Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Sikhism: Manila’s minority religions

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For Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh communities in Manila, the core values of good humans are more similar than different. In photo: Devotees of Hinduism at the temple in Paco, Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the 80 million-strong Roman Catholic Philippines, religion is sown into the fabric of society — from family routine to government policy. There are also a million Protestant Christians and six million Muslims, most of the latter set to vote on whether they will be part of an autonomous Bangsamoro region next year.

But what happens to other religions, which enjoy a following of millions worldwide, when located in a context far removed from where they come from? Tucked into the nondescript corners of its capital region, these rich cultures and communities are hiding in plain sight.

CNN Philippines Life visited four places of worship among Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh communities in Manila and find that despite varying worldviews, most religions are more the same than different.

Photo-30 (5).jpg A wide view of the Beit Yaacov Synagogue: Opposite the entrance and across a podium where readings are made are the Ten Commandments. Concealed behind the tablets is the Jewish sacred scripture, the Torah. Photo by JL JAVIER

Judaism

The Beit Yaacov Synagogue, the only Jewish place of worship in the Philippines, has been in Makati since 1982. Prior to that, there had been a synagogue in Manila since 1922, which took a hit during the Japanese occupation.

Jews have had a long, rough, and storied history, from the ancient exodus from slavery in Egypt to persecution during World War II. According to the Jewish Association of the Philippines’ website, a few hundred Jews were already residing in Manila in the early 1930s following a wave of refugees from the first World War. When the second war broke out a decade later, the Philippines accepted more than a thousand Jews fleeing Europe.

“I cannot tell you how thankful we are that [Filipinos] opened the doors to our refugees,” says Rabbi Eliyahu Azaria. He makes a nod to Biblical story of Noah, who built a ship for his family to survive a great flood. “The Philippines was their ark.”

Azaria, a Chicago native who studied in Jerusalem, was sent to Manila in 2004 and saw the growth of the Jewish community from 30 to 140 families. He estimates that there are between 2,000 to 3,000 Jews in the country, and the synagogue has 80 to 100 regular weekly visitors. Most members are expats.

“The community becomes their family in a way,” says Azaria. “In other countries, like in Israel, people will go to the synagogue and that’s it. Here, because we are far from our biological families ... we have dinners together.”

Photo-34 (3).jpg Rabbi Eliyahu Azaria shows an authentic Torah scroll, handwritten on the skin of kosher animal. He reads — or more accurately, chants — an excerpt. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-36 (5).jpg The rabbi shows a mezuzah at the doorway of the synagogue. The case, which resembles a hinge, contains a parchment with small handwritten verses from scripture — meant to keep the word of God at the doorpost of a home. Photo by JL JAVIER

Judaism is the first of the Abrahamic religions, preceding Islam and Christianity. In Jewish belief, God revealed himself to the prophets — most prominently Moses and Abraham — and he shares a covenant with His chosen people. Its holy text is the Torah, which Christians might recognize as the first five books of the Bible.

In the main synagogue, the Torah scrolls are concealed behind large tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. The holy text is meticulously handwritten on the skin of a kosher animal; one mistake, and the whole scroll has to be done all over. Readings are sung. Overhead is a depiction of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The synagogue has a kosher kitchen, or food within religious restrictions. Apart from hosting religious holiday events and rites, it also runs a kindergarten and the largest Jewish library in the region.

Judaism does not send out missionaries to seek conversion — a trait that Azaria says makes it a tolerant religion. “Judaism believes that every human being — [it] doesn’t matter who it is, as long as they are moral — [can] go to the next world,” says Azaria. “Most religions will focus on the reward in the next world. Judaism does not ... There is no reference [in the Torah] about life after death. The focus of the five books is how can we make this world a better place.”

The Beit Yaacov Synagogue is located at 110 H. V. Dela Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati. You can reach it through the telephone number (632) 815-0265.

Photo-4 (18).jpg The sitting Buddha at the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple in Malate, Manila, is the largest in the Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

Buddhism

There are many Buddhist temples in the country, catering to an estimated 47,000 practitioners of the religion, according to a 2015 census. At the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple in Malate, monks practice Humanistic Buddhism — a philosophy that prioritizes charity, cultural activities, and education as a means of service. It highlights three acts of goodness: doing good deeds, speaking good words, and thinking good thoughts.

Its main shrine is home to the largest sitting Buddha in the Philippines. Here, we offer candles and incense is lighted. The surrounding walls have rows and rows of the Buddha’s image, so one is never out of his sight. On the ceiling is a lotus, a common Buddhist motif as the flower grows in muddy water.

“Life is difficult like the mud, but we have to uphold ourselves like the lotus,” says a monk here, Venerable Miao Jing.

The Buddha is the religion’s founder, Siddharta Gautama, an Indian spiritual teacher who broke the cycle of reincarnation and achieved the sought after state of nirvana. This is what Buddhism prioritizes: not gods, but the pursuit of enlightenment. Even a regular person can be a Buddha, as long as they walk the “Middle Way,” described by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs as “a moderate path between self-mortification and self-indulgence.” The religion changed the landscape of a region previously dominated by Hinduism and the caste system, as it spread from ancient India to East Asia.

Photo-7 (18).jpg The temple has over a hundred students who hail from rural communities across the Philippines, and their full tuition, as well as supplies and an internship abroad, is covered. They are not made to convert to Buddhism, but elements of its belief are incorporated in their daily schedule. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-6 (18).jpg Head Abbess Venerable Yung Guang leads a meditation among students. Photo by JL JAVIER

 

Founded by Venerable Master Hsing Yun and managed by head abbess Venerable Yung Guang, the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple has an art gallery, library, meditation hall, and tea house — but most importantly, a college for full scholars in Buddhist studies and the performing arts. The monks also participate in interfaith dialogue initiatives.

The hundred or so students here hail from rural communities across the Philippines, and their full tuition, as well as supplies and an internship abroad, is covered. They are not made to convert to Buddhism, but elements of its belief are incorporated in their daily schedule and practice. When students perform on stage, they are reminded not to show off, but to act for love of the art. They are trained not to pine for excess.

They are also taught mindfulness, practiced in regular meditations and a “silent meal” where students must down everything on their plate. The idea is that every piece of food, even the smallest grain of rice, is the product of someone’s hard labor. We are also invited to share in this meal.

“Minority ... doesn’t mean ‘[excluded],’” says Jing. “‘Minority’ may mean the number of people, but it is not exclusive. The door is always open.”

The Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple is located at 656 P. Ocampo St., Malate, Manila. You can reach it through the telephone number (632) 559-9540.

Photo-9 (22).jpg Hindus offer prayers to various deities, of which the maharaj estimates there are 33 million. Photo by JL JAVIER

Hinduism

The temple on Mahatma Gandhi Street in Paco, Manila is the center for worship of the 3,000 or so Hindus in the vicinity. The priest, or maharaj, named Ashok Lakanani, supervises the weekly services on Tuesdays and Sundays. The temple has been around for almost 40 years.

Hinduism is considered the oldest religion in the world, and is not traceable to a distinct founder. It does not rely on a single source of scripture, but some of its most prominent texts are the Vedas, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse excerpt from the Mahabharata.

Lakanani says there are as many as 33 million gods in its pantheon, with the primary trinity composed of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Many deities are incarnations of the three. Lakanani even suggests that Jesus Christ could be an incarnation of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu.

Visitors at the temple must leave their footwear on the first floor before climbing the stairs to the main temple. Outside the door of the main room of worship is a statue of a cow, which is believed to be sacred. The shrine is a large carpeted space, with statues of the most well known gods encased in glass: the trinity and their consorts Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati; the elephant-headed god of beginnings Ganesha; Jhulelal, a bearded deity who sits atop a fish.

Photo-8 (16).jpg Maharaj Ashok Lakanani has been the Hindu priest at the temple in Paco, Manila for 12 years. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-12 (9).jpg The maharaj points out the deity Jhulelal, who is portrayed sitting atop a fish. Photo by JL JAVIER

For the Hindu, reincarnation goes on, and each life is dependent on how the previous one was lived; one must uphold their dharma — and get good karma in return. Similar to Buddhism, Hindus aspire for liberation from the cycle of birth and death, or moksha.

“If you [want to] be free from recycled birth … It depends upon your actions and karma. If you have good karma, liberation is there,” Lakanani explains.

He says that Hinduism is connected to other religions — they do not even force conversion, particularly in interfaith marriages.

“If you want to accept the Hindu religion, that's your religion. It depends upon you,” says Lakanani. “You have [to] decide it. No other person will decide ... Nobody can touch you, nobody can force you.”

The Hindu Temple is located at 1426 Mahatma Gandhi St., Paco, Manila. You can reach it through the telephone number (02) 521-8103.

Photo-21 (9).jpg The Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple in Manila does not have many decorations, as the religion does not use idols or statues. Photo by JL JAVIER

Sikhism

Located a few blocks from the Hindu temple, the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple has about 300 to 400 daily visitors, according to the ceremonial reader, or granthi, Gurdeep Singh. This swells to about 2,000 to 3,000 on Sundays. Regulars are mostly nationals who hail from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, among other countries.

Visitors to the gurudwara or place of worship must adhere to a dress code and cover their heads; bandannas are available for guests and your feet must be washed before entering. The carpeted room is hardly decorated, with only the Ik Onkar — or Supreme Reality, or One God — captured in Punjabi writing at the front of the room.

Similar to Islam, Sikhism does not use idols or statues in worship and instead places a premium on scripture. In Sikh belief, when the 10th guru died, his spirit was moved to the holy text — Guru Granth Sahib, which is considered a living teacher. Singh sums it up: “We have the word of God.”

Despite this similarity, the Sikhs clarify that they are not Muslims — but they do not harbor enmity toward the religion either.

Photo-23 (9).jpg The mess hall is on the first floor of the gurudwara. The kitchen here serves food daily to its visitors and those in need. Photo by JL JAVIER

Photo-18 (4).jpg Gurdeep Singh is a young granthi or ceremonial reader at the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple in Manila. Religious services are concentrated on scripture, as the religion does not heavily rely on rituals. Photo by JL JAVIER

Guru Nanak was studied in both Hindu and Islamic thought when he founded Sikhism around the 15th century. He was the first of 10 gurus, the following nine being his incarnations across different lives — not unlike the Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Sikhism identifies one God, does not rely too much on rituals, and rejects the traditional Hindu caste system.

Guru Nanak was also depicted at the Hindu temple, along with his incarnations. Amar Jit, who identifies himself as a temple servant, responds that the guru was “respected among all societies,” and in his life walked 82,000 miles in the course of his teachings, even reaching Nanjing, China.

He shares a story to illustrate how revered the guru was: “When Guru Nanak [left] his physical body, the Muslim, Hindu, [and Sikh] people fought over the body. The Muslims said, ‘We want to bury it, because he is our Guru.’ The Hindus [and Sikhs] said, ‘No, we want to cremate [him],’ says Amar. He said the fight “took so long,” that when they returned to his body, there were only flowers — which split among the three groups.

The gurudwara is open to people of all religions, and even has a community kitchen that serves merienda and gives food to the poor.

“We feel discriminated, sometimes. Sometimes rich, arrogant people say some words — it hurts,” says Amar. “But our religion teaches us not to discriminate anyone, on any ground. All people are one; all humans are brothers and sisters.”

The Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple is located on United Nations Ave., Paco, Manila.