Back when he was a 25-year-old developer working in Taipei, Taiwan, Gary Ho didn’t have much interest in Buddhism. Then he happened to go to a lecture by a Buddhist nun, Dharma Master Cheng Yen.
Named earlier this year as one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world, the spiritual leader heads the charitable Tzu Chi Foundation, which focuses on medical, environmental, educational, and international aid as well as disaster relief around the globe. Her talk had such a profound impact on Ho that it altered the course of his entire life.
“Even when I was young, I had an ambition to help the community,” the affable Ho tells the Georgia Straight. “I was just so deeply touched by her service to the community that I became a follower, and I too started to serve others.”
After meeting Cheng Yen personally and becoming a member of the organization, Ho learned she had a mission for him: to promote the spirit of the foundation—tzu chi means “compassionate relief”—in Canada. In 1992, Ho and his wife moved to Vancouver and founded Tzu Chi Foundation Canada, also known as Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation Canada, which has offices across the country.
“The mission of Tzu Chi is to purify the heart through service,” says Ho, 65, who splits his time between Vancouver and Taiwan. “When you serve people, you feel happier. When you do something for others, you help yourself and become a better person.”
He points to the experience of so many of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers in Taiwan, many of whom are seniors.
“They find that they don’t have to sit in their kitchen watching TV all the time, that they can be outside doing something meaningful,” Ho says. “They become active, and they find their lives have more meaning than before. And it’s better for their health.”
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great…because everybody can serve,” and research backs up the health benefits of volunteering.
According to a review by the Washington, D.C.–based Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteering leads to enhanced self-esteem, lower rates of depression, improved life satisfaction, a sense of purpose, stronger social connections, and even greater longevity.
Cheng Yen has said that much of today’s suffering results not only from material deprivation but also from “spiritual poverty”.
“She feels that the lack of altruistic love for others has been the root of many problems in this world,” the Tzu Chi Canada website states. “Thus, the foundation’s guiding principle on charity is to ‘help the poor and educate the rich.’ ”
In the last few years alone, Tzu Chi volunteers have mobilized to help in disaster zones in Haiti, Chile, China, Myanmar, the United States, Iran, and Colombia, among other countries.
Although the Tzu Chi Foundation is active internationally, Ho says that Taiwanese values are reflected in the organization’s mission and philosophy.
“The spirit of Taiwan is very much to love; to be grateful, grateful for people and for Mother Earth; and to be respectful,” he says.
“After the [March 11] Japan earthquake and tsunami, people in Taiwan donated more money [per capita] than any other country in the world, more than the United States. This is a small island, just 10 percent bigger than Vancouver Island. But the love of Taiwanese people is incredible.”
Locally, Ho says the Tzu Chi Foundation has donated millions of dollars to various hospitals, with the only stipulation being that the funds go to new equipment that will benefit patients directly.
Every day, members can be found volunteering at food banks throughout Metro Vancouver and at seniors’ homes, doing everything from cooking to translating.
Environmental protection and the promotion of an eco-friendly lifestyle are Tzu Chi priorities.
Ho notes that Cheng Yen has encouraged members to be vegetarian, in part because of the environmental effects of meat and poultry industries.
Tzu Chi Canada will also play an active role in the Telus TaiwanFest—which runs Saturday to Monday (September 3 to 5) outside the Vancouver Art Gallery—cleaning the streets, removing trash, and recycling as much material as possible.
Ho says the organization is still looking for volunteers.
“By cleaning the street, you cleanse your heart,” Ho says. “Feelings like jealousy, feeling sorry for yourself, hatred—you clean them away. You feel happy. You clear the dust from your heart.”