“I have lived as a Catholic Franciscan monk and a Buddhist monk,” says A.C. Cuda ’68, “but there is a great difference between taking a vow of poverty and actually living in poverty, as too many do presently on our planet.” His words illustrate his perhaps surprising spiritual path, as well as his concern for social justice and the well-being of others.
Raised in a Catholic family near Utica, N.Y., Cuda counts St. Francis among his early influences, “especially his affection for animals.” Soon after graduating from Amherst, through investments and part ownership of a nightclub, he found financial success—but not happiness. “There was a lot of pleasure, but very little actual joy and peace,” he says. He visited a Franciscan monastery in New York State for a brief spiritual retreat and ended up staying for three years. As a monk, he gave away his wealth and worked in a program for heroin addicts. After that, he spent a year at Harvard Divinity School and served in the Philippines as a volunteer for the Peace Corps.
Cuda returned to the Philippines in the 1990s with the Franciscan Mission Service, where he helped at a camp for Vietnamese refugees, including “children who had been refused asylum in another country,” he says. “The program tried as best it could, through donations, to make people’s lives a little more humane.”
Eventually, Cuda departed from Catholicism, motivated largely by “a serious problem with its unequal treatment of women,” particularly its prohibition against women serving as priests. Buddhism offered a spiritual path that made more sense to him. “While I am a practicing Buddhist, I still remain a devout friend of Christ,” he says, “because if you look at the sayings of both the Buddha and Christ, there is an amazing similarity.” He stresses that kindness, compassion and service unite many religious and philosophical traditions.
Now in Bauang in the northern Philippines, Cuda visits a temple daily (which is the only time he wears his monastic robe), and he fasts frequently. Mostly, he is engaged with the community. Knowing of his past work with addicts, counselors ask him to speak about drug abuse at schools. He has participated in peace activism in Manila and with some indigenous groups, and in April he gave a lecture that helped inspire the provincial university to form its own peace council. He provides athletic equipment to schools and is a consultant for Run Out of Poverty, which promotes sports opportunities for disadvantaged elementary schoolers. He has also established small animal sanctuaries.
Cuda is humble and conflicted about his activism, knowing that “what I do is really so small” compared to the societal problems he sees around him. The Philippine Statistics Authority reports, for instance, that nearly 22 percent of Filipinos lived in poverty in 2015. And forced labor and sex trafficking are significant problems, according to the U.S. Department of State. Still, Cuda says, “I will do the best that I can with whatever resources I have access to, and be grateful that I have the opportunity to be of service to others.”
He also emphasizes his gratitude to his Amherst friends, some of whom volunteer in the Philippines, and many of whom do positive work for the world.
“In Buddhism, there is a term—bodhisattva—which describes a person who is motivated by great compassion to be of service to others,” says the monk. “I met many bodhisattva at Amherst.”
Katherine Duke ’05 is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.