Thirty Housewives Saving Fifty Cents a Day to Support Tzu Chi
In February of 1966, thirty housewives jointly petitioned for Master Cheng Yen to stay in Hualien. One day when visiting the sick, she saw a pool of blood from an indigenous woman who had a miscarriage. Later on, three Catholic nuns came to visit her. These were the causes and conditions that lead Master Cheng Yen to make a vow to “bring together 500 people to form one Guanyin Bodhisattva with 1,000 hands and 1,000 eyes.” It was with this spirit that she established a bodhisattva network that could respond to the calls for help and save those who are suffering.
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. From then on, the bamboo bank spirit began spreading in markets all over Hualien.
May 14, 1966
The Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association was established at Puming Temple in Jiamin Village. The charitable fund came from six residents—Master, her three disciples (De Tzu, De Rong, and De En), and two senior volunteers (Ping Huiyong and Zhuang Shi)—who each made an extra pair of baby shoes every day, along with the money saved by the thirty housewives who set aside fifty cents a day from their grocery money.
1996 Tzu Chi Almanac
In the early days of Tzu Chi, thirty housewives would set aside fifty cents from their grocery money every day before going to the market to support Master Cheng Yen in starting the mission of charity to aid the poor. In order to perpetuate this spirit, over 120 senior commissioners from Hualien presented their bamboo banks to Master at the Abode on April 25. After more than one year of depositing NT$5 and NT$10 coins into the banks, the bamboo banks had grown very heavy. When Master reached out to receive them, she could barely lift them. Recalling the spirit of the bamboo banks thirty years before, Master said, “At that time, I only needed to use one finger to gently support the bamboo banks, and now…” In front of her, the many commissioners who used to stand up straight now walked with faltering steps. It had been thirty years and the then-middle-aged housewives were now grandmothers holding grandchildren in their arms.
Thirty years before, the society of Taiwan was still transitioning from an agricultural economy. The government did not have sufficient financial resources, and social services were not yet set up, so there were impoverished people in many places. At that time, most Tzu Chi commissioners were housewives. They admired Master’s bodhisattva aspiration of helping the poor and going to remote areas with the mission of transforming all people in Eastern Taiwan. Besides depositing fifty cents a day into the bamboo banks, they solicited donations from market vendors, as well as their friends and families. With the small donations of NT$5 to NT$10 that accumulated over time, their warm care illuminated the lives of many of Eastern Taiwan’s poor.
As Taiwan’s society began to prosper, Taiwan’s average annual household income went from US$221 to over US$11,000 in the past thirty years. As people began to experience financial wealth and material abundance, many began to wonder what they could give back to the land that nourished them.
Some people say, “Tzu Chi is the reflection of Taiwanese society, which has become wealthy and now seeks to give back.” Tzu Chi began helping with fifty cents a day, drops of love which gradually accumulated into a large amount. After this love filled the island of Taiwan, it began to spread abroad. We began to have the ability to also care for those suffering outside of Taiwan. In Taiwan, the development of Tzu Chi occurred concurrently with society, spreading from one corner of Eastern Taiwan throughout the island, and later moving to international disaster relief. Tzu Chi volunteers’ efforts have gradually transformed the international image of Taiwan, washing away the ugly name of the “island of greed” and replacing it with the “island of love” and “island of charity.”
Master Cheng Yen’s World of Tzu Chi
Unable to find five hundred people right away, Master Cheng Yen began with the thirty people who were already there. Master led her four disciples, two senior volunteers, and thirty housewives to formally establish the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association at Puming Temple. This was the first page of Tzu Chi’s history. Some people questioned Master, saying, “You don’t even have the NT$2 to NT$3 that is needed for bus fare; how will you be able to help other people?” This was when Master first proposed that the six lay and monastic disciples would each make one extra pair of baby shoes a day, earning an extra NT$24 a day, totaling NT$720 a month, or NT$8,640 a year. This would have been enough to save the indigenous woman who had a miscarriage. Second, she gave thirty bamboo banks to the thirty housewives and asked each person to set aside fifty cents a day from their grocery money and deposit it into the bamboo bank. This would be a total of NT$15 a day, and NT$450 a month. Some asked, “Why don’t we just give NT$15 once a month?” Master replied, “Love is something that must be cultivated daily. If people only give once a month, they are only inspiring their love once a month; by donating money every day, I hope for everyone to give rise to the aspiration to help others every day when they take up their grocery basket. At the same time, people will understand that even fifty cents can save lives.”
The Footprints of Master Cheng Yen - Summer Volume 2002
On the eve before Tzu Chi’s thirty-sixth anniversary, Master Cheng Yen used the metaphor of having the courage of a lion to encourage everyone to take on the work of passing on Tzu Chi’s wisdom-life forever. Thirty-six years ago, on the eve of Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association’s founding, how was Master feeling?
“Thirty-six years ago, it was the eve of the founding of the merit association. At the time, in order to establish the merit association the following day, I began reading the Medicine Buddha Sutra. For those willing to donate, whether by forming an aspiration to donate NT$10 or NT$15 a month, or even just fifty cents a day, for these people, I promised that I would lead a chant of the Medicine Buddha Sutra every month. At the time, this was a very big thing for me because I had once made three vows, which were not to conduct repentance ceremonies, not to be an abbot, and not to receive disciples.”
“The following day, when I opened the Medicine Buddha Sutra, I was, of course, full of reverence because so many people were willing to set aside fifty cents from their grocery money every day, and some were willing to donate NT$10, NT$5, or NT$15 and so on. This showed their faith in me and support for me. At the time, I had a deep sense of responsibility in my heart, and I felt that I must take on their safety and their illnesses. Therefore, I very reverently chanted the Medicine Buddha Sutra. After chanting it, I read the letter of request. As I was opening and reading the letter, I wept and felt so sad.”
“Why did I feel sad? Because I had once vowed to not conduct repentance ceremonies for others. However, in order to establish this Tzu Chi Merit Association, I had to reverently chant the sutra and recite the letter of request for everyone’s peace and blessings. Since I had made and broken this vow myself, I felt very sad. I felt very conflicted and struggled a lot. But I also knew this was a challenge for me. When I was reading this letter of request, I was at Puming Temple.”
“At the time, Tzu Chi operated in the space of the prayer hall at Puming Temple. There were also only six or seven people, but from that year on, there was a Medicine Buddha Dharma-assembly every month. Every year, there was a winter distribution for the poor, and the footprints of Tzu Chi continued to advance forward.”
“When the Jing Si Abode first began, there was only this prayer hall. The prayer hall served as our dormitory, Buddha hall, and offices all at once. At the time, we would hold seven-day retreats every year. In this space, people slept here and we did the seven-day retreat here. Everyone felt very content at that time, yet Tzu Chi has continuously moved forward. Now, you are all sitting in the chairs in Jing Si Hall.”
From the time Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Association took its first step until today, thirty-six years have passed. Tzu Chi went from the tiny Puming Temple to the Jing Si Abode, and now the Jing Si Hall. Master is very grateful to her senior commissioners because everyone persisted in their initial aspiration. “Since the beginning, they have never rested while following me. Everyone was very earnest, very willing, and very joyful as they carried out the work for the Four Missions. Without perseverance, we would not have this large organization with so many people.”
The Footprints of Master Cheng Yen - Winter Volume 2006
There were so many amazing causes and conditions at work. As I engaged in spiritual practice in Hualien, I realized that the principles of the Buddha-Dharma truly encompass space, time, and interpersonal relations in the universe, so I felt that we must rise up and go among people to do something. Once I gave rise to that thought, I heard the story behind the pool of blood. This pool of blood affected two people’s lives and strengthened my resolve to save people, which is why we entered the bamboo bank era. At that time, I lived behind Puming Temple with five other people who were following me to engage in spiritual practice. Our lives were very difficult and we had to support our own livelihood. Although we were poor, we only needed to put forth a bit of extra effort to make one extra pair of baby shoes a day so that we could do a bit more.
I said, “Making a pair of baby shoes earns NT$4. If six people each make one extra pair of shoes a day, then that is an extra NT$24 a day. As this accumulates, we will have several hundred a month, and several thousand a year! If we regularly accumulate this, when we encounter people who need help, we will have the ability to go out and help them.”
So, Tzu Chi’s missions began with the residents making an extra pair of baby shoes each day. Before the merit association was established, we still lacked strength. It just so happened at that time, my master asked me to move to Chiayi and gave me some money to relocate. When some seniors heard about this, they could not bear for me to go, and they asked someone to help write a letter, petitioning my master to let me stay for another three years before moving. I then decided to tell them, “Instead of the thirty of you writing a letter of petition, you can help me by saving fifty cents a day from your grocery money. Along with the money from the residents’ handicrafts, we will have some money for charity relief every year. Then, I will stay in Hualien forever and never leave.”
I cut the bamboo myself and gave the thirty housewives the bamboo banks. Some people thought, “Why must we donate fifty cents every day? We could just donate NT$15 every month.” I replied, “I don’t want your NT$15 a month. I only want your fifty cents a day because it is only when we give rise to a loving heart every day that our blessings will grow daily.”
If each person begins their day with this intention to save money to help people, they will give rise to a heart that creates blessings, like the shadow that follows an object. As the housewives gave rise to this intention of depositing fifty cents to help people every day, it would be clear in their minds, and they would ask vendors at the market to sell them a little less because they wanted to save the fifty cents.
When the vendors asked them why they were saving fifty cents, they told them my words. Then, when people heard that they could save a life with fifty cents, everyone joyfully joined in. Tzu Chi originated from these thirty bamboo banks and the markets, and it has grown over the past forty years until today.
Tzu Chi Songs
The Bamboo Bank Story
Master Cheng Yen’s World of Tzu Chi (Buddhist Tzu Chi Mission of Culture Center, 1981)
Great Love: Master Cheng Yen and the World of Tzu Chi (Commonwealth Publishing, 1996)
50 Years on the Bodhisattva Path (Commonwealth Publishing, 2016)
Doing Tzu Chi Work with Fifty Cents