My Mom’s Transformation

A sense of purpose can work miracles in life. See how my mom changed her life by taking up volunteering.

The author, Lin Yi-ping (林宜屏, left), poses with her parents as they hold the money gifts she gave them after she received her first salary.

“I’ve visited so many hospitals and seen so many doctors! Why am I still sick? Is it my fate to never be well again?” My mom, Yang Hui-mei (楊惠美), always complained like this when she felt under the weather.

My dad, Lin Chih-chung (林志衝), sighed before he replied: Stop mumbling. Finish your meal and then let’s go see another doctor—we’ll try a gynecologist this time.”

Seven years ago, this type of conversation between my parents was typical. One day that year, my mom turned around and then suddenly experienced a dizzy spell. The condition persisted for a while without improving, so Dad took her to a clinic that they were familiar with. The doctor there diagnosed my mom with acute hypertension, and he immediately put her on an IV drip to bring down her blood pressure.

However, my mom continued to experience dizzy spells, even after her hypertension was brought under control. She had also lost her appetite and slept very poorly. Dad accompanied her on frequent hospital visits to find out what was really troubling her. They saw specialists in cardiology, OB/GYN, ENT, orthopedics, neurology, psychiatry, and traditional Chinese medicine. They also tried different hospitals. Mom even underwent a full physical examination, including an MRI scan. All their efforts, however, were to no avail—every doctor that examined her remained mystified as to the cause of her illness.

The variety of medications Mom took increased with time, even though she continued to suffer from sleep loss and a poor appetite. She grew thinner and weaker and even began to have difficulty walking.

Mom’s illness was hard not just on her, but on Dad too. He lost his mother when he was 17, and he suffered a great deal from that loss. It wasn’t until he met my mom and started a family with her that he felt he had finally found an anchor in life. The endless rounds of medical tests, reviewing the results with doctors, and failing to find any marked relief despite treatment deeply frustrated him. Disappointment and fear became his daily companions that relentlessly ate away at him.

I had my share of fear and worry for her too. During the time when Mom was seeing one doctor after another, I’d gasp whenever my cell phone rang. I was overwhelmed by the fear that the caller was going to deliver heartbreaking news about my mother. I was 17 at the time.

At the suggestion of some older relatives, my dad decided to seek divine help. He arranged for my mom to move into a Taoist temple whose abbess was a friend of my parents. During her stay there, my mom also received herbal treatments and kept to a diet recommended by a Chinese medicine doctor. With that and with the solace provided by religion, my mom gradually began to mend. She gained back some weight and things seemed to be improving. However, five months after she had moved into the temple, the abbess said she was too tied up to help take care of my mom anymore. Mom had no choice but to return home.

Within a little over a month after she moved back home, Mom was unwell again. “Doctor, what on earth is wrong with me again?” More doctor visits brought no solution to her problem, so Dad arranged for her to stay at two more temples. In the quiet and peace of the temples, Mom convalesced. Four months later, she finally felt well enough to come home and reunite with us.

But even then, things didn’t get better for us. At home, Mom’s mind was often not at peace. “Why do bad things keep happening to our family? Our savings are running low. What went wrong?” “Could it be that our ancestors need money to spend in the other world? Should we burn some spirit money for them?” [It’s a Chinese tradition to burn spirit money as an offering to one’s ancestors.]

Mom worried about Dad, who was having to work so hard to support our family. The conjectures of our older relatives about our family’s streak of bad luck further contributed to her unhappiness. She was so depressed that she lost interest in going out. She was cooped up at home all day long, watching TV or nodding off on the sofa. She was drained of energy. Her life was “lifeless.”

Can someone like me do good too?

“You are the master of your destiny, not a slave to it.” “Do good and help others. As the good you do accumulates, your fate will change for the better.” These words were from a book Mom had read during her stay in a temple. The book was compiled from a series of lectures on Liao-fan’s Four Lessons, a famous Chinese book by Yuan Liao-fan (袁了凡, 1533-1606.) The gist of Four Lessons is that people can change their destiny by nurturing kindness in themselves, performing good deeds, and refraining from doing wrong. Inspired by these teachings, my mom wanted to do good to create blessings for herself and her family. But she didn’t know how. “Where can I go to do good?” she pondered. “What can a person as frail as me contribute?”

Maybe because her fortune was about to turn, or maybe because heaven finally took pity on her, my mom saw a Da Ai TV program that featured Tzu Chi recycling volunteers. She discovered that she could volunteer at a Tzu Chi recycling station. Taking a first step toward that goal, however, wasn’t easy. After all, she had been a stay-at-home housewife for over 20 years. She had qualms about going among people to volunteer, and she kept having second thoughts. Eventually, after praying time and again to the deities we worshipped in our home for their blessings, she stepped out into public. She wanted to learn from Yuan Liao-fan and do 3,000 good deeds to change her destiny.

My mom first walked into a recycling station in 2016. The first person she became acquainted with there was Sister Chen Ying-qi (陳瑛琦). Chen gave her a lot of help. Being physically weak, Mom couldn’t even properly tie up a bag of sorted plastic bottles. “I’m really sorry,” Mom would say to Chen. “I don’t know why my knots always end up too loose, and I always need your help to tighten them up.” Chen would wave away her apologies and comfort her by saying, “Don’t worry. You’re doing okay. I didn’t get good at this overnight. Give it time. You’ll get better.”

“Allow me, allow me,” Sister Chen Chun-mei (陳春梅) called out. Every time someone needed help fetching stuff at the station, she was always quick to offer a hand. Despite being 82 years old, she was agile and light on her feet. Looking at her, Mom thought to herself, “I’m still young and yet my steps are so heavy. I have to drag my feet when I walk. I wonder what a miserable mess I’ll be when I get to Chen’s age.”

Mom decided to hold Chen up as an example as she strove for physical fitness. She started doing exercises to build up strength in her legs and to increase her balance. Her efforts paid off. She started off so fragile she couldn’t help but worry that she might fall just walking the short five-meter distance from the kitchen to our living room. But gradually, her steps became firmer, steadier, and faster. One day she cheerfully said to me, “Now when the postman delivers registered mail to us and I need to answer the door, I no longer have to keep him waiting so long.”

Mom told me that she had made a pledge the first day she had volunteered at the station. She had returned home that day from the station with her head dizzy and her legs aching. She lay exhausted on the sofa looking at her legs covered with medicated patches, but instead of pitying herself for her bodily discomforts, she prayed to the Medicine Buddha: “Today was my first day at the recycling station. I met many older volunteers there working to protect the Earth. At their age, their physical functions are declining. Medicine Buddha, please grant me better health so that I can help out more and spare them from the heavier work. I want to do more to pay back society.”

Yang Hui-mei (right) and Chen Ying-qi together lift a large bag of plastic bottles. It doesn’t take visits to a gym to get stronger. Volunteering at a recycling station has helped Yang build strength in her hands, legs, and back.

Mom and me together

“Would you like to go to the recycling station with me tomorrow?” Mom asked me one day.

“Me? What can I do there?”

“There’s a lot you can do. Just come and see.”

This conversation took place between Mom and me when I had just lost a job for the first time in my life. Since I was between jobs, I didn’t think much before saying yes to Mom’s invitation.

The next day, I followed her to the recycling station where she volunteered. When the other volunteers there saw me, they praised me for being a good kid and coming to help. I was feeling low for just losing my job, so their compliments didn’t bring me much joy. Mom showed me around the station. During the tour I saw many grey-haired, stooped elderly volunteers. I also saw mountains of recyclable garbage waiting to be sorted. I thought to myself, “Can these old people successfully tackle those small mountains of recyclables?”

After working there for half a day, I felt a marked lift in my mood. I didn’t know if the improvement in my spirits was due to all the physical work I had done—which, like exercise, might have triggered a release of endorphins in my brain—or due to the fact that I had been deeply inspired by the older people I saw at the station. They were full of energy despite their age, working tirelessly away at the mountains of garbage. Looking at them, I thought: “Despite being old, they are working so hard to reclaim reusable resources and do the Earth a good turn. As a young person, I should learn from their can-do spirit instead of becoming dispirited by a little setback in life. There is so much to do to contribute to the well-being of the world. I must perk up and do my best to help.”

After that, whenever I had time, I went with Mom to volunteer at the recycling station. Though the garbage at the station sometimes smelled, the passion of the volunteers there was enough to make me ignore the stench. Besides, there was the aroma of food from the kitchen, from the snacks that volunteers were preparing for people serving there.

The big Tzu Chi family

Bi-bi-bo-bo—this was the noise made when one stepped on a plastic bottle to flatten it. I saw Mom tackle one bottle after another at the station by flattening them with her foot, a steady rhythm to her actions. Her attention was no longer so focused on her illness and bodily discomforts. She might still feel unwell, but it didn’t seem to bother or worry her as much as before. Additionally, she no longer felt that she was volunteering in order to earn spiritual merits for herself and to change her destiny for the better. Instead of treating volunteering as a means to an end, she contributed what she could because she felt that, as Master Cheng Yen says, when you know something is right, you should just do it.

Aside from recycling, as long as her time allowed, she followed Sister Chen Ying-qi to serve as a culinary volunteer and cook for Tzu Chi events. The first time she did this, she came home impressed: “I saw such a huge wok today! The volunteers were so strong, stir-frying vegetables in that huge frying pan. The wok we use at home is so tiny compared to the one I saw today!”

At the invitation of volunteer Guo Chun-mei (郭春美), Mom took part in a musical adaptation of The Thirty-Seven Principles of Enlightenment staged at Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremonies held at the foundation’s Taichung branch office in central Taiwan. Mom really enjoyed it, saying that this was the first time she had absorbed Buddhist teachings in a way other than reading about them in a book. Buddhism was made more accessible this way, she said.

Under her influence, I grew more and more curious about Tzu Chi. One day, I ran into volunteer Chen Jing-hui (陳菁惠) at the recycling station. Maybe because I was young or maybe because she saw some potential in me, she asked if I’d be interested in serving as a documenting volunteer and helping record Tzu Chi events. She invited me to go take a look for myself when she and other documenting volunteers went out on an assignment. Out of curiosity, I accepted her invitation.

I followed a team of documenting volunteers to a nursing home that Tzu Chi volunteers regularly visit. I also joined a free clinic mission conducted by members of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association in Taichung. Both events offered services for seniors. What really amazed me was the contrast between the elderly folks we served at the events and the elderly volunteers at the recycling station. Both groups were advanced in age, but one group waited to be served, while the other group, full of drive and energy, went all out to give of themselves.

I had another eye-opening experience in November 2018. That month, I was invited to help record a training camp for trainee volunteers from outside of Taiwan. Carrying a pen and paper, I walked briskly into the venue at the Tzu Chi Taichung office. When I arrived at the work area for documenting volunteers, I looked around and drew a sharp breath. “Wow! What a huge lineup!”

Volunteers wearing headphones sat along a long row of desks, each with a notebook computer in front of them, operating different software programs. A senior volunteer said to me, “This area is for video-editing volunteers, that area is for volunteer writers. Over there are volunteer interpreters.” This large group of people were like employees in a company, each performing a different set of duties but all working toward the same goal. The only difference was that the people I saw in front of me were all volunteers, receiving no pay for their work.

As the camp progressed, I had the opportunity to see Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, in person. I saw her walk slowly into the hall where we were gathered as the emcee announced her arrival. That was an emotional moment for me. I couldn’t stop tears from filling my eyes as I looked at her. It was beyond me to articulate my feelings. I only knew I was deeply moved.

Tzu Chi is a very big organization, and since I was still new, I probably got a little carried away when I saw Master Cheng Yen in person. I saw how thin and feeble she was, and yet despite her poor health, she had a heart big enough to accommodate and love every human being in the world. I felt grateful to be in her presence while at the same time I felt for her for the heavy burden she bore.

I once asked Mom and Dad how such a large organization as Tzu Chi managed its many unsalaried volunteers. At that moment in the hall, I seemed to find the answer to my question. Tzu Chi doesn’t run its organization based on any rigid, standardized business model, but with the simplest love.

“Gratitude, respect, and love”—the Tzu Chi core values—is not just a slogan in Tzu Chi. I feel it in people around me. Sister Lin Ling-li (林玲悧), for example, has been very good to me. Ever since I joined the ranks of documenting volunteers, she has been coaching me on how to write. Every time she finishes what she has to say to me, she always adds, “Just do your best. Don’t feel any pressure.” At 24, I have had two years of work experience since I graduated from college. At work, people don’t use that kind of tone with you. They have no patience for you. If you do a poor job at anything, you can expect a good scolding from your supervisors. Sister Ling-li, by contrast, always shows me a lot of love and patience. I’m very happy I could join the big family of Tzu Chi.

Yang Hui-mei (first row, third from right) takes part in a musical adaptation of The Thirty-Seven Principles of Enlightenment at a Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremony in Taichung, central Taiwan.

Mom is different

Dad and I, sitting in the audience, had our eyes focused on the same spot on the stage. Mom and many other volunteers were putting on a sutra adaptation at a Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremony. On stage, they were performing sign language songs with Buddhist teachings incorporated into the lyrics. As I saw how confident Mom was as she signed the lyrics, my eyes became blurry with tears.

I reflected on the changes that have come over her in the last three years since she took up recycling, and on how those changes have influenced the atmosphere in our family. She has become healthier and more at ease, which in turn has warmed up our family atmosphere. Our home has become brighter. Mom no longer wallows in self-pity, and she and Dad have stopped arguing as much as before.

My mom’s world has changed, and so has mine. Taking part in Tzu Chi activities has broadened my horizon; my world has become wider. As a newbie in Tzu Chi, I still have a lot to learn. As I continue to walk on this path, it’s good to have Mom’s company.

May 2019