Honoring Han Huang’s Luminous Legacy

Written by Ida Eva Zielinska
Photos by Tzu Chi USA team

Han Huang [January 3, 1967 – June 18, 2022].

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.

After graduating with a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, Dr. Han Huang begins an illustrious scientific research career.

“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. 

The heartwarming feeling of helping disaster survivors is life-changing for Han Huang.
Han Huang (right) on a relief mission in 2010 with then-CEO of Tzu Chi USA, Dr. William Keh (second left), and then-Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region, George Chang.

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.

Han Huang’s commitment to Tzu Chi is profound and solid across years of service.
Stephen Huang, Executive Director of Global Volunteers (middle), on the road with Han Huang (left) and current Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux (right).

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.

Master Cheng Yen always reminds us to reflect on our life. But here today, you can see all of us coming together to look back at your life because you chose such a meaningful path. I want to express our gratitude, I want to express our blessing; this is how I want to send you off.

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

This young man, I really believed that he would be a great Bodhisattva in Tzu Chi; when I saw him, I knew it immediately.

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.

We do hope that we can use this kind of digital technology to expand the bamboo bank spirit, expand the Tzu Chi spirit to as many people as we can. And hopefully there will be a lot more people that will join us electronically.

Han Huang connects with Tzu Chi USA Digital Content Strategist Nancy Wei before an exhibit opening at the Tzu Chi Center for Compassionate Relief in New York.
Han Huang promotes the mobile phone bamboo bank during the Tzu Chi Connect App development phase.

Huang’s vision also went beyond technology:

I want to increase the diversity for our volunteers, and I want Tzu Chi to be more recognized by more communities, more organizations. However, there are challenges. Tzu Chi is a very grassroots Foundation. We are all volunteer driven and we have a lot of language barriers here. I believe that we can overcome all these culture or language barriers. It’s very important.

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:

Brother Han opened the door for English speakers in Tzu Chi USA. He pushed the heavy doors open and held them open for us as long as he could in this life. Thank you, Brother Han. Your light that you lit for English speakers here in the USA will never go out in our hearts.

Han Huang’s vision includes broadening the cultural and language demographics of Tzu Chi USA volunteers.
Han Huang, seated beside Minjhing Hsieh, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region on his right, and a team confer during a meeting.

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.

Han Huang’s analytical mind and belief in listening and teamwork shine during his leadership at Tzu Chi USA.

Let’s reduce our personal ego and work for the greater good.

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.

Being a CEO doesn’t mean you have to follow me or what I said exactly. That’s not in my mind. Even the founder [Master Cheng Yen] will listen to everybody, to all the volunteers’ comments and opinions, and after that, she will make a decision based on most people’s consensus. But, there’s one very important thing: The principle and the direction have to be right. That’s my part that I have to insist on.

Han Huang’s example is inspirational to Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (Tzu Ching) members across the United States.

And, Huang was open-minded, something greatly appreciated by the whole Tzu Chi USA team.

Throughout the years, he never wavered or turned away from new ideas. We could always bring up new and “crazy” ideas – without being careful about our wording or afraid of being turned down – because he would usually come back with even crazier ideas or ask thought-provoking questions that got us back to the drawing board for a better, or improved idea.

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. 

Han Huang was genuinely a role model for young people. He was witty and full of positive energy. His encouragement gave us confidence. He always conveyed the spirit of Tzu Chi in a light-hearted way, making it easier for young people to accept it without feeling pressured.

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!” 

Brother Han Huang told Tzu Shaos that the purpose of life is not just to get perfect grades, to go to a top university, to get a high salary, and to enjoy a high social status. The meaning of life lies in inspiring love, revealing pure love, and going deep into the dark corners to comfort the suffering.

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:

Han Huang’s wife, Huiping Wang, is of constant support as they walk the Tzu Chi path together.

A broken heart shatters. One by one, we put the pieces together, held together by the glue of love. Though the cracks are now visible, the heart is filled with love.

Tzu Chi Youth Group (Tzu Shao) members, the youngest generation of volunteers, find a guide and mentor in Han Huang.
Han Huang and Taishan Huang, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Southern Region, share the hilarity of the moment.
Han Huang (second left), Freeman Su (left), Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region, Chong Hsieh (second right), Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Midwest Region, and Amy Hsieh (right) pose joyfully in front of the Jing Si Abode in Hualien, Taiwan, while visiting Master Cheng Yen.

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.

Master Cheng Yen says that because of our deep relationship, that creates the suffering of saying goodbye to those we love. With your passing and leaving us perhaps this can be a great lesson for us all. And it can be a moment for us to contemplate the profound emptiness and wonder of all things.

Still, it was difficult for all to say goodbye, even for Dharma Master Cheng Yen.

Faced with the passing of my disciple, I feel unspeakable sadness, and my heart is heavy.

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:

Through the internet, I called out to you, “Hankuei! Chi Mu! Can you hear me?” I said to you that people come and go in this world, and that birth, aging, illness, and death are natural laws of life. Bodhisattvas come to this world for the goal of extensively transforming sentient beings. You are very blessed… Remember that we are always together, and that we will always need people on the Bodhisattva Path. People come and go, go and come, but we must not let this Bodhisattva Path end; it has to continue on forever, lifetime after lifetime… I saw on the screen that you looked very dignified as you listened silently. I reminded you again to take my words deep into your consciousness and never forget them. At the end, I saw tears coming out of your eyes, and I am sure that this meant that you understood me, and that this will be the promise between us lifetime after lifetime.

Han Huang shares with Master Cheng Yen, encircled by the Tzu Chi USA family of regional leaders and volunteers.
The footprints of Han Huang’s devotion to Master Cheng Yen and Buddhism remain.

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:

I firmly believe that Brother Hankuei, you are truly an ideal disciple of Master Cheng Yen… Through your footprints, your images, you will truly leave a deep memory in people’s hearts… We thank you for allowing us to witness what an exemplary living Bodhisattva was like. I firmly believe that your life, your legacy will be passed on forever.

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.

Regardless of his workload with the Executive Team, he was always willing to help anyone in need, he listened to others with sincerity, and nothing was ever too large or too small for his attention. To all those who knew him, he truly did have a thousand giving hands.

Looking back at his own life with Tzu Chi, Huang felt immeasurable gratitude as he expressed to Master Cheng Yen:

Thank you, Master Cheng Yen, for offering me the opportunity to steer away from the ivory tower of academia to learn from people, to go from a researcher in a lab to a dedicated Tzu Chi volunteer. Master, do you know that you have given more than an opportunity. You have given me the biggest blessing of my life and the biggest honor.

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.

Han Huang in a “Thousand Eyes, Thousand Hands Guanyin Bodhisattva” performance.

You don’t have to be a millionaire to bring influence to people. All you need is a good heart, a kind heart and then take action.

Han Huang (front row, second right) leaves a luminous legacy for everyone in the Tzu Chi family.


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