Hometown Stories

Nature's Path is Winding


From the Buddhist temples of Cebu to a protected island in Negros, Dave Albao has gone all sorts of places in search of meaning.

Story by
Nina Unlay
Photography by
Geric Cruz
Read Time
Location Tag

We've all asked it at one point or another: What is the meaning of life? For Dave Albao, the question turned into a journey; one he started walking down when he was just 15 years old. Since then, he's traveled to the Buddhist temples in Cebu, almost graduating from the monastic tradition in the temples of Taiwan—before he found himself wanting to return to his hometown of Negros.

Now currently the Executive Director of the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc. (PRRCFI), Dave looks over Danjugan Island, a piece of protected land that's also a sanctuary for wildlife, where he continues to pursue the answers to his question; and he finds it in conservation and the nature of the land.

Hi Dave! Can you very quickly introduce yourself?

DAVE: Hello, my name is Dave, I am living in Bacolod City and I’m happy to be here. I basically oversee the operations of the nonprofit that manages Danjugan Island.

I make sure that our programs are relevant, that we’re addressing the issues that we see in our communities. That’s my job. Also to fundraise, to write posts, to talk to stakeholders and potential partners. To be on this podcast really is a part of my job, too; to talk about the work that we’re doing.

Okay, so you’ll be really good at this part: for those of us who don’t know what Danjugan is, how would you describe it?

DAVE: Danjugan Island is a spot for hope; it’s a place where we are giving our heritage the respect that it deserves. It’s a wildlife sanctuary—so it’s a refuge for species of flora and fauna; where they can thrive without fear of [their habitat] being developed for human purposes.

Part of the charm of Danjugan and part of what makes it work also is that you guys are always inviting people to come in and see it for themselves.

DAVE: One of the four pillars of the foundation’s work is experiential learning; it’s the kind of education where experience is more important than theory. So when we bring people to the island... like any program like we have camps, but we also have a program that supports tourism, so guests can come in without [joining] the camp any time of the year. When they undergo this program, they experience the work of conservation firsthand. They can observe it with their senses; they can see, touch, smell, sometimes even taste… you know, the true nature of our existence.

I know this sounds very philosophical, but it is a deeper connection that we are providing and helping people remember. It’s to remind ourselves that we are rooted in this kind of place; that it’s natural for us to see sunsets everyday, to see the colors of the sky change, to hear the sounds of the birds when we wake up. That is our true nature.

I like that you bring up how philosophical your connection to Danjugan is. Let’s put Danjugan aside for now, and talk about you for a bit. You’ve been doing this job for about seven years now, right?

DAVE: Yes, I am on my eighth year with the foundation now.

That’s a pretty long time to be in conservation, but before this, you were doing something quite different. Why don’t you tell us about that?

DAVE: Before I got back to Negros, my home island, and got the opportunity to work for Danjugan and this conservation work in South Negros, I was practicing to be a Buddhist monk.

I was learning how to practice the monastic tradition in Buddhism, which is to renounce property, renounce your personal life, and dedicate yourself to teaching and caring for others. I was transferring from temple to temple and helping in the work that was being done, and that’s how I also got exposed to the social aspect of conservation. How nature is needed by communities and how nature needs to be conserved.

When did this begin for you, your interest in the monastic tradition?

DAVE: I can probably trace it back to when I was 15 years old. I was, of course, trying to find meaning in life; trying to find direction and purpose. These are… maybe big words. Even now, I’m still exploring the answers to what I really want to do in life, and what is the meaning of life.

That’s where I started wanting to see the patterns and trends in nature: What is the earth telling us? What can we learn from the earth? What are we truly meant to do on this planet? [In the Philippines,] we have the tradition of the Babaylan, the shaman or spiritual leader of a community. They are the mediums that communicate… to me, that was my passion: to see the trends and the patterns that are seen within nature, and communicate it.

Interestingly, it intersects with science because science also measures data from the environment and interprets it—basically tells us what is happening, but in a different language. Science is a different language, but it also tells us that climate change is real. That the seas are rising. Other species are going extinct. So our job—and this is where my journey started—is really storytelling and environmental journalism.

I really want to get into this, but let’s backtrack for a little bit for a second. So it’s the year 2009 and you’re in a monastery in Taiwan. How many years did you stay here?

DAVE: I was with this Buddhist order for four years or so. I was based inside a Buddhist temple, or what you call a monastery. In the Philippines, they are Chinese temples, which were built by the Chinese community. In this Buddhist order, we have four temples in the Philippines, so I started my journey going to the Cebu temple.

As the story goes, one day I was working in a corporate setup. I was a fresh employee in this industry in Cebu. And I moved there—I’m originally from Bacolod—and discovered the world of work, you know? The routine of the paycheck.

So you went through the corporate life for a bit!

DAVE: Yes! I learned customer service, I learned how not to be late by a minute… I learned how to take proper 15-minute breaks, you know? How to get a Starbucks before taking the elevator to the floor, and planning weekends where you can just to go to the beach and forget about work.

One day, I just Googled “Buddhist temple Cebu,” right before I logged off work. I was on the night shift, so I took off at about six in the morning and said I was going to a Buddhist temple.

You have to understand that our relationship to the environment is very important to this story. When the environment is concrete buildings and alarm clocks waking us up; when we have phones in our faces all the time, we have deadlines to meet, we can’t be late… that also changes us. So this is where nature comes in; I was also asking what is my true nature? I felt stuck at that point. I was feeling suffocated.

And when you were Googling Buddhist temples in Cebu, and you were reading some big ideas to this question you were posing, what was the idea that resonated with you the most?

DAVE: I think it was the desire to liberate from—what they call in Buddhism—the cycle of suffering. It’s to transcend the suffering that we’re experiencing. I don’t know if this is something common, but a lot of people suffer in different ways. In Buddhist philosophy, there are numbers to the suffering: the Eight Kinds of Suffering. For example, one of those is being with a person or situation that you don’t like or you don’t love—that is suffering. Or when you’re apart from a person or situation that you desire, that is also suffering.

So this is what resonated with me; that there’s this process or this journey to end what [we call] suffering—the repeatedness and cycling of emotion and fears. Sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness, all of this is contributing to this feeling of being trapped. What I desired when I was searching for the temple was just like, “How do I deal with my life?” You know? How do I get through this?

For example, I was very jealous. I had a relationship and I had feelings of jealousy—I was always in pain, always in doubt. And that practice, the philosophy that I was reading was telling me that all of these feelings aren’t permanent. And this is the core of Buddhism, when we go into that philosophy, it talks about detachment. Some people think it’s about letting go and being chill about everything that’s happening, but it talks about freedom. Freedom from the cages that we built.

So I was trying to get a way out of the rat race, and I was reading books about people who started the monastic path and renounced their lives where they were. And I took that opportunity—I applied as a monastic in Taiwan and flew there.

What was a regular day like for you?

DAVE: When you’re in the monastery, the first thing that you do is prepare for the morning service. In our homes now, I think this is the morning routine that we do. It’s a very important part of the day: we’re setting our intentions for the day. In the Buddhist temple, we do that with a chanting ceremony that we call the morning dharma. But in our house, this could be waking up and making the bed, getting a smoothie… this is the morning routine where you’re at peace and really planning for your day.

The monastery is like a workplace. Sometimes you get assigned to the kitchen; you clean a lot—you clean toilets, rooms, floors—we cut grass... but we also study. Part of our day is really to study. I studied Mandarin as well, because the texts that I was reading were in Chinese. I also had to learn Buddhist philosophy. We were like scholars, but we would also work, because there’s about more than a thousand people inside the main monastery. That was my life.

Sometimes people ask me what was the happiest moment of my life… and it’s looking back at this sunset that you see from the hill where the monastery is. In the evenings, our dinner is light, and we’re very relaxed. I’d just walk from the dining hall to my dorm, [wearing] the inner clothes for the monks, and it’s very quiet as if there’s no worry in this world.

The interconnectedness and the inter-being of existences in this world are intertwined. That’s how I imagine enlightenment to be: to actually see the links.

That sounds amazing. I have a question though: you said that what set you on this path was this question of meaning and purpose. When you were in Taiwan and you were a monastic, did you feel like you had found this answer?

DAVE: No. Obviously not! I also started to of course ask questions about… this was a very meaningful part of my life, but at the same time I knew that I had to do more. And when I had the opportunity to come home to the Philippines. My dad had a stroke and I had to come back to Bacolod…

That’s what brought you back to Negros.

DAVE: Yes, that’s what brought me here. I didn’t go back to be fully ordained, [although] I was on the path to ordination. It’s a lifetime commitment, you know? You would have to take the commitment to practice it full-time.

And to me… I said I still needed to do more for my home, my home island. And if I get taken here, I speak a different language. I was very bad at Mandarin, but I had to speak it there. It was a foreign culture, it was a foreign language. And I said, what about my roots? Can I not practice the same thing where my roots are and using my own language?

So basically, you were missing home.

DAVE: Yes. And of course, because my dad had a stroke, that made it more urgent for me to come home. And to take care of who I truly am—which is the question, still, because I’m still discovering [the answer]. And until now, it’s still a process, still a journey.

Before you came home, were you set on making that commitment or were you also questioning whether it was the right decision for you?

DAVE: I was questioning. I was questioning if it truly made a difference for me to take that path. Where would I make the difference? I think it was the right decision, looking in hindsight. It was a very meaningful part of my life and it defined who I was and what I was for. And this is what led me to Danjugan—because it’s the same practice. It’s different words, a different language, but to me conservation is a very profound expression of mindfulness. It’s being mindful of our world and actively protecting it.

Correct me if I’m wrong but it almost feels to me—with my basic understanding of both conservation and Buddhism—it kind of feels like they borrow from the same basic premises?

DAVE: When people ask what made Buddha special… what was his enlightenment? It’s a very difficult thing to define, right? (I don’t know where this conversation is going, Nina!) There’s an entire group of people in the world that actually talks like this; about what Buddha was like when he was enlightened. What did he get enlightened to? Many scholars researched on this topic, and one major thing that I believe his Buddha-hood was about was a deep realization that everything is connected to everything else. The interconnectedness and the inter-being of existences in this world are intertwined.

That’s how I imagine enlightenment to be: to actually see the links. To know where it all started and what caused it. And it might be supernatural for others, but I also balance [this belief] with science. In science and ecology, you also say everything is connected. Sometimes it’s even a cliché, but if you express it in scientific terms, in the forest ecosystem you can see trees are connected to each other. They talk to each other. And then you have this entire ecosystem thriving with the trees: you have the soil, the insects, the birds, the reptiles, the mammals…

This might be a big question but you were just talking about how enlightenment is seeing the interconnectedness between things. Your space is Danjugan now, and when you were island manager, you lived their 26 days out of the month. Did you see this interconnectedness?

DAVE: I am still trying to see, everyday, every moment, and every opportunity that I have. I can see snippets in a place like Danjugan, but I can’t say that I’ve seen this interconnectedness because I’m still so ignorant about so many things.

And that’s what we’re trying to discover—with things or phenomena that are happening like coral bleaching, sea levels rising, or a typhoon that is stronger than usual. What is nature telling us when we see these events? We’re still figuring it out—that’s the job of conservation, it’s to study it and make recommendations so that we don’t basically go extinct. And isn’t that a spiritual question? It’s not just a scientific question.

I’ve never really thought about it before this interview; I was reading up to prepare for this and the more that I read on Buddhism, the more convinced I was that there was some kind of connection between this and conservation. Because it’s essentially understanding your environment, isn’t it?

DAVE: Yes. But it also doesn’t just stop at the awareness; that’s the beauty of it. I don’t see Buddhism as a religion to me. I don’t see Buddha as God—and I need to clarify that as well for some of the listeners. Buddha is a teacher that has talked about this practice and philosophy, and it’s not at all a superstitious practice.

I thought [Danjugan] was a very beautiful idea; the idea of a sanctuary or a refuge. The place where there’s… you know, a reserve of species that’s to me like a seed bank. That’s a beautiful aspect of our community.

So the story was that I took the monastic path and then ended up—actually, I worked in the corporate world again, in Makati City this time, for a year. Like, here we go again!

What was that like after your experience in the monastery?

DAVE: Wow, it was like a sensory overload. But the work ethic that I got from the monastery was really helpful when I was struggling in Makati. It gave me the discipline—and I’m not saying I have it until now—but the discipline that I got was very helpful. But it was, again, bringing me back to the cycle; making me experience the same pressure that I had before the monastery. The pressure to make the paycheck fit 15 days—that’s something that overloaded me again. So, I got tired.

After a year, and I said, “Mom, I need to come home. Please take me home.” So my mom, my parents said, “Come home, you don’t have to have a plan. Just come home.”

I came home to Negros, to Bacolod, and within the week that I came home, I met a friend that I had been meeting every year—even when I was in the temple; when I visited the Bacolod temple, she would actually come to the sessions. We met again, just the week that I got home. She was talking about Danjugan, and [invited me to apply to be island manager].

That’s where I started wanting to see the patterns and trends in nature: What is the earth telling us? What can we learn from the earth? What are we truly meant to do on this planet?

Earlier, you said that after you had left the temples and you went back to the corporate life, it was like a sensory overload. What was it like when you went to Danjugan?

DAVE: Oh, wow. It was such a relief; that feeling of relief. Of being home. For the first few weeks, I remember—this is a funny story—I would refuse to wear slippers or shoes in Danjugan. I wanted to live barefoot. In fact, my Instagram handle at the time was @davebarefoot. I even had a thick book about barefoot walking; the benefits, the practice, how it gives you energy from the earth, grounding… these are real fields of interest [of mine] at the time, it’s so funny.

That’s so funny. What did it feel like being barefoot in Danjugan? That sounds great!

DAVE: I think the bottom line of earthing or being barefoot is just connecting with the ground. Having something to disconnect us from the ground—we don’t have to take it in the literal sense. Of course now I wear slippers; I don’t walk barefoot on the streets. But I think the message of it is that we are often disconnected from the natural world.

To me, coming back to Danjugan and getting that job was the perfect way for me to look deeply into what I am truly made of and what I really want to do in life. And in conservation, I found that beauty and discovery of… it sounds cliché of discovering yourself and how you can use your skills. I’m not a scientist, so I love talking to scientists and seeing how they see the world is amazing.

I want to ask: We started this interview with you talking about going through this… can I call it an existential crisis? Looking for meaning in the world. Now—no longer island manager, making more executive decisions for Danjugan and other projects—what kind of questions are you asking?

DAVE: Wow, big question. In terms of sustainability, I think the question that we always ask is how is the future going to be like. What is the future going to bring us? What we’re trying to do is imagine a future where there’s enough for everyone, where people are taken care of. And how do we do that? how do we ensure that there is a future that will sustain the existence of human beings?

We’re talking about things like the 2030 sustainable development goals—we set targets to ensure we don’t cause the extinction of our species. And before that happens of course, the other species that are at our disposal—oftentimes they go first; they go extinct before us.

That is what our focus is now on, and finding ways to create policy, community support, education to talk about sustainability in design and communities. What is transportation going to be like? What is the water system going to be like? How are we going to get water? How are we going to get electricity? Where are the jobs? These are economic, right? They’re economic, practical concerns. But as conservationists, what we’re thinking is of course, in that future, how can we coexist with nature that we don’t kill all the fish or cut all the trees?

Thank you for having this conversation with us, Dave. Just one last question; earlier you told us one of your happiest moments was in Taiwan watching the sunset. What has been your happiest moment in Danjugan, or back home?

DAVE: It would also be on a trail. There’s this thing the Japanese call the light that goes through the forest canopy; they call it komorebi. These are the rays of light that go through the leaves when you walk through a trail under a canopy of trees. That to me, in my visual memory, is my happiest moment in the island. It’s to walk through that trail, to hear the breeze, to hear the rustling of the leaves. And to truly breathe fresh air! It’s a beautiful place to be in, and we take it for granted sometimes—I take it for granted sometimes.

But when I’m truly not focused on anything else except the trail… so many naturalists also share the same thing, this is what they’re after. It’s the deep connection that you have with a place like that.

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