A Loving Spirit Shines Strong

Xu Ying-li is grateful to her husband for taking good care of her and her family. Her husband, Lin Kun-yang, admires her for her courage in asking others for charitable donations, even total strangers she meets on public transportation. He gives her his best support as she dedicates herself to her volunteer work for Tzu Chi.

Xu Ying-li has been engaged in Tzu Chi’s recycling work for two decades. She is 84 but still sorts recycling two days a week.

I supported her as we walked towards the hospital, its large sign not far ahead. Despite hurting from her wound, she didn’t complain once on our way there.

Ten minutes earlier, at a Tzu Chi recycling point, I had seen her using her thumbnail to slice through the packing tape on a cardboard box to break down the box for recycling. I suggested that she use a utility knife instead to make her job easier. Much to my dismay, it wasn’t but two minutes after she switched to a knife that I heard her say in a quiet voice, “Ah, I cut myself.”

It was a good thing there was a hospital just around the corner. When the doctor removed the makeshift bandage on her pinkie finger, it began bleeding profusely. The doctor decided that the wound required stitches and told a nurse to prepare an anesthesia shot. “I thought I’d have to just receive some topical medication,” she said, looking worried. “I have recycling work to do on Thursday!” Despite the wound and stitches, she was more concerned she wouldn’t be able to volunteer two days later.

An inspiring example

The first time I saw her was on a bus in Taipei three years ago. I was sitting near the rear door when I saw her board the vehicle. She hadn’t yet gotten her footing when the bus started moving, so I rose from my seat and stepped forward to help steady her. In response, she flashed me a smile. She looked to be about 80 and was quite petite.

I helped her sit down on the seat next to mine, then took a closer look at her. Her hair was pulled into a neat chignon. She was wearing a maroon jacket and sported tiny pearl earrings. Her demeanor and the way she carried herself told me, a writer for the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine for many years, that she was a Tzu Chi commissioner.

My instinct was right: she was indeed a Tzu Chi commissioner, one who had received training and established a roster of people who make monthly donations to the foundation. She had just visited a Tzu Chi donating member to collect his donation and was on her way to another one’s home for the same purpose. “Actually, it’s more than just collecting donations,” she said. “When I visit our donating members, I also extend care to them on behalf of Master Cheng Yen.” That’s why she makes a point of chatting with her donating members when she visits them. She was collecting donations from only two people that day.

Before I got off the bus, I learned her name: Xu Ying-li (許瑛麗). That name rang a bell—she had been mentioned in a book published by Tzu Chi not long before. The book told the life story of Wen Song-zhen (溫送珍), an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and how the Tzu Chi Keelung Jing Si Hall, in northern Taiwan, had been established. Wen, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 97, donated more than 4.3 hectares (11 acres) of land to Tzu Chi, on which now stands the Keelung Jing Si Hall. Xu Ying-li was one of the reasons that contributed to Wen’s decision to donate that large piece of land.

Wen was Xu’s neighbor before Xu moved from Taipei to New Taipei City. After Xu retired at 60 from her civil servant position, she took a job working as a janitor at the residential building where she lived. She did cleaning work, disposed of her fellow residents’ garbage, and handled mail for them. Wen was puzzled. He knew that having retired from a government job, Xu could have led a cozy retired life on her pension. Why did she choose to become a janitor when she could well afford to take it easy and enjoy her life in her old age?

It turned out that Xu had taken on the janitor job to save up money to donate to Tzu Chi. She had originally planned to donate a million New Taiwan dollars (US$33,000) to the foundation with some of her pension when she retired, but that plan was derailed when one of her children purchased a villa for her and her husband, Lin Kun-yang (林坤養), so that the couple could live in a more comfortable place in their old age. Xu knew that paying off the mortgage would be a heavy burden for her daughter, so she decided to pay off the mortgage with her own pension. With that, she no longer had a million to donate to Tzu Chi, but she didn’t forget her plan.

One day, one of the janitors who worked for her building took a sick leave. The building’s management committee asked Xu if she could fill in for him for three days and she agreed. When she was cleaning the premises as the stand-in janitor, she looked up at the sky and made a wish: “If I could find a job, I’d donate a million to Tzu Chi.”

Her temporary job became a formal one three days later. “Master Cheng Yen is right: where there is a will, there is a way,” Xu said of her “good luck.”

In fact, Xu had already made a lump sum donation of a million Taiwanese dollars to Tzu Chi in her husband and children’s name before her retirement using her savings over the years. After she started working as a janitor, she hoped to save up enough money in three years to donate another million.

When Wen learned about this, he was greatly moved—so moved that he and his wife began volunteering for Tzu Chi too. He later donated a plot of land to the foundation and helped bring about the construction of the Keelung Jing Si Hall.

Xu’s story goes to show how examples of kindness and good deeds inspire and beget more of the same.

Xu Ying-li has been engaged in Tzu Chi’s recycling work for two decades. She is 84 but still sorts recycling two days a week.
Xu (right) poses with her fellow volunteers at a Tzu Chi recycling point in Zhongzheng District, Taipei, northern Taiwan. She thinks that giving without expecting anything in return brings one the most joy.

A good husband

Xu had already moved to her new villa home and was no longer working as a janitor on the day she accidentally cut herself. She had fulfilled her wish of donating another million to Tzu Chi. Though she had moved away, she had kept up the habit of volunteering every Tuesday at the Tzu Chi recycling point near where she used to live

We returned to the recycling point after her injury was sutured at the hospital. While waiting for her husband to come pick her up, Xu began sorting through recyclable garbage at the recycling point again. She was disregarding the doctor’s advice to keep her wound clean, but seemed unable to sit around idly for even just a minute. I immediately “blew the whistle” on her and asked her to just sit and rest.

Xu’s husband, 87, arrived not long after. He’s not a Tzu Chi volunteer, but fully supports his wife’s volunteering. When he learned on the phone that his wife had been injured, he drove over to take her home.

Lin worked at an air-conditioning company before he retired at 71. He mentioned that more than 30 years ago, when Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital first opened, they had purchased some products from his company, so his company sent him to the hospital to take care of some business. Later, he learned from his supervisor that the hospital had been operating in the red since it opened. “Many [underprivileged] patients couldn’t afford their treatment,” Lin explained. “The hospital thus ended up with a lot of unpaid bills. It was the Tzu Chi Foundation that had been making up the shortfall.” Lin expressed his admiration for Master Cheng Yen for having the courage to establish a hospital, especially back when Tzu Chi was a much smaller organization and did not have many resources. Establishing a hospital is, after all, a massive undertaking. “It was no wonder that some people were opposed to her decision to do that at the time,” he added.

Xu has been so devoted to the philanthropic work of Tzu Chi because she wants to help ease the Master’s burden. To support Tzu Chi’s missions, she lives as frugally as she can to save money to donate. For example, she always brings her own water when she goes out so that she need not spend money on beverages. She cuts her own hair to avoid going to a beauty parlor. She hasn’t bought any new clothes in years, saying that the clothes she bought when she was still working are enough to keep her clothed until she is 90.

Xu is most thankful to her husband for supporting her in her devotion to Tzu Chi in every possible way. “What makes me happiest is that he drives me to volunteer every day.” She is also grateful to him for never voicing any objections whenever she decides to donate money to Tzu Chi to help with its charity work. He even helps her put her donating members’ accounts in order. And he cooks his own meals when she goes out to volunteer so that she can volunteer without worries. When it’s time to watch the Master’s televised talks and she forgets about it, he reminds her of it too, saying, “Here comes the Master!”

“My grandmother told me before she passed away that she was sure I’d marry a good husband, and she was right,” said Xu, her face beaming. “I’m really lucky.”

Serving at a Jing Si Books and Café is part of Xu’s volunteer work for Tzu Chi.

A good husband

Xu was born when Taiwan was under Japan’s colonial rule (1895-1945), in 1938. Her father was conscripted into the Japanese army during World War II and sent off to Southeast Asia to fight for Japan and never returned. Xu, the third oldest child in a family of four girls, was only six at the time. Her younger sister was not yet two. Their mother supported the family by working in a factory. She was helped by her mother-in-law, who lived with them and made a meager income from sorting tea leaves.

Xu often went to a market as a child to scavenge leftover vegetables and coal for her grandmother to use in cooking. “My grandma was overjoyed we didn’t have to spend any money on vegetables all year round,” Xu recalled. She started working after she graduated from elementary school and paid her own way through junior high school. She later was hired at the Taiwan Fisheries Bureau in the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, where she worked until she retired at 60.

When Xu was 17, her grandma, who suffered from malnutrition, had a fall. This was followed by a stroke that left her bedridden for three years. During that time, Xu would get out of bed early every morning to prepare rice porridge for her grandma. She only went to work after feeding her and changing her diaper. At noon, she returned home with lunch for her grandma, fed her, and changed her diaper before going back to work. She hurried back home again after work to tend to her grandma’s needs and wash a pile of diapers. At night, she slept with her grandma. Xu tied her hand to that of her grandma’s, so if her grandma so much as stirred a finger, she could immediately rise and take care of her needs. She took care of her grandma like that for four years, until she passed away.

After her two older sisters got married and moved out of home, Xu decided that when she got married herself she’d have her mother move in with her and her husband. When she met her future husband, he agreed to live with her family after they were married. Xu’s grandmother had said while she was still alive that she was sure Xu would marry a good husband, and his willingness to accept Xu’s family bore out that prediction. “My mom and younger sister moved in with us three days after we tied the knot,” Xu said. Her mom later helped her run the household and even baby-sat her five children. Xu’s younger sister later moved out when she got married.

“My mom passed at 75, when I was 50,” Xu said. “My husband had helped me take care of her for 22 years. He really is a wonderful man.” Xu’s smile couldn’t be broader as she continued: “He has a great sense of responsibility, and he was good at what he did at work, which required a great deal of technical expertise. He respects me and I admire him. My oldest sister has nothing but good things to say about him.”

“He even does my hair every day,” she added, which brought to my mind the scene in the movie Out of Africa in which Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep’s hair for her. Her husband seemed equally romantic—even though Lin, drinking tea off to the side when his wife made the comment, didn’t look like a particularly romantic man.

The reason Lin did his wife’s hair for her was actually not grounded in romance. Xu explained that after she broke her arm about four years previously, she could no longer raise her right arm high enough to properly comb her hair and put it up in a bun. That’s why she needs her husband’s help. “Without his help, I could not look presentable enough to go out. Thankfully, he always helps me out.” Though his actions might not be particularly romantic, they reveal Lin to be a very loving husband.

Still going strong

Xu is advanced in years and no longer maintains as large a roster of donating members as she did before. Though she has passed on some of her members to younger commissioners, she still regularly collects donations from more than a hundred donating members. She used to make such collections every month but has reduced it to twice a year now. The donating members who live farthest from her are her husband’s relatives in his hometown, Yilan, on Taiwan’s northeast coast. She collects their donations every year on Tomb-Sweeping Day, when they gather together to clean the graves of their deceased family members. Her other donating members live across the Greater Taipei Area. She either takes a bus or her husband drives her to collect their donations.

Xu has a natural way of exuding care for others that made many of her neighbors and former colleagues happy to become her donating members. She joined Tzu Chi in 1990, and to this day, at the age of 84, she still actively recruits donating members for the foundation. She meets fewer people from whom she can raise money for Tzu Chi because she is no longer working, but she makes good use of her time on public transportation to do that. Her husband admires her for her ease and courage in asking others, even total strangers, to donate to Tzu Chi. “I could never do that!” he said.

In addition to raising and collecting donations for Tzu Chi, Xu serves as a recycling volunteer two days a week and volunteers at a Jing Si Books and Café once a week. She also helps out in Tzu Chi classes for older people and works the phones at a Tzu Chi office, answering questions from callers. She attends funerals on behalf of the foundation too. She is as dedicated a volunteer as can be.

After we met on the bus, her image was imprinted on my mind. I felt drawn to her. Later, I asked her if I could go see her when she was serving as a recycling volunteer. That was when my not-so-wise suggestion led her to cut her pinkie finger—a cut that required six stitches to repair.

It surprised me that even though she was injured, she went out to volunteer the next day at the Jing Si Books and Café where she regularly volunteers. She had been worried as she was having her cut sewn up that she wouldn’t be able to volunteer two days later at the recycling station near her new home, but when the time came, she showed up at the station as usual. Her injury prevented her from doing some of the work at the station, but she did what she could do. She uncapped PET bottles for another volunteer to cut and remove the rings from the necks, then sorted the bottles by color. She worked at the station from nine in the morning to nearly four in the afternoon. After she retired, she never took an afternoon nap, all because she wanted to have more time to volunteer. That spirit of diligence alone is enough to win her a lot of admiration.

“The more I volunteer, the happier I am!” Xu declared. Though she’s been through some rough patches, she never thinks life has ever treated her badly when she looks back on her life’s journey. She constantly harbors a heart of gratitude. Having lived through an indigent childhood and adolescent years and a busy middle age, she finds her old age the most rewarding period of her life—she’s found that giving without expecting anything in return always brings one the most joy.

“Don’t stop, because once you do you stop for good,” says Master Cheng Yen to older volunteers. She reminds older people not to overexert themselves and to watch out for their safety when they volunteer, but not to acknowledge defeat to old age and to continue giving of themselves. Xu is a most faithful disciple of the Master’s; she does everything she teaches. Her spirit of giving and service makes her a poster child for the values espoused by Tzu Chi. And that’s not all: her loving heart shines outward too. No wonder just a look at her on the bus told me she was a Tzu Chi commissioner and made it hard for me to forget her.

January 2022