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Collaborative Compassion


Venue: The Ash Center of Harvard Kennedy School

Date: February 7, 2020

Speaker: Dr. Rey Sheng Her 

Visiting Scholar at Harvard Kennedy School Director of Literature and History Department of Tzu Chi Foundation

Host: Professor Howitt, The Director of Center for Crisis leadership, Harvard Kennedy School

Host: I am Arnold Howitt, and we're very pleased today to have Dr.  Her Rey Sheng as our speaker who is the scholar in the Ash Center this semester. Dr. Her is the spokesman and director of humanitarian humanity department of Tzu Chi foundation in Taiwan, which runs the largest faith-based international NGO in the Chinese world. He's also an associate professor teaching philanthropy and philosophy both at the National Chengchi University of Taiwan and Tzu Chi University, both of which are top universities in Taiwan. He has previously been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and most recently he's been advacating “Goodness” study in China and elsewhere .

Perhaps the most important for us today is that we have a speaker who has a very strong background in humanitarian relief activities, which Tzu Chi has a great deal of and who is going to speak to us today about the general philosophy of Tzu Chi foundation and describe some of the efforts that the foundation is devoted in several actual disasters, including the Nepal earthquake of 2015. So please join me in welcoming Professor Her.


The Largest Faith-Based International NGO in the Chinese World

Dr. Rey Sheng Her:Thank you, Professor Howitt, and Ash Center, and especially Dr. Kaori who helps me to organize this speech.

I've been working as an anchorperson and producer for decades. And then I join the Tzu Chi foundation as a spokesperson and also engaged in charity activities. I spent two years here and the other universities to conduct my research. Today I want to share with you the "collaborative compassion", which is also considered the main theme for Tzu Chi.

The founder of Tzu Chi foundation, Master Cheng Yen. She is 84 years old now and founded this foundation for 55 years since 1966.

55 years ago, when she witnessed a pregnant woman who was unable to pay deposit are rejected for treatment by the doctor, she decided to devote herself to charity. It was from the 50 cents per day that she encouraged her disciples mostly the housewives to collect every day that Tzu Chi had grown into the global scale today. Now Tzu Chi has medical, education, cultural, environmental protection missions, etc.  It carries out the four missions worldwide. It does charity works in over 100 countries, including united states, mainland China, Asia, etc. and it supports over 20 million people on average per year, with nearly 2 million volunteers worldwide, branch offices in over 58 countries so far.

So it's from a very humble starting pointing, with merely 30 housewife and Master herself. However, 50 years later, it has become the largest faith-based NGO in the Chinese speaking world. The Tzu Chi abode, a very small one. We don't have air condition there. I work there for nearly 20 years. This is the abode the spiritual center for Tzu Chi, too. And the core value for Tzu Chi is very important. It is what Tzu Chi relies on to start, to develop and to thrive on


Core Value Combined with Governance by Principles

The core value is not only selflessness but giving with gratitude. We expect to give without asking anything in return, and also be grateful to be able to give, so we bowed to the recipients every time we deliver something to them. We are so fortunate to be a giver, and it's a blessing to contribute to the society. Also, we learn from sufferings. Master Cheng Yen always tells us to treat suffering as your mentor, because it will teach you a lot of wisdom. Learning from the suffered is the key for giving with gratitude.

 We also stick to principles. When we're talking about compassion mobilization, they all come with the core value and principles. For Tzu Chi members, you have to emphasize that the delivering has to be direct. You don't hand over the money to the 3rd party and expect it to accomplish your mission. We want to go and deliver directly. The most important thing is that you have to ensure you are deliver help to the right person and more importantly by doing so you are not only giving help but conveying compassion and love to them. For the volunteers, this kind of giving also inspires their compassion and mercy and will change your life.

So, we emphasize "direct giving" and "respect". And then "focus". When disaster occurs, you identify some crucial and severe locations and put every resource into the places, and then "safety of volunteers". We don't want to sacrifice volunteers, so safety of your life is important; and also "self-expenses", every volunteer pay their fee to do charity works, at home or abroad. And very important is that they have to comply with ten precepts, that come from the Buddhist teaching; and also "no politics". We are not going to promote or to protect any kind of political parties in Taiwan, in China or elsewhere.

And "no religion", we are not intentionally to preach Buddhism. But if you ask me who you are, I would say we are Buddhists, only not intentionally spread out our beliefs, "no propaganda". You don't propagandize people's suffering and "personal business". We are organized by groups, group in and group out, without personal agendas. That's the principle. So, to comply with this value and principle, we are able to organize the relief work effectively.


Proactive Relief and Coordination of All Parties

"initiation, coordination, action, inspiration, empowerment, responsive, integration, collaboration, rebuild, adaption, and sustaining", I call it the Round Theory.

I will take an example about the Philippines. Faith-based, Tzu Chi volunteers believe that we have to be selfless in giving, and that where there are disasters, there are Tzu Chi people. It also conveys the spirit of altruism, which means that through helping others, we can purify our soul; and through social fulfillment, we also can reach self- actualization. You are not to become successful and then do the charity. You do the service first and then to complete your self-actualization. And by doing those philanthropy we are able to accomplish social justice which means equality and love to all. Take the example of Haiyen typhoon in 2013. There was a very severe devastating typhoon. You see 80 percent of the city being ruined, very severe and devastating.

You can see that the super typhoon knocked on the land and the big ship got ashore to the land and clashed the building, and 500 people were in the building all passed away. That's the worst situation. We initiated our action to relieve the people in the Philippines; local volunteers came with the international volunteers, and went to look at how severe the situation was and how we can do for those survivors. So, we were doing the survey first. We have small group who go there doing the survey to understand the situation, the scale of damage, what they need, the government efficiency and so forth.

And then the third thing is "coordination ". We talk to the headquarter directly by video conferences. This is the video conference with headquarter in Taiwan and Master always presides video conference. From those pictures, you can see how pious they are when they pray together for these survivals. This is a discussion about the policy, about how we can support the front-line on the relief works and actions. We focus so hard because at the beginning the government of of Tacalobane was to abandon the city because of the disaster scale.

We can mobilize local volunteers to clean up the city. We don't have adequate volunteers as in Taiwan, about one million volunteers there, but in the Philippines we have only a small scale of 500 or 1000 people. The only way is the mobilize local people. But local people are all desperate. They felt hopeless at the moment when their family members passed away, when everything is lost. So, we gather all the senior members and also the headquarters is involved and the evaluation of priority is made, which is that we have to clean up the city first.


Inspire People to Build the City with Their Hands

We give local people 500 Peso per day generally. But if you clean up your own home and community, give you five hundred Peso. And we are equipped large trucks to help. Once the garbage is cleaned, we need something to carry it out. So, we mobilized more people from the other island, as the island of Tacalobane had been ruined. Then the problem is that people don't believe that you want to pay them 500 Peso for merely cleaning up the city. So "inspiration" is very important. You have to inspire them. In the very beginning when we say we'd offer 500 Peso, the UN group disagreed with us because they say the ordinary salary is only about 200 peso, and you guys pay too much. We say this is not for salary, but for relief work; even though you don't do your work, we still pay you. The government look at us and say, "hey, you guys are idiot. They just get your money and go home to sleep." We say that's OK. "We are going to help them in any way. "

We encourage them to use their hands with compassion to clean up and rebuild the city. The inspiration is very important before we act, and at the very beginning, only 500 people join us, but eventually 15000 people come along per day. And that is nineteen days spent on cleaning up the whole city of Tacalobane and Omarc. We pray together, we sing songs, and we pray that city can be rebuilt again, and we bring hope to them. We show them how we raised the money, how the Tzu Chi Foundation get started and they're touched even to tears.

They pray by their own way as the Catholic. So that's inspiration, and we mobilized local volunteers to join us to clean up the city and rebuilt the city. We even dance with them. We don't have an adequate facility for them to clean up. You only use bare hands. But people are always smart to find ways to do the work. So, you can see they carry different stuff, men or women, children or adult. This is the river filled with trashes. But nineteen days later, the city is reborn.


Pool cash and resources to revitalize economy

We not only try to clean up the city, but know what they want. They need cash to rejuvenate the local economy, the five hundred Peso is not adequate. So, we donated about 60 million US dollars. But to bring cash in is a critical problem. It is dangerous. Even policeman cannot guarantee your safety. Worse, they may be corrupted sometimes.

It's millions of US dollars, a lot of money, for 15000 people, 500 Peso per day. To be respectful, we designed the envelope which contains the letter from Master Cheng yen in English along with the wish cards. Our volunteers are overnight folding the envelope and put in the cash. We have to mobilize every strength together from Taiwan, mainland China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States, Australia, etc.

We hand out the blankets first. These are produced with the plastic bottle by the volunteers of the Tzu Chi Foundation. 70 bottles produce one blanket. We also support the fold-able bed. You can fold it up. You can carry, you can sit, and you can lie down on it.  Especially in the Nepal, you need this bed to sit on when the water got in the tents. We got lots of awards from Germany and America by this innovation. From the pictures, this hot meal is like a pack of rice, and you pour water into it, and after thirty minutes later it will become fried rice, so we can cook in the disaster site.

We also provide free clinic, with local and oversea doctors in them. These are Sweden doctors. They visited form house to house, people to people to provide spiritual relief and talk to them and hug them.


Self-Help   Self-Driven   Self-Encouraging

We build a temporary shelter house and classroom in Taiwan and transfer the technique into the Philippines. We also expect the recipients to donate a penny for the relief work, so the giver and recipient help each other mutually. The Buddhist philosophy says no giver, no receiver. Donating helps the local people psychologically. They are guided to be self-sustained and helpful to others. Although it's only one penny two penny out of each of them, but it is crucial for them to mobilize their compassion and confidence.


Coordination of All Units to Rebuild homes

"Integration" means different elements all come together.

And then "collaboration", we have to collaborate to talk to the local government, talk to the NGO, talk to the UN. They also work for another city called San Joyce, but a month later it remained devastated. So, they expect Tzu Chi to go over there to support San Joyce. Of course, two weeks later all is cleaned up. Our way is more efficient because we inspire, we mobilize, we empower people, and we are so integrated.

We also rebuild the catholic church of Tacalobane. Master Cheng Yen believes that the religion belief is the cornerstone for this city and should be rebuilt soonest. So, we spend about 200,000 US dollars to rebuild the church in a very short period of time.

The Omarc city mayor once came to Hualien to see Master Cheng Yen. He owned lots of lands and wanted to give to Tzu Chi to build villages for the survivors. So, we come to "Rebuild". It meaning caring the body, healing the spirit, re-establishing houses, education and environment. All six elements had to merge together. Again, we build the house in Taiwan manufacturing first, and transfer the model to Tacalobane and Omarc. We rebuilt 500 houses on the land provided by the city mayor. It's called Great Love village. Then the market and local economy comes back. So, collaboration with the local government is crucial for Tzu Chi's relief work.


Cultural Continuity that Gives What People Really Need

 "Adaption". We want to mobilize local volunteers, not just overseas ones, and we have a training program to provide a paradigm for them adopt the Tzu Chi's way to help and serve, but we will not change their original beliefs. 

The last principle is "Sustainability". We want our help to sustain. So, people's living is very important. We try to encourage them to design different programs. They do handy jobs, bakery and clothing to make a living by themselves. That's called sustainability for them to continue new life in a new world.

So this again, twelve principles, 12 elements; circled by the value and principles, initiation and coordination and inspiration for local people. Then "empowerment", and responses to their basic and important problems. It is called culture continuity. We have to build something that they can learn and they familiarize with. So, you have to perceive and provide some kind of common value. It means that can see what they want.

We have volunteers in south Africa, all protestants, who say we are doing god's work through Tzu Chi and we are even closer to our god. That's cultural continuity, too. That's the common value we provided to the recipients.


Compassion Enlightened Through Acts and Bond Making

So how to make it happen?

Through compassion of course. But it comes not by concepts, but by action. People's own act will inspire their compassion. Professor Howitt says Tzu Chi emphasizes on action. Yes, action is important; action changes your perception, your mind, and everything of your life.

And then "selfless motivation". It's proposed by  Master Cheng Yen that we should give with gratitude. And think of altruism that makes people work together. If people do not believe in altruism they would not do so. And they also want to honor Tzu Chi instead of themselves. They don't present themselves but present Tzu Chi as a whole, as honor of the organization and that's crucial too.

Also "precise principles". As I just said, we have no politics, no propaganda, no religion in disaster relief.

And "family tie". It creates the relationship of love between Tzu Chi and the recipients. Every time that we go into the relief work is just like a family reunion from across the world. From USA, China, etc., we come together. We are all family members, and now we do something good for other suffered family members. They will be rebuilt soon, they will be rebuilt eventually.

And "leadership". Of course, we have a charismatic leadership like Master Cheng Yen, but the succession will be crucial to keep the leadership.

The round structure enables this kind of paradigm, philosophy, principles, and the soonest act when disasters happen, so this is why I decide to present it to you all.

The pyramid structure, on the contrary, follows the bureaucracy system. They are layers upon layers, and it may take nine steps to get to a decision. The round structure may be more efficient.


12 Elements of Round Theory Constitute a Cycle of

Compassion and Goodness

The core of the Round Theory I want to present to you is the "core value" that inspires people; the "principles" that ensure people's wise act; "spontaneity" comes from faiths because to serve others is their faiths of life, which makes possible their spontaneous help for their neighbors in need without the orders from the headquarters; "equality" that makes we move fast without "who orders who"; ; “flat management” that enables quick response; "Transparency" that global Tzu Chi members know what you are doing immediately and are ready to “act rightly” and coordinate.

We make "models", rather than systems. We have models like our brother Pan Mingshui, who is the model in Africa, and other models in mainland, China and the Philippines who all have done a great deal of charity work. So, people are willing to follow their steps.

“Liquidation” is important as it is the best way to mobilize people. "Discussion" helps us to be open-minded and produce good strategies; "empowerment" is also important for it is open to any recipients through collaborative compassion.

So by these elements, you might be able to create this cycle of goodness and compassion in such a round structure.


Tzu Chi Members and Recipients in Quantum 

entanglement of Love

With this structure, what's between Tzu Chi and people in need is like what's between two particles in quantum entanglement. No matter how far it is between them, one can always reach out to the other. So, I believe the possibility that the members of an organization take synchronized acts is proportional to their intensity of core values. That's called synchronization.

In the Round Theory, everyone can be the center. 

Then Synthesis. It is important to charity groups. We first have two centers, with one (the headquarters) in Taiwan and the other handling daily work. If we enhance the power in the headquarters because a busier center handling daily work, then that's the way the structure becomes conical, not round. When the core circle focuses more on the institution or individuals, rather than on value and principles, the structure becomes conical. This is where the stakes of the round structure lies.


It is great propitiousness that dragons have no leader

If, on the contrary, we would rather not increase the staff members in the headquarters but try to spread our values and principles to each and every corner of the world to support the round structure, we then have the key element of Round Theory. Then a place in need would be able to received support from all over the world. So what the headquarters do? It works on education, empowerment and coordination. It is a member of the team, not a guider and director. With the round structure, an organization can be sustained and effective.

Therefore, the support and discussion among the centers are important. When disagreement happens, decisions are likely to be made only by the branches themselves. The round organization could have “collaborative teams” between the headquarters and any centers. In this regard, transparency is important, so are the altruistic motivation and the common will to keep the organization as a whole to finish the work.


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