Early Buddhism in the Philippines

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No written record exists about the early Buddhism in the Philippines. The recent archaeological discoveries and the few scant references in the other nations’s historical records can tell, however, about the existence of Buddhism from the 9th century onward in the islands. These records mention the independent states that comprise the Philippines and which show that they were not united as one country in the early days.[1]

The Philippines’s early states must have become the tributary states of the powerful Buddhist Srivijaya empire that controlled the trade and its sea routes from the 6th century to the 13th century in Southeast Asia.[2]-[3] The states’s trade contacts with the empire long before or in the 9th century must have served as the conduit for introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to the islands.

Vajrayana Buddhism of Srivijaya and Majapahit Empires

Both Srivijaya empire in Sumatra and Majapahit empire in Java were unknown in history until 1918 when the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient’s George Coedes postulated their existence because they had been mentioned in the records of the Chinese Tang and Sung imperial dynasties.[4] Ji Ying, a Chinese monk and scholar, stayed in Sumatra from 687 to 689 on his way to India. He wrote on the Srivijaya’s splendour, “Buddhism was flourishing throughout the islands of Southeast Asia. Many of the kings and the chieftains in the islands in the southern seas admire and believe in Buddhism, and their hearts are set on accumulating good action.”[5]

The Srivijaya empire flourished as a Buddhist cultural centre over 600 years from 650 to 1377 in Palembang, Sumatra. Built as a mandala on a hill from 770 to 825 in central Java, the Borobodur stands today as the living testament of the Srivijaya empire’s grandeur. Three generations of the Sailendra kings built the temple that displays a three-dimensional view of the Vajrayana Buddhist cosmology. Later on, the Javanese Majapahit empire took control over the Srivijaya and became the leading Buddhist cultural centre from 1292 to 1478 in Southeast Asia.

Both empires replaced their early Theravada Buddhist religion with Vajrayana Buddhism in the 7th century.[6]

Ritual practice rather than meditation makes Vajrayana Buddhism distinct from the other forms of Buddhism.[7] Vajrayana Buddhism was also known as Tantric Buddhism and Mantrayana, the esoteric teaching, which was conveyed only by a master to a disciple through initiation or empowerment. Vajrayana means Adamantine Vehicle or Diamond Vehicle that shows the way to awaken the Enlightenment.

Mantrayana comes from the word mantra, which means words (incantation, spell, oath) of special vibrations.[8] Mantrayana makes use of upaya or skillful means, such as the mantra and the mandala. They serve as aids to mind cultivation.

The Mantrayana practitioner visualizes the mind as a mandala that expresses the mind’s innate nature as the ahistorical Buddha or Enlightenment, which means the Absolute in its emptiness and which has no beginning and no end.[9] The mind is its sacred dwelling place. The Mantrayana practitioner sees her/himself as divine because, according to the Mahayana Buddhist perspective, their mind has been endowed with the ahistorical Buddha or Enlightenment nature.[10] It is also known as the Dharma nature, the eternal law that governs the universe.[11]

Buddhist Artifacts

The Philippines’s archaeological finds[12]-[13] include many Buddhist artifacts. They have been dated to belong to the 9th century.

The artifacts reflect the iconography of the Srivijaya empire’s Vajrayana Buddhism and its influences on the Philippines’s early states.[14] The artifacts’s distinct features point to their production in the islands[15] and they hint at the artisans’s or goldsmiths’s knowledge of the Buddhist culture and the Buddhist literature because the artisans have made these unique works of Buddhist art. The artifacts imply also the presence of the Buddhist believers in the places where these artifacts turned up. These places extended from the Agusan-Surigao area in Mindanao island to Cebu, Palawan, and Luzon islands. Hence, Vajrayana Buddhism must have spread far and wide throughout the archipelago. And Vajrayana Buddhism must have become the religion of the majority of the inhabitants in the islands.

The gold statue of the deity Tara is the most significant Buddhist artifact. In the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, Tara symbolizes the Absolute in its emptiness as the wisdom heart’s essence that finds its expression through love and through compassion. The Vajrayana tradition also tells about the outpouring of the human heart’s compassion that manifests Tara and about the fascinating story of the Bodhisattva of Compassion shedding a tear out of pity for the suffering of all sentient beings when he hears their cries.[16] The tear created a lake where a lotus flower emerges. It bears Tara who relieves their sorrow and their pain.

The Golden Tara was discovered in 1918 in Esperanza, Agusan and it has been kept in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois since the 1920s. Henry Otley Beyer, the Philippines’s pioneer anthropologist-archaeologist, and some experts have agreed on its identity and have dated it to belong within 900-950 CE, which covers the Sailendra period of the Srivijaya empire. They can not place, however, the Golden Tara’s provenance because it has distinct features.[17]

The golden-vessel kinnari was found in 1981 in Surigao. In Buddhism, the kinnari, a half-human and half-bird creature, represents enlightened action. The Buddhist Lotus Sutra mentions the kinnari as the celestial musician in the Himavanata realm. The kinnari resembles the chimera or the harpy in the Greek mythology. The kinnari takes the form of a centaur, however, in India’s epic poem, the Mahabharata, and in the Veda’s Purana part.

The other finds are the garuda, the mythical bird that has been common to Buddhism and Hinduism, and several Padmapani images. Padmapani has been also known as Avalokitesvara, the enlightened being or Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The archaeological surveys did not yield any statue of the Hindu deities Shiva and Ganesha as well as phallic-like monuments representing Shiva.

First Record

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription[18] (LCI) is the most significant archaeological discovery in the Philippines because it serves as the first written record of the Philippines nation and also of Buddhism in the Philippines.

The LCI mentions a debt pardon for a person, Namwaran, and his descendants by the chieftain of Tundun (now Tondo, Manila) on the fourth day after Vaisakha, the holiest day for the Buddhists, in the Saka year 822, which has been estimated to correspond to 21 April 900 CE.

Vaisakha refers to the thrice-sacred full-moon day when the early Indic and Theravada Buddhists commemorate the birth, the great awakening and the death of the historical Buddha on the fifth month of the old Buddhist-Hindu lunar calendar.

The LCI implies a moral code, therefore a legal code, of the people. As a debt pardon document, the LCI expresses the Buddhist cardinal virtue of compassion.

The LCI identifies also the Buddhist enclaves around Manila Bay and the distant Dewata state in Agusan, and the LCI refers also to the kingdom of Medang in Java.

Antoon Postma, an anthropologist and an expert in ancient Javanese literature, has deciphered the LCI and he says it records a combination of old Kavi (an ancient Javanese language), old Tagalog (a Philippines dialect), and Sanskrit.[19]

The LCI’s transliteration,

Swasti Shaka warsatita 822 Waisaka masa di(ng) Jyotisa. Caturthi Krisnapaksa somawara sana tatkala Dayang Angkatan lawan dengan nya sanak barngaran si Bukah anak da dang Hwan Namwaran dibari waradana wi shuddhapattra ulih sang pamegat senapati di Tundun barja(di) dang Hwan Nayaka tuhan Pailah Jayadewa. Di krama dang Hwan Namwa

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One Response to Early Buddhism in the Philippines

  1. Lu c h i n says:

    I heard Phillippine was a Buddhist state. But presently Christian and Muslim. But why?

    Like

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