Wise Words for a Good Life—Three Decades of Jing Si Aphorisms

Jing Si Aphorisms is a book that encapsulates the essence of Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings. Now comprised of five volumes and available in 18 languages, it celebrates its 30th birthday this year. Over the last three decades, the book has shed light on many issues in life for countless people, helping them lead more peaceful and happier lives.

Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms was first published in 1989 to be given as a gift book to guests attending the grand opening ceremony of the Tzu Ch College of Nursing. It became an instant bestseller when it was later published for purchase. Over the years, its popularity has held strong. The fifth volume of the book came out in October 2019. Hsiao Yiu-Hwa

When the grand opening ceremony for the Tzu Ch College of Nursing took place on September 17, 1989, every guest received a gift book, courtesy of Gary Ho (何國慶), a Tzu Chi volunteer and convener of the ceremony. The book was Jing Si Aphorisms by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Jing Si means “quiet contemplation,” and the book later became the first Tzu Chi book published for sale to the general public. Launched in November 1989, it made the list of Taiwan’s top ten bestsellers of 1990.

The main editor of the book was Kao Hsin-chiang (高信疆), a veteran in print media and a well-known editor in his day. He first met Master Cheng Yen in March 1989. The book was published a mere six months later and has been a popular publication ever since. It has been translated into nearly 20 languages and distributed around the world.

Gems in simple, plain language

Kao was the chairman of China Times Express when he was enlisted by his good friend Gary Ho to help put together a book of Master Cheng Yen’s teachings. Since Kao didn’t know much about Tzu Chi, Ho invited him to a gathering of Tzu Chi honorary board members to understand the group better. Kao had gone straight to the Tzu Chi event from work that day, March 4, 1989. He didn’t know what to expect when he walked into the Shih Chien Hall on Yanping South Road in Taipei.

At the entrance to the event, he was greeted by a few smiling, cheongsam-clad women from whom he received two warm steamed buns. There was quite a crowd inside the venue. Several women rose to give up their seats to him. One of them moved over to sit on a staired aisle. At her insistence, Kao took her seat.

Kao had always been a trailblazer in his field, starting off as a reporter before moving up to editor-in-chief and finally chairman of a major newspaper. As a journalist, he was an astute observer and commentator, and he worked hard to provide the public with an informed perspective on important social issues. He thought he was fully informed on what was going on in society, but as the event progressed that day, he was astonished to find that he was unaware of the large amount of philanthropic work Tzu Chi had carried out over the previous two decades.

Jing Si Aphorisms is now available in 18 languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese, traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Thai, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Malay, Tamil, and Filipino. Hsiao Yiu-Hwa

Two days later, he and Gary Ho visited Master Cheng Yen, who happened to be in Taipei at the time on one of her regular trips around Taiwan. Kao listened to the Master talk about her life—about how, as a child, she had had to escape air raids during World War II; how she lived through her adopted father’s sudden passing; how she harvested rice in the countryside of Fengyuan, central Taiwan; and how she ultimately decided to leave home to embark on a search for life’s truths.

What the Master said that day changed what Kao used to think about monks and nuns—that they lived an otherworldly life and were oblivious to worldly affairs. The Master’s talk did not contain any abstruse, obscure teaching; Kao could feel that she was unassuming, sincere, down-to-earth, and very approachable. Though Kao was not affiliated with any religion, the stories she told brought sparks to his eyes. She reminded him of a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: Father Zosima, an elder of the Orthodox Church.

When Zosima was young and an officer in the army, he did a reckless thing. He came to his senses soon afterwards and regretted it, but the event prompted him to seek a discharge from the army and join a monastery. Having turned over a new leaf, he told people around him that everything in nature—the clear sky, the pure air, the tender grass, and so on—were gifts from God and that life was heaven. He later became famous for his saint-like status, and people went to him from all parts of Russia to seek his guidance and blessing. After he passed away, some of his conversations with visitors and others were preserved in writing, his wisdom captured in words.

Dostoevsky’s literary character was fictional, but Kao seemed to find a true and veritable counterpart to Zosima in Master Cheng Yen. “Such wise people do indeed exist in this world,” he thought. After that, he invited and got many of his friends in the media and cultural circles to visit Tzu Chi, including writers Liu Binyan (劉賓雁), Su Xiaokang (蘇曉康), Hualing Nieh Engle (聶華苓), Leo Ou-fan Lee (李歐梵), Bo Yang (柏楊), and historian Te-kong Tong (唐德剛). In addition, at Kao’s recommendation, major Taiwanese news outlets including the Central Daily News, United Daily News, and Liberty Times sent people to the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, eastern Taiwan, to report on the foundation.

Among the latter group, Hong Su-zhen (洪素貞) and two colleagues from the Central Daily News visited Tzu Chi on April 9, 1989, for an interview with Master Cheng Yen. Hong’s article about the Master and Tzu Chi (co-written with Wu Yue-hui [吳月蕙]) was published in the April 19 and 20 editions of the newspaper.

In the style of Analects

Gary Ho loved reading, and he knew that the Master’s words were very wise. He believed that if the essence of her teachings could be distilled and put together in a book, many people would surely be interested in reading it. Kao’s wife, Ke Yuan-xin (柯元馨), saw eye to eye with Ho.

When Kao’s first meeting with the Master concluded, the Master gave him several books compiled from her Dharma talks. Ke Yuan-xin read those books and had nothing but praise for the content. Ke was a manager of a publishing house and had a keen eye for good publication material. She suggested re-editing the contents of those books for a new publication.

On December 13, 1989, Kao Hsin-chiang (fourth from right) and Gary Ho (first from right) accompanied writer Liu Binyan (third from left) on a visit to Master Cheng Yen at the Jing Si Abode. Kao arranged visits to Tzu Chi by many people in the media and cultural circles after he met with the Master. Courtesy of Tzu Chi Hualilen headquarters

In early May that year, about two months after Kao had met with the Master, he phoned Hong Su-zhen, who had just quit her job at the Central Daily News, and invited her to “do something together for Tzu Chi.” Kao told her about his idea of publishing a book of sayings by Master Cheng Yen.

Having just finished her article on Tzu Chi, Hong still retained a lot of good feelings for the organization, and since she was between jobs, she said “yes” to Kao’s invitation. A major of Chinese literature, she suggested a format like that of Confucius’ Analects. Kao endorsed that idea, and so they set about collecting material for the book.

Gary Ho arranged several meetings in which 19 Tzu Chi volunteers, who were also team leaders, shared their favorite sayings by Master Cheng Yen. Later, each of their teams was asked to provide five sayings by the Master. At the same time, Hong interviewed some senior Tzu Chi volunteers and asked them to share what they had learned personally from the Master and that they felt had really benefited them.

Hong also spent a week at the Jing Si Abode, the convent established by the Master. The Abode also served as the Tzu Chi headquarters. Hong read through transcripts of the Master’s Dharma talks as well as journals written by the Master’s followers. The journals recorded what the Master’s followers had seen and heard when they were around her. Eventually, Hong was able to select more than a thousand items from all she had collected for further refinement.

The completed book was composed of two parts. In the first part, the Master addressed topics including time, kindness and compassion, greed and desire, ethical refinement and spiritual cultivation. The second part was presented in the context of questions and answers. For this part, Kao and his wife visited the Master at the Jing Si Abode and sought her opinions and advice on various issues in life. This part was itself composed of two sections. One was titled: “Human Affairs,” which was organized into topics on tolerance and gentleness, duty and responsibility, communication, mother- and daughter-in-law relationships, and love. The other section was titled “Religion,” and contained topics on faith, the practice of Buddhism, spiritual merits, the karmic law of cause and effect, and similar topics.Then came Kao’s turn to put his editing skills to good use. This was before the era of personal computers, so he cut the selected material into small strips, each strip containing one aphorism. Then he spent three days squatting on the floor, sorting and classifying the strips of paper. Ho personally saw him doing this and was impressed by his dedication and effort.

Ho and Kao named the book Jing Si Aphorisms. Ho paid for the printing of 20,000 copies, which were given as gifts to guests attending the grand opening ceremony for the Tzu Chi College of Nursing. The book was so popular that Ho printed an additional 20,000 copies to give away.

Kao and Ho agreed that the book should be made available to the general public, instead of just to Tzu Chi volunteers and donating members. They subsequently met Wang Tuan-cheng (王端正), then the editor-in-chief of the Central Daily News and who later became a vice president of the Tzu Chi Foundation. The three discussed the publication of the book for sale.

In November 1989, Jing Si Aphorisms was launched by the Chiu Ko Publishing Company, a highly regarded publishing house in Taiwan. In just a week, 20,000 copies were sold and more had to be printed. It became the number one bestselling book in more than 30 bookstores in Taiwan. It experienced 30 printings within two short months, with 60,000 copies circulating.

Two years earlier, in 1987, martial law had been lifted in Taiwan. Taiwan’s economy boomed in the immediate following years, and the stock and housing markets reached an all time high before the economic bubble eventually burst. A restless, agitated atmosphere permeated society. Jing Si Aphorisms came out at a good time, answering the needs of people who needed guidance for their unsettled minds.

Master Cheng Yen distributes hong-baos every year to attendees of Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremonies. Huang Jin-yi
The money for making hong-baos comes from the royalties of the Master’s books, including Jing Si Aphorisms. The 1992 (right) and 2018 (left) versions of hong-baos. Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa

A guide to life

The book sold so well that when Tsai Wen-fu (蔡文甫), the founder of Chiu Ko Publishing, met Master Cheng Yen not long after the book was launched, he was able to hand over a large royalty payment to her. Instead of using the money on herself, the Master decided to share it with others. It thus became a tradition for her to give out hong-baos (small, artistically designed red packets) every year to attendees of Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremonies; the money for making these hong-baos comes from royalties of her books. (More of her books were published for sale after the publication of Jing Si Aphorisms.)

On April 15, 1990, five months after Jing Si Aphorisms was released, the Master mentioned during a gathering of Tzu Chi volunteers that she had received a letter the day before from a young man. The man told her in the letter that though they had never met, he was full of gratitude to her, because her Jing Si Aphorisms had saved him from committing a big crime.

One day, the author of the letter was about to rob a bank when he happened to see a copy of Jing Si Aphorisms on a motor scooter parked near the bank. He picked the book up and, thumbing through it, saw this sentence: “If you are doing good deeds, count me in; if you are doing evil, count me out.” It was like a wake-up call to him, and he came to his senses immediately. The man told the Master if he hadn’t seen that book that day, “instead of writing to you now, I might have been thrown in jail.”

The man went on to say that he had been born into a destitute family and that life was hard for him growing up. Nevertheless, he applied himself to his schoolwork, and eventually he finished college. After finishing his compulsory military service, he worked hard at his job—only to be dealt another hard hand by life. He cosigned a loan for a friend, and then the friend ran off, landing him with a debt of 4,500,000 NT dollars (US$150,000). His creditors visited him at home every day demanding payment. Not knowing what else to do, he decided to rob a bank. Fortunately, he stumbled upon that copy of Jing Si Aphorisms and reined himself in at the last moment.

The Master was greatly comforted by the letter, which had no return address. She lauded the amazing karmic affinities that led to the man’s encounter with the book. “Otherwise the consequences would have been unimaginable,” she remarked. “I give my best wishes to this anonymous young man. I hope he has a bright future ahead of him.”

There are countless other examples of how Jing Si Aphorisms has helped and “saved” people.

One day, a man walked into the Tzu Chi Taipei office, saying that he wanted to buy 20 copies of Jing Si Aphorisms. He explained that he bought 20 copies of the book from time to time to give away. Since it was hard to obtain so many copies at one time in a bookstore, he had come straight to the office to make the purchase.

A Jing Si aphorism was posted in a shop with the permission of a store owner in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan. The aphorism says: “One who leads a content life with the least desire is the wealthiest.” Volunteers in Wenshan District, Taipei, first started visiting stores in 2004 to ask shop owners’ permission to post Jing Si aphorisms on their premises. This campaign has since spread all over Taiwan and even abroad. Xie Jia-cheng

Why did he buy and give away so many copies of the book? He said that whenever he saw a newspaper ad run by someone trying to find his runaway wife, he would phone that person and ask if he had children. If he did, he would tell him to take good care of them and send him a copy of Jing Si Aphorisms.

As it turned out, the man had once put a similar ad in the newspaper. His marriage had broken up because he was unfaithful to his wife. After his mistress moved in with him, instead of treating her nicely, he would physically abuse her. Eventually, his mistress left him, taking away his younger daughter with her. He was left to take care of his older daughter alone. It was very hard to look after the young one while holding down a job at the same time. The man’s heart was full of hatred and he suffered a lot.

Just at that time, a neighbor gave him a copy of Jing Si Aphorisms. He became more peaceful after he read the book, and he sought help from Tzu Chi volunteers. With their guidance, he began to live his life differently. “My family was saved by Jing Si Aphorisms!” he declared. That’s how he began buying copies of the book to give to people who might be experiencing similar circumstances to his.

Back then, every issue of the semi-monthly Tzu Chi Companion carried a Jing Si aphorism on its front page. The wise, concise sayings captured the attention of many readers. People working in the field of education especially liked to use the maxims as material for character building.

Lin Shen (林慎), a Tzu Chi volunteer who taught school in Taipei, was one of those people. She said she once received a phone call from a parent, thanking her for sharing Jing Si aphorisms in school. The parent said that she used to fight with her husband, and that they would sometimes end up not talking to each other for one or two months at a time. She was overbearing, she said, and she always insisted that her family do what she told them to. Her imperiousness drove her family away, which in turn brought her a lot of pain.

One day, her daughter began to show her Jing Si aphorisms she had copied down in school, aphorisms including “The more you forgive others, the more blessings you create for yourself” and “Kind words are like lotus flowers blooming out from your mouth; bad words are like poisonous snakes hissing out from your lips.” She took those words to heart and began to treat her children in a more encouraging way. She also stopped constantly finding fault in her husband. Soon the atmosphere in her home underwent a huge transformation, and that led to her phone call to the teacher.

A Jing Si aphorism inscribed on a wooden plaque hangs on a corridor wall in Sheliao Junior High School in Nantou, central Taiwan. The aphorism says: “To let go is actually to receive. Without letting go, you can’t let in.” Over 600 schools in central Taiwan have put up Jing Si aphorisms on their campuses. Huang Xiao-zhe

18 languages and distributed world-wide

Gary Ho, who helped bring the book into being, also felt its power. One time he was negotiating a business deal with a client in his office when they began to butt heads. As their opinions clashed, they both bristled and raised their voices. Just then the phone rang. When Ho had taken care of the phone call and returned to his seat, he perceived a marked change in the client. The client told Ho he had leafed through a copy of Jing Si Aphorisms on his desk while he was waiting and saw this sentence: “Remain soft-spoken and forgiving, even when reason is on your side.” Those words immediately smoothed his ruffled feathers and quenched his anger. Ho regained his calm too, and the two of them were able to amicably work out a deal.

Hong Su-zhen, who helped compile and edit Jing Si Aphorisms, also felt the profound inspirational power of the Master’s words, and how they can soothe people’s minds and awaken kindness in them. “Religion is no longer remote from life, ” Hong said. “The values of real-life bodhisattvas have been established, and humanized Buddhism put into practice.” Hong later became a disciple of the Master.

Kao wrote in his editor’s words for the book that although the Master rarely says anything astonishing, her words are often like a wake-up call. “She doesn’t use obscure classical allusions or florid language, and her wisdom can be seen in the smallest, most unremarkable places.” He believes that her teachings are a good guide to life, and that everyone can apply and benefit from them in their daily life.

Wang Tuan-cheng also took part in editing Jing Si Aphorisms. In his eyes, the greatest truths are often those most simply stated. “Jing Si Aphorisms doesn’t contain any difficult, convoluted phrasing, but every sentence inspires. It is devoid of esoteric Buddhist terminology, but every word is alive with the Buddha’s spirit,” he said.

Gary Ho still remembers that when he met Kao and Wang to discuss the publication of the book for sale, he told them he believed the book would sell very well—500,000 to a million copies according to his estimate. Kao and Wang burst out laughing upon hearing his prediction. “Brother Ho, that’s impossible! In Taiwan’s publishing industry, even just 20,000 copies make a book a bestseller.”

Actual sales figures since then have proved Ho’s prediction correct. Jing Si Aphorisms sold 200,000 copies in just a year, ten times the prediction of print media veterans Kao and Wang.

Thanks to Kao, a popular, good book was brought into existence. Because of him, many people in the media and cultural circles began to notice Tzu Chi. Ho believed that “Taiwan discovered Tzu Chi” in the year Kao connected with the organization.

A prison inmate in Taichung, central Taiwan, writes down his thoughts after attending a study group session on Jing Si aphorisms led by Tzu Chi volunteers. Volunteers visit prisons in various places in Taiwan to extend their care to inmates and share positive, inspirational messages. Chen Qun-cheng

Jing Si Aphorisms has since been translated into 18 languages and has sold over 7,000,000 copies. Its fifth volume was launched in October this year. Members of the Tzu Chi Teachers Association have designed teaching materials from the aphorisms to help volunteers in Taiwan and other countries share them with students in school, and through the students the wise sayings have been brought into many families. Volunteers have also visited stores and, with the shop owners’ permission, have posted Jing Si aphorisms on their premises to allow the good messages to reach more people.

Over the past 30 years, Jing Si Aphorisms has had a profound positive influence on many people. “I hope that everyone who reads this book can attain freedom of the mind,” said Master Cheng Yen, expressing her hope for the book when it was published. Gems of wisdom lie within the pages of the book, waiting for you to discover.

The Bible can often be seen in hotel rooms. Jing Si Aphorisms started making its appearance in hotel rooms in Taiwan as well in 2005. Now over 1,400 hotels in Taiwan and abroad house the book in their rooms. Wu Qun-fang


November 2019