Friday, June 20, 2008

Tatsulok: The Filipino Triangle

Triangle is commonly associated to Filipino martial arts. Surely, it has traditional roots in Philippine language and culture. It is also the most visible imaginary symbol. It sounds oxymoronic, but Filipino philosophy is like that--metaphorical, deep, and abstract, but it totally makes sense.

Tatsulok is the Filipino word for triangle. It came from tatlong sulok (three corners). A corner can be a line or an angle. In fighting with a kickboxer or a grappler, an angular space is avoided due to its limited space, unless if one has a short weapon. A balisong is good for a limited space or close quarter-- a triangular corner not a square.

Basically, triangular fighting means that if you are in a triangular space like half of the kickboxing ring, staying along one of the two sides or along the third imaginary diagonal which is the center is better than being cornered within any of the three angles. In fighting, space also means comfortable movement and, subsequently, power.

I know this concept is basic, but dividing a space into triangles is not. In FMA, my eyes were trained too to spot lines and angles. With just one look, I can tell which part of the street with trees, parked cars, and fences would give me an advantage in fighting. Like a human body, any environment can be reduced to points. As my teacher said, the smallest unit of space is a point.

The environment of the Philippines, being an archipelago, is the great source of folk concepts and traditional philosophy. Our ancestors got their ideas about shapes and symbols through their environments. A moon and a horizon for instance influenced their ideas about tuldok (dot) and guhit (line). Even without knowing about geometry then, they knew that a dot above or below a line always made a triangle.

Besides cone-shaped mountains and volcanoes, there are no other sceneries that have triangular forms. Triangle is the hardest shape to find in nature. It is tough to connect the stars to make a triangle because there are a lot of them. Astronomers and astrologers ignore or include other stars just to make one even though a triangle should only have three endpoints.

In my culture, for instance, far from any geological formation, the natural sources of triangular shapes are beaks of birds, pointy ends of leaves, and sharp edges of rocks. It seems to me that wherever there is an endpoint, there is a triangle. Point is always the start of reference in direction called sugod (origin or beginning). From there, a line is mentally drawn vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.

Filipinos also have a sense of imaginary space. People in the streets for instance have preconceived notions about places that are dangerous to wander around even though they have not been there. For example, Tondo, a rough place, iskwater, a slum, and breakwater, a shore or port are not talked about without considering safety and security. In short, Filipinos always think of environment or space at their advantage. We call people like that segurista-- meaning, one is dead sure or always thinking what is right and good for him. It is hard to translate it with just a word.

In the Philippines, we do not use compass directions with north as the point of reference. Everywhere is based on where one stands and what he sees along the way. If you ask someone where the church is, getting an answer, for example, that it is near this building or beside that store by the mango tree in front of the basketball court is very common. For some cultural reasons, such kind of giving a direction really works.

My very idea of a triangle was from my brother's sling shot,
pintikay or tirador-- meaning, hitter or shooter. The frame from the branch of a tree known for its hard wood was triangular, and when I pulled the two bands of rubber attached to both ends of a piece of leather, where a river stone or a pebble lead called tingga was placed as a projectile called bato (stone) or bala (bullet), the sling rubber bands made a stretched triangle.

Through that sling shot, I also got my first literal grasp of triangle being force. My brother hit many rice birds that afternoon. He protected our rice farm and brought something for my mom to turn into adobo. That's how it is in the Philippines. Work is play and vice-versa. For me, playing was learning too.

Later, I heard deep explanations and abstract symbolisms about triangle from my grandfather and from other old learned men. My father even used it often as a diagram to educate us about values, philosophy, and anything that had to be dissected, simplified, and explained.

Anywhere you go in the Philippines, triangle is visible and the concept of it is known. It can be seen in church symbols, thatched roofs of nipa huts, wooden boats, blade weapons, etc. I wonder why early Filipinos did not think of making a pyramid. I guess we did not really have slaves to work such great task then.

Triangle in Roman Catholicism, the religion of most Filipinos, is abundant of religious symbols and concepts about triangle. The holy trinity, the heaven-purgatory-hell destination for souls in afterlife, and the image of Jesus (Santo Nino) folding two fingers and showing three fingers are some of the catholic teachings that have taken root in Filipino folk spirituality.

Islam too has something triangular in its teachings like the connection of man to Shaitan (Satan) and Tawhid (God), and it also has a different interpretation of the Holy Trinity-- God, Jesus, and Mary (Qur'an 4:171). Even the Islamic star symbol behind the crescent moon is triangular-- there are eight triangles in a five-pointed star.

Triangle as a symbol of earth-man-heaven relationship is of Indo-Buddhist influence. In Hinduism, a triangle called trikona symbolizes shakti (power or force). Hindus also have a concept of trinity-- Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Trishul, a three-toothed trident, is also a symbol of power. I believe the Majapahit Hindus from Java were the first ones who introduced the concept of spiritual triangle and triangle as a symbol of force to the early Filipinos.

In Buddhism, the concept of triangle I like most is the three methods of meditation: samatha (concentration), vipassana (insight), and metta (kindness). Besides that, there is also the triple gem of Buddhism composed of Buddha (the enlightened one), Dharma (his teachings), and Sangha (the faithful)-- it is the Buddhist version of trinity.

The use of triangle as a symbol for spirituality seems universal. Filipinos go beyond symbolism. They have applied it to understand abstract concepts and apply it in their daily living. For instance in my culture, we believe that the human body is controlled by suuk (solar plexus), the source of life; kasing-kasing (heart), the source of feelings, and uwu (head), the source of thoughts. Solar plexus in Tagalog is sikmura-- it also has many deep meanings like chakra.

If you go deeper, it suggests that knowledge, emotion, and strength are the three forces that dominate humans. To control such forces, triangles are used again to understand the nature of man.


The mind is neutralized by what one hears (ear) and speaks (mouth). There are lots of Filipino folk sayings, called salawikain, which expound the relationship of the three actions-- hearing, talking, and thinking. They basically say that one should not open his mouth without thinking and hearing about something first.

Early Filipinos already had an idea about effective communication then. Watching old men before take their turns to do their balak or balagtasan (poetry/debate), I was convinced that early Filipinos were masters of philosophy, language, and rhetorics. They had style, ideas, and passion. They talked just about anything, and it made sense-- even when it was about the duel between an ant and an elephant or a verbal tussle why a pen is mightier than a sword.

heart-right hand-left hand

Emotions too are related to what one does, and doing is attributed to hands.
When angry or in rage, palm or fist is used to slap(a female) or to punch (a male). We have expressions such as "buhat ng kamay" (raise of a hand), which actually means hurting someone, female in particular, and "maayo ang kamot" (good hand), a Cebuano way of saying that one is a skilled boxer or fighter.

Filipinos are very touchy indeed. There are even boys and girls who hold hands while walking in the streets. It is their way of expressing comfort, friendship, and protection. There are also men who walk around with their arms on each other's shoulder-- it is called kambubay. In the West, they may find such physical display of closeness gay or strange, but in Philippine culture, it is deep friendship or loyalty to friends.

solar plexus-right foot-left foot

Suuk (solar plexus) being the source of life is related to living-- the will to live is strength. It is mostly about moving and being alive. Feet symbolize such force. I usually hear old folks say, "ayawg lihok para wa kay kaunon" (don't move, then you'll have nothing to eat). Others are blatant to say, "para kang patay na hindi kumikibo," (you are like a dead person who does not move).

It is also a cultural habit in the Philippines to bite someone's big toe if he collapses or has a seizure. I don't think there is a Western medical explanation about it. I asked an albularyo (folk medicine man) once why Filipinos bite big toes. He told me that big toes are signs if one is dead or still alive-- their color, wrinkle, hardness, stiffness, etc will say so.

During a bad nightmare, when one gasps for air and in a temporary paralysis, all he should do is move his big toes to survive-- I actually experienced that and it worked.
It is a common belief among Filipinos that the cause of "sleep death" or bangungot is overeating-- death, again, is connected to suuk or sikmura (stomach area).

Filipinos understand the sudden death during sleep using a triangle to connect the tummy part to both feet. I wonder if Japanese and Thai have the same explanations and diagrams about
hukuri and lai tai, which are bangungot to Filipinos.

I have also understood, through using a triangle, why so many Filipinos want to leave the country. It is because of their desire to live, to eat, and to have a comfortable life that they want to go somewhere. As my tula (poem) goes, "Sa aking paggagala, nagkalaman ang sikmura"-- translation: "In my journey, I have become full." Lines like that have multiple meanings. Sikmura is not just a tummy to be filled.

Next: Triangle in Filipino martial Arts