慈濟傳播人文志業基金會
To a Beautiful Heart, Everything Appears Beautiful

When the Wenchuan earthquake hit, I didn’t try to escape for my life. I thought it would be just as well if I were killed. That I can live so happily and confidently today is all because of Tzu Chi, through which I’ve learned what is really important in life. Being involved in Tzu Chi has helped me to recognize that instead of losing sleep over what I have lost, I should focus on and cherish what I still have.—Ren Shixiang

A mother’s arms are the warmest cradle for her children. Mothers take care of their children with selfless love, and the young ones adore her. But what if a tragic accident happened that made a small child who used to be very close to her mother fear the very look of her?

In 1992, when Ren Shixiang (任時香) was 27 years old, her husband had an affair. His mistress, out of spite, threw concentrated acid on Ren, badly disfiguring her face, arms, and thighs. Ren can no longer remember whether it was over 20 percent or 30 percent of her body that was burned; she only knows that after the attack she became blind in her right eye, her left eye couldn’t close properly, and the vision in that eye was also greatly reduced. Her burns used to hurt even after they had healed, but now they no longer do.

After the attack, Ren and the adults in her family were worried that it would be too much of a shock for her little daughter, Hu Rong (胡蓉), to see her mom so disfigured, so they decided to keep the young one away for a while. They placed her in the care of a relative.

Burn care wasn’t as advanced back then as it is today. The treatment process was lengthy and excruciating. Ren often felt that she would rather die than continue with the painful treatment, but as soon as she thought of Hu Rong, she would grit her teeth and get on with it. “All I could think of was getting well soon so I could get my daughter back and take care of her,” she recalled. Ren’s husband was often away from home for work before the accident, so the primary responsibility of looking after Hu Rong fell on Ren. As a result, she was very close to her daughter.

When she returned home after her first hospitalization—she would later be hospitalized again for more treatment—Hu Rong was brought back to be reunited with her. Ren was anxious and eager to see her three-year-old, but her daughter’s response on seeing her left her devastated. As soon as the little one laid eyes on her, she was so scared she immediately hid behind her grandmother.

“I endured all the pain from the treatment for my daughter so that I could be with her. But now she was afraid to even look at me. I wondered what the point of living was.” Seeing her own dear daughter hiding from her, Ren felt a pain that was worse than the physical pain she had had to endure.

Worried that Ren herself wouldn’t be able to accept her disfigurement, her family had covered up all the mirrors before she came home so that she couldn’t see her reflection. But Hu Rong’s reaction made her very curious. One night, after her family had fallen asleep, she uncovered a mirror—the first time she had looked in a mirror since she had been injured half a year earlier—and was shocked by the reflection staring back at her. “My heart sped up so fast. Even I was frightened by my own face. The severity of the disfigurement was beyond my imagination. I felt such agony in my heart, and I wondered how I could carry on living looking like that.”

News of what had happened to Ren spread across the little town in which she lived. She drew stares from everyone, children and adults alike, wherever she went. The stares were like rubbing salt in a wound and made Ren feel even worse about herself. Despite the pain, she stuck it out for the sake of her daughter. “I couldn’t bring myself to sever my attachment to her. Otherwise I would have gone into hiding somewhere deep in the mountains.”

Ren’s supervisor at work was very kind to her. After learning of her situation, he transferred her to work at the warehouse so that she didn’t have to come in contact with many people. Ren began to shun people as much as she could and retreated into a world of her own. Aside from work, the only thing that could bring her out of the house was her visits to her parents’ home.

“Other children were taken to and from school by their parents, but my daughter had to go to school on her own,” Ren recalled. “I avoided taking her to school because I was afraid her schoolmates might mock her for having a mother like me.” When an athletic event was held away from school, she struggled to decide if she should accompany her daughter to the venue. She decided to stay at home in the end, even though she was worried about her daughter’s safety all the while.

Hu Rong gradually came to accept her mother’s looks as she grew older, and she learned to be cautious when she was around her mother. She was careful not to broach or discuss any sensitive topics that might upset her mother.

Born in 1965, Ren Shixiang got married at 23 years of age. She had a daughter, and life was happy for her until tragedy befell her in 1992. Courtesy of Ren Shixiang

 

Why wasn’t it me?

People say that time heals everything, but time didn’t heal the hatred and sense of inferiority in Ren’s mind. The thought of taking her own life crossed her mind quite frequently in the years after the acid attack.

On May 12, 2008, a major earthquake hit Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province, China. When the earth started rocking on that fateful day, Ren, who lived on the second floor, could feel the strong vibrations. But even though she knew that she was right in the middle of a powerful earthquake, she didn’t want to escape for her life. Instead, a thought rose in her mind: “It’ll be all right if I’m killed. Hu Rong is in college now. She can take care of herself. She’ll manage without me.”

However, things didn’t go as she had wished. The temblor damaged her home and rendered it unfit for habitation, but she herself emerged completely unscathed. When the quake had subsided, she went out to the street to look around. She saw the severe devastation and people injured or even killed. “Why didn’t I die?” she lamented. Statistics later showed that the earthquake killed 78 people in Hanwang, the town where Ren lived, and toppled 98 percent of the buildings there.

On May 13, the day after the temblor, the first team of Tzu Chi volunteers from Taiwan arrived in Sichuan with relief goods. From cooking food for victims, distributing emergency supplies, and conducting free clinics, that team and others that followed it provided care for survivors in a sort of relay effort. In August of the same year, after a large aid distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers visited a temporary housing community for survivors to find out whether the goods they had distributed met the needs of the recipients. Ren happened to be living in one of the temporary houses that the volunteers visited that day.

Ren had retired early from her job by that time, but she still worked as a cleaning lady in the temporary housing community to meet expenses and help with her daughter’s college tuition. The volunteers who visited her looked her in the face despite her disfigurement, and they talked with her sincerely and discreetly. She shared her story with them, and they in turn shared Master Cheng Yen’s teachings with her to soothe her wounded heart.

With each visit from the volunteers, Ren could feel her closed heart opening up bit by bit. They told her about Tzu Chi, about the law of karma, and about something the Master taught: “To a beautiful heart, everything appears beautiful.” They helped her understand that although life is full of suffering and we are often powerless to prevent bad things from happening to us, we can choose how we respond to whatever comes our way. As these messages sank into her mind, Ren was able to tell herself that since the tragedy had happened to her, she should learn to accept it, step out of her small world, and further reach out to help other suffering people.

After the accident, Ren almost never looked in mirrors, and she hadn’t allowed a single photograph to be taken of her. But after she had received love and care from the Tzu Chi volunteers, she decided it was about time she changed. In 2009, with the encouragement of Tzu Chi volunteers, she allowed herself to be photographed. It was the first time she had had her picture taken in 17 years.

“At that time, she had been exposed to Tzu Chi for a while, so her heart was more open,” said Hu Rong. She is a witness to her mother’s transformation.

“I can live so happily and confidently today all because of Tzu Chi,” Ren remarked. “I’ve learned what is really important in life. Being involved in Tzu Chi has helped me to recognize that instead of losing sleep over what I’ve lost, I should focus on and cherish what I still have.” The volunteers have helped her understand that the secret to a good life is to come to terms with what has happened to you, to accept the bumps in your road with grace, and to embrace yourself and others with a big, accommodating heart.

Ren (left) does recycling work with fellow villagers. She took up recycling after she joined Tzu Chi in 2008.  Li Ze-tian

Volunteering

Tzu Chi volunteers visited family after family in the temporary housing community to convey their care for the survivors. They also worked hard to promote recycling to improve the living environment in the community. Eventually, after some effort, Tzu Chi was able to set up a service center in Hanwang in May 2009. About two months later, a recycling station was opened in the town.

Two days after the recycling station was opened, volunteers carried out their first nighttime recycling activity. Wearing gloves and face masks, they went around the community collecting recyclables and hauling them back to the station.

Ren rarely missed any recycling activity. She and three former colleagues had moved into the same temporary housing community after the quake, and all of them had joined Tzu Chi. Besides doing recycling work, they visited the needy with other volunteers. Instead of shunning people like she used to, Ren now willingly went among people and used her own example to encourage care recipients to get back on their feet.

She shared how she had felt on some of those home visits. “Sometimes I’d see young people who were bedridden due to illness and who were unable to move around on their own. I really felt for them, but at the same time they taught me to count my blessings.”

In 2012, Ren and a former colleague, Guo Xiuping (郭秀萍), visited Taiwan to receive their volunteer certification from Master Cheng Yen. They were the first certified volunteers from Sichuan. Since Ren was among the few younger volunteers in her town, she learned to use a computer and a camera so that she could shoulder more volunteer duties. She took up documenting work, recording Tzu Chi events and capturing the images of local volunteers. She also led study group sessions in which they read books by Master Cheng Yen.

On April 20, 2013, an earthquake rocked Ya’an, Sichuan. Having accumulated a lot of volunteer experience by then, Ren immediately threw herself into the relief work. As a former quake victim herself, it was easier for her to empathize with survivors and offer them the consolation they needed. “After I received my certification, I felt a greater sense of mission. We must go wherever a disaster has struck and provide relief.”

In Hanwang, Ren (far left) is younger than most of the local volunteers, but she cares for them like a mom. Liu Wen-long

 

Love yourself and others

Because of her burns, Ren has a decreased ability to perspire. She is blind in one eye and the vision in the other eye is impaired. Still, she never allows these physical challenges to stand in the way of her volunteering.

In the summer of 2015, she helped out at a Tzu Chi cultural exchange camp for students from Sichuan and Taiwan. One morning, camp participants listened to a talk given by Master Cheng Yen via a videoconferencing link. The Master spoke about the victims of an explosion that had occurred at a recreational water park in Taiwan. As Ren listened and watched, she silently wiped away the tears that kept coming. As a burn victim herself, she knew the excruciating pain such patients must endure during the treatment and rehabilitation processes, and she was keenly aware of the impact that the injuries would have on the futures of the victims. She felt great empathy for them, and in her heart she wished them the best.

“The path ahead is difficult, but facing it bravely is the way to go,” she said. “I hoped in my heart they would ride out each treatment with courage and recover as soon as possible.”

When Ren sheds tears today, she sheds them not for herself but for the pain of others. However, she doesn’t dwell on her sadness. She knows what is more important is to live mindfully in the moment and make it worthwhile by doing good. For example, as a documenting volunteer, she can capture images of beauty and goodness and allow them to live on or make an impact on others.

Ren feels happy as a Tzu Chi volunteer because she feels needed. The joy of giving pushes her to inspire more people to join, so they too can enjoy the great inner joy that comes from helping others. At the same time, she does her best to care for other volunteers. She has received a lot of love in Tzu Chi and she wants to pay it forward.

In Hanwang, volunteers have inspired people in 16 neighborhoods to take up recycling work. Eighty percent of the recycling volunteers are over 60 years old. Ren and her former colleague Guo conduct study groups and share Master Cheng Yen’s teachings with them to help them feel more at home in Tzu Chi. During traditional festivals and Chinese New Year, Ren invites the volunteers to celebrate the festivals together. Should any of the volunteers fail to show up, she calls them to see if they are doing all right. All this effort is to help them feel warm and cared for in Tzu Chi.

Because of Tzu Chi, because of the recycling work, many older people in the town have found a happy way of spending their old age, just as Ren has discovered the value of her life.

Ren and Guo Xiuping visited Taiwan to receive their volunteer certification from Master Cheng Yen in 2012. They were the first people in Sichuan to receive such certification. Courtesy of Ren Shixiang

 

A changed mom, a happier daughter

Ren’s transformation has positively impacted her family too.

Her daughter recalled her childhood. “I was odd back then, probably because I had a strong inferiority complex [due to my mom’s appearance]. To compensate, I tried to appear strong and tough to others, and I was quick to get into fights. Whenever I heard people gossiping about my mom, I blew up. I was very hot-tempered.”

Now the positive change in her mom has softened her, and she has found it easier to talk to her mom. “She used to be more small-minded and tended to get caught up in negative thinking. When we had an argument, she would often burst into tears. But now she no longer does that. She’s stronger now. And she is more given to displays of affection. She often sends me messages like ‘I love you’ and ‘My dear daughter, you’re awesome.’” Hu Rong broke into a happy smile talking about her mom’s change.

Even her dad has become receptive to Tzu Chi’s philosophy. He reads the foundation’s publications and shares his thoughts about them with others.

Ren is a happy woman these days. She no longer bears grudges against those who hurt her—she has learned that to forgive is to be kind to yourself. Having let go of her hatred, she is at ease and at peace, and things seem to have all fallen into place in her life. “My family and I are getting along very well, and my husband and my daughter are doing great in their jobs. As for me, even though I’m busy every day, I feel very fulfilled and enriched. Being so busy, I don’t have time to ruminate on unpleasant things, and I’ve become healthier as a result.”

Ren’s favorite quote by Master Cheng Yen says, “To a beautiful heart, everything appears beautiful.” With a shift of mind, everything becomes good and beautiful. Your happiness lies in your own hands.

Before a winter aid distribution in Jintang, Chengdu, Sichuan, in 2014, Ren and other Tzu Chi volunteers visited the needy to find out about their living conditions and to extend care to them. Miu Qin

 

 

Ren (front row, second from left) with other documenting volunteers at a Tzu Chi camp held in 2013 at Youxian Tzu Chi Experimental Middle and Elementary School in Mianyang, Sichuan  Xu Yi-yun

 

Summer 2017