Filipino Americans Share Their Journey to Buddhism – Lion's Roar

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The flag of the Philippines. Photo by Photo by Emmanuel Nicolas Jr.

The Philippines is nestled in Southeast Asia, near richly Buddhist countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. To the north of the Philippines are China, Korea and Japan, countries with long Buddhist traditions. Even neighboring Indonesia, a predominantly Islamic country, has a complex Buddhist history — search “Borabudor” on Google. Besides the scant Buddhist artifacts discovered in the Philippines, the country is not known for its Buddhism. That is certainly changing as more temples pop up influenced by Chinese and other Asian immigrants who are calling the Philippines home.
The flag of the Philippines. Photo by Photo by Emmanuel Nicolas Jr.
Even though the Philippines is not a “Buddhist country,” Buddhist Filipinos do exist and are thriving, particularly in America. In these four stories, you’ll find Filipino Americans describing their journey to Buddhism. Two are from California (Los Angeles and Oakland), one in New York City, while another lives in Minnesota. The stories are different, yet similar themes arise: their respect and struggle with Catholicism, the dominant religion in the Philippines, and their search and sanctuary in Buddhism.
Each of these contributors found comfort and respite in a variety of Buddhist traditions: Jodo Shinso, Plum Village, Soka Gokai, Soto Zen, and Vipassana. They were searching for something different… and they found it.
—Noel Alumit, Associate Editor, Lion’s Roar
Jen Racho
I love ritual. It speaks to something in my bones and my soul that my mind does not comprehend. As a Filpina-Catholic raised in the suburbs of Chicago, I was immersed in ritual early on in life. I went to Catholic school for the first nine years of my education. The small old church was right above our lunch room. Prayer and mass were always close by.
Being Catholic was also a big part of my Filipino-American identity. Approximately 80% of Filipinas worldwide are Catholic due to Spanish colonization of the Philippines for over 300 years. So, my Filipinx community was an intersection of culture, religion, and of course, food. It provided comfort, belonging, and balanced my identity within a majority white suburb.
However, my appreciation for my ritual-filled Catholic childhood wasn’t clear until I was immersed in Soto Zen practice. Initially, I was turned off by the seemingly structured, rigid, and foreign aspects of Zen ritual. But during one early retreat, a vivid memory flooded my mind. I was about 10-years-old, was walking down the church aisle holding the chalice of wine to be blessed by the priest. Half-way there, everything seemed to stop. Time stood still. I was engulfed by a sense of spaciousness, awe, and magic.
A dharma friend calls ritual a portal. That portal to sacredness is critical for me as a Buddhist practitioner of Soto Zen and Vipassana. My relationship to ritual is an ongoing practice of letting go of my conception of what practice is/should be. As much as I love ritual, coming into it on a daily basis from my regular, non-monastic life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is still, at times, awkward and foreign. My self-consciousness ego wonders: Who am I to chant in Japanese and Pali? To prostrate and accept a spiritual name in Japanese characters I cannot read?
Am I, too, guilty of a form of appropriation? Maybe.
And yet, when I allow these thoughts to come and go, and I surrender my whole heart, mind, and body to the practice in front of me, I find a particular sense of peace, wholeness, and connection. This portal of ritual has been fuel for my practice for nearly twenty years.
In her book,The Shamanic Bones of Zen, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel poses: “If you consider the indigenous beginnings of all cultures, it becomes clear there are underlying esoteric, mystical, or shamanic histories to all spiritualities and religions.
How do the spiritual practices of my indigenous Filipino ancestors, pre-colonization and Catholicism, fit into my story of ritual, awakening and belonging? I don’t know. I sense there is a thread. I am curious if it will unravel anything.
My lola, grandmother, Beatriz Racho lived until she was 100. She was a woman of strong will and great faith. Anak, she would say in a tender, and almost pleading voice, while holding the Rosary in her hand, “you pray, you pray.”
“Yes, Lola,” I always replied out of respect. At the time, her level of devotion and faith was inconceivable to me. And I tried. But while the ritual of Catholicism moved my heart, the practice and teachings didn’t.
I like to think that my Lola would be happy for the faith I have in my Buddhist practice. That I am honoring and carrying on her devotion to a spiritual life. That she is grateful for the joy, peace, and well-being my practice brings me, and others around me. I don’t know. And I am at peace with that, too.
Karl Palma
For over ten years now, I’ve lived in a Buddhist Temple as the resident building manager. Every day is a challenge not only externally, but internally.
I was raised loosely Roman Catholic. I appreciated Christianity, but always yearned for what could be considered more. Just what is that you say? Well, I always thought that the mind was a powerful object. When we experience certain feelings, whether positive or negative, there is an opposite reaction that balances it out.
I was never really a moody person as a kid. Looking back at my life, I was always fairly cheerful. It wasn’t until high school that the growing pains of life started to chip away at my center.
When things got hairy, I looked for answers. For some odd reason, praying to God didn’t appeal to me. I appreciated the sermons of the Catholic priests from my childhood — in a way I appreciate them more today — but, when I encountered stress, I was observant of what could have caused them. When I read about Taoism and Buddhism in my twenties, the thought of looking inside to one’s mind really intrigued me. The process of self-analysis and observance in Buddhism rang a bell which made me want to investigate more.
Through Buddhism, I’ve been taught to respect time. It’s a constant that cannot be changed. When one experiences some stress, it kicks us off our center. Because of practice, I’ve been able to see the warning signs of stress and my mind tells me to slow down, breathe and let those thoughts float away. Those types of practices helped me greatly in daily life, and I owe it to the teachings of the Buddha.
Meditation is also something integral to me. Not only sitting meditation, but any activity I do my best to concentrate on. If I get lost in the clouds, the teachings of the Dharma help pull me down back to reality in the now.  Often I would remind myself mid-task, “What are you doing?” If my mind is squirrelly, that one question would bring me back to reality. If I was preparing food, I would simply say to myself, “I’m preparing food.”
When I was younger, I played drums in several bands. Sometimes we would reach these creative highs on the stage. That feeling was the most amazing feeling in the world for me.  I wanted to feel like that all the time, and I thought meditation would get me there. I’d meditate looking for an alternative, but later I realized that I was approaching meditation the wrong way. Instead, I should have just meditated for the sake of meditating and take on other tasks naturally as they came.
The temple I live in belongs to the Japanese American Community of New York City. It’s certainly interesting being Filipino American living in a Japanese American world. I also cook Japanese food as a food vendor in New York City. Some days it’s really tough balancing both temple duties and running a business full-time, but somehow I manage to make it work. The teachings help me deal with stress and be more aware of my surroundings. I am not sure if I would have the same outcome in my life if I followed a more Christian life, but I am also thankful to the teachings I learned in Roman Catholicism. I guess you can say Buddhism helped me appreciate and understand my Catholic upbringing more.
Victoria Mausisa
“If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere”
—The Sun in My Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh
I called it quiet time. For hours, I would sit and contemplate, not realizing that I was “meditating.” Every day I needed quiet time, especially on weekends. At that time, many years ago, my daughters thought it strange that their mother would sit for hours seemingly “doing nothing.” While I always felt a deep sense of spirituality, certain moments converged in my life – quiet time, being with the night ocean, reading passages in a used book – which began my journey to Buddhist practice.
One night, I was standing at the ocean’s shore.  I watched the waves gently rush in out, listening to the soothing sound of the water. Darkness surrounded me. The sand, sky and ocean was so vast. There I stood. In that moment, I did not feel a sense of my own body, yet a deep sense of peace entered me. Awestruck, I felt profound connectedness with no boundaries to all that surrounded me. My physical body dropped away. Thoughts dropped away. There was a feeling-sense greater than love, something ancient and sacred. A full sense of pure being-ness.
At that time, I could not understand what occurred. The experience opened up my curiosity as well as shook me up. A dharma door opened. My mind wanted to understand. I sat in quiet time, seeking an answer. I wondered about my own spirituality. Growing up Catholic, although not a practicing Catholic, would I be betraying the religion, betraying my mother, my grandmother, my family?
I then came across a newspaper article entitled “Finding Where Zen and Christianity Meet.” After reading the article, I found myself in a used bookstore. I was attracted to Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki, I soon found myself reading the pages very slowly, sitting in quiet time, contemplating for hours.
As I continued this new journey, I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh that he encourages us to go back to our spiritual tradition to feel re-rooted, to explore the values of our spiritual tradition. For me, this means we do not have to turn away from our spiritual roots and our spiritual values. When I recognized this, something opened up within me: my body relaxed, I felt release and ease.
Thich Nhat Hanh also encourages us to embrace our blood, spiritual, and land ancestry. I can open into multi-rootedness – energies and rituals of spiritual life and ancestors, Filipino heritage, as well as our original indigenous nature.
The experience at the ocean and quiet time prepared me for one of the most emotionally tumultuous times of my life. Shortly after that experience, my life broke apart as my marriage and nuclear family ended. It was a time of great loss. I felt vulnerable and afraid, yet I felt determined to find a way to move forward. I left home, moving away for a short period of time.  I grieved, as I slowly pulled myself together, healing.  During that period, I continued long periods of quiet time.
When I returned home, I joined a local sangha – the Mindfulness, Diversity and Social Change Sangha, a mixed group of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and non-BIPOC people, practicing in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. There I learned sitting meditation, walking meditation, sounding the bell of mindfulness, dharma sharing. This sangha became a refuge for me, a place of belonging, one of the three jewels of Buddhist practice.
As I practiced, I continued to learn the Dharma, to heal and transform my pain. It was also a time that I entered a journey into intergenerational and ancestral healing, transforming earlier wounds and trauma. Because I was assimilated into American life as a child, I began to explore and understand more deeply my colonized history, reclaiming my heritage.
Now, I see that my quiet time is like my mother praying. She recites Catholic prayers, then she enters into a deep, silent space and energy within herself, a space perhaps where she touches God. As I sit with her in prayer, I witness and experience a spiritual space of our indigenous roots before religious colonization. A space like my experience at the ocean where I touched into our true nature, of no-self, of interbeing, of no separation. My body remembered kapwa: aliveness and spirit in all, and a deep interrelationship to everything and everyone surrounding us.
Jury Candelario
I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by my now-husband in the late 90s. At that time, I’d practiced different forms of religion that, in many ways, I was forced into because I was not of age to make decisions for myself. The religious constraints placed on the freedom of expressing who I really am — a gay Filipino man — seeded much self-doubt and fear in me when I was young.
Despite much progress, today’s society still holds much shame and stigma placed against homosexuality and this holds true, at least in my experience, in the Filipino culture. Rooted in relatively conservative traditions, the Filipino culture I grew up with didn’t allow me to accept my true self. For a good portion of the 90s, I pretty much stepped away from any form of religion after I came out to my mother upon completing high school. I practiced the freedom of discovery typically expected of folks in their twenties. However, I was still seeking something spiritual; something that allowed me to embrace who I am unapologetically. Something that made me happy and content.
Buddhism, for me, is not about religion, but spirituality and finding that inner contentment, peace, and happiness. This is what I was seeking. When I chant, I feel an inner calmness that allows me to center myself and focus on goals and determinations that I set for myself. A big goal I had was to find peace and acceptance for myself as a gay Filipino man and for my family, particularly my mother, to accept me for who I am. It took a while for this goal to manifest, and it continues to be a work in progress. Almost thirty years ago since I came out, I have found happiness and comfort about my sexuality. My relationship with mother became stronger despite her initial resistance to understanding who I am genuinely.
Buddhism has also allowed me to transform my career goals which are a source of strength and meaningful value for me. As a social worker, I help those impacted by behavioral health, housing insecurity, and those impacted by HIV/AIDS. My work could be daunting, isolating, and often known to cause burnout. With Buddhism as my foundation, it has allowed me to find inner strength, happiness, contentment, and the core system of creating value to society brings me much inspiration and purpose. Having a personal relationship with the AIDS epidemic as a gay man, I found my true calling in helping the most vulnerable in my community.
Buddhism has also propelled me to pursue something I thought was always daunting and that is obtaining higher education. I returned to school in my forties to pursue my clinical social work license which I successfully earned. I am now in the beginning of my journey as a doctoral student of public health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In summary, Buddhism has helped me attain my life goals.
Noel Alumit has a Master of Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy from the University of the West, where he is also an Adjunct Professor. He facilitates meditation workshops for LA Artcore and Meditation Coalition. Noel is also an actor and bestselling author.
Karl Palma is the resident caretaker of New York Buddhist church since 2011. He also runs his own Takoyaki business called KARLSBALLS Takoyaki since 2015.
Jury Candelario is a Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Nichiren Buddhist practitioner. He is a licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles and currently a doctoral student of public health at Johns Hopkins University.
Jen Racho lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her wife and puppy. She leads meditation groups through Common Ground Meditation Center and Clouds in Water Zen Center.
Victoria Mausisa, a dedicated practitioner, is ordained in the Order of Interbeing in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. A contemplative at heart with a passion for healing communities of color, she enjoys cultivating sangha, and is co-founder of ARISE Sangha, Awakening Through Race, Intersectionality, and Social Equity.

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