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Inspiration comes in many forms. For some, it resides in a peaceful scene, work of art, piece of music, or a walk in the park. For many of us though, a really good book is enough to inspire us, to change our minds or simply to open them up to new possibilities. There is a kind of release when you read. What’s even more inspiring is walking into a bookshop and being awed by the array of titles that engulf you: the smell of print on paper, the texture of the pages and, if you’re lucky, the variety of genres. Fortunately, for those who dwell on the island of Penang, there has been a steady growth in specialist bookshops catering to those with an open, artistic and philosophical turn of mind. These places are sometimes hidden in a quiet nook on a busy street or even placed amidst sanctuaries and are only known through word of mouth.
Walking into Jing-Si Books & Café, one is immediately overwhelmed by the sense of peace (after you’ve removed your shoes). This is no ordinary bookshop. The wooden floor, the pretty layout of caramel coloured bamboo dividing the café from the bookshop and the dark wooden bookshelves with their neatly displayed books and products, all make the whole place more appealing even to the most restless of souls. The atmosphere is calming; it encourages consideration and thought. The ready staff approach anyone in need of direction and assistance and take the time to explain the whole concept of the shop and the Tzu Chi Organisation it stemmed from.
Tzu Chi was founded in 1966 by a Buddhist nun, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, who has often been called the ‘Mother Teresa of Asia’. Upon being asked ‘What has Buddhism done for society?’ she decided to establish Tzu Chi to directly help the poor in a material way. Thus, the organisation is committed to charity and goodwill. Jing-Si Books & Café is 13 years old to date and is the first bookshop café opened by Tzu Chi before they expanded into ten other shops in the country and many more around the world. The books and products are produced mainly in Taiwan under the Jing-Si brand, and are mostly in Mandarin but there are also translated versions in Japanese, Korean, Thai, Bahasa Indonesia and English. Most books are written by Dharma Masters and one of the main bestsellers is, unsurprisingly, ‘Still Thoughts’, a collection of quotations recorded from the daily talks of Dharma Master Cheng Yen to her disciples. A typical thought from the pages of the book, ‘Bodhisattvas are not idols made of wood. Real Bodhisattvas are people who eat, talk, work, and relieve suffering in times of need’, is also one that typifies the movement as a whole.
Besides books, there are CDs, DVDs, stationery, bags and even organic food products, all produced by the Jing-Si brand. The café, which is exceptionally clean and beautifully laid out, is the perfect place to get inspiration, read, revisit one’s thoughts or just rest to watch the busy outside world that is Penang’s infamous Beach Street.