United Daily News: Tzu Chi row reflects three social changes

The Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation has come under fire recently after being criticized by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je for wanting to develop land that that it had bought earlier in an environmentally fragile area in Taipei's Neihu District. To be fair, it would be wrong to vilify Tzu Chi over some missteps, given its diligent relief work at home and abroad. But the criticism should serve as a warning to Tzu Chi, which should give up its never-ending ambition to expand and return to its original mission of supporting the poor and needy. The recent dispute reflects to some extent the tremendous changes in Taiwan's social structure and the psychology of its people in recent years. Three major changes can be observed. First, the Taiwanese people have become distrustful of everything because of frustrations caused by political gridlock and economic stagnation. People have become eager to echo what others say to vent and get recognition. Many supporters of the Taipei mayor feel the need, for example, to oppose any company or organization that the mayor has spoken out against. Second, individuals have become poorer while temples have become wealthier in the past decade. Tzu Chi owns over 165,250 square meters of land worth NT$40 billion (US$1.27 billion) in Taipei and New Taipei alone, making it one of the country's wealthiest organizations. Unfortunately, the government has turned a blind eye to the management of religious bodies. Over time, the general public will inevitably turn its hostility to these wealthy religious groups. Third, Tzu Chi has expanded its activities into medicine, TV, education, publishing and manufacturing to expand its charity outreach. This has sucked away resources from other social welfare groups and made Tzu Chi more secular, engendering a "commercialized" and "diversified" Tzu Chi that has lost its power to move people the way it used to, when Dharma Master Cheng Yen made candles and sewed baby shoes by hand to help the poor. People used to see the investment of the "heart" in these activities, but now they see nothing but the investment of "money." As Taiwan's largest charity group, Tzu Chi has made great contributions that everyone can attest to. But as a highly secular religious organization, Tzu Chi must be more transparent in its operations. Releasing an overly simplified financial statement or explaining its investments in excessively moral terms does not meet the expectations of society. Most importantly, Tzu Chi must change its strategy of never-ending investment and development and return to its original mission of caring for those in need. (Editorial abstract -- March 3, 2015) (By Christie Chen)