Recycling Buddha: How One Organization is Changing Bad Habits

0414_cover storyIndustrialization brings people to Dongguan, as well as garbage, but very few are concerned with where the trash they dump will finally go. According to media reports, the city’s garbage amounts, on average, to 12 thousand tons daily. As a city populated by 8 million, it is an appalling statistic when compared to the 18 thousand tons created by Beijing’s over 20 million people and Shanghai’s 14 thousand tons from a population of over 23 million.

The dominant approach to disposing of the waste is by landfill or incineration. Currently, Dongguan has three allegedly harmless incineration power plants in operation, one each in downtown, Hengli and Houjie, with another four under construction. Though the plants adopted the E.U. Emission Standards of 2000, many are still concerned. Beijing’s smog, partly created by incinerators, provides a real warning.

With minds on a simple concept, “Garbage is a misplaced resource,” some citizens are promoting a greener way to address the city’s siege of garbage—reuse, recycle and classify. Volunteers from the Tzu Chi (pronounced Zoo Chee) Foundation, a Taiwan-based international NGO, are part of those selfless citizens convinced by a simple idea to give a complete effort.

Biggest NGO in Chinese Speaking World

Tzu Chi translates literally as “Compassionate Relief.” Founded in 1966 by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the foundation rooted in Buddhist origins and beliefs is the largest non-profit NGO in the Chinese speaking world. This organization is also known for actions related to charity, medicine, education and culture. As a non-profit organization, Tzu Chi has built many hospitals and schools worldwide, including a network of medical facilities in Taiwan and an education system spanning from kindergarten to university, and a medical school.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen, “Asia’s Mother Teresa,” is the spiritual leader and founder of the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen, “Asia’s Mother Teresa,” is the spiritual leader and founder of the Tzu Chi Foundation.

Based on compassion and a new model of applying Buddhism to society, Tzu Chi has moved influence from Taiwan throughout the world, developing into an organization with a network of over ten million volunteers. In 2011, Cheng Yen was listed among the “100 Most Influential People” by Time Magazine.

In China, that influence generated from the organization’s immediate response to a 1991 crisis. A flood had hit Eastern and Central China and Tzu Chi volunteers came to the rescue, winning the trust of the mainland government. Following the notoriety, Tzu Chi has forayed across China over the last two decades. In March of 2008, Tzu Chi became the first organization headed by a non-mainland resident to be registered with the Chinese government.

Cheng Yen, the volunteers’ spiritual leader, encouraged them to work towards building a greener world in the 1990s. “Practicing environmental protection is to live in harmony with Mother Earth. Use your hand to do something instead of applauding,” she said. From then on, environmental protection became a core role in Tzu Chi volunteers’ mission.

 In China, that influence generated from the organization’s immediate response to a 1991 crisis.

Besides adopting a green lifestyle themselves, Tzu Chi volunteers work together to develop environmental protection centers (or green centers) where they dwell. As a city clustered with a multitude of Taiwanese, Dongguan has become special to the Tzu Chi map.

First Tzu Chi Branch Recognized in Dongguan

Early attempts to set up green centers in Dongguan were done so at factories belonging to Taiwanese volunteers, so the witnesses that the system needs to spread its vision were limited to factory workers and the volunteers’ direct peer groups. The first green center recognized by the larger public was the Siji Cheng Environmental Protection Center. Wearing a blue and white uniform labeled with the Tzu Chi logo and a white Buddhist lotus, Xie Renzhen and her husband Ji Daxi, both of whom are retirees and devout volunteers, act as care takers.

“Definitely garbage separation is better than incineration,” said Xie. “We produce so much rubbish every day, which is a waste of resources and causes pollution if abandoned without reuse and recycling. The procedures are simple, but people’s indifference makes it difficult to enforce. We are all responsible for the worsening environment, and we will all be victims unless we work with concerted effort.”

Tzu Chi devotees believe in Buddha’s cause and effect karmic philosophy. Nature is a circulatory system, and natural calamity is frequently the consequence of the actions of mankind. So instead of waiting for governmental bodies to wipe out pollution, the couple set up the green center in 2010 with the aim to raise public awareness.

Xie’s green center, provided for free by her apartment complex’s property management, is a small room covering only 4 sq. meters. Inside are all kinds of recyclable garbage such as used paper, plastic boxes, old books and magazines and used iron and steel, all arranged in order. Xie points to a barrel that stores used batteries, noting how harmful they are to groundwater if not properly processed.

Xie Renzhen and her husband Ji Daxi, spend a morning separating waste in their green center.

Xie Renzhen and her husband Ji Daxi, spend a morning separating waste in their green center.

He says that household garbage takes up a large percentage of city waste. Nowadays, household trash can be mainly classified into four kinds: recyclable waste, kitchen waste, toxic waste and other. For separation, the first thing that should be done is to remove recyclables, but many people are inclined to throw them away.

Garbage separation’s notability lies in it addressing the source of waste. “According to our calculations, we dump only one bag of trash a week.” Xie shows a lamp giving out light in the room. With easy repair, it now runs well. “Because sixty percent of the trash can be recycled; twenty percent can be used to make garbage enzymes,” Xie said. Garbage enzyme is the product of fermentation of vegetables or fruit waste after a period of three months in a mixture of water and brown sugar that can be used for household cleaning.

To promote the effects of garbage separation Xie and her husband step out. In the early morning, dressed in uniform, Ji searches through dustbins in his neighborhood or asks for a neighbor’s household garbage. At first, the couple’s seemingly strange activities drew plenty of attention and some misconceptions. Some people doubted that they weren’t collecting as a living. The couple answered that they did it to spur people to separate their garbage. For those who didn’t buy it, the couple showed them a donation receipt that went to education in impoverished regions. It is also the rule of Tzu Chi that all of its organizations should be non-profit.

In 2012, the couple’s personal efforts to practice and promote garbage separation brought them publicity as local celebrities and the benefits of their work were recognized by the city government. Irresponsible garbage disposal conforms to the butterfly effect. If people just put certain types of trash in the right place, it will save the efforts and costs of treating it, or else it will cause more trouble down the road.

Since 2012, the city government has aimed to promote model residential areas that exemplify proper garbage separation. With the couple’s green center, their apartment complex made the grade, and visiting delegates have come often. In 2013, the couple was awarded as “Good People in Dongguan” by Southern Metropolis Daily, making their green center the first to be recognized by the Dongguan press.

At first, the couple’s seemingly strange activities drew plenty of attention and some misconceptions. Some people doubted that they weren’t collecting as a living.

News coverage made this couple famous in their neighborhood. Gradually, neighbors are showing support for the green center by giving their household garbage or dumping their trash into the right dustbin. However, it is still not going according to the couple’s plan.

“As our leader Cheng Yen said, ‘we won’t reach our goal until we move people to use their hands to protect the environment instead of applauding,’” Xie said. But the disparity in notion stands in the way. “I take pride in processing the garbage, while others think it dirty and face-losing,” Xie said. The rejection is strongly felt in their fancy district, as most people in this community carry both money and status.

“For almost four years, I have only developed ten to twelve volunteers to join the green center,” Xie said in a morose tone. But more and more people are saving their garbage for the couple. “Especially during Spring Festival. The garbage piled up into a long queue, so my husband and I were buried in the garbage day and night during the holiday,” Xie said.

“The place is too small. I want to teach people some knowledge about recycling,” said Xie. More than once she thought that the size of their green center limited its development, but the cost of renting a suitable place in Nancheng stifled her plans for expansion.

Tzu Chi Finds a Way Via Community Service

Although Xie’s relentless efforts haven’t led her network to expand, her fellowship has still found its way out into the towns. Tzu Chi volunteers are marching into communities, public places and residential areas. Not taking factory based  centers into account, green centers have sprung up in Chang’an, Fenggang, Dalang, Hengli, Tangxia and Shipai.

Volunteers serve up dinner at the Tzu Chi Center in Hengli Town.

Volunteers serve up dinner at the Tzu Chi Center in Hengli Town.

A second concept promoted in the organization’s green centers is, “garbage could be turned into gold, and gold into love and kindness.” The routine mission of green centers are recycling garbage, teaching environmental protection and making cleaning fluids from garbage enzymes. Also, the green center will hold events in public places, such as park clean-ups, school classes and charity sales. The Chang’an green center was set up a year ago. Ye Fumei, the volunteer in charge, held an event about saying “no” to polystyrene foam containers and plastic bags. Ye said that the event was useful in expanding influence and attracting volunteers.

Being rooted in Buddhism, green centers aim not only to clean the environment, but also to purify minds. Cheng Yen once said, “all things are preceded by the mind, led by the mind and created by the mind. The pure land, in fact, exists everywhere as it lies within our own hearts. We only need a heart full of grace to serve. As long as we do what we can to show our empathy for others, we will make our world a pure land.” Tzu Chi believes leading people to care about the environment is the first step in teaching them compassion, and the more they are involved, the more respect and caring they will have for nature and life.

However, it’s easy to attract people, but not to keep them. Making a person change old habits takes vigor and effort. The Hengli Tzu Chi green center provides a key solution to the daunting problem.

A second concept promoted in the organization’s green centers is, “garbage could be turned into gold, and gold into love and kindness.”

The keyword for this experiment is community service. “We provide free community service for people to join. Once they enter the green center, it is a home that belongs to them,” said Huang Mingde and Wu Xue’e, the couple in charge of Hengli green center. Hengli green center set up in the most happening pedestrian streets of Hengli Town in September, 2012. It covers an area of over 400 sq. meters with modern audio-visual equipment, making it possible to speak to over three hundred people.

The gate is open to visitors during the day. With the devotion and time of volunteers, the Hengli green center is the only one in Dongguan able to open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. They provide free services such as yoga, English, culinary, sign language and photography classes during weekday evenings and weekends. Every Wednesday night, they hold a book club. It is helpful for people to open their heart and have an exchange of ideas. Every month, there is a tea party, inviting people for vegetarian food, entertainment and lectures. By those classes, it exerts a silent influence in teaching people the ways of environmental protection.

Huang Mingde and Wu Xue’e prep a group of  volunteers before doing good in the community.

Huang Mingde and Wu Xue’e prep a group of
volunteers before doing good in the community.

“Tzu Chi sets no threshold for people to come. We want to create a place for people to participate in social activities. Regardless of nationality, age or area, we are all Tzu Chi people,” said Huang. They want to create a friendly, equal and harmonious space. He thinks that in a society of frequent population flow, community is what binds people together. When they come together, it is conducive to unifying forces in the protection of the environment.

“Also too many lectures repel the audience, so we try to make our classes more creative and interesting,” Huang said. For instance, they performed some drama shows about recycling. “Our teaching techniques are very lively. I always bring my kids to listen so that they will love Mother Nature,” said Lin Meiping, an active volunteer.

The trend integrating a green lifestyle with social activities has proven fruitful. In just a year and half, the Hengli green center has recruited over 400 hundred volunteers, a big leap within Dongguan. Through community service the centers have influenced the adaptation of a green lifestyle and more volunteers have joined in the recycling activities.

Tzu Chi’s Green Mode: Serving with Compassion

Huang’s experiments in community service are significant because they provide experience in winning public favor. However, the cost is high. As a guiding principle, Tzu Chi provides services for free. Monetary donations will go directly to the Tzu Chi foundation, but not in the hands of any volunteer. Donors will get a receipt from the Tzu Chi foundation.

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Xie Renzhen tends to barrels of food waste enzyme, a natural household cleaning product.

Huang and his wife Wu, who have been investing in Hengli since 2003, are the major sponsors for Hengli’s green center. Huang contributed over RMB 300,000 for renovations, furnishing and equipment purchases. Such a spacious place takes over RMB 10,000 each month for rent, let alone the maintenance fees and funds for holding events. “But the cost is still way more economical than that of downtown. It gives us a good opportunity to explore possibilities,” Huang said.

Huang and Xie and all the volunteers who have dedicated their time and money, say that “Tzu Chi is a lifelong career, and doing things is a blessing for us.” Some may wonder what causes all of Tzu Chi’s volunteers to work so passionately.

Cheng Yen’s teaching has played a core role in the volunteer’s spiritual world. “Serve with compassion, tolerance and responsibility. Don’t care about personal gain and loss. Make the world a better place within our reach.” Cheng Yen took a vow to relieve the sufferings of all living beings. She thinks that Buddhism should become part of society, but she is against those acts of burning incense and worshipping the Buddha.

At first, Cheng Yen called on thirty housewives to put 50 cents into a bamboo cutting everyday, which is the symbolic form of the Tzu Chi Foundation. Tzu Chi used the money to help the poor and do good deeds. She said, “practicing Buddhism is not doing in temple. We are Buddha ourselves when we are doing good things.” She calls on Tzu Chi volunteers to do something without delay. Cheng Yen gained wide support for her big heart. With over forty years of development, now Tzu Chi has become an international NGO with over ten million volunteers, spreading its goodwill and charity worldwide.

In Taiwan, the organization has a wide influence. “One in ten people in Taiwan are volunteers,” Xie said. The feature of Tzu Chi’s volunteer management is activating their inner-good-intentions. There’s no religion, race, gender or identity limit, as long as the volunteers uphold the spirit—serve with compassion. Though, volunteers are encouraged to be vegetarian.

The group has absorbed the essence of a modern enterprise management system. It is divided into departments according to function. For maintaining public trust, it resorts to transparency—every little fund will be recorded concretly. Also it has developed a motivational system. For general volunteers, they will be wearing grey uniforms. One needs to make great contribution, financially or in action, before becoming certified to wear the famous blue and white uniform, the color of which represents maintaining “minds as open as the blue sky and behaviors as pure as the white clouds.”

Tzu Chi volunteers entertain and educate at a performance in Hengli’s Green Center (above). Xie Renzhen tends to barrels of food waste enzyme, a natural household cleaning product (top).

Tzu Chi volunteers entertain and educate at a performance in Hengli’s Green Center.

Tzu Chi’s apolitical stance gives it an edge in mainland China. Since its clustering of Taiwan businessmen, Dongguan has become an important mark on the groups map. Last February, the Tzu Chi organization launched the construction of an office in Zhongtang Town, its second in China after the first in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, in 2010.

Sponsored by a Taiwanese businessman as well as Tzu Chi volunteer Yang Monggong, the new office will be the Tzu Chi’s Guangdong communication center. The whole place covers an area of 30 acres. In the center, the auditorium will be able to hold five hundred people.

Tzu Chi volunteers always go to the forefront to provide aid. For example, volunteers are doing their part to counsel the relatives after Malaysian Air flight 370 vanished. This is also true of the Tzu Chi volunteers in Dongguan. Philanthropy is important of Tzu Chi volunteers. Since 2007, they’ve been helping the poor and needy in Dongguan. Last winter, they gave goods to over 2,700 in need. Their donation exceeded RMB 1.2 million at that time.

She thinks that Buddhism should become part of society, but she is against those acts of burning incense and worshipping the Buddha.

“Thank you!” This pleasantry is usually spoken by the receiver, but for Tzu Chi volunteers, when they are trying to help others, they need to bend halfway to thank the person for accepting. In Tzu Chi’s thought, by seeing others’ misfortune, a person will cherish his own happiness more.

 

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