Written by Ida Eva Zielinska
On August 12, 2023, a sunny day in the windy city, a Tzu Chi delegation, along with a media team, began arriving in Chicago, Illinois, in advance of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR), an event that would draw together civic, spiritual, and grassroots changemakers and take place from August 14-18. The PoWR, an international NGO affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information, aims to promote and cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities, fostering their engagement with guiding institutions to address critical global issues and achieve a more peaceful,just and sustainable world.
The history of the Parliament of the World’s Religions dates back to its inaugural event in Chicago in 1893. It was formally incorporated 95 years later, in 1988. Since then, the PoWR’s convenings, considered the premier, oldest, largest, and most inclusive gatherings of the global interfaith movement, have occurred eight times, assembling tens of thousands of participants alongside luminaries. The PoWR has met in Chicago (1993), Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), Salt Lake City (2015), Toronto (2018), virtually online (2021), and in 2023, it returns home to Chicago, for its ninth convening.
The History of Tzu Chi at the Parliament of the World’s Religions
The Tzu Chi first participated in the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions convening in Salt Lake City. When the PoWR met again in 2018, in Toronto, Canada, where some 8,000 people from 80 countries gathered, Tzu Chi’s delegation included volunteers from the United States and Canada, and two Dharma Masters from the Jing Si Abode, in Hualien, Taiwan, for whom this was the first time they had ventured outside the monastery to present on an international stage. Dharma Master Cheng Yen appeared during the opening ceremony through a pre-recorded video entitled “Love Beyond Religion,” conveying her message to the audience..
Three years later, in 2021, the PoWR convened again, but this time virtually online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the Opening Plenary, Dharma Master Cheng Yen delivered a heartfelt message, urging everyone to respond to the global health crisis however they could. Beyond emphasizing the importance of providing personal protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers, considering the urgent need at that time, she also stressed the significance of embracing long-term lifestyle changes that promote sustainability and peace. Examples of such changes included adopting a vegetarian diet, striving to cultivate mindfulness, and calming our desirous and turbulent minds. According to Master Cheng Yen, these practices can prevent harmful actions toward the world and others.
Tzu Chi’s Presence in 2023
Dharma Master Cheng Yen is among the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ featured luminaries in 2023, a diverse cohort of faith, spiritual, civic, and governmental leaders answering the call to conscience. The size of the Tzu Chi delegation has also increased dramatically since 2018, the last PoWR in-person gathering, with 105 attendees participating in various roles this year.
A group began arriving from Taiwan on August 12, including three Dharma Masters who reside at the Jing Si Abode alongside Master Cheng Yen, and Dr. Rey-Sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation. Joining them from Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters in California were Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux and Tzu Chi Global Partnership Affairs Department members. Also flying in was Ting Fan, Director of the Culture and Communications Department, and a media production team from New York, Los Angeles, and Austin.
Everyone landing in Chicago on the 12th was excited and hit the ground running, eager to get preparations underway, and plenty awaited. Offering additional support, a group of students from Tzu Chi University in Taiwan would land the next day. And locally, Chong Hsieh, Executive Director of the Tzu Chi USA’s Midwest Region Office, and over 50 Tzu Chi volunteers from Chicago would also be participating, offering an array of assistance.
That evening, the Tzu Chi USA Midwest Region Office volunteers eagerly awaited the arrival of the three Dharma Masters from Taiwan, who the Executive Director met at the airport. Finally, a car pulled up, coming directly from the Chicago airport, and Shih De Yuan, Shih De Cheng, and Shih De Huang stepped out to an emotional welcome.
The Dharma Masters addressed everyone in the Region Office’s main hall, expressing their aspirations for the upcoming week of interfaith dialogue. While they felt immediately at home, visiting what was akin to another petal of the global Tzu Chi family lotus, the hosts felt blessed by their presence as representatives of Master Cheng Yen, their revered and beloved teacher.
“Occasionally, we have our [Dharma] Masters come over here from Taiwan, come to Chicago, but this time, all three of our masters came here just to attend the PoWR. They are in Chicago for the first time,” Hsieh shared. While some Tzu Chi volunteers travel back and forth to Taiwan and have a chance to meet Master Cheng Yen’s monastic disciples, others have not had that opportunity, so they were excited to meet them in person.
On the Sunday before the Parliament of the World’s Religions opened, the Tzu Chi team set up three booths at the PoWR venue at McCormick Place Lakeside Center, part of the McCormick Place campus, the largest convention center in North America, located on Chicago’s lakefront.
One large booth in the general exhibition zone introduces Dharma Master Cheng Yen; the Tzu Chi School of Buddhism; the Buddha’s life and the sacred Buddhist sites related to it;, the Buddha’s original intent and teachings, and how Tzu Chi’s missions and humanitarian efforts embody them; the Tzu Chi bamboo bank spirit; and, Tzu Chi’s interfaith work.
Another booth in the Climate Village showcases Tzu Chi’s disaster relief which responds to catastrophes related to the continual progression of climate change and promotes environmental awareness. It features products created from recycled Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, using DA.AI Technology (DA.AI meaning Great Love in Chinese), which, inspired by Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings to “coexist with the Earth,” vows to “Turn trash into gold, gold into love, love into a purifying stream, and surround the globe with it.”
The third booth, intended for children, features banners illustrating two themes, “Water Is Life” and “I Love Vegetables.” The two, in combination, encourage respect, appreciation, and conservation of water conservation, and vegetarianism, advocating animal rights and compassion for all sentient beings.
A booth for youngsters shares the importance of environmental protection and compassion for all life. Photo/Dan Ferrara
It was a flurry of activity, from bringing all the exhibition elements on site to unpacking and installing. As the Tzu Chi team worked, other faith groups and organizations were also setting up, an air of excited anticipation mounting as everyone knew that the enormous exhibition hall space would be open to thousands of people tomorrow.
However, the Chicago volunteers’ preparations for the PoWR had begun a few months before, and they would be fundamental support for the whole delegation’s stay and Tzu Chi’s programs. They were thrilled as this was their first time participating in an international interfaith event, and they had made a devoted commitment, as Hsieh explained: “All our volunteers, they all have a full-time job. So we all took a vacation.” Sue Huey Shann, the Chicago logistics coordinator, elaborated more:
During the five-day conference itself, volunteers would be stationed at the different booths, sharing information with visitors who might not have heard about Tzu Chi before. “Our primary focus will definitely be sharing a lot of Tzu Chi Buddhism values and promoting Tzu Chi to many, many people who will be here. Hopefully, we’ll see close to 10,000 visitors this year,” Shann said.
An Impressive Tzu Chi Program Lay Ahead
Tzu Chi’s presence at the PoWR in 2023 would consist of 16 parallel sessions or workshops. Concurrently, the volunteer team would present fashion shows of eco-friendly clothing and a sign language performance. The Dharma Masters would participate in the program as well; they would be part of a Tzu Chi prayer session in the Climate Assembly, lead a Buddha Bathing Ceremony in the PoWR Buddhist prayer room, and host a session of reading to children at Tzu Chi’s Children’s booth. The program and activities offer opportunities to share in the interfaith discourse, present Master Cheng Yen’s Buddhist perspectives, and introduce Tzu Chi’s spirit and philosophy.
Shih De Yuan, who attended the PoWR in 2018, outlined the importance of Tzu Chi’s presence: “We need to have some connection or some contact with other people so that people can know us. Because sometimes, there are so many religions and faiths in this world that people may not be able to understand what Tzu Chi has done. When we come out, they can have more direct contact with us.”
Shih De Yuan stressed the unique value of altruistic action in Tzu Chi’s Buddhist practice approach, putting compassion into action to relieve suffering. “Sometimes we may know a lot of philosophy, but if we don’t put it into action, we may not realize it or learn from it; wisdom will not come out from there.” She also highlighted the need for interfaith dialogue and collaboration, which the PoWR would fulfill.
Shih De Yuan also expressed Master Cheng Yen’s guidance to the monastics representing her. “She is very humble. But of course, at this moment, she would also like us, as monastics, to go out to share with others. She knows this is a must for us because if we don’t speak out, then people may not know. So, the only way is to speak out to others so that people can know what Tzu Chi is. She told me that even if one person is listening to what you say, you must also tell them. ‘Even one person, you don’t care about how many people are listening.’ So this is how she teaches us as well.”
However, the 2023 PoWR is expecting to receive around 10,000 attendees from nearly 100 countries, representing over 200 different faiths, so many would be listening to the Dharma Masters and Tzu Chi delegation. Stay tuned for detailed coverage in our next blog.