This article starts a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments.
I had seen its carved facade before, on a trip with fellow fountain pen collectors to look for pens in the wilds of downtown Manila. A drive-by along that street left me intrigued. I had no idea then that a year later, I would discover the wonder of the temple’s glittering, golden interior.
In this semester’s PhD Communication Environment class at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, our professor, Dr. Joey Lacson, said that it was best for us to learn about communication in different environments by actually visiting them. He and each of us students had to take the rest of the class to a place the others hadn’t visited before.
For her trip, Nina Villena chose to take us to Seng Guan temple in the heart of Binondo – a serendipitous random happenstance that opened my eyes and mind to a different side of my Manila.
From the outside, the temple looks like a hodgepodge of buildings that have sprouted in haphazard fashion through the years. But look closer to discover the wonderful things that abound inside.
The Communication Environment
Communication is, quite simply, the sharing of meaning. It always occurs within context, and this context is rooted in the environment. A person may use varying communication styles depending where she might be – for instance, she may use more formal and academic language while in class, and shift to a more informal way of speaking when with friends or at home.
The environment also conveys information that a person will organize and interpret to derive meaning. The semiotic model helps explain this process by conceiving data as a set of signs that bring up corresponding concepts in the mind. Signs may then be arranged into codes. Languages are examples of complex codes.
Non-verbal signs, touch (haptics), artifacts, and even space and distance (proxemics) may also be part of a code that will impart meanings within a system of interrelated message senders and receivers.
A system cannot survive without its environment. An environment is active, and this activity creates further impact on the system. Since humans are always immersed in an environment, this reinforces the truism that it is impossible for people not to engage in communication wherever they may be.
Communication and Culture
Culture is “the complex collection of knowledge, folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time.” These elements that comprise a culture are constructed by society, meaning that negotiation takes place between the members of that society regarding the meanings attached to these elements until agreement is reached.
The relationship between communication and culture is complex and intertwined. Cultural elements, taken as artifacts along with their constructed meanings, form the communication environment. These artifacts may also be considered as “text”, the ‘what’ of communication that is observed and subjected to textual analysis so that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of communication may be understood.
Consequently, any part of an environment may be studied as an artifact in order to derive and interpret meaning from it – meaning that can help the observer understand the context he is in, and guide his actions and responses within that environment.
Seng Guan Temple: A Trove of Cross-Cultural Communication
The temple, established in 1936, espouses the Mahayana style of Buddhism, specifically that of the Pure Land sect. Part of the sect’s belief system is that nirvana (cessation of existence), the ultimate goal after countless cycles of life, is no longer achievable during modern times, but that a way to heaven (the “Pure Land”) may still be achieved by good works and endlessly chanting the name of the Buddha – “Amitabha, Amitabha.”
The facade of the entrance is ornately carved in a style that is distinctly Chinese, exotic to eyes not exposed to the culture. There is no gate. The lack of a barrier at the entrance projects an aura of welcome reaches out to visitors and draws them in. Just within the entrance, a jolly Maitreya Buddha greets worshippers and visitors with a smile.
A stone lion, one of a pair, stands guard in front of the Buddha statue. The carving is deep and ornate, the subject a ‘cute’ mythological creature, inviting you to run your fingers over the runnels and recesses in the stone, and reach for the ball in the lion’s mouth. Again it is an artifact that beckons one to enter, approach, and touch.
Mr. Carlos Tan, who works at the temple, offered to be our tour guide and showed us around. Practically nothing was off limits; one feels a deep sense of acceptance for and tolerance of visitors, something that one does not readily experience in churches of other faiths. Although it is not stated directly, the license to explore comes with a common-sense caveat: the temple is a place of worship, and as such a visitor must conduct himself with proper respect for the place and its purpose.
The halls are wide and expansive, with high ceilings and spaces that entice one to roam around. Having an expanse of space is made possible by the practice of not providing seats for worshippers, only red-upholstered kneelers that are tucked away in small storage rooms on off-days.
The hall on the second floor is even grander, decorated with carvings depicting scenes from the life of Sakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha. The statues are made of silk mache and are hollow. Everywhere, one sees the glint of gold and the vibrancy of red, colors that signify prosperity and happiness.
Largest and grandest of all is this hall just off the second level. It is airconditioned on days when services are held. The Buddha statues here are large and dominant, matching the scale of the room, meant to inspire awe and reverence.
Inside the temple are many things that are unfamiliar to non-Buddhists but, taken in context, are obviously ritual items. There was a drum that a saffron-robed monk beat in time to the chanting of other monks and worshippers. There was a red book with gold Chinese characters stamped on its cover (sutras?). There was a stick-like object that rested on the books, something that looked like a fan or a paddle, cymbals through which yellow scarves were knotted, and cinnabar-red squat carved figures beside which were padded sticks. Were the figures struck with the sticks?
I deliberately refrained from asking Mr. Tan, preferring to experience the environment as an observer, and trying to derive meaning from what was familiar, and gauging the extent of the unfamiliar. In this instance, much was an unknown quantity.
There were always offertory tables positioned in front of the images. The tables are heavily carved, some gilded as well. The tables bear offerings of fruit and flowers, because according to Buddhist tenets, “Only vegetarian offerings are allowed,” said Mr. Tan.
Through observing their stance and actions in context, it can be seen how worshippers convey their sense of faith and participate in the rituals of their religion. Two women knelt in front of the Maitreya Buddha’s image holding incense sticks and waving them while chanting Buddha’s name. At the same time, at the second floor hall, monks held a service for a deceased man. The relatives were all clad in white, their culture’s color of mourning. Since no seats are provided, worshippers either kneel or stand and chant along with the monks.
The chanting was atonal, in a language I was unfamiliar with (Chinese, presumably), and sounded utterly alien to my ears. For that reason I found it fascinating; language is not an insurmountable barrier to understanding, because all that is required is a translation. On that initial exposure, the impression I obtained from the chanting was a sense of immense antiquity, that these words had been sung in this manner for centuries, the ritual kept alive by devotion and strict adherence to tradition.
Off that hall was a room where the dead man’s picture was displayed. Red marks pocked the picture “so he can breathe,” someone explained. On an offertory table were sweetmeats in covered glass dishes and plenty of fruit. Red lamps were lit. Just outside that room, people rolled paper into the boat shape of ancient Chinese currency, paper money for the dead to use in the afterlife.
Paper printed with gold Chinese characters, rolled into the proper shape, symbolize money for use in the afterlife. To show respect for the deceased, sacks upon sacks of these are laboriously prepared.
After the service, the portraits are moved to the ancestor worship hall on the ground floor, to be displayed beside the pictures of deceased persons whose relatives are waiting for a memorial service to be held in their behalf. Offerings of canned fruit are arranged in front of them – fruit cocktail, peaches, lychees. Chinese are practical; fresh fruit, they say, will spoil.
A woman lights joss sticks that she places in a large bronze urn, one of several placed in each of the temple’s many halls. The air in the temple is fogged with the heavy fragrance of incense carrying prayers to Buddha.
Inside the ancestor hall are serried rows of shrines that carried pictures of the deceased. Some are ‘double’ shrines for couples. A picture placed in the shrine frame denotes that the person was deceased; a plain red backing, that the person the shrine is reserved for is still alive. A fee is charged by the temple for the storage of the shrines – the more prominent the position, the higher the fee. It costs around one hundred thousand pesos for a central location for a shrine.
From time to time, people entered the hall, knelt before the shrines, said a prayer or meditated, and lit joss sticks before leaving.
Mr Tan also showed us pairs of red, kidney-shaped wooden blocks used in divination, a practice that dates back to China’s prehistory, when animal entrails were used to predict the future and reveal answers to questions. One throws the blocks up in the air; depending on how they fall, the answer to the devotee’s query is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
He often used the Tagalog word misa – as in Catholic Mass – to refer to their services. It may be the word actually used by Filipino Buddhists, or it may have been his way of making concepts easy for non-Buddhists to understand.
Overall, though I could not interpret a great deal of the information I was picking up from my surroundings, I understood enough and connected it with previously-read or gleaned facts and materials that enriched my appreciation of this particular environment.
I came away refreshed in spirit by the aura of peace and tranquility permeating every fragrant corner of the temple, fascinated by its art and history, and above all deeply appreciative of the warm welcome and acceptance extended by Mr. Tan and the others at the temple.
The Seng Guan Temple is along Narra Street, near Jose Abad Santos Street, Manila.
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