Tzu Chi Foundation: A force of kindness

Jose Paolo S. dela Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -  Almost a year has passed since the Bohol earthquake (Oct. 15) and Super Typhoon Yolanda (Nov. 8) hit the Philippines, but there in Sansia in Taiwan, in an impressive workshop, the volunteers before me are still hard at work. They work all week (around 200 of them each day, 500 on a weekend), sorting out screws, welding metal railings and doing factory work diligently, so that they may deliver ready-to-assemble homes to the typhoon-stricken families of Tacloban and Ormoc, as well as to the earthquake survivors of Cebu. They know little of these places, even less of the people in these places. All they know is that they need to help; and help, they will.

As of my visit to Taiwan, the volunteers have sent hundreds of temporary homes from this factory. They have also built temporary classrooms, 300 of which have been sent to the Philippines as of August. Indeed, I am in one of the many fabled halls of the Tzu Chi Foundation.

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a worthwhile dream from more than half a century ago, one that has grown and set itself in the pillars of the modern world. It all started when one woman decided to leave her family home and become a Buddhist nun, to do something concrete and alleviate poverty for her impoverished town in Hualien.

With the help of her five initial disciples, around 30 housewives and their combined good intentions, the nun, now known as the Dharma Master Cheng Yen, was able to create a charity organization with roots in Buddhist origins and beliefs. The group has grown to become a force in civil society, with some estimating head count at 10 million members, present in 47 countries around the globe.

In the Philippines, they were a force of kindness, one whose fire couldn’t be dampened even by the damning winds of Super Typhoon Yolanda. Aside from flying into the country to join in the relief efforts, volunteers in Taiwan have also set up a special factory where they manufacture and prepare temporary houses for victims of the calamity.

At their factory in Sansia, the volunteers work with a smile, with mechanical efficiency. When the bell rings, they leave their stations, eat for around 10 minutes, and go back to work immediately after their modest morning snack of vegetarian sandwiches and tea. So efficient are they that you’d almost doubt if they’re being paid by the second.

Even more amazing is the fact that they’re not being paid at all — not even for their transportation! “Some of our volunteers will drive two, three hours, just to reach the work station. They give their time, spend their own money for gas. It’s so touching to know that these people really work so hard for Filipinos…people they haven’t even seen, or don’t even know,” shares JuD Lao, one of the 40,000 commissioners (volunteers who act as local chapter heads) of the foundation.

Together with her sister Lucy Yu, JuD flew us to Taipei to show us what the foundation, which they have so fondly spoken of in our few conversations prior to the trip, was all about. “The reason why we brought you here is so you can see for yourself. If we just told these stories, you might think we were bragging,” JuD says with a smile.

That is a wise call on her part, for there we were, feasting our eyes on what could be one of the most successful charitable institutions that the modern world has ever seen. It’s so successful; it’s hard to believe without seeing.

Under its belt, the Tzu Chi Foundation has seven state-of-the-art hospitals built solely through donations, a TV station called Da Ai TV (whose ratings, according to its station manager, fare well against conventional local TV), its own convention centers and other real-world assets. Its spiritual center, the Jing Si Abode, home of the Dharma Master, has grown from being a single shack to a modest yet sprawling complex of more than 13 houses in the mountains of Hualien.

Yet for all its intimidating success, it is not a business. The TV station doesn’t make revenues from ads but just preaches the volunteerism as guided by Cheng Yen. The hospitals don’t intend to make a profit but continue to thrive. Yet, everything pushes the same advocacy in a systematic way, with each arm having a role to play. Whether it’s the volunteers or the TV stations, the doctors in the hospitals or the volunteer artists who give artworks to the distressed — everything works like clockwork, and has worked this way since 1966.

Tzu Chi volunteers work non-stop around the globe. They come to aid the ravaged poor of Tacloban, with the same passion as they helped the first-world victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US. Helping beyond race, beyond profiles — that seems to be their sacred mandate.

What’s even more haunting is how their volunteerism knows no limits. On the last day of our visit, we learned of a rather strange, yet ultimate manner in which some of the volunteers have chosen to make the most of their “life.” They commit themselves to becoming “silent mentors” for medical students.

By allowing their loved ones to donate their bodies once they pass away, the volunteers become silent mentors as they allow students to cut and dissect them, study their internal anatomy for the benefit of medical research. However, unlike in most medical schools, the silent mentors are properly turned over by the family. Members of the family brief the students of the volunteer’s life, making a connection between the silent mentor and the student. As a result, the student understands the value of life, and the body gets the respect it deserves.

“Imagine if you don’t know the dead person in front of you, and you just cut it and experiment on it, toss it around. It’s just a tool! What kind of doctors will you produce? Heartless doctors. But by injecting an element of humanity, you teach these aspiring doctors that medicine isn’t just about technology. It’s about preserving life,” shares Lisa Yu, a Tzu Chi commissioner.

Josephine I-Hwei Chen, an active Tzu Chi commissioner whose father became a silent mentor after passing away, relays a touching story as she tours us around the Tzu Chi Museum. “It has always been my father’s dream to be of help even in death. It’s not an easy decision to make, but I know it made him very happy when the time came,” she says.

After the semester is done, the silent mentors are laid to rest through a proper burial ceremony with the family. One student said during his graduation that his only regret, is that he wasn’t able to thank his silent mentor in life, “the one person who taught him more about medicine, more than anyone else.”

Indeed, volunteerism seems to flourish in Taiwan. More than that, it continues to blossom in the hearts of the Tzu Chi Foundation’s members around the globe.

(For more information on the Tzu Chi Foundation, please call 742-0001 or visit the Tzu Chi Foundation’s Manila office at 76 Agno St. cor. Cordillera St., Quezon City.)

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