The Meaning of Kapwa

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The Vernacular Kapwa

I have always heard the meaning of kapwa, at least in vernacular, as a reference to a popular public service TV program here in the Philippines. Its thrust is to help the poor, sick, disabled, depressed and devastated ease their suffering by giving financial, medical and psychological aid. Amid the fancy and fad of many commercial TV programs, this one has been running quietly for almost four decades, and it bears in its title the noblest act anyone can do to the other, a lifework comparable to that of Mother Teresa’s.

But the word kapwa has remained in many years as a basic translation of the word “neighbor” or “other”. In the study of catechism and values, kapwa is an almost pious word, a reminder of moral virtues and religious ideals. It has become so familiar that many people in the media and politics have used and exploited. In my most insightful conversations with ordinary people, this word bears a genuine declaration of their true character – in their stories, the word is a testament to their willingness to help, to be more compassionate, and more importantly, the Filipino golden rule, which is to do no harm upon the other.

Kapwa Psychology

A few years ago, I heard again the word kapwa, now in a very different context. In the academic circles where my mentor belongs, they refer to the word as it was articulated by the late Virgilio Enriquez, a Filipino psychologist hailed as the father of modern Filipino psychology. Instead of using the existent Western psychological theories, which Enriquez thought as too incompatible with the Filipino sensibility, he pioneered a deeper emphasis on studying Filipino concepts and experiences as the basis of a new psychology capable of understanding Filipinos. At the center of his academic exploration is kapwa, the core concept of how every Filipino thinks, behaves, and relates with others.

According to Enriquez, kapwa cannot just simplistically mean “others”, as what most translations render. He proposed a new rendition that bears its profound and powerful meaning: shared inner self. Enriquez points out that when a Filipino says the word kapwa, it shows an ethos of sharing, seeing and caring the other as oneself. It radiates a psyche and philosophy of noblest intention of being human, of becoming one with the other. The English word “other” is not enough to demonstrate the depth and breadth of kapwa. The former, Enriquez says, tells more about differences and separateness. The latter lives an essence of sharing and oneness.

Kapwa radiates a psyche and philosophy of noblest intention of being human, of becoming one with the other.

Kapwa Conference

Interestingly, Enriquez’s academic efforts has inspired a new generation of psychologists. In his final years, he mentored a German-born but very Filipino Katrin de Guia, who later braved her way in establishing Kapwa psychology as a main academic thrust. Nay Katrin, together with her husband, the independent filmmaker and avant-garde artist Kidlat Tahimik (Quiet Lightning) pioneered the Kapwa Conference in 2004, first held in University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. The second was held in 2008 in UP, Iloilo City. The aim is to bring together the indigenous people of the Philippines, as well as those from different countries, plus the scholars who study indigenous knowledge, to create a venue for appreciating indigenous cultures, listening to the stories of ethnic elders and culture-bearers, and revitalizing the heritage that has been forgotten in our modern society.

I went up to Baguio City, the hometown of De Guias, to volunteer for the third conference which was held just last week. What was then a story I have been hearing from others came into a vibrant, overwhelming kapwa experience. I made friends with many indigenous people of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, who represent their respective Schools of Living Traditions or SLTs. Also, I met insightful speakers, professors and artists who discussed their studies on indigenous concepts in their respective fields. I mingled with friendly Filipino-Americans who have been seeking and reuniting with their Filipino roots, and with young fellow Filipinos who were there to share their time and effort to support the event. The entire week was filled with indigenous music and dances, rituals and festivities, new information and knowledge. This rendezvous of colorful cultures was an event that has reawakened in my life an organic and living meaning of the word kapwa.

Kapwa means Love

Perhaps the most important kapwa lesson I had was the creation of new friendships and memories with people who are truly reflection of my being Filipino. It reminded me again of the original meaning of kapwa. Kapwa relatively originated from two words: Ka is the cosmic union that denotes any kind relationship with everyone and everything. Puwang is space, similar to Lao Tzu’s, is the ever-essential emptiness and formlessness that is the matrix of all life in the universe. To share this space in union with both my fellow Filipinos and peoples of the world, is no less than an incarnation of my experience in finding the universal and distinct paradigms of Love. Kapwa is a Filipino word, but it is more than a word. It points us the meaning of Love in this space we share as one humanity. By living its meaning, we become true to the Loving purpose of our human lives.

20 thoughts on “The Meaning of Kapwa

    Was not able to attend, but am very excited to hear about participants’ experiences. I like what you wrote about the insightful dialogues with people about kapwa signifying compassion, non-harming, willingness to help. Embodiments of Kapwa Konsciousness. Happy you were able attend!!!

    1. Thanks to you, too! It might be “sayang” that you weren’t able to attend, but with your spirit and intentions, you are already with us in this growing consciousness. Still, hope to see you around at the Kapwa4! (or meet you in any possible chance) Blessings of Peace and Love! =D

  2. Interesting to note that the same word Kapwa can mean “other” and “oneness” through “shared inner self”. Then who is the other? There is no other, we are all one.

  3. I’ve been to KAPWA-2 but didn’t know that there was KAPWA-3 so I wasn’t able to attend. Do you have any info whether there is KAPWA-4? Thanks. The truth is I wanna buy those products they showcase.

    1. Hi Nuwi! I heard that they are planning to hold KAPWA 4 somewhere in the south, but still not sure where and when. Just check out their website for any updates.

  4. Hi! I just want to ask where you got “ka + puwang” as the etymology of kapwa. In UP Dictionary, the origin of kapawa is “ka + puwa” but the original meaning of the word puwa actually does not fit even our simplest understanding of kapwa. There’s also this other thought that kapwa is “ka + puwas” where puwas means to create fire by rubbing sticks together. Somehow, this explanation is better than “ka+puwa” for it pertains to how ancient Filipinos work together in order to create fire, one of the essential elements for their living. I think your “ka+puwang” could be a viable option as well for reinforcing this sociological and philosophical value of kapwa, that’s why I just want to know where you got the information. Thanks!

    1. HI Tyron! Thanks for that input, esp the meaning of “puwas”, that gives a new story to the word, as fire is elemental, mythic and cosmic as a symbol of human spirit. “Kapuwang” meaning was actually discussed by the late Dr. Virgilio Enriquez, who is considered the father of Sikolohiyang Filipino. He pioneered this new perspective on psychology and discovered that at the center of our Filipino psyche lies the essence of Kapwa. You can check his book, “From Colonial to Liberation Psychology,” published by UP Press.

  5. thank you for sharing… with regard to your definition of kapwa, can I cite it as, “according to Enriquez (1992) as cited by Tanuan (2012)” in my thesis? I just saw from your reply to Tyron that it was where you got it… thank you again for your reply.

    1. Hello Ariem! Yes, please…I’m very grateful to be part of your work. This is also a way to bring more awareness to the amazing work of Dr. Enriquez.

  6. Hello. I’ll be using this as a part of my thesis. Thank you very much for this very meaningful article. Godbless

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