Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi

In 1966 a Taiwanese Buddhist nun named Cheng Yen witnessed a critically ill woman being refused admission to a hospital because she was too poor to pay the bills. A Theravadin would have taken this as a reminder to strive to get out of samsara as soon as possible. In keeping with her Mahayana background Cheng Yen decided to do what she could so that such a terrible thing did not happen again and thus the Tzu Chi Society came into being. Today Tzu Chi has over a hundred centers around the world. They have a large and effective wing to respond to disasters around the globe and their recycling project is a model of its kind. Not surprisingly Ven Cheng Yen and her work has inspired hundreds of thousands of people and has helped to bring about something of a revival of Buddhism in Taiwan. In 1995 I had the privilege of meeting Ven Cheng Yen herself. After having visited her impressive hospital in Hualien and several of her others centers and knowing of the enormous amount of work she does, I expected to see a dynamic, busy-looking woman, brisk in manner and with little time to talk. What a surprise then when I was introduced to a gently smiling nun who looked for all the world like a frail little bird. She is one of the most serene people I have ever met. Her movements were poised and mindful, she gave herself fully while we talked and she positively radiated compassion. And of course her compassion hasn’t just transformed her, it has changed the lives of thousands of others as well. She is living proof that social concern need not be a hindrance to meditation or spiritual development.

I knew Hinatiyana Dhammaloka intimately in the three years before his death in 1981 and he was perhaps the most spiritually advanced Sri Lankan monks I have encountered. Mellow, wise and without ego he was a rare example of a mettacetovimutthi. It seems that far from hindering him, his work for the Gramasamvaradhana Movement in the 1930s and his subsequent social involvement had served as a basis for his later very palpable spiritual attainments. But most Theravadins just don’t get it. They can only think of meditation as sitting with crossed legs, of love as a mental exercise you do for your own advantage and of generosity as giving to monks.