Book Discussion – Tzu Chi: Serving With Compassion

By August 3, 2011 No Comments

Author Mark O’Neill discusses his book on Tzu Chi, the influential Taiwanese NGO that has helped tens of thousands worldwide.

作家Mark O’Neill评论了他关于慈济的新作。 慈济是一所在台湾有一定影响力且帮助了成千上万人的非政府慈善机构

In Tzu Chi: Serving With Compassion, Mark O’Neill tells the remarkable story of Cheng Yen, a Taiwanese woman whose single vision—to provide aid to those in need—blossomed into one of the most active and influential NGOs worldwide. Tzu Chi, built largely with the help of small donations and grassroots campaigns, has provided care across the globe—from Taiwan, mainland China and Indonesia to South Africa and the United States. The organization provided relief after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and was one of the few NGOs allowed to enter Myanmar in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. On July 11, the United Nations Postal Association released a set of stamps in honor of the 45th anniversary of the founding of Tzu Chi. Andrew McIntyre spoke with O’Neill in Hong Kong, who shared his experiences writing about Tzu Chi.

It is incredible that, as a reader, we learn so much about Master Cheng despite the fact that you weren’t able to interview her. At the beginning, were you disappointed when you heard you wouldn’t be able to interview her?

I met Master Cheng right at the beginning. I said to her, “Thank you for giving me the chance to write the book. It’s an honor for me to do this.” And her first reply was “Don’t write about me. Write about them.” This is her policy for a long time. Not just me, but TIME would come along, CNN would come along, Central TV from China would come along. Lots of people want to interview her. She’s a very powerful person. She’s the most respected person in Taiwan, according to many surveys. So, initially, I was a bit upset. I thought, “How can I write about this organization because she’s the key person?” But I discovered there was no need to do it, because she has the daily broadcast, which I watched every day. When you interview all the members, of course, the first question you start with is “How did you get involved with Tzu Chi?” And then they explain what happened and it always involves her. They heard her speak on radio. They saw her on television. They read one of her books. They met her in person, and their life was changed. They all spoke about her, so each time you heard about her in a slightly different aspect. So, by the end of the year, I knew her views on most issues. I could recite them, actually.

Of the people you interviewed, who had the best insight on Master Cheng?

Well, far and away the best was her mother. Her mother has now passed away. When I interviewed her, she was 92, and I interviewed her in Taizhong, in central Taiwan. I remember very well, because she doesn’t speak Mandarin. She is very talkative. I couldn’t stop her talking actually. So I asked her all the questions that you or any other journalist would ask. And you see she is the only one who would answer, because for everybody else, Master Cheng is a very special individual. And the questions I asked were, “What was she like as a child? Schooling? Relations to boyfriends?” A member would never ask such a question, because it’s impolite. But I asked mother, and mother could refuse to answer, but she didn’t. She answered.

What were some of the challenges you faced in writing the book?

The number one challenge was to try to grasp the inspiration, because almost everyone in Tzu Chi is working for no money. There’s a small group who are on salaries, but they don’t earn the salaries they could earn if they were in the private sector. They get enough to live on. If they put the same effort and the same skill in an accountancy firm, in a bank, they’d earn much more. Everyone else is doing it for nothing. So I think the first challenge was to try and grasp how and why so many people are inspired to do this.

The second thing was to try to understand her form of Buddhism. I didn’t grow up in the Buddhist culture so it’s taken me a long time to try and grasp this sort of ideology. And as I say in the book, it’s not Buddhism in the traditional sense. It’s humanistic Buddhism. It’s Buddhism in society.

The third thing was to understand the organization, because it’s very well run. This is really extraordinary. You have people who are working for nothing. You have only a few people on salary. How do you control people? How do you manage them? How do you mobilize all these resources in an efficient way? It’s tricky when you don’t have a structure. Multinationals have very strict hierarchies. That’s how these things work. But this one doesn’t appear to have that. People are working for free. So to try to figure out the institutional organization and the management, that was quite a challenge.

One of the big questions I and many readers come away with after reading this book is, “What is the future of the organization after Master Cheng?” What is your take on this?

As a journalist, this was always on my mind. But I found when I asked members this, it was very awkward. It’s like asking somebody “What will you do when your father dies? What will you do when your mother dies?” It’s very upsetting because she is very important to the members and many of them feel a very close bond with her, perhaps even closer than with members of their own family. So, I find it more and more difficult to ask this question, because if you ask it to an ordinary volunteer, you upset them.

Master Cheng is very conscious of her own mortality. She’s not in good health. She could die anytime. She says this all the time. She’s preparing her followers for this, so she’s set up a structure whereby the organization is institutionally self-sufficient. So even if she’s not there, it will continue to work. People will go to the hospital. The hospitals are fee paying, or they get money from government, because Taiwan has universal coverage. The schools are also fee paying, so they run by themselves. The environmental work runs by itself. So, organizationally, it will carry on.

There is no successor, so the future is an unknown. She is so important to the people and, when I ask this question to more senior members, their answer is, “Well, she has written books, she has taped thousands of speeches, talks, discourses on Buddhist matters.” In the case of the Buddha himself, when he was becoming old, his disciples asked him to name a successor, and he refused. And they said, “But what are we going to do without you? We are humans. We need a person.” And the Buddha said, “Well, I’ve been lecturing and talking—this is my testament.” I think that will happen institutionally. There will be a kind of management committee of eminent people and they’ll continue to run it.

Excerpt from Tzu Chi: Serving With Compassion, pages 89-90:

There are few places on earth less fertile for human habitation than the Loess Plateau of Gansu province in West China. The land has no grass and is covered by loess, a thin yellowish-brown deposit of soil left by the wind. With almost no groundwater, the inhabitants depend on the small amount of rain that falls between July and September. Most live in homes built of mud and their only furniture are brick beds, and pots and pans. They eke out a living by raising two or three sheep, and growing potatoes and other vegetables on small patches of land.

Like most of West China, Gansu suffers from desertification and an acute shortage of water. It is one of the poorest provinces in China, with a per capita income of 5,000 yuan ($650) a year.

On the plateau is Dongxiang county, four hours drive form the provincial capital of Lanzhou. Most of its inhabitants are Dongxiang, a Moslem ethnic minority, descendants of Arab and Persian traders who came to China about 700 years ago. With poor roads, they live remote and isolated from the rest of the world.

Tzu Chi learnt of the plight of these villages and their need for water. Better-off families built their own water cisterns; primitive ones lasted only three years before the soil made the water dry. The poor had no cisterns and had to walk several hours a day to bring water home from the wells, in buckets or on the backs of donkeys. Water is so scarce that some people never take a bath in their entire lives; they make do with a towel soaked in water used by the whole family. Others take a bath twice in their life—before they marry and after their death.

The foundation began its work in 1997, when volunteers from Tainan in Southern Taiwan built 300 cisterns in two counties. It was an enormous journey, flying first from Taipei to Hong Kong, then Beijing and onto Lanzhou, followed by a drive of four hours. In 1999, volunteers from Shanghai took over the project and built cisterns in Dongxiang county. The place left a deep impression on them: “It happened to be winter every time we went there,” said Lin Pi-yu. “All that met our eyes were endless stretches of bare loess. Not a single blade of grass was in sight. Almost every child has scabies on their head and their skin was covered with ringworm. Just looking at them made my heart ache. Only one in 10 families can afford to eat food made from wheat. The rest have only potatoes to eat.”

The poverty and resolution of the people to survive in such a difficult environment moved the volunteers. Construction of a cistern costs 1,000 yuan ($120) and can last 20-25 years. The system collects water on the roof and the courtyard and runs it through a filtering pond into a bottle-shaped cistern for storage. For a family of five, the water collected during the rainy season is enough to sustain them for half a year. This water improves the hygiene of the family and increases the number of livestock they rear. It saves them the hours spent to fetch water, which they can use for other activities and earn money. So the residents call them “water of happiness, cisterns of wealth.”

In Dongxiang, the foundation has also built two schools, repaired 18 homes and delivered rice to 4,500 families during the winter of 2007.

As of the end of 2007, the foundation had built 13,414 water cisterns in six counties in Gansu. It provides building materials, including bricks, sand, cement and water-collecting pipes, while the household does the building. Kenneth Tai, who was one of the founders of the Acer computer company and now runs his own investment firm, is one of the Tzu Chi volunteers responsible for the Gansu project. “In business, we speak of return on investment. Each well costs 1,000-2,000 yuan ($125 to $150) and will bring an annual return of 1,000 yuan to the farmer, because he knows that he has water for his crop, which he does not have now. If there is no rain, he has no harvest.”

“When I am with the farmers and their children, I receive a happiness that I cannot describe. A rich man stays in the best hotels and has the best goods, but is not satisfied. He wants more. This experience is something else,” he said.

Tzu Chi: Serving With Compassion

By Mark O’Neill

John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pre. Ltd. 

Andrew McIntyre is deputy editor of US-China Today and a graduate student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Many thanks to John Wiley for the use of the excerpt from Tzu Chi: Serving With Compassion.