A Matter of the Heart—Shen Yu-zhen

Receiving your volunteer certification doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your journey. On the contrary, it signifies the real beginning on a path of giving love.

I was a premature baby and a congenital heart condition made me a frequent visitor to the emergency room. When my heart acted up, I needed to receive an injection from a doctor to feel better.

About two years ago, my heart started to act up a lot more often—from once a year to every two weeks. One morning, another attack of my old ailment sent me to the emergency room yet again. But this time, not even multiple injections could relieve my condition. After the third shot failed to work, I heard the doctor say: “Prepare the defibrillator!”

I was conscious throughout the emergency treatment and as scared as could be. I felt my life was slipping away. Anxious and shaky, I prayed to the bodhisattvas: “If I can make it through this safely, I’ll do good to benefit society.” I had heart surgery later, and was fortunate to recover well.

I didn’t forget my vow to the bodhisattvas after my recovery. My older sister and her husband are both certified Tzu Chi volunteers, and I had been donating to the foundation every month through them. Even so, all I knew about Tzu Chi was that it was a charity organization; I had no idea about the work they did. I didn’t know where to start as a volunteer, so I asked my sister how to join. She helped me fill out a form, and then introduced me to Tzu Chi volunteers in my community. That led to my training to be a certified volunteer.

Shen Yu-zhen (沈豫臻) serves a customer. She has worked in the beauty industry for 22 years.

Beautiful both inside and out

I started taking part in all kinds of Tzu Chi activities. Only then did I realize the many good things the foundation had been doing. I wanted to do as much as I could to help out, and I wanted to do a good job at whatever I took on. To do a good job at everything began with doing everything mindfully. As we like to say in Tzu Chi, “Proficiency comes from mindfulness.”

I developed an interest in reading after I began attending study group sessions organized by my fellow volunteers. That’s when I also started applying Master Cheng Yen’s teachings in my daily life. When I first joined the study group, however, I didn’t quite understand what everyone was saying—we were studying The Jing Si Dharma Essence of the Wondrous Lotus Sutra, a series of books that contain Master Cheng Yen’s teachings on the Lotus Sutra. I didn’t know the first thing about Buddhist scriptures or the Buddha’s teachings. All I had ever heard of was Amitabha and Guan Yin Bodhisattva. But my understanding gradually deepened as I listened to everyone share their thoughts, and as I repeatedly digested the teachings, word by word. The wisdom contained within the passages enriched me and powered me through my days.

There is the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra. It tells of a father who is worried and anxious as his children continue to play merrily after their house has caught on fire. He urges them to escape, but they don’t listen. The story made me think of how it wasn’t until I became a mother that I truly realized my parents’ love for me. I used to think all they did was nag me. I never stopped to think that behind all that nagging was their love for me.

My Tzu Chi training also made me realize more deeply how cutting down on the use of plastics and eating vegetarian is one way to love the Earth. My husband runs a business in a market. I share with the vendors I know there how we can reduce our negative impact on the environment and slow down global warming by using fewer plastic bags. I also share with friends and relatives how we can protect the environment and show our love for all living things by switching to a vegetarian diet. Some of them told me they might not be able to become a complete vegetarian like me, so I suggested they steer their diet in that direction by eating at least one vegetarian meal a day.

When I began my training to be a certified volunteer, I learned that one of the ten Tzu Chi precepts is “Do not kill.” After that, I became a stricter vegetarian and would not even eat vegetables contained in a meat dish. I eat very simply now and as a result have unconsciously lost ten kilograms (22 pounds). I run a beauty salon and know that in our industry it costs 10,000 New Taiwan dollars (US$330) to lose a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of weight. Eating vegetarian is not just healthy and eco-friendly but can also help you slim down and save money.

People come to my beauty salon because they want to improve their appearance, but my shop also provides a way for some of them to unburden themselves. They need someone they can trust and with whom they can share their problems. To an outsider like me, some of my customers have perfect families and everything going for them, but they are still unsatisfied. Although it’s true that every family has its troubles, it’s only after I learned more about Buddhism that I realized that many people keep wanting more and more even if they already have a lot. Their desires are often the source of discontentment and unhappiness.

In the past, my typical advice when customers shared their problems with me was to tell them, “Try to think more positively.” But now, thanks to Master Cheng Yen’s teachings, I am better able at offering constructive advice. For example, if a customer is experiencing issues with her husband, I share with her what the Master teaches about the importance of giving space to one’s significant other, about how giving space, instead of being a helicopter wife, can help a relationship. My customers are now even fonder of talking to me. I’m more than happy I can share helpful messages with them.

Shen Yu-zhen listens to and takes notes from Master Cheng Yen’s talks in her free time from work.
Shen (far left) serves as a cooking volunteer at a Tzu Chi event. Courtesy of Shen Yu-zhen

Challenges are inevitable

I’m 50 now and have worked in the beauty industry for more than 20 years. However, my salon was shuttered for three months due to a COVID-19 surge in Taiwan that started in mid-May 2021. Though no money was coming in during that time, I still needed to pay some regular bills and incurred quite a loss as a result. I wasn’t the only one to suffer an economic setback during the pandemic. I’ve lost some clients that can no longer afford to come to my salon since the pandemic started too. That being said, every cloud has a silver lining. Though I’m earning less money now, I have more time for my family.

Although I was in poor health, I worked hard to make money in the past because my daughter was still young and I needed to help support my family. I often worked until midnight. Because I focused so much energy on my career, a lot of the work of taking care of home and family fell to my husband. I felt I owed him a lot. I’m very grateful to him for giving so much to our family. He is very supportive of my volunteer work too. I am so grateful to him for everything.

During that surge in COVID infections last year, our training classes were moved online. When I was attending those remote classes, I saw volunteers from all around the world attending the same classes via videoconferencing. It made me realize how many loving people there were in the world. More importantly, we were all working towards how to spread our love to more people.

I originally knew next to nothing about Tzu Chi, but by participating in its work I have experienced the joy of giving and felt my mind so enriched that I’ve become even more willing to give my time and energy to volunteering. I believe in the goodness of people, and hope to inspire more of them to tap into the love in their hearts and experience how giving can enrich their lives too. I believe that if we go about it the right way, we will be able to plant seeds of kindness in their hearts. When the time is ripe, their seeds will germinate.

Since it was my decision to join Tzu Chi, since I’ve made a pledge to contribute to the good of the world, I will stick to my chosen path. I know I wouldn’t feel grounded if I failed to live up to my pledge. I used to focus so much on making money I felt it was impossible to make time for things like volunteering. But now my perspective has shifted. Like Master Cheng Yen says, we have 86,400 seconds at our disposal every day. If we make good use of our lives, we can make every second count.

Receiving my volunteer certification marked the real beginning of my Tzu Chi Path, and I expect myself to be even more diligent and dedicated to it. I know that I’m sure to encounter problems and challenges on that path, but I tell myself I must develop the resilience and capacity to bear with trying circumstances. I tell myself I must have the resolution to overcome difficulties instead of using my obstacles as an excuse to keep myself from moving forward.

I suffer from claustrophobia and thus have an irrational fear of confined spaces and crowded environments. I recall one time before the pandemic when our entire family took a high speed train for an outing. I had an attack of claustrophobia on the train and felt a compulsion to jump off. I sought medical attention after that, began taking medicine for it, and my condition improved. Immersing myself in work also made me forget my fears. But one day it occurred to me: what should I do when I had to drive to go volunteer?

I knew I had to find a way to overcome this problem. So, when I was going on a drive that would last 30 minutes, I’d stop my car every five minutes and get out to take a breather before I got back into the car and kept on driving. By practicing this way, I gradually became better at overcoming my claustrophobia.

When our training was coming to a close, arrangements were made for me and other trainee volunteers to visit the Jing Si Abode in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. Since I was leaving from Taichung, central Taiwan, the ride was a long one, and we weren’t allowed to open the windows on the ride. My husband was very concerned and kept calling me to check on me. I tried to keep my mind off the fact that I was in a confined space, and that helped me get through the ride. I arrived at Hualien without a hitch.

I pay respect to and talk to the statue of the Buddha in my home every day. I share with the Buddha what I did that day. If I did a good job of anything that day, I give myself a pat on the back, and if I encountered any problems, I share them with the Enlightened One too. I often encourage myself with this teaching of Master Cheng Yen’s too: “We must overcome difficulties, not be overcome by them.” I believe that as long as I keep my intentions pure and kind, everything will turn out for the best.

I will never forget the vow I made when my life was on the line. Since heaven kept me alive, I must have unfulfilled missions in the world. I’ll keep giving of myself and persevere in my aspirations.

A pledge she made when she was having a close brush with death led Shen to become a Tzu Chi volunteer. She believes her life was saved because she has unfulfilled missions in the world. She encourages herself to not let any difficulties stand in her way of giving.



I put a premium on my pledges and make a point of fulfilling them. I’m very thankful to my sister and brother-in-law for connecting me with Tzu Chi, and to my in-laws and husband for giving me full support and allowing me to volunteer without worries. I believe it’s not that difficult to find time for doing good, even if you feel you are often bogged down with miscellaneous tasks. Don’t be stingy about giving, and don’t think it’s enough just to take good care of yourself. When you give of yourself, have the resolution to overcome difficulties you encounter instead of using them as an excuse to keep you from moving forward.—Shen Yu-zhen

March 2022