Yu-Shuang Yao

Ci Ji (Tzu Chi)


1937:  The founder of Ci Ji (Tzu Chi) was born as Wang Jinyun in Qinshui, Taizhong, Taiwan.

1938:  Jinyun was given away to the family of her uncle, who was childless at that time.

1952:  When Jinyun’s mother was ill, Jinyun vowed to become a vegetarian and received Bodhisattva Guan Yin’s revelation.

1960:  Jinyun’s father died, and she blamed herself for mismanaging his medical aid.\

1960:  Jinyun was attracted to the local Buddhist temple, Ciyun Si, where she met Ven. Xiudao, and began to contemplate becoming a Buddhist nun.

1961:  Jinyun escaped from home with Xiudao and went to Hualian, in the Eastern part of Taiwan, where they stayed together for two years. Xiucan was decided upon as her dharma name.

1963:  To validate her self-ordination, Xiucan attended the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China (i.e. of Taiwan) (BAROC) annual inauguration. There she met the master Yinshun, who agreed to be her tonsure master and gave her a new dharma-name, Zhengyan (Chengyen).

1966:  Ciji Gong der hui (The Buddhist Compassion and Merit Foundation) was founded with five nuns and thirty housewives.

1987:  The membership title of Honorary Patron (榮譽董事róngyù dŏngshì) was introduced

1989:  The first chapter of the Buddhist CiJi Foundation, U.S.A., known as Ci Ji USA, was established in Alhambra, California.

1990:  The CiJi men’s association, called the Regiment of the Faith Corps (慈誠隊cí-cén duì), was formally founded.

2008:  CiJi was granted official Non-profit Organization (NPO) status by the People‘s Republic of China, as the first (overseas) NPO China.


Fojao Ciji Gongde Hiì 佛教慈濟功德會 (The Buddhist Compassion Merit Society (hereafter, Ci Ji慈濟 or, Tzu Chi)) was founded in 1966 in the remote coastal town of Hualian 花蓮 in Eastern Taiwan. The founder is a Buddhist nun known as Dharma Master Zhengyan (common alternative spelling: Chengyen). [Image at right]

Over the past forty years, Ci Ji has developed from a medical charity to become the largest lay Buddhist organisation in Taiwan, and it claims to have established branches in seventy-four countries with 10.000,000 members (huì-yuan, donor) worldwide. A major recent focus of the movement is environmental conservation, which has led to the building about 5,000 recycling centres in Taiwan and abroad.

Zhengyan’s birth name was Wang Jinyun 王錦雲, the youngest of three daughters. She was adopted by a married aunt, who at the time was childless but later had four children of her own. Jinyun left school after elementary school to help her adoptive father with his business, which was running folk theatres.

In 1952, her adoptive mother became very ill and Jinyun prayed to Guānyīn to restore her health. She offered to give up twelve years of her life and to become a vegetarian if her mother’s illness was cured. For three nights she had a recurring dream, in which her mother lay on a bamboo pallet inside a small Buddhist temple. Jinyun was about to prepare some medicine when Guānyīn came and gave her medicine, which she then gave to her mother. Jinyun’s adoptive mother later recovered completely, and Jinyun kept her vow to become a Buddhist vegetarian (Jones 1996:364). This story is important for two reasons. First, Guānyīn became Cí Jì’s central icon. Second, the dream later guided Zhengyan to found a temple in Hualian, the Pumensi(普明寺), which she had identified in the dream. The spiritual headquarters of the Movement, [Image at right] the “Pure Abode of Still Thoughts” (靜思精舍Jingsi Jingshe), is about thirty meters from that temple.

The event that caused Jinyun to leave home took place in 1960. Jinyun’s adoptive father had a stroke at his office. She called a car to take him home, but he died on arrival, and she was later told that he would have survived had she not moved him. Jinyun was shocked and, wishing to find out where her adoptive father had gone, she visited a local spiritual medium. She was told that her father was in Wăngsĭchéng (枉死城). In traditional belief, this is the place for those who have died untimely deaths. Jinyun was obviously very upset by this explanation, and it was then that she picked up a Buddhist pamphlet in which she read: “Whatever is subject to birth is also subject to annihilation.” There was also an account of the merit to be gained by performing rites of repentance, and Jinyun was inspired to hold the ritual for her father at the local Buddhist temple, Ciyun Si. Jinyun was attracted to Buddhism and started to visit the local temple regularly. However, she was not inspired by the traditionalist attitude among Buddhist nuns, who advocated domestic roles for women. She thought that family life should not be the only goal for women, but that like men they should be given the opportunity to serve the needs of the wider population. She secretly planned to leave home and become a Buddhist nun. In 1960, she first escaped to a small nunnery in Taibei (臺北), but three days later she was found by her adoptive mother and taken back home.

Jinyun returned home but continued visiting the local temple and became friendly with the nuns, especially with Ven. Xiudao 修道(1919-2016, who not only became a good friend and companion, but also provided religious inspiration and stimulation. Xiudao had been trained in Japan, and she disagreed with some of the practices in Taiwanese Buddhist temples, which relied for their upkeep on revenue from services rendered. She claimed that there was indiscipline within temple communities, which she felt projected a poor image and led to a loss of dignity for Buddhism. She demanded that Taiwanese Buddhist temples restore the order of 百丈清規 (Bai-zhang Qing-guei), the classic Chinese Buddhist monastic order formed by the Chan 禅 Buddhist master Baizhang Huaihai 百丈懷海 (720–814). One of the most important principles of the order was yīrì búzòo yīrì bùshí (一日不做一日不食a day without work is a day without food). Xiudao’s ideas were absorbed by Jinyun, who vowed that if she ever became a nun, she would change the situation and raise the dignity of Buddhist priests. She also vowed that she would live without accepting support from the laity, following the discipline that a day without work is a day without food.

Jinyun finally left home and ran away with Xiudao; subsequently she shaved herself and became a Buddhist nun, taking the name Xiucan. However, as her ordination was considered to have been private and informal, she now had to seek formal recognition from the Buddhist authority, the BAROC, to obtain formal clerical status. To validate her self-ordination she decided to seek formal clerical status by attending the 1963 BAROC annual inauguration that was to take place in Linji Si 臨濟寺 in Taibei. Though she was initially refused registration without a tonsure-master, she happened to meet Ven. Yìnshun印順法師 (1906-2005), a highly respected Buddhist master and influential scholar in Taiwan, who agreed to be her tonsure-master and gave Jinyun the new dharma-name, Zhengyan 證嚴. He urged: “At all times do everything for Buddhism, everything for sentient beings” (時時刻刻為佛教為眾生shíshí kèkè wèi fōjičào, wèi zhòngshēng).

Two incidents are said to have provided the impetus for Zhengyan to establish a Buddhist charity. In the mid-1960s, three Catholic nuns (the Order of Les Soeurs de St. Paul de Chartre) came to visit her, hoping to convert her to Catholicism. Although it seems that the nuns gave up trying to proselytise, a debate ensued during which they told Zhengyan that most Buddhist disciples only seek to prepare for life after death and do nothing to deal with the problems of society. They claimed that there were no Buddhists who built schools and hospitals as Christians did. When Zhengyan had a second look into Buddhist history, she found mention of Guānyīn, whose thousand hands and thousand eyes enabled her to save common people from suffering, and she became convinced that Buddhists should perform charitable acts just like Catholics.

Another reason that led Zhengyan to found a medical charity was the poor health care system in Taiwan at that time. In 1966, she went to visit one of her friends in hospital. As she was leaving, she saw a pool of blood on the floor and was told that it came from a poor peasant woman who had miscarried. The pregnant woman’s family had carried her for about eight hours to reach the hospital, but she had been refused treatment because the family did not have the money to pay the deposit of 8,000 NT dollars (approximately 200 euros). This occurred before the introduction of a social welfare system, when the sick had to pay for their own medical treatment (National Health Insurance was introduced in Taiwan in the late 1990s). It was common practice for hospitals to ask for a deposit before starting treatment, but this practice was particularly harsh for those living in the poorer Eastern areas of Taiwan, where Zhengyan was based. Zhengyan asserted that medical care should not be withheld for lack of money, and that it was heartless to permit such a mistaken practice.

On March 24, 1966 (lunar) the Buddhist Compassion Merit Society (Fōjiào Cíjì Gōngdé Huì) was formally founded by Zhengyan with thirty lay devotees (俗家弟子) and a few nuns. The aim was to help the poor and to show that Buddhists could do social work. The first mission was to raise money to pay for medical treatment for those who could not afford it, with both disciples and lay members following the same principle. The disciples lived on the proceeds of their work making baby shoes, and each disciple was required to make one extra pair of baby shoes a day. It was calculated that since there were six of them and each pair of shoes sold for NT$ 4 (now 0.1 Euro, but the value was almost fifty years ago!), they could make an extra NT$ 24 (0.8 euros) each day and a total of NT$ 8,640 (234 euros) a year, which would enable the movement to pay for one patient’s medical deposit. Most of the lay devotees were housewives, and Zhengyan gave each of them a bamboo jar and asked them to put five cents (0.025 euros) into it before they went out for their daily food shopping. The motto ‘five cents could save people’s lives五毛錢也可以救人 (wŭmáoqián yěkěyĭ jiùrén’) quickly spread in the markets of Hualian. When a devotee asked why it was not possible to make the donation once a month rather than to save such a small amount every day, Zhengyan responded that the importance of the practice was that it was a constant reminder of the Buddha’s compassion.

In addition, the laity had to take a vow to give voluntary help to the poor and the sick. The help was both spiritual and material; it included cleaning the homes of the poor and taking them to the doctor. Zhengyan referred to these lay devotees as wěi-yuán (委員commissioners), as they worked as voluntary missionaries of the movement (Jones 1996:337, and Cíjì Niánjiàn 慈濟年鑑 (Ci Ji’s Year Book, 1992-1996:39). The devotees were motivated by the project and became very enthusiastic in soliciting donations and spreading the mission of Cí Jì. In this way they built up the reputation of Zhengyan, spreading the news: ‘Our Master is building a hospital in Hualian’ (我們的師父要在花蓮 蓋醫院wŏmėn shīfù yàozài Hualian gài yīyuàn).

Becoming more broadly concerned with the socio-cultural development of Taiwan, in the 1980s Zhengyan enlarged the movement’s goals: the new project was to educate the rich (教富 jiào-fù). Economic growth had brought new social problems, she said; society was sick and was losing its traditional values; people’s minds had become polluted by materialism. In order for Ci Ji to help the rich spiritually as well as to save the poor physically, a new membership category was introduced: the Honorary Patron (榮譽董事 róngyù dŏngshì). This membership is given to those whose donations to the movement reach 1,000,000 NT dollars (approximately twenty-seven thousand euros). In 1987, as the number of members increased, the Honorary Patrons formed their own association within Cí Jì. Following the inclusion of the rich, Ci Ji began to recruit from a wider range of people. The men’s association, called the Regiment of the Faith Corps (慈誠隊cí-cén duì ), was founded in May 1990.

The huge growth in the 1990s has enabled Ci Ji to expand its mission from charity to include education, medicine and culture. The hospital project created much excitement and fundraising kept increasing. When the hospital was completed in 1986, Zhengyan was confident enough to ask for further donations to expand it. The Ci Ji hospital thus became the biggest hospital in the East of Taiwan, with 900 beds. Zhengyan believed that colleges with religious ethics would produce better doctors and nurses, Ci Ji started to raise funds to build nursing and medical colleges. The Nursing College 慈濟護理專科學校, Ciji Huli Zhuānkē Xuéxiào, was completed in 1989, and the Medical College慈濟醫學院, Cíjì YīxuéYuàn, began to recruit students in 1994. Today, Ci Ji runs five hospitals, one university in Taiwan, and branches in seventy-four countries, including the U.S. and China. The scope of Cí Jì’s charity work also expanded after this period and became more professional. Ci Ji has undertaken relief work abroad, including a controversial relief project to China in 1991, as well as forming joint co-operation projects. In the eye of the public, Ci Ji is seen as a public institution, as it works for the sake of general social good.

Ci Ji is skilled at recruiting influential media personnel, such as Gāo Xìn-jiāng (高信疆 1944-2009), one of the most renowned characters in the Taiwanese media. Gāo widely promoted the Master Zhengyan in the press and also helped to edit her first book, compiled from her speeches. This was Still Thoughts, which has become one of the most important writings of Zhengyan. After it established two TV cable channels, the Dà Ài TV大愛電視, the donations kept coming, and the projects expanded and increased. For example, the movement founded a bone marrow bank in 1993. Up to 2011, some three hundred thousand people registered their blood samples with the Movement. Another example is donating one’s body for medical purposes, the “Silent Mentors.”


Zhengyan declares that her tradition follows the modern version of Chinese Buddhism, “Humanistic Buddhism” 人間佛教 Zhénjiān Fójiào), which began in the early republican period and was carried by many refugee Buddhist masters to Taiwan when the communists took power in China. Most Buddhist groups in Taiwan claim to be part of this Zhénjiān Fójiào movement. Cí Jì has taken the teachings and practices even further. As a lay Buddhist movement, Cí Jì has made it clear, though Zhengyan herself may not be aware of this or does not want it to be so, that her doctrines and precepts are in fact very secular, and can in some ways be seen to be closer to Japanese Buddhism than to its Chinese counterpart.

Zhengyan was self-taught, and her two volumes called Still Thoughts:, One and Two (靜思語 Jìnsī Yŭ, henceforth TST I, TST II), were best sellers in Taiwan for months, and have also been used by hundreds of primary and secondary teachers as a textbook for teaching ethics; thus she is understood as the Mother Theresa of Taiwan.

The Buddhist concept of karma (yè 業) is fundamental to the teaching of Zhengyan. She maintains that one’s present condition, good or bad, is the result of karma. Karma is accumulated over a number of lifetimes, building up propensities which largely shape one’s present character and situations. For example, Zhengyan writes, “We often encounter two types of people, those who are kind and nice toward others, and those who are bossy and cruel toward others. People of the former group, however, sometimes have tougher lives than the latter. Why? It is because of the karmic decisions made in their previous lives (TSTII:233).” According to Zhengyan, the effect of karma also accounts for people’s present wealth, health, and even interpersonal relationships; for instance, a husband’s extramarital affair is considered to be the result of the wife’s bad karma. In a conversation, Zhengyan said to a female disciple: “Don’t call it an affair. You should view it as an opportunity. It is part of your karma. You should accept it bravely. You should be thankful to your husband for giving you this opportunity [to experience the hardship of life]” (TSTII:164-65).

Zhengyan says that though some results of karma cannot be avoided, they can be mitigated. If, for example, one is destined to have an accident and might be killed or assaulted, one way to make the outcome less severe is through moral improvement. She said: “You must cultivate virtue in order to avert disaster…. You can increase abundance of good fortune for yourself by showing a gentle and loving attitude towards others” (TSTII:234-37).

Zhengyan also emphasises the importance of collective karma (共業 gòngyè). She asserts, “Now that we are born into this world, we cannot be separated from collective karma and group affinity. We cannot leave the group to hide from the world in our practice. True liberation is sought and achieved both in our affinity with others and in the midst of affection” (TSTI:8). According to Zhèng Yán, society is, therefore, an indispensable part of an individual’s progress toward enlightenment. She continues: “… if we escape from reality and hide from people and events, we will have difficulty gaining wisdom” (TSTI:25).

Zhengyan suggests that altruistic behaviour is another solution to modify karma. According to her, the Buddha introduced his religion to the world for the sake of saving other living beings (TSTII: 206). She asserts that altruism is the prerequisite for becoming a Buddhist. The core teaching of Ci Ji is: xiánrù shànmén zàirù fómén (先入善門再入佛門 to pass through the gateway of kindness first, before entering the gateway of Buddhism).

Altruism not only eliminates bad karma but also creates good karma. Zhengyan says, “How can one be reborn into the Western World of Perfect Happiness (the Buddhist concept of the heavenly realm which is taught to exist far above this world)? You need to have a strong resolution to help others, cultivate kindness, and good fortune in order to reach that goal. You also need to put your good ideas into practice by taking action…. We cannot reach our destination without practising good deeds” (TSTII:258).

Zhngyan emphasises that altruism takes effect only when put into action (做 zuò). It is useless to have good intentions and yet never put them into practice. Fú (福merit, fortune, or blessing) is another important teaching of hers. Although fú is rather similar to karma, as both are inherited, fú is a more materialistic term; for instance, one can say that some people are rich whereas others are poor because the rich have fú and the poor do not. Master Zhengyan warns the rich not to enjoy their fú frivolously, otherwise their fortune will be gone. To elaborate her perception of fú, Zhengyan urges people to zhīfú (知福realise fú), to xífú (惜福 appreciate fú), and to zhàofú (造福create fú). Zhengyan’s teaching aims to encourage people to cultivate self-awareness and to realise that, if one strives hard, one will obtain abundant merit not only in the afterlife but also in this one. That is her doctrine of zhífú (植福 planting the seeds of good fortune). Thus, “the poor have a will not to be poor, while the wealthy desire to be wealthier” (TSTI:74).

One way to zhífú is through maintaining the harmony of society. The following story has been constantly repeated by Zhengyan:

One multi-billionaire lived only to his fifties. While he was alive, he was very stingy to himself as well to others. He never married because he thought that a wife and children were too costly, and he once took his siblings to court over a minor property dispute. When he became sick, instead of seeing doctors in a hospital, he went to see a pharmacist. He died wearing only his underwear, as he did not have time to put any clothes on. Finally, his fortune went to his siblings, who then ceaselessly fought over the inheritance. Master Zhengyan often comments on such people: this rich man was a miserable person as he did not use his gift of wealth (福因 fúyin) to contribute to society. If he had done so, he would have received abundant merit (功德 gōngdé) when he died (TSTII:258).

Cí Jì has developed a unique approach to salvation, which is called xíngjīng 行經 (acting according to Buddhist teachings). It leads the laity to accumulate merit and aim to become a bodhisattva. Guānyīn is the figure from whom Zhengyan draws her prestige and spiritual power. In Mahāyāna Buddhism Guānyīn is the embodiment of compassion (cíbēi 慈悲). Zhengyan teaches that Guānyīn has an intimate relationship with the living world. According to Buddhist tradition, Guānyīn has cultivated a strong capacity for compassion; she listens to the laments of living creatures and relieves them from their sufferings. Guānyīn’s generous un-celestial character is why Zhengyan feels so inspired by her. Zhengyan has vowed to apply the compassionate spirit of Guānyīn to this world.

The compassion ideology of Guānyīn forms the central doctrine of Zhengyan; it is the xíng púsà dào 行菩薩道 (walking on the path of a bodhisattva). Each person must cultivate their inherent compassionate nature and their ability to help the needy. Zhengyan regards bùshī 布施 (alms giving) as the most meritorious act: “Money is not an intrinsic part of ourselves; so, naturally, there must be times when we gain or lose it. Thus there is no need to be proud of one’s wealth or to be mournful over one’s poverty” (TSTI:59). Zhengyan also stresses that at the time of death no one can take any wealth with them. Zhengyan says that one’s donation to the movement should be a quarter of one’s income; parents, family and children’s education should each get a quarter too” (TSTI:59). To give one’s love (ài 愛) is also very meritorious.

Zhengyan argues that illness is the major cause of poverty and that a hospital is the best place to witness the impermanence and misery of the human condition. The Buddha is revered as the Great Medicine King (Dà yīwáng 大醫王). A huge fresco on the main wall of the lobby of Cí Jì main Hospital in Hualian shows the Buddha at a patient’s bed, engaged in healing him. Therefore, Zhengyan urges her followers to work as volunteers in Cí Jì’s hospitals (TSTII:206).

The basic precepts which Cí Jì’s members have to observe are called the Ten Commandments: (1) not to kill any sentient being不殺生; (2) not to steal不偷盜; (3) not to engage in wanton sexual conduct不邪淫; (4) not to speak wrongly不妄語; (5) not to drink alcohol不飲酒; (6) not to smoke or chew betel nut不抽煙吸毒嚼檳榔; (7) not to gamble, which includes playing the lottery and involvement in the stock market不賭博投機取巧; (8) to follow parents’ wishes and be grateful to them孝順父母調和聲色; (9) not to break the traffic rules遵守交通規則; (10) not to participate in political demonstrations or anti-government activities不參加政治活動示威遊行. Rules number 6, 9 and 10 are there to serve the needs of modern Taiwanese society and to make the members more cultivated and politically detached. The other rules are the basic precepts of traditional Buddhism; for instance, the commandment against wanton sexual conduct aims to reduce the sexual promiscuity that is rampant among modern Taiwanese men.

Zhengyan preaches that the Buddha’s teachings are not only about how to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death, but also about how to tolerate others and avoid disputes. Traditional Buddhism advocates an ideology of detachment from worldly values, including human relationships. In contrast, Zhengyan’s teachings lay great emphasis on worldly involvement, especially on improving relationships with others.

Zhengyan sees death as “reincarnation” and calls it wăngshēng 往生 (rebirth). When death occurs, the spirit will have to leave the body and go to either hell (地獄) or heaven (天堂). Within forty-nine days of death, the spirit (魂hún) will re-enter the cycle of reincarnation (輪迴lúnhuí) according to the accumulated karma). A person with good karma (善業) will be reborn quickly whereas one with bad karma (惡業) takes longer. After this, the relationship between the deceased and his or her living kin will end. It is consequently impossible to maintain any bond between the deceased and his or her surviving relatives, and they no longer share a common collective karma after the forty-nine-day period. In contrast to traditional norms, in Zhengyan’s view, ancestors will not have any influence on their living descendants beyond this period.

In Cí Jì’s teachings, there is no mention of transferring merit to dead ancestors or past relatives. Replying to a devotee’s question about performing memorial rites for a dead ancestor, Zhengyan says, “You should sincerely do something for the dead. Then both the doer and the dead will be blessed: the doer will obtain a reward for the meritorious deed, while the deceased will contribute to the world by motivating you to become a Buddhist” (TSTI:267-68). It may thus be seen that the emphasis is on work for the living, not for deceased ancestors.

The teachings about the fleeting relationship between the living and the deceased amount to asserting that everyone’s salvation depends on the performance of unselfish acts for others. These are Buddhist concepts rather than Chinese traditional teachings. Cí Jì views even the relationship between children and parents as temporary.

As a result, Ci Ji members carry individual responsibility for their behaviour, which is prescribed primarily in ethical, not in ritual terms. They therefore do not want any kind of formalism which marks off their religious practice from the rest of their daily lives, and it is essential that they fully understand the meaning of what their leaders and other fellow-religionists are communicating to them. 

The Buddhists who entered Taiwan from the mainland showed little interest in or concern for the local culture of Taiwan. The main language of Taiwan is a form of Chinese called Hokkien (Fúlǎohuà 福佬話), which is not mutually intelligible with Chinese dialects on the mainland. That Buddhism from the continent continued to use Mandarin Chinese for its liturgies and sermons was typical of its general stance. Zhengyan uses only Hokkien, making Ci Ji a distinctively Taiwanese movement, which attracts those with local cultural or political sympathies. One of the “Ten Commandments” (十誡 Shí Jiē) that the movement’s members have to obey is not to engage in any public form of politics. Hence, the movement completely eschews overt political involvement; however, its conspicuously Taiwanese character must have helped its early growth.


The Abode (靜思精舍jìngshī jīnshè) is used to denote the movement’s headquarters in Hualian, [Image at right] which are based where the Master has lived ever since she founded it. The Abode does not conduct any ceremonies for traditional Buddhist holidays; nevertheless, the Buddha’s birthday (佛誕日fōdànzì) has become a big showcase for Ci Ji. The Abode only holds a morning service, and a chanting once a month at which the Healing Sutra (藥師經Yàoshī Jīn ) is recited; this is normally performed by the ordained disciples only. Compared with other Buddhist monasteries and temples in Taiwan, religious services in the Abode are relatively rare and unimportant to religious life.

Zăokè 早課 (the morning service) follows a standard form common to most Buddhist temples in Taiwan. What is significant here is that it is conducted by Zhengyan. In most temples of Taiwan the head will not normally preside over this kind of activity. The morning service begins at 4 AM and finishes at 6 AM. The chanting and talks are not conducted in Mandarin, the official language of Taiwan, but in Hokkien, the dialect spoken by the majority of Taiwanese.

Ordained members (出家眾) living in the Abode take the leading role in the beginning of the service. It starts with chanting the Lotus Sūtra (miàofǎ liánhuájīng 妙法蓮華經) for one hour. The congregation sits cross-legged on the floor; sometimes they have to stand up or kneel down, according to the instructions on the monitors above their heads. After chanting, there is a twenty-minute session of meditation (靜坐); people are asked to close their eyes. Meanwhile all the lights and sounds are switched off, turning the place completely quiet and dark. Towards the end of the meditation a diffuse single bright light is lit at the front and a moving object approaches from the rear. It is Zhengyan, who prostrates herself towards the altar (佛壇). After finishing, she turns to face the audience and sits on a cushion. Then she will wake up the assembly with her crisp voice amplified through a microphone. Under hazy lighting, Zhengyan begins her morning lecture (開示) of thirty minutes.

This lecture generally consists of an emotional appeal to the audience, in which she takes examples of suffering victims, for example in earthquakes. It normally starts with general subjects such as the weather and leads on to an account of disasters that have occurred recently elsewhere, and other current affairs. Zhengyan will use these events to reinforce the aims and purpose of the movement and her mission, urging her followers “that the present moment is the opportunity to accumulate merit for the future…What you will achieve in the future is based on the endeavours you make at this very moment” (TSTII:179). The people suffering from these disasters are shown with great sympathy and often she becomes very emotional and her voice trembles. This often has an impact on the audience, many of whom begin to weep. The talk will conclude with acknowledging the participants (gănēn 感恩) in the morning service: “Without your being so merciful and supportive, it is impossible to have the movement today…Let’s be positive as another new day is just beginning!”

As befits a charity, entry into the movement is normally by making regular donations and the most basic duty of members is to raise funds. In the past four decades, Ci Ji has established itself nationally and internationally, as a lay movement of more than eighty thousand full-time voluntary members, about two- thirds of them women, who have persuaded ten million donors to support its campaigns by making monthly cash donations. Ci Ji prides itself on its financial transparency.

In Chinese, the characters 慈 and 濟 literally mean ‘compassion’ and ‘relief’, respectively, and refer to the salient characteristics of the bodhisattva Guānyīn 觀音. Zhengyan has been a lifelong devotee of Guānyīn, and her followers regard her as an embodiment of those traits. Cí Jì’s salient features are:

  • an overwhelming emphasis on ethics, as against meditation, liturgy, philosophy and gnosis; this goes with a stress on this-worldly affairs. Thus members see altruism as essential.
  • it is a lay movement. Zhengyan has herself been ordained as a Buddhist nun, albeit in unorthodox fashion. She has ordained some nuns, but there are no monks, and the position of nuns other than Zhengyan herself is informal; the movement’s ethos is egalitarian.

Cí Jì’s fundamental policy is that members have to be volunteers (志工zhìgōng) and to solicit money donations to fund its projects. This policy requires every Ci Ji member, particularly the “commissioners” (wĕiyuăn), to recruit at least thirty ‘donors’ (huìyuán) to make monthly donations to the movement. Zhengyan emphasises the learning of Buddhism through practical work, and she avoids the scholarly or intellectual approach. This is one of her teachings about zòu zhōng xué 做中學 (learning while doing), because through doing quánmù 勸募 (persuading people to donate).

Despite the impersonal nature of an individual’s relationship with their local Ci Ji branch, the members nevertheless show a very high rate of attendance at branch meetings and activities, more than forty percent of them coming at least four times a month and another one-fifth attending the branch twice a week. Mostly they come to hand in the funds they have collected. The most spectacular feature of Cí Jì’s Táiběi branch is the vast number of computers and people employed in keeping accurate records of each member’s accumulated donations. In turn, every full member of Cí Jì, in particular the commissioner has an office record book to log the donations they have raised for the movement and give receipts to the donors. There is a clear ritual symbolism in the Ci Ji members keeping records of their work.


 Dharma Master Zhengyan still heads the movement and is its sole undisputed authority. In contrast to the position-orientated leadership in bureaucratic organisations, leadership of the Movement is more person-orientated.

Master Zhengyan is called shangren (“the superior man”) by Ci Ji members. This term of address for a Buddhist master is, however, a new fashion in present day Taiwan. Zhengyan is regarded like the head of a family and members see themselves as her children: in members’ minds Zhengyan acts as a kind mother.

Master Zhengyan is the only one in the Ci Ji Movement from whom members derive their energy. She is the president of the Movement, the tonsure master of the ordained disciples and the Abbess of the Abode. She is an icon for all Ci Ji people. A picture of Master Zhengyan is seen in every member’s home. Some keep one in their wallets; many place her photo on the family altar. They talk or pray to her icon about their difficulties. They feel connected with her through listening to her records or reading her books, if they cannot observe her in person. Ci Ji members treat Master Zhengyan as their saviour. Many songs are dedicated to her in honour of her leadership, such as the song Zhiqian nide shou (“To hold only your [Master Zhengyan’s] hand”).

Apart from the Abode and other institutes in Hualian, Ci Ji has established numerous branches and liaisons (incipient branches) across Taiwan and overseas; they are considered sub-organisations of Ci Ji. The formation of these branches is solely to serve the convenience of administration.

The structure of Ci Ji’s organization is personal and network based; it is first founded voluntarily by females, then they are gradually replaced by men if Ci Ji finds better candidates. When there is a strong desire for a permanent place, a liaison is founded. A lianluochu (聯絡處liaison) is a normally a group of members numbering anything from a couple of hundred to a handful of about ten. It is founded whenever a member can offer a stable place for the movement. Normally it will be in the home of a group leader.

A fenhui (分會 branch) is formed when two conditions are met: that there are sufficient numbers, and there is a permanent place for the sole use of the Movement. Then it is permitted to hold a founding ceremony, and a flag is given to the branch, which gives it formal recognition as a constituent unit of Ci Ji. The branch is territorial and regional groups come under it. A site is usually donated or purchased at a relatively low price. The Taipei branch is the largest branch of Ci Ji. Its architecture resembles a modern building more than a traditional temple.

The employees of the Taipei branch, most of whom are young women, must be present when there are meetings at the branch, and since these are often scheduled in the evenings, they have to stay late. As a result, some of those who lived far away have moved to live in the branch. As there is a voluntary element to their work, employees accept less than they would get for similar work outside Ci Ji and do not have annual holidays. The demands of the job make it very difficult for employees to maintain contact with people outside the movement. This is particularly true of those who live on the premises: their workload and duties have isolated them from their old school friends and prevented them from attending more conventional leisure activities; evidence such as what they wear and their topics of conversation suggests that those employees are becoming an isolated minority. Consequently, they socialise within the Movement itself. Some eventually become nuns of the Movement.

It seems that there is a high degree of separation from families and friends. A single female, aged thirty-one, says that she hardly has any spare time to see her old friends and family. Because of the workload, she has to work from Monday to Saturday, and very often she also works on Sundays. She does not remember when she last visited her family (Personal Interview).

Apart from accommodating the monthly visits of Master Zhengyan, the branch acts as a regional centre for the Movement’s missions and regional membership administration. At first, the division of labour among a branch is rather impersonal; it is initially divided by gender, age and social background. Yet, as there is a strong desire for socialising and the need to promote missionary work, this distribution tends to break down when members are sub-divided for particular functions.

The regional groups may use the branch for meetings. These local groups have little autonomy. The Ci Ji headquarters provides a theme for each of the meetings. The lay members themselves, without the presence of a priest, lead the meetings, each meeting lasting approximately two hours. Generally speaking, the procedure is as follows: chanting of the Lotus Sutra for half an hour; meditation for five minutes; news reports; discussion of the theme; ending with communal petitions for the success of the movement and the well-being of Master Zhengyan.


Although Zhengyan has claimed that her knowledge of Buddhism is self-taught, and Ci Ji is a part of the current trend of Chinese Humanistic Buddhism, CiJi is in fact a form of secularized Nichiren Buddhism, mostly close to Risshō Kōsei-Kai. Apart from this fundamental doctrinal controversy, Ci Ji also is facing strong public condemnations from Taiwanese society.

Ci Ji has become famous internationally for its charitable work. Locally in Taiwan it is no less well known to the public for its influence, which is mainly due to the wealth it has accumulated through the donations of its followers. In recent years the media have reported controversies, most of which have arisen from its use of funds in ways which impinge on the general public, and also on how it deals with the labour force in its own enterprises.

With regard to its daily operation, one of the criticisms of Ci Ji is its reliance on charisma and volunteerism. Jacob Tischer, a journalist, criticized the founding figure’s pervasiveness and the entire organization’s dependence on Zhengyan’s charisma. He commented that this charisma would need to be institutionalized to ensure the organization’s survival, as happened in the case of Master Shengyan (聖嚴), who remained significant for the image of Dharma Drum both in Taiwan and overseas. Tischer also questioned Ci Ji’s structure of economic enterprises as an economic enterprise reliant on volunteers, who may be regarded as “the cheapest and most dedicated labor possible.” The Neihu project was criticized for exemplifying a more general tendency in Ci Ji Buddhism: that the wellbeing of humans always comes before the environment, as happened with the waste recycling plant operated by Ci Ji. Tischer revived the criticism that Ci Ji’s operations are run by a very small circle of leaders, and commented on its 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 Ci Ji as an organization and its members as political subjects to align with liberal democracy.”

Zhengyan’s high profile in certain public events when she responded by taking a religious stand have been controversial, particularly when Ci Ji or its members were involved. A famous example was Taiwan’s edible oils scandal, which involved Wei Yinchong, chairman of Wei Quan Foods under Ding Xin International Group. He was a follower of Zhengyan, and faced formal charges after his company sold adulterated oils under the Wei Quan brand. He was sentenced to two years in jail. He was not criticized by Zhengyan herself. Instead, the public seemed to understand from the spokesperson of Ci Ji that Zhengyan did not condemn her disciple but just comforted Wei by encouraging him to “eat well, sleep well.” The public were left wondering whether Zhengyan’s most serious teaching to Wei was to ask him to get more involved in charity and to take more positive actions to benefit society.

The close relationship between Wei Yinchong and Zhengyan created tension between Ci Ji and the public concerning social justice enterprise. Wei had been the chairperson for the food aid group in Ci Ji’s International Humanitarian Aid Association. The reciprocal relationship between Wei and Ci Ji can be shown by the reports that Wei Quan Foods was the outsourcing manufacturer for Ci Ji and was estimated to have manufactured thirty to forty percent of Ci Ji’s food. It was claimed that the enterprise had relied on Ci Ji for its product images. Although it is usually left to individuals to decide how they think that a religious leader should respond to a public issue, it seemed that members of the public were very concerned about food safety and thought it only fair for the city legal department to punish the enterprise chairman, without being swayed by the high reputation he had gained by his association with Ci Ji.

The Labor Affairs Department of New Taipei City Government has reported that among fifty-seven hospitals investigated, twenty-eight had been found to have violated the Labor Standard Laws. The Buddhist Tzu Chi General Hospital, Taipei Branch, was exposed by the Department in 2014 as having caused the medical staff overstrain, overtime work and underpayment of overtime pay. Tzu Chi Hospital was found, not for the first time, to have committed violations, and among the hospitals in the district has had to pay the highest cumulative fine imposed by the Department. Further reports on labor malpractice in the Tzu Chi General Hospital in Hualian (花蓮) were publicized in 2016 by the Taiwan Medical Alliance for Labor Justice and Patient Safety, TMAL (台灣醫療勞動正義與病人安全促進聯盟), after they received a report from a female doctor from the Division of Hematology & Oncology, who claimed that she had had to work for five days continuously and work overtime for thirty-six hours, after which she fell over and was in a coma lasting for six months, but received no compensation from the hospital.


Image #1: Dharma Master Zhengyan.
Image #2: The temple founded by Zhengyan in Hualian, the Pumensi.
Image #3: The movements headquarters in Hualian, Taiwan.
Image #4: The Ci Ji organization logo.

Unless otherwise noted, Material for this profile is drawn from Yao,Yu-Shuang, 2012. Taiwan’s Tzu Chi as Engaged Buddhism: Origins, Organization, Appeal and Social Impact. Leiden and Boston: Global Oriental/Brill.

Zhengyan (Cheng Yen). 1996. Still Thoughts II. Translated by Lin Chia-hui. Edited by Douglas Shaw. Taipei: Still Thoughts Cultural Mission Co., Second Edition.

Zhengyan (Cheng Yen). 1993. Still Thoughts I. Edited by Káo HsĪn-chiáng. Taipei: Tzu Chi Culture Publications.


Her, Rey-Sheng, 2013. “The Silent Mentors of Tzu Chi.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 4:47-74.

Huang, Chien-yu Julia, 2009. Charisma and Compassion: Zheng Yan and Buddhist Tzu Chi Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jones, Charles Brewer, 1999. Buddhism in Taiwan: Religion and the State 1660-1990. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Madsen, Richard, 2007. Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Development and Political Renaissance in Taiwan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

O’Neill, Mark, 2010. Tzu Chi: Serving with Compassion. Singapore: John Wiley.

Pen, Shu-chun, 1993a “Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association.” Pp. 196-99 in Still Thoughts by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Edited by Kao Hsin-chiang. Taipei: Tzu Chi Culture Publications.

Pen, Shu-chun, 1993b. “Reflecting Mountains When Facing Mountains, Reflecting Water When Facing Water: The Story of Dharma Master Cheng Yen.” Pp. 210-36 in Still Thoughts by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Edited by Kao Hsin-chiang. Taipei: Tzu Chi Culture Publications.

Publication Date:
15 May 2019