Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saha: Filipino Warrior's Psyche

You may wonder why the sheath or scabbard on my blog title has no blade weapon in or with it. I chose that incomplete image for its metaphor to truly understand the psyche and being of a Filipino warrior.

It is not true that Filipino martial arts have no philosophical concepts. There is such a thing as Filipino philosophy-- it is distinct from the thoughts and ideas of the West. Some are similar to Chinese and Indian philosophies, while others are obviously Spanish. Philippine culture, after all, is a mix of those influences after years of migration, trade, cultural exchange, and colonization. Our colonial mentality, which is Hollywoodish and American Dream-based, is obviously Western and American.

From those foreign elements, Filipinos have added animism (traditional beliefs and customs) and come up their own unique philosophy. Even in Philippine literature, the Filipino writers' idea of a village idiot, a conventional literary character, is very different. He is very philosophical, deep, and learned. Although he is an outcast because of his strange ways, he is respected for his wisdom.

Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, had a character in in his novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch me not or Social Cancer), named Pilosopong Tasyo (Philosophical Tasyo)-- he fits in the western concept of a village idiot, a strange vagrant living along the social margins, but for Filipinos, Pilosopong Tasyo is actually a philosopher, the living encyclopedia for folk knowledge, peddler of wisdom and truth, and guardian of morals and traditions.

We also have Juan Tamad (Lazy Juan) in our folk literature. Before the Americans caricatured Bart Simpson, Filipinos were already centuries ahead with their mischievous Juan. A lot of funny tales have been written about him. They are all about his laziness, a bad habbit. If you go deeper into the themes of the Juan Tamad stories, they are actually about moral values. The writers and storytellers have used his foolish antics to forward a lesson or two, from friendship to honesty to trust.

I grew up hearing from my old folks who had a lot to say about warriors and their mentality. According to them, a warrior is like a "saha"-- sheath or scabbard. He fills himself with a weapon, and that weapon is knowledge. Indeed, wisdom is as sharp as blades. Every Filipino warrior in the early part of the Philippine history knew that. That was the reason why he learned and practiced martial arts-- not just as skills but also as knowledge to be shared and passed on.

"Saha" in Philippine languages does not entirely mean sheath or scabbard. It is more of a body than a covering. Its inside is as important as its outside. I don't wonder why Mandaya sheaths like the one above are intricate, beautiful, and functional. Filipino warriors were/are like that-- they had/have panlabas (outside) and panloob na anyo (inside form). They knew/know how to handle blades with their hands and minds. Metaphorically, the sheath is the body and the weapon inside it is the mind. We are, basically, what we think.

It is also common among Filipinos to think that their weapons and themselves are one-- it is, obviously, about the oneness of body and mind. It simply means that a martial artist has to be both skilled physically and knowledgeable mentally. Learning how to make or use a kris (sword) for instance is as important as knowing why it is made and used and when to make and use it.

Filipino psyche has many dimensions. Dr. Prospero Covar, a Filipino anthropologist, wrote a paper about it. He compared it to a "banga" (clay jar)-- it has size, volume, depth, and many other dimensions. Western math or logic usually tackles only three dimensions-- size (height and width), volume, and weight. Filipinos have made it more complex and added depth, surface, and form.

For example, Westerners usually think of "ulo" (head) as a mere human anatomy. Thus, they measure the size, the weight, and the volume. Western scientists and brain surgeons, for instance, use instruments and employ procedures that measure and probe the skull size, its weight, and even its brain size. They are, indeed, very precise, mathematical, and scientific.

When it comes to "ulo," Filipinos see a face first, then the entire head including the ears, forehead, hairline, hair, etc. They then think of a skull bone that holds the brain. Having a brain does not necessarily mean that one has a mind-- it is also probed. To complete, they then measure the knowledge, which is the deepest abstract meaning of "ulo," through the action of the person who has that head. Our method of defining just about anything is conceptually (w)holistic and beyond the boundaries of logic, math, and science.

We have many words with "ulo" as a root. They are the different levels, dimensions, and surfaces of the physical head, bony skull, anatomical brain, abstract mind, and deep knowledge. We also have words that connote/denote personality traits such as "matigas ang ulo" (hard-headed or stubborn), sira-ulo (ruined head or crazy), "nasaulo" (in the head or memorized), "ulo ng lahat" (head or cause of everything), and many more.

Filipinos think of "ulo" not only as an anatomical part but also as a psyche or personality-- it is deep and metaphorical. The way it is understood, one has to start from the outside surface and what the senses see (kita), hear (dinig), smell (amoy), taste (tikim), and touch (hawak). As the probing gets deeper towards inside, two senses are used: the sense to know (isip) and the sense to feel (damdam). In short, Filipinos have seven senses.

When my parents stare at me, for instance, besides seeing their eyes, for some cultural reasons, I instantly know what they mean and feel what they have inside even though they utter no word or show no complete facial expression. We have an idiom in the Philippines that goes like this: "Makuha ka sa tingin." It's really hard to literally translate it. It simply means: "You should know and feel through one's eyes."

Personally, I know the different meanings and feel the different expressions of my parent's stares, glances, and looks. There is one for shutting me up, another for wanting me to leave, and many more. One time my American co-worker stared at me, confused, I quickly asked her, "Do you want me to shut up or leave you alone?"

She was so surprised with my question, and she apologized and replied, "Oh! No. I was just looking at your eyebrows. I like them." Right there and then, I knew and proved that reading and feeling eyes are cultural among Filipinos.

A head and a sheath are really like a clay jar-- it has a lot of surfaces, dimensions, and levels. A Filipino martial artist is expected to be like that if he wishes to imbibe the traits and psyche of the early Filipino warriors. He has to fill himself with wisdom until it overflows like water dripping around the outside surface of the "banga."

We know what is inside the jar because we see what is dripping outside of it-- water. A Filipino martial artist wanting to be like our forefathers, who fought against and killed their enemies, should fill himself with knowledge until it shows through his fists, kicks, weapons, and sticks.

I see one's training and knowledge of martial arts, Filipino, Japanese, or Chinese, through his moves, steps, and stances. Indeed a "saha" or a "banga" is just a vessel, like a human body, waiting for its weapon or fill. In the psyche of a Filipino warrior, it is wisdom, the greatest weapon of all.