Zen In The Philippines: by Michael Tan


MANILA, Philippines — Among Asian countries, the Philippines has been the least influenced by Buddhism. Even neighboring Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, has several grand ancient Buddhist temples, notably Borobodur. In the Philippines, some of our archaeological sites have yielded Buddha images, but Buddhism itself never did gain too many adherents. Today, it is mainly associated with older Chinese-Filipinos, who worship at a few dozen temples scattered throughout the archipelago.

At one time it seemed Buddhism would eventually fade away in the Philippines given that most younger Chinese-Filipinos were being raised Catholic or Protestant but in recent years, Buddhism has gone through a revival, generating interest among younger Chinese-Filipinos as well as non-ethnic Chinese. Following a worldwide trend, varied Buddhist groups have established themselves in the Philippines, ranging from the Japanese Soka Gakai to Tibetan Vajrayana.

The fastest-growing groups are however still linked to Chinese Buddhism, notably two groups that are described as “humanistic Buddhism.” These are Tzu Chi and Fo Guang Shan, both Taiwan-based sects and emphasizing charitable work, including education, health and disaster relief.


I’ve written in the past about Fo Guang Shan and will try to do another column in the future about both these groups. Today I wanted to feature a less visible aspect of Buddhism in the Philippines: the Zen movement.

To understand Zen, we have to go back to the roots of Buddhism in India, where meditation played a central role. One type of meditation was called “dhyana” in Sanskrit and “jhana” in Pali. When Buddhism reached China, one sect that emerged called itself “zenna” to highlight the practice of meditation. Exported to Japan, “zenna” eventually became abbreviated to Zen, and in China the pronunciation of “zen” changed eventually to Chan. Zen is also known as Seon in Korean and Thien in Vietnam.

Japanese Zen and Chinese Chan Buddhism have diversified into different schools but all still emphasize meditation together with a simple, but not necessarily ascetic, lifestyle. Training is handled by “dharma masters” who themselves go through years of rigorous study and, like the Catholic system of bishops, are able to trace their “lineages” back to original Zen and Chan founders.

In 1976, one branch of Japanese Zen, Sanbo Kyodan, made it to the Philippines through a Catholic nun who conducted meditation classes in St. Bridget’s School in Quezon City. Sister Elaine trained many people, some of whom became dharma masters themselves. Their network, called the Zen Center for Oriental Spirituality of the Philippines has groups in the cities of Davao, Iloilo, Baguio and Tagaytay, with a “motherhouse” (pardon my Catholic nun terminology) in Marikina City.

To join this group, you have to attend eight orientation seminars on successive Sundays, where you are taught to meditate. Their meditation revolves around “koan,” or Zen stories, a famous example being the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Koan are not riddles; they are meant to focus one’s attention.

This group might be described as being more of “Christian Zen,” given their close ties with the Catholic religious. One of them, former Jesuit Ruben Habito, now based in the States, has even written a book “Living Zen, Loving God.” But the Zen Center emphasizes they are not a religion, and they do not require that people “convert” to Catholicism or Buddhism.

They are a mixed group, with many professionals. I have several friends who are part of this group, including Zos Lee, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy at University of the Philippines, Diliman; architect Ning Encarnacion-Tan; psychiatrist Henny Espanola in Iloilo. Their ranks include quite a number of psychiatrists in the Philippine group, and this is because one of the early members of the group was the late Dr. Antonio Perlas, who was responsible for bringing Zen to different parts of the country.


Although I have so many friends in the Zen Center, I haven’t been able to even start with their orientation seminars because Marikina is out of the way. I’ve been meditating on my own for many years but I agree with Zen adherents that the “sitting” is better done as part of a community.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to find a more accessible base and this is the Ocean Sky Chan Monastery in San Juan town, in Metro Manila. Holding my breath, I signed up this year for their introductory course, conducted in Chinese and spread out over 12 Friday evenings. Don’t ask me how I managed to complete the course with two kids, university teaching, writing Inquirer columns and handling a few dozen other odds and ends, but I’m convinced Zen does help you sort out the chaos of modern life, each meditation session a chance to empty the clutter in our minds so we can think more clearly.

The monastery was established only a few years ago and is managed by Abbess Jian Yong and two Buddhist nuns. They conduct meditation classes in Chinese (Mandarin or Putonghua) during weekdays and English on weekends. Each class meets once a week for two hours, with about 45 minutes of sitting and walking meditation, followed by about an hour of a lecture on Chan Buddhism.

There are three levels for the meditation classes, as well as special classes on Buddhist sutras or scriptures, which can be quite heavy. One sutra class I attended involved more than an hour’s discussion of just one phrase.

Ocean Sky also holds prayer services on special Buddhist holidays. This Sunday there will be one to celebrate Vesak or Buddha Day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., including a vegetarian lunch. The Vesak celebrations are open to the public, Buddhist or non-Buddhist.

The meditation classes are for adults but they also have summer camps that do introduce meditation to children. The minimum age here is 6.


Zen or Chan Buddhism does not have a monopoly on meditation training. There are several places now that offer meditation classes, often to promote better health.

But there’s more to Zen and Chan than the health aspect. Zen is a way of life, too, that requires commitment and discipline. Both the Zen Center and Ocean Sky are quite strict with attendance, for example.

One time, while meditating at home I found myself distracted by a squadron of mosquitoes. The temptation was to exterminate them with an insecticide but I remembered how our dharma teacher had used mosquitoes to explain non-violence as an important aspect of Buddhism: “Rather than killing the mosquitoes, find ways to avoid them, or to have them avoid you.”

That wasn’t intended as a mosquito koan. If you’re wondering, I turned on an electric fan.

Ocean Sky will be starting a new round of classes next week while the Zen Center will hold orientation workshops in June so I’m giving you their contact information:

• Ocean Sky, 716 Jose Abad Santos, San Juan, Metro Manila. +632 7260600 and +632 7236132.

• Zen Center, 31 St. Catherine/St. Claire, Provident Village, Marikina City. +632 997886


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