Universal Love, For Some? – A Closer Look at Tzu Chi

This is an article about the non-governmental, charitable Buddhist Tzu Chi organization in Taiwan. All pictures were taken by the author.

(Tzu Chi's Da-Ai building in Taipei, on the left, juxtaposed with the recycling facilities, on the right.)

(Tzu Chi’s Da-Ai building in Taipei, on the left, juxtaposed with the recycling facilities, on the right.)


I suppose it is not an exaggeration to claim that Tzu Chi 慈濟 (full name: Ciji gongde hui 慈濟功德會, Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation) is one of the most important cultural institutions in contemporary Taiwanese society. Its influence is so pervasive that friends of mine have stated that Tzu Chi is a window into Taiwanese society. For reasons I will explain below, I think this is an overstatement. In short, I don’t think that Tzu Chi is in any way as diverse as Taiwanese society. But the claim shows what social impact is attributed to the group, and I do concur that the organization is indeed attempting to mold Taiwanese society after its own (moral) vision. In this article, however, I am only concerned with a number of questions that popped into my head when I visited Tzu Chi’s Da-ai Television station in August 2015. These questions draw on many fascinating previous accounts of Tzu Chi’s practices and ideas, especially those described by Julia Huang Chien-yu, Professor of Anthropology at Tsinghua University in Hsinchu. For such is the power of Tzu Chi – I had studied it before ever setting foot into one of its buildings.

Tzu Chi was formally founded as a charitable organization by the nun Chengyen 證言 in 1966 in the city of Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast.[1] Several mythic stories surround the early days of the new foundation, and they are reiterated to this day. Some deal with the harsh conditions under which Chengyen and her early followers established Tzu Chi. They did not have any money but vowed to save half of what they would otherwise spend on food in order to use it to help more needy people. Chengyen herself is said to have lived in a simple wooden hut. This hut itself has become a relic; a model has been set up in the confines of Da-Ai station and is shown to all visitors and volunteers. These stories serve to authenticate the humble origins and superior moral qualities of Chengyen and Tzu Chi.

(Replica of the small hut that Chengyen supposedly lived in before she founded Tzu Chi, at Da-Ai premises)

(Replica of the small hut that Chengyen supposedly lived in before she founded Tzu Chi, at Da-Ai premises)

It took until the lifting of martial law in 1987 for Tzu Chi to grow significantly. After being donated land in Hualien, Chengyen was able to realize her dream of building a hospital in the area. Charity and health care continue to be Tzu Chi’s mainstays until today. In the 1990s and 2000s, the organization grew exponentially and even expanded overseas. The phenomenon of the group’s rapid growth has been explained in relation to Taiwan’s rapid economic growth since the 1970s. According to this interpretation, participating in Tzu Chi was a channel for Taiwan’s newly emerging middle classes to justify their sudden and seemingly arbitrary wealth in a now socially very mobile society (Jones 2009, Modernization and Traditionalism in Buddhist Almsgiving: The Case of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu-chi Association in Taiwan;[2] Madsen 2007, Democracy’s Dharma, ch. 2).[3]

Tzu Chi counts its members in terms of regular donators and claims to have four million of such members in Taiwan alone. (Our volunteer guide said the group had 10 million members worldwide.) These numbers would make it the biggest non-governmental organization in Taiwan. Consequently, Tzu Chi exerts far-reaching social and political influence, and despite its precept to abstain from “politics,” it should also be regarded as a political player/stakeholder. All of its charitable work is based on the service of thousands of volunteers who do not receive any money in return. Moreover, only donators can become volunteers.

Tzu Chi is a fascinating object of study, partly because it really divides supporters from opponents in Taiwanese society. Here, I will focus on a few issues that came to mind when visiting the Da-Ai premises, fusing this with some prior knowledge of the organization. I will discuss Tzu Chi’s environmental efforts, the effect of the founder Chengyen’s charisma, volunteerism, and the organization’s impact on democratic politics in Taiwan.

Tzu Chi is love, and love is universal, so is Tzu Chi absolute love?

Despite its official registration as a charity and its emphasis on medicine and relief work, Tzu Chi is clearly a religious organization. In its all-pervading presence, the strong religious identity taken on by Tzu Chi followers even has “cult-like” qualities. Volunteers and other members strongly identify as “people of Tzu Chi” (Ciji ren 慈濟人). Becoming a Tzu Chi person is connected with an experience of conversion, usually from a somewhat troubled biographical background (alcohol abuse, violence, but also lavish spending) that is transcended and transformed by listening to the venerable master Chengyen and changing one’s lifestyle. Emotional outbursts are very common for Tzu Chi members when they narrate this alleged turnover in lifestyle (Huang 2003, Weeping in a Taiwanese Buddhist Charismatic Movement).[4] In this, they resemble the tendencies of “born again” Christians. Accounts of this transformative process imply that Tzu Chi members are a bunch of what can be called “betterpeople.” They purport to be gentle, kind, helpful, non-aggressive, abstinent, happy all the time, and unsullied by the dirty world of politics. Perhaps the experience of this-worldly “rebirth” described here can even be interpreted symbolically as a secularized way of achieving Buddhahood in this world, thereby transcending the cycle of births. Tzu Chi is part of a reform movement in Buddhism to establish a “Buddhism in this world” or in the “human realm” (Renjian fojiao 人間佛教, from here on: Renjian Buddhism) that foregoes many more traditional interpretations of Buddhist doctrine and seeks to anchor it in a concentration on individuals’ this-worldly existence. For many, being part of Tzu Chi is a mission and purpose in life.

In our Q&A session with a few Tzu Chi representatives, they stressed the inclusiveness of their organization. Their volunteers are comprised of all layers of society, men and women, old and young, rich and poor. But a demographic analysis shows that Tzu Chi volunteers have since its inception been predominantly female and above the age of 40. It can be speculated that for many such women, especially the housewives of working men, participation in Tzu Chi fills an existential gap in their lives: The children have left home, money is not a concern, and there is lots of spare time. Historically, working for good (Buddhist) causes has been a staple of religiosity in Taiwan. In pre-Japanese times, there were so-called “vegetarian cults” (Zhaijiao 齋教, for an analysis see Broy 2012, Secret Societies, Buddhist Fundamentalists, or Popular Religious Movements? Aspects of Zhaijiao in Taiwan),[5] which were also dominated by female members. During the secularizing Japanese colonial and KMT dictatorial times, expressions of religious devotion were more heavily regulated. Since democratization, these religious energies for “doing good” have largely been channeled into Tzu Chi.

The Limits of Charisma and Volunteerism

The motivation for donating so much time, energy, and money to Tzu Chi is almost exclusively founded on the personal charisma of its founding figure. The nun Chengyen is Tzu Chi. Many Tzu Chi people report personal experiences of transformation after or while they listen to her speak. Quite often, her lectures move people to tears. On the premises of Da-Ai TV station, her portrait can be seen everywhere (see pictures). Her writings are Tzu Chi’s most important publications. Chengyen herself is the glue that keeps Tzu Chi together.



(Portraits and statue of Chengyen in Da-Ai TV Station)

(Portraits and statue of Chengyen in Da-Ai TV Station)

The founding figure’s pervasiveness and the entire organization’s dependence on her personal charisma raise a serious question though: What happens after Chengyen is gone? In light of her advanced age – she will be 78 this year – this is a rather pressing matter. Can her charisma be institutionalized in some way, and if so, how? If we follow Max Weber’s conceptualizations, her personal charisma will have to be institutionalized in some form to ensure the organization’s continued survival. I discussed this issue with some Taiwanese visitors to Da-Ai station, and they suspected that she may be deified in some form after her death. Perhaps a look at one of the other Humanistic Buddhist groups in Taiwan can provide an alternative path into the future: All of these organizations face the same problem of the approaching mortality of their charismatic founders. In one case, Dharma Drum Mountain (Fagushan 法鼓山), this has already been the case. Its founder, Shengyen 聖言, died in 2009. Shortly before his death, he apparently established his own line of dharma transmission, i.e., a new school of Buddhism (zong 宗). However, this fact is kept under the radar by the organization. Shengyen is still the very visible face of the Dharma Drum brand, in Taiwan as well as overseas. The reason for this may be his still recent demise; the monk is still very much a living memory for most of his followers. If at all, significant changes should not be expected before the next generation of adherents.

It will be interesting to see what impact Chengyen’s death will have on the resolution of Tzu Chi’s army of volunteers. As with the everyday identification of Tzu Chi with Chengyen, so too rests the volunteers’ motivation on the stream of symbolic capital that is delivered by the nun. Once this stream of lectures and aphorisms is broken, there may be less incentive for people to work for an expanding religious empire for free, as this is what they are essentially doing. At the moment, the volunteers are the motor for the organization’s growth. As Taiwan’s economy is slowing and society is pervaded by a general perception of economic crisis, the number of people who afford the luxury of donating money to good causes can be expected to drop. I expect some tough challenges for Tzu Chi on the road ahead. Due to good political contacts and lots of assets, Tzu Chi is well-equipped to deal with these issues, however.

A more theoretical issue relates to the organizational structure of Tzu Chi. What does employing an army of volunteers imply in the first place? As Tzu Chi succinctly resembles the structure of economic enterprises, what does it mean for the organization to rely on volunteers, i.e., the cheapest and most dedicated labor possible? Is this what sets it apart as a religious organization? Is volunteerism more prevalent in religion? This is a hard question to answer, but I suspect that volunteerism is not a religious peculiarity. When I did my internship at the Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation, I was amazed by how this secular organization relied on large numbers of volunteering students and other young citizens for its everyday business. With only four paid staff members, it entirely relied on regularly mobilizing a pool of more than 200 volunteers. Volunteerism is thus not necessarily indicative of a religious predisposition, but rather a high commitment for a cause or worldview, and this is widely prevalent in Taiwan. In my opinion, it may actually be something of a Taiwanese specialty.[6]

Can Environmentalism and Humanism Go Together?

Tzu Chi started off with a charity work and medical care agenda, and that is what the organization is most readily identified with today. In recent years, however, care for the environment has become an important additional issue for the organization. So important that it has even raised international media attention.[7] Next to Da-Ai TV station in Taipei, there is a big waste recycling facility operated by Tzu Chi and its volunteer workers. This recycling plant was the first part of our guided tour on the compound, and the one we spent most of our time on. Clearly, it is of major interest to the Tzu Chi foundation.

I have no idea how Tzu Chi is collecting all the trash that they are separating, cleaning, and assorting in this place. Contrasted with the super modern and clean TV station building, the waste compound obviously looked quite dirty. (Also, as a side note, it is situated next to the kitchen.) In addition to assorting trash, the facility serves educational purposes. There are lots of information pamphlets and signs, and visiting groups like ours are guided through the area. Here are a few impressions:




With respect to this emphasis on not only cleaning up, but also on educating the population so they produce less waste, it is astonishing to note that the Tzu Chi organization has invoked hefty criticisms by environmental groups. For more than a decade, Tzu Chi faced protests over a big area of land it obtained (for 1.3 billion NT$) for building a hospital in Neihu in northwest Taipei. Apparently, the land is part of a conservation area for animals and plants. Tzu Chi’s construction project incited opposition from several environmental NGOs[8] and was finally halted by the organization in March 2015. In any event, this incident exemplifies a more general humanistic tendency in Tzu Chi Buddhism, according to which the well-being of humans always comes first.

In some remarks made by Chengyen, one sees a very Confucian, traditional Chinese cosmology at work: For instance, she posits that natural disasters are directly related to human behavior, as they will continue to exist as long as there is disunity and disorder in human society (see photo). Of course, natural catastrophes are the reason for Tzu Chi’s activism. Thus, this humanistic statement also shows how relief work is really an effort at transforming nature and culture.

(A humanistic statement saying that when there is order in society, natural disasters will come to an end as well.)

(A humanistic statement saying that when there is order in society, natural disasters will come to an end as well.)

What I find somewhat disconcerting about Tzu Chi is its tenacious immunity to criticism. It was telling to hear how the Tzu Chi representatives spoke about dissenting voices in Taiwan as “not having understood” (不懂) Tzu Chi. It was never “they have a different opinion” or “they criticize us,” but always “what they don’t understand (yet) about Tzu Chi.” As if they are simply not enlightened enough to see the truth in Tzu Chi. In this regard, Tzu Chi actually resembles Taiwan’s current government in how the latter has treated the students who protested its policies in the Legislative Yuan last year, and in the Ministry of Education this year, in disturbingly ignorant and arrogant ways. Of course, formally or informally institutionalized, steep hierarchies may be seen as a direct heritage of Confucian visions of society. Notwithstanding the apparent equality among a sea of volunteers who dress and speak the same way, Tzu Chi also establishes social hierarchies in its own ways. Members who donate more than one million NT$, receive “special treatment” – they do not need to dress in Tzu Chi’s volunteer uniform and receive special ID cards as “Honorary Board Members.”[9]

Tzu Chi is further criticized for being run by a very small circle of leaders. Da-Ai TV station is something like the commercial branch of Tzu Chi, and it is run by Chengyen’s brother, Wang Duan-Zheng 王端正. In addition, Tzu Chi owns large plots of land and puts them to commercial uses, thus increasing its financial prowess. The products it is selling are sometimes criticized for being overpriced and “branded” in a way unbecoming for a religious charity. However, there is virtually no criticism directed at Chengyen herself, who resembles more an infallible holy figure (cf. Huang 2006, Taiwanese “Grassroots Globalization”: The Cultural Politics of a Global Buddhist Non-Governmental Organization in Taiwan).[10]

Is Tzu Chi a Stabilizing Force or an Obstacle for Democracy in Taiwan?

The proliferation of Confucian values brings us to the next issue I would like to discuss, that is Tzu Chi’s impact on Taiwanese democracy. First of all, an important aspect of Confucianism is its emphasis on harmony within society and its avoidance of conflict. I remember vividly a much-criticized passage from Chengyen’s lectures, in which she advised wives whose husbands had been cheating on them to look within themselves and change behaviors that might have “induced” the husband to seek an extra-marital affair in the first place, thus giving the wayward spouse an incentive to “come back.” Again, the values behind this kind of advice are strongly influenced by a patriarchal ideology that is out of touch with contemporary developments in Taiwanese society. Despite its more “progressive” stance on environmental issues, for example, Tzu Chi in other realms is a very conservative presence.

This is also true for its attitude towards the government, and politics more generally. In Tzu Chi’s view, politics is a dirty “business” that Tzu Chi members are not sullying themselves with. One of the ten official precepts established by Chengyen prohibits them from running for office or participating in demonstrations and rallies (see photo). The precepts (similar to Christian commandments) are more than just lip service – they were hung very prominently even in the recycling facility, next to Chengyen’s portrait. While other Renjian Buddhist groups’ – such as Foguangshan’s – political position has been described as one of “remonstrance” (Laliberté 2004, The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan 1989-2003: 109-111), Tzu Chi officially proclaims an apolitical stance. Chengyen advocates spiritual reform as the solution to social issues – an end for which in my opinion Tzu Chi ultimately, if however subtly and informally, has to engage the government on political issues.

(The ten precepts of Tzu Chi's, incl. abstinence from politics at no. 10.)

(The ten precepts of Tzu Chi’s, incl. abstinence from politics at no. 10.)

To be effective in its welfare efforts, Tzu Chi’s thus has to contradict its official position regarding (non-)participation in politics. The problem brought about by the ambiguity of the group’s apolitical precepts and its actual practice is that any existing political influence exerted by Tzu Chi or its members has to come in an indirect manner, especially in the guise of using personal relations to influence political decisions. This renders such forms of lobbying nontransparent and unaccountable. Tzu Chi has a history of good informal relations with important politicians in power; for instance, the land and funds for its first hospital were obtained by the support and donations of central figures in the government. Other plots of land were donated by big corporations or wealthy individuals, such as that in Neihu discussed above which was controversial because the donor was identified by critics as an honorary director at Tzu Chi.[11] Another issue is Tzu Chi’s development of textbooks and lobbying for their adoption in secular schools in Taiwan, which stirred up a controversy in the 1990s.

Indeed, reliance on nontransparent, informal links is exactly what Tzu Chi has been criticizing about the business of politics in the first place. Furthermore, a position of remonstrance and assisting the government with taking over charitable responsibilities actually helps stabilize the regime in two ways: It alleviates social tensions that arise when people’s needs are not met, and it allows the government to concentrate its efforts and spending on other areas. In fact, the combination of refraining from political opposition and engaging in social welfare activity would help stabilize any regime in power, irrespective of its origin in popular election or not.

Tzu Chi (as well as the other schools of Renjian Buddhism in Taiwan) has consequently not been a factor in the island nation’s democratization process. Even its promotion of volunteerism is not really an expression of strengthening civil society, as I suspect this kind of volunteer activism is aimed at identifying the individual volunteer with the “firm” as a whole. Consequently, volunteers are taught to not just dress, but also think alike, and ultimately represent the interests of the firm as their own, eventually contributing to Tzu Chi’s power as an interested stakeholder.

I do not think that Tzu Chi is necessarily anti-democratic, but certain values – a tendency to demand uniformity among its members, discouraging criticism or participation in political activities, introspection on spiritual issues, a general incentive to accept authority, burgeoning expansion into China – make it harder for Tzu Chi as an organization and its members as political subjects to align with liberal democracy as conceptualized in the West. And democracy is what is more and more being enacted by Taiwan’s activist young generation, as exemplified by the Sunflower Movement and the recent occupation of the Ministry of Education! In fact, if Tzu Chi is to avoid an ideological conflict with the mainstream of the younger generations – and its own ideological foundations suggest this tendency – the organization’s political positions may change in the future. Since it is still intent on growing, I believe Tzu Chi has an interest in listening to strong criticisms from Taiwanese society, some of which may slowly influence the group’s future disposition. For example, Tzu Chi dropped its plans for developing on the controversial plot of land in Neihu in March 2015 after protracted opposition from civil society groups.[12]

Taiwanese Buddhism or Chinese Buddhism?

An important factor in Tzu Chi’s readiness to embrace change is its role in China. Democratic practice in Taiwan is strongly related to the problem of national identification. One could almost claim that Taiwanese identity was first crafted as a civic nationalism in the image of a democratic polity, in opposition to Chinese authoritarianism. Since about 2000, however, civic Taiwanese nationalism has been further undergirded with cultural and ethnic components. The result is that the majority of young Taiwanese today would not want to unify with China even if China were democratic. Taiwan is the geographic, political, and cultural homeland for these people.

How does Tzu Chi relate to this nation-building project? Some have suggested that Tzu Chi may express more of a Taiwan-centric attitude, especially when compared to other Renjian Buddhist groups such as Foguangshan 佛光山 (“Buddha’s Light Mountain”) or Fagushan 法鼓山 (“Dharma Drum Mountain”). The most apparent reason for this would be Chengyen’s origins as a native Taiwanese (Benshengren 本省人) and her repeated use of the Taiwanese language in her lectures (Weller 1999, Alternate Civilities: 93-102). On the other hand, Tzu Chi has been expanding into China in an accelerated fashion. As the only Taiwanese-Buddhist group, Tzu Chi is registered legally in China (as a charity rather than a religious organization). Its most visible and dramatic media performance came in 2008, when scores of Tzu Chi members were one of the quickest and most effective charitable actors in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Ever since, the organization has been concentrating more efforts on its activity in China. This is also a reason for much pride within the organization: In the conference room in Da-Ai TV, there was a huge map of China showcasing all the activities in which Tzu Chi is engaged (see photo). Moreover, Chengyen herself has professed a kind of local Chinese identity (Huang 2009, Charisma and Compassion: 192-193).

(Map at Da-Ai station depicting Tzu Chi's activities in China.)

(Map at Da-Ai station depicting Tzu Chi’s activities in China.)

For one, this range of activities and interests suggests to me that Tzu Chi can hardly afford to appear supportive toward the idea of a separate Taiwanese identity and destiny. But even more, Tzu Chi’s interests in China may actually put it in a position of conflict with the rapidly growing national consciousness in Taiwan. At some point in the future, the Tzu Chi authorities will have to decide if they want to brand their organization as one representing Taiwanese Buddhism or Chinese Buddhism – that is, of course, assuming that Taiwan will continue its independent existence as a democratic nation. In the sense that Tzu Chi by way of its millions of supporters is an important social grouping in Taiwanese society, however, it is also representative of that society and central to the formation of its cultural identity (Huang 2009, Charisma and Compassion, Ch. 6). In fact, the ambivalence between a very Chinese-centric past and concurrent emancipations from Chinese symbolisms, which characterizes the ongoing formation of Taiwanese nationalism, reflects in the fluidity and inconsistence of Chinese and Taiwanese aspects in the Tzu Chi organization.

As a conclusion to the above, Tzu Chi in its very own, specific ways is of course contributing to contemporary Taiwanese democracy. As democratic practice is inevitably shaped by its cultural environs and local historic background, it can be expected to find different forms of expression in different contexts. As an active stakeholder in the Taiwanese democratic environment, Tzu Chi without doubt is one of the more important factors to shape political culture in this context. On the one hand, I am not convinced that the organization’s conservative value system is in line with the existential woes of a younger generation of Taiwanese. On the other hand, I believe Tzu Chi’s drive toward environmental efforts has the potential to proliferate awareness of this issue and thereby contribute to the sustainability of Taiwanese society in ways beyond a mere focus on charitable relief work.


[1] For a short history of Tzu Chi, cf. http://www.tzuchi.org.sg/eng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=597&Itemid=493.

[2] http://www.globalbuddhism.org/10/jones09-2.pdf.

[3] http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520252288.

[4] http://www.jstor.org/stable/3773810?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

[5] http://nikolas-broy.de/publications.html.

[6] The number of volunteers has been increasing greatly in recent years, cf. http://taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=43968&CtNode=92&htx_TRCategory=&mp=4.

[7] http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-taiwan-recycling-20141117-story.html.

[8] http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2013/01/24/2003553308. This article features a video with optional English subtitles: http://www.civilmedia.tw/archives/27956.

[9] http://www.tzuchi.org.sg/~tzuchior/eng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1479:inspiring-the-rich-to-give-&catid=121:2013-news&Itemid=595.

[10] http://ics.um.edu.my/images/ics/workingpaper/2006-1.pdf.

[11] http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2015/03/07/2003612985.

[12] http://www.taiwannews.com.tw/etn/news_content.php?id=2704222.


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