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Tao po!


SANDWICHED between the mountains Banahaw and San Cristobal in the province of Quezon, Dhamma Phala, a meditation center, is surrounded by scores of coconut and mango trees and banana plants. The sky there is so blue and clear it seems as if it is possible to reach out and touch it.

Nearly 50 men and women from across the world gather there every few weeks to immerse themselves in 10 days of sitting still and silent while learning to look at life, humanity, and world as it really is. It is a centuries-old meditation technique called Vipassana. The regimen is demanding and rigorous while the results are amazingly transformative. For 10 days you don’t make eye contact, don’t touch and speak to anyone while living on two sparse meals of pinakbet and vegetarian sinigang.

On the seventh hour of the seventh day, while sitting still and soundlessly, as a large part of my mind was focused on my own breathing and bodily sensations, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the subtle sounds of the breeze, of chirping birds, of crickets in the grass, large tuko lizards in the thatched roof, and the smell and crackling of burning leaves in the distance. The world was eerily quiet but alive when from a few feet away outside the meditation hall, I heard a female voice gently announce herself: “Tao po!”

With my eyes closed I heard quick whispers and footsteps hustling the source of the disruption away from where other humans, sitting cross-legged, were striving to lean in and listen to their own breathing, their own beings, and their own mind.

I sensed a gentle smile steal its way onto my face. I had loved that accidental and very Filipino intrusion into our fortress of solitude and solemnity. I call it a fortress because the hall was smack dab in the middle of a three-hectare property and the neighborhood knew that its inhabitants preferred absolute silence.

For long moments thereafter, instead on focusing on myself and my breathing, I began to think about the words, “Tao po.” I know they mean to announce a visitor into your domain. I also know that it is rooted partly in superstition, necessitating the announcement that it is a person, a human being, and not a creepy creature at your doorstep. What I loved about it is that it was evidence of how beautiful and how gentle the Filipino culture is. “Tao po” translates for me as “please excuse me but, I, a human being, am at your door. I am very sorry to be disturbing your peace but could you possibly spare me a few moments of your precious time as I have a need that you might be able to fulfill.”

Yes, exactly that.

As a culture we are wary of intrusions, impositions, and like to let people be people. We seek permission for most everything. To many it may appear as timidity and shyness, but it is more than just that. It totally represents the kindness, the courtesy and the care and respect that we, here in the Philippines, hold for other human beings. It is our values lived out loud, constantly and unconsciously. It is just perfect and we ought to be proud of it. “Tao po” is a tiny peek into a vast landscape of how care, courtesy, and compassion silently thrive in these 7,107 islands.

No, it wasn’t brought to us by the Spaniards. It grew when we were numerous tribes sporadically settled in these happy and abundant islands. Yes, kindness and courtesies like these do exist in many other cultures but I am grateful it surrounds me. We all ought to be too. In fact, we ought to be proud. It is the future of being human and we are the forefront of that frontier.

Paalam po!

Raju Mandhyan author, coach and learning facilitator.


Written By Raju Mandhyan