In 1966, Master Cheng Yen and her six disciples made six extra pairs of baby shoes a day to support Tzu Chi’s charity work.
Making an Additional Pair of Baby Shoes to Support Tzu Chi’s Charity Work
When visiting the sick, Master witnessed a pool of blood from an indigenous woman who had suffered a miscarriage.
April 16, 1966
Three Catholic nuns came to spread Christian teachings and discuss life and religion with Master Cheng Yen. This led Master Cheng Yen to the profound realization that Buddhist practitioners ought to benefit society in tangible ways. That afternoon, Master Cheng Yen told her disciples and the two seniors who had asked her to stay, “If everyone produces one more pair of baby shoes each day, we can actually do relief work.” She also said to the thirty disciples who had petitioned Master Yin Shun, “If you wish for me to remain in Hualien, then every one of you must save fifty cents each day as a charity fund.” It was on that day that she announced she would begin accepting donations for charity work. This is how the spirit of the bamboo banks began.
May 14, 1966
The Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association was established in Jiamin Village’s Puming Temple. The donations came from six resident disciples who made an additional pair of baby shoes every day and Master’s thirty female followers who saved fifty cents of their grocery money each day.
December 25, 1990
Master De Tzu’s Oral History, Tzu Chi Monthly Issue 289
When we left our secular life behind to enter the Tathagata’s family, we did not bring anything with us. Master did not allow us to bring any money from our secular life either, saying that it would create a sense of dependency in us. At that time, there was no money to buy food, so we relied on the wages from Master De Rong’s knitting to support us. We also planted vegetables periodically. The crops needed at least one month before they were ready for harvest. While we waited for crops, we had to forage for wild plants to eat, such as vegetable fern, prickly amaranth, and crown daisies. There was one month where we only had fifty cents. We used this to buy four blocks of tofu, which we sliced thinly and pickled in salt. When the time came to eat them, we fried them in oil. This fifty cents’ worth of tofu was able to sustain us for a whole month.
Wages were paid twice a month, and we would borrow oil and rice from Puming Temple before we were paid. Once we were paid and could repay them for the oil and rice we borrowed, there was not much left at all. So, we would carry our wok back and forth. Seeing this, Master felt so sad, and she encouraged us, saying, “Since you have chosen to become monastics, you cannot seek comfort. You need to have the endurance of a camel and the courage of a lion to bear what others cannot bear.” So, we made the most of our half-acre of land behind Puming Temple and cultivated it for farming.
The land had been abandoned for a long time and was full of weeds, and since the new year was approaching, no one could come to help us plow. A lay practitioner suggested that we borrow an ox and a plow from a nearby indigenous village. We borrowed an ox and a plow, but because we had no experience, the old ox would not listen to us and refused to move. Furthermore, because the weeds were so tall, the ox could not pull the plow. If an ox does not move, most people would whip it, but Master could not bear to do this. Instead, she walked ahead of the ox with a big stalk of sugarcane to entice it forward, while I went behind to push the plow. There was an elderly man who watched us and said we looked like children at play. It took us more than a week to clear this half-acre of land.
We did not have any money, so we borrowed a half-sack of peanuts to plant. Once we returned with the borrowed peanuts, we quickly shelled them and got ready to plant them. The elderly man said, “It’s too early to shell them. The peanuts will lose their oil and will not grow well. If you plant them too early, the weeds will grow too thick, and you will not have a good harvest.” The peanuts had already been shelled, so we had no choice but to plant them. As soon as we planted them, the weeds also sprang up, and the long flowing grasses quickly swallowed up the peanuts. The crop did not grow well, and the harvest was poor. All we could do was ask people to come help us weed. A day’s wage was NT$25, yet we often had trouble coming up with the $2.50 needed for bus fare to Hualien. Thus, our farming venture only ended up increasing our burden.
Thus, we turned to pasting together cement sacks for income. We bought the sacks from the factory for fifty cents each. When we opened them up, they separated into five layers, and we would wipe the inside and clean it up, before cutting and gluing them into smaller paper bags. In the process, cement dust would fly everywhere. After a day’s work, our faces were covered in dust, yet we could only sell the sacks for NT$4 per 600g. After doing this for two months, Master was worried the cement dust would cause us to develop a respiratory illness and give us long-term health problems. Having to go to the factory to buy cement sacks did not look good for us either, and before long, we gave up on this work.
After this, we turned to making baby shoes. We got our materials from the scraps of fabric collected for free at a clothing store. At the time, there were six of us (two senior Bodhisattvas, Mrs. Ping and Zhuang Shi, who was the second Tzu Chi commissioner in Hualien, Master De Rong, Master De En, myself, and Zhuang Shi’s granddaughter. Every day, each person made one pair of baby shoes. One pair of baby shoes sold for NT$4. So, in one day, six people could earn a total of NT$24. By doing this work on the side, we were able to depend less upon our crops for sustenance.
After making baby shoes for two months, the Tzu Chi Merit Association was established on May 14, 1966, or the twenty-fourth day of the third lunar month. In order to take up the mission of poverty relief, Master encouraged each of us to make an extra pair of shoes each day, which would increase our daily earnings to NT$48. Half was for us to live on, and half was for the foundation to help the poor. NT$24 a day came to NT$720 a month, and combined with the donations of the thirty members who were saving fifty cents a day from their grocery money, we saved NT$1,170 a month for poverty relief. So, in the early days, the foundation was called “Buddhist Difficulty-Overcoming Tzu Chi Merit Association.” This refers to the hardships we had to conquer as we sewed baby shoes stitch-by-stich to earn money for the foundation.
Three Principles for Carrying Out Our Missions, The Footprints of Master Cheng Yen - Summer Volume 1997
For the past thirty years, Tzu Chi has faced the complexities of the human mind and worldly matters with a simple mindset. This so-called “simple” mindset is to use a world-transcending spirit to carry out our missions in the world. Naturally, a person with a world-transcending spirit will not come into conflict with anyone over any worldly matter. But though our minds are completely at peace, we cannot bear to see the suffering of sentient beings. So, we maintain our compassionate vow to go among people to carry out our mission of helping the world. It is with this simple vow that we carry out our missions, constantly filling our hearts with joy. A heart full of joy is like a charged battery; even though we are so busy, we never feel tired. Rather, we feel that life is very sweet.
No matter what task we set out to complete, we must think of it more simply, instead of making things more complicated. Then, we will not find it difficult. There is a saying that goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” When we put our minds to it, how could anything in the world be hard? Tzu Chi’s work in the early days was like this.
Poverty was very prevalent in society, and it was not easy to carry out poverty relief work. Some people had their doubts and asked me, “You all are having a hard time getting by on your own, so how will you be able to help others?” At the time, I did not feel it was difficult. I had the simple idea that instead of eating until I was 100% full, I could also eat until I was 80% full and leave the remaining 20% for others. In addition, after instructing these six disciples to sew baby shoes to make a living, I told them to make one extra pair so that they could earn an extra NT$24 a day. This is how Tzu Chi was founded with this meager amount of money.
The Footprints of Master Cheng Yen - Winter Volume 2003
(Previous portion omitted.)
In the spring of 1955, I was with Dharma Master De Rong one morning. At the time, she had yet to become a monastic, but she still followed me as a lay practitioner. We had to make handcrafts to sustain ourselves, so life was very difficult. Master De Rong was helping out at her older sister’s shop back then and was learning how to knit wool sweaters at the same time. When she began to follow me, she brought her crafting skills with her. In the early days, I was living at Puming Temple and only had a small living quarters. Because it was difficult to make a living, Master De Rong helped by knitting wool sweaters and used the money to support us.
However, this income was not enough, because there were four to five people who were engaging in spiritual practice with me to provide for. During that time, we were still reprocessing cement sacks. In the past, cement sacks had three to four layers or four to five layers. After ripping them open, the outermost layer was very dirty, and the innermost layer was full of cement dust. The middle three or four layers were clean. Back then, we would collect the cement sacks, tear them open, and set the clean layers aside. We slowly cleaned the dirty layers, then cut the large sheets of paper into smaller pieces, gluing them together to make bags. We used the dirty outer layer and the inner layer where the cement was packed to make smaller bags to sell to the hardware shop for packing nails or hardware. We used the clean middle layers to make small bags to sell to the feed shops to pack feed for the animals.
At the same time, we also used scraps of fabric and recycled material to make baby shoes. In addition, we rented a plot of land behind Puming Temple to plant peanuts and sweet potatoes. At the time, we lacked the manpower, and yet we had so much work to do. You can imagine how very difficult it was. This was our way of life in the early days. We really had to overcome many hardships to make a living.
The Footprints of Master Cheng Yen, Autumn Volume 2006
When Master was discussing this portion of history with a Dharma-sister, she mentioned how the initial steps of Tzu Chi’s mission of charity began with the resident monastics and the effort they put into making handcrafts, as well as with those who heeded the call of the spirit of the bamboo banks. Little by little, they collected funds to conduct charity work. In order to rally everyone to work together to do good deeds, Master had no choice but to break the vow that she would never hold a Dharma assembly. So, she began to chant the Medicine Buddha Sutra once a month to bless Tzu Chi’s donating members.
(Middle portion omitted)
When Master mentioned the early days and how she held the Medicine Buddha Dharma assembly for the monthly aid distribution for the poor, she recalled her internal struggle at breaking the vow she had made to herself. But because this is what she had to do in order to help people, she would always recite the sutra, albeit in tears. Remaining firm in her aspiration to help people, she used the entirety of the assembly’s proceeds to help others. Despite the tough living conditions faced by resident monastics at the Abode, she insisted that they would not touch a single penny of the money donated for charity, even if it meant borrowing money to do charity work and working to repay their debts. In the early days, the resident monastics followed a repetitive cycle of borrowing money, working, and repaying their debts. It was extremely difficult, but their hearts were at peace.
“Looking back again, I feel that this is a very precious spiritual principle. In the past, the resident monastics did handcrafts and collected used cement sacks. Each cement sack had three to five layers, and we would carefully pull them apart. The outermost and innermost layers were dirty, while the middle two to three layers were clean, so we separated the dirty layers from the clean ones. Then, the clean bags we made could be used for feed and were sold to feed shops, while the bags made of the dirty layers could be sold to hardware shops to pack nails.”
Master talked about how, before Master De Yang became a monastic, she ran a fabric shop where she worked as a tailor. She would take her fabric to the Abode and commission the resident monastics to make clothing, and afterwards, she would donate the scraps of fabric for making baby shoes.
Thus, the resident monastics repurposed these discarded materials, collecting cement sacks and making them into feed bags and turning scraps of fabric into baby shoes. They worked hard and endured many days of hardship in order to do the work of Tzu Chi. This was a very precious time in history, imbued with the essential spirit that lies at the heart of Tzu Chi.
(Middle portion omitted)
Master says that even though a monastic no longer takes part in worldly matters, the resident monastics at the Abode must be self-sufficient and do worldly work to make a living. Everyone must work very hard, toiling away every day with pure hearts. “Looking back, I was very simple-minded and hardworking. But everyone has limitless potential. When we are inexperienced or not capable of much, we should say, ‘I do not know how to do this, but I will learn.’ If people tell us, ‘This is very difficult to do. Won’t you get tired?’ we will say, ‘I am happy to do it, so I won’t find it tiring.’ It is this potential that brought us through those times as we lived a life of spiritual practice. We do not compete with others in this world; we only hope to inspire love in everyone’s hearts by following the Buddha’s teachings and demonstrating the bodhisattva spirit. Believing in the Buddha means more than just praying and asking the buddhas and bodhisattvas for protection. If we do not do good deeds for others and only seek blessings for ourselves, we are deluded!”
Tzu Chi Songs
The Dharma Masters’ Sewing Room
The Bamboo Bank Story
Master Cheng Yen’s World of Tzu Chi (Buddhist Tzu Chi Humanistic Culture Center, 1981)
Great Love: Master Cheng Yen’s World of Tzu Chi (Commonwealth Publishing Co., Ltd, 1966)
From Bamboo Banks to International NGO: The Great Treasury of the Tzu Chi School of Buddhism (Rhythms Monthly, 2011)
50 Years on the Bodhisattva Path (Commonwealth Publishing Co., Ltd, 2016)
Master De Tzu’s Stories on Tzu Chi’s Early Days (Tzu Chi Publishing Co., 2017)
Mindfully Understanding the Old Dharma (Tzu Chi Publishing Co., 2018)