The Union of Wisdom and Compassion

National Headquarters  |  July 26, 2019
Photo by: Peter Lin

“Wisdom is [knowing] the principles, and compassion is putting them into action. When compassion and wisdom converge, we will develop universal compassion. This is our goal.”

The Buddha revealed that the path to awakening must be rooted in the concurrent cultivation of wisdom (Sanskritprajña) and compassion (Sanskrit: Karuṇā). In some Buddhist teachings, the two have been described as the wings of a bird, each equally indispensable in enabling us to move towards and reach the goal of enlightenment. 

Dharma Master Cheng Yen frames this analogy in more human terms, referring to “awakening wisdom” and “exercising compassion” as our two feet that must work in union for us to advance on the spiritual path. And, that path within the Jing Si Dharma Lineage of Tzu Chi is one founded on putting compassion in action.

In Tzu Chi, every day we walk the path of compassion. Motivated by love for others, we go to them to offer our aid and care. But, how can we help them in order to truly relieve their suffering? Where do we begin and how should we proceed? All this requires wisdom. To help others, we need to bring forth not only compassion but also wisdom.  

Wisdom is like eyes that enable us to see. Wisdom, insight and understanding enable us to determine whether we’re going in the right direction. It is very easy to veer off the right path, and with the slightest change in direction our route will change quite significantly so we’ll end up far off course. 

We need the eyes of wisdom to keep us on track. Along the way, there are also likely to be pitfalls and obstacles. Only with the vision provided by wisdom, insight and understanding can we successfully avoid these. While walking the path of compassion, we therefore need to be very alert.

To carry out the work of helping others, we need to balance wisdom and compassion. Both are important and they’re like our feet – without one or the other, we wouldn’t be able to walk properly. Equipped with the ability to see clearly with the eyes of wisdom and to walk forward thanks to the legs of compassion and wisdom, we can surely reach our destination and accomplish what we set out to do.

What Master Cheng Yen and her first disciples set out to do in 1966, when the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation was established, was guided by a vast aspiration even while the reach of the work was limited at the start.

As with all work, it had to begin somewhere. And so, Tzu Chi was founded in the small rural town of Hualien, in an area that was considered the backwoods. It was a time of general poverty, and we ourselves lived in scarcity. Nevertheless, with what few resources we had, we began the work of giving aid to people in need. 

In that era of great hardship, under conditions of material and financial shortage, the scope of our work was very small. But, that work was the seed. With dedication, we worked, always holding in our hearts the Buddha’s spirit of wisdom and compassion, never questioning whether our work was too little to matter. 

Our aspiration was very big, and what was within our means to do, we did actively, willingly, and with a joyful heart. As people gradually noticed the work we were doing, they were moved to join us in our work. 

Gradually, the work reached beyond Hualien and Taiwan, and by 2010, The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s footprints could be found in over 70 countries, and it was given special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This affirmed that Tzu Chi’s mission embraced the entire world, as per Master Cheng Yen’s aspiration:

This boundarylessness of mission has always been my vision. I’ve always cherished the hope that the spirit of Buddhism can be manifested in every corner of the world. At its heart, Buddhism is concerned with relieving human suffering and awakening in all living beings the innate wisdom and compassion that is their true nature. This potential for wisdom and compassion, when awakened and translated into action, can transform our world – transform the world by transforming the people in it.

Many people have lost sight of life’s true meaning and purpose. In their ignorance, they live selfishly, and their actions harm others, the environment, and in the end, themselves. But if Buddhism’s wisdom and compassion can be manifested in action, this spirit can reach and transform people’s hearts. It is manifested as feeling others’ suffering as one’s very own, and giving of oneself without seeking anything in return, with selfless love that embraces all people as precious human beings, no matter their race, nationality or religion. 

Within every person lies the potential for pure wisdom, love and compassion that is equal to the Buddha’s. Tzu Chi’s work is an effort to awaken this potential in people’s hearts, by bringing people together to do works of love. Through these works, the spirit of wisdom and compassion is given concrete form. The work is a channel that brings this spirit to people, touching their hearts and inspiring in them the same. And, this spirit is practiced and deepened in the hearts of those doing the work.

This is the mission encapsulated by the words “For Buddhism, for all living beings“. This mission has no end, for wherever there are living beings, it continues.

The section in italics contains excerpts of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks in Chinese.

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