A seasoned volunteer with Tzu Chi, Ci Yu, who often spots a head of neatly coiffed hair, has an elegant demeanour, a gentle, soft-spoken voice, and an occasional hearty laughter. In the eyes of many fellow volunteers, she is an amiable, warm-hearted lady who gets along well with others.
“I enjoy looking at Sister Ci Yu. There is so much for me to learn from her demeanour,” a younger Tzu Chi commissioner, Tan Sai Chang, said with much admiration for her older sister and friend.
Ci Yu was born in Keelung, Taiwan, with the given name, “Hsu Li Chen”. In 1998, under the encouragement of Dharma Master De Xuan from Jing Si Abode (Tzu Chi Taiwan’s headquarters), she returned to Taiwan to receive her volunteer certification from Dharma Master Cheng Yen, who gave her the Dharma name, “Ci Yu”.
In August of 1980, Ci Yu’s husband was sent by his company to be stationed in Singapore, and the couple relocated to the city state. As the financial circumstances of her family improved, Ci Yu often went shopping in the malls with friends after sending her children to school, enjoying the high life of the wealthy.
Chance Encounter Leads to a Life of Joyful Giving
Nine years after she moved to Singapore, Ci Yu got acquainted with Tzu Chi Singapore via a Tzu Chi volunteer who lived in her housing block, Lin Shu Ting. Lin also happened to be a Taiwanese who had relocated to Singapore with her husband. It was this chance encounter with a fellow compatriot that Ci Yu felt a close connection with Tzu Chi.
Lin started inviting her to join Tzu Chi activities. However, when she knew that Tzu Chi was a Buddhist organisation, she told Lin: “If it’s about ‘praying (to a deity)’, please do not look for me. But I don’t mind donating in kind.”
From Ci Yu’s early memories while growing up in Taiwan, there was a temple for the Earth Deity outside her home, and many people would pray or bring prayer offerings to the temple. From a very young age, she had objected to such superstitious practices, and that culminated in her resistance towards Buddhism. Thus, she was only willing to become a donating member of Tzu Chi Singapore. Lin persisted even in the face of continual rejection, and often invited her new-found friend to Tzu Chi activities. However, she was turned down by excuses after excuses.
“At that time, I was busy with my ‘Four Great Missions’ of ‘eating, drinking, playing and having fun,” Ci Yu said with some self-mockery as she recalled the vanity of her thinking and lifestyle in the past.
This tussle persisted until 1991, when Tzu Chi Singapore wanted to start a children’s class, and Lin Shu Ting invited her to attend a meeting to share her ideas for the new initiative. As she felt sorry for rejecting her friend’s invitations so frequently and thought that the children’s class should not have much to do with the Buddhist religion, she agreed to attend.
During the meeting, a lively discussion ensued; and Ci Yu suggested using Jing Si Aphorisms (wise sayings by Dharma Master Cheng Yen) to make bookmarks for the children. Everyone felt that it was a brilliant idea and decided to place her in charge. This was a turning point in her life that started her onto the Tzu Chi Path.
Counting Blessings After Witnessing Suffering
Ci Yu revealed that in those early days, there were not many volunteers in Tzu Chi, and everyone became multi-taskers and had to perform many roles. A volunteer might serve in the kitchen, at the reception, as a driver, or even help to train newer volunteers. It was such exposure that helped to hone Ci Yu’s wide array of skill sets. Whether the task was manual work or called for fine workmanship, she could tackle it easily, and became a woman of many talents.
Presently, she spends her days fruitfully in joyful service, and she has witnessed for herself that Tzu Chi’s activities and events are vastly different from the superstitious religious practices among the common folks. Over time, she has also started to attend Dharma services. The Dharma gradually entered her heart, and unknowingly, Tzu Chi became a major part of her life.
From her involvement in institutional care and home visits, as well as medical relief cases and overseas free clinics, Ci Yu learned to count her blessings after witnessing suffering among the impoverished. With each step along the Tzu Chi Path, she learned to be content with life and cherish the blessings she has.
“There was a girl who left a very deep impression in me. She was paralysed after a horrific car accident. We had a special bond with one another, and I cared for her like my own sister. Whenever she heard that I was returning to Taiwan, she would feel sad and worry if we would ever meet again,” shared Ci Yu.
All these years, Ci Yu has been juggling her busy schedule between her family and volunteer commitments. During the school holidays, the whole family would fly to Taiwan to visit their elderly family members. Even while in Taiwan, Ci Yu would make full use of her time to serve as a volunteer in either a Tzu Chi hospital or Jing Si Abode in Hualien.
Serving as a hospital volunteer has given her many learning opportunities. She recalled helping a well-built young male patient, who was bedridden after a spinal injury, to wash his hair in the hospital. This experience taught Ci Yu to treasure her own health and body. Through her vast experiences serving as a Tzu Chi volunteer, she gained much new knowledge, while at the same acquired many new friendships.
Taking on Great Responsibilities with Courage
The “Tzu Chi Cultural Centre” in Singapore was established in 1996, and was aimed at promoting audio visual and print publications of Tzu Chi. During that time, Ci Yu was entrusted to help with all kinds of daily chores at the Centre. As the Centre lacked a store room, Ci Yu offered her husband’s company warehouse, as a temporary storage facility for Jing Si products.
In 1998, Master Cheng Yen sent Chang Horng Ling, a Tzu Chi commissioner from Taiwan and a postulant, to Singapore to be in charge of Tzu Chi. Under Chang’s leadership, Tzu Chi Singapore extended its outreach to Indonesia’s Batam Island and other islands nearby. Ci Yu was one of the trail-blazing pioneers at that time. She mobilised numerous personnel, from medical professionals to volunteers, to organise many free clinics for the needy in Indonesia, leading many of the locals into joining Tzu Chi.
When Chang returned to Taiwan for her monastic ordination at the Jing Si Abode, she personally gave this instruction to Ci Yu: “I hope that you can allow me to feel at ease in becoming a nun, by taking on the responsibilities of Tzu Chi Singapore (as the person in charge).”
At that point, Ci Yu felt a bit overwhelmed, but due to the earnest request of Chang, she took on the heavy responsibility of heading Tzu Chi, with much fear and trepidations.
In addition, Ci Yu had been involved with the work of promoting Jing Si’s products for a long time and was familiar with the daily operations of Jingsi Books & Café, like the back of her hands. With the relocation of Tzu Chi Singapore to the current Jing Si Hall in Pasir Ris, the Jing Si Book Hut on the ground floor began promoting and selling Jing Si products. Thus, Ci Yu once again served as the volunteer leader in charge of promoting Jing Si products.
Later, the Jing Si Books & Café finally materialised in Singapore. Starting from the early stages of finding a suitable location for the store, until its official opening in 2016, Ci Yu was actively involved in its establishment. She led the volunteers to help with the daily operations of the store, from reception to serving customers at the Café section.
Yan Su Yuan, who also hailed from Taiwan and is a veteran volunteer of Tzu Chi Singapore, shared her admiration and praise for Ci Yu: “She is really a disciple close to the Master’s heart, and possesses the fine qualities of the early Tzu Chi volunteers. During that time, there wasn’t much training for the volunteers, and neither was there much information available…… Yet these early volunteers stored every teaching of Master Cheng Yen deep in their hearts and lived them out, just like how the early pioneers in Jing Si Abode carried out their missions with an industrious and persevering spirit.”
Wide Network of Friendships
Since her initial foray into Tzu Chi as a volunteer, Ci Yu has remained active till today. She has been a volunteer leader at the community, cluster, and zone level, and demonstrates Tzu Chi’s humanistic values through example, serving as a fine role model for newer volunteers.
In a large organisation such as Tzu Chi, there are bound to be differences and disagreements between people. In the face of interpersonal issues, Ci Yu often adopts the Confucius philosophy of “being number two” and chooses reconciliation over differences. However, when something is the right thing to do, this is when she will take a firm stand. She looks at all matters with a big picture view.
Once, during a Tzu Chi free clinic in Batam, she was publicly and unjustly accused by an official. Although she felt deeply wronged at that point in time, she quietly suffered the injustice and reminded herself not to be easily affected or swayed by other people’s opinions or external events.
A couple who are also Tzu Chi commissioners, Lim Ah Kee and her husband, Loh Sam Maiu, have worked closely with Ci Yu for 20 over years. They shared that in the early days of Tzu Chi Singapore, they were seriously lacking in manpower and resources, yet Ci Yu not only invested her time, money and energy into every task, big or small, but did everything wholeheartedly.
“She is truly a veteran of the activities team. Her meticulous work can be seen in every little detail of various activities,” Loh said with much admiration.
“Sister Ci Yu has a kind demeanour, and often greets others with a bright smile. She is very generous and loves to help others. Be it veteran volunteers or newer volunteers, she treats them equally. She has the heart of equality, which Master Cheng Yen often speaks of,” shared Lim.
Even though she has met numerous trials along her Tzu Chi journey, Ci Yu always faced each trial courageously. The more she serves in Tzu Chi, the happier she is.
Lin Shu Ting, who has known Ci Yu for over 30 years said this of her beloved friend: “Ci Yu is fiercely independent, passionate about helping others and possesses great leadership qualities. Whether it is a big or small event, she will usually respond positively to each invitation.”
She further revealed that Ci Yu, being caring by nature, would often drive volunteers home after an activity ended late at night. In fact, to help fight hunger pangs, she would even prepare snacks for everyone.
Master and Disciple Meet over Dharma
Every year on Tzu Chi Taiwan’s anniversary, many Tzu Chi people in Taiwan and overseas would flock to Jing Si Abode (Tzu Chi Taiwan's headquarters) for celebrations, and Ci Yu is one such frequent visitor.
She remembered that on one occasion, as she was returning to Jing Si Abode, she heard the melodious tune of the Tzu Chi song, “Homecoming”, from a distance away. This beautiful song describes the feelings of an overseas disciple coming home and the longing of Master Cheng Yen for her disciples. Then, she saw Master Cheng Yen standing by the doors of the Buddha hall in the Abode, akin to a mother waiting for her children’s return. Ci Yu’s heart was deeply moved by this scene and tears started flowing from her eyes. That very scene has been deeply etched in her mind, and she vividly remembers it till today.
In 2013, Tzu Chi Singapore started linking up with Jing Si Abode in Hualien via video conferencing during Master Cheng Yen’s pre-dawn Dharma talks. Even though Ci Yu had to get up in the wee hours of 4am each morning to watch the Dharma talks, she never felt drained or tired. Whether she is in Singapore or Taiwan, she will unfailingly wake up before dawn to listen to the talks. She truly treasures each moment that she has with Master Cheng Yen.
She has witnessed the gradual aging of Master Cheng Yen over the years and sometimes, even being afflicted with bodily ailments, the Master would still sit up with a straight back, diligently sharing pearls of Dharma wisdom with her disciples worldwide during her early morning Dharma talks.
“I want to grab every present opportunity to listen to the Dharma. I hope that Master Cheng Yen will delegate more responsibilities to her disciples and find more time to rest her aging body,” said Ci Yu.
She shared her deepest hope: “Master Cheng Yen is a bright light in my life, and Tzu Chi is my life’s path. I have acquired a wise mentor and have the opportunity to learn the Dharma, what more can I ask for? I hope to immerse in Bodhi (enlightened wisdom of the Buddha), life after life.”