Many Questions, Few answers.PERSPECTIVES 9 May, 2010 - In Laos there is a saying that too much education makes you unhappy. This proverb is contrary to everything you hear these days — namely that education is the key to everything.
But this kind of folk proverb has a lot of wisdom, in part because we often only identify issues as problems when we have knowledge and information about them. So we don’t really know whether our peace and happiness are due simply to ignorance or to our ability to make ourselves truly happy even when we have knowledge.
But there is more wisdom in that Laotian proverb, because education sometimes seems to make us so greedy and stressed. Many of my friends, particularly in Asian countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, are pushed relentlessly from a very young age to study so hard, get A’s, go to university, be competitive, get bank jobs, work around the clock, and live totally scheduled lives. They don’t have a life; they are stressed; and they aren’t very happy.
By contrast, Laotians still manage to smile and be friendly despite having been bombed more than any other country for a mistake they didn’t even make. From my own experience there, I think it may have something to do with Laotians being very laid back and seemingly not very ambitious or greedy.
Educating for GNH
S o what does Educating for Gross National Happiness mean? For Buddhists, I don’t think GNH is anything new, and in fact was taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago when he said that where there is greed, there is no happiness.
Thus, for a trained Buddhist ear, people’s lament about the recession last year was simply their complaint that they could no longer satisfy their greed. And globalization really means multiplying our individual greed globally.
Considering some statistics that show the average American presently consumes 30 times the resources of one Indian, it is frightening to think what will happen when the Indians and Chinese become as rich as they want, or even to half the level of Americans – and (perhaps unfortunately) they are becoming rich. For a start, there won’t be many trees left and we are already nervous about the climate change impacts of growing energy use in India and China.
So if GNH means anything, and if it has to do with protecting the natural world, then it must also be about not letting greed be the driver. But how do we teach that, and how do we implement that in practice in Bhutan? These are questions not just for the Royal Government of Bhutan, but for all Bhutanese.
Sovereignty and independence require that we don’t owe too much to others, which in turn requires economic development so that we can achieve greater self-reliance. But can we do that without encouraging greed?
S o genuinely educating for GNH in Bhutan must somehow meet the challenge of the modern world, including preserving and strengthening precious sovereignty and developing economically and materially, while at the same time preserving our most vital, core traditional values and not giving in to greed. I believe that fine balance is the essence of the Fourth King’s great pronouncement that GNH is more important than GNP.
That fine balance means not simply preserving – just for their own sake – traditions that have become counter-productive but allowing them to evolve creatively.
So educating genuinely for GNH will require greater clarity and understanding and then some tough decisions made with real courage and honesty to redefine our priorities and values, and to change deeply ingrained habits that no longer work.
To find the right balance between tradition and innovation, we have to be truly creative. Culture cannot be preserved genuinely and joyfully through imposition or obligation. Rather we have to find ways to practice elements of our ancient culture in ways that are relevant, vibrant, alive, dynamic, inspiring, modern, and even ‘fashionable’. A good example is the current popularity of “Zen simplicity” in clothing fashions and home decorations, so that it is a compliment to call someone’s taste “so Zen!”
Meeting these challenges is urgent. Major social problems are beginning to emerge – like drug abuse, youth unemployment, and alienation. These are growing at least as fast if not much faster than our commitment to GNH, and will not be solved simply by adhering rigidly or blindly to old habits and traditions. Because the stakes are high, and because GNH – as our professed guide for development and change – requires honest discourse, I will focus on some of our most sacred cows in the examples that follow.
1. Rethinking jobs
S ome of the causes of drug abuse, youth problems and alienation are certainly in the growing wealth, consumption, and affluence that young people now see and take as their own goals, and in trends that come with urbanization.
But, given our traditional hierarchical society, some likely stem from things like the status we still accord civil service positions compared with other jobs. I remember when I was young how much pride our village families took when a family member got even a low-level civil service job in the capital. In a traditional society like Bhutan that values status highly, even small symbols like having the white lagye (sleeve), were such a big deal.
Sadly, these outmoded values are still nurtured by the many perks and privileges given to higher-level civil servants with desk jobs. They are perceived to be the ones with titles, the biggest houses and cars, salary raises, overseas study and travel opportunities, and special robes – still one of our country’s biggest obsessions now joined by special number plates for cars. And of course, they have the greatest job security and perhaps the illusion of power.
Not surprisingly I hear of young people who won’t tell their parents they work as restaurant waiters, and simply say they work “in Thimphu,” so that rural relatives will believe they have some important job.
At a time when the government can’t provide enough civil service positions for our young, and promotes a policy to grow the private sector and encourage young Bhutanese to stand on their own feet, we must have the courage to change this old value system that no longer serves our country’s needs. That’s difficult for strong traditional cultures like India and Bhutan, but we must do it – in our educational system, in the media, through awards and recognition, and in how we assign privilege, security and opportunity.
It’s not as if Bhutanese are not adaptable. I’ve seen even high-ranking Bhutanese in Jackson Heights, New York, flip hamburgers, make sushi, and do all kinds of so-called menial jobs, and they are proud to be able to send money to their relatives back home.
Dignity of all labour seems to have a little more meaning there than in Bhutan. We need to respect and value all kinds of work in Bhutan as well, not just desk jobs in the civil service.
One example of how we could tackle these issues is to reduce our obsession with traditional symbols that no longer serve us, including robes and scarves. As we Bhutanese well know, symbols matter. We might say that sweeping the office floor is an important and dignified job. But if the one working in the office wears a special robe laden with meaning and the sweeper doesn’t, the visible differences can undermine all talk of job dignity. Perhaps we could learn from some of the world’s most powerful leaders, like the British Prime Minister, whose dress is exactly like any other professional Englishman going to work.
So if we are not yet quite ready to equalize some of the actual perks and privileges that are now the almost exclusive domain of civil servants, we could begin with symbols. One way or the other, we have to start respecting all kinds of productive labour if we are to move ahead as a society.
This is even more important in our new and supposedly egalitarian democracy. By contrast, our traditional dress codes are a residue of a very hierarchical system that was a brilliantly appropriate method at the time the Zhabdrung, in his wisdom, needed to overcome tribal divisions and unify the country. Equality was not a core societal value at that time. But now, when our democracy values equality, these hierarchical dress codes are a form of divisiveness, which is actually contrary to the Zhabdrung’s unifying vision for Bhutan.
One person driving the latest Land Cruiser while another has to settle for a Maruti and most cannot afford cars at all seems contrary to the “equitable” economic development that is one of the key pillars of GNH. In any case, civil servants generally have enough power through their positions that they do not also need to flaunt decorations and visible symbols of elitism.
In all my remarks about the civil service, needless to say, I am not talking about front-line workers like teachers, nurses, and police, who do some of the hardest and most challenging work, often for very modest pay. Elsewhere in the world, as well as here, these front-line workers need more, rather than less, support and care.
2. Rethinking culture
O f course, one of the core pillars of GNH is culture, which is obviously very important for the identity and sovereignty of a nation. But keeping a rich tradition and culture vibrant and alive does not mean pushing people to do exactly what their ancestors did 50 or 100 years ago. If we try to do that, we will not only ruin the creativity and critical intellect of the young by teaching them to mimic rather than create, but we won’t even keep our culture alive or survive as a nation in the modern world.
Resisting change might serve a supposed purpose of GNH by encouraging people to be happy with what they have. But unwisely insisting on the mimicking of old habits also stifles avant-garde activity and innovation, fails to value excellence, and ends up settling for mediocrity. And in the end, that approach undermines rather than enhances GNH by making our culture static rather than dynamic.
For example, the handicraft skills, about which we often brag, have become stagnant, lack innovation, and in fact are fast eroding in Bhutan. It’s far more expensive to make a traditional clay Buddha statue in Bhutan, even of mediocre quality, than to buy a bronze one of much better quality in Kathmandu.
We are proud of our basket weaving, but the Indonesians put us to shame in quality and innovation, let alone price. Our silver-smithing, wood-carving, and thangka painting are generally mediocre at best, lacking in innovation, effort, and attention to detail, and with poor workmanship and many imperfections.
And aside from the extremely expensive kiras and textiles that only the richest Bhutanese can afford to wear, we have to admit that Lao, Cambodian, and Thai weaving, textiles and arts are often far superior in quality to our own. In fact, if the truth be told, there is very little hand-made coming out of Bhutan that is exceptionally good in quality.
We just have to hope that tourists will still buy Bhutanese crafts just because they are Bhutanese, and that Bhutanese will buy them out of patriotism! But sooner or later people will find out that our handicrafts are mostly both mediocre and expensive, and that really doesn’t work in this competitive age.
Of course, there are talented individual craftsmen working away quietly with excellent motivation, who should really be helped and supported to create first-rate products of which we can be truly proud. But sadly, our crafts people rarely get to compare their own work or learn from other cultures, because civil servants (not craftsmen) are the ones who take most of the funded study tours to see industries in other countries.
Actually, many so-called traditions are little more than habits that we have no choice but to change for our own sakes, such as our health. After all, our lifestyles have changed drastically. For example, even though we still eat the same amount of rice, cheese, and fat as a hundred years ago, many of us now drive and sit behind computers rather than walk and work manually. For health reasons alone, we need to change our diets.
Of course, some traditional forms can serve us well in the modern world, like the traditional rammed earth buildings that are not only economically sound and aesthetically pleasing but also ecologically responsible. But even here, it is embarrassing that it took a billion dollar modern corporate hotelier like Aman to show us Bhutanese that rammed earth design can be extremely elegant rather than low-class and backward. We should be taking the lead in such innovations.
And while we are on architecture, there is nothing traditional about the ugly corrugated tin roofs that now deprive Thimphu of architectural elegance. Of course, traditional wooden shingles are both expensive and ecologically unsound given our Constitution’s commitment to 60% forest cover. But a creative and innovative solution would be to design the new roofs so that they at least look a little more like the elegant traditional wooden roofs that are more aesthetically pleasing. For example, even though slate is mined in Bhutan, the technology has not been developed.
Such innovations would be much better investments, for example, than the endless paintings and carvings that are overly elaborate, expensive, difficult to maintain, and not particularly creative since they look like they are mostly made in the same mould. My point here is simply that – as we talk about preserving our culture and traditions – we need to be much more discriminating and precise in our choices. In particular:
• What are the true core values and principles in our ancient traditions that are timeless and genuinely contribute to our wellbeing?
• What forms, traditions, and practices do we cling to rigidly that no longer serve us, and that can be easily discarded, adapted, or changed in ways that are far more appropriate to our current needs? And which ones are truly valuable, aesthetically pleasing, and relevant to the modern world?
• And when we adapt, we need to choose our models carefully and with discrimination. For example, I’ve noticed a growing tendency for affluent Bhutanese to send their children to study in Bangkok rather than in India. Yet Thailand, while it has a reputation in other areas, is not particularly well known for its educational excellence. In fact, some of what we learn from Thailand may teach us what not to do here in Bhutan.
By contrast, India, which also provides 70% of our foreign aid, produces some of the world’s most highly educated people and has some of the best innovative educational models available. As well, Bhutan and India share centuries of thought, philosophy, and understanding, particularly since Bhutan’s two major religious traditions originate in India.
3. Rethinking language
I want to say a few words now about the most sacred cow of all – language. Quite frankly, there is a problem in every discussion of Dzongkha being regarded as so highly “sensitive”. Surely the issue of the national language is no clandestine project and should be squarely in the public domain.
Despite all the government encouragement and enforcement, most Bhutanese still don’t speak Dzongkha, and most of those who do, speak it poorly with even poorer reading and writing skills. I hear it is many students’ least favourite subject and that there are not enough fluent Dzongkha speaking teachers to teach it well. And even if you are a Dzongkha master, there is hardly any literature to read except newspapers that are easier to understand in English.
I have even heard complaints that use of Dzongkha in Parliament disadvantages and disempowers MPs from other areas, and that native Dzongkha-speaking MPs sometimes rely on their eloquence rather than on the content of their arguments. And the many Bhutanese who still don’t understand Dzongkha, despite all the government’s efforts, cannot even follow what is going on in the very forum that supposedly represents them.
Dzongkha doesn’t even preserve our precious wisdom heritage, culture, and buddhadharma, which has been carried through Choekey, not Dzongkha. In fact Dzongkha doesn’t do much to preserve our history, prayers, poetry, dance, songs, philosophy, and more, since there are so few Dzongkha books, and since our ancient texts like the Kangyur and Tengyur aren’t in Dzongkha. The few Dzongkha books in existence are mostly very recent, and generally do not represent our ancient heritage.
Even our monks often don’t understand what they are chanting, since all the prayers recited in Bhutan are in Choekey, not in Dzongkha, and Chokey is not native to anyone in Bhutan. So the Buddhist liturgies are simply parroted meaninglessly rather than understood.
In fact Bhutanese will soon have to learn English to study and practice the dharma, since there is already more dharma translated into English than into Dzongkha. I know these are extremely touchy subjects. But in the process of building a nation, tough questions have to be asked, and indeed, our new democracy requires us to have the courage to debate these issues openly and without fear.
The biggest concern about promoting Dzongkha actually has to do with time management, since time is an increasingly rare resource in the modern world. If you think of all our 178,000 Bhutanese students, then millions of hours are spent each year studying Dzongkha. You cannot undertake any tertiary studies in science, mathematics, philosophy, psychology or geography in Dzongkha, which doesn’t even have the vocabulary really to discuss such disciplines properly. And by the time any university text is translated into Dzongkha, it will likely be outdated, or the Dzongkha will need to be updated.
Building a new national language is extremely difficult, and we have to ask whether it is worth the huge effort required, and whether it’s the best use of our very limited time and resources. I read that time and human resources are the most precious resources we have in our modern economy. I would ask – if only to provoke debate – that, if that is so, then aren’t we wasting a whole generation’s precious time in forcing them to spend hours each week and year learning a language they will hardly use – time that could be spent in much more productive ways to build our nation?
I fully appreciate our leaders’ wish to have a unifying language as a symbol of our sovereignty. But what is the experience of other nations in our region in that regard? India is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world, with hundreds of dialects and many major languages, each with its own ancient literature. Attempts to promote Hindi as the national language have not been successful, except in the popularity it enjoys in Bollywood, and English still serves as a unifying language. At the same time India celebrates its diversity by recognizing 18 official languages in its Constitution, and giving citizens the right to communicate in the language of their own state and choice. Similarly diversity could be a source of pride in Bhutan.
And if we do want to render our spoken languages into written form, then we might learn from the Malays and Indonesians, who have adopted the Roman alphabet for their own languages. Do we Bhutanese really want to expend so much precious time and resources learning a written Dzongkha with its own distinct script?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with teaching Dzongkha or Tshangla as language studies, and even encouraging some translation to preserve certain cultural traditions. It’s the balance between Dzongkha’s contribution to our national identity and the huge expenditure of time and resources on cultivating Dzongkha as the first national language that I am questioning.
And I am asking whether – given our very limited time and resources – strong Dzongkha emphasis may actually undermine and diminish, rather than enhance, our sovereignty and potential contribution to the world. Could we achieve those goals more effectively, as India has done, by relying on English as our unifying language without compromising (and indeed celebrating) our rich linguistic and cultural diversity?
T o be loyal is not necessarily to be a sycophant. Often, saying what you think can at least encourage some productive contemplation.
But I also know that we don’t have much time to find solutions to questions like those above and that we need to act while parts of our ancient culture remain resilient. For example, I am so moved that – in an era when the entertainment industry is continuously seeking new and more dazzling ways to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetites of their television and other audiences – Bhutanese continue to attend tshechus where each year’s offerings are basically the same as the last. But will that commitment last?
I don’t know whether we can preserve our precious heritage in this fast-changing and greedy materialist world. But I do know that if we are to have any chance at all, we must at least have the courage to raise tough questions, to abandon outworn practices, symbols, and traditions that no longer serve us, to identify what is most genuine, wise, and lasting in our heritage, and to adapt creatively and with integrity and innovation to this modern world. Attaining that fine balance is the real challenge of a GNH-based education system.
It is too idealistic to think that greed will disappear altogether. But in some pockets of the world, like Bhutan, we might at least introduce a more monitored and sober greed. After all, one great thing about the human mind is that it can be influenced and that greed can therefore at least be ameliorated.
I am sure there will be a lot of interpretation of what I am saying here, and I expect that. Some may accept it blindly just because a Rinpoche said it, others might edit it in their minds or take it out of context, while still others might get completely upset. But it’s not really my concern whether people’s reactions are positive or negative. The questions I’ve raised are simply ones I’d like to see discussed by all Bhutanese and to which I, for one, am seeking answers.
In fact, no blame is intended in anything I’ve said. As I mentioned at the start, responsibility does not rest with the Royal Government of Bhutan alone. In a democracy, all Bhutanese are responsible for our country’s development, for debating the tough issues, and for making choices.
I am not pretending either to know those answers or to imply that those of us in the spiritual and monastic traditions are free of responsibility. On the contrary, we too can no longer simply closet ourselves in monasteries, but need to find new ways to contribute to the modern Bhutan. For example, I’d like to see our monks help those schools that are now introducing meditation and educate communities about preventing forest fires and alcohol abuse.
I could also be totally wrong even in the questions I am raising. But I would rather say all this up front than just hear grumbling in the background. After all, a new democracy requires that we identify the toughest challenges and chew the most bitter truths if we really want to build a good nation in this day and age.