bagobo ancient herbal wisdom – Mt. Apo’s babaylan – sage-priest-healer

Mt. Apo’s Babaylan – Sage-Priest-Healer
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Filipino Genesis 02
By Bernie Lopez




At the end of the fourth and last glacial period, about 10,000 BC, a momentous human dispersal across half of planet Earth began from Burma and southern shores of mainland China. Archaeologists call it the Austronesian dispersal, which took 5,000 years and was so complex that there are conflicting theories. The Austronesians are the ancestors of present-day Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Polynesians, or more popularly known as the Malayo-Polynesians or ‘brown race’. They were pre-historic mariners, the first boat people of human history, free spirits obsessed with wanderlust. The rising of the sea due to the melting of the polar icecaps triggered the dispersal. As the land shrank, they built their makeshift mini-Noah’s arcs. Centuries before the Phoenicians roamed the calm Mediterranean in the first known wooden ships, the Austronesians had reached the remote islands of the vast Pacific, Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii, using tiny makeshift boats (balanghay in Pilipino).


The first waves of people in the Philippine archipelago, whose total shoreline of its 7,100 islands is greater than that of continental USA, settled in the lush coastal plains. Succeeding waves eventually drove away the first waves, who sought refuge in the inhospitable mountains. Today, the 180-odd ethnic groups, about half having distinct linguistic categories, remnants of that dispersal, are scattered, their purity and heritage at the mercy of rapid assimilation into the modern age, their ancestral lands at the mercy of big business. Such were the Bagobos (bago means new, ubo means people or growth), the ‘new people’ first encountered by Spaniards in the Davao Gulf Coast. In truth, the Bagobos (a generic term which includes dozens of linguistic and cultural sub-groups all over Mindanao) settled in Mt. Apo, tallest mountain in the nation, during the dispersal period, centuries before the Spaniards arrived.


Click photo for blow up.

The color of the province denotes the largest ethnic group within that province, according to the 2000 census.


Bagobo Babaylan – Sage, Priest, Healer


absorbing the primordial sacredness
i sat still in the silence of the rainforest
disturbed only by the echo of bird songs
meditating on the ancient wisdom
of its keepers, the bagobos
and their supreme god apo sandawa
guardian of their micro-universe


I roamed the remote recesses of Mt. Apo, covering with Dojin Okada, a fellow journalist from Japan, the controversial PNOC geothermal plant, whose arsenic-laden wastes were poisoning a lot of people downstream. Our base was in Kidapawan at the foot of Mt. Apo, at the home of the late Atty. Sol Jubilan, human rights lawyer, champion of the oppressed, of the victims of rape, land-grabbing, and military abuse, who paid legal fees with chickens and eggs. We also covered the human rights violations and Pagsagop (rescue), orphanage for mutilated children war refugees, run by Betty Colmo, Sol’s woman Friday.


Once, I dared climb Mt. Apo alone in spite of my bronchitis recurring. When I reached the top, I was feverish and regretted my mis-adventure. My Bagobo guide brought me to a hot spring about 15 meters in diameter. On one side flowed ice cold water, on the other steaming water. You could choose the exact location of human endurance to hot and cold. I went for the safe center, slowly edging towards the hot as my body adjusted. I ended up immersed in the pool for a good one and half hours while my guide sang fascinating ancient Bagobo tunes that echoed across the misty rainforest. When I got up, I spewed out all my phlegm and my fever was gone instantly . My guide said it was instant healing from Apo Sandawa, god of their mountain realm, because he looked with favour on me for helping to protect their territory from the multinational.


Babaylan is the Bagobo term for the wise old man, the sage everyone looked up to for wisdom, who knew about the primordial earth, about the ancient mores handed down by oral history, the laws of synergy with Mother Nature needed for the Bagobo to survive, the sage who spoke with authority on political matters, especially conflicts and alliances with Christian lowlanders. He was also the tribal priest who could talk to Apo Sandawa in dreams, who received his sacred messages to the Bagobo people, who conducted wedding and harvest rituals. Finally, he was also a healer, a medicine man, who prescribed rare rainforest herbs for ailments. Bagobo herbal science is 2,000 years old, handed down by oral history.


I met two babaylans introduced by Sol, Datu Ito and Datu Hirang. Dojin theorized Datu Ito was a nisei, half Japanese, half Bagobo, because Ito was also a Japanese name. He was statuesque and could look like a Japanese. I played devil’s advocate. The Japanese farmers came to Mindanao for sanctuary from the oppressive Meiji Shogunate at the end of the 19th century. They integrated well with the Bagobos of Mt. Apo, and became ‘invisible’. They were the pioneers of the abaca plantations. They were the peace-loving gentle Japanese who would later be forcibly conscripted as spies by the Japanese Army in World War II. Today, 3 to 4 generations of Japanese descendants, nisei, sansei, yongsei number about 25,000 nationwide, concentrated in Davao and the Cordilleras. They completed Kennon Road when the Filipinos and Chinese workers gave up. Ironically, the vicious Meiji opened the doors of Japan, which had been in isolation for 200 years, to usher in World War I.


I sat with Datu Ito for half a day as he walked me through quickly across centuries of Bagobo oral history, the peopling of Mt. Apo, the legends of wars and peace. I wrote feverishly, realizing the treasure of that meeting. My hand was complaining. My pen and notebook were running out. He told me of Apo Sandawa talking to him in dreams, giving him advice on what to do with the crisis of dealing with lowlanders. He would wake up suddenly from a dream and it would all be crystal clear in his mind. The Bagobo dream culture awed the anthropologists.


Then there was Datu Hirang. He was a warrior and an herbalist. I interviewed him in his humble home in Kidapawan. When I mentioned Apo Sandawa, he suddenly stood up, went to the inner room and produced a black stone wrapped in cloth, so smooth and shiny, so perfectly egg-shaped that I thought it was machine made. He said Apo Sandawa told him in a dream to look in the rainforest for the ‘power stone’ meant only for him, lodged in the roots of a giant balete tree. For months, he searched for the stone in vain, until one day, hiking in an area not frequented by NPA platoons, he saw the tree he recognized from his dream, and scrambled to find the stone in the roots. And there it was, waiting for him. He attributed to the stone his healing power from Apo Sandawa as a babaylan, his ancient herbal wisdom.


One day, his stone vanished. He was worried because he may lose his healing powers. He apologized to Apo Sandawa and begged him to help find the stone. After a week, a fellow babaylan came to return the stone, and knelt before him begging for forgiveness for stealing it. The babaylan said that when he stole the stone, he got a high fever that would not go away. Only then did he realize the stone was meant only for Datu Hirang. As soon as he returned the stone, his fever vanished. Skeptics may frown on my journal, but I believe this story as part of modern Bagobo oral history, a heritage treasure.


Probing into the ancient herbal science of Bagobos, I asked Datu Hirang to give me examples of healing herbs. He mentioned the herbal names in unfamiliar Bagobo names, so I just wrote them down phonetically, asked what ailments they cured, and formulations and dosages. Speaking as a non-expert in herbal medicine, I was amazed how sophisticated the circa-2,000-year-old Bagobo herbal medicine was. They had herbs for everything from menstrual spasm, boils, ulcers, high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, cysts and kidney stones to be melted, tuberculosis, measles, sterility, and even cancer. They had anti-fever, anti-swelling, antibiotics, anti-allergy herbs. They had herbs for the eyes, kidneys, lungs, liver, blood. After an hour of notes, I realized I was documenting on paper for the first time in Bagobo history their herbal medicine handed down orally through generations. I was in fact doing a Bagobo herbal primer which was never done before.


But, Datu Hirang stopped me dead on my tracks. He said Bagobo herbal medicine intentionally remained oral and unwritten and secret for centuries in fear of lowlanders harvesting them massively into extinction, until the rare ancient rainforest herbs given as a gift by Apo Sandawa to the Bagobos of Mt. Apo would vanish. I instinctively gave my notebook to Datu Hirang. He laughed and said he trusted me. I asked how he can trust me when we just met, and at stake was a thousand-year-old secret. He just smiled and said he knew by instinct he could trust me. So that notebook is buried, forgotten, in my archives of about 80 journal notebooks.


Back to Datu Ito, he complained that their ancient herbal resources were indeed vanishing due to the wars between soldiers and rebels. The AFP would set forest fires to deny cover to the NPA. Some of the rare herbs unique to Mt.Apo could no longer be found. I suggested that I would look for funds for a series of Bagobo safaris to collect rare herb seeds or plantlets, and put them in a nursery run by Bagobos. Dispelling fears of undermining the millennium-old secrecy, he was willing to take the risk to save the rare herbs. He said it was a good idea and gave me a go signal, adding that Apo Sandawa would be pleased. The six months project would cost about P150,000 but I reduced it to P20,000 (first phase only) in fear of being turned down. Never mind the name of the scientist in the National Museum who turned down my measly P20,000 proposal that would save centuries of endangered herbs, whose value is indeterminate. He had different ideas of how to use funds for ‘research’ done by his own people. Maybe I am just a sour-grapes fool, but I regret that to this day.


Datu Ito told me Bagobo herbal science is dying because it would die with the handful of surviving babaylans, what with the unwritten law of secrecy of herbal wisdom pass down only to direct kin. He mentioned names, two in Bukidnon, one in Cotabato. I frantically took down their names in the hope of looking for them before they die. But journalists are like eagles who don’t flock. You find them one at a time. Without an institution or resources, freelancers like myself are helpless.


I suppose the project can still be revived in spite of many herbs now extinct. There is still a lot to save. Sol and Datu Ito are now dead, but there are new contacts and hopefully a few herbalists are still alive. If there is anyone out there interested to help the Bagobos, just email me please.


I was fascinated with the dream culture and herbal science of the Bagobos of Mt. Apo. I told myself to avoid romanticizing them, to stick to the facts of my interviews, and avoid verses. But I cannot write without emotions for my heart is with them, Sol, Betty, Datu Ito, Datu Hirang, the beautiful Bagobos I met. The inspiration and wisdom I learned from them are priceless. They are the window to the forgotten vanishing realm of ancient Austronesians.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
come, blessed of My Father
inherit the kingdom prepared for you
since the beginning of time
for I was hungry and you gave Me food
I was thirsty and you gave Me drink
I was naked and you clothed Me,
ill and you cared for Me
amen, I say to you whatever you do
for the least of My brothers you do for Me
halikayo sa Aking tahanang
hinanda para sa inyo
buhat pa noong unang panahon
kayong mga nagpakain sa Akin
noong Ako ay gutom
nagpainom noong Ako ay uhaw
nagbigay ng damit noong Ako ay hubad
nag-alaga noong Ako ay may sakit
amen, ito ang pangako Ko sa inyo
anumang ang inilaan ninyo
sa Aking mga dukhang kapatid
inilaan niyo na rin sa Akin
Matthew 25:35-45
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behold I shall rescue them from oppression in the north
I shall gather them from the ends of the earth
the blind and the lame in their midst
and the mothers with child
they shall all return as one vast nation
they departed in tears but I shall console and guide them
I shall lead them to brooks on level ground
so that none shall stumble, for I am the Lord God of all
Jeremiah 31:8-9
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
st francis of assisi would pray 8 hours a day inside his hut
his prayer consisted of five one-syllable words
‘my Lord and my God’
he would say this repeatedly
for 8 hours with different emotions
‘my Lord and my God’
from awe and reverence
to contrition and penitence
‘my Lord and my God’
it would fill him the whole day
and at night his hut would glow
from his intense halo
‘my Lord and my God’
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
of what use is your vast empire
if your home lies in ruins
of what use are your endless conquests
when your empire has conquered you
of what use is your fame and fortune
when you lose your immortal soul


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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