My understanding of Filipino culture was shaped by the ideas of three Jesuits: Jaime Bulatao, Roque Ferriols, and Albert Alejo. I admit that the shallowness of my comprehension may not measure up to the monumental work of these legendary figures; nevertheless I want to express how much their ideas have affected me. Understand that I am using a personal, informal perspective. What I understand from their ideas may no longer be what they were really saying—their thoughts are now warped by my life experiences. In other words, these are no longer the Jesuits as they were, but merely thought-forms roaming my mind and inspiring my actions.
Fr. Bulatao and the Indigenous Spirit
When I was a psychology student in the Ateneo, meeting Fr. Bulatao was part of my college bucket list. In the 60’s, he founded the psychology department and people claimed he was telepathic—he would’ve said that he was really only “empathic”, but stories from his students suggest otherwise. He studied and trained abroad, but his methods were deeply Filipino. In his day-to-day, Fr. Bu displayed a sense of pakikisama (playing along), which he seemed naturally skilled at. This trait of going with the flow of a group is not only about conforming, it is also about intuitively understanding the values and beliefs of a group. The most prominent aspect of his work was no doubt his study of spiritual possession as a psychological phenomenon, but another interesting idea he had was what he called “Split-Level Christianity”. Here he described the dynamic between two authorities within the Filipino psyche: the first is from Christianity and the second is a deeper, emotional, indigenous spirit. These two authorities cause tension within the Filipino mind. We want to show superficial respect for the first while still following the second. The Christian authority, in the form of imperial Catholicism, is imposing and solemn while the indigenous spirit is happy, emotional, and relational. The indigenous spirit is not Freud’s Id: the Id is blindly drawn to pleasure, the indigenous spirit is drawn to other people. Here Fr. Bu showed that there is a shared spirit underneath the tacked-on layer of colonial education. This deeper social ocean is where so-called “mystical” phenomena originate. When these psychological phenomena appear as spiritual possession or even telekinesis, people interpret it using the symbolism of institutionalized religion.
Local practitioners of folk magic seem to have understood this dissonance a long time ago. In his book, “You Shall Be As Gods”, Dennis Villegas described the current Filipino spiritual system of belief as an indigenous experience that used Catholic symbolism. He described the mythologies written by folk magic practitioners, that were published in small booklets and passed around by the faithful. These occultists wrote using a bastardized version of ecclesiastical language: someting that sounds like Latin mixed with local dialects. According to one of these occultists, Melencio Taylo Sabino, the Santisima Trinidad (Holy Trinity) was born from the perspiration of the true creator, Infinito Dios. Not knowing that he had been there first, they chased the creator, in order to baptize him. A holy war ensued on a mountain. Realizing that the Trinidad (especially Jesus) would not give up, the Infinito stopped running. The only problem was that they were in a stalemate because neither team was willing to make peace first. The Virgin Mary appeared and mediated between them, and the Infinito was finally baptized. This myth recognized that an indigenous spirit was present long before anything else: it merely allowed the colonizers to baptize him.
Fr. Ferriols and the Mother Tongue
The only thing I remember from reading Fr. Ferriols’ essays in philosophy class was that he advocated the use of the Filipino language because the Filipino spirit is best expressed through it. Fr. Ferriols clarified that there isn’t such a thing as “Filipino” philosophy, because there is only philosophy, experienced through the unique lens of different cultures. An urban legend that passed around school was that there was this student who asked, “Sir, why do we have to do this in Filipino?” to which he replied with, “Putang ina mo.” The student began to cry, and Fr. Ferriols used this to prove that cursing in Filipino to a Filipino was more powerful than using English. Though I don’t doubt the ferociousness with which older Jesuits conducted their classes back in the day, I doubt that he actually did this. I prefer the other version of the story where he showed the students the difference between saying “I love you” versus saying “Mahal kita”. In the English version, “I” and “you” are separate—there is a lover, and there is an object of affection. In the Filipino version, “kita” means “us”. The indigenous spirit expresses itself through a language of togetherness.
Fr. Ferriols was such a legend that his last lecture had a standing crowd. At the time, he was already frail and in a wheelchair, but he exuded such a respectable aura that the entire hall was silent. I remember sitting there in awe and nodding in agreement, despite not understanding much about what he was saying.
Fr. Alejo and the Music of the Inner Self
Fr. Alejo began his talk by whistling until the group settled down. He was wearing sandals and a loose brown shirt with ethnic patterns and had the expression of a man who was not in a rush. When the room was quiet, he began singing and then remarked about how we Filipinos are musical by nature, expressing our inner selves through poems and songs.
He then talked about the concept of “loob”: a formless, shared inner landscape that calls out to the other and pushes us to unite with the outer world through relationships and faith. He explained it to us by showing us how this concept was broad but commonly used, especially in phrases like “utang ng loob” (my inner being owes you) and “sama ng loob” (my inner being is offended). He gave the image of islands at sea, which are still connected underneath.
I used to hate popular Filipino music because they were alike in their desperation and toxic romanticism. Hugot culture, exemplified by jokes surrounding failed romances, seemed to be an intentionally depressing part of local culture – yet songs and movies seem to only get popular when they’re all about that. When I got into a brief but emotionally intense romantic relationship, all the sad Filipino songs began to make sense. All the lyrics of all the songs on heartbreak, tampuhan (sulking), and fighting for love suddenly felt like they were written by me. Through Filipino music, we understand each other’s nostalgic moods
I feel like these great men drew their ideas from the same pool. To summarize: the indigenous spirit is an emotional, shared inner self (loob) that recognizes itself in other people and seeks unity with them. We experience this spirit even when we aren’t in the country: strangers abroad feel a special affinity when they recognize each other as kababayan (fellow countryman). Anywhere we are in the world, when we come across people we recognize as Filipino, it already feels as if they are part of us.