The Tzu Chi Foundation website tells the story of the Buddhist charity’s humble origins. Its Taiwanese founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, was visiting a health clinic when she spotted a pool of blood on the floor. It came from a poor indigenous woman who had gone into labour but couldn’t afford the US$200 fee. The woman was carried back to her village untreated.
Cheng Yen decided to do something about this by asking women in the area to donate a penny per day. If this had occurred over the course of a year, it would have been enough to pay for that woman’s treatment.
Cheng Yen wanted her disciples making donations this way rather than through monthly contributions, because it would make them think of the poor every day. Since then, the Tzu Chi Foundation has grown into a global organization, offering compassionate help in more than 70 countries, earning Cheng Yen a spot on Time magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
This Labour Day weekend, Tzu Chi Foundation Canada volunteers will be at the Telus TaiwanFest on Granville Street, promoting one of Cheng Yen’s newest ideas: the 80/20 lifestyle. The charity’s Vancouver-based Canadian CEO, Gary Ho, told the Georgia Straight by phone that the 80/20 idea came to her after the Tzu Chi Foundation did some relief work in Burma. Cheng Yen noticed that people were so poor that they had no money to offer to low-income people, but they still wanted to help. So they took 20 percent of the rice off their plates and put it in a rice box. “It’s just like our piggy bank,” Ho said. “Not money, but rice—and they would put it in the bank to help others.”
Cheng Yen is advancing the notion of reducing consumption of food and other goods and services, including electricity, by 20 percent so that more can be shared with the needy. Ho pointed out that Tzu Chi Foundation staff employ this principle at the office when they’re having lunch.
“People misunderstand and think that we share the rest of the rice meal with others,” he stated. “It’s not like this. It’s the money we save [by not consuming] that we give to others.”
Ho quipped that this way of life helps him lose weight and avoid indigestion. And at this year’s Telus TaiwanFest, which runs from Saturday to Monday (September 1 to 3) in downtown Vancouver, Tzu Chi Foundation volunteers will present T-shirts to VIPs highlighting the 80/20 lifestyle. There will also be posters promoting the concept on tents along Granville Street in the downtown core.
The Tzu Chi Foundation has developed a stellar environmental reputation by dispatching volunteers to clean up the streets at major events, including the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival and the Canada Day celebrations. Ho said there will be more than 300 people picking up trash on each of the three days of Telus TaiwanFest.
Throughout the event, the foundation will also offer a free clinic with 60 practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, between noon and 6 p.m. in the 600 block of Granville Street.
At a news conference at the CBC building earlier this summer, Telus TaiwanFest organizer Charlie Wu credited the Tzu Chi Foundation’s volunteers for helping make the event a success in the past.
“They do the dirty work,” Wu said. “We need more people like them in Vancouver.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer is another admirer of the Tzu Chi Foundation.
"I'm very impressed that in addition to all of the charitable work they do and education and global relief that they also have chosen the environment as one of their focuses," she said. "This is not as common in charitable foundations that are focused on social missions."
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.