I am not Buddhist but Buddhism has impacted me perhaps more than anything else in my life. It’s an Asian religion that more than any other factor has affected the greatest area and the most number of people in the region. It’s imbedded in many of the dominant cultures of Asia, although not so much in the Philippines where I grew up.
My introduction to Buddhism was hardly momentous. My uncle taught History of the Far East in high school. I remember the room where the class was held but I am not sure what year in high school I was then. Sophomore year maybe? I went to school at the La Paz branch of what was then called Iloilo City Colleges. The school was among the holdings of the wealthy, powerful Lopez family in Iloilo. Both my father and uncle worked for the Lopezes, my father as principal of the main high school downtown and his younger brother as principal of the satellite high school in La Paz, the district of the city where I grew up. In fact, the school was a ten-minute walk from our house on Burgos Street. The campus was pastoral. Set quite far in the back of the property that ran the width of the city block, the school buildings were in a U shape, opening towards Burgos Street. The high school shared the campus with the College of Engineering. In the back, the campus communicated with Jereos Street, the part of that long street that had a reputation for being rough.
Tatay Apin (short for Serafin) taught us the basics of Far Eastern history in the one classroom at the end of the library building, on the right when you faced the school from Burgos Street. I remember the building as unpainted wood with very wide steps leading up from the concrete path that also formed an open U. Most of the building was occupied by the school library ruled over by Miss Palacios. The library was my favorite part of the campus, after the huge acacia tree near the Burgos Street gate in whose branches I and my best friend, Francisco, would unselfconsciously play, oblivious of the other students passing under the tree. The memories are coming back but they’ll have to wait for later.
Much of the education I received in the Philippines was a kind of spoon-feeding. I learned by memorizing what the teacher taught as the essential facts of whatever subject we were studying. Buddhism in Far Eastern History was reduced to memorizing the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I remember my uncle writing these on the blackboard as we copied what he wrote into our notebooks. I don’t recall discussing the subject in class and the information barely seeped into my awareness. Studying was studying to pass the tests and back then multiple-type examinations were becoming popular. They were easier to correct and grade, and I suppose, easier to statistically analyze the results of the students’ regurgitation performance. I doubt ICC teachers analyzed the data.
I was an unusually docile child and teenager. I did as I was told. I don’t remember exercising any intellectual curiosity except when I went to the library. The books I chose to read I chose on my own. I wonder today how those choices were made. Neither my parents nor my teachers talked to us to encourage curiosity. The emphasis of both parents and teachers was on making high marks. Maybe I am being unfair, memory being as unreliable as I’ve grown to see.
In the absence of general initiative and curiosity, I didn’t learn much outside the classroom (outside my private reading, which is another matter altogether). As in many other parts of the Philippines, most of the stores downtown were operated by Chinese merchants. Some of these had assimilated themselves into Philippine culture but many, as I found out in more recent trips, maintained their Chinese identity. I could have learned about Buddhism from some of these. Of course, a child would hardly be expected to show that level of interest outside what the adults expected him to learn in school. If I knew then what I know now! If I only took a fraction of the unruly curiosity that I now try to keep under control, I could have learned so much more—about Buddhism, about Chinese culture, about everything! But that was not the case. Like all the people I knew then (and, not surprisingly, most people I know today), we are generally focused on the practical elements—earning a living and raising a family. We are born, we work, we grow old and die.
The Philippines is predominantly Christian and I was raised in that faith tradition. Christian rituals and traditions were the highlight of my growing up years. I lived for the glorious music and pageantry of quaresma (Lent) and of Christmas. That early imprinting retains potency for me even today. On top of this, after high school, I went to two Catholic universities and took theology classes for eight years. Christian doctrine remains at the heart of how I experience life. By my late teens I had started to question the basic teachings of Christianity and for the following two decades I drifted in the waters, not knowing which way was Rome or Jerusalem. Drifting had a great advantage. I began to study other religious systems and philosophies. I began to see religions as mythologies all of them, although adherents of Christianity or Islam or even Buddhism would not, could not see their religion so objectively. Religion for many people is the eyes through which they see the whole, uncomplicated world. For many years I reveled in the variety of religious ideas and practices I was discovering and exploring. Buddhism was the one tradition that penetrated beyond the intellect into a practice.