry of Education and went into operation in 1996 during a national sporting event when gold medal winners were tested for banned drugs.

Cheng Yen in early age

International relief work


Cheng Yen has referred to relief work in China as “Building a Bridge of Love.” Tzu Chi’s China relief program began in 1991 when devastating floods hit central and eastern China. Despite the cross-Strait political situation, Cheng Yen was able to open up avenues to assist Chinese people who were in desperate need. Master Cheng Yen referred to the initial obstacles that came from both sides of the strait as the “two problems and four difficulties.” In Taiwan, it was difficult to convince Taiwanese to help the Chinese, and in China, it was difficult to convince government officials normally wary of religious organizations from accepting Tzu Chi. The four difficulties were:

Despite these obstacles, Cheng Yen has seen the dream of building bridges across the Taiwan Strait through humanitarian assistance realized. This being the first major effort at international relief aid, it also allowed Tzu Chi to develop its principles of delivering aid. Tzu Chi volunteers are not to discuss business, politics, or preach religion while giving aid. 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.

Other relief projects

Master Cheng Yen has directed Tzu Chi to participate in numerous other relief projects around the world, including sending teams to Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the wake of the devastating tsunami resulting from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake as well as to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake in their northern mountains. The later was done despite poor relations between the governments of the two countries. Other relief projects have taken place in Mongolia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand, Rwanda, Cambodia, North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Vietnam, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and numerous other countries.

Aid in Taiwan

Parts of Taiwan were devastated by Typhoon Herb in 1996. This storm caused the worst flooding in Taiwan in thirty years. Cheng Yen called on thousands of volunteers to provide aid to those affected by the floods. This effort gave impetus to creating a nation-wide volunteer program where volunteers are registered according to where they live with the goal of “neighbors helping neighbors.” Central Taiwan was devastated by the powerful Jiji earthquake on 21 September 1999. Cheng Yen called on Tzu Chi volunteers to do everything they could for the victims. This time, assistance went beyond immediate relief assistance. Believing that education is vital for children and must not be interrupted, ten billion New Taiwan Dollars were raised to rebuild fifty schools in the affected areas within three years. In the interim, Tzu Chi provided temporary classrooms so children could continue their education while their schools were being repaired and rebuilt. In recent years, Tzu Chi has mobilized within hours to help people affected by typhoons and other natural disasters in Taiwan by delivering prepared meals, drinking water, and providing financial assistance to help victims replace what has been lost.

Da Ai television

Cheng Yen it was officially launched 'Da Ai 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 on 1 January 1998. The goal behind this effort was to provide television that was free from violence, war, exploitation, and other negative things that pollute the human spirit. Da Ai continues to operate today. Commercial-free, it operates twenty-four hours a day and is partially funded by a nationwide recycling effort. Individuals and corporations also provide donations to allow the channel to maintain its commercial-free status. Da Ai features non-political news generally free of negativity and violence, teaching lectures from Cheng Yen and serial programs designed to extol the virtues of living a good life, often profiling people who made major changes in their life for the better.


Although Cheng Yen is over the age of seventy, she cannot be accused of slowing down her active work pace. She broadcasts every week-day morning the programme “Morning at Dawn”, a 25-minute address that is both teaching and inspirational. Every evening, she gives another twelve-minute address. She rises early in the morning and often receives visitors, and actively oversees the many projects that Tzu Chi operated throughout Taiwan. To accomplish this, she makes monthly trips around the country to see what volunteers are doing to better the lives of those they assist.

Awards and recognition