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Training to be Bodhisattvas

From 7-9 August, 2015, Tzu Chi Singapore held its inaugural retreat for its volunteer cadres at the Jing Si Hall, where the invited speakers included two Dharma Masters and staff members from the Jing Si Abode (Tzu Chi HQ), as well as veteran Tzu Chi volunteers from Taiwan. The concept of “Universal Compassion, Joint Effort from All” was explored further on the second and third day of the retreat, and many of the attendees made aspirations to shoulder more responsibilities in Tzu Chi after gaining a deeper understanding of the Jing Si Dharma Lineage at the training camp.

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On the second day of the retreat, participants whose birthdays fall in the month of August were invited to the front of the Buddha Hall, and everyone sang the birthday song in Chinese and English as those who had their birthdays received a small birthday gift and well-wishes from the CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore. (Photo by Chua Teong Seng)

Work in Joint Effort

On the second day of the 3-day retreat for the volunteer cadres of Tzu Chi Singapore, over 300 attendees gained a more in-depth knowledge of how the NGO’s 4-in-1 organisational structure operates and its underlying principles. They also learned more about how to carry out the initiative, “Universal Compassion; Joint Effort from All”, which the Tzu Chi HQ in Taiwan has kicked-started and is now promoting to all its branches around the world. 

The four groups of the 4-in-1 structure, namely, Unity, Harmony, Mutual Love, and Joint Effort*, allow the volunteers to carry out Tzu Chi’s missions soundly in the community due to a very effective division of labour. One of the invited speakers, Lv Mei Ying, who is a member of the Unity team in charge of volunteer training in northern Taiwan and a Zone leader herself, pointed out that although the work is divided among volunteers, everyone must be united as they perform their respective responsibilities, and there must be consensus among all the volunteers carrying out an activity. It is important that the members of all the teams treat everyone equally with sincere loving care and give one another help and support as they work to promote and carry out Tzu Chi’s missions. Then, more people will be inspired to join the ranks of volunteers and serve as living bodhisattvas to work for the common good of all. 

Lv highlighted that when working in a team, everyone must learn to contribute their ideas and also obtain feedback from others, and that one should not be overly attached to one’s views and ideas so that one would feel at ease when working with others. She also explained that the purpose of having community gatherings for volunteers is for them to bond with one another, catch up with the latest happenings in Tzu Chi, and have meetings and discussions so as to reach common ground. In addition, the volunteer leaders can also listen to the voices of their team members and build a closer rapport with them. 

“One who does not volunteer actively and take the initiative to shoulder responsibilities is someone who ‘fails to show compassion towards himself and others’. This is because he will miss the opportunities to form positive karmic affinities with others and grow in wisdom. Such opportunities are fleeting, so we must all seize hold of every opportunity to take up responsibility,” said Lv.

Retreat participant Wen Zhen Xiang, who took on the role of the volunteer leader of a community cluster, did not have much prior experience leading a group. He and his two assistants, who were also inexperienced, encountered many challenges along the way. Lv’s talk on the importance of nurturing a team spirit and volunteer training and development struck a chord with him. He now hopes to encourage more of his team members to participate in group gatherings and meetings so that he can obtain feedback from them. He believed that this would help foster consensus among his team members.

Guiding and Training Volunteers 

All the volunteers in Tzu Chi are connected through karmic affinities and belong to the same Dharma family, sharing the same path and goal. Lv said that there must always be care and support in the process of volunteer training, and that those responsible for guiding the trainees include the mentor commissioners, the training team, as well as the community leaders.   

In her talk about the objectives and fundamentals of volunteer training, Chen Ying Zhi (staff from the Religious Culture and Humanitarian Aids Department of Tzu Chi HQ in Taiwan) said that as different volunteers have different needs and are faced with different situations,  the criteria for volunteer training and certification must be adjusted to suit each individual’s unique circumstances. She specially emphasized that when a team member is observed to be less active in Tzu Chi, everyone must take the initiative to show care and concern for him/her and try to find out and understand his reasons for not participating in Tzu Chi activities.

Following Chen’s talk, Lv highlighted in her talk that inspiring and touching people’s hearts and the spirit of love and care are core to volunteer training. She said, “Every certified Tzu Chi commissioner has the responsibility to guide fellow volunteers. They must be role models and set good examples for others to follow. Only then can Tzu Chi train good quality volunteers.”  

Inspiring Countless People to Give

Gao Jia Jing, another staff member from Tzu Chi HQ, gave a talk about working to “inspire countless people to create boundless blessings” by “practising the Six Paramitas in myriad ways”. The Six Paramitas are what every Buddhist practitioner must practise as they walk on the Bodhisattva Path, and they are: giving, precepts, patient endurance, diligence, Samadhi (meditative concentration), and wisdom. Gao also incorporated Tzu Chi sign language into her talk and  taught the hand sign for each Paramita, which helped the volunteers in understanding and remembering the Six Paramitas.

Ninety percent of the donations Tzu Chi receives are numerous small contributions personally solicited by Tzu Chi volunteers from the public. Lv shared that when Master Cheng Yen was fundraising for the first Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan over 30 years ago, she actually rejected a generous donation of US$200 million, as she hoped that the hospital could be built with the contributions of many people – what she wished for was to inspire love and goodness in everyone, and every person, rich or poor, could have the opportunity to sow blessings.      

“As we solicit donations from people, what is even more important is that we develop diligence and courage. We must stay close to Master’s heart and practise the spirit of the Bamboo coin bank era (when Tzu Chi was first established in Taiwan), where the first (thirty) Tzu Chi volunteers saved a couple of cents in their bamboo coin banks (to help the poor and needy). They did that for the sole reason of sowing blessings (for all),” said Lv. She emphasized that only when a volunteer clearly understood the true meaning behind soliciting donations would he work with a sense of mission, and not just recruit the required number of donors to obtain volunteer certification.  

Retreat participant Hong Wei Hui, a soft-spoken and shy novice trainee commissioner, used to feel quite stressed about having to solicit donations. Although she had been sharing with her relatives and friends about Tzu Chi, she could not summon up sufficient courage to solicit donations from them. After participating in a volunteer retreat in Taiwan last year, she finally overcame her shyness this year and recruited many donating members for Tzu Chi. Besides that, she has also got some of her members to join her in volunteer work. 

“If we truly practise the concept of ‘inspiring countless people to create boundless blessings’, everyone will be recruiting donating members because they really want to inspire kindness in people’s hearts, and not just to meet the criteria for volunteer certification,” shared Hong.

Wang Rong Liang, an assistant community volunteer leader and a committed volunteer of the medical arm of Tzu Chi, expressed that he had learned more about the 4-in-1 structure at the retreat and hoped to work harder to gain a better understanding of the dispositions and backgrounds of all his team members.  

“What I have learned at this retreat has helped broaden my view. I did not realize before that every volunteer can be mobilized at the community level, so I did not ask those holding leadership positions to participate in (Tzu Chi) activities in the community,” said Wang. Now he knows that every volunteer, regardless of their seniority, must be given opportunities to contribute their efforts in their respective communities. 

There was a 100-minute Q&A session towards the end of the second day of the retreat where participants raised issues and questions related to Tzu Chi protocols, the volunteer training system, rapport building among volunteers, etc. Their questions were duly answered and doubts clarified by the panel of invited speakers who all had a wealth of experience in leading volunteer teams in Taiwan.

Walking the Tzu Chi Dharma Path

“During the walking meditation, as you turn around the corner, you must be mindful of your steps. Then your rows will be neat and  orderly.” Master De Nian, a monastic disciple of Master Cheng Yen from the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan, briefed the retreat participants on the procedures of the Lotus Sutra Bowing Ceremony before it began. The Ceremony, which included sutra recitation and a walking meditation practice, was held in the morning on the third day of the retreat. 

静寂清澄,志玄虚漠,守之不动,亿百千劫……” (With a clear and still mind, our vows are as vast as the universe. We will hold our vows unwaveringly for countless eons.)  Led by the two Dharma masters from the Abode, the 300-plus participants recited these Chinese verses from the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings in repetition as they did the walking meditation. Their minds were focused and settled, and their voices, in unison, echoed throughout the Buddha Hall, creating an atmosphere of sanctity. 

After the walking meditation, Master De Nian gave a speech about learning the Dharma and practising spiritual cultivation in the Tzu Chi School of Buddhism. She stressed that the Tzu Chi Dharma Path is a Mahayana school, which is about going amongst people in the community to practise the Bodhisattva Path.

Master Cheng Yen started reciting the Lotus Sutra daily after she became a monastic in the 1960s, and she deeply understood the essence of this particular sutra – to walk the Bodhisattva Path. It is her heartfelt wish that all Tzu Chi volunteers can serve as living bodhisattvas and be firm in their commitment. 

Master De Nian explained the Six Paramitas in detail and highlighted the need to practise them with perfection over a long period of time without ceasing and with respect(无余修、无间修、长时修、尊重修. Only then will one remain undeterred and unwavering in one’s commitment and accumulate spiritual accomplishments to attain Buddhahood.

“A Bodhisattva is not a statue or someone with supernatural powers; he is one who is able to reach out to people in need and provide help. As long as you are mindful in serving as a bodhisattva, you will definitely find inner joy,” said Master De Nian.

Overcome Challenges with Faith and Wisdom

Among the invited speakers was David Liu, the former CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore. He now serves at the Tzu Chi HQ in the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan, providing guidance and consultation to Tzu Chi offices overseas. 

In his talk, he spoke of the need for all Tzu Chi volunteers to learn about Tzu Chi’s history and current happenings, and mentioned that although situations and circumstances may differ, the Dharma remains one and the same.

He then explained why Tzu Chi’s work relief programme, which was successfully carried out in the Philippines and Malaysia after flood disasters, was not implemented in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. 

“After a flood, a lot of trash needs to be cleared. However, after an earthquake, many buildings have collapsed and a lot of things and people are buried under the debris, so we can’t use heavy machinery to clear the streets. What the disaster survivors need is help in rebuilding their homes,” said Liu. “(We need to) exercise our wisdom and apply the Dharma  when carrying out disaster relief work.”      

In view of the recent unfounded claims and criticisms about Tzu Chi by the Taiwan media, which have affected many people’s views on the NGO, Liu stressed the importance of being able to practise the Dharma in daily life. He said Tzu Chi volunteers should not be daunted by the setback, but rather regard it as an opportunity to practise spiritual cultivation. If the volunteers are able to cultivate their hearts and minds as they work with others, they will be able to develop patient endurance and an unshakable faith.  

Liu shared, “Still water appears clear not because it does not contain dirt, but because the impurities in it have settled down. Likewise, our minds are pure not because we do not have any distracting thoughts but because we know how to eliminate our mental afflictions.” He further emphasized that in walking the Bodhisattva Path, one must have faith, make vows to benefit others, and put the vows into practice. Then one will be able to overcome any challenges one faces along the way.

Promote Environmental Protection by Forming Positive Affinities

Apart from promoting the initiative, “Universal Compassion; Joint Effort from All”, Tzu Chi Singapore also plans to strengthen its mission of environmental protection and make it more widespread around the island. Towards the end of the retreat on the third day, invited speaker Chen Zhe Lin, a veteran recycling volunteer from Taiwan, gave a talk on his efforts to do recycling in his home country.

Chen, who has a background in telecom engineering, devised a slogan in Chinese to educate the public on the various types of recyclables, and the catchy mantra has since been used by Tzu Chi volunteers across Taiwan to promote recycling work in the community. During his talk, he led the audience to recite the slogan till they were able to say it from memory. 

Chen encouraged the Singapore Tzu Chi volunteers that they should not just focus on doing recycling work but also be active in promoting environmental awareness among people. He even led all to make the pledge of sharing about recycling work with least one person each day.

After listening to Chen’s talk, Cai Wei Zhong, who has been a recycling team leader for the past two years, felt that apart from work, what is even more important is that volunteers build a strong rapport with one another. He had observed and realized that he was often so focused on his coordinating role that he did not make enough effort to interact with his team members, and felt that his motivation has diminished over time. Thus he reminded himself that the goal of walking the Bodhisattva Path is to form positive affinities with others. 

Cai was especially inspired by the story of how the Buddha went around to ask for alms (in order to inspire kindness in people). He recalled what that motivated him to join Tzu Chi in the first place was his wish to inspire others to join him in doing good, and recycling work provides many opportunities for that. 

Where there is a will, there is a way

Zheng Su Ping, an assistant community volunteer leader, was very touched and inspired by Master De Han’s sharing on how she overcame numerous challenges and obstacles before she successfully came out with the additive-free Jing Si Instant Rice. Master De Han did not have any prior background or  experience in developing food products, but with an unwavering determination and faith, she was able to succeed after numerous failures.

“All the hard work one has put in helps pave the path for future success, and the trials and tribulations one undergoes will help one to grow in wisdom.” These words from Master De Han are deeply ingrained in Zheng. She aspired to work with their team to care for newer volunteers and guide them in walking the Bodhisattva Path.

“I once thought of giving up as I felt that I could no longer continue on,” said Chen Bi Hui, a community cluster leader in the North Zone. She wanted to step down from her role as she was having a hard time trying to cope with her career and voluntary work with Tzu Chi at the same time. But Master De Han’s talk renewed her confidence and motivated her to carry on. 

“We must persevere even when it is hard to continue on. No matter what problems we face, we must remember our initial aspirations. And, we must have faith in ourselves that we are able to overcome any problems we face in the community.”

Chen hoped to work to strengthen the bonds among the members in her teams and to encourage the less active volunteers to take part in Tzu Chi activities.

Another retreat participant who was deeply inspired by Master De Han’s experience was novice trainee commissioner Wang Jia Yi. She was approached by her community group leader, who asked her to be an emcee of a study group session. But she declined as she thought she did not have enough experience in Tzu Chi and was therefore not confident of doing a good job. After listening to Master De Han’s talk, she decided that she should give it a go. The young volunteer even aspired to work towards volunteer certification next year.

In his speech on the third day of the retreat, CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore Low Swee Seh highlighted that to truly actualize the concept, “Universal Compassion; Joint Effort from All”, it required the committed effort of everyone. 

“We are now clearer on the direction we should take, and we will gradually carry out necessary actions (to make the concept a reality). As long as we keep the Dharma in our hearts, and we are determined, it will not be difficult to achieve our goal,” said Low.

As Master Cheng Yen often says, “In walking the Tzu Chi Bodhisattva Path, so long as one has a firm conviction and faith, and is clear about the direction in which one should go, one need not fear the long distance ahead.”  

Before the retreat ended, Master De Han gave a closing speech and encouraged everyone not to be discouraged by setbacks. She spoke of how the Buddha returns to this world time and again, life after life, to help and guide living beings as they are entangled in the cycle of rebirth, and urged everyone to cherish their affinity with Master Cheng Yen and to seize every opportunity to practise the Bodhisattva Path. 

“We must be someone who can help and benefit others so that our presence can be a  blessing to them.”


*The Unity team is  made up of senior Tzu Chi volunteers who are responsible for passing on Tzu Chi’s Jing Si Dharma Lineage and for the overall management of the Tzu Chi branch office. The Harmony team consists of Zone Leaders of the four Zones, North, East, Central, and South, in Singapore. They help to disseminate information and news about Tzu Chi’s missions and activities to the Mutual Love team, which comprises volunteer leaders of the community clusters within each Zone.  The Mutual Love team will then plan for the activities to be carried out by the Joint Effort team, which is made up of all the volunteers in each of the communities within a cluster.   

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There were a few breaks on each day of the retreat where the members of each group would gather around a table and share what they have learned. Here, Zhou Jin Yuan, a volunteer leader of a community cluster, shares her experiences and thoughts with her group members. (Photo by Chua See Siew)

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Wen Zheng Xiang, also a community cluster leader, hopes to encourage his team members to participate in meetings and gatherings so as to foster consensus among them. (Photo by Lai Tong Heng)

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Invited speaker Xie Xiu Hua, a Zone leader in Taiwan, gave a talk on how her Zone committee organized their various functional groups and activities in a flexible way that saved on manpower and time. (Photo by Douglas Lee)

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Novice trainee commissioner Hong Wei Hui hopes to inspire as many people as possible to help those in need and to join the ranks of Tzu Chi volunteers. (Photo by Chua See Siew)

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During the 100-minute Q&A session towards the end of the second day of the retreat, the panel of invited speakers from Taiwan answered questions and clarified doubts from the participants. (Photo by Douglas Lee)

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In the morning of the third day, the two Dharma masters from the Jing Si Abode led the participants to practise walking meditation. (Photo by Susan Ong)

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Among the invited speakers was David Liu, the former CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, who now serves at the Tzu Chi HQ in the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan, providing guidance and consultation to Tzu Chi offices overseas. (Photo by Chua See Siew)

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Chen Zhe Lin, a veteran recycling volunteer from Taiwan, shared his experiences in doing recycling work in his home country with the audience. (Photo by Douglas Lee)

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Chen led the audience to practise reciting the recycling slogan, which he had devised, to help them remember the different types of recyclables. (Photo by Chua Teong Seng)

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At the end of the retreat, Master De Han and Master De Nian gave out tokens of well-wishes to the participants. (Photo by Wong Twee Hee)

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Volunteer leaders in Tzu Chi Singapore took the opportunity to meet up with the speakers from Taiwan during the retreat. (Photo by Dai Xiao Tong)

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