Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the alleged abuse of the "B" word

Yesterday, someone I respect posted (then deleted) a rant on Facebook about US Pinoys who "abuse the babaylan word." Before I could ask him to say a bit more, the post had been deleted. Nevertheless, it bothered me and I wanted to pursue a dialogue. Now it will just be my monologue here.

One of the lessons I learned in doing research on Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices for more than a decade is that a Babaylan does not self-ascribe. This is one of the statements that those of us at the Center for Babaylan Studies have agreed upon. We say that we are inspired by the spirit of the Babaylan (after Sister Mary John Mananzan). We did  not arrive at this claim lightly. We have been in dialogue and reflection with our counterparts in the Philippines for many years, through the babaylan listserve, parsing out the politics of what we do as Filipinos in the diaspora with Filipino indigenous practices. It was only after this prolonged process that we felt affirmed in our desire to create a Center.
In an email exchange last year with someone exploring this work, I said:
I am not a self-proclaimed babaylan because I want to honor and respect the primary/land based babaylans in indigenous communities in the Phil. I also cannot claim that I have passed through the core shamanic initiation rituals that bestow the babaylan title as practiced in indigenous communities. However, I can say I am babaylan-inspired because my life journey resonates with the literature I've read about shamanic practices which I then contextualized within my personal and political history as a Filipino. The literature also says that those who do shamanic practices are not necessarily shamans. 
(The debate about babaylan=shaman? is a separate discourse and I won't talk about it here).

Even someone like Grace Nono who has spent more than 15 years being taught by babaylans, ritualists and chanters does not want to be called a Babaylan for the same reason: she has too much respect for primary babaylans that she wouldn't appropriate the title (even though her body of work comes from this long immersion - I might add).
The recently successful Babaylan conference has resulted in the visibility of CFBS and the ubiquity of the term "babaylan" (in cyberspace and in some parts of US Fil Am community). Through the Center, as a container for the building, dissemination, and practice of Filipino indigenous knowledge, more and more folks are coming to us to ask questions, to tell us their stories. We get questions like these: how do I become a babaylan? where can I get training? My lola was a hilot and I think she passed her healing power to me, how can I develop it? Then there are those who are already trained in other healing modalities and they want to connect their practice to Babaylan work in order to reach out to the Fil Am community's needs.

These questions must sound naive to someone in the Philippines who is knowledgeable about the babaylan tradition. But to many Fil Ams, this is new information. Many people are resonating with what CFBS does or what they've read about this tradition and they want to know more. It's as if their cultural genes are being awakened; this is something that they know in their bones but haven't had the language or conceptual framework to talk about their lived experience.  So the word "babaylan" circulates and is made to carry symbolic meanings in both good and flawed ways. Is there "abuse" of the word babaylan? Potentially, yes; that is why there is work that lies ahead in clarification or better articulation.
Once I asked Virgil Apostol (a practising hilot in the Ablon tradition) for advice on how to answer these questions. He said: observe, observe, observe. be with the hilot when he does his healing and then perhaps he will ask you to show how you heal... and maybe it will then be confirmed whether you have the gift or not.

Mang Faustino is also a well-known healer in Los Angeles. He tells me that he doesn't advertise and he doesn't ask for payment when he heals. People just hear about him and they seek him out. Few words. No theorizing. No discussion. He heals with his hands not with words.
BulletX and Helen Toribio from the Bay Area never called themselves "babaylans" either.  But I name them as contemporary Babaylans in my life because they have healed me and so many others in the community. BulletX healed the body and mind and spirit of the sick; as a civil and human rights activist she worked for the rights of Filipino veterans and other dis-enfranchised segments of our community. Helen, as an organic intellectual and civil rights advocate and as the embodiment of Kapwa healed many in her circles.

Al Robles, poet, is also a Babaylan because he loved his homeland and built community around this love, inspired artists and writers to learn how to fall in love with a homeland that he never set foot in.    He died without seeing his beloved Philippines so Oscar Penaranda created the "Al Robles Express" and carried Al's spirit with him and a group of Al's friends on a trip to the Philippines.

BulletX, Helen, Al are no longer with us. Just as NVM Gonzalez and Ver Enriquez are also no longer with us. When they were alive they never spoke of themselves as Babaylans or thought of themselves as doing babaylan work.  Now that I look at them collectively, I see the results of their body of work, the Kapwa spirit they nurtured in the community, the inspiration they left behind.  And I see us as the receivers of their legacy, of the body of work that they've left behind, of the embodied spirit of transformation and liberation that they lived and passed on to us. I am part of the community that continue to invoke their spirits for guidance and inspiration. They are my Babaylans.

So what does it mean when I name them as Babaylans? For me, it means that there is a diasporic community that affirms them as contemporary Babaylan. There is a community that bears witness to the work that they've done and are benefitting from it and then continuing to build on their legacy. It is a community that is socially and politically progressive and promotes social justice. Isn't this true in land-based indigenous communities as well. Do we not share the same struggle for justice, fairness, and a desire to see wholeness and interconnectedness? It takes time, a lifetime even, before such legacy is remembered and honored. Thus, it is in hindsight, after their deaths, that I am stepping out to name them as Babaylans. 

Zeus Salazar says that there are "babaylan para sa sarili" and "babaylan para sa bayan" -- those who seek after the babaylan for self-development and those who seek to do babaylan work for the good of the nation/community. He warns of the self-centeredness of such individualistic pursuit especially among urbanite middle class, English-speaking (mostly) women. I hear this loudly and that is why in identifying Bullet, Helen and Al, I am clarifying that they are babaylans because they served the community first and foremost. 

However, it is also true that one always begins with a desire for self-improvement and whatever else this desire is called. I write about this in describing the decolonization process -- it is the work of the psyche; it is archeological, deep soul work. As one moves through this process, it enlarges one's vision of service and compassion. Service and compassion must be work that is grounded in Kapwa, in Loob -- it is the embodiment of such Filipino values that makes one's work babaylan-inspired.

More caveat: How then do we contextualize service and compassion? A young Fil Am scholar has taken my work to task by saying that it is nothing more than an attempt at formulating a Filipino American cosmopolitan subjectivity that makes it complicit with the conservative multicultural narrative of the US nation. What he means by this is that my work lacks the kind of sharp critique of American imperial and white supremacist narratives that would help Filipino Americans to become more oppositional, non-assimilationist in their politics.

I agree that our politics should be a politics of critique. I wouldn't be doing the work that I do unless it was part of such a project. However, in being led to deal with the psychic and epistemic violence of master narratives at the individual level, my work has simply been a documentation of a fluid process that takes a person's 'starting point' and facilitates a moving-through a decolonization and indigenization process that, hopefully, is service-oriented and compassionate and focused specifically on the Filipino communities in the diaspora.

Having said so, this doesn't mean that anyone has control of who appropriates the "babaylan" word. There will be those who will resonate deeply with what they've read about Kapwa psychology or about babaylan and they will or might self-ascribe and call themselves babaylan. This initial dip in the vast source and deep well of indigenous Memory is just what it is - a dip. No one is guarding the well, so to speak.

I have been asked many times on how to do babaylan work in a capitalist context. If I believe that I have inherited the healing powers of my Lola who was a hilot/healer, and if I have been certified as a therapist in a specific modality, do I not have the right to call myself a babaylan? And why shouldn't I charge for my services if I live in a capitalist context rather than in an indigenous community where a babaylan didn't have to charge fees?

These are real questions and difficult to answer. But I like the clarity of someone like Letecia who understands the process by which a babaylan is identified in her community. As a second generation Filipina American who first found her spiritual path through the western goddess tradition, her approach to the babaylan practice has been one of humility and submission to the delicacy and nuance of Kapwa psychology. 

Or you can read Perla Daly's online cyberactivism and you will see how her creative works come from years of contemplation and dialogue with others about babaylan, baybayin, pagbabalikloob, pakikipagkapwa-tao. Perla always tells me that her creative works (art, poetrybooks, websites) will always be gifts of love to her Kapwa.
In returning to the Facebook rant about US Pinoys who abuse the word 'babaylan' -- I think I have a clue  as to the source of such perception and perhaps it is even a valid one. It is a good rant (if a rant can be good) because it challenges me to articulate more clearly what I usually take for granted. So thank you, Mr. T.


  1. Leny, you can call your actions by any name you wish; you can name them as you do them; you can self-proclaim what the term is as you apply it to your practices and to your scholarship. Your definitions will survive, provided you are clear within and inspire folks to do the same within themselves.

    When you change towards being more spiritual, folks around you may not be able to take the new you. They will resort to name-calling and saying, hey you appropriated a term, without full investigation. Their concern is simply theirs to resolve, you are not obligated to take it on. It might be a result of their own lack of clarity, or their preferred style of gaining knowledge by giving you an unjustified criticism and therefore, elicits a whole blogged response from you, thereby shortcutting his or her learning curve. Their concern may also come from self-loathing and disowning parts of themselves, in which case, that is theirs to integrate as well, and not your homework to do for them.

    Love ya! See you soon!

  2. Thanks, Prosy. Mr. T has replied to my query and his rant was not about my work at all. Still am glad to have thought and written the above as it helps me clarify my thinking...and it always makes me feel good and blessed to remember those who have walked the path before me/us.

    I hope more dialogue ensues.

    Looking forward to seeing you soon. Love to you and E.

  3. Hi Leny,

    To my knowledge, not all healers are babaylans, not all leaders are babaylans, not all inspiring people are babaylans, not all those who bring people together under a great light of love and peace are babaylans.

    To my knowledge, babaylans can have one or all of those features above, but there are at least two things common among all of them, like a basic requirement---the power to heal, and the capability to negotiate with beings in the spirit world through trance, or dreams, or direct conversation.

    But you probably know this already. So yes, even I "fear" that that "term of reference" can be abused. In the Philippines alone, there are quite a number of women who either claim themselves to be babaylans or who are claimed by others to be babaylans for solely being articulate, for example, having read books on babaylans and indigenous culture, or for being simply "weird" in a nice way.

    Artists face the same challenges. You can't imagine what it's like for us in the performance world. Performers-dancers have accused each other of bastardizing indigenous dances.

    I remember one Singaporean artist asking me: "Why are you wearing indigenous costumes in that picture when you're not indigenous people? Why are you dancing their dances?" And I knew what he meant or implied by his questions.

    Is the goddess Athena the sole claim of the Greeks? Can I not believe in her, as well?

    I think we're all just finding our place under the sun. And it doesn't matter what we call ourselves, what culture we wish to adopt, or what race we wish to belong to, as long as we don't hurt (kill) other human beings by the choices we make.

  4. Hi, Geejay -- this conversation is like the flow of a river, isn't it? somehow the issues never seem to be resolved and yet we keep on going...doing what we love, by the inspiration of the ancient ones and the whispers in our dreams.
    thanks for posting here. when are you coming over?

  5. Exactly. We still keep going. But I do subscribe (and to a certain extent practice) a theory nicely encapsulated by John Lennon in his song IMAGINE. :)

    I still need to get that visa--the schedule for the interview is Sept. 20. I pray, I pray.

  6. You just created the auto-reply text for the next soul-searcher, Leny. I urge everyone to please hit the same button when the next occasion of inquiry or critique comes through. To further drive the point maybe we need a Filipino Sistine Chapel and a Mang Angelo to narrate the full-scale indigenous knowledge themes on a ceiling (or frescoed on the altar walls), simultaneously healing lost souls and the straining neck. Leny, your response adds more bricks to a virtual Babaylan basilica. (Didn't the colonizers' use magnificent church structures and life-like saints to elicit awe? And fear? That shaped obedience.)