Sign language is a significant part of Tzu Chi’s humanistic culture. I started to learn sign language in Tzu Chi since 2012. My initial intention of joining the class was to spend my free time doing something meaningful and relaxing.
So how did sign language start in Tzu Chi?
When Master Cheng Yen (Tzu Chi’s founder) was visiting the homes of needy families in the past, she realized that she was not able to communicate with the aid recipients who were deaf and mute. In addition, there were also patients in the Tzu Chi hospital who could not communicate with the health care professionals due to various reasons. At that time, she was thinking that it would be good if the nurses were able to communicate with these patients using some basic sign language, so that, then, the nurses would be able to provide better care to them. Since then, sign language had been incorporated into the nursing course in Tzu Chi’s nursing college (now known as Tzu Chi College of Technology) in Taiwan. At their graduation ceremony, the nursing graduates will perform their college’s anthem along with sign language before Master Cheng Yen.
Sign language adds a visual effect to Tzu Chi songs, whose lyrics are based on the core teachings of Master Cheng Yen. Tzu Chi also started holding sign language classes for its volunteers, and sign language has been incorporated into Tzu Chi’s sutra adaptations as well as many other Tzu Chi activities worldwide.
Tzu Chi’s sign language is not only beautiful to watch, it is also a good way to connect more deeply with Master Cheng Yen's teachings. I love to do sign language because it is instinctive, visually-appealing, and a Tzu Chi sign language presentation is always very well-organised. It is also a good way to settle my mind when I am troubled or stressed.
Sign language is a form of body language, and the hand signs are all recognizable and symbolic gestures. It is an art where one uses hand signs, facial expressions, and body gestures to communicate with others. Performing a sign language song involves the heart, mind, eyes, mouth, and hands. We must first settle down and clear our minds to stay focused before singing the song aloud as we do the sign language. Then, our hands will start to do the “talking” as our eyes “listen” to those around us.
In 2013, I was given the opportunity to be one of the sign language guides for those participating in the Dharma as Water Stage Adaptation, which is a Tzu Chi production based on the Water Repentance Text by Dharma Master Wu Da, a Buddhist monk who lived in the Tang Dynasty. I felt very grateful as I could easily understand the sutra teachings and remember every verse deeply in my heart. The experience has greatly impacted me as well as transformed me into a better person. My heart softened as I repeatedly sang the verses and did the sign language during the practice sessions. I learned to train my temper and develop patience while I was guiding my team members in doing the hand signs and gestures. During a practice session, if they did not get it right the first time, I would teach them again and again until they got it. I slowly adopted a gentler tone and softer approaches as I guided them along the way.
A tragedy struck me one month before the actual presentation of the stage adaptation ─ I lost my dad. I was shattered and ever thought of giving up. However, it was my fellow Dharma brothers and sisters in Tzu Chi who gave me the strength and courage to carry on.
My mom could not accept the lost and went into depression as a result. She blamed herself for not treating my dad well before his passing. However, the lost of my dad actually led my mom to join me in Tzu Chi. She had also participated in the Dharma as Water stage adaptation in Malaysia this year. I accompanied and supported her during her practices until the actual performance day. I saw the change in my mom and am really happy and thankful that she has walked out of her darkest days. She shared with her fellow team members that learning the sign language had enabled her to understand the sutra teachings more easily. Her participation in the Dharma as Water Stage Adaptation made her reflect on the bad speech karma she has created, and she truly repented for having treated my dad poorly in the past.
It has been three years since I started to learn Tzu Chi sign language, and I have been actively involved in Tzu Chi sign language presentations in these few years. I believe that my passion in sign language will continue on as it is beautifully and deeply connected with Master Cheng Yen's teachings.