The Mission of Compassionate Relief

National Headquarters  |  April 1, 2021
Photo: Peter Lin

Teachings by Dharma Master Cheng Yen
Translated by Dharma as Water Development Department, Tzu Chi USA

During the Global Spiritual Retreats, every time when I hear people say, “We are united in our hearts and aspirations, and we all share Master’s mission,” I am always deeply touched, and it leaves a deep impression on me. Tzu Chi volunteers all share the same aspiration, and that aspiration is love. They all share the same great vow, “to deliver countless sentient beings.”

The Buddha’s first realization upon attaining enlightenment in this world was that all sentient beings have buddha nature and are capable of attaining Buddhahood. It is just that countless kalpas ago, we gave rise to a single thought of ignorance, and this slight deviation in direction has led us far off course.

If we are not careful, greed, anger, and ignorance can cause us to turn away from our intrinsic buddha nature, causing us to fall into Five Realms of cyclic existence, which include the heaven realm, human realm, hell realm, hungry ghost realm, and animal realm. How do we come into this life? Before we were born by our parents, where were we? Which of the Five Realms did we come from? These are hard questions to answer. Only the Buddha Dharma can explain these principles to us.

We are just like the poor son in the Lotus Sutra. Though he was born into a wealthy family, a single foolish thought caused him to wander away from home and lose his sense of direction in life.

We are just like that poor son. In the past, we did not know the Buddha Dharma, but now that we have heard the Buddha Dharma, we know that the Buddha can relieve the afflictions in our mind. We realize that our afflictions do not come from other people, but are created by our own discursive thoughts. When we further deepen our understanding, we realize that our afflictions are actually nothing more than our own attachments. If we let go of our attachments and eliminate our afflictions, we will be able to realize our intrinsic nature and return to our original, pure and undefiled state.

“An ignorant thought creates the Three Subtleties.” A single thought of delusion gives rise to the three subtle afflictions of greed, anger, and ignorance. A single discursive thought initiates the Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination in cyclic existence, which constitute the most fundamental starting point for life in the Five Realms. If we do not understand the basis, we will not truly understand what we hear, nor attain realizations. Then, even if we already understand the Buddha Dharma, we will still be subjected to the laws of nature and transmigrate without any control over where we will go.

Nowadays, as I seldom leave the Abode, I rarely have the chance to see you all. Whenever I have a rare chance to see you, I often find myself saying, “I could hardly recognize you!” As time passes, our bodies also change. Some who once stood tall and straight are now bent low. Our hair turns white, and our skin wrinkles; we put on weight, or we grow thin. All of these changes happen imperceptibly and continuously in life.

Over fifty years ago, my master asked me to work “for Buddha’s teachings, for sentient beings.” I interpreted working “for Buddha’s teachings” as spreading the Buddha’s spirit of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to benefit others. To me, it is not about building temples, nor is it about engaging in spiritual practice only to attain liberation for ourselves. Instead, it is practicing the spirit expressed in the saying, “If I do not go to the hell realm to save sentient beings, who will? If I do not go among people to transform them, who will?” The practice of loving-kindness and compassion requires us to let go of our ego to help others succeed. Once we understand the benefits of the Buddha Dharma, it is no use if we only talk about it; we must put the Dharma into action.

I want to help people, but the strength of one individual is never enough, so I proposed the idea of saving fifty cents a day in bamboo banks. As the Chinese saying goes, “The virtuous will never be alone; they will always have companions.” When you have the willingness, others will have it as well. Thus, it is said that three people are a group, and when a group has the will, it can build an entire city. With three people, if each person is responsible for recruiting ten people to adopt bamboo banks, there will already be thirty people helping our cause.

More than fifty years after our humble starting point, Tzu Chi’s charity work has reached over 121 countries. Back in the days when we only did local charity work, our work was rather simple. Later on, once we started doing international disaster relief, things got much more challenging.

The Buddha Dharma teaches us to actualize the Six Paramitas in all actions. The Six Paramitas are giving, precepts, patience, diligence, samadhi, and wisdom. Giving is the easiest for people to practice. To uphold the precepts, we must carefully observe the rules for being a good person. Practicing samadhi means we must focus our thoughts with single-minded concentration.

Bodhisattvas arise to help suffering sentient beings and provide compassionate relief in the world. This is why I called this organization “Tzu Chi,” which literally means “compassion” and “relief.”

Thoroughly realizing the meaning of these two words, “compassion” and “relief,” would take more than one life—it is a homework we will have to keep working on lifetime after lifetime. “Compassionate relief” or “Tzu Chi” means serving others with compassion. For example, although our local volunteers in Africa may be poor in material terms, they are spiritually rich. They will give away the last of their rice to cook congee for the disabled and suffering. Overcoming their own difficulties, they are able to provide relief for the poor. Though they are physically impoverished, their spirits are very rich; this is what it means to be a bodhisattva.

Dr. Karmen Long from the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) became a doctor in the UK, where she enjoyed an affluent life. After hearing that Tzu Chi was going to Mozambique to provide free clinic services, she resigned from her position in the UK and moved to Mozambique.

In Mozambique, all the locals could do for wounded and infected patients was to apply herbs to their wounds. Dr. Long would peel off the herbs layer by layer and carefully treat their wounds. So far, she has lived in Mozambique for over seven months, taking care of the locals.

All of these actions are manifestations of love. Living Bodhisattvas cannot bear for sentient beings to suffer, and they do not ask for peace or happiness for themselves. The path of Tzu Chi has already been extended across the world. Wherever they are, Tzu Chi volunteers all share the same aspiration and the same vow: to walk the Bodhisattva Path together, give unconditionally, and always express our gratitude.

Compiled from Master Cheng Yen’s teachings during the Global Commissioner and Faith Corps Spiritual Retreat on March 7, 2021

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