On PMS: Meditations on the Post Modern Syndrome

It’s been nearly three months to the day when I first got word from the editors of the online journal Kritika Kultura that my submission to their first literary anthology had been accepted.

And now, here it is in all its portable-document-formatted glory:


And for those of you who should be so inclined, you can explore the rest of the contents of the anthology (there are numerous gems) at the following link:


A final word:

This series of essays is dedicated to Abbey, who inspired it and countless others. Thank YOU for being the genesis of all things to which I can only (mostly) pay silent tribute. 🙂

On the Dilemmas of Faith

Poster image provided by the Philosophy Department of the Ateneo de Manila University.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to formulate a response to a paper written by a Burmese Jesuit Scholastic on the topic of The Position of Women in Buddhism. The article turned out to be revelation. I had always assumed Buddhism to be a profoundly egalitarian tradition, and it came as a surprise (to say the least) that it contains elements of what I will (perhaps controversially) call an anti-feminist streak.

The paper was motivated, perhaps, by the writer’s remembrances of difficulties undergone by his mother and sister in the practice of their faith. Whatever the impetus was, the essay itself was written in the spirit of a great tradition of critique whose intention has been to challenge religious orthodoxies that have led—in one way or another—to unjust practices. In this particular instance, the religious tradition in question was Buddhism, and the bone of contention was its alleged anti-feminine slant.

Critiques such as these are necessary for the simple reason that all religions carry a paradox at heart: on the one hand, they claim to convey eternal and universal truths; on the other hand, these truths are embedded in, established upon and expanded within historically and culturally contingent attitudes, beliefs and practices. Hence, the task of any adherent is to carry out a perpetual distinction between the principles that embody the essence of a faith and the accretions that merely misrepresent it. This presents a momentous task of judgment, particularly in instances where the “accretion” in question is not an accretion at all but comes from the mouth of the founder of the faith himself or herself. In these instances, the desire to emancipate the tradition from time- and space-bound distortions carries the risk of undermining it altogether.

Yet regardless of how difficult the task is, deconstruction is necessary. Religions possess a power that few other human institutions have. Precisely because of their ability to transcend the limitations of critical thought—and to function, even, and in most cases actually, on the level of pre-critical thought—they continue to exercise a tremendous influence over how the vast majority of human beings think, feel and act. Nothing is trivial in religion—everything takes on the magnitude of divine proportions with all the consequences such an elevation entails.

And when what is magnified is a bias or a prejudice against one group of humanity or another, then the consequences are particularly disastrous. Women, in particular, have been a consistently underprivileged group across the vast majority of faiths and not just in Buddhism (though women are far from being the only disadvantaged sector). Critiques of religion have consistently aimed to expose the contradictions inherent in such positions, and the debates have been long, complex and controversial.

Yet, the difficulty remains. How do we resolve these ambiguities? How do we settle these ambivalences? What hermeneutical principle can we use as a guide in navigating such ideological waters?

On this particular matter, I find inspiration from Karen Armstrong, who has insisted time and again on using the virtue of compassion as a guide for religious practice. Ms. Armstrong once said:

All the great world religions insist that not only is compassion the litmus test of any spirituality but that it actually brings us into what monotheists call the presence of God. Buddhists would say that it introduces us into Nirvana; Hindus that it unites us with Brahman; Confucians would say that it puts us into harmony with the Tao.

Elsewhere she adds:

If conventional beliefs make you compassionate . . . this is good religion. If your beliefs make you intolerant, unkind and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how orthodox it is.

The test of compassion, then, is the test we can set for ourselves and our faiths. If our adherence to dogma brings destruction, if our pursuit of salvation causes suffering, then it is best if we examine what it is that we blasphemously call religion. On this matter, even the Buddha lends his accord. For he has said:

Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: “These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering”—then reject them.

On this point, I would like to think that the founder of every great religion would give his—or her—assent.

* The bulk of this essay was delivered by the author as a response at a student symposium on feminism entitled All About Eve: What Jesuits Know About Women at the Ateneo de Manila University on February 16th, 2011. The beautiful graphic featured in this post was designed by philosophy postgraduate student Abigail Loren Lewis.

On the Ubiquity of Portals


We open and close them every day with neither thought nor attention to the transitions they facilitate.

Their ubiquitous presence in the topography of everyday life renders them invisible. Yet they structure our experiences of space and time—creating the necessary discontinuities for inhabiting the former and the essential continuities for enduring the latter.

As the externalized markers of our internal partitions, doors allow us to humanize the world: to cut living spaces from an undifferentiated nature and to designate unique domains for human activity. Every door signifies an entry to (and also an escape from) a sphere of human action, whether private or public: beyond this threshold is where I sleep; beyond this threshold is where I eat; beyond this threshold is where I pray; beyond this threshold is where I suffer; beyond this threshold is where I can be myself—where I can use the barriers of wood, brick, concrete or steel as a second skin around my exposed and exhausted self.

As the internalized symbols of our exterior limits, doors allow us to narrate our lives: to serve as metaphors that signify the plurality of our choices, the opacity of our futures and the irrevocability of our pasts. Every door designates an entry to (and also an exit from) a chapter in our history, whether personal or collective: behind that threshold was my childhood; behind that threshold lies my innocence; behind that threshold was another life; behind that threshold was a life with another; in front of this threshold is the life I want to live—where I can end the traversal of endless corridors and find that I’ve, at last, “arrived.”

And, of course, like all human constructs, doors bear their double function simultaneously, so that geography becomes history and space unfolds time.

Yet doors also serve another purpose, operative in the literal and metaphorical realms. Whether in the world or in our minds, they can abet, aid, assist, enable, facilitate and welcome; or they can bar, exclude, forbid, hinder, obstruct and restrict. Doors “lead to” as much as “protect from”; they invite access and they allow escape.

Ultimately, doors symbolize the multidimensional wholeness of human beings. The constant fragmentation of our lives into compartments that resist fusion is not the final word. In the end, the primal permeability that doors provide allows synthesis to emerge—from schizophrenia.


* This essay with ten of the accompanying photographs was originally published as “Doors” in Budhi: A Journal of Ideas and Culture, Volume XII, Numbers 2 & 3, 2008.


On the Heart of Corporate Social Responsibility

Poster image provided by the Management Engineering Association of the Ateneo de Manila University.

In recent decades, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become an inescapable feature of the business landscape. Its rise to prominence has nevertheless been accompanied by a fair share of controversy. While responses to the movement have generally been favorable, criticisms against it have nonetheless been raised. And even among those who purport to support it, certain interpretations and applications of CSR can ultimately prove more detrimental than beneficial.

But what is CSR, first of all? Its many popular definitions can be roughly condensed into the following description: it is a company’s voluntary approach toward meeting or exceeding stakeholders’ legal obligations and ethical expectations through the integration of environmental and social concerns into the pursuit of financial objectives. Such an approach involves a company’s taking responsibility, first of all, for the consequences of its activities on the environment and society, and then acting to address these consequences accordingly. These actions can range from the elimination of core business practices with negative impacts, at the very least, to the establishment of positive business practices as a competitive advantage and even an industry standard, at the very most.

The most common criticisms leveled against CSR tend to arise when the focus begins to shift from simply meeting obligations to exceeding expectations. That is, meeting obligations is part of the nature and cost of doing business, but exceeding expectations is another matter altogether. First, it is not a company’s mandate. Second, it is not its expertise. That is, if a business exists to maximize shareholder return, addressing other objectives may not only cause it to depart from its core competences but to even deviate from its raison d’être.

What lies at the heart of these criticisms, however, is the presupposition that a fundamental dichotomy exists between corporate interests and societal interests. When such a gap exists, a considerable effort must be made to bridge the divide. Under such a view, CSR understandably becomes an additional drain on company resources—yet another unwelcome cost among the ever-mounting costs of doing business.

Such a view can be held even by companies that do support and practice CSR. It betrays itself in CSR efforts that bear no connection to the business’ mission, in CSR budgets that depend on the business’ performance, and in CSR organizations that function apart from the business’ hierarchy. In these cases, a degree of separation still exists between corporate and societal interests. In these cases, CSR acquires an air of heroic self-sacrifice that may be beneficial in the short-term—especially for companies seeking to enhance their public image—but detrimental in the long.

This is so because any practice that rests on some form of sacrifice will prove undesirable, at the very least, and unsustainable, at the very worst. An application of CSR that remains embedded in the framework of tradeoffs will find itself constantly embattled and perpetually defensive—with all the consequences the latter will entail for its effectiveness.

This is why prior to being recognized as a science, an art, a discipline or a movement, corporate social responsibility must be recognized as a philosophy, in the sense of a system of beliefs that guide practical conduct. In essence, a belief is a claim which is trusted to contain some truth even when evidence to the contrary can be presented. Hence, authentic CSR begins when a company commits itself to the belief that its interests and the interests of society do converge—even as the critics of CSR demonstrate otherwise. By scrutinizing the entire chain of its business activities from this perspective, a company will be surprised to discover the enormous range of opportunities that present themselves for the simultaneous fulfillment of corporate and societal interests.

The element of simultaneity is key. Without invalidating the notion that certain long-term benefits can be achieved only by delaying short-term gratification, too much of an adherence to or reliance on this latter notion to justify CSR can lead to complacency, inefficiency, unimaginative thinking, and even the discrediting of the movement. When the results expected are postponed all too frequently to a nebulous future, when the gains to be attained are realizable only over the indefinite time spans of companies and not within the finite lifetimes of the individuals who run them, motivation, urgency and creativity wane.  A commitment to fulfilling the interests of both a company and society must include a commitment to fulfill on as many of these shared interests now rather than later. And again, it is the commitment that leads to the awareness of opportunities for concrete action in the present.

Ultimately, distilling the essence of CSR as a commitment to a belief in the convergence of a company’s and society’s values has another advantage: that of broader application. When individuals themselves can begin to see that no tradeoff necessarily exists between fulfilling on what matters to them and fulfilling on what matters to society, then CSR can become the more encompassing notion of social responsibility. What it takes is a commitment to the view—in the face of what may initially be overwhelming evidence to the contrary—and the patience, openness and ingenuity to find, utilize or even create the necessary opportunities for its fulfillment.

In the end, perhaps even the directive to be men and women for others, with its occasional connotations of sacrifice, needs to be re-interpreted. Perhaps the directive is to see our own selves in others, to recognize that our lives cannot work if the lives of others around us do not. In the end, the false dichotomy between corporations and society is rooted in the more fundamental and more inauthentic dichotomy between Self and Other. And that is why, perhaps, it is where we should therefore begin.

* This essay was delivered by the author as the opening remarks in the first lecture of a series of student talks entitled Beyond Business: A Lecture Series on Business and Social Change at the Ateneo de Manila University on January 31st, 2011.