Buddhism in the Philippines

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Buddhism is one of the religions in the Philippines. It is viewed both as a philosophy or the "teachings of Buddha, the Awakened One", as well as a religion of the "Dharma" (translated as "ultimate reality" or "Universal Law" in Sanskrit, the priestly language of India). It was historically founded by Siddharta Gautama Sakyamuni Buddha in the 6th century BCE in India.

According to the 2000 Philippine Census, the Philippine population is consisted of 1-3% Buddhists. The majority of Buddhists in the Philippines tend to be confined to Filipino Chinese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese communities in the Philippines. Buddhist temples can be found in Manila, Davao, and Cebu.


Crown Prince Gautama, whose personal name according to later sources was Siddhartha, was born in the city of Lumbini as the heir of an ancient Indian kingdom in present-day Nepal, and was raised in Kapilavastu. The traditional story of his life is as follows; little of this can be regarded as established historical fact. Born a prince, his father, King Suddhodana, was supposedly visited by a wise man shortly after Siddhartha was born and told that Siddhartha would either become a great king (chakravartin) or a holy man (Sadhu). Determined to make Siddhartha a king, the father tried to shield his son from the unpleasant realities of daily life. Despite his father's efforts, at the age of 29, he discovered the suffering of his people, first through an encounter with an elderly man. On subsequent trips outside the palace, he encountered various sufferings such as a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a monk or an ascetic. These are often termed 'The Four Sights.'

Gautama was deeply depressed by these four sights and sought to overcome old age, illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic. Gautama escaped his palace, leaving behind this royal life to become a mendicant. For a time on his spiritual quest, Buddha "experimented with extreme asceticism, which at that time was seen as a powerful spiritual practice...such as fasting, holding the breath, and exposure of the body to pain...he found, however, that these ascetic practices brought no genuine spiritual benefits and in fact, being based on self-hatred, that they were counterproductive."

After abandoning asceticism and concentrating instead upon meditation and, according to some sources, Anapanasati (awareness of breathing in and out), Gautama is said to have discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way—a path of moderation that lies mid-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He accepted a little milk and rice pudding from a village girl and then, sitting under a pipal tree or Sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), also known as the Bodhi tree, in Bodh Gaya, he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. His five companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left. After 49 days meditating, at the age of 35, he attained bodhi, also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West. After his attainment of bodhi he was known as Buddha or Gautama Buddha and spent the rest of his life teaching his insights (Dharma). According to scholars, he lived around the fifth century BCE, but his more exact birthdate is open to debate. He died at the age of 80 in Kushinagara (or Kusinara in Pali) (India)

Since the time of the Buddha's death, Buddhism spread throughout Asia and is the dominant religion in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Southeast Asia except in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

History of Buddhism in the Philippines

Buddhism, specifically Vajrayana Buddhism, gained a foothold in the Philippines with the rise of the Indianized Buddhist Srivijaya Empire centered in Sumatra in the 7th century. Archaeological finds in the Philippines include a number of Buddhist images common to Vajrayana iconography that dates back to this period. These include a number of Padmapani images and the Golden Tara found in 1917 at Esperanza, Agusan.

Laguna Copperplate Inscription

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI), the oldest written document in the Philippines. The document shows that certain communities in the country have adopted Buddhism as their religion. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Nordenx)

Evidence of the extent of cultural and religious influence from the Srivijaya empire can be seen in the so-called Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI), which is written in the Jawi (old Javanese) alphabet in a mixed vocabulary of Tagalog, Old Malay, and Sanskrit in the year 900 CE.

The transliteration is as follows:

"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 Namwaran dengan dang kayastha shuddha nu diparlappas hutang da walenda Kati 1 Suwarna 8 dihadapan dang Huwan Nayaka tuhan Puliran Kasumuran. dang Hwan Nayaka tuhan Pailah barjadi ganashakti. Dang Hwan Nayaka tuhan Binwangan barjadi bishruta tathapi sadana sanak kapawaris ulih sang pamegat dewata [ba]rjadi sang pamegat Medang dari bhaktinda diparhulun sang pamegat. Ya makanya sadanya anak cucu dang Hwan Namwaran shuddha ya kapawaris dihutang da dang Hwan Namwaran di sang pamegat Dewata. Ini grang syat syapanta ha pashkat ding ari kamudyan ada grang urang barujara welung lappas hutang da dang Hwa"

English translation:

"Long Live! Year of Saka 822, month of Vesak, according to Jyotisha. The fourth day of the waning moon, Monday. On this occasion, Lady Angkatan, and her brother whose name is Bukah, the children of the Honourable Namwaran, were awarded a document of complete pardon from the Commander in Chief of Tundun [modern day Tondo in Manila], represented by the Lord Minister of Pailah [Paila, Bulacan], Jayadewa. By this order, through the scribe, the Honourable Namwaran has been forgiven of all and is released from his debts and arrears of 1 Katî and 8 Suwarna before the Honourable Lord Minister of Puliran [Pulilan, Pampanga or Pulilan, Angat, Bulacan], Kasumuran, by the authority of the Lord Minister of Pailah. Because of his faithful service as a subject of the Chief, the Honourable and widely renowned Lord Minister of Binwangan [Binwagan, Pampanga] recognized all the living relatives of Namwaran who were claimed by the Chief of Dewata, represented by the Chief of Medang. Yes, therefore the living descendants of the Honourable Namwaran are forgiven, indeed, of any and all debts of the Honourable Namwaran to the Chief of Dewata. This, in any case, shall declare to whomever henceforth that on some future day should there be a man who claims that no release from the debt of the Honourable..."

Vesak Sinhalese, not Sanskrit is the Buddhist name of the month—though now it’s shortened to a single day--which celebrates Buddha’s birthday and enlightenment. Vesak or Vesakha (in Pali) is the holiest month in the Buddhist calendar and is usually the time when debts are forgiven and festivals held. Swasti is also a very traditional Sanskrit-Buddhist greeting (similar to the modern Thai, sawatdee). The LCI therefore indicates that the areas mentioned — Pampanga, Tondo, and Bulacan — had already adopted Buddhism.

Spanish colonial period

San Nicolas cookies from Baliuag, Bulacan. This delicacy, although has Christian elements, is said to have Buddhist roots. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Judge Florentino Floro)

With the advent of Spanish colonialism in the 16th century, the Philippines became a closed colony and cultural contacts with other Southeast Asian countries were closed. In 1481, the Spanish Inquisition commenced with the permission of Pope Sixtus IV and all non-Catholics within the Spanish empire were to be expelled or to be “put to the question” (tortured until they renounced their previous faith). With the refounding of Manila in 1571, the Philippines became subject to Spanish law and the Archbishop of New Galicia (Mexico) became the Grand Inquisitor of the Faithful in Mexico and the Philippines. In 1595, the newly appointed Archbishop of Manila became the Inquisitor-General of the Spanish East Indies (the Philippines, Guam, and Micronesia) and until 1898, the Spanish Inquisition was active against Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. As was the case in Latin America and Africa, forced conversions were not uncommon and any attempt not to submit to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was seen as both rebellion against the Pope and sedition against the Spanish King, which was punishable by death.

Buddhist practices, festivals and iconography had to be converted and adopted to Catholicsim if they were to survive Spanish persecution. A good example of this was is the saniculas biscuit of Pampanga that has its roots in Buddhism. Syncretism (the blending indigenous religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and indigenous folk religions) became necessary. This can be seen instantly with statues of the Virgin Mary, including the depiction of the halo, hand poses, and rainbow-arches, look almost identical to statues of Tara especially in Binondo and other areas. In time, Buddhism seemed to have virtually disappeared during the 400 years of Spanish rule.

American colonial period

With Revolution of 1896 against Spain and later with the coming of the American colonial regime in 1898, religious freedom was instituted. Mahayana and Zen Buddhist temples began to be built in the 1920s and 30s. Davao, due to the large number of Japanese residents, and Cebu, due to the large number of Chinese settlers had the largest Buddhist populations in the Philippines. After World War II, most Japanese were expatriated to Japan and the Chinese and Chinese-Filipinos became the predominant Buddhist ethnic group. In the 1960s, Vietnamese refugees arrived and established a temple in Palawan. At the same time, Japanese Buddhist temples and organizations began to re-emerge such as Sokka Gakkai International.

Buddhism today

Today, Buddhists account for about 1-3% of the Philippine population. Currently, only the Mahayana and Zen are present in the Philippines. Theravada Buddhism is now confined with nationals from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, as well as Cambodia and Laos.


However, the linguistic influence left its most lasting marks on every Philippine language throughout the archipelago with the following Buddhist and Hindu concepts directly from the original Sanskrit. About 25% of the words in many Philippine languages are Sanskrit terms:

From Tagalog:

  • budhi "conscience" from Sanskrit bodhi
  • dukha "one who suffers" from Sanskrit dukkha
  • guro "teacher" from Sanskrit guru
  • sampalataya "faith" from Sanskrit sampratyaya
  • mukha "face" from Sanskrit mukha
  • laho "eclipse" from Sanskrit rahu

From Kapampangan:

  • kalma "fate" from Sanskrit karma
  • damla "divine law" from Sanskrit dharma
  • mantala "magic formulas" from Sanskrit mantra
  • upaya "power" from Sanskrit upaya
  • lupa "face" from Sanskrit rupa
  • sabla "every" from Sanskrit sarva
  • lawu "eclipse" from Sanskrit rahu
  • galura "giant eagle (a surname)" from Sanskrit garuda
  • laksina "south (a surname)" from Sanskrit dakshin
  • laksamana "admiral (a surname)" from Sanskrit lakshmana

From Tausug:

  • suarga "heaven"
  • neraka "hell"
  • agama "religion"

Sanskrit and Sanskrit-derived words common to most Philippine languages:

  • sutla "silk" from Sanskrit sutra
  • kapas "cotton" from Sanskrit kerpas
  • naga "dragon or serpent" from Sanskrit naga


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