Written by Jin-Yan Yang, Mei-Hong Lin
Photographed by Guo Liang Ye, Jin Sheng Xu
Translated by: Grace Wang

"When I was face to face to a Silent Mentor for the first time during a simulated surgery, I was in tears right away.” Dr. Xiu-Xian Lin, a resident doctor of Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital said. Feeling scared about unknown futures and realizing the fact that he’ll be shouldering the lives of people and how sacred the mission will be, were the reasons for his tears. However thanks to the Silent Mentor Program developed at Tzu Chi University’s College of Medicine, Dr. Lin was able to overcome his fears and together with his peers, walk on the lifetime live saving journey with respect and gratitude.

"We care more about the patients, are always thinking what we can do to solve the patient’s problems. I think this is a special characteristic of all medical students whom graduated from Tzu Chi University College of Medicine” Dr. Lin explained. I have come this far by taking one step at a time and have learnt most from the Silent Mentors.

To explain the origin of the development of the Silent Mentor program, it is important to first understand Master Cheng Yen’s benevolent wishes. Dr. Zhang Qun Ming used a video clip to illustrate Master’s wishes to the attendants of the 19th TIMA Convention. Back in the 80s and 90s, there were not enough body available for simulated surgeries at all medical schools around Taiwan. Once Master Cheng Yen had a chance visiting a dissection lab and saw the body either being hanged from the ceiling or were soaked in formalin, she felt very sad. “I made a wish there. I do not wish my students work in environments like this. Silent Mentors are pure, sacred and total selfless giving; medical students should be grateful and respect these teachers so they’ll be able to shoulder the responsibility of guarding lives in their future career.”

Understanding Master Cheng Yen’s benevolent wishes, with the help of many staff at Tzu Chi University College of Medicine and many more volunteers, overcoming countless difficulties and body preserving technologies, the Silent Mentor program was established, starting a new era of medicine with respect, love and gratefulness.

Knowledge that aren’t in textbooks

Dr. Dou-Yuan Tsai from the emergency unit of Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital recalled his 3rd year at medical school, 25 years old, knowing nothing about death and thought he was unbeatable until he had an encounter with the silent mentors. Through paying home visits to the silent mentor’s families with his peers, composing the memoirs of the silent mentor, attending opening ceremonies, prayers, actual dissection classes, dressing and placing silent mentor into coffin and funeral ceremony, he realized how precious and important these knowledge are that cannot be found in textbooks. He came to realize that the truly unbeatable is the silent mentor, whom sacrificed themselves to enrich the knowledge and skills of future doctors.

“Compare to other medical students, who need to hook bodies from formalin pools, medical students of Tzu Chi University College of Medicine are really lucky.” Dr. Tsai said that he had attended 4 simulated surgeries so far. The most memorable one happened during his PGY years; he had to practice chest tube drainage during a simulated surgery. The next day, it happened that a patient that he received at emergency required the same surgery. He was extremely grateful to the silent mentor, providing him a chance to practice beforehand, so he could save the patient.

Some of the silent mentors lived in the south end of Taiwan, in order to reach Hualien in time (as the bodies need to be frozen within 24 hours after passed away), would even request to take ambulances or helicopter to Hualien during the very last hours of their lives. Their courage, love and open-mindedness towards death not only astonished but truly moved and touched the hearts of all students at Hualien University College of Medicine.

Intern Doctor Kai-Jie Zhang shared that during a dissection class, 4 to 5 students would become a group, studying on a particular silent mentor teacher; the classes lasted for 3 to 4 days. Once he accidentally broke the nerves and veins of the teacher and was feeling extremely ashamed. He kept praying and apologizing to the teacher in his mind. “To me, these teachers are real in existence. During the 4 days of practice, we will always start with praying, informing the teacher what practices we will do today. After we are through, we will report to the silent mentor again, informing what kind of things we have learnt the day and give the teacher our gratitude.”

After the completion of the dissection class, the medical students would carefully check, sew the bodies back completely. Dressing the silent mentor respectfully with white clothes, white socks, gloves; gently moving the bodies into coffins at last. “When I paid the last respect to my teacher, I was very much in grief. Although he only accompanied me for 4 days, he lives forever in my heart and his teachings will guide me for the rest of my life,” said Dr. Kai-Jie Zhang.

Utilize the useless, it’s great love and saving the earth

Apart from Tzu Chi University College of Medicine, now the silent mentor program is also available for study for other doctors and medical students in Taiwan. Dr. Qun-Ming Zhang shared that through the different seminars and lecturers in the fields such as orthopedics and surgery, the wish is for doctors who participated in the silent mentor program to pick up the Tzu Chi medical culture of great love. Medical teams from Singapore and Malaysia have come all the way to Hualien to learn from Tzu Chi and now the silent mentor program is being used in Malaysia as well, spreading the spirit of love, respect and gratefulness abroad.

At the end of the forum, Dr. Qun-Ming Zhang shared another speech from Master Cheng Yen regarding the silent mentor. Master Cheng Yen said, “human bodies are impermanent and do not last long. We should do whatever we can to help those in need. My disciples have accomplished what I have asked of them. I pointed it out and they accomplished it. It’ll be the same when it comes to me. This is another way of recycling.”

This video touched all participants at the 19th TIMA Convention.

Medical staff Wen-Hui Chen from Taichung Veterans General Hospital. As her father just passed away recently, listening to the sharing on stage, she couldn’t help weeping. She said that one needs to have good affinity in order to become a silent mentor. Since she is a medical professional herself, she can totally understand the decision made by the silent mentor and how the family members must have felt. Their selfless giving has really assisted the improvement of medical service. 

At the end of the forum, Dr. Qun-Ming Zhang thanked Master Cheng Yen for her benevolent wishes and teachings that raised death to another realm. The ‘truth’ that medical science has always been pursuing, uplifting to selfless ‘righteousness’, and eventually to what Buddha has been teaching over 2500 years of the beauty of ‘benevolence and great love’. He believed the great wish from the silent mentors will definitely pass on to all the medical students who have participated in simulated surgery classes. By utilizing life to the very end, one can pass on love to every single person in pain or in need.