The Message in Tzu Chi’s Sign Language Performance Tradition

National Headquarters  | April 30, 2021
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The sign language team gathers to practice, their performances promoting harmonious social unity during the pandemic and always. Photo/Michael Tseng

Written by Shuli Lo
Translated by Dian Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

On March 20, Tzu Chi USA held a virtual fundraising gala for its community medical service programs. Volunteers from the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters sign language team practiced intensively in earnest for two months, preparing to perform for the gala audience. Finally, on February 7, a video team pre-recorded the piece they had been rehearsing. The team sincerely hoped that when people would see their elegant and moving sign language performance during the online event, they would feel inspired by its message.

Bringing the Dharma Closer To Heart

Tzu Chi’s sign language tradition originated in the early days when Dharma Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi volunteers encountered challenges communicating with deaf and hard of hearing individuals while on their charitable missions. Master Cheng Yen encouraged the volunteers to learn sign language then express certain texts that way to communicate effectively in a universal manner that transcends any particular spoken language. 

Since then, we can see Tzu Chi volunteers present Dharma scriptures and other meaningful songs using sign language. They perform at large and small gatherings, during charity care activities, international medical outreach events, disaster relief distributions, and other occasions.

Jackson Chen, CEO of Tzu Chi USA (fourth left), thanks the sign language team for their March 20 fundraising gala performance, pre-recorded on February 7. Photo/Shuli Lo

Solemn and beautiful sign language eliminates language barriers and helps bring Tzu Chi volunteers and the communities they serve worldwide closer together, deepening the connection. Performances with sign language convey love and care while also spreading the teachings of the Buddha, which is a central component of all Tzu Chi activities, in tandem with their charitable nature.

The performances draw attention to universal principles and experiences in life, and even the volunteers who will present the message in signs gain wisdom along the way. First, they need to memorize the lyrics. Then, while learning and practicing the text in sign language, they are unknowingly increasing their understanding of Buddhist scriptures and the Dharma, as it gradually penetrates to the depth of their heart over time. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters sign language team attend online classes once a week. Everyone logs in to continue practicing sign language and mastering each performance while also tapping into the transcendent spirit of this form of expression, which rises above cultural and language differences. 

However, they also had to go beyond this routine when Tzu Chi USA held several online events such as the Annual Charity Concert and Year-End Blessing Ceremony, for which rehearsals in person became necessary. Keeping each other’s safety close to heart, the members of the sign language team were cautious. They took preventive actions by wearing masks and maintaining social distance at all times during their group practice sessions. 

Their diligence and devotion to practice alongside the compassion and perseverance they demonstrate during these trying times bore fruit when their pre-recorded performances played before the audiences at the virtual events, bringing inspiration in many ways.

A Selfless and Dedicated Team

Volunteer Martin Kuo is diligent in practicing every sign language movement. Photo/Shuli Lo

Martin Kuo, a volunteer responsible for international disaster relief in Central and South America, witnessed the spirit of unconditional love and beauty within Tzu Chi’s humanistic culture expressed by the sign language team in 2019. The team performed at the Grand Opening Ceremony for La Parroquia San Andrés church in Canoa, which Tzu Chi rebuilt following its destruction by the earthquake that shook the coast of Ecuador in 2016. 

The performance moved Martin profoundly and led him to accept the invitation from Rosi Ueng, the sign language teacher, to join the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters sign language team. During the 2020 pandemic, Martin has been practicing sign language at home every day, immersed in the beautiful melodies of Tzu Chi songs and their artistic expression of Dharma scriptures, deeply appreciative of the humanistic culture and spirit they embody. The sign language team must cooperate flawlessly to present the essence of selflessness through movement, which brought him an insight:

When practicing as a team, everyone cooperates with a pious heart: Including their position leading from the front and back to left and right, and the beauty of all the movements complement each other. That’s why every movement must be precise, and now I can better understand the reason behind every movement. The selfless teachings from Master Cheng Yen are truly expressed through these performances. [Being on] the sign language team is beautiful, full of touching moments, and [everyone is] full of joy in their hearts. Together, showing honor and the sense of mission with the team will also keep moving [audiences] forever.” The sign language team is a beautiful team, full of touching moments and full of joy in their hearts. Together, the showing of honor and the sense of mission with the team will also keep moving [people] forever.

Martin Kuo, Tzu Chi Volunteer & Sign Language Team Member
Tzu Chi’s sign language performances take place at many large-scale events. Photo/Jennifer Chien

Roger Huang, a volunteer who joined Tzu Chi 25 years ago, has always been a member of the sign language team because of his love for this mode of communication and the teachings the performances convey. “The lyrics from Tzu Chi’s songs contain Dharma scriptures, which are truly touching. I have always used these to share Dharma with people around me,” he explains.

We must learn the Buddha’s Dharma to understand Dharma scriptures and support sentient beings. The sign language I have learned can also [help one] interact with [disaster] survivors during disaster relief and medical outreach events.

Roger Huang, Tzu Chi Volunteer & Sign Language Team Member

In the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters sign language team, Tzu Chi volunteer Mark Ostrander tends to stand out as the only member of non-Asian ancestry. He also doesn’t speak or understand Chinese, whereas most team members do, but that hardly impedes his full participation. 

Mark lives in the suburbs of San Diego, California, yet joins the rehearsals at the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters campus in San Dimas without complaint, even though it totals nearly four hours of driving to complete the round trip. Moreover, he is always the first to arrive for rehearsal. Mark was a firefighter before he retired and had injured his hand when on duty in the past. Despite the limitations of hand movement resulting from his accident, the sign language team encouraged Mark to join. 

Accepting their invitation, although he was not familiar with sign language and did not understand the Chinese lyrics, Mark carefully memorized every line with help from the others. He would then take time to practice at home daily for at least two hours, learning the rhythm of the music and making sure that his gestures are correct to ensure that the team can achieve precise unison in every movement.

Mark Ostrander, a Tzu Chi volunteer and member of the Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters sign language team, is always the first person to arrive at practice. Photo/Shuli Lo

Lo and behold, being part of the sign language team led to unexpected blessings for Mark. “In the past, I played guitar and banjo, but I couldn’t play anymore after the injury of my hand. Unexpectedly, after practicing sign language, my injured hand slowly recovered and can now move freely. And practicing Tzu Chi’s sign language also taught me some Chinese,” he recounts.

Beyond even that, the repeated exposure to Buddhist teachings also led to Mark making changes in his personal life, changes of far-reaching impact:

Over the years, I have participated in many large-scale performances. When preparing for the musical ‘Sutra of Profound Gratitude Toward Parents,’ I reconsidered the relationship with my parents. My mother has passed away, so I increased the time I spent with my father and cherished the experience of getting along with my father. All the changes were inspired and learned through the sign language practice, lyrics, and Dharma scriptures.

Mark Ostrander, Tzu Chi Volunteer & Sign Language Team Member

The silent transmission of the Dharma with graceful and gentle gestures that overcome language barriers and bridge the gap between people can indeed have a profound ripple effect. 

Next time you notice a sign language performance taking place during one of Tzu Chi’s activities here in the United States or internationally, please take to heart the intent behind it. With each gesture performed in unison and with an open heart, the sign language performers strive to promote compassion towards the suffering of others, harmony between all peoples, and unconditional love in the spirit of one family in this world. 

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