The Power of Two Pennies

Compassion in Action Around the World

Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation is a Taiwanese international humanitarian and non-governmental organization with over 10 million members in 47 countries. Rather than Buddhist spiritual development, Tzu Chi focuses on disaster relief and community service. Case in point: in response to the 2018 Camp and Woolsey fires in California, Tzu Chi USA volunteers not only provided a compassionate presence on the ground but distributed over $4 million in the form of debit cards and supplies to victims. For their relief efforts around the world, the organization has been awarded special consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council. 

On the occasion of the USA chapter’s 30th anniversary and the first annual “Tzu Chi Steps for the Earth” fundraising event in Los Angeles and New York, One Earth Sangha’s director, Kristin Barker, interviewed Mr. Han Huang, CEO of Tzu Chi USA. In the conversation below, he shared the organization’s dramatic impact on the direction of his life, the Buddhist principles that guide the Foundation and their work to respond to climate crisis.

Tzu Chi USA CEO Han Huang holding up the “Steps for the Earth” walk shirt. From Tzu Chi USA

How did you first get involved with Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation?

In the summer of 1999, I joined the Foundation as a volunteer. At that time, I was a molecular biologist focusing on genetics and was doing my postdoctoral research at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. However, I was getting more involved into the charitable programs of the foundation and saw the impact on the lives of others, including myself. In 2004 I decided to give up my academic science career and joined the organization a full-time staff member.

That’s a dramatic shift. What did you see that made you want to change direction and fully commit to the work of Tzu Chi Foundation?

I saw the pain and suffering of people. I realized that our life is actually pretty short, and we don’t really own our life. We only have time and even in that, we don’t know how long we get to utilize it. That’s what the founder, our Master Cheng Yen, tells us all the time, ‘You don’t own your life, but you have the right to use.” I realized the meaning of my life and knew that I wanted to do something different.

Can you share the story of Master Cheng Yen’s founding of Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation?

It started about 50 years ago on the small island of Taiwan. Back then economic situation was quite bad there. There were a lot of problems; poverty, hunger and numerous numbers of deaths as a result of simple lack of qualified medical services and, sometimes, no means of transportation to receive medical care.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen. From Tzu Chi USA

Master Cheng Yen was moved by pain and misery she saw. Together with 30 housewives she started saving money to help them. She told her followers: “Let’s save two pennies a day. Let’s save that little money from our grocery money. Let’s do it every day, and let’s try to find more people to join us. Then all the money collectively we can do something, we can save people’s lives.” Maybe two pennies are not enough, but a lot of people’s two pennies come together, and that is a great power. This kind of power has been transforming the lives of people for at least 50 years, and now the organization has nearly 10 million supporters and donors all over the world.

How does the Buddhist tradition inform the way the organization operates, its strategy and programs?

First of all, the name, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, has a special meaning. In Mandarin Chinese, “tzu” actually means compassion, and “chi” means relief. It seems very clear of what we have been doing so far. I would also add that Tzu Chi Foundation is a faith-based organization, and our philosophy is based on Buddhism, but you don’t need to be a Buddhist to be involved. We have volunteers from all different backgrounds and beliefs. They are Catholic, Christian, Muslim, whatever. Moreover, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to be a beneficiary of the services.

This is compassion in action: you have to take action to understand the true meaning behind what we are doing.

One of the most important things that the Master has been teaching us is unconditional love. Everyone, from staff to volunteers, are not just looking for an opportunity to give, we all want to cultivate ourselves. Kindness, compassion, joy and giving are four fundamental Buddhist teachings that we have been practicing for a long time.

It’s important to add that our Master consistently teaches us the importance of action. If you don’t do anything, nothing will happen. This is compassion in action: you have to take action to understand the true meaning behind what we are doing.

What do you see as the role the organization has in responding to climate crisis?

Tzu Chi volunteers delivered over 23,000 meals by boat during Taiwan’s August, 2018 floods. (Photo courtesy Tzu Chi Foundation)

One of the most important mission tasks of our organization is to provide disaster relief in order to help those in need in the United States and internationally. We have been doing this now for many years. And the way we do it is through direct engagement with survivors or victims of disasters. We try to do this for two reasons. Firstly, we know that the funds would go to the right place and to the right person. Secondly, our volunteers have an opportunity to interact with beneficiaries and learn the importance of presence and life at this moment.

Earlier this year the Tzu Chi Foundation organized the first annual Tzu Chi Steps for the Earth. These two charity events, one in Los Angeles and another in New York welcomed people of all walks of life in support of international disaster relief and to build awareness of climate action.

Is there anything else that you want to share with people who are just hearing about the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation for the first time?

In the end, I truly appreciate that we have so many supporters and volunteers. We appreciate that we still can contribute our time, contribute our lives, to the community and to whoever needs help. We really appreciate it and we would like to keep these services going.

For more about Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, see their website and this video.

Love, the Ultimate Touchstone

Climate science predicts that as temperatures are on the rise, the atmospheric stability we have come to rely upon, take for granted, falters. This lesson can be applied to our politics, institutions and even our direct experience.

Buddhist author, teacher and activist, Thanissara, encourages us to go deep in order to discover the touchstone that can see us through.

by Thanissara

The nightworld is where we are …
And in that darkness, we remember what we love the most.
That itself is the candle. (Martin Shaw)

It sounds rather cliche, but to state the obvious, the world is changing fast. Day-to-day everything we understand about ourselves and each other is being reconfigured, entrenching the feeling of groundlessness. Everything that was “out there” is now “in here” revealing that in the sphere of the mind, there are no boundaries.

While psychological boundaries are a basic mental health requirement, in reality, it seems that we are not just “selves’ but an inter-being experience through which awakening consciousness is seeing and knowing itself. A glimpse of this understanding shifts everything because eventually it inducts into the only real ground we can find, which is the heart itself with its listening, present, aware, receptive knowing.

Love is the currency of life itself. All things ultimately depend on it.

As we go through a shamanic dismemberment of the global ego-self, which has been in control over millennia, we are grappling with the loss of control as runaway climate breakdown and environmental destruction threatens our collective survival. While all this is enormously impactful, turning us through an excruciating kaleidoscope of reactions and emotions, it feels there is a deeper evolutionary impulse operating here.

What is Truth? Truth is a dynamic unfolding, not a static thing that someone has written down. While there are undying truths—“hate is never overcome by hate, only by love. This is the eternal law,” as the Buddha beautifully taught—can we also be agile and tune into the ever-new and present truth of this moment? Because so often we miss it when we filter what is before us through our preconceptions.

Where is freedom? This heart of knowing, as it taps the deeper flow of the living Dharma, the intuitive intelligence of Prajna-paramita, is quantum-like. Freed up and aligned with truth, its impulse is to dissolve the constructs the mind builds while at the same time unveiling the power of the heart’s capacity for love.

How is it to Love? The small things, a bee powdering itself in the nectar of the flower, show us something about love. That it is not a ‘me’ loving a ‘you’ so much (though that is definitely special), but more that love is the currency of life itself. All things ultimately depend on it.

It is our alignment with the deeper listening heart-spirit, with love, with a freed up view, that enables quantum shifts of understanding distilled from truths unfolding. This will guide us through and gift the courage we need to be in service of truth, of freedom, of love, as protectors of the Earth and her myriad beings.

This article was originally published on Thanissara’s blog. It is reprinted here with permission.

Loving the Earth by Loving One Another

The US administration’s continued family separation policy at its southern border, designed to suppress and discourage appeals for asylum, is subjecting individuals, families and communities to incalculable harm. This crisis can be seen as just one manifestation of the breakdown in two larger spheres, Earth’s ecology and US public policy. As climate change drives up temperatures in Central America, drying out water reservoirs and crops and increasing desperation, families are pushed north in search of physical and economic security. From the north, cultural polarization and emboldened racism combine to not only press the door closed on those seeking refuge, but in the process denigrate the humanity of everyone involved and inflict wounds that could last a lifetime. If we had the means to detect pain from afar, the conflict might run like a 2,000 mile dotted line, glowing red, visible from space.

In this article, Dharma leader and One Earth Sangha guiding teacher, Kaira Jewel Lingo, invites us to understand the how the mind that objectifies, exploits and denies subjects both people and planet to its harm. To meet our challenges with skillful response, we must see our practice as deeply relational, whether interpersonal, with one another or regarding the rest of nature. Kaira Jewel gives us a lens on the healing that is possible in all of these relationships.

by Kaira Jewel Lingo

There is a connection between how we treat ourselves, each other, and the planet. None of these realms are separate. They all influence each other. If we treat ourselves with respect and love, and are in respectful, loving relationships with others, we will relate to the earth with respect. We would not wreak such destruction on our planet if we were not mistreating, harming and abusing ourselves and each other.

In these chaotic times, amid disconnection, the kind of transformation needed is one in which we are aligned with our bodies, with nature we inhabit. We must all first know that we have inherited nature. Our bodies are a form of nature; they should not be hated, abused, or slaughtered. The body consists of all the great elements: earth, water, air and fire. When we abuse collective social bodies we also abuse and pollute the collective elements. We ignore form as nature. (Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel from The Way of Tenderness)

The Demands of Domination

We can see in the arising of white supremacy and other forms of domination like patriarchy a simultaneous and necessary disconnect from knowing ourselves to be one with the earth. They system of enslaving Africans to work on plantations in the Americas (and the very structure of plantations was based on humans dominating nature) depended on so-called “white” people disassociating themselves from their bodies and the earth in order to dehumanize others. In a similar way, men have had to deny their bodies and their connection to the earth to subjugate women in patriarchal systems.

When we heal our human wounds, we also bring healing to the Earth.

These systems of domination reflect the deeper dualisms that arose when human societies moved from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies—the separation between and privileging of heaven over earth, of mind over body, male over female, spiritual over the mundane, rational over the emotional. And these dualities often required not just the superiority of one and submission of the other, but often the very denying of the inferior in the dualistic pair. Thus Africans and Indigenous peoples had to be classified as not human, their humanity denied, to give full meaning to the humanity of “white” people.

Any act of cruelty requires us to not see ourselves in the other, to deny our common humanity, and thereby to disconnect ourselves from the planet.

The World We Are

Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris, 2006.
© Duc, CC BY-SA 2.0

Thich Nhat Hanh, my teacher, shares that in the light of interbeing, we are the environment, we are not just within it. He wrote a book, The World We Have, but later this idea evolved into talks he gave entitled ‘The World We Are.’ The inside is outside, what is in our minds and hearts is what manifests as our world and vice versa. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the layman Vimalakirti said, “because the world is sick, I am sick.” The rising levels of anxiety, also newly termed, ‘eco-anxiety’ are an expression of this sickness that many of us experience as the earth gets sicker.

Robert Gilman, who founded The Context Instituted in the early 70’s, the first organization to really look at sustainability on a global scale, said this at a Findhorn conference on eco-villages, “There are no environmental problems, there are only environmental symptoms of human problems.” If we can get to the root of our human problems, the environment will naturally return to balance.

Healing the Environment is Healing Ourselves

I had the huge pleasure of learning about and meeting John Francis recently. He is an African American environmentalist, a peacemaker who walked across the entire United States and many other countries as well. He kept silence for 17 years and did not ride in motorized vehicles for 22 years, after witnessing the devastation caused by an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 1977.

He writes,

…if people are indeed part of the environment, how we treat ourselves and each other provides our first opportunity to treat the environment in a sustainable way, or even to understand the very nature of sustainability. Therefore in the multidisciplinary field of environmental studies, we must include other ways that human beings relate to one another. We as a species would have to end war, oppression, exploitation, and tyranny, because how we treat each other manifests in our physical environment. (John Francis, The Ragged Edge of Silence)

We can broaden our understanding of healing our environment to include healing ourselves. Addressing all kinds of oppression as part of addressing the destruction of our environment is crucial to an effective response. Such an approach would also help attract a much-needed diversity of all kinds to the mainstream environmental movement, which from its inception in the US has collaborated with racist ideals and since remained mostly white, male, heterosexual, and moneyed.

When we heal our human wounds, we also bring healing to the Earth.

In the early 2000s, when I was a nun in Plum Village monastery in France, I was asked by Thich Nhat Hanh to put a book together celebrating the 20th anniversary of Plum Village with stories from the community, I have arrived, I am home: Celebrating 20 year of Plum Village Life.

I interviewed a neighbor who had grown up and lived his whole life in Loubes-Bernac, just a kilometer or so from our monastery, near Thenac. He told me that during the war hundreds of villagers were burned alive in the church by the Nazi occupation army. And also that members of the French resistance were executed against a wall that just outside our monastery’s kitchen. This neighbor described the heaviness and darkness that stayed in that whole area for decades after the war. He said he and others from the community noticed that after the Plum Village community moved there and set up a monastery in the late 1980’s the energy finally began to shift and the heaviness was transformed into an atmosphere of lightness and joy that was physically palpable. When hundreds of people practice walking mindfully through a forest every day, when they live in awareness and love for the earth, the earth feels this and this collective energy of mindfulness can have a healing effect.

Los Llanos, the eastern savannahs of Colombia.
© Alejo Rendón (David), CC BY-SA 2.0

Another beautiful example of this ability to bring healing to the earth when we heal ourselves and our communities is from Gaviotas, an eco-village in the wasteland savannahs of Colombia. In Gaviotas, they farm organically and use wind and solar power; methane from cattle manure powers kitchen stoves in their state-of-the art hospital. And the hospital treats anyone—in what was a very politically unstable environment—so guerrillas, government military, paramilitary and everyone in between were treated freely, enemies were often put side-by-side in the same hospital rooms. The only rule is that no guns are allowed. Every family enjoys free housing, community meals, and schooling. “There are no weapons, no police, and no jail. There is no mayor. The United Nations named the village a model of sustainable development.”1

The villagers of Gaviotas sustain themselves by growing and selling pine resin. They planted millions of a special species of pine, which is able to grow in their sterile soil of barren savannahs, with very high-levels of aluminum, a toxin to most profitable crops. Their pine forests have now expanded to 20,000 acres. The presence of the forest has altered the local climate by generating an additional 10 percent of rainfall and an ancient rainforest began to grow back that they hadn’t even known had existed there. Over the years the pine trees have provided a shady understory for these ancient plants and previously absent animal species to thrive. Some of these species may be dormant seeds of an ancient rainforest that once covered the region. The pines are slowly being crowded out by the regeneration of indigenous species.2

When we create spaces of healing for humans, we facilitate healing for nature. For a space to be a place of healing we must be harmony with nature, we must hold a non-extractive, non-exploitive relationship to nature.

The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of a crisis of mind and spirit. There could be no greater misconception of its meaning than to believe it is concerned only with endangered wildlife, human-made ugliness and pollution. These are part of it, but more importantly, the crisis is concerned with the kind of creatures we are and what we must become in order to survive.” (Lynton K Caldwell, “Living in the Environment”)

Let us keep front and center in our work to heal our planet, our relationships with each other. Let us remember that the path is as important as the destination and pay great attention to the “kind of creatures we are and what we must become” in our thoughts, words and deeds, and in all our interactions with others. Then we will know that taking good care of each other is taking good care of nature and taking good care of nature is also taking good care of each other.

1From Community Research Project

2From Gaviotas: A Village To Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman, 2008

A Dharma teacher and ordained nun of 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, Kaira Jewel Lingo is now based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She leads retreats internationally, offering mindfulness programs for educators, parents and youth in schools, in addition to activists, people of color, artists and families, and individual spiritual mentoring. A teacher with Schumacher College and Mindful Schools and a guiding teacher for One Earth Sangha, she explores the interweaving of art, play, ecology and embodied mindfulness practice and is a certified yoga teacher and InterPlay leader. She edited Thich Nhat Hanh’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children and has been published in numerous other books and magazines. 


Green Dharma: A Residential Retreat for EcoSattvas

Green Dharma: A Retreat for EcoSattvas
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Date(s) – Sep 25, 2019 – Oct 1, 2019
All Day

Wonderwell Mountain Refuge

Event Sponsor and Host
Wonderwell Mountain Refuge

With Willa Miller, Liz Monson, Sarah Buie and Kristin Barker

Do you long to find a way to integrate your concern for the planet with your interest in mindfulness, meditation and spirituality? Are you seeking to develop resilience in the face of an uncertain future? Is planet earth your passion?

Now more than ever, the planet needs inhabitants that not only care, but whose care is informed by contemplative depth and resilience. While science provides us with clarity about this planet’s possible futures, we need resources to help us cope with the implications of this new knowledge.

When it comes to resilience, contemplative traditions can help. Contemplative traditions safeguard techniques for metabolizing suffering and reflecting on the deep psychic roots of our cultural malaise.

This unique weeklong retreat is designed to help participants explore the truths we know, while seeking a path forward that includes both mobilization and transformation. Through a combined approach of study, council practice, discussion, contemplation and meditation, we will begin awaken the inner “ecosattva,” the contemplative activist within.

This retreat is designed for those who long to reconnect to inner sources of strength, support and healing while joining activism with spirituality: to deepen in relationship with the self, reconnect with the natural world, find community and explore what it means to be a mindful steward of the planet.

Learn More

This event is hosted by Wonderwell Mountain Refuge.
For more information, see the event website here.

Vesak and Climate Crisis at the UN

Vesak is the most sacred day for millions of people around the world as it commemorates the birth, the attainment of full awakening and passing away of Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Since 1995, the UN has recognized Vesak with the International Day of Vesak.

As part of this year’s observance, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi offered reflections and a call to respond based on the application of the Buddha’s diagnosis and remedy for suffering to the collective suffering that is the climate crisis. It is rather remarkable that arguably the premier translators of the Buddhadharma for the West chose to center his remarks not on the classic teachings but on this social-ecological issue as an call to apply those teachings.

The talk was given in the Hall of the General Assembly, with UN representatives of many countries present — not only the traditional Buddhist countries, but Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Philippines, and others. There was no representative from the U.S. or from China.