In the Room of Fr. Bulatao
The Filipino psychologist who studied the paranormal.
It is culturally normal for Filipinos to be possessed. This was the assertion of the Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist Jaime C. Bulatao in his essay, “Local Cases of Possession and their Cure”. His writings on the paranormal explored the idea of studying spiritual experiences from a psychological perspective — he even claimed that it is possible to exorcise individuals through hypnosis. In fact, he claimed that he regularly did this, especially during his consultations with possessed individuals and visits to “haunted” households.
It is important to note that Fr. Bu’s paranormal studies were pragmatic. He studied local cases of spiritual possession because he saw this as a real mental health issue. He explored the possibility of telepathy because he believed that this might help therapists understand their patients. To him, telepathy was a form of hyper-empathy. This is something I learned after speaking with one of his former students (now a practicing psychologist), who told me that Fr. Bu recognized the existence of paranormal events, but that it was up to the observer to interpret what was happening — in this case, he chose to interpret it psychologically.
Stories about him were always positive. People say that he was a patient teacher who was deeply empathic. Those who have studied under him have told me about how Fr. Bu could tell who among his students would be great friends, or who among them were having relationship problems — and he was always right. It is not unusual for a Filipino to be expected to have this extreme level of empathy, since one of our most praised local values is known as “pakikiramdam” (being able to read the emotions of the people around you). A person who is tactless or rude is called “hindi marunong makiramdam” (one who can’t take a hint). If it isn’t yet obvious from our loud teleseryes and sappy love songs, Filipinos are pretty transparent with their emotions; it isn’t really too hard to read our moods. But in Fr. Bu, it was said to be extraordinary — almost telepathic.
Fr. Bulatao received his degree abroad and applied Western methods to explore the Filipino cultural experience. He founded the Ateneo’s psychology department in the 60’s. In the department, there is a spacious room labeled with his name. A window overlooks massive trees and across the street is the mint Areté art and innovation complex. Beneath the window is a set of glass cabinets containing glass balls of various sizes: the larger ones are used as paperweights for ring-bound notes and smaller ones are placed in glass jars. Shelves lined the walls on both the left and right sides perpendicular to the window.
The shelves on the right are divided into three. The right-most has more glass jars filled with small glass balls, separated by tiny, brass duwende amulets (little men with pointed hats, usually carrying a pouch). There are also glass jars containing multiple discontinued five-centavo coins, bronze with a hole in the center. The lowest shelf has large crystal balls, which would require two hands to carry. On the top-most shelf is a bust of Fr. Bu’s head. The center shelves have more glass jars, containing more crystal glasses, but also shells, rocks, and colored balls. The middle shelf has card decks: multiple Tarot decks, some I-Ching decks, and a magic prop. The left-most shelves carry his books, which were statistical manuals, student theses, and books on psychopathology, interspersed with books on altered states, shamanism, and spirituality.
The shelves on the left are divided into two: one division displays old photographs and his many awards, and the other division is what looks like an altar. The center of the altar is an old wooden crucifix with Christ carved from bone. Beside this is a photograph of Our Lady of Manaoag and a Sto. Niño. There are also smaller figures: statuettes of Our Lady, more Christ the Child figurines, and the Laughing Buddha.
Something about this room is spiritual, yet it inspires an intellectual attitude. There are places in the world where the cosmos feels more ordered for some reason — these places are generally agreed-upon or founded with that intention (like temples or retreat houses). Even tourists can attest to the fact that certain sites are almost oppressive in their solemnity. Visitors must be pure in body and spirit: sometimes they would be required to remove their shoes or genuflect.
In these spaces, people speak only in hushed tones. Being in them brings up attractive images and sensations, which make us gravitate towards and stay in those centers. For me, Fr. Bu’s room evokes a specific sensual aesthetic. It conjures the image of leather-bound books on mahogany shelves in foggy, warmly-lit rooms, where smart people in sharp outfits discuss radical ideas. His room may not actually look like that, but in the area between the reality of his room and my mind, that image exists as a thick wall of raw feeling. It is possible that my interest his work is filtered through this romantic image.
Nobody can claim to carry his impressive legacy forward, but I was surprised to find out that serious academics still treat the paranormal as a genuine mental phenomenon — like Fr. Bu, they view it through the lens of culture and psychopathology. In any case, Fr. Bu’s paranormal studies has paved the way for the empirical study of local psychological phenomena. It has challenged and inspired scholars to explore the indigenous, communal spirit through the native Filipino experience. It might be ambitious to attempt the construction of a purely-Filipino psychology, but we know that the Filipino culture has always been unique blend of various Eastern and Western influences. We can thus pull from multiple sources, and see what works. Navigating this may, even today, prove to be a challenge, but if any of us ever lose our way, the door to Fr. Bu’s office is always open.