On June 18, 2022, a shock reverberated through the Tzu Chi family, striking a painful blow to the hearts of people one particular man had touched. On this date, Dr. Han Huang, a beloved volunteer and the Chief Executive Officer of Tzu Chi USA from 2012 to 2019, slipped away from this world at the early age of 55. His story weaves a powerful legacy to inspire us all – that of a profoundly meaningful life dedicated to serving others and relieving suffering as a form of spiritual practice.
Han Huang (whose full Chinese first name is Hankuei) didn’t anticipate committing to a spiritual path in his life. Born in Taiwan on January 3, 1967, he initially determined that science was his calling. In 1989, Huang completed a Bachelor of Science degree from Taiwan’s research-intensive National Sun Yat-sen University. Moving to the United States, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Molecular Biology from Indiana University Bloomington in 1998.
Upon graduation, Huang joined the renowned Salk Institute in San Diego as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Molecular Biology. The Institute is home to Nobel Prize and other illustrious award-winning scientists exploring “the very foundations of life, seeking new understandings in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology, and more.” There, Huang conducted research and co-authored 13 scientific publications. He hardly expected that a new calling would divert him from this scientific path and lead him into an entirely new world of endeavor five years later.
In 2003, Huang, alongside his wife, Huiping Wang, was already a Tzu Chi volunteer yet had never participated in disaster relief. Then the Cedar Fire, one of the largest wildfires in California history, burned through San Diego County, leaving 2,232 homes in ashes and claiming 15 lives. As the Tzu Chi San Diego Service Center director was away at the time, the volunteers asked Huang to lead the relief mission. He agreed, took two weeks off work, and soon got a vivid introduction to the destruction disasters can cause.
“Pretty much nothing left. That’s what I saw at that time. It was pretty shocking to me,” Huang often shared afterward, saying, “When a disaster happens, that’s real life.” How it felt to help the wildfire survivors was life-changing: “I lost my interest in science. I felt it’s not the only thing that should be in people’s lives. Doing [disaster relief] was very rewarding, rewarding in a different way. I can’t compare this feeling to anything else.”
At the same time, Huang noticed issues inhibiting Tzu Chi’s partnering with mainstream organizations, such as the American Red Cross, in the relief effort. “With the barrier of language, culture, and differences in understanding, there was a big gap between us,” he noted. Still, Huang deemed overcoming such challenges possible, igniting his passion for problem-solving. So, when in 2004, Austin Tsao, then-CEO of Tzu Chi USA, asked Huang if he wanted to work for the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation full time, he said “yes,” and left science and academia behind.
Embracing a New Life
Han Huang’s initial position at Tzu Chi USA was as Special Assistant to the CEO, then transitioned to Administration Department Director in 2005. However, his commitment began to waver by 2007. Acknowledging that the bad habit of negative thinking was creeping in, he began questioning his decision to alter the course of his life, feeling an urge to leave Tzu Chi. And yet, fate intervened when the Witch Creek Fire and Guejito Fire swept through San Diego County that year, destroying 1,141 homes.
Dr. William Keh, the CEO then, asked Huang to coordinate the relief effort since he knew San Diego well. While Huang secretly planned for this to be his last mission with Tzu Chi, that’s not how things turned out. The disaster revitalized his original motivation to join, as the feelings that had inspired him in 2003 reawakened. Once again, he witnessed great suffering and felt the calling to help relieve it.
But Huang also noticed more. “The Red Cross rejected us in 2003; in 2007, they agreed to work with us because they knew more about us since we had approached them many times. Actually, it was big for us. But it takes time. And slowly, we made progress,” he recalled. Also, while he had grown critical of his fellow volunteers in some respects, as he watched them kneel beside people who had lost their homes, tears in their eyes as they tried to comfort them, he saw his fellows in a new light.
“We all have a Buddha Nature, don’t we? That’s true. It’s just the environment, whether we have the timing and opportunity to see it or not. The question is, ‘how do we enhance that nature to the utmost position.’ That’s the most important thing,” Huang realized. And, he felt a surge of gratitude for the selfless service opportunity with Tzu Chi and for the nature of suffering, which awakens the heart as one strives to relieve it.
“Many people lost their homes and their families in these two fires. So, I often feel that I owe this life not only to Master Cheng Yen, I also owe a lot to many beings,” Huang often shared, pointing out that, “The two fires are two very big turning points in my life. One made me leave the academic realm and join Tzu Chi, while the second fire is the force that made me more courageous, more determined to stay.” And then there was no turning back, and Han Huang’s role at Tzu Chi USA only grew.
Huang became Executive Vice President in October 2008, then CEO in February 2012, overseeing domestic and international missions and Tzu Chi USA’s nine regional offices across the United States until December 2019. Sadly, Brother Han, as the Tzu Chi family affectionately called him, began experiencing health issues in 2018, which intensified over time. Thus, by January 2020, he scaled his involvement back to Executive Vice President, a role he held till his passing on June 18, 2022.
Tributes Pour In
On July 2, 2022, Tzu Chi USA held the “Remembering Our Brother, Dr. Han Huang” memorial event at its headquarters in San Dimas, California, where tears and tributes were shared by those attending in person and those joining virtually from Taiwan.
Those sharing at the event spoke of how Huang was a role model to emulate. They talked about friendship and his ever-present support, highlighting his virtuous character and thoughtful, humble, empathetic, kind, and compassionate nature. They celebrated his wisdom and optimism, and how he connected with everyone. And they honored how he gave his whole life to Buddhist practice. Still, as one speaker stated and most probably agreed, “there is so much to say; I could never finish all I want to share.”
The Tzu Chi USA video team also produced several videos looking back at Han Huang’s life, which everyone watched at the memorial. Some wrote to extend their condolences and share memories of Brother Han, the messages published on Tzu Chi USA’s website. The legacy and portrait of a beloved and respected man emerged, with several discernable threads running through the collective narratives, and echoed in Han Huang’s own words.
A Patient Visionary
Stephen Huang, who established Tzu Chi USA in 1989, the first chapter of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation outside Taiwan, shared these prophetic words with tears in his eyes, for Han Huang was like a son to him.
Indeed, Huang would become not only a shining example of Tzu Chi’s compassion in action, but during his tenure as CEO, he exhibited vision and patience, the latter vital in terms of a vision’s realization. He once stated: “It can be said that for the future of Tzu Chi to be able to take root in the United States for a long time, there must be an adequate system, just like a proper track so that a car can keep moving forward and move in a stable manner.” “We must follow the times. Hasn’t this last generation been evolving quickly? We must keep learning, okay?” he would add.
Huang spearheaded Tzu Chi USA’s website, tzuchi.us, which launched in 2015. And he was behind the creation of a “mobile bamboo bank,” the Tzu Chi Connect App that became available for free download onto Android and iOS phones in 2018. It allows people to donate directly and round purchases up to save the change for regular giving, which Master Cheng Yen advised when establishing Tzu Chi. The App idea originated in 2012, and Huang provided patient support through the entire development phase.
Huang’s vision also went beyond technology:
His far-seeing approach is paying off, as one volunteer from Santa Rosa, California, expressed when he wrote a message of gratitude to Han Huang:
A Humble and Open-Minded Leader
Tzu Chi USA’s leadership core of regional CEOs recalled the humility in Han Huang’s behavior and his guidance over the years.
Minjhing Hsieh, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region, quoted this advice, adding, “[For] any other leader in Tzu Chi, that is such a great inspiration and important lesson.” Huang never placed himself on a pedestal as a leader. “We are all equal. We all have the same Buddha Nature, don’t we? It’s a team. It’s by teaming up that we can finish a lot of tasks, we can finish a lot of missions,” he would say. At the same time, he held up the highest ideals of integrity in goals.
And, Huang was open-minded, something greatly appreciated by the whole Tzu Chi USA team.
A Wise and Joyful Mentor
Many touched on Han Huang’s dedicated mentorship of the youngest generation of Tzu Chi volunteers, those affiliated with Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (Tzu Ching) and Tzu Chi Youth Group (Tzu Shao) chapters across the United States.
Braden Ho, a Tzu Ching Alumnus who spoke at the memorial, conveyed that Huang “embodied so much of what is best in a human being.” He also recalled Huang’s message that “the decision we make today affects everything down the line,” encouraging mindful reflection.
Huang also made a lasting impression on the teenage Tzu Chi Youth Group members, hoping to plant kindness in their young and tender hearts and motivate them on the path of service, saying, “The future of Tzu Chi depends on you!”
A Beloved Friend
Han Huang’s cherished companionship along life’s path was remembered by most in their remarks, as was how much they will now miss him. Perhaps the words of Huiping Wang, Huang’s wife, written two days after his death, express the sorrow best while acknowledging the everlasting love that remains:
Huang was known for connecting with people naturally, often finding a link to draw them closer through telling stories or revealing his ever-present sense of humor. As the many photos and videos shown during the memorial testified, wherever he went, smiles and laughter would follow as it was always a pleasure being in his presence.
Everyone tried their best to be positive as they bid farewell. Huang’s wife said, “He lived his life following the calling of his heart and the guidance of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, so as his family members, we send him off with our blessings and with joy in our hearts that he lived such a meaningful life.” As Buddhists, many also drew wisdom from his death, as it reveals the pain of attachment and impermanence.
Still, it was difficult for all to say goodbye, even for Dharma Master Cheng Yen.
An Ideal Disciple
Master Cheng Yen had a video call with Han Huang in the days before his death, although he was in a coma following two successive strokes. She then wrote “Blessings for My Disciple: Lifetime After Lifetime on the Bodhisattva Path,” a letter to him read at the memorial. Below are a few excerpts:
During the June 22 teaching on the DaAi TV program Life Wisdom, Master Cheng Yen recounted, “A few days after that, he passed away, feeling light and at ease.” She reminded everyone how Brother Hankuei’s peaceful departure could be a lesson: “We must listen to and learn the Dharma diligently. We must learn more true principles when we are alive so that when our time comes, we can leave feeling light and at ease.”
Monastics from the Jing Si Abode in Taiwan also shared during the memorial event with Master De Yue reading a message from Master De Fan:
Han Huang dedicated himself to all Tzu Chi missions and programs, including Buddhist Sutra Adaptation performances. Seeing him in a “Thousand Eyes, Thousand Hands Guanyin Bodhisattva” performance, which represents the Buddhist ideal of limitless and unceasing compassion, is etched deeply in memory for many, as it aptly encompasses how they remember him.
Looking back at his own life with Tzu Chi, Huang felt immeasurable gratitude as he expressed to Master Cheng Yen:
The journey of Brother Han Huang’s earthly body concluded with a Final Farewell and Cremation Ceremony on July 2, 2022, in Whittier, California. However, his spirit lives on. As Debra Boudreaux, CEO of Tzu Chi USA, said, “Hankuei is not going away. He is in everyone, in your heart. He gave us homework. He invites every one of you, let’s continue to carry out his legacy.” And it’s a luminous one, as we have seen.