The talk was set to begin at 2pm at the conference hall of New York Hotel at Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.
At around 10am, the Singapore volunteers and local volunteers began decorating the venue. When the Singapore sign language team members learnt that the locals are very much interested in Tzu Chi's sign language, they seized the occasion to teach the 30 odd local volunteers and residents who came to help out to a fun learning session.
The lyrics of the two songs "Warmth" and "There is Love in the World" were translated into Cambodian beforehand to help the locals immerse into the message of the songs. The sign language team members seized the spare time before lunch to tutor the locals in small groups. Though their hands were stiff, one can tell that they enjoyed the learning very much.
Around noontime, the sky started raining cats and dogs. Among those who came despite the heavy rains were dharma masters, Chinese and Taiwanese businessmen, local media, staffs of Tzu Chi entrepreneur volunteers, and members of the public. A superintendent of a drug rehabilitation centre also brought 15 inmates to the talk.
The attendance was so encouraging that the hall was packed before long and volunteers had to move in more chairs to accommodate the incoming guests.
A little love can go a long way
Before the programme began, the attendants were shown a documentary produced by Discovery Channel in 2006 named "Portraits Taiwan: Dharma Master Cheng Yen" to get to know about Tzu Chi's founder and the organization.
The documentary, together with "Story of Tzu Chi", the video shown after the opening sign language performance, were both subtitled and voice-overed in Cambodian to help the locals better grasp the content.
Ms Srey Ruth, the supervisor of Tzu Chi volunteer Su Ying Long's factory, was the first to share her Tzu Chi experience. Being a single mother earning only US$80 every month to raise her three children and support her parents was certainly not easy. But participating in charity home visits with Tzu Chi has helped change her life perspective.
"Seeing people poorer than me struggle to live on has helped me realize that I should count my blessings," said Ms Srey. Showing the bamboo bank she adopted from Tzu Chi, she testified: "When I drop my spare notes inside this bamboo bank, I feel that I'm a truly wealthy person. I'm glad that I'm able to help others too."
Care recipient Mr Chen next took to the stage to share how he was shot many years ago and was left paralyzed from the waist down. He also suffered from serious bedsore caused by long hours of lying on bed.
"When things were the worse, Tzu Chi has helped turn around my emotional state and my livelihood," he told the congregation. He also thanked the volunteers for showing constant concern for him which restored his faith in humanity.
The affinity with Cambodia
"Even though it rained heavily just now, our attendance is unbelievably good today," said Brother David Liu at the start of his speech.
"We expected 100 participants but now we have close to 200. I can tell we're seeing hope in Cambodia," he added radiantly.
Brother Liu recounted his twice visit to Battambang Province in northwestern Cambodia 17 years ago to assess disaster situation and carry out disaster relief after the province was inundated by flash floods triggered by torrential rains.
"We had to transit from a car to a boat then to a bull cart to finally reach our destination," explained Brother Liu with the help of several old pictures.
In the summer of 1994, just as Cambodia was recovering from years of strife, consecutive floods and droughts affected 13 out of the 21 provinces of the country, making more than 200,000 people homeless. It was the most severe natural disaster the country had suffered in three decades.
Cambodian officials, including the first premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, wrote to the Tzu Chi Foundation requesting aid. The Foundation dispatched a fact-finding team in November to investigate the situation. They discovered that if farmlands were not irrigated in time, there would be danger of large-scale famine. Funds were swiftly raised to purchase 20 large water pumps and 10,000 litres of diesel fuel to help farmers save rice crops. Rice and seed were also donated to over 80,000 victims in two hard-hit provinces, one of it being Battambang, to alleviate the food shortage.
As fate would have it, after a batch of rice seed donation in 1997, clashes erupted again between the Khmer Rouge and the government, forcing Tzu Chi to stop its aid programme in the country.
It wasn't until November 2010 that Cambodian born Chinese Yoshikazu Shaku helped reignite Tzu Chi's affinity with Cambodia by bringing several local entrepreneurs to visit Tzu Chi in Taiwan.
Inspired to serve, the entrepreneurs began looking into the lives of the needy community after they returned to Cambodia. What turned out were the present 21 charity cases under Tzu Chi's care in Phnom Penh. The local volunteers visit the care recipients every month to present Tzu Chi's aid and concern to them.
A day before the talk, a home visit team was officially formed with 15 Cambodian volunteers vowing to care for the underserved in their country with Tzu Chi's compassionate spirit.
Going into the multitude
"Giving is not the privilege of the rich. It is the privilege of the sincere," stressed Brother Liu as he described Master Cheng Yen's philosophy and the works of Tzu Chi to the participants. His message and the many anecdotes he cited were evidently well received as many stayed back after the talk to exchange thoughts with him and the volunteers.
Tey Sambo and her sister Koepech Metta used to watch the Discovery documentary and the curiosity to find out what is the motivation of Tzu Chi volunteers was what brought them here today.
Tey Sambo grew up in a family of scholars which explains her elegant demeanour. She graduated from law school and is fluent in both English and French. She currently heads IMPACT Cambodia, a mission funded by Impact UK in the United Kingdom to treat ear disease in the Cambodian population and to teach local ENT doctors about performing otologic surgery.
"Buddhism is not just about chanting sutra and performing meditation. It's about taking actions. I'm happy we're seeing true action today," said Tey Sambo. "Tzu Chi's work convinced me that putting compassion into action is the right thing to do and frankly, I felt compelled to start planning projects with Tzu Chi to engage our Buddhist community."
Her sister Koepech Metta, who is a reporter with Radio Free Asia, interviewed Brother Liu and the conversation will later be aired on one of the station's programme.
Seeing a new horizon
The emcee of the talk session, Noun Pichsoudeny, is a young reporter and the youngest novel writer in Cambodia. She followed the volunteers in visiting the poor the day before contributing as a translator between the Singapore volunteers and the local families.
"Previously when I see the rich, I would wonder why are they leading a life so different from me. I'd think, 'They're able to own cars and bungalow and yet I'm just an ordinary working class'," confessed the 20-year-old.
Like Ms Srey, Noun Pichsoudeny began realizing the importance of counting her blessing after witnessing the hardships of the truly poor. "I don't have the ability to donate a lot of money like a millionaire, but what I can do is save a little money each day to help people in need," she mused.
Let Tzu Chi take root in Cambodia
Pleased to note the warm response that day, factory owner Su Ying Long, who was one of the local volunteers who made the day's event possible, recalled his old perception about Buddhism. "Because I often see Christian and Catholic entities building hospitals and schools and helping people, it just seemed to me that Buddhists tend to shy away from doing good works for society, until I'm introduced to Tzu Chi by Brother Yoshikazu Shaku."
"I realized I have always kept this ideal of serving the society in my heart but I did not expect I would meet a Buddhist organization this big which would support my ideal. When I met Tzu Chi, I almost wanted to cry because my ideal finally came about. So I made a vow on the spot to plant roots in Cambodia."
Although the trauma left behind by the war and Khmer Rouge's reign of terror is deeply rooted in the hearts of the Cambodian people, Brother Su is hopeful that the teachings of Master Cheng Yen will be able to open up their hearts and lead them to a bright path giving love to their countrymen.