Palms pressed together as in prayer, college students bow in greeting as a visitor walks through study hall. Bright eyes and serene smiles mark these young adults as surely as their uniforms of white shirts, grey skirts or slacks and crimson bows for the women, like-colored pants and ties for the men.
These remarkable Filipino students speak Mandarin and bow even though they are raised in a westernized culture where a wave, shaking hands, hugs and beso are common. They practice the Buddhist dharma – teachings – without giving up their own diverse religious backgrounds, be it Catholicism or Islam.
Enrolled in Guang Ming College (光明大學) in Malate, Manila, they are majors in one of the three bachelor programs offered: Theater, Performing Arts-Dance and Buddhist studies.
Three Acts of Goodness
The curriculum, approved by the Commission on Higher Education of the Philippines, covers standard subjects required for candidates working toward a bachelor’s degree. Its foreign language component focuses on Mandarin and English. Taught as part of the course is the history of the Chinese in the Philippines, which includes a visit to the Bahay Tsinoy, a museum of the Chinese in Philippine life, in Intramuros, Manila.
Bahay Tsinoy Museum documents the history, lives and contributions of the Chinese in Philippine society.
As part of the college’s Life Education program, the students are also taught the Three Acts of Goodness: do good deeds, speak good words and think good thoughts (做好事，說好話，存好心).
“I believe in the universality of their teachings, which help you become a better person regardless of your faith,” says college president Dr. Helen Correa. “The purpose (of the school) is not to convert (students to Buddhism) but to alleviate poverty through education.”
She herself, while subscribing to the Three Acts, remains Catholic.
Correa received her doctorate in education from the University of St. La Salle Bacolod as a scholar. Of her 40 years working in the academe, 16 were spent as education supervisor for the Commission on Higher Education in Western Visayas.
The result of this unique approach in schooling shows in the students’ peaceful demeanor, respectful responses in conversation, and their fluency in Mandarin. They have one thing in common: they are from families of modest means, some financially strapped, and benefit from scholarships, and free text books, school supplies, uniforms, and room and board, funded by Fo Guang Shan educational trust fund with world headquarters in Taiwan.
Beyond lucky charms
Classes are held for now in the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple in Malate, Manila. A 10-hectare campus in Mendez, Cavite, near Tagaytay City, is slated for completion in 2020. Guang Ming College is the fifth member of Fo Guang Shan International University Consortium. It is a pioneer humanistic Buddhist college in the Philippines. Fo Guang Shan (佛光山) itself is an international Buddhist monastic order based in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
There are 65 students in the college. This year, the first batch of graduates – 27 of them – participated in an emotional commencement ceremony, students and parents savoring their moments of triumph, some with smiles, others in tears, all united in realizing that the dream of having a college diploma has become reality. A decent livelihood to release them from poverty’s grasp is now within reach.
“Most of them have jobs already,” says Correa. They have been offered – and accepted – employment within the Guang Ming community, with positions in teaching and administration.
It makes sense to hire back her own graduates, students who have spent the last four years living and practicing the Three Acts, she says. They will help the school more effectively bring the teaching to new students.
The school does not push its students toward Buddhism, concurs Charie Natividad Eusores, 21, who graduated with honors in Buddhist Studies and is Catholic.
“They never ask us to convert. They teach us to be more open-minded to other religions. In our batch, we have Muslim, Iglesia and Catholic,” she says.
Being in a Chinese environment has helped expand her knowledge of Chinese culture, which in the past was limited mostly to “fortune telling and lucky charms.” The Chinese Buddhist environment has reshaped her lifestyle and attitude.
Students learn discipline
The college life the students sign up for begins with a disciplined approach to each day, from waking up at 5:30 a.m. until bedtime at 10 p.m. Schedules are set for lessons, meditation, and homework. Mobile phones are permitted only on weekends. Meals are vegetarian and taken in silence in the school cafeteria. Although janitorial staff is on hand, students are expected to help with chores, kitchen work and housekeeping.
The dormitory is near the school, so life and studies are tightly linked. They are not allowed to hang out on the streets, nor leave the premises for recreation.
“We are concerned for their safety,” says Correa, noting the school’s responsibility to the parents.
The transition was not easy for many. Some quit because of the restrictions on cell phones and going out.
“The most difficult part was being away from my family,” says theater major Heidi Emelo, 20, of Silang, Cavite. “After three days, I was homesick and wanted to go home.”
Her parents came to fetch her.
“If you go home, will that help your mother?” Correa had asked. Emelo’s mother is a kakanin vendor, her father a farmer.
“I used to sell cassava cake in high school to my classmates during recess so I can have my allowance,” Emelo recalls. “Dr. Correa and the (abbess) Venerable Miao Jing talked to me. They asked what will I be doing if I left? Will I go to another school? Or will I be selling cassava cake?”
Correa, the pragmatist, points out that by going home, Emelo adds to the family’s financial burden with her need for food, clothing and shelter. As a college scholar, these are provided for.
“If you love your mother, there is a sacrifice,” Correa counseled her. If she completes the four-year commitment to study, “the rest will follow.”
Indeed, the four years culminated last month; Emelo graduated cum laude. She plans to work for the college as a teacher, her way of giving back to the school, sharing with the younger students “what Guang Ming has taught me.”
As a student, Emelo has gone on six field trips to Taiwan, each lasting two weeks to a month. “Not all the people speak English there, so we really have to speak Chinese.”
Activities include attending life and chan (禅 meditation) seminars, and volunteer work, such as helping out during celebrations on Chinese new year, giving performances, welcoming visitors to the temple in Taiwan, and helping with sales.
Studying in GMC is a “unique experience,” she says.
“When people ask why study here, I tell them I have learned how to respect other religions. If we want people to respect my religion, I should respect theirs.
“I learned to be open-minded,” says Emelo, who is Muslim.
Pleased with how his daughter has turned out, Emelo’s father has offered to help out with the flora when the college moves to the new Mendez campus.
For her part, Emelo wants her kid brother to enroll at GMC when he finishes high school.
Iba ang lasa
Homesickness was not an issue for batchmate Eusores. “Hindi ako nahirapan sa adjustment,” she said. Her challenge was getting used to the food. While the vegetables are familiar, “iba ang lasa.”
Her father is retired from being barangay kagawad, and now stays home. Her mother runs a sari-sari store. Both came for her graduation.
A native of Leyte, she said her parents were fine with her enrolling in GMC. But not the relatives. “They thought I would be converted to Buddhism.”
After typhoon Yolanda (November 2013), classes in Leyte were disrupted, infrastructure destroyed, law and order totally blown away. Daily life – and the daily trek to and from school – became dangerous.
Taking the scholarship GMC offered – and leaving devastated Leyte behind – was a sensible option. Little did she anticipate that the changes in her life involved more than just eating food cooked differently.
Her choice led her to life lessons that went beyond book-learning: responsibility for oneself, discipline, and being mindful of ones own behavior, thoughts and speech.
Eusores plans to join the one-year training GMC has offered her.
The program, notes Correa, will offer further exposure and training in the real world, above and beyond the academic requirement of 152 hours’ practicum. The settings will be in any of several possibilities, including an office, a gallery, or an institution for the performing arts, in the Philippines or abroad.
“This time they can be immersed in the field of their choice, one that is relevant to their field of study,” says Correa.
With her bachelor’s degree, Eusores can also apply for admission to graduate school at Nanhua University in Yilan, Taiwan.
There is an English-language program at Nanhua, a member of the Fo Guang Shan university consortium. It offers five degree programs: management, humanities, social sciences, arts and design, science and technology.
Scholars at Nanhua receive lodging, tuition and travel. They can work part time at the school’s departmental offices to earn pocket money and cover meal expenses. As at GMC, Nanhua advocates the Three Acts of Goodness.
“University is not a place solely for the pursuit of knowledge and truth,” according to Fo Guang Shan’s founder Venerable Master Hsing Yun. Quoted in the GMC’s 2017 annual report, he adds “it is where great leaders and virtuous sages of the future are nurtured.”
The practice of goodness, according to a GMC pamphlet, will help “build a happy and harmonious world.”
The Three Acts of Goodness, Correa notes, is a good way to spread peace and harmony.
To that end Guang Ming College is a school that teaches more than just livelihood skills.
Its emphasis on the universality of being good recalls the words of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”