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Interview with Key Contributors

Interview with Her Rey Sheng, Spokesman for Tzu Chi Foundation

慈濟基金會發言人何日生指出,慈濟在921大地震發生三分鐘後就成立第一 個服務中心,凌晨三點多已在全台灣成立三十多個聯絡中心,隨後則以〔六 安〕概念幫助人與大地恢復元氣。

Tzu Chi Set Up Service Center 3 Minutes after 921 Earthquake

Tzu Chi Foundation set up the first service center three minutes after the 921 Earthquake occurred at about 1:47 a.m., and by 3 a.m. it had 30 liaison centers in place. One Tzu Chi brother arrived at a disaster scene next door 45 seconds after the powerful quake. Even though his own house was damaged and rescuers had not yet arrived, he immediately began to try to rescue those who needed help.

It is easy for Tzu Chi to mobilize its followers because we have organized working groups in each community. Each grassroots unit is composed of about 20 members who donate money regularly and work as volunteers to assist those in need in the neighborhood. They are mobilized whenever there is some mishap. If the situation warrants it, more working groups in the county or city are mobilized to provide greater assistance.

When asked how Tzu Chi mobilizes its followers, Venerable Master Cheng Yen said there is no so-called mobilization since Tzu Chi volunteers never cease to serve their communities. They put into practice the spirit of devotion, great love and religious passion by taking action to help others, she added. We find joy in loving people in a practical way. Heightened personal feelings, joy and moral values will inspire a person to devote his or her efforts to the good of the society. That's what the master calls “great unconditional love.”

Venerable Master Cheng Yen (left) presents quake survivors with daily necessities at the inaugural ceremony of two villages built by Tzu Chi Foundation in Nantou County. (Oct. 31, 1999 CNA)

We began our rescue and relief work after the 921 earthquake by providing vital supplies such as drinking water, then we distributed hot meals, basic necessities and NT$5,000-NT$10,000 in cash to quake survivors. Even soldiers, reporters and rescue workers in the disaster areas were served hot meals by the Tzu Chi Foundation. We also visited each family in the affected areas to see what else we could do to help them.

Tzu Chi volunteers usually receive training at Tzu Chi chapters or liaison centers to help them understand the wisdom of caring for others. We believe there are three realms of peace -- peace of body, mind and living.

In our efforts to create peace of body we provide free medical care to people whose health have been affected by lack of food or clean drinking water.

In addressing peace of mind, we try to bring comfort to those who have suffered psychological damage. One of the topics in the training program is helping survivors overcome fear of big earthquakes and deal with the loss of loved ones in disasters.

Peace of living covers matters such as housing, employment, guidance and long-term companionship.

Our volunteers have the training and experience to take care of vulnerable families in normal times, and this is a resource that can put to use in the aftermath of a disaster.

Tzu Chi members not only bring comfort to the living, but also take good care of the dead, .which brings great comfort to the families of the deceased. After the 921 quake, we had in place dozens of freezers and more than 1,000 body bags. But our volunteers and the soldiers on duty had to move the bodies once an hour because there were not enough freezers. Tzu Chi sisters had to comfort those soldiers who were scared to handle dead bodies.

Life is volatile and human lives are fragile. I recall visiting a high school student who could not even cry at the loss of his father, mother, and younger brother and sister because he was in such shock. Tzu Chi volunteers held him constantly and talked to him, hoping to let him feel that he still had a family.

At times the Tzu Chi volunteers themselves suffered emotional trauma. For instance, when an Alishan train overturned, a young woman traveling with her family lost her husband, elder son and mother-in-law. After offering a sacrifice to the deceased, one of our Tzu Chi sisters put her arms around the woman and her surviving younger son as they were being transported to hospital in a van. The Tzu Chi sister, holding the mother and son, had to put her foot on the body of the mother-in-law to prevent it from rolling around as the van traveled downhill to the hospital. The Tzu Chi volunteer kept apologizing to the deceased woman and she vomited at intervals because she had motion sickness. After that incident, the Tzu Chi sister was very depressed.

In the aftermath of the quake, our volunteers began to meet every evening to discuss and share their feelings about the day's work. Senior volunteers would share their thoughts with the junior ones about why certain things happen in life. They said that the major disaster had occurred because life is ever-changing. The 921 earthquake wreaked havoc because of the damage that has been done to the Earth, they said.

At those sessions, we gained spiritual strength by sharing our thoughts, praying, reciting Buddhist scriptures and singing religious songs. Pray frees our minds and we support each other by sharing our energy at such gatherings. These are very important rituals that strengthen us psychologically when we are engaged in rescue work.

Relief Kits Help Quake Victims Survive

In its distribution of relief supplies, Tzu Chi provided each family from the disaster areas with items such as blankets, eco-friendly bowls and chopsticks, as well as drinking water and hot meals. We gave each family member a relief kit that contained toothpaste, toothbrush, towel, soap and other basic necessities. After the recent flooding on Aug. 8, we also distributed some 60,000 similar relief kits.

We believe that giving is good medicine for grief. After the Aceh earthquake in 2004, a Tzu Chi volunteer met an Indonesian man who had lost his whole family and was so stricken by grief he had not eaten for a week. The Tzu Chi volunteer kept him company for a few days, singing to him and eventually managing to make him smile and eat. A week later, at Tzu Chi's invitation, the Indonesian man became a volunteer. We organized a gathering every night to pray for blessings, in the hope that the Aceh quake survivors would find loving support and relief from their grief.

After helping to restore peace of mind among the survivors of Taiwan's 921 Earthquake, we strove to give them peace of living. Venerable Master Cheng Yen came up with the idea of providing them with prefabricated housing units. Therefore, Tzu Chi built prefabs with toilet facilities for quake survivors and made the surroundings pleasing to the eye with landscape gardening. One mother and her three daughters who had lost their home in the quake wept with joy when they moved into one of the units.

Venerable Master Cheng Yen (third left) and Taichung County Magistrate Liao Youn-lai (second left) break the ground for building a new school financed by Tzu Chi Foundation. (June 3, 2006 CNA)

Workers are busy with the assembly of prefabricated housing units donated by Tzu Chi Foundation for displaced 921 Earthquake survivors in Taichung City. (Oct. 28, 1999 CNA)

Spirit of Tzu Chi -- Just Do It

A multitude of words cannot replace real action. Venerable Master Cheng Yen always says, “Just do it” and “We have to do the right thing.”

You will not experience the joy of unconditional giving unless you take action. I always ask our volunteers to join the emergency rescue efforts after a disaster, and many disaster survivors have become Tzu Chi volunteers because of our practice of showing love to others.

The average intellectual tends to focus on rational thinking and critical argument, instead of practical action. But emotion is the real driving force behind human actions. The conflict between thought and emotion has always been part of the human condition.

We just want people to understand that it is a good thing to help others. People who come to Tzu Chi may be selfish at first, but after being with us for some time, they learn to give unconditionally. That is a kind of education achieved through exposure to a certain the environment. The greatest thing about Venerable Master Cheng Yen is that she leads by the example of her own actions. The master asks her disciples to do good and to nurture within themselves the institution of love and adherence to the rules. That's why Tzu Chi continues to maintain discipline, even as it gains more and more followers.

Before the recent flooding in August, Tzu Chi had set up disaster prevention centers throughout Taiwan. When the flooding started on Aug. 7, Tzu Chi began serving hot meals in the disaster areas. We developed an instant rice product for flood victims and provided them with blankets. After the storm, we mobilized 150,000 followers to help clean up the disaster areas and distributed relief supplies in cooperation with Taiwan High Speed Rail, RT-Mart and Wei Chuan Corp. This was a demonstration of the altruism of the society, including the business sector.

Since the floods occurred, we have been working in line with our concept of “six peaces.”

A Tzu Chi volunteer raises relief funds in Taipei for 921 Earthquake victims. (Sept. 24, 1999 CNA)

First, we provide hot meal, blankets and free medical service to survivors for peace of body. Second, we organize events to pray for blessings, keep survivors company and raise relief funds in 51 countries to help restore the flood victims’ peace of mind. Even some poor countries such as Zimbabwe and Haiti have made donations because we had been assisting them for a long time. Third, we provide tuition assistance, uniforms and school bags so that students in the disaster areas can continue going to school. Fourth, while we built prefabs for 921 quake survivors, this time we’re constructing permanent houses of about 30 pings so that flood victims can feel settled and have peace of mind. Fifth, we're helping aborigines to find employment and asking the government to provide them with arable land so that they can have a livelihood and not have to worry. Sixth, we hope to return the damaged forests to their original condition because the aborigines have their homes and roots there.

Helping to Rehabilitate People and Earth

Venerable Master Cheng Yen believes that the forests are also in need of rehabilitation and hopes that they will not be damaged further by any individual or ethnic group. The recent flooding demonstrated again that global climate change has led to abnormal weather patterns which, in turn, have caused unusual disasters. We have to take this opportunity to examine and plan for the protection of Taiwan's forests, which have seen too much man-made destruction.

As part of Tzu Chi's goal of achieving the “six peaces,” we help children in disaster areas to return to school as soon as possible. After the 921 Earthquake, Tzu Chi raised some NT$10 billion for its “Project Hope” under which it reconstructed 51 schools. On the projects, we used steel reinforced concrete, which is usually used in the construction of buildings taller than 20 stories, because Venerable Master Cheng Yen insisted that hospitals and schools should be built so that they cannot collapse.

In our construction of permanent houses for displaced typhoon victims this year, we employed the latest steel products that are usually used for building hospitals and skyscrapers in the United States. We also used fire-proof sheathing and installed solar panels on the houses. Landscaping, complete with greenery and ecological ponds, will be finished in a few months.

Meanwhile, we have invited experts and entrepreneurs to set up humanitarian assistance committees and study innovative ways to provide food, clothing, housing and transportation for disaster survivors. For example, we have been recycling polyethylene terephthalate bottles to make blankets. These professionals will gain satisfaction from showing love to others by giving unconditionally, even though they will receive no pay for serving on the committees.

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