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  • Charisma and Compassion: Cheng Yen and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Movement
  • Alison Denton Jones (bio)
C. Julia Huang. Charisma and Compassion: Cheng Yen and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Movement Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. ix, 341 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-674-03133-3.

Huang’s fascinating and wide-ranging book, the first full-length book on the important Tzu Chi Buddhist movement, was long overdue. This book provides a much-needed in-depth look at the founder, development, organizational structure, and culture of the largest and arguably most innovative Buddhist organization in Taiwan. It does much more than that — Huang also examines both the globalization of this Buddhist movement and how the organization’s development interacted with Taiwan’s democratization and the emergence of its civil/NGO sector. The book is an important contribution to our understanding of not only Tzu Chi, but also of religious developments in Chinese societies and diasporas. These contributions notwithstanding, I feel that the book tries to do too much. Some of the theoretical arguments were not fully persuasive, and the book opens itself up to questions it leaves unanswered. Thus, while the book is invaluable for anyone interested in learning more about Tzu Chi and Taiwan’s late twentieth-century cultural and social developments specifically, its broader appeal is more limited.

The book is ambitious. It aims to do three things: describe the movement as a “charismatic cult”; develop a better understanding of charisma, particularly cultural differences and the importance of emotion and corporeality; and explore issues of globalization and re-territorialization in this Taiwanese movement. To these ends, each of the eight chapters describes different facets of the organization. The first several chapters connect to the theme of charisma, while the latter ones pick up the theme of globalization.

The first four chapters focus on illustrating and explaining the charisma of the leader the Venerable Cheng Yen, how it is experienced by followers, and how it is routinized through the organization. Chapter 1 introduces the leader’s personal [End Page 68] history, the founding of the organization, how her charisma is understood by her followers, and how the organization promotes this charisma. Chapter 2 tackles one aspect of routinization, describing in detail the complex organization of Tzu Chi, including its mission bureaus and the different roles for lay participants. Huang argues that Tzu Chi combines a charismatic cult (the lay religious organization) and a successful modern charitable nonprofit organization, yet both are still unequivocally under the personal direction of the founder. Chapter 3 looks at another aspect of routinization. Huang argues that two processes of circulation serve as mechanisms to transmit and renew the charismatic connection. The first process is the leader’s regular tours of branches around Taiwan; the second involves a variety of retreats in which laypeople of different affiliations with Tzu Chi come to the Abode — the organization’s spiritual heart. This chapter successfully illustrates Huang’s argument that these retreats create liminal states that produce both communitas and new individual self-understandings. Finally, chapter 4 examines two practices that are fairly unique to Tzu Chi in Taiwan’s Buddhist field: weeping and musical corporeality (sign language song). Huang argues that the former represents an ecstatic reaction (often to the leader’s charisma), while the latter represents an effort by the organization to channel followers’ emotional resonance into a structured performance.

Chapter 5, while not directly addressing the issue of charisma, continues the description of Tzu Chi through a case study of the development and activities of the local Tzu Chi chapter of Dalin in central Taiwan. The chapter tackles the question, “what does it mean to be a Tzu Chi person (a lay follower) in everyday life?” It presents rich and keenly analytical discussions of how gender structures individual practices, the bodily discipline that plays a large part in defining a Tzu Chi person, challenges to Tzu Chi involvement, and even the historical development of the Dalin chapter.

The remaining three chapters step back to look at Tzu Chi’s places in Taiwan’s democratizing and globalizing society. Chapter 6, “A Genealogy of NGOness,” is, in some ways, the most complex chapter in...