A Different Take: Asia fountainhead of spiritual, political women leaders

Issue Date: April 16-30, 2007, Posted On: 4/17/2007 


By Bal Ram Singh

There is a moving story behind the life of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan. Her current efforts started  in 1960 at an early age of 23 years. Her father had passed away after a stroke, and she missed him very much. She continued even blaming herself somehow for her father’s death, at least for not being able to take care of him properly.

She was understandably quite distraught in those days, and coincidentally, was visited by three missionary ladies. According to her book entitled “Still Thoughts,” she became more distraught when the missionary ladies mentioned to her that her religion, Buddhism, did not care for others. It was concerned with only self salvation, whereas Christianity provided avenues for others’ salvation.

The tradition at that time did seem to indicate self-centeredness in Buddhist spirituality, as is the case with all Eastern philosophies, in contrast to organized Western religions.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen could not agree with such a description of her tradition in which Buddha was believed to have given up everything for the welfare of the society that was living under pathetic conditions during the sixth century B.C. She could not agree that Buddhism was a selfish philosophy, and decided to look into the tradition ab initio.

According to the practice of Buddhist tradition, a monk or nun cannot build organizations. However, Dharma Master Cheng Yen reinterpreted the meaning of this injunction. She studied basic principles of Buddhism from Master Hsu Tsung-Ming in Hualien, a town which now hosts the world headquarters of the Tzu Chi Foundation, Tzu Chi Hospital, and Tzu Chi University.

My daylong visit in August 2006 to Tzu Chi University, especially to their medical school, was an eye opener. They hold an enviable position of pledges from thousands of people willing to donate their body after death for medical education. In contrast, most medical schools in the world have shortage of cadavers for classroom education. A scene from the Bollyhood hit “Munnabhai M.B.B.S.” can attest to this situation.

The surplus of cadavers at Tzu Chi Medical School is not because they provide any monetary incentive, but how they treat the body in accordance with the Chinese tradition of Buddhist thoughts of respect to others even after death.

As an example, after using the cadaver for education over a three to four month period, medical students perform an elaborate ritual of showing their respect to the body, and take out a procession on their campus before the cremation. They also visit the family and perform Buddhist rituals at their home, and finally keep a small portion of the ash permanently in a specially designed room at the medical school.

Nobility of their thoughts and dedication of their work under the leadership of the Dharma Master has allowed the Tzu Chi Foundation to serve people throughout the world, even in mainland China. I was told that they succeeded there after initial hurdles faced due to the suspicion of the Chinese government about Tzu Chi being a Taiwan-based organization.

Let me also note that I was given an unexpectedly warm welcome at the foundation by someone holding a high position at Tzu Chi, not only because I was visiting their university to give a scientific lecture, but also because I was originally from India.

Traditionally, India is held in high regard amongst the Chinese public. Supporting this assertion, Professor Tan Chung, who taught Chinese at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, made an observation in a lecture in June 2004 that “Some time around 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong startled his hosts in the Indian Embassy, Beijing, by his after-dinner witty talk that “every Chinese wished to reincarnate in India after death.”

Professor Tan Chung further observed, “Today, this sincere wish still survives in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India, in places where Chinese diaspora have settled around the world, and even in the Chinese countryside where traditions diehard. This wish was reproduced in China for nearly two thousand years by Buddhists who used to call India xitian (western heaven) or zhongtian (“central heaven,” i.e., Madhya­desa or present Bihar), and their own motherland dongtu (eastern land). So, our fierce revolutionary Mao was the messenger of a precious information from the sedimentation of Chinese civilization, which has such a soft corner for the neighboring civilization of India.”

There are very few people in India who are even aware of this Chinese tradition. I  learned of it from a Chinese graduate student of mine at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the early 1990s. My visit to Taiwan certainly reinforced this view, not only by the sights of Buddha statues throughout the country, but also by many of the essential cultural practices practised there: respecting nature, elders, and guests, and more importantly, my encounter with the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Tzu Chi Foundation, which was started by the participation of 30 household women contributing funds equivalent to $0.02 per day, now collects several hundred million dollars every year. The Dharma Master, along with her 300 nuns, lives a very simple life without air conditioning or any other luxuries, and all of them work every day to earn their meal.

There is so much more to be written about Dharma Master Cheng Yen, but I want to focus on what this encounter provided me as a reflective moment to observe a decades-long phenomenon we may have overlooked.

That phenomenon is the emergence of substantial women leaders, whose philosophical, cultural, traditional and civilizational moorings are in the Indian subcontinent.

There is no other part of the world which can claim an Indira Gandhi, a Srimao Bhandarnayake, a Hasina Wajed, a Khalida Zia, a Benazir Bhutto, a Chandrika Kumartunga, all of who led national governments.

That is not all, there is another less talked about leadership provided by women leaders of the subcontinent. These are the spiritual leaders — Mata Amritanandamayi in Kerala, Anandamurti Guruma in Haryana, the Brahmakumaris in Rajasthan, Mother Teresa in Kolkata, Niruben Amin in Gujarat, and Didi Ma Ritambhara, who have millions of followers throughout the world.

I find Dharma Master Cheng Yen a part of this phenomenon. I call it a phenomenon, not just a coincidence, because this seems to have both a time and space aspect, and must be examined for its social, political, economic, and civilizational implications.

India’s unique traditions seem to play a pivotal role in this phenomenon. You better believe this, when Gloria Steinem, the firebrand feminist leader attributes a turning point in her life to a visit to India in 1950s (March 8, 2007, rediff.com): “It was very important for me to come to live in India. …coming to India changed my view. India represents the world much better than the United States does in terms of how people live.”

Bal Ram Singh is the director of Indic  Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He can be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.