More Than Meditation

May 11, 2009

Author: Kanglei Wang

Source: The Yale Globalist,8159,0,0,1,0

Nine years ago, Homeig Wu hesitated when asked if she had a religion. She had a fleeting relationship with Buddhism, making only occasional donations and trips to her local temple to “bai bai” — a light-hearted religious practice that more devout Buddhists see as only brushing the surface of spirituality.

Like Wu, most Taiwanese citizens and Taiwanese immigrants to the United States would say they have no religion. Buddhism has been an important part of Taiwan’s folk tradition, and Taiwanese government statistics indicate that over one-third of Taiwan residents identify with Buddhism in some respect, but their belief is just not formal enough for them to consider themselves full-fledged Buddhists.

Occasional “bai bai” was the extent of Homeig Wu’s Buddhist practice before she joined the Flushing, New York, chapter of Tzu Chi, a Buddhist organization that promotes social engagement. She has been with Tzu Chi ever since, seeing its work at a family service center by Pier 94 in Manhattan after the September 11 attacks. She now volunteers five days a week with the organization.

In recent years, socially engaged Buddhism has emerged as a response to the stereotypical, socially isolated Buddhism of temples, meditation, ancient texts, and monks in flowing robes. A Buddhist nun started Tzu Chi — which literally means “compassion and relief” —in 1966; it now has chapters in over 30 countries and about 5 million members worldwide.

Instead of meeting in temples, Tzu Chi members gather in offices, recycling centers, homeless shelters, and free clinics, donating their time to run community-oriented direct action. Tzu Chi and its followers look to live the Buddhist principle of compassion, to practice Buddhism in action, beyond the temple.