Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

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Home Our Volunteers Stories The Art of Helping Others - Helping Others Is an Art

The Art of Helping Others - Helping Others Is an Art

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The Art of Helping Others
Giving people what they need the most
Treating the needy with respect and sincerity
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Helping Others Is an Art
Q: You must have overcome many challenges as you grew from a beginner who knew nothing about painting to an accomplished artist skilled in sketches, watercolors, and oils. Does the strong willpower you developed by learning to paint help you when doing volunteer work?
 
A: I live my days very seriously, and I like to make use of my free time to learn new things. Everyone encounters challenges when learning something new, myself included. But I don’t give up when confronted with difficulties in learning. Rather, I am motivated to work even harder to overcome such challenges.

I’m easily attracted to beautiful things, so I had a practical motive to learn painting—to decorate my house. But after I had become proficient, a question began to gnaw at me: For what purpose did I learn to paint?

The sense of fulfillment that had at first come from learning to paint gradually gave way to one of loss and uncertainty. I had learned to paint simply to fulfill my personal interest and to give my family a more beautiful living environment, but deep down I felt that I could lead a fuller and more meaningful life. That’s when I decided to serve as a full-time volunteer and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to caring for the needy through regular home visits.

When I first started, the amount of aid and subsidies we gave care recipients was based purely on the judgment of the volunteers doing the home visit. We didn’t have a good system to evaluate whether the amount being provided was too much or too little. I often had doubts: Why did one care recipient receive more aid than another? Why did one receive less? Why did another care recipient receive nothing at all? Torn between reason and emotion, I asked myself over and over: “Am I being fair? Am I doing the right thing?”

These questions prompted me to look into the government’s social welfare policy on low-income families. I visited a number of municipal departments and district offices to gather information that would allow me to help my care recipients more effectively. Such research helped me ensure that my care recipients were receiving the most appropriate amount of assistance for their situation. This calmed my mind and my heart no longer felt so heavy.

Rain or shine, day or night, we pay regular home visits to the needy and provide them with long-term care. Such long-term care might last one year, five years, or even as long as ten years. No matter how long it lasts, a sense of fulfillment fills my heart when I see that my care recipients can finally stand on their own feet again. Even better is when they in turn are inspired to help others.
 
I will continue to help others in this way as long as I can. Helping and caring for the needy is the right path to walk in life.
 
Q: The backgrounds, ages, and experiences of the volunteers with whom you work vary, yet you all share the same ideals in doing charity work. How do you look at such a team?
 
A: Master Cheng Yen often says as long as we are mindful of what we do, we can be as good as the professionals. This is true no matter what we do. All the knowledge in the world is of no use if we simply focus on analyzing what we know without putting it into practice.
 
We have become proficient in our volunteer work through experience. By making house call after house call, we accumulate experience and hands-on knowledge. This allows us to effectively provide the needy with the help they require, whether it be short-term aid or long-term care. We may know little professional jargon, but we know how to let the care recipients feel our care for them.
 
I remember that after a major earthquake in 1999, many soldiers were sent to the disaster areas to help. They had to turn over corpses once every two hours to prevent the bodies from sticking to the surface of the refrigerated containers. Many of the soldiers were very young and inevitably became scared. Our volunteers assured them gently and kindly that they were here to help, and that the deceased would feel only gratitude for their efforts—there was no reason to be afraid. I felt that even professional counselors or social workers couldn’t have done better when I saw how serene and wise the volunteers were in comforting the soldiers.
 
When extending care to others, the key to being professional is to ask ourselves whether we have been mindful, whether we have treated our care recipients like our own family, and whether we are sincere in whatever we do and say. That’s what it means to be professional.
 
Q: When it comes to caring for the needy, are there any rules or steps to follow?
 
A: Caring for others is an art form; there are no step-by-step rules to follow. But we do need to keep in mind what’s taught in Buddhism: Great Kindness even to strangers, and Great Compassion for all. With that, we’ll be able to empathize with those in need all the more.
 
When it comes to doing charity work, compassion and wisdom should go hand in hand. Neither of them is dispensable. We demonstrate compassion when we can give others a helping hand without hesitation. We show wisdom when we can make close observations and thorough assessments before making right judgments.
 
When we sincerely care for the needy, we naturally expect that they will open their hearts to accept us too. Unfortunately, sometimes those who we’re trying to help may not be honest with us. They may try to hide things from us. When things like that happen, we should remain sincere and understanding and continue to bring them love and care. Only then can we win their trust and get them to open their hearts so that together we can work to solve the problems that are afflicting them.
 
It’s also important to bear in mind that we should not force our help on others or interfere in situations where we can do no good. At times, what we have to deal with can be very complicated. There may be psychological problems or serious family disputes. By no means should we make personal judgments on others. Neither should we force ourselves to solve problems beyond our ability to control.

Q: Over the past couple of years, the number of Tzu Chi care recipients has increased sharply. Take northern Taiwan for example: volunteers have to pay home visits to more than 6,000 families every month. It seems that no matter how hard you try, there are still more people out there living in hardship. Does that frustrate you?
 
A: The Master often shares with us the importance of cherishing a broad and pure heart. That is also what has given me strength in steadfastly caring for the needy over the years. I simply do what I’m supposed to do without worrying about things too much. Helping one person might make a difference to his or her entire family. Therefore, all I do is dedicate myself single-mindedly to helping the needy so that their suffering can be relieved.
 
Although it is hard work, I feel blessed that I am able to love and help so many people in need.
 
Q: You are exposed to so many stories of helplessness and sorrow in your work with the needy and the disadvantaged. How do you keep your own mood from being affected?
 
A: I didn’t know much about Buddhism before I joined Tzu Chi, but I have gradually come to understand that whatever suffering and affliction one has is actually a result of the karmic law of cause and effect. This insight has enabled me to view suffering and affliction with a more open heart. This helps me stay focused on finding a way to help lift people out of their suffering rather than on letting their suffering get me down.
 
The Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths, which explain how the world we live in is full of suffering. Paying home visits to people in need and seeing what hard lives they lead helps us realize the power of karmic retribution. It also reminds us of the need to let go of our worries and resentment, to stay out of disputes, and to form good affinities with others to create good karma for ourselves. So instead of making us depressed, our exposure to the tragic stories of our care recipients actually helps our spiritual cultivation.
 
Q: You have gone to the scenes of several major disasters to care for survivors that had lost beloved family members. Given the devastation at the scene and the deep grief and sorrow of the family members, how do you prepare yourself to volunteer in such places?
 
A: The Heart Sutra says that when we are free of all attachments, our minds will know no vexation or hindrance; they will shun fear, distraction, and fantasy. While serving at the scenes of major disasters, I have no attachments. All that is in my mind is how to ease the pain of the victims and help them calm their minds so that they can arrange the funerals for the deceased. With such pure and upright thoughts, I have no fear in my heart.

I’m calm and composed in the face of suffering. It’s not that I don’t feel for the victims. It’s just that I need to keep my wits about me to decide what they need most at the time.
 
Although reason usually reigns on those occasions, there was one time I gave in to tears. That was when I volunteered at the scene of an airplane crash on an offshore island in 2002.
 
At the site, I saw a son collapse in front of the refrigerated container that held his parents’ bodies. With tears streaming down his face, he repeated over and over again, “Papa, I hope I can still be your son in my next lifetime….” It brought me great heartache, and I stayed by his side all the way through to keep him company. It was so heartrending that I couldn’t help but cry myself.
 
Q: Sometimes care recipients are unable to clean up their homes. At times a house can be dirty and disorderly beyond imagination. It thus falls to Tzu Chi volunteers to help them clean up their houses during their home visits. Does that pose a big challenge to you?
 
A: Our volunteers reach out to give whenever their help is needed. I believe that so long as we are sincere in helping others, we will naturally give of ourselves willingly and joyfully. So, no matter how filthy and dirty the environment we have to help clean up, we can always be peaceful and at ease.
 
Q: As one from a well-to-do family, how did you bring yourself to understand and feel for the suffering of people in poverty?
 
A: I went through the Second World War when I was little, so I witnessed firsthand the devastation, poverty, and suffering inflicted by the war.
 
During the war, we lived in the countryside. The old lady living next to us went up to the mountains every day to collect materials for making straw sandals. That was how she earned her living. Her hands were covered with calluses. Her only meal, day in and day out, was watery porridge with stir-fried garlic. The life of poverty she led left a deep impression on my mind.
 
When I was little, most people in Taiwan lived about the same as that neighbor. Poverty was prevalent at that time. But despite such materially deprived living conditions, people were kind and simple. Instead of complaining about the hard life they led, they all worked hard to earn a living. Perhaps because everyone around them was in pretty much the same situation, they did not think their life was particularly hard. What I saw and experienced when I was little allowed me to view poverty from another perspective, and I even came to appreciate how one can be happy and optimistic despite being poor.
 
In college, I used to conduct surveys for the city government on poverty-related issues. After graduation I worked for a family planning association, and so I sometimes had the chance to visit the poor. When I learned of Tzu Chi in the 1980s, it seemed just natural that I should join and take up the work of making house calls to the needy.
 
I feel that most people nowadays have lost themselves to greed. They seek wealth and fame, have many wants and desires, and tend to spend money without thinking. Even so, contentment and happiness elude them. Their lives, when compared to that of those in poverty, are actually none the happier.

Q: What have you learned the most over more than 20 years of volunteering for Tzu Chi and caring for the needy?

A: Over the years, I’ve come to an especially deep understanding of the Four Considerations: Consider the body as impure; consider the senses as sources of suffering; consider the mind as impermanent and ever-changing; consider all existence as impermanent.

I’ve learned that if we truly want to understand what impermanence is, we need to go serve people and see for ourselves life’s suffering.
 
Finally, I’ve learned that while it is a blessing to be loved by others, being able to love others is even more of a blessing and something of greater value. 

Compiled by Chen Mei-xiu, Li Wei-huang

Translated by Evelyn Yi-chih Sung

Photographs by Hsiao Yiu-hwa


 


 

" If we don't do something meaningful, our life will pass by in vain. But if we work unceasingly for the betterment of mankind, ours will be a beautiful life. "
Jing-Si Aphorism