Sunday, January 30, 2011


 Virgil Mayor Apostol, Way of the Ancient Healer

Reviewed by Leny Mendoza Strobel
January 28, 2011

In a note I sent to Virgil shortly after receiving my copy of his book, I wrote: In a way, my books have been a way station for the arrival of the knowledge that you bring in this book.  I said this because I’ve been writing about the need for those of us in the diaspora to have access to Filipino indigenous knowledge and practices as part of our decolonization process. For what is the point of deconstructing our colonized identities if, in the end, we didn’t have an indigenous narrative of our own? In all of my writing about decolonization and indigenization, I have described my own journey, including my desire to know more specifically about my own ancestral roots as a Kapampangan.

While I have the body memory, I didn’t have the ancestral stories to go along with it. Way of the Ancient Healer gave me those stories. Even if they are Virgil’s personal stories, he claims he speaks out of a collective voice as well…and that includes mine.

In reading Virgil’s Way of the Ancient Healer, I felt as if I finally had the empirical evidence or concrete data in the form of his own personal stories and those of others who reveal the encyclopedic knowledge of healing arts of our Filipino ancestors. He also links this knowledge to the traditions and practices of near and far neighbors in Southeast Asia and beyond. Even further, he also weaves these traditions within the realm of the cosmic and mythic. His narrative spans both ancient and contemporary times to show that the past is still alive in the present; in his Epilogue he envisions that our ancient ways of healing will survive into the future as well.

I used to read the Journal of Noetic Sciences  and Parabola and there was always a part of me that felt incredulous about the attempts of western scientists to prove that certain psychic or spiritual phenomena can be proven scientifically in laboratory settings or with measuring instruments. Even then I was already skeptical of the need to validate everything through the scientific method. I muttered to myself often: why do we need science to prove that prayer works? Why do we need science to prove that meditation works?  

And then I was introduced to the term “indigenous science” through the work of Apela Colorado[1] and Jurgen Kremer[2] and Jeremy Narby[3] – all of whom are writing to posit that there needs to be better dialogue between indigenous knowledge holders (shamans) and scientists.  In particular, I appreciate Narby’s contention that what hinders this dialogue is not language but the arrogance of western science.

Well, we must be making some progress towards that dialogue if I take as one indicator the publication of the Way of the Ancient Healer by North Atlantic Books. Blurbed by famous names in the healing arts - Deepak Chopra, Bradford Keeney, Hank Wesselman, and Jean Houston – this book places our Filipino Sacred Teachings and Philippine Ancestral Traditions on the map.  (Whether we admit it or not, the colonized mind tends to be impressed by the authority of the printed word more than the authority of the oral tradition).

But something is changing…

I heard Danny Kalanduyan, the kulintang master, tell the story that when be brought his Filipino American students to Mindanao to learn about kulintang arts, the locals were wondering why Americans are interested in their arts. I hear the same story repeated in various ways: when Filipinos in the Philippines receive the balikbayans who are interested in indigenous cultures and practices, it creates a synergy and it awakens their own consciousness to the importance and relevance of these practices.  In the Philippines, I remember Fr. Alejo’s story of how the indigenous folks on Mt Apo told him: why do you still want to study us, Father, when we don’t have culture anymore? (in reference to their having agreed to allow a geothermal development on their sacred mountain).[4]

Indeed, the timing of Virgil Apostol’s book is perfect.  I sense that we are ready to look back at our ancient ways of knowing and healing because when we do, it returns us to a place of belonging. It makes us feel whole. It makes us joyful to remember, re-member and make whole the fragments of stories that we have silently carried in our cultural genes.

I look at the photographs in this book and the various ways of naming among our ethnolinguistic groups and I am overcome by a soothing feeling, a very comforting feeling. More recently, my grief and sadness over the stories that were not passed on to me by my own ancestors have been assuaged: You may not know our names or our stories, but you know us. Your work honors us. And we know you. What prepared me to hear the voice of my ancestors includes the time I spent with Virgil’s book. 

Let me put it another way: The spoken word is potent. In oral cultures, as in the ancient times of our ancestors, the stories were handed down in all their potency and power. David Abram[5] writes that reading can be an animist experience once we learn how to reconnect with the sensuousness of the world and the word.

The structure of Way of the Ancient Healer lends itself to the potential of reclaiming the power of the oral tradition, of the story, of the spoken word in its literate form. In this way of bridging, of finding the middle path (as Virgil calls his approach to this work), it invites the skeptical, the cynic, the doubter – for whatever reasons – to come hither and listen.  Is your religious belief or scientific belief or your modern consciousness getting in the way of this invitation to imbibe in the wealth of your ancestral Filipino roots? Not to worry. Virgil’s approach in this book is gentle, humorous, compassionate, and non-judgmental. After all, that’s the only way the ancestors would have it.


[4] See Fr. Albert Alejo’s book, Creating Energies on Mt. Apo, Ateneo University Press

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Original Instructions (from dream circle, 1/16/2011

You are here because we summoned you.
For many decades now you have dreamt of this moment.
In your dreams, your Lola appeared telling you to plant
sampaguita, kalamansi - which are not native to his land.
But this is your Land now. We brought you here.
We sent you here.
These are the original instructions you are remembering now
because the veil of forgetting has lifted. Your memories
are alive; they live and breathe here and now tethered
to the thread that weaves the past, present, and future.
Because of moments like this weekend, we will grieve
no longer because you have welcomed us back and received our
presence into your life.
Your life now flows like song - sometimes of ecstacy and joy,
sometimes of rage and fear, sometimes of reverie --
but always full and throbbing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

White Theology intersects with indigenous spirituality

This is a re-post from the old blog (kathang-pinay) dated January 29, 2005.:

What is white theology and how does it intersect with indigenous spirituality?

Jim Perkinson's answer: 

  • The simplest answer I suppose is to say white theology is a response to black theology. Like that effort of making black experience of race explicit in relationship to Christian theology, white theology tries to do the same with whiteness.
  • It means making clear how racialization and racism came into being in the first place as a European theological evaluation of colonized peoples as “not saveable” and of their cultural and religious practices as dangerous at best and demonic at worst.
  • That theological evaluation quickly took up skin color as its shorthand for assessing who is who in the colonial theaters of contact.
  • White theology then makes apparent how racial perception and racist exploitation of colonized others were originally theological in motivation and continue to function as mode of “salvation” for white people.
  • Modern Christianity is not a neutral force in the modern world but since 1492 has functioned as a modality of spiritual supremacy that birthed white supremacy.
  • White supremacy is the bastard child of Christian supremacy over indigenous religions. White theology seeks to trace that history and genealogy and then make clear how white supremacy continues to operate as the hidden norm inside most of our global structures today, whether economic, political, social, cultural, or spiritual.
  • Recovery of indigenous practices as peer spiritualities of Christianity (or even as perhaps superior in their sensitivity to local culture and ecology) is necessary to “outing” and dismantling white supremacy.
Here are the photos from the CFBS retreat.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

what a beautiful day!
-- morning: framing the Big Story
-- afternoon: small stories within the Big Story
-- evening: Storytelling, power of; encounters with spirits
-- harp meditation and sound healing

Heal us....said the voices of the ancient ones
You heal us when you make beautiful music
You heal us when you exercise your intellect
You heal us when you nourish your bodies
You heal us when you listen to one another
You heal us when you serve
You heal us when you come together

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Epiphany from a Spider

I posted this on FB yesterday...
a spider has built a 3-tier webhouse on my kitchen window...and am supposed to be cleaning for houseguests. i think miss spider wants to stay and show off :-))
friends responded back: she is decorating; it is good feng shui; it brings good luck.
R said i should name her Charlotte and adopt her as a pet. 
But her name is not Charlotte, it is Caring/Caridad! -- this is the thought that came to me from nowhere and i stuck with it. 
C said that in the Yoruba - Lukumi Tradition, one of the Orisha Oshun's "messengers" is the spider. Oshun is also called Ye Ye Cari (short for Caridad); She is syncretized as La Caridad del cobre (Our Lady of Charity). 
Mike said that we Kapampangans have Mangatia (the net maker) is a giant spider who created the universe (sikluban) from it's web...from which all of us and our destinies are connected.

a month or so ago, while holiday cleaning, i had swatted another spider in the same window without thinking of the above. Perhaps because i had been reading David Abram's Becoming Animal, this time i paused and watched Caring at work. i was amazed at the pattern she has woven - 3 tiers - and so i kept coming back to watch her progress as the day went on.

in the evening, amused by the responses to my post, I looked up a few more stories about spiders and what they symbolize in different cultures. I noticed that this time i was paying attention...which means the stories were making their way into my body and not just the intellect.

ruminating on the day's events and why i was cleaning house in the first place (having lots of houseguests for a 3-day retreat), my thoughts turned to the books on my bedside: Lane Wilcken's and Virgil Apostol's. both of them tell of their ancestors - great great grandmothers they knew by name, stories remembered, healing powers passed on to them and now they are telling the world.

i was gripped by sadness and felt a little surprised by this feeling. a closer look - i was sad that i do not know my great grandparents. i have no stories about them. i remembered asking my mother, when she was still alive, about my ancestors but she too, didn't know names and stories. i knew, that she, too, was frustrated that she couldn't give me any answers. grief memories... and then tears flowed. and a quiet voice said....

you may not know our names, but we know you. you honor us by the work you are doing. you know us even though you do not know our names. do not be sad. we are still here.  we even visited you today and you named us...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Jennifer's journey Home....

(I'm sharing J's letter to Kapampangan culture-bearers who await her homecoming and will take her on a journey of rediscovering her Kapampangan indigenous roots.)

Dearest All,

I thank you in advance for you warm welcome and your open arms. My intention for this journey is rediscovery. Rediscovery of my ancesteral history, our indigenous history, and my own story.

Here is a back story on me. As most immigrants coming to the US from a young age I have spend most of my life assimilating, trying to fit in, trying to be just like everyone else. But, as I hit my 30s I started to really do some self reflection. As this process unfolded I slowly came closer to Spirit and was able to tap into my true essence and purpose in this lifetime. As my perception shifted and how I saw the world became more clear, the more I was able to see the beauty of my ancestral roots. I was able to see the Indigenous ways of my ancestors as sacred. Their way of life was in harmony with the land and the seasons. They lived and worked as a community, knowing that if one was hurt everyone was to feel the pain as well. They lived Kapwa, the self in the other, as an everyday reality. I see such beauty in the way that they lived their lives feel that now more than ever we need to go back to their ways.

So, that's my life's journey, once a path opens up for you there is no going back. I am now and for the rest of my life committed to rediscovering the ways of our ancestors and somehow finding a way to use their wisdom in our modern life. Any words, stories, rituals, or songs, you all want to contribute to this intention is very welcomed.

Maraming salamat po.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Filipino Tattoos:Ancient to Modern



I first took notice of young undergrads at UC Berkeley sporting baybayin tattoos in the mid-90s.  Elsewhere I wrote about these tattoos as signifying a desire to reconnect with one’s Filipino indigenous roots or ethnic/cultural heritage. I also wrote that perhaps some of the young folks were just riding a wave of popular culture: the modern primitive. As I perused photography books at bookstores and television spectacles about these modern primitives, I began to wonder about the meaning of such practices.

I thought that in these postmodern times when everything is in flux and identities are hybrid, fluid, cosmopolitan and even “homeless”, the body has become the last territory that a person can still have some control over or ownership. Perhaps, I thought, if our lives are so controlled and mediated by business corporations and the corporate media, the body is trying to assert its own authority. Since tattoos are still relatively marginalized in the dominant culture, those who choose to wear them are asserting their own resistance to dominating narratives. In my head, I kept on theorizing about postmodern practices of resistance to the fetishes of capitalism. But something shifted soon after.

In 1997, as I was recovering from a car accident, I asked a henna artist to draw a “tree of life” tattoo on the six-inch scar along along my right arm. A henna temporary tattoo lasts for about 4 -6 weeks. I got this tattoo the day before I enplaned to the Philippines to recover in my Mother’s arms. Naturally, when she saw my arm she squirmed and asked “what have you done?” – thinking that this was permanent.  

I loved this temporary tattoo; it was my way of marking my survival. My second life commenced with this gesture of marking my body, even if only temporarily. My mother was relieved that it was temporary. But I think for the rest of her life she wondered about this strange daughter’s surprises and musings.

Thus, today I sit with Lane Wilcken’s Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern and praising the book for filling in a lot of blanks for me about this ancient practice.
In this book, Lane provides in-depth and wide-ranging perspectives on the connections of Filipino tattoo designs with Polynesian/Pacific Islander myths and practices; what Filipino tattoos signified among specific tribal groups; designs or motifs derived from the animist worldviews of indigenous peoples; and how contemporary Filipino Americans are choosing to tattoo themselves with tribal symbols.

As we[1] attempt to articulate Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP), Lane adds to this body of knowledge with this book. How do we recuperate the relevance of these indigenous practices and why and what for? In this book, Lane documents the answers to all these questions. What comes through loud and clear for me is that these are living traditions. In indigenous communities where the belief that all is Sacred and animated by the spirits of our ancestors, these living traditions of marking the body with beauty is an extension of one’s relationship to the Sacred. Whether it is to signify the courage of the warrior, safe passage into the other life, or protection from malevolent spirits, or to beautify one’s body, or to signify kinship with other created beings, like the buwaya/crocodile – these living traditions are kept alive and their symbolic meanings provide the power that is invoked by the chosen tattoo.

To choose to be tattooed is a decision not to be taken lightly. In their indigenous contexts, the community had a shared understanding of the rituals, the symbolic meanings of body adornment. Today, in the diaspora and in the absence of such communities, Lane writes about the meditation that is required before one chooses to be tattooed. As with Asian and Filipino practices like qi gong, acupuncture, kali – these practices require not only the acquisition of skill but the transformation of one’s world view, values, and lifestyle. It may mean a serious reckoning with colonial history, a conscious decolonization process, a shift in lifestyle choices, a shift in the way we eat or what we eat – all of which are part of the process of connecting to the timelessness and Sacredness of Life.

In this book, Lane’s connection to his great grandmother who was a mamangkit/spirit medium, and his grandmother who was a manghilot, is evident. As the receiver of this heritage he has devoted more than two decades of his life researching and documenting this Filipino living tradition. Using the earlier works of American and European anthropologists who documented Filipino tattooing, Lane is able to recontextualize these traditions in the Filipino indigenous world view.  To me, this is a critical intervention that is needed for us to fully appreciate these traditions outside of the colonial gaze and outside of the construction of “modern primitives.” In doing so, Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern, returns us to our nobility, beauty, wisdom, and…a sense of magic.

Synchronistically, I have been reading about the recovery of indigenous mind (Jurgen Kremer, 1997; 2003) for white folks and for those who have been subjected to colonialism and imperialism.  Kremer refers to the “original instructions” that are given to people and how these instructions need to be taken cared of through ceremony, ritual, dreams; it means to “live in the presence of the past for the future. The original instructions are from the past, we need to bring our present into them, so that creation emerges from the center of our cultures. They contain the information for sustainable living.”[2]

This is the gift of Lane Wilcken’s book; it is an offering and honoring of our Ancestors and their gifts to us. Whether you are Visayan, Ilokano, Gaddang, Kalinga, etc, male or female, modern, in the homeland or in the diaspora – you will find relevant information about your ancestors or about your Filipino history in this book. Even if you have not or will not consider getting a tattoo yourself, you can draw knowledge and wisdom about the ways of our ancestors from this book. You might learn to understand these cultural practices in terms of the validity of the indigenous worldview; for the value of honoring the past in order to honor the present; for valuing our ancestors and their legacy of Sacred Wholeness. You might learn to question the ways in which our ancestors’ practices were portrayed as primitive, barbaric, demonic, or heathen.  I only say “might” because the work of doing so – of questioning, reflecting, valuing – is a process of grieving what has been lost under colonization. It is a process of painful re-membering of the stories and practices we have traded in. But if there is even a glimpse of resonance, of magic, that rises to your awareness as you read the book and look at the photographs, pay attention to that whisper. It is your indigenous soul calling you Home.

For me, I specially like this passage: “A woman’s tattooing was an affirmation of her strength and inherent spiritual power, procreative endowment, and as a form of clothing, an enhancement of beauty and a proclamation of her status. Finally, the tattoos were a form of recognition that allowed the soul of a woman to pass into the afterlife and join the glorious chain of her ancestors.” (57).

[1] “We” here refers to the Center for Babaylan Studies whose mission is to provide a container for Filipino IKSP and articulate their relevance today for Filipinos in the homeland and in the diaspora. Visit
[2] Jurgen W. Kremer, “Recovering Indigenous Mind,” in Revision,  Vol. 19. No. 4, p.33. 1997.