Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Scientific and Sacramental: Engaged Buddhism and the Sacrilization of Medical Science in Tzu Chi (Ciji)

Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Scientific and Sacramental: Engaged Buddhism and the Sacrilization of Medical Science in Tzu Chi (Ciji)

Article excerpt


The late Ms. Lee was a pious lay Buddhist and a charity volunteer in her late-fifties in Taipei. She said to me,

I remember once the Master (shifu 6¶^) recalled, in the old days, she often encountered people suffering from illnesses who requested that she lay her hands on them so as to cure their illness. The Master asked in return: "Had I possessed such magical power for healing, why would I bother to work so hard to build a hospital?"

Ms. Lee was one of 35, 961 core members with the title of weiyua (ШШ, "commissioners")1 in thirty countries (in 2010) who were devoted to the mission of their Master, the Venerable Cheng Yen (Zhengyan ШШ),2 a Mahayana Buddhist nun born in Taiwan in 1937. With her disciples, Venerable Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi (Ciji Щ.Щ, literally, 'compassion relief') Society in Taiwan in 1966 and has been the leader of the group ever since. As indicated in the anecdote, Cheng Yen mobilized to build the first Buddhist general hospital in Taiwan, the Tzu Chi Hospital, which opened in 1986. Located on the relatively less-developed east coast of Taiwan, it is a state-of-the-art 900-bed hospital, the construction of which was made possible by the donations of her followers. This successful mobilization for the hospital marks the beginning of Tzu Chi's meteoric growth in the 1990s. Presently, Tzu Chi is arguably the largest Chinese Buddhist charity around the world and has been widely studied by scholars of the humanities and social sciences (e.g. Huang 2009a; Jones 2009; Laliberte 2004, 2015; Yao 2012).

The legend of the hospital continues. By 2009, Tzu Chi was running an island-wide medical network, including seven general hospitals and a medical school. Outside Taiwan, it runs the largest bone marrow databank of the Chinese diaspora, as well as a free clinic network, and the Tzu-chi International Medical Association (TIMA), which is modelled upon Doctors Without Borders.3

Tzu Chi's medical charity reminds me of the legacy of Buddhism and medicine in Chinese history. Like Buddhist monasteries of the Tang Dynasty (618-90) and Song Dynasty (960-1279), who ran nursing homes and cared for the sick (beitian yangbing fang SB#SÄ) (Fuma 2008; Minzhi Huang 1971: 134; 1989: 413-436), Tzu Chi's medical charity is an act of compassion and of the "field of blessings" (futian JSB)-an agricultural metaphor for charity as cultivation. Unlike those medieval predecessors, Tzu Chi monastics run its medical mission as a private non-profit rather than a state-initiated institution with state-appointed leadership. Unlike the Buddhist monk-doctors in Tang and Song (Minzhi Huang [ЖШШ 2005; Shufeng Liu [S?^] n. d.), Tzu Chi monastics do not practice medicine. In fact, Tzu Chi medical mission is far removed from the "traditional" of Chinese history-all hospitals provide predominantly modern Western medical science; Chinese medicine is only one of the many departments.

This strict employment of modern Western medicine raises the issue of modernity. Tzu Chi is an example of "engaged Buddhism" (Huang 2013; Yao 2012). The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926) was perhaps the first to coin the term "engaged Buddhism"; opposing stereotypes and misunderstandings of Buddhism as "in the mountains", Nhat Hanh is adamant that all Buddhism is engaged (1967: 18). Nhat Hanh's notion inspired a body of literature (see for example Queen and King 1966, Queen 2000, and Queen et al. 2003), which generally defines engaged Buddhism as referring to groups that emerged after World War II and were aimed at causes such as "stopping war, promoting human rights, ministering to the victims of disease and disaster, and safeguarding the natural environment" (Queen 2003: 248). In one of the most recent revisions of the term, Main and Lai argue that the central feature for "socially engaged Buddhism" should be a "rejection of historical and ideological aspects of secularization, which relegates authentic religion to a position distant from political power" (2013: 4). …

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