Drinking from the Pool of Talaandig Wisdom

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 On February 10, we had the honor of visiting the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon, Philippines, where we spent several days learning about Talaandig traditions, spirituality and indigenous practices of peacebuilding. The Talaandig consider themselves the “Guardians of the Mountain” (Jeremy Simons with Datu Migketay Victorino “Vic” Saway. Guardians of the Sacred Oil and Comb). 

“Go to the forest,” Datu Vic advises, “Listen to the Creator. Everything starts there.” And so, nestled among the mountains of Bukidnon, surrounded by the “leaping greenly spirits” of the pine & palm, we began our conversation with Datu Vic.

In recent years the Talaandig have started to vigorously re/claim their traditions, spirituality and land. Datu Vic explained that while studying cultural Anthropology and the religions and traditions of indigenous groups worldwide, he kept asking himself: Who am I?  From Where do I Come? His journey towards self re/invigorated his desire to re/member, sustain and continue the deep spirituality and traditions of his Talaandig tribe, in the midst of the ever-growing pressures to conform to conventional society.

For decades, the Talaandig’s way has been threatened: by the fighting factions and ongoing war in Mindanao, by multi-national corporations and by colonization and globalization. In an effort to confront these outside influences – and maintain connection to their ancestors, their land, their spiritual leaders and their traditions – they have begun the School for Living Tradition, educating their children in the Talaandig way.

They want to re/member with their children.

As Datu Vic says, the children must “drink from the pool of the ancestors –of the living, of the dead, of the spiritual world” – so that they can carry the Talaandig into the future. They must understand the past – all of the challenges the Talaandig have overcome – so that they, too, can become guardians of the mountain.

For the Talaandig, Creation began with 3 gods who came together at the Bublusan Balugtu, or the “sitting place of the rainbow.” The first was a 10-headed god, called Gumagang-aw, some heads were crying, some shouting, some arguing. They were loud. They were emotional. Gumagang-aw was the “forbidden god.” But Gumagang-aw was not evil. In fact, Gumagang-aw held the soil for creating.

The second god, Magbabaya, was “the god of creation.” Magbabaya held the power of life.

The third god, Agtayabun Migbaya, was the “god of peace.” And it was on Agtayabun Migbaya’s outstretched wings that Magbabaya and Gumagang-aw lived. Only Agtayabun Migbaya’s wings were expansive enough to hold in balance the two gods: Love and Anger, balanced together; Despair and Joy, balanced together; Life and Emotion, balanced together; And there they rested, in perfect harmony, on the wings of peace at the “sitting place of the rainbow.”

In order to create life, Magbabaya and Gumagang-aw needed one another. Creation was not possible with only one. Both forces are at work in the spirits and in the people. They relied on Agtayabun Migbaya, the god of peace, to create a peace pact for Creation.

For the Talaandig, Creation began with a peace process. From this peace pact, the gods breathed life into the natural world and eventually the four tribes of Mindanao emerged, the Talaandig, maguindanao, Maranao and Manobo.

The Talaandig ancestor, Apu Saulana, was given the role as peacekeeper. Saulana held the sacred jar of oil and comb, which he used to comb out the tangled hair of conflicts between clans.

The Talaandig have a lived-experience of metaphor, which lies at the core of community healing and reconciliation. These metaphors are employed through traditional rituals and practices. Blood corresponds to water, flesh to land, voice to the words of life, bones to trees, breath to air, body heat to fire, the soul relates to the creator. All elements of earth that give life are found in the body (Jeremy Simons with Datu Migketay Victorino “Vic” Saway. Guardians of the Sacred Oil and Comb). These elements are brought into the ritual sacrifices, in communion with one another and the spiritual world, to cultivate healing and reconciliation.

The metaphors are not just symbols, they are alive in the Talaandig traditions, alive through the communion with their ancestors. As Datu Vic says, “The spirits are the true custodians of land.”

When we arrived to talk peace, the Elders, Mothers for Peace along with Datu Vic and his wife, prepared the sacrifice of chicken, inviting water (blood), flesh (land), voice (life), bones (trees) to our communion. We communed together, inviting all the ancestors and spirits into our sharing, so that our conversations held the fullness of the natural and spiritual world, intertwined together.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of Talaandig spirituality lies in their ability to transcend dichotomies. Physical/Spiritual. Metaphorical/Experiential. Life/Death. Good/Bad. For the Talaandig there are no dichotomies, only different realities simultaneously occurring and interacting in the fullness of the world. In fact, We need both realities — “Bad does not mean evil, there is a time for the bad as well – there are times when anger and despair are needed, like when we must confront and acknowledge injustices.” It is only when both the 10-headed god and the god of creation are imbalanced that we experience conflict, only when they fall off the wings of peace that we witness violence and disorder. Peace is not found in the absence of Conflict, but in the balance of these seemingly contradicting realities.

On March 7, more than 1,000 people will gather at the Talaandig Hall of Peace to perform a re/affirmation of kinship pact between all of the indigenous tribes of Mindanao, including the Bangsamoro (Muslim) tribes. We will have the privilege to witness the Talaandig tribe invoke, once more, the sacred oil and the comb: working through the knots of conflict that have persisted between the tribes of Mindanao for decades. The tribes will once again re/turn to the forest. listen to the creator. And ask themselves: Who are we? Where do we come from? 

And together, we will journey once again towards the sitting place of the rainbow, in search of the rest and healing found on Agtayabun Migbaya’s wings of peace.

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