Not This, Not That ~ THE PHILIPPINES

A new phase of my life began when I went to Philippines in January of ’79. There, I met the abbot of the temple where I would stay, Ven. Sui Kim, and bowed to him, as protocol required. I was given a nice room on the second-floor of this opulent temple ~ Seng Guan See ~ where about ten monks were in residence.

Some of the monks were somewhat friendly, but from the day I went there until I left 5 years later, most of them did not even smile or nod, but looked straight through me as if I were invisi-ble. True, the language-barrier prevented verbal communica-tion, but even that was not insuperable, and I might have under-stood their attitude if, after being there long enough for them to get to know me a little and possibly conclude that ‘this fellow is no good,’ they had become cold towards me, but to treat a complete stranger like that didn’t say much to me about their understanding of Dharma. And my opinion of them was not im-proved by their focus on lucrative ceremonies for the dead, whereby they had their pious but gullible followers over a barrel. Such monks become very rich, financially, by their activities, but one really wonders about their spiritual wealth!

Because of my observation of such things in Chinese temples, where the emphasis is on death-ceremonies, I’d resolved, be-fore going to Manila, not to get drawn into all this, and I kept to my resolution, never once joining their ceremonies. Nor was I concerned how this appeared.

I waited, knowing things would happen, as they always do, no matter if we go looking for them or not. We often hear people say that life is boring, and that nothing interesting ever happens to them, but this not so. Life is never boring or uninteresting, but always new and there is always something happening. But be-cause it might not be what we expect or want, we often don’t see what is going on (or even ignore it). Our eyes and minds are set on other things; we look, but we do not see. I’d gone to the Philippines knowing only one person there and with no definite plans or agenda, so was quite open to the unexpected ~ a fasci-nating way to live, because you can be flexible and go with the flow. Many people would consider this to be aimless drifting, but it is not so; instead, it is a matter of not trying to fearfully control and manipulate everything. We are not in control ~ when will we learn this? Does it take a typhoon or tsunami to make us under-stand? We are constantly bombarded by huge amounts of sen-sory impressions, any byte of which may change the course of our life, and sometimes considerably, just as a pebble dropped into a smoothly-flowing stream will somehow ~ imperceptibly, maybe, but nevertheless so ~ change the flow of the stream. And so, not knowing what I would do, but letting things happen, into my life came people who changed it, and I would like here to tell of some of them, as not to do would be not only rude and ungrateful, but would rob my story of so much color and sense.

There was Mariano Tuitan and his girlfriend, Vicki Juan, who discovered me ~ not I them ~ living in that temple. They were members of a local ARE group ~ ‘Association for Research and Enlightenment’ ~ an organization founded to follow up the work and ‘readings’ of America’s most-famous psychic, Edgar Cayce. (I’d first heard of Cayce in Bangkok in ’72, when Dhammaviro spoke about him in glowing terms, and lent me a fascinating book, Many Mansions, by Gina Cermina. Since then, I’d read a number of other books about him and the ‘readings’ he made under self-hypnosis). I needed little incentive to attend their weekly meetings, which were held in a building in Ermita. I used to walk there, unaware that this was Manila’s ‘red-light’ district, and I remember quizzical looks as I walked down Mabini Street to the venue, past the brightly-lit and garish bar-fronts and night-clubs, but my mind was clear and I paid little attention ~ so little, in fact, that it was only when I was told that I realized what this area was famous ~ or infamous ~ for!

The small ARE group welcomed me, and I joined in their discus-sions, contributing my share and becoming, in effect, a member, although I never subscribed. And there I met and formed friend-ships with others, one of whom, Victor Chua ~ a Chinese whose name fondly morphed in my mind through Victorado to El Do-rado over the years ~ remains a friend until now, and I often placed my life in his hands, which is what we do whenever we get in a car with someone; but more than this, I came to trust him and know he would never intentionally let me down (and there are not many people like this around now, it seems). The same age as me, he was English-educated, spoke with a nasal American accent, and worked in the office of the family glass-business, which his father had built up over his long life and made his fortune by. His father spoke no English at all, but be-came very supportive when he observed and approved of the work that I later became involved in.

Victor was still single at that time, and I thought would remain so, living with his parents in an old house, but later moved into a large new house his father was to build for him. By then, Victor had married, and was in a position to invite friends to stay with him; I would be among his frequent and many guests; he was a generous and open host and friend. Long before he moved to his own place, however, I used to stop by his office where I was sure of a soft-drink and snack while I cooled off in the air-conditioned comfort and exchanged banter with him. He was not a Buddhist as such, his philosophy of life being mainly Christian-based, but as an ARE member he accepted the concepts of Karma and Reincarnation, which most Christians don’t. Such concepts, if examined for their implications, instead of simply be-lieving in them, have the effect of opening the mind. Faced with a vista of many lives, we would have to consider the likelihood of having lived all over the world, now a member of this race and nationality, now a member of that, sometimes as male and sometimes as female; now as a Muslim, perhaps, and other times as a Buddhist, Christian, etc. This concept ~ and it is only a concept at our stage, not a proven theory ~ would be good even if it were not true ~ and we are not in a position right now to say it is true or not ~ because it has the flavor of liberation, liberation from bigotry, intolerance and partiality.

Then there was Rita Villacorta, a talented pastry-cook, with standing orders for her delicious cakes from a well-heeled clien-tele. She was soon to open The Pastry Shop, an upstairs room of which was to become the venue for ARE meetings ~ a much better place than the last! That had belonged to another lady, a close friend of Rita’s named Maring Llamado, joint-owner of a chain of restaurants across Manila. She was a widow and lived with two of her sons in a large house in a suburb near the pal-ace of the head prelate of the Philippines, Cardinal Sin (strange name for a Prince of the Church, but such it was!) Maring was eclectic, into alternative life-styles and New-Age philosophies. In fact, I must say that, during my years in the Phils ~ although I saw that Filipinos in general had a kind of identity-problem, un-sure if they were Asians or Westerners, having lived under rigid Spanish control for 350 years, followed by 50 years under the Americans ~ they were quite open-minded, and I never felt any kind of prejudice towards me as a foreigner or as a monk ~ rudeness and impoliteness at times, yes, but no real prejudice. I was commonly addressed as ‘Pare’, which was their term, a respectful term, for priests.

Another ARE member was Anthony Nchausty, a locally-born Spaniard, but with strong Basque-separatist sympathies. He was quietly wealthy, middle-aged, and a bachelor. Another member was one of Victor’s nieces, Lucy, These few, then, were the main members of ARE in Manila.

Of course, many things go on in your life at the same time, but it’s impossible to tell of them all at once, so we must back-track, fast-forward, jump about, and try to make things interlock into a comprehensive whole; this is not easy, especially for anyone who might want to read such an account, but I hope you will continue, as this is not just about me; you will probably find that it’s about you, too ~ at least, parts of it are.

I’d been in Manila a month when I heard of a refugee-ship named the Tung An in Manila Bay. Some local Buddhists took me to visit it, and we found 2,300 refugees living in crowded and dirty conditions; they were badly-treated by the Navy personnel, given meager food-rations, and had to stay on that rotten old hulk through rain and shine, not allowed to come ashore. I was shocked by the deprivation of these people, and resolved that, since I was not involved in anything else, I would do what I could to extend solace to them. I visited whenever I could get permission, but this was never easy, and meant going to several of-fices for applications, signatures and approvals; it became harder with each attempt, and I had the feeling that the authori-ties wished to deter me from going, as they didn’t want people to see how poorly they were treating the refugees; they had that much shame, anyway.

Finally, after keeping these people on the Tung An in Manila Bay for eight months, the authorities transferred them to Tara, a tiny island in the south, an uninhabited place where almost noth-ing grew, and the well-water was brackish, so everything had to be brought in by ship. It was very difficult for the delegations to get there to interview refugees; however, some refugees were resettled from there.

Eventually, the Philippine authorities realized they had made a mistake, and in January 1980, moved the remaining refugees to the newly-opened PRPC ~ Philippine Refugee Processing Center ~ in Bataan, about 200 kms NW of Manila. This was a project of the-then First Lady of the Phils, Imelda Marcos, although funded by the UNHCR, and rumor had it that by setting up this Refugee Center as a ‘show-case,’ she hoped to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Be that as it may, the PRPC was a vast im-provement on the Tung An ship, Tara Island, and the Jose Fa-bella Center in Manila, which was another crowded, dirty and rat-infested refugee place that I used to visit and nick-named ‘Mosquito Hotel’ because of the swarms of mozzies there; it used to be part of the old mental-asylum.

In September, I applied to visit Manila City Jail, to bring Dharma to some of the inmates, and when I got permission and went there, the gate opened, I entered and found myself in a large, open compound, divided into sections, where the inmates were free to roam, not locked in small cells. Immediately, everyone’s eyes zoomed in on me, and I was met by unfriendly faces. I was alone, without a guard, but unafraid. Wandering through the various sections, I tried to make contact with people there, and slowly, over the ensuing weeks, they began to relax with me and lower their masks ~ fierce, sullen, tough masks ~ to reveal, in many cases, the faces of little children who responded to a bit of sympathy and care. I think they realized I was there to listen to their stories and help them in whatever way I could, not to judge.

There were almost 2000 inmates in that jail, mainly members of gangs ~ Sige-Sige Sputnik, Bahala-na-Gang, Kommando, etc., deadly rivals on the streets ~ many heavily tattooed, and in for crimes like armed-robbery, manslaughter, and murder. Many were from poor or broken homes where they’d known little love, and it was easy for them to get into bad company and go wrong.

I got people to translate for me when necessary ~ Bong Reyes and Blessing Adiao, in for drug-dealing; without them, it would have been hard for me to communicate. Now, Bong and Bless-ing were vegetarians and so, I began to take some of the left-over food from the temple for them (which would only have been discarded and collected by someone for his pigs); of course, they were very happy with this, as it was very good food, espe-cially compared to standard prison-fare. When the abbot came to know of this, however, he objected and said I couldn’t do that. He later showed me his stinginess in other ways.

This became almost a full-time job, and I had many interesting experiences there, and learned several lessons, among them not to think of people as bad just because they had done bad things. When I started there, I used to recoil inwardly upon ask-ing people what they were in for, and they said “Murder”. But upon reflection, I came to see that it’s not hard to kill someone ~ we are all capable of it; all it takes is to become angry, ‘lose our mind’ for a moment, pick up something lying nearby, like a knife, bottle or axe, and hit someone with it, and that person could easily die. It would then be too late to say: “Oh, sorry! Don’t die! I didn’t mean it! Please don’t die!”

Once, I explained to people how to show concern for others by the way we walk. The sidewalks are congested and many peo-ple walk on the street, which is quite hazardous. Asking for vol-unteers, I showed how we should walk facing the oncoming traf-fic, and if people are walking towards us, to walk on their out-side, so they will then walk nearer the curb, instead of on their inside, which would only push them further into the road. We can see the traffic coming towards us, while they, without eyes in the back of their heads, cannot. Now, there was a young guy named Joy (many strange names in the Phils; President Marcos’ son was called Bong-Bong!) listening to me that day. He was in for murder, and told me his story: One day, high on drugs in a cinema, he’d freaked out, pulled a knife from his pocket, and stabbed a complete stranger sitting next to him! Anyway, he was released on bail, and some months later, while visiting some of his friends in the jail, he came to me and said: “Remember what you told us about how to walk on the street? I’m doing that now!”

In the mornings, I would go to the courts, to attend hearings and trials, to talk with lawyers and judges, to give moral support to prisoners I knew, and get information. One day, a lawyer there asked who I was, and when I told him I was a lawyer, too, he asked what kind of law I practiced, so I told him of the Law of Cause-and-Effect, and he said, “Oh, you are a real lawyer!”

After lunch and a short siesta, I would spend some hours in the jail; the time would just slip away, and sometimes, I stayed so long the gate-guards forgot I was still there, and locked me in! I had to shout to be let out!

One day, on the way back to the temple for lunch after being in the courts, I saw a cardboard-box in the middle of a busy street, obstructing traffic-flow, so went over to remove it. Imagine my surprise to find five kittens inside! Where this box had come from or how long it had been there, I had no idea. I put it on the sidewalk and went on to the temple, thinking I should have taken them with me, but knowing that this would not have been ap-proved of. I decided to check if they were still there when I went to the jail afterwards, and they were, so I took them with me and gave them to some of the inmates, who were very pleased to have an object of affection. One of the recipients named Phalai really loved and cared for his kitten, until one day, when I went, he looked very sad, and when I asked why, told me that he’d rolled on the kitten in his sleep and squashed it. He was later re-leased, and I saw or heard nothing of him until one day, when I went to the jail, someone said to me, “Phalai’s back.”

“What?” I said, “To visit?” (it was easy to do so; even whores used to visit, to provide their services!) “No, arrested again!”

“Then tell him not to see me,” I said, “He’s stupid”. So for some days, he didn’t come near me; whenever he caught my eye, he would lower his head in shame. Then, one day, I was sitting somewhere, and he came and sat beside me. I looked at him, turned away, and looked at him again, saying, “What hap-pened?” He then told me his story.

He really had wanted to go straight, he said, but his old friends kept coming around saying, ‘Don’t stay home; let’s go out some-where and have fun,’ until finally he agreed to go, and although they had said they wouldn’t do anything wrong, they took him to break into someone’s house, but before they could steal any-thing, he saw a Buddha-image, and it reminded him of me, so he said, ‘Let’s go, quick!’ (apparently, it was the house of an In-dian, and there aren’t many Indians in the Philippines, so it was rather strange). They then broke into another house, but this house had no Buddha-image, and they were caught by the po-lice. “Oh, well,” I said, “you tried; better luck next time.”
Sometimes, people would ask, “What is your religion? Are you a Buddhist?” If I’d said “Yes,” it might have created a space be-tween us, because, in most cases, they called themselves Catholics. So I said “No”.

“Then what is your religion?” they would persist.

“My religion,” I said, “is life. Have you heard of that one?”

“Yes, I think so,” replied one or two, hesitantly.

It allowed me to present things in an open way, without labels. I told them that I didn’t care what they might or might not have done, as I didn’t know them before, and what is important is now. “You might say you were framed and are innocent, but only you know that. Was it the police who put you here, or was it yourselves?” I could see some of them thinking about this, and one said, “You are right. We put ourselves here. If we hadn’t done what we did, we wouldn’t be here.”

I continued: “I’m not here to take you out of this place, and if I tried, well, I’d be in here with you, in a different way than I am now. I can’t take you out, but maybe I can take you in ~ inside yourselves.” Although it wasn’t ~ by any stretch of the imagina-tion ~ a nice place, I met a lot of nice people in that jail; they were unlucky, and had been caught; the biggest criminals usu-ally don’t get caught, and remain free. I started a meditation-class, and had a steady little group; they had plenty of time for this and nothing else to do.

Some of them called me Father, just as they addressed their priests; but I told them I didn’t like that, as ~ playing on words ~ it means far away (farther), so it would be better to call me Nearer, as I was trying to get near to them. Some of them started to call me Nearer, therefore, while some still called me Father, and some even called me Father Nearer. Now, I liked the Yin-Yang sound of that!

I was supported in my jail-work by a number of people, some of whom came with me at times to distribute various things. And the superintendent of the jail ~ a Filipino-Chinese named Alfredo Lim (a fair-minded man who was popular with the inmates and who later became mayor of Manila), approved of my activities there. But not everyone was happy with what I was doing, and one day, the abbot of the temple called me to his room and scolded me for not joining the other monks in performing cere-monies, but going to the jail “to be with all those bad people” (as he called them). I could have scolded him back, as I’d lost my respect for him by then, but remained silent until he’d said all he wanted to say. Then I replied: “I also can perform ceremonies for the dead if I wish, but my way is more for the living than for the dead. I don’t think I can help the dead very much, but I might be able to do something for the living. Anyway,” I went on, “We teach that everyone has Buddha-nature, and may become enlightened.” He was unable to say anything else then, but soon after, stopped the allowance I’d been given. However, you can’t keep me quiet for $10 a month! I’m not for sale like that!

There was another room near mine on the landing, occupied by an old man named Pue Ling, who was in charge of maintaining the altars downstairs; we shared a bathroom. Now, this old man didn’t speak any English, so we could not communicate, but he must have disliked me so much that at times, he’d wait until I was taking a shower and was all soaped up, and then turn on a tap downstairs, cutting off my water, and making me await his pleasure to turn off his tap so I could rinse myself. (I learned of this only much later, of course). And if I left anything by mistake in the bathroom, such as razor or soap, it would ‘disappear.’

Some of the people in the jail were much nicer than old Pue Ling, and at least were not hypocritical about what they’d done.

I found my way all over Manila, visiting families and friends of prisoners, usually by bus or jeepney ~ a kind of open-sided and highly-decorated mini-bus ~ but often by foot, too, if it wasn’t too far. I would regularly walk from the temple to the courts, about 2 km, and people were amazed that I should do this. “You walk?” they’d say, as if it was a stupendous feat! I would be all sweaty, but I would be so no matter what I did or didn’t do; I put up with that awful climate, but never got used to it.

To create a little privacy, some of the prisoners constructed in-genious ‘tents’ of papier-mache on a network of strings running from nails in the ceiling to nails in the floor. Many of them were quite artistic, making handicrafts for sale. Several even had their young children in with them; one such child, about 5-years-old, had been coached to draw his forefinger across his throat in re-sponse when anyone asked him, “What are you in for?” Not a very good education.

Because there was such a need, I would collect used clothes for distribution in the jail, but this became a problem, as everyone wanted what I had to give; how to give to some without upsetting others? I solved this by holding raffles: whoever got a scrap of paper with a number on it got the article of clothing with the cor-responding number; I was able to avoid blame that way.

Skin-diseases like scabies and ring-worm were rampant, so I would carry creams and ointments to treat things like this (I had a bad case of ring-worm myself, that took months of treatment to eradicate). Some prisoners took advantage of me, and asked me to get things like cough-syrup for them, but when I discov-ered they were using it to get high on, I didn’t fall for it any more.

For some months at this time, I conducted a Sunday meditation-and-discussion group in the temple, and a few people attended regularly, one of them being Bet Pe, whose real name was Evelyn. We kept in touch ~ with a break of a few years in the ‘90’s ~ until now, and of course, being the joker with names that I am, her name morphed through Evergreen and Eveready to Bettery.

One evening, in February ’80, I returned from the jail, and in the dim light outside my room, was a strange monk; I nodded, but he didn’t speak, so I thought he was waiting for someone else. I went into my room, and when I came out to go to the bathroom, he was still there, so I asked who he was waiting for, and he told me, in his broken English, that he wanted to meet me. He said he was a refugee from PRPC, and had heard from someone in Jose Fabella that there was a Western monk in Manila who was involved with the refugees, so had boldly left the Camp alone to come to search for me. But, since he didn’t know my name or location, he wandered around Manila until he came to China-town, where he began asking people if they knew where to find a ‘European monk.’ Finally, someone who had seen me directed him to the temple, where he found me. He told me that he’d been in PRPC since January, and asked me to pay a visit, but I said I was very busy at the jail and wasn’t free. “Maybe next time,” I told him. He went back to Bataan a bit disappointed, but two weeks later, came again, with a friend, and this time, I agreed to go with them, “But just for one day, okay?”

"It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should
give us, by this time, a sense of kinship with other fellow-creatures, a wish to live and let live, a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic community."-

Aldo Leopald, American Conservationist, 1886 - 1948 -

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