Practice, Not Dogma: Tzu-chi and the Buddhist Tradition

Richard Madsen

Abstract


I argue that the practices of a religion are more important than its formal doctrines. Tzu-chi is an especially good example of a Buddhist movement that stresses practices of compassion rather than adherence to doctrines. Tzu-chi’s practices are very modern, using the most advanced scientific methods and adhering to the highest professional standards in health care, disaster relief, education, and environmental protection. But they are also very traditional, focusing on compassion directed at suffering individuals and engaging the whole person, the body and the emotions as well as the mind. In line with other forms of humanistic Buddhism, it extends compassion globally to people of all faiths, ethnicities, and political ideologies. The development of large lay organizations like Tzu-chi has been made possible by the modern conditions of middle class life in Taiwan, where people have some freedom from the demands of unrelenting toil but are afflicted by inflammation of uncontrollable desires in a consumer capitalist society. Although Tzu-chi represents a remarkably creative response to the problems of modernity, it nonetheless faces challenges from modern pressures. The true success of Tzu-chi – not just growth in numbers but modern cultivation of the virtues of compassion – would have important implications for ecumenical engagement with the crises of modernity.


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Copyright (c) 2019 Richard Madsen