Decades of Devotion: A 92-Year-Old Tzu Chi Volunteer’s Dharma Journey

Northwest  |  January 24, 2021
Chungyu Feng listens to Master Cheng Yen’s Teaching live online, studiously referring to his notes. Photo/Jennifer Tsai

Written by Ichin Hsieh, Jennifer Tsai
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

“Grandpa Feng, I’ll help you set up the online connection to Master’s daily teaching,” a volunteer from Tzu Chi USA’s Oakland Service Center said to the senior gentlemen they had come to visit. They then explained, “All you need to do is enter these words to connect to the group. Now, you can watch Master’s teaching every day at the same time as Tzu Chi volunteers in Taiwan. What do you think?”

“I’m so happy!” 92-year-old Tzu Chi volunteer Chungyu Feng, affectionately called “Grandpa Feng,” exclaimed, “This way, I can see Master Cheng Yen every day!”

A Cherished Introduction

Chungyu Feng is the eldest Tzu Chi volunteer in all of Northern California, and his connection with Tzu Chi and Master Cheng Yen extends back decades. It began when he was young and living in Taipei, Taiwan, and met Meichu Chen, one of the pioneers in Tzu Chi’s history, as only the 43rd person to become a certified volunteer with the foundation. 

Meichu, whom Tzu Chi volunteers affectionately referred to as “Big Sister,” introduced Chungyu to Tzu Chi and was the one who inspired him to become a volunteer. Once he did, his path of dedicated service did not falter through the years until today, when he is a beloved elder among Tzu Chi’s family of volunteers. 

When once asked to share his story, he presented it in brief, pointing the light directly onto his faith in Buddhism and Master Cheng Yen’s teachings. In particular, he called attention to the wisdom in Master’s Jing Si Aphorisms, which he treasures as a guidance and support system throughout his life:

My life is so ordinary. I know everyone must have at least one Jing Si Aphorism publication at home.

Chungyu Feng shares his story and what Jing Si Aphorisms have meant to him in his life at a gathering of Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo / Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA’s Oakland Service Center

Dedicated to Education

Chungyu Feng believes in the value of education and Tzu Chi’s activities in that area, and that is where he concentrated his years of service. He volunteered at the Tzu Chi Academy in San Mateo, then Tzu Chi Academy in San Francisco, serving as a dedicated bell ringer, announcing the recess period during Sunday school. He assumed this role at the academies for 16 years, ringing the class bell vigorously and precisely on time each Sunday. 

Concurrently, Chungyu participates during each Spring cleaning, helps tidy up the campus from time to time, and cooks snacks for the teachers and students. In recent years, as students have come to the U.S. from Taiwan through Tzu Chi’s study abroad program, which includes a visit to the University of California in Berkeley, he also contributes in his unique way. 

Chungyu will send volunteers to get authentic American food, which he pays for, so the Taiwanese students can discover a cuisine unknown back home. When asked about his generous initiative, he’ll just grin and say, “Y’all take care of the great mission, and I’ll take care of the ordinary things!”

For Chungyu to do some of the things that he calls “ordinary” sometimes takes an effort many would deem extraordinary, especially with advancing age. Volunteer Rihua Jiang, who was once the principal of Tzu Chi Academy in San Francisco, recalls this warmly, and with great respect for his diligence:

Grandpa Feng used to live in San Lorenzo, a town next to Oakland. He had to take three bus rides which took about two hours to reach Tzu Chi Academy, San Francisco. But Grandpa Feng insisted and never complained about his long trip. Every Sunday, he got up early to catch the first subway ride, arrived at the school on time before nine o’clock, and rang the bell for the first class. One time, Grandpa Feng asked for a leave of absence for a personal reason, and a substitute volunteer rang the bell. After class, many parents and teachers came to the office to ask why Grandpa Feng didn’t come. It turned out that the whole school noticed that the strength and rhythm of how the bell rang that day were completely different. Therefore, they knew right away that Grandpa Feng was not in school, so they all came to inquire about his wellbeing. This shows that Grandpa Feng’s popularity among teachers, students, and parents was special, while his attentive approach towards them all was mutually heartfelt.

Going further back to when he was volunteering in San Mateo, volunteer Meiling Cheng, who once served as the principal of the Tzu Chi Academy in that city, also shared a story:

One time, when I was walking in the lobby on campus, Grandpa Feng was helping out on campus. I heard a parent, pointing to Grandpa Feng, say to their child, ‘Look at Grandpa Feng, he’s happy volunteering with Tzu Chi. You can also be a volunteer at Tzu Chi when you grow up because you’ll be just like Grandpa Feng. He’s always happy and feels truly blessed to help others!’ I was so moved when I heard a parent say that to their child. Grandpa Feng set a great example for the students, and the students could see good deeds and good thoughts with their own eyes.

Chungyu Feng assists at a food distribution event in San Francisco. Photo/Pochiang Yang

Teaching the practice of, and learning to recognize, the merit and virtue in the kind and selfless – yet seemingly “ordinary ” – deeds and work that Chungyu doesn’t care to talk about is, in fact, an essential part of Tzu Chi’s educational mission. And, his aspirations and approach have faithfully aligned with Master Cheng Yen’s guidance to volunteers, as evident in Jing Si Aphorisms such as this: “Use the wisdom of a Bodhisattva to educate our children; use the love of motherhood to love our students.”

Role Model and Source of Inspiration

During his time serving as a Tzu Chi volunteer in Northern California, Chungyu Feng suffered two strokes. The first occurred while he was in the middle of visiting the residents of a nursing home alongside other Tzu Chi volunteers. Unexpectedly, he suddenly felt very ill. The other volunteers reacted swiftly and took him to the hospital, where doctors determined it was a stroke. For someone else, this may have been a setback, steering them away from the path of service. Not Chungyu, because upon recovery, he immediately returned to volunteering.

The second time Chungyu’s health took a blow, he fainted while at home and alone. And yet, it wasn’t long before several Tzu Chi Oakland volunteers conferred that they had not been able to get in contact with the elder and felt something might be wrong. They hurried to his home and found that, indeed, he had suffered another stroke. Fortunately, thanks to their timely response, he made it to the emergency room in time again. 

Would Chungyu’s second alarming health scare deter his steadfast efforts to benefit others? Hardly. Once again, after recovery, he insisted on returning to the Oakland Service Center as a volunteer. 

Tzu Chi volunteer Jennifer Tsai reveals that Chungyu is a role model for all the volunteers, inspiring them with his thoughtfulness as well:

Every Saturday, the Oakland Service Center holds various volunteer activities. Grandpa Feng will bring vegetables he bought and cook up great food at the service center to support the volunteers with nutrient-rich meals. Volunteers especially like to drink the soup made by Grandpa Feng. Everyone agrees that after drinking Grandpa Feng’s soup, they can immediately start working again with lots of energy.

And from where does Chungyu Feng draw his inspiration? Whose example does he follow? Given that he’s been listening to Master Cheng Yen’s Wisdom at Dawn – Teachings on the Lotus Sutra every day since 2014 and studiously taking notes, it’s clear. Currently, in his study, he has accumulated more than 26 handwritten notebooks.

I always feel that I’m very lucky. I’m getting older every day, but I’m not relying on counting the days of my life. Instead, I can listen to Master’s teachings every day and practice them in my daily actions after listening to them, so I feel I’m living a meaningful life.

Chungyu Feng’s notes taken while listening to Master Cheng Yen’s “Wisdom at Dawn – Teachings on the Lotus Sutra” already fill 26 notebooks. Photo/Jennifer Tsai

At the beginning of December 2019, several of Master’s Cheng Yen’s resident nuns from the Jing Si Abode in Hualien, Taiwan, traveled to the United States and came to visit all the volunteers at Tzu Chi USA’s Oakland Service Center. On that day, Chungyu was suffering due to painful foot issues and would have ordinarily rested at home. However, he insisted on coming to the service center to greet the Buddhist masters. 

Using a cane, he arrived in time to meet them, putting aside the discomfort from his physical ailments to participate in the seminar that the nuns had specially prepared to convey Master Cheng Yen’s blessings. Such is his devotion to Buddhism and Master Cheng Yen: Nothing will stand in his way. And in a similar way, nothing – not even a pandemic – will interfere with Tzu Chi Oakland volunteers’ wish to honor this beloved senior volunteer’s birthday.

A Buddhist master from the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan conveys Master Cheng Yen's care and blessings to Chungyu Feng. Photo/Ichin Hsieh

An Online Birthday Bash

In August of 2020, Chungyu Feng was about to celebrate his 92nd birthday. The Oakland volunteers happily organized an online birthday celebration for him in advance of the special day, near the end of July. It took place during the monthly volunteer meeting they hold, a virtual gathering that Chungyu regularly attends.  

It was a heartwarming occasion for all, and even more so since the elder didn’t expect the birthday bash and was truly surprised and deeply moved, expressing his feelings thus:

I like Oakland so much. We’re all very close, like family. It’s difficult to attain a human body, yet I’ve attained it now; it’s difficult to hear of the Buddha’s teachings, yet I’ve heard them now. It’s difficult to find a Buddhist master, yet I’ve met Master Cheng Yen. I’m content and grateful every day!

And, in turn, each Tzu Chi volunteer who has had the opportunity to meet Chungyu Feng, learn his ways, and be inspired by his wisdom and diligence along the Buddhist path, is grateful.

Tzu Chi Oakland volunteers wish Chungyu Feng Happy Birthday and celebrate the occasion during their monthly online meeting. Photo/Courtesy of Tzu Chi USA’s Oakland Service Center
Tzu Chi Oakland volunteers share all the cards they made to honor Chungyu Feng’s birthday online. Photo/Liping Yang

Knowing one’s good fortune cultivates gratitude. Cherishing one’s blessings gives rise to empathy. Engaging in virtuous activities engenders wisdom.

Tzu Chi’s USA’s missions are made possible by volunteers such as Chungyu Feng, who serve with devotion and determination. Your support will only bolster their steadfast efforts to benefit all in need.

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