My Experience with Tzu Chi

furze1Photo provided by Tzu Chi Fresno

My experience with Tzu Chi is both personal and clinical. I started volunteering with Tzu Chi about one year ago after I had a discussion with a colleague who volunteered at Tzu Chi. My question to him was, “What is Buddhism about? How does it manifest in daily life?” He said, “Come to the Tzu Chi dental clinic and see.” So, I did. This is what I saw and why I have continued to volunteer monthly and why I expect to do so indefinitely.
On my first day, the people I saw as dental patients were mostly street people and the newly-poor. Their mouths were for the most part well-maintained, but showed signs of deferred maintenance, forced upon them by our trying financial times. The mobile Tzu Chi dental clinic provides very basic services, such as cleanings, tooth removal, and basic fillings. This helps many but cannot provide for the more complex cases.

I also saw the Tzu Chi volunteer staff, particularly noticing how they were as people. They worked hard, did a good job, and were efficient. But what I noticed most of all was that they seemed to enjoy the work. I saw their consideration for their patients as they took the time and trouble to complete paperwork and exams. There was no sense of assembly-line indifference, but rather of human contact in all its quotidian kindness, tolerance, and patience. There was an atmosphere of peace.

furze2Photo provided by Tzu Chi Fresno

On my first day, I had not registered in time to meet insurance requirements to serve as a doctor, so I triaged patients for the four other dentists providing treatment. I was able to meet with each patient, determine their dental needs, learn their names, and see that they got treated. Many of the patients I saw postoperatively as they were leaving. They were happy with the care and very appreciative. They smiled and thanked me when I asked how it went. I have given free treatment in my own practice and have helped people in other ways unrelated to the practice of dentistry, but I have never heard so many thank-yous as I got on my first day at Tzu Chi. They made me feel good; they made me come back.
Why this response? I think it was and is Tzu Chi. I think it is love. At Tzu Chi, people practice love, consideration, and kindness. I noticed that right off when staff members approached me on my first day to welcome me and to introduce themselves. I noticed it in the small groups of young people when they gathered together. I noticed it in a physician in a moment of repose. I noticed it in the large portrait of a woman with a shaved head dressed in a robe, which was placed by the front door. I didn’t know a thing about her, but I figured there must be a connection.

I have participated in more than ten Tzu Chi health fairs. Two were in a rural area of Fresno County. This area of the county is grape country. The Tzu Chi mobile dental van parked next to a green patch of grass in a small park in a little village. Two dentists treated patients in the air-conditioned van while I triaged and treated patients adjacent to the van on the grass. As the day wore on, and the patient backlog grew, more treatment chairs were set up on the grass, side by side. There I pulled teeth. What a difference between what most of us think of a dental office and what I was able to provide for needy patients. They appreciated what I could do for them and I felt good. It was a beautiful day.

One patient I remember in particular. He was seventy years old and a master chef. He worked on cruise ships and had learned enough French for the menu. He grew up in India, where his dad was assigned. They had ten servants. He learned Hindi as a boy so he could talk to them, but he was forced to return to Britain during the time of Gandhi. He had only recently immigrated to the United States. He needed a small filling,which I was pleased to provide. Meeting people outside of my provincial life is one of the pleasures of Tzu Chi.

I am learning Chinese—sort of. The Tzu Chi ladies are patiently teaching me some phrases. I can now say, “thank you, good morning, goodbye, how are you?” They are eager to teach me more. I will try to oblige. I think my pronunciation is atrocious, but they smile and laugh and say that I am doing just fine. Tzu Chi has a family feel to it. I know that it is not and never will be, but that is okay. For me it shows the power of love transcending wide cultural divides. I know that in their families and in their lives there is love, and it spills over. I expect it is related to the lady in the robe, who I hear referred to as “Master.”

Local Tzu Chi volunteers are working now toward the ability to provide root canals for its patient base. I have already volunteered.

The most joyful and fulfilling life is a life of giving.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Story taken from USA Journal No. 35, Spring 2013