On Monday, August 14, 2023, thousands of people from around the world join the Parliament of the World’s Religions Opening Plenary. Photo/Dennis Lee
For a week, from August 14-18, 2023, a large Tzu Chi delegation participated in the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR) in Chicago, Illinois, an event gathering civic, spiritual, and grassroots changemakers in the windy city. Held at the McCormick Place Lakeside Center, part of the McCormick Place campus, the largest convention center in North America, located on Chicago’s lakefront, the PoWR brought together over 7,000 people from nearly 100 countries, representing over 200 spiritual traditions.
The PoWR, an international NGO affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information, aims to promote and cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities. It fosters their engagement with guiding institutions to address critical global issues and achieve a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Tzu Chi offered a Buddhist perspective rooted in Ven. Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings.
The history of the PoWR dates back to its inaugural event in Chicago in 1893. Since then, its convenings, considered the premier, oldest, largest, and most inclusive gatherings of the global interfaith movement, have occurred eight times, assembling thousands of participants alongside luminaries. The PoWR has met in Chicago (1993), Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), Salt Lake City (2015), Toronto (2018), virtually online (2021), and in 2023, it returned to Chicago for its ninth convening. Coming home to the PoWR’s founding city 130 years later felt momentous.
The History of Tzu Chi at the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Tzu Chi first participated in the PoWR in 2015, when it convened in Salt Lake City. When the PoWR met again in 2018, in Toronto, Canada, Tzu Chi’s delegation included volunteers from the United States and Canada and two Dharma Masters from the Jing Si Abode in Hualien, Taiwan, for whom it was the first time they had ventured outside the monastery to present on an international stage. Master Cheng Yen appeared during the Opening Plenary through a pre-recorded video entitled “Love Beyond Religion.”
When the PoWR convened online in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in her Opening Plenary address, Master Cheng Yen urged everyone to respond to the global health crisis however they could and stressed embracing lifestyle changes that promote sustainability and peace, such as adopting a plant-based diet, cultivating mindfulness, and calming our desirous and turbulent minds. And now, in 2023, Master Cheng Yen was again among the PoWR’s featured luminaries, a diverse cohort of faith, spiritual, civic, and governmental leaders.
Tzu Chi’s 2023 Delegation
The Tzu Chi delegation in 2023 included over 100 attendees participating in various roles. A group arrived from Taiwan on August 12, including Dr. Rey-Sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation, and three Dharma Masters – Ven. Shih De Yuan, Ven. Shih De Cheng, and Ven. Shih De Huang – from the Jing Si Abode in Hualien, where they reside alongside Ven. Dharma Master Cheng Yen.
Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux and Tzu Chi Global Partnership Affairs Department members flew in from Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters in California. Ting Fan, Director of the Culture and Communications Department, arrived from New York, her media production team from across the United States. Offering additional support, a group of students from Tzu Chi University in Taiwan landed the next day.
Nationally, some Tzu Chi volunteers came to Chicago from other cities to help, too. Locally, Chong Hsieh, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Midwest Region, and over 50 Tzu Chi volunteers based in Chicago would also provide an array of assistance.
Moreover, the Chicago volunteers’ preparations for the PoWR began months before, and they would be fundamental support during the week, helping with logistics, transportation, preparing daily lunch and dinner for the delegation, and more. And they were doing this with commitment and dedication. “All our volunteers have a full-time job. So we all took a vacation,” Hsieh revealed.
Plenty of Pre-Parliament Preparations
Before the PoWR even opened, the team set up Tzu Chi’s three booths in the exhibition areas. It was a flurry of activity, with other faith groups and organizations also setting up, an air of excited anticipation mounting as everyone knew that the enormous exhibition hall would be open to thousands of people the next day.
It’s all hands on deck to install Tzu Chi’s on-site exhibits. Photos/Jennifer Chien
Another group set up a Buddhist Prayer Room to serve as a serene space where PoWR attendees, regardless of their faith background, could engage in quiet reflection, meditation, or mindfulness practices and learn about Buddhism’s fundamental teachings. Others prepared the PoWR tote bags that Tzu Chi had donated, made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles. Attached was a name tag with a Jing Si Aphorism from Master Cheng Yen, and inside the bag, apart from the PoWR program, Tzu Chi added a pen and folder made from PET plastic bottles.
The team prepares PoWR tote bags donated by Tzu Chi. Photos/Ting Fan
The Opening Plenary Calls for Solidarity in Conscience
The theme of the 2023 convening of the PoWR was “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom & Human Rights.” The Program Chair, Rev. HPs. Phyllis Curott, in her pre-PoWR address, had issued the call, stating:
And on Monday, August 14, people of faith and conscience from Chicago and around the globe showed up. A long line snaked along the edges of the massive reception area of the McCormick Place Lakeside Center to register. When each PoWR attendee did, they received that mint green conference tote bag donated by Tzu Chi. Thus, Master Cheng Yen silently connected with each person, aiming to awaken love for the Earth and an appreciation and respect for its resources.
The Opening Plenary welcomed a procession of representatives of many religions and indigenous peoples who paraded into the main hall and then assembled on stage. A Dragon Dance followed at their heels, the long train of dancers weaving through the aisles as cymbals and drums echoed loudly, creating a powerful energy in the space. A procession of men in traditional Scottish garb marched in at the other end of the hall, their bagpipes joining in a novel chorus of sounds, a fitting symbol of cross-cultural and interfaith mingling.
“In Chinese tradition, the lion and dragon represent prosperity, fortune, and peace,” Dr. Rey-Sheng Her, Deputy CEO of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation, shared on stage. Those wishes resonated in the opening addresses by representatives of Indigenous Peoples, spiritual traditions, international and faith-based organizations, dignitaries, and others.
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson delivered a compelling speech that went to the heart of the conference. “Your spiritual traditions have the power to guide people to a path of peace and nurture a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration,” he said.
Celebrating the Global Ethic
A core component of the PoWR’s work is promoting the Global Ethic (GE), “a statement of basic ethical commitments shared by people throughout the globe, religious or not,” completed in 1993. The principles of the GE are rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and include five commitments, namely, to a culture of Non-violence and Respect for Life; Solidarity and a Just Economic Order; Tolerance and a Life of Truthfulness; Equal Rights and Partnership Between Men and Women; and, Sustainability and Care for the Earth.
The PoWR was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the document in 2023, and at the Global Ethic Assembly that was first on the PoWR’s program, attendees came on stage to sign. Shih De Yuan, representing Tzu Chi, was among them.
A Call for Climate Action
That afternoon, a Climate Action Assembly offered a comprehensive discussion of the biggest threats facing our planet today, with clear and impactful ways for one to take action to help save the Earth. As part of the assembly, the Tzu Chi delegation came on stage to lead a Buddhist prayer. In the background, a video illustrated Tzu Chi volunteers in action offering charity relief, especially after disasters worldwide. It was a moving call to action since natural disasters are increasing and related to climate change.
An Impressive Program of Panels and Workshops
Next began an intense week with members of the Tzu Chi delegation hosting or participating in 16 parallel sessions, which were panels or workshops on a broad spectrum of topics, including climate change and action, disaster relief and resilience, the global ethic, environmental and gender justice, interfaith understanding, the ordination of women, the greening of congregations, the next generation, food systems, and health systems. The sessions offered opportunities to share in the interfaith discourse, present Master Cheng Yen’s Buddhist perspectives, and introduce Tzu Chi’s spirit and philosophy.
Exhibits and More
Tzu Chi’s three Dharma Masters were an integral part of the program. Apart from being speakers on several panels, they led Buddha Bathing Ceremony sessions in the PoWR’s Buddhist Prayer Room, and more. Read about all the Dharma Masters’ activities at the PoWR in our feature story.
Concurrently, Tzu Chi volunteers and the Tzu Chi University students from Taiwan were also busy. During the five-day conference, they were stationed at Tzu Chi’s three booths to guide and engage with visitors.
Tzu Chi had one large booth in the general exhibition zone. It introduced Ven. Dharma Master Cheng Yen and the Tzu Chi School of Buddhism; the Buddha’s life and sacred Buddhist sites; the Buddha’s original intent and teachings, and how Tzu Chi’s missions and humanitarian efforts embody them; the Tzu Chi bamboo bank spirit; and, Tzu Chi’s interfaith work.
One visitor remarked that she thought Buddhism focused only on meditation and was surprised to learn about other aspects of the teachings.
A booth in the Climate Village showcased Tzu Chi’s disaster relief, which responds to catastrophes related to climate change and promotes environmental awareness. It featured products created from recycled PET plastic bottles, using DA.AI Technology Inc. (DA.AI means “Great Love” in Chinese). Master Cheng Yen’s teachings inspired the company’s founders, whose mission is to “Turn trash into gold, gold into love, love into a purifying stream, and surround the globe with it.” DA.AI Technology created the PoWR tote bags.
Finally, a booth for children encouraged environmental awareness and vegetarianism. All week, the team organized activities, such as transforming plastic trash into artwork and ornaments, taking kids through the lifecycle of plastics, and drawing attention to plastic-related challenges.
Activities at Tzu Chi’s children’s booth engage and inspire. Photos/Daniel Ferrara
The volunteers also held a Sustainability Fashion Show twice during the week, featuring Tzu Chi uniforms, various clothing, and ingenious products used during disaster relief, all produced by DA.AI Technology from recycled PET plastic bottles. The goal was to introduce Tzu Chi inspired “compassionate technology,” help people understand the reason behind eco-design, and encourage them to consider changing their lifestyle to be more climate-friendly.
The shows presented Tzu Chi’s expansive recycling mission, which started in 1990 after Master Cheng Yen saw a street full of garbage and called for individual action. Today, Tzu Chi has over 200,000 recycling volunteers and 10,000 recycling stations in Taiwan. By recycling, we reflect on our consumer habits and “gradually reduce our desires and consumption for the sake of the world.”
Finally, on the last day of the PoWR, 20 Tzu Chi volunteers and 11 Tzu Chi University students from Taiwan gave a sign language performance of the song “Give Love.” The sign language tradition at Tzu Chi began when Master Cheng Yen was doing home visits and met many deaf individuals. She realized that it’s essential for volunteers to learn a little sign language to communicate with them. Today, the tradition offers even more:
The Parliament Draws to a Close
On Friday, August 18, during the 2023 PoWR Closing Plenary, through speeches, performances, and prayers, the global interfaith movement recommitted to a shared vision for the future and tangible actions needed to achieve it.
Master Cheng Yen’s Address
After an introduction by Shih De Yuan, Master Cheng Yen shared her message with all assembled in a video, “Purifying Minds for a Peaceful World,” recorded at the Jing Si Abode in Hualien, Taiwan. Her statement highlighted how erratic climate conditions have harmed Mother Nature, saying our ever-increasing greed causes this. She encouraged everyone to adopt a plant-based diet. She also spoke about the disasters worldwide and poverty, which leave people needing assistance. She then presented examples of how a spirit of giving back, or paying the help received forward, transforms lives.
Looking back at Tzu Chi’s presence at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Debra Boudreaux, Tzu Chi USA CEO, reflected, “It’s been a long five days, but five in Chinese means ‘good karma.’ We need to tell our communities what we achieved. No matter whether Buddhist, Christian, Muslim… everyone has a common message: ‘Be the change.’”