A Blessing in Disguise

Her talks raise awareness of the importance of environmental protection. She is a cancer survivor and each presentation is a challenge to her stamina, but she remains undaunted and keeps going. She believes it’s a blessing to be able to give. She has already reached her goal of giving a thousand talks, and is now working toward the next thousand.

How long is one second? To satisfy people’s appetite for meat, 1,776 animals per second are served as food on dining tables around the world. In that same short second, 160,000 plastic bags are produced by humans….”

The speaker was Qiu Shu-zi (邱淑姿), her audience a group of elementary school children. She had been invited to the school to explain to the kids how humans are affecting the environment. Watching the video Qiu was showing them, the children commented one after another: “The Earth is running a fever,” “The polar bears are losing their homes,” “The poor albatross, her stomach is full of garbage.”

Qiu said to the kids, “The Earth is sick. What can we do for her? Things will be different if we can each do our bit to help her.”

In just four years, she has given a thousand free talks on environmental protection. That’s almost 21 talks per month. Her dedication to the cause is impressive. What led her, a retired teacher, to this path? What fueled her determination to spread the word to help the environment?

Qiu Shu-zi volunteers at a Tzu Chi hospital. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and had one third of her stomach surgically removed. Yet in-stead of leading an easy life after that, she has gone all out to volunteer. Life’s impermanence has motivated her to take every day seriously and not to mindlessly squander away time.

Greatest suffering in life

In July 2012, following an examination at Taichung Tzu Chi Hospital in central Taiwan, Qiu, then 49, was told by her doctor, Wu Yung-kang
(吳永康), that there was a malignant tumor in her stomach. This kind of cancer wouldn’t respond well to chemotherapy, so she agreed to undergo surgery to have it removed.

A devout Buddhist, she realized that illness and death are just a part of life and that what happens to you in this life is a result of what you did in your previous lives. Death did not scare her, and she faced the diagnosis calmly. But still, she was relatively young at 49. She wanted to live longer so she could have more time to do good. She also didn’t want to die before her parents and cause them grief. That’s why she actively underwent treatment.

One third of her stomach was removed in the surgery. During her hospitalization, Qiu couldn’t eat or drink for seven days and nights. Her body was covered in tubes—drip catheter, urinary catheter, nasogastric tube, etc. Repeated needle pricks gave her a lot of pain, but what bothered her the most was the insertion of the nasogastric tube. She felt as if she was having a bad cold and couldn’t breathe smoothly with the tube in her throat. She felt awful. The experience helped her realize why of the eight sufferings in life that the Buddha talked about, illness is considered the greatest suffering.

A blessing in disguise

Heaven was nice to her. The surgery went well, and Qiu fully recovered. The illness, however, was a wake-up call, and it led to a change in her career path. She decided to leave teaching when she was 50 and begin volunteering full-time for Tzu Chi. She had become a certified Tzu Chi volunteer 12 years earlier in 2000.

She couldn’t wait to resume volunteering as soon as she was discharged from the hospital. On the very day she left the hospital, though she hadn’t fully recovered her strength yet, she went to collect donations for Tzu Chi. Within less than a week, she was working at a recycling station, wearing a post-operative compression girdle. Her illness had been a lesson in the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. She used to think that she had all the time in the world, and she would often stay up late watching TV. Now she knew from personal experience that impermanence could strike at any time and nothing could be taken for granted. Time is therefore as precious as diamonds, and it shouldn’t be squandered away mindlessly.

One time Qiu went to volunteer at the Jing Si Abode, the Buddhist convent founded by Master Cheng Yen in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. She was helping compile materials on Tzu Chi’s history. Master De Qi, a nun at the abode, asked about her health and encouraged her to think of her illness positively. “Cancer is a gift from heaven,” the nun said. Qiu realized what she was trying to tell her: Hardship is a blessing in disguise. Master De Qi’s words led her to look at her cancer diagnosis from a new perspective. She taught her to be grateful because such adversity could help her grow.

In August 2014, two years after her brush with the disease, she learned that Dr. Wu, who had operated on her, had died suddenly of an aortic dissection. He was found passed out in a surgeon’s dressing room after having just finished an operation on a patient, and he died soon thereafter despite emergency care. The passing of the doctor, who had looked so healthy, came as a shock to Qiu and further brought home to her life’s impermanence. Afterwards, she often told herself that life is like a flickering candle that can be blown out by a sudden gust of wind at any time. None of us are promised a tomorrow. To be alive is a miracle; we should be grateful for every moment and live life as fully as possible. 

All that Qiu had experienced led her to cherish every chance to give of herself. She participated in as many Tzu Chi events as she could, and she encouraged other volunteers to make the most of their time by doing their best to give. When she volunteered at a hospital, she shared her experiences as a cancer survivor with patients and cheered them on with a bright smile. She told them happiness is a choice; one’s day is happy or sad—depending less on the circumstances in it, but more on one’s perspective. She encouraged the patients to choose happiness. The patients knew that she had been through what they were going through, and so they found her words plausible. She was like a ray of sunshine, bringing confidence and courage to people who needed a lift.

Qiu takes notes while listening to a talk given by Master Cheng Yen via video-conferencing. She thanks Buddhist teachings for helping her face her cancer diagnosis more calmly.


Meeting Tzu Chi

Qiu was born in a farming family in Zhang-hua, central Taiwan, the fifth among six children. She loved school, and after graduating from college she worked first as a civil servant and then as a teacher.

She married in 1991. She and her husband both worked, but when they got home at the end of the day, the care of all the household chores fell to her. Her husband felt that it was a woman’s duty to do the housework, so he refused to help and simply relaxed on the sofa after work, waiting for dinner to be served. Qiu couldn’t agree with him though. She believed that a couple should share the chores, especially when they both worked. The two of them often fought over this issue.

At the time, a colleague at Qiu’s elementary school often lent her the Tzu Chi Monthly and other Tzu Chi publications to read. Qiu liked the stories in them and found them touching. She subsequently became a donating member of the foundation and began participating in its events.

In 1995 Qiu attended a Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremony, where she heard a song that made her reflect on her relationship with her husband. The lyrics went, “Who’s in the wrong? What do you hate? It’s all in how you look at it.” She suddenly realized that her unhappiness in her marriage arose from seeing things from only one perspective. She should change her attitude toward her husband, look at his merits, and compliment him on them instead of focusing on his faults and constantly jumping into arguments with him. Even when she felt she was in the right, being high-handed and tough wouldn’t help things. Instead, being gentle and understanding would be a better way to defuse any tension. As she changed her attitude, her relationship with her husband gradually improved and they were no longer so often at loggerheads with each other.

Qiu and her husband are childless. Whenever she heard her colleagues or relatives talk about how much they loved their children, she’d feel lost, as if her life was missing something. But being in Tzu Chi and exposed to Master Cheng Yen’s teachings led her to think differently. Being childless had its advantages too. For example, she had fewer attachments and could spend more time volunteering. She would also have more time to focus on her students and give them her undivided love. 

In 1997, Qiu volunteered at a Tzu Chi summer camp for children, where she saw pictures of starving, emaciated people in Ethiopia. Her heart was greatly stirred when she saw the dire effects of poverty and famine in that African country. She decided to work harder to enlist donating members and solicit donations to help the foundation relieve suffering in the world. She also began training to become a certified volunteer. Three years later, in 2000, she received her volunteer certification from Master Cheng Yen and officially committed herself to the path of charitable work.

Qiu sorts garbage at a recycling point. Besides giving talks to advocate environmental causes, she reclaims reusable resources to protect the Earth.

Working for the environment

After her cancer diagnosis, Qiu often wondered what could have led to her illness. Aside from her personal habits, could it also have had to do with the environment in which she lived? She began to read related articles and news reports, through which she learned that some cancers are indeed closely related to the pollution in our environment.

In December 2013, she took part in a Tzu Chi camp whose purpose was to train speakers to promote the importance of environmental protection. When the camp was coming to an end, she was one of those who went on stage to share her thoughts. She had learned at the camp that Chen Zhe-lin (陳哲霖), a Tzu Chi volunteer, had already given 1,124 talks advocating environmental causes. Inspired by Chen’s example, Qiu pledged in front of the audience: “I’ll start visiting schools to promote environmental protection. I’ll set my goal at giving a thousand talks.” She felt that an earth-friendly attitude should be instilled early in life. That would be for the benefit of everyone and for the good of the Earth.

She started her talks at the elementary school where she had once taught. She also asked other teachers she knew to let her speak at their schools. She worked hard at it, giving one talk after another. Her highest record was six talks in a single day.

The size of her audience ranges from less than 20 to 600, but she would present to an audience of one if necessary. When it comes to environmental protection, everybody counts. Even small acts of recycling accumulated by one person over time can make an impact.

In many people’s eyes, environmentalism is a solemn topic. Qiu tries to lighten her talks by introducing games or by sharing interesting stories or personal experiences. Sometimes she drags a rolling suitcase filled with plastic bottles, batteries, or blankets to use as visual aids. She tries various ways to engage people and motivate them to recycle and live an eco-friendly life. 

Zheng Shu-er (鄭淑兒) is a teacher who was inspired to follow in Qiu’s footsteps and become a certified Tzu Chi volunteer. She was later diagnosed with cancer, but that hasn’t stopped her from aiming to give a thousand talks to help raise public awareness of environmental issues. “I may not be able to go all out like Qiu, but I’ll work steadfastly toward my goal,” she declared. 

Qiu conducts a group activity at a campus event. As a member of the Tzu Chi Teachers Associa-tion, she visits schools to share Master Cheng Yen’s teachings with students and help nurture their character. Qiu Bai-feng

Another thousand 

Qiu has shared her environmental message, one talk after another, over a thousand times. Despite her years of teaching experience, she still gets nervous when she has to speak to a large audience. For the sake of the environment, however, she always tries to channel her nervousness into energy that makes her performance better.

She is already seeing the impact her talks have made—from students who voted not to use air-conditioning in class, to teachers who asked their students to cut down on kitchen waste, to school administrators who decided to have a vegetarian meal each day. She is greatly cheered by these results. They more than make up for her hoarse voice and sore feet. Giving these talks might tire her, but she feels richly rewarded spiritually.

Qiu reached her one-thousand-talk goal on December 11, 2017, speaking to a group of over 20 students at Wun-Sin Elementary School in Taichung, central Taiwan. On that same day, she hurried over to Sizhangli Junior High, also in Taichung, to give another speech and start another milestone of her life—another one thousand talks on environmental protection.

“Though I’ve pledged to give another thousand talks, my ultimate goal is to keep going and never stop,” said Qiu. “After my second thousand, I’ll work toward yet another thousand.”

Qiu explains the meaning of an aphorism by Master Cheng Yen to a woman at a Tzu Chi event held to give thanks to police officers and fire fighters for their public service.



Qiu picks tea leaves at a Tzu Chi property. After her illness led her to retire early, she dedicated herself to serving society through volunteering.



May 2018