In 2008, Bhutan completed one of the most peaceful transitions ever to democracy. Initiated by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the process was unique: a voluntary abdication of power (in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck) in the face of public opposition to democracy.
Imagine losing the living embodiment of a Platonic Philosopher King - someone universally loved for his enlightened leadership - relinquishing his power to a system that has fared tenuously, at best, throughout the region. Truly, the people were heartbroken!
And yet, Bhutanese are aware that there is no going back. At least, His Majesty the Fifth King, who retains his symbolic authority as Constitutional Head of State, won’t allow them to.
All the way, he has been supportive of the transition, vesting his legitimacy as King on the success of the democratic system. “For our generation, the sacred gift of democracy from His Majesty the Fourth King will be our shared and primary endeavor,” he affirmed during the National Day Ceremony in 2007. “If we do not succeed and our nation and people suffer, it will mean that I have failed in my duty as King.”
In the years since, most Bhutanese have been trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance of transitioning: listen to the King, because he knows what’s best for the people; move towards democracy, because the people are best suited to rule themselves.
While many of the hallmark democratic institutions have been set up - a model Constitution, local and national elections, an independent judiciary, legislative, executive and media - the democratic culture has been slow to emerge. The challenge for Bhutanese is one of psychological reorientation, as they shift from that status of being subjects to being citizens (as well as subjects).
Many don’t feel the impetus to make the shift. Why change at all? Indeed, life before democracy was much simpler for the average Bhutanese. Under the King, the state provided substantial support for the population. Education and health care are free (and still are). Educated people could get comfortable, permanent jobs of their choice in the civil service. It was common for the landless to be granted land under the kidu (“welfare”) system. If you were a rural-based farmer, like over 70% of the population, you could rely on the strength of your communities to resolve any problem.
Traditional social structures also work against change. With remnants of feudal hierarchies intact, social propriety is still defined in top-down terms: respect those above you in the pecking order, let them make all the decisions, and don’t ask questions. This is most evident in classrooms throughout Bhutan, which are highly teacher-centric. Students are taught to regurgitate answers they are given for examinations. If they don’t act submissively, they risk being chastised, as corporal punishment remains a popular means of dealing with non-conforming students.
These norms have been re-entrenched symbolically through clothing - for example, the colored sashes (kabney) that denote one’s status; through rituals - at all events, guests are required to stagger their arrival, with commoners arriving first, and high officials or royalty arriving last; and, perhaps most significantly, through their national language, Dzongkha, which is an honorific-based language that encodes the relative status of the speaker to the person being addressed.
Like most Asian cultures, Bhutanese culture places a strong emphasis on social harmony and avoidance of conflict at any costs. This is typical in most interactions, where any suggestion made, especially by leaders, will be met with a “Lasso La” (roughly translated as “Whatever you say, sir/madam”). An ideal person is expected to work for the good of the group and to adjust the self according to others’ expectations. Rarely do people choose to openly disagree. In a small society, where “everyone knows everyone”, and is possibly related, disagreeing entails risking losing face and becoming the subject of gossip – a culture quite strong here!
By no means do I intend to suggest that all of these norms and artifacts are at variance with democracy. As Amartya Sen has written, it is a myth that Asian cultures are “incompatible” with democracy. However, as some commentators (and even high Buddhist Lamas) have pointed out, these traditions should be critically examined and not merely held on to for tradition’s sake – especially if they conflict with such universal values of equality and justice.
Yet, it’s patently clear that Bhutan’s society has not been an open one - a society in which people participate in decision-making, can freely express themselves, and discuss their common problems without the oversight or interference of the state.
Of course, culture does not change overnight.
Nevertheless, times are a changin’ - and changing fast. For one, people’s consciousness of their rights is rising. In the same way pubescent teens subvert their fathers, Bhutanese are beginning to question the government’s authority to enact policies made for the “public good”.
Take, for example, the recent "Pedestrian Day" policy, a unilateral, ad hoc decision made by the Executive Cabinet intended to limit car usage on Tuesdays. Many endorsed the spirit of the law - walk more, develop healthy habits, and save on gas expenses. However, the policy wrought many impractical consequences, particularly the delays and loss in productivity to the private sector. People are now voicing their disapproval with the government, even accusing leaders of international exhibitionism.
To the government’s credit, they are encouraging feedback and are making no attempts to forcibly censor people.
The media is also creating public space for people’s voice. With 2 TV Channels, 6 Radio Channels, and 12 newspapers - 9 of which were introduced in the last 4 years - people have more access to news, views, and opinions than ever before. Concurrent with this growth has been an emboldening of the media to ask questions. It’s not uncommon now to see front-page stories on corruption scandals, lapses in government policy, and even cartoons mocking high officials.
Unfortunately, the media, consisting of many untrained journalists, has begun to follow some of the global trends, reporting predominantly negative stories and developing an adversarial relationship with the government. Cynics are now abound, some who have gone so far as to proclaim the death of Bhutan’s democracy after a controversial advertisement circular.
There are still many questions ahead: how can underserved populations, like youth, be more included in decision-making processes? How can Bhutan attain economic self-sufficiency and independence when the agricultural sector – the basis of Bhutan’s economy – is quickly shrinking due to rural-urban migration? How can people be motivated to undertake all the responsibilities that citizenship entails?
Bhutan is a country of great aspirations, none less than their drive to find a middle way to development, famously captured by their banner of “Gross National Happiness”. While these aspirations have yet to be fully realized, what’s reassuring is that they continue to actively ask the questions. Whereas most democracies have already established a modus operandi, Bhutan is at a momentous period in its history when it can dream up something different.
So…it’s been a while. Regrettably, I’ve been quite remiss in posting at the expense of probably losing whatever readership I had. Hopefully, that’s not the case, so I’ll keep the apology short - it’s been BUSY. Between my parents visiting, the scores of BCMD events stringed ever so tightly together, and much, much more…I’ve been lazy. Therefore, to re-invigorate my commitment to blogging, I’ve migrated to this new, exciting, and much more interactive interface (you can leave notes!). (Read the full post on the new blog)
Last week, Rob Reich, in characteristic Socratic fashion, initiated a dialogue on Facebook (of all places!) centering on the question of why students from elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford disproportionately end up in finance and management consulting. The question of whether students from these elite institutions are just "really excellent sheep" - bright but uninspired, herd-like conformists - has been an intellectual fetish of Rob’s for the past few years, and not without good reason. Recent trends have shown that finance tracks have become the most popular post-grad professions at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, a trend that Ezra Klein finds puzzling since
No high school senior gets her acceptance letter from Harvard and begins thinking about the exciting life she will lead constructing credit derivatives. But that’s where many students end up. Even after the financial crisis. Even after the bailout of Wall Street. Even after the dominant cultural metaphor for Goldman Sachs became a money- sucking vampire squid.
To explain this phenomenon, Klein points the finger to liberal arts education for its failure to arm students with the skills to pursue alternative tracks.
Using this article as fodder for discussion, Rob received a deluge of responses from students, writers, and grads who all come from all sorts of backgrounds and dispositions (including finance and consulting). Given my general distaste for Facebook as an anti-intellectual space (yes, that sounds snobby, but think about it - how often have you had engaging conversations on FB???), I was shocked by the quality of the responses - all were well-thought out, bona fide, and importantly, responsive to each other. Real, substantive discussion is possible on social media, after all! (That is, of course, if you’ve got the right conditions in place - like…an engaging Professor like Rob steering the conversation)
Some of the key points emerging from the conversation for me were
Part of this boils down to a simple question: How do you embolden people to care about society? I say ‘embolden’ because in many ways it takes courage to act on behalf of society. In the West, at least, we live in a society that rewards selfish behavior more than public-directed behavior. Ours is a society of individuals, where traditional communities are breaking down and technology is leaving us even more disconnected. Truly, we need to shift our locus of decision making - from what the individual wants - as one respondent wrote,
I think anyone who seriously believes we need more (instead of less) young bright minds going into finance is fundamentally out of tough with the problems facing our country. We’re still recovering from a financial crisis that nearly caused a second Great Depression and was caused in significant part by Wall Street financiers. Inequality is skyrocketing. The middle class is eroding. Rates of technological innovation and productivity growth are declining.
The flow of human capital into finance/consulting has been anything but socially optimal. And with the grave challenges ahead - including climate change, rising global poverty, historic levels of political dysfunction, rising levels of corporate oligarchy and influence over government, etc. - more in finance (in spite of Nicolas Kristof’s insistence) will not go towards solving them. Indeed, to be conscious in our world today is to be aware of vast suffering and unprecedented peril. We need to find ways of activating and licensing people’s desire to undertake career paths - whatever they may be - with socially beneficial outcomes. We need, as Barbara Misztal wrote, “intellectuals working for the public good”.
This big question about awakening people’s social selves is not foreign to Bhutan, where civil service is far and above the most sought after career option. The promise of job stability, a high-paying salary, and a wealth of social prestige make any placement in civil service a sign that “you’ve made it”. Now, Civil Servants aren’t exactly CDO-selling scum - they operate important government offices that are essential to a strong and efficient public sector. But after a visit to any government office, you can’t help but conclude that very few people are in it for the calling to public service. Di, a blogger, writes:
I am sorry to say that despite it having become a cliché, brought out in the media so many times that now it’s almost politically incorrect to say it- but a lot of Civil Servants do not work at all. They are attending funerals, at banks, off to receive their bosses, out for trainings or conferences, or at home sick. When you do catch them at their workstations, they are on the phone obviously speaking to someone not work related, or playing card games on the computer, or, yes, on Facebook.
There is such widespread opinion that civil service is neither efficient nor accountable in Bhutan, that I’ve been wondering - is this just a cultural, take-everything-extremely-chill attitude, or is this symptomatic of lots, and lots of apathy? (incidentally, all of my encounters with civil service have been bureaucratic, pencil-pushing nightmares!).
Start up a social enterprise; Take a venture into the arts; Work for an NGO; Become an academic; Take up a vocational track like plumbing. All these job options available to us in the states?
Forget about it. If they don’t pass the highly competitive RCSC exams, many would prefer unemployment than take up any of these ‘alternative’ career paths.
Just recently, one of my co-workers and good friends left us. Why? To fulfill his aspirations of becoming a civil servant. The non-profit world just doesn’t promise the high-paying salary or status that accompanies it. Now, don’t get me wrong - I love this kid to pieces. And yes, there’s a high turnover rate in the non-profit world everywhere. It’s plainly not for everyone. But I still couldn’t help but cringe (and die a little on the inside) when he shared these reasons for leaving. Perish the thought that, one day, he endlessly hassle me at a government office!
So, what to do? Figuring out a solution to this problem is critical to the work we do in encouraging people to become more active, engaged citizens stepping outside of the roles that they’ve been used to and into their new collective one - the caretakers of society.
In search of answers during my regular internet meanderings, I came across this Generation Wake-Up Program. The Program takes an interesting, story-based strategy to ignite inspiration in youth during a one-day workshop (for which they’ve published the manual). Through dialogue, dynamic exercises, and a menu of inspirational videos, the workshop aims to re-orient youth to the world by shifting their attitudes towards the world and creating a shared global consciousness - one that enables youth to face the pain of the world with clear eyes and open hearts, while holding a vision of the possibilities that lie within and on the other side of challenges.
Though my critical eye (in its tendency to pessimism )sees it as little more than New Age fluff, my soft spot believes that they’re on to something. To change the world, many of us need to change our mind; after all, our actions are a result of our worldview. And it’s no easy task. But if anything’s going to move people to action, it’s going to have to come from the heart - not the head. We need a powerful story, a generational narrative that taps into our emotional core. Sheep, excellent or not, still feel the pain of the world. As the writers of the Wake-Up manual write,
Our challenge is not our pain of the world, but our repression of it. Thus, our task isn’t getting people to care - it’s helping them to feel what’s already inside of them.
Sometimes, we just shut down in the face of overwhelming pain and peril. I used to be no different. But if awakened to a clear sense of identity and purpose, and empowered by a deep sense of solidarity with all of life, I think that anyone can shepherd their sheepish impulses.
After reading yet another apocalyptic editorial about youth in Bhutan and reports of another youth-related stabbing, I had just about had enough of Bhutan’s homogenous coverage of young people. The following is an op-ed response submitted to Bhutan Observer:
Believe in Bhutan’s Youth
As someone who’s been working with youth for the past 7 months, I can’t sufficiently express the great level of disappointment I have with Bhutan’s media portrayal of ‘the youth problem’. Not only has the media uniformly adopted the narrative of youth as ‘out of control’, ‘violent’, and ‘lost’ - and done so for years, now - but they have chosen, perhaps deliberately, to ignore any positive developments. Yes, there have been stabbings; yes, there is drug abuse; high unemployment; and yes, there are gangs. These are real problems, but they are problems that stem from a section of society that has been systematically underserved, and importantly, not seen for their untapped capacities.
For those of you worrying about the guardian’s of bhutan’s future, I can say unabashedly that there is reason to be hopeful. at the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD), we work with hundreds of high school and college-aged youth in our workshops who come from all sections of society: boys, girls, in school, out of school, rural, urban. In these workshops, where we help youth recognize their roles as active citizens, we’ve come across many inspiring individuals. These youth are movers and shakers, individuals motivated by compassion, creativity, and a vision of a better society that they believe that they can help build - and build right now.
Consider Thoepaga, a teacher-to-be at the samtse college of education. Just looking at thoepaga, a lanky, bespectacled 21-year-old, you’d never guess his true passion - “b-boying”, a popular style of street dance that involves fancy footwork, headspins, and death-defying moves that require an incredible amount of upper body strength. While Thoepaga will become a teacher in the classroom for some years, his ultimate dream is to become a teacher in a dance studio where he can train the next generation of youth in the art of b-boying. “Right now, society here doesn’t recognize b-boying for its artistic merits,” Thoepaga said. “They think it breeds violence and gangs, which is far from the truth - it keeps them away from all that stuff! Someday, I hope to create a space where we can show them that it is a legitimate art form.”
Consider Karma, a math and physics student at Sherubtse. Karma’s academic focus may be in the sciences, but he does not restrict himself to the lab; after class, he is a relentless advocate for social change. As a leader in the student social services unit, he regularly goes on anti-drug campaigns across Kanglung, and helps provide relief work for families affected by the recent earthquakes. Recently, he helped found Sherubtse’s first media club, Sherubtse Media Society (SMS), which publishes news for the local community. Now, he’s trying to spread awareness about the power of media in society. Only, there’s one problem: he doesn’t have funds for the campaign - yet. Where most people would give up and resign themselves to inaction, Karma is fearlessly popping into the office of every business, organization, and CSO to propose his idea and solicit funds. He knows that if a cause is worthy, and he persists, anything is possible.
Consider Sangay Rinchen, 28, the founder of Happy Green Cooperatives. After receiving his degree in agriculture from RUB, Sangay had achieved the dream of most students: a stable job in civil service under the Ministry of Agriculture. But status was not enough for Sangay; the issue of youth unemployment troubled him so much, he left his post in the Ministry to found Happy Valley Youth group to employ and inspire people through theater shows. “In order to create employment for youth,” Sangay always jokes, “I have become unemployed.” Despite mockery and discouragement from his friends, Sangay persevered with realizing his vision. After being introduced to the idea of farming cooperatives during a trip to Malaysia, he had another idea - to start organic farm cooperatives in Bhutan. “Today, no young people want to become farmers,” he says. “By promoting the idea of an ‘educated farmer’ - a farmer who uses best practices - I want to help restore the dignity of farming in Bhutan while creating employment opportunities for youth.” The cooperative functions like a social enterprise: it promotes and supplies eco bags in the market; operates an organic restaurant; has an organic sales outlet at the vegetable market; and also produces media advocating for green ideas and solutions. “We young people need to have this dream to do something for the country, regardless of our background,” he proudly says. “Strength doesn’t come from money, it comes from ideas. All I have is my guts that I’m doing the right thing.”
Far from being exceptions, we come across youth like Thoepaga, Karma, and Sangay all the time. I can only imagine how many more youth like them are out there that we haven’t yet discovered. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about the Thoepagas, the Karmas, and the Sangays.
So, then, why don’t we hear about them? Sure, journalism is a feedback mechanism to help society self-correct. We need accurate and reliable information about problems in order to solve them. When journalists choose only to harp on the negatives, however, what we’re left with is an unending gush of messages that “we’re going to hell”. And what results is “news fatigue” from readers; after all, why should anyone care about the news when it’s just another report about a drug bust, a rape, or a stabbing?
As humans, we need hope to survive. We need a reason to believe that in this life, it is possible to improve the conditions around us. Isn’t that the whole point of GNH - to hope that, through wise leadership and responsible citizenry, a different type of society can be created? I challenge the media to be more perceptive and daring in the stories they pick. Don’t just follow the trail the police lead for you; look for the light given off by the youth themselves. Believe in them; believe that they can be part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.
Everyone in Bhutan seems to be a wedding planner. When I tell my Bhutanese male friends that (1) I’ll be working here for a year - and perhaps longer - and that (2) I’m without a wife, the instant response is to pull out a number of a friend whom they deem to be a potential suitor - who may or may not be single (n.b. I have yet to take them up on these offers).Comparisons are occasionally drawn to another Stanford student, David Martinez, who is now happily married to a Bhutanese – and now has a one-year-old son!
Just thinking about constantly being on the precipice of marriage makes me just a little bit anxious. The thought that if I found the right girl, that I could so easily commit myself to family life, makes me feel so, so…intoxicated. Sure, the prospect of just marrying into another culture brings with it certain anxieties, but it also elicits a high in the realm of reverie. What if I asked that girl out…one thing leads to another…and that was that?
But then I suppose none of this is unique to Bhutan; I’m sure many people my age (24) find themselves in these flights of fancy. After all, us twenty-somethings come across a stage in life when existence invites us to choose: intimacy or isolation. Once we’ve stabilized our identities as individuals, Erik Erikson, the eminent psychoanalyst, theorizes that the next step is to face down this very crisis - a crisis he approximates going between the ages of 20-40. What does he mean by intimacy? “Intimacy is the ability to fuse your identity with somebody else’s, without fear that you’re going to lose something yourself.” The word intimacy comes from the Latin word intimum, which means “interior” or the “innermost core”. It’s only when we peel off all our superficial layers and share our innermost core, without our protective social facades, that we discover true intimacy. This makes us vulnerable, but true love is about making yourself vulnerable. Fail to do so, he argues, and we risk isolation, loneliness, and even depression.
Theory’s a funny thing; it can provide us with a tremendous amount of psychological closure, especially when it functions like a checklist for your life. And Erikson’s theory on psychosocial development - with its series of 8 successive crises that go across the lifespan in which we must harmonize inner personal and outer societal demands - does just that: trust vs. mistrust (birth - 18 months); autonomy vs. shame and doubt (~18 months); initiative vs. guilt (~3 years); industry vs. inferiority (3 - 12); identity vs. role confusion (~13 years); and now, for the next twenty years, I’ve got to sort out intimacy vs. isolation.
But while most of Erikson’s theory on psychosocial development jibes with my life experience, I think the theory elides a crucial element to any life - spirituality. How does the quest for spiritual growth fit into these crises?
We often think of this quest as one that necessitates solitude - isolation from outside distractions. Disciplining the mind is a difficult task, and for those truly seeking to accomplish this, the monastic life is recommended. With no distractions or involvements, inner thinking and contemplation arise spontaneously.
We remember, for example, the narrative of Buddha for Siddhartha’s bold and audacious rejection of a life of material wealth, power, privilege. It was ostensibly one of radical individualism - a bold and fearless pursuit of the true nature of reality.
This pursuit, however, came at the cost of abandoning his family - his wife, Yashodhara, and his son, Rahula. When he returned to visit Yashodhara, she poses a haunting question to the Buddha :
"Tell me, whatsoever you have attained, could you not have attained it here living with me?"
To this, the Buddha remains silent, without an answer.
Could Siddhartha have pursued truth with Yashodhara as his spiritual companion? Do relationships lead us to further bondage? Or can they be channels to enlightenment?
To these set of questions, I have no satisfactory answers. I believe - or at least want to believe - that relationships can be powerful conduits to arouse the best qualities in us: love, compassion, sympathetic joy. These qualities are all goals of the spiritual path. Some of the most beautiful relationships I’ve been in contact with have provided me with visible support for this. Though I can’t say that I have personally experienced such a relationship, recent experiences continue to sustain this hope (not to be coy!).
On the other hand, there’s that whole issue with the truth of impermanence thing that looms over, well, everything; not just mortality, but with relationships. Recently, I saw 500 Days of Summer, and man, the truth really hit hard. Watching that movie was like watching a packaged replay of all my past relationships, reminding me of the torturous, maddening cycles that relationships can go through. And yet, we always continue to find reasons to ascribe cosmic significance to them. Then they fail, we meet someone else, and the cycle starts all over again.
Am I being too cynical here? Maybe. But it’s a cynicism that somehow gets quelled every time I think I’ve met ‘the one’. As my mentor Mark Mancall would likely say, the notion of eternal romance has become an “ideology too deeply impregnated in [my] mind”. But, I guess, some ideologies can be good ones - so long as you’re aware of it.
More and more, issues related to youth - gang violence, substance abuse, unemployment, etc. - are continuing to dominate headlines in Bhutan. These issues, which seem to be primarily concentrated in Thimphu, demand our undivided attention; if ignored, they threaten to change Thimphu into another urban wasteland where few people can feel safe and happy. (For people’s reference, I’ve collected some of these stories at the end of this post)
As media unfortunately is in Bhutan, issues like these generate some steam in the way of calls for action for a few days, then the next story surfaces, and people move on. There’s no follow up!
With this as a motivating force, we’ve focused our 10-day Media Nomads camp (which started on December 14) towards addressing some of these issues through dialogue, forums, and various media. (For coverage of the camp, check out our Facebook page!)
On Friday, we had Sonam Tshering, a recovering addict and peer counselor at Chithuen Pendey Association, come to talk to our youth participants. Many youth in Bhutan have been struggling with drug abuse, and so I thought it would be good for our participants to hear from someone who has been there. Additionally, because we are training youth to be more media literate, I knew this would explode the stereotypes they’d developed from their exposure to the largely non-empathic media coverage. The previous, for example, one of the youth participants remarked that drug addicts were “useless” and a “bane on society’s resources”. I myself had never heard a story from a recovering addict, so this would be a learning experience for everyone.
Truly, you have to hear Sonam’s story for yourself (video embedded in the previous post). It’s probably one of the most heartbreaking, but eye-opening, confessions I’ve ever heard. Participants left the day in tears - but tears that opened their hearts and minds to the plight of drug addicts everywhere. One participant even went so far as to share his own story of substance abuse and parental neglect, a sign that trust has been established in our group.
After the talk, participants wrote reflections on what they’d learned. I also wrote a reflection, relating Sonam’s story to that of Jetsun Milarepa, a Tibetan poet-saint who’s story is widely revered here in Bhutan:
What if Marpa had given up on Milarepa?
Picture this: a young, talented sorcerer
With all the gift,
But none of the motivation
A family betrayed,
Overcome with pettiness and greed
An uncle turned into a slavemaster
A mother filled with revenge
“Go fulfill my wishes, my son, or I shall take my life”
And so, the wishes were fulfilled
“Falling in a single mass, a hailstorm, as thick as three layers of wall, hit the harvest and the valley. The whole mountain turned to streams and the people of the country, having lost their crops, sobbed.”
35 people – dead. Milarepa was a murderer. And he knew it.
Rock bottom became the realization
Because life can just go away, once we become a slave
A slave to anger
A slave to insecurity
A slave to the darkest of passions, the chain of negative thoughts,
A slave, in other words, to addiction.
But once we have taken this risk
We can find freedom –
“If you must make a mistake, make a big one”.
if you wanna come out of the pain, you have to go through the pain
Wisdom comes from unexpected sources
And so he sought out a teacher – someone to relieve him from his pain
And, plowing in a field, he found the great Marpa
He had a dark past to purify
So the road would be long and difficult
But what if Marpa had given up on Milarepa?
What if he said, ‘you will never be enlightened’, ‘you hurt your family and friends’, ‘you know nothing but dark magic;’, you are destined to suffer in the fires of HELL’
But he didn’t stigmatize
We shouldn’t stigmatize
First, we must empathize
Because the darkest hour is just before the dawn
If there’s one thing I know to be the truth
It’s to not give up on the youth
Unable to reflect
They’ve been the victim of no love
I can tell you that they’re no different from you and me
They feel anger and sadness
Remorse and insecurity
But if we give them a chance
We might be able to hear Milarepa’s song and dance
‘cause it’s never too late to stand up after you trip
to take over your life, and be the captain of your ship
Thai Temple Incident in which a gang (branding themselves as F4D, “Fight for Democracy”) beat a group of police officers
"Finding the Shared Ground" - on Lama Shenphen’s approach to social work with addicts
"The Spirit of the Young is the Hope of the Future" - on how the youth of the world must rally together to combat climate change
"Our Youth, Our Fruit" - “The fear among Thimphu residents is of a brewing criminal sub-culture in the country, into which our leaders seem to have no insight.”
"Street View" - on the causes of youth gang formation
"Changjiji Malaise" (not directly related to youth - but see OL blog post)
"Tick, Tock, Kaboom" - OL questions PM’s solution to youth violence (GNH), and reproduces an eye-opening entry from Xochitl
Whither the Bhutanese Youth - Sonam Ongmo laments society’s continued negligence of the youth
Sangay Khandhu’s tweet:
"Very disturbed & worried by the recent string of violence involving young people. It’s time we stopped simply complaining & decided to do something about it. What do you think is going wrong? How can we begin to try & address it?"
[WARNING: This post may be unpalatable for readers who are not interested in hearing about hackneyed, new-agey, so-called “spiritual journeys”]
The enlightened mentor has throughout the ages been the great being who willingly does battle with the powerful forces of ignorance that reside in the depths of our minds. Few people are “self-made” Buddhas (people who have awakened to the nature of reality); generally, they need help along the way, and in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, this help comes in the form of a guru. And when someone takes on a guru, it is a deep and serious engagement. Taking on a guru is like hiring an assassin - only that assassin’s target is YOU and your conniving ego. Through his or her living presence, the guru catalyzes extraordinary transformation, guiding human beings from darkness to light, from the limitations and petty existence to the free and infinite expanses of illuminated awareness. Few modern teachers are as qualified to claim the title of guru as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (pictured above), heir to a long and illustrious lineage of enlightened Buddhist masters.
But let me rewind a little bit.
Earlier this month, I came down with something of a spiritual depression: there was too great of a gulf between my beliefs and my actions; my personal meditation practice had started to stagnate; and I just felt really, really sad. This sadness was because I was mistreated, because someone insulted me, or that I felt impoverished. Rather, this was some unconditioned sadness because my heart felt completely exposed. It grew from a desire to share my heart with others, but being unable to.
I’m a firm believer that the most forceful form of communication is the power of living example, someone who personifies the qualities that you aspire for. They are living proof that higher modes of living are possible, that humans can transcend some of our nagging habits and limitations to become something greater. Throughout my young life, I’ve been fortunate enough to contact with many of these living examples who live to inspire others. Inspirational as they were, I never felt compelled to seek them out as teachers. Not that they would be bad teachers - far from it. I think the connection was missing, my mind was elsewhere, and I just wasn’t ready.
But when this depression hit, I knew there was only one actionable item - I needed a teacher. This life is too short, this human body too precious, to forego an opportunity to find someone who can guide you along the path to eliminate the sources of our suffering. All of these developments coincided with Dzongsar Khyentse’s visit to Bhutan (albeit in the dirty South) - a teacher whom I’d felt a strong connection with ever since I’d read his book, What Makes You Not a Buddhist?. Never had I come across a teacher from a different culture who could straddle two worlds so well - an important feature for a teacher to have, so that he may be aware of certain cultural hangups present in both worlds.
So, I asked Lama Shenphen (the resident British monk/social worker in Bhutan) if he could help arrange a meeting for me. After a string of emails, calls, and unending restlessness waiting replies, I woke up in a sickly state on 9am on Sunday, November 6, to a call from Dzongsar Khyentse himself! I pored everything out, from my anxieties to my longing for a guru, and he invited me to come visit him at his monastery in Deothang, Samdrup Jongkar.
Easy enough, right? Not exactly; the invitation came with a hitch. Deothang isn’t exactly a stroll down the streets of Thimphu. No no…it’s roughly 600 km from Thimphu, on the other side of Bhutan in Samdrup Jongkar
And with Bhutan’s craggy, bending, and under-cemented roads, that translates into a 2.5 day journey by car!
Rinpoche would be leaving straight after November 13, so I time was of the essence. On Monday, I rushed to get all my necessities (road permits, gloves, vitamins, paracetimol (the cure-all for every condition here)) and booked the first ticket for Mongar that would depart on Tuesday morning. And just like that, on a total whim, I began my first true pilgrimage at 6am on Tuesday.
They say that the most important part of a pilgrimage is the journey. And my oh my, what a journey it is to go on buses on Bhutan. My bladder was tested to the point of explosion (we had to stop every 50 minutes); there were about 20 near misses of other oncoming cars, cement trucks, and the classic Indian trucks (pictured below); and my ears were inflicted with the same, infernal song, Singlem, for 9 hours a day.
But I made it. And when I did, it felt like I’d arrived into a totally different country. The Amazonian climate and vegetation of Deothang stood in sharp contrast to the increasingly icy climactic conditions of Thimphu. Given my subtropical sensibilities, this change was more than welcome, of course.
Sure enough, the first person I found was a chilip, who helped walk me to Rinpoche’s quarters. I was told that I should wait outside in the courtyard, where I found myself mingling with what turned to be Rinpoche’s retinue of devotees. These people came from all walks of life, and places in the world: Malaysia, Stock traders, famous Bhutanese actors, heads of Government agencies, Iraq. Now, I consider myself a fairly spiritual dude. But my-oh-my, what a humbling experience it was to chat with this group. They were just breathing with devotion for Rinpoche, devotion that just didn’t feel tangible to me (with all my inherent mistrust for authority). When everyone jumped to their feet, rising to greet Rinpoche who was walking out from his quarters and heading towards the dining hall. Shortly after he’d entered, Phuntsho (Rinpoche’s assistant) whispered, “Rinpoche would like to see you now.”
My heart was aflutter - he knew I was here! And he wanted to see me, of all people, first! This was something of a fantasy for me, one that I’d been harboring on the journey there. All the while, I had no idea what to anticipate for my encounter with Rinpoche. Would he test me in some way, testing my knowledge of the dharma (my scholastic imagination - this had to involve some application or vetting process, I thought)? Would this be a stand-in therapy session (what I really wanted - someone I could cry to, and have all the pain removed with a blessing of some sort)?
But I got neither. Instead, he gave me a warm greeting in his disarming smile, invited me to sit with his other disciples, and to listen in on the ongoing debate between two of them on the inevitable economic apocalypse that was approaching. Curious, I thought, but I should just go with it. This was a teacher who was known for his “crazy wisdom” - unconventional teaching methods, whose teachings were only discernible to the perceptive eye. Every moment was a teachable moment - or at least it felt like it had to be.
The next few days, what followed were a number of empowerments, blessings, swank dinners that made me fee like I was in the King’s court, and lots and lots of villagers expressing heartfelt devotion. Reflecting back on it, I’ve gotta say that that was probably the most important lesson I took home - how wonderful it can be to submit yourself to someone you can call your [existential] teacher, but still be able to engage with them on a personal level.
Not that this was an easy lesson to learn. So much of the 3.5 days I was with Rinpoche, I felt the need to perform in some fashion to impress Rinpoche (who’s job it is to be compassionate for all sentient beings, anyway), which definitely detracted from my time there. I could not simply remain authentic in my fear of rejection. When I felt rejected, unrequited in my attempts to reach out to him or make a joke, I got annoyed - classic egocentricity. But at moments I was in total awe, ready to surrender to the majesty that he exuded. As I was receiving blessings during Rinpoche’s long life puja, feeling a hint of disdain for my failed social performances (thinking they would bear poorly on my chances of receiving an empowerment), he asked me: “Did you get a chance to flip through the back I gave you?” I nodded, feeling fearful. “You are ready to receive the transmission (the prayer to enable me to engage in practice)?” Again, I nodded, gratified that Rinpoche had not forgotten his promise to grant me the practice of Ngondro.
When I received the empowerment, I found myself in tears. Tears that may have been slightly contrived, but I felt came from the seed of my devotion for him. He no doubt detected my disquietude, my longing to connect with him. When I finally popped the big question - “Will you be my teacher?” - he replied, “Yes…but just know that I’m pretty unreliable,” with a sly smile.
Well…unreliable is good enough for me. That confirmation from Rinpoche, that he would help me along the way, was all the motivation I needed to jumpstart my practice and begin the Ngondro, the “preliminaries” (by no means an easy practice, though). It’s nice to have spiritual insurance - even if the premium is sure to be high!
“Royalty is the most venerable embodiment of tradition, tradition is the lifeblood of identity, identity generates social cohesion without resort to force, and social cohesion is the sine qua non of a viable polity.”
On October 13, 2011, the King tied the knot with Jetsun Pema, Bhutan’s new Queen, in Punakha Dzong. The event had all the trappings of a “fairytale”; at 31, the King had passed the traditional marriage age, and people were starting to fear that the King might be at risk of not having an heir. But all of their fears were allayed when he giddily made the announcement in parliament that he had found the “great human being” that he’d been searching for. (Though the notion may tickle the imagination, the Queen is no mere “commoner” (as just about every headline has suggested);her family is well-connected to Bhutan’s past monarchs and comes from a background of considerable wealth.)
And so, for the past 5 months wedding fever gripped all of Bhutan: civil servants did continuous cleaning campaigns to makeover the city, school children rigorously practiced dance routines that they would perform at the National Stadium, the media counted down the days, and everyone was busy making dedications – both religious and artistic – for the success of the marriage.
Finally, that anticipation turned into reality with this weekend’s extravaganza of events.
Having attended the bulk of the events over the weekend, I’ve gotta say that I’ve never witnessed or been a part of a spectacle on the scale of the Royal Wedding. But what made the greatest impression on me wasn’t that it was a grand wedding replete with that mandatory fairytale accoutrements; nor was it the sacred dances, relics, and thongdrels that were unveiled especially for the wedding. Hokey as it sounds, it was the overwhelming harmony in heartfelt expressions of love that came from the people. You could see it in their grins whenever you asked them about the King’s bride of choice , hear it in the songs they composed, and really feel it when the King surprised the nation by planting a kiss on the lips of the Queen in full public view – an act that was received to a thunderous applause and tears of joy.
The wedding assures the people of the continuation of Bhutan’s most celebrated institution - their dynasty of enlightened monarchs. While democracy has started to usher in a new political culture of criticism and public accountability, the institution that continues to bind people is the monarchy. The King remains above reproach, and the people of Bhutan love their royals with a devotion that borders on the religious.
Being American, such feelings of devotion for anyone – let alone a ruler – are unthinkable; an affront to my democratic sensibilities. No leader can justify this kind of devotion…right? Just imagine if people started gushing over Rick Perry…perish the thought.
But monarchy is far from being an inherent contradiction with democracy; in Bhutan’s case, I think it even helps strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions. For one, the monarch as the head of state keeps elected officials in their place. Now, freed from many of his political responsibilities, the King is becoming an apolitical outlet for hero worship. MPs may fight over policy, the media may get petty and hurl accusations, but the seemingly timeless institution of Bhutan’s monarchy continues to be the bedrock for Bhutanese identity. As the living link with Bhutan’s history as a peaceful, Buddhist nation-state, the King constitutes a symbolic reference point for people’s sense of belonging to the nation.
Moreover, the King’s example of service to the country as expressed through his relentless philanthropy (e.g. the distribution of kidu (welfare grants), granting citizenship, and leading relief efforts), coupled with Bhutan’s mandate of service to the tsa-wa-sum (“King, Country, People”) has created a stable and impeccable hero that everyone can look up to and admire. No ideology necessary.
Lastly…perhaps this is getting a bit Freudian, but I believe that people yearn for kinglike authority, enlightened leadership that people can continually trust to sustain the peace and maintain security. We live in a nontraditional, postmodern world, but still yearn for some tradition to provide that “social cohesion” necessary to keep us from falling apart and breaking into violence.
But then, I would argue that this King goes beyond these functionary roles, as the Bhutanese monarchy is a monarchy sui generis. Bhutan’s extremely small scale gives it an advantage over other monarchies. With just over 700,000 citizens spanning the land surface area of Switzerland, it’s not inconceivable for the King to meet, well, everyone. If he didn’t meet everyone during his and Jetsun’s epic 25km walk from Punakha to Thimphu (the day after his wedding!), or at the packed stadium where he spent 4 hours mingling with people in the stands, then he will at some point. At the top of his lists post-wedding is not to go honeymooning with the missus (though there are rumors of Rajasthan), but to “meet more people”.
Of course, by “meet” he doesn’t just mean to greet or give a ceremonial wave. What’s truly remarkable about this King is his “common touch” - an ability to relate with anyone - and the energy with which he exercises it. When Jonney and I finally saw the King during his 25 km journey back to the capital, it was already 8pm (to put it into perspective, he started from Punakha at 7am), and yet he showed no signs of fatigue - physical or compassion-wise. He took time to hug a number of elderly Bhutanese who had been waiting for hours, joke with youngsters, and express his gratitude for their support.
Though I’d met the King before, I felt absolutely starstruck when he made eye contact with me, blushing while murmuring a faint “Tashi Delek” (“well-wishes” in Dzongkha) as he cooly exchanged a “Hey, how are you guys?”
Unlike his father – who, though highly respected, was often regarded as stoic and aloof in public – this King is very much a “people’s king”. He is openly affectionate, and his PDA at the stadium represents a huge rupture from the past - and with it, the normalization of love marriages! Whereas his father married four sisters (for property reasons), it seems that the King will settle with one.
At the end of it all, I think I began to understand why Bhutanese plaster the walls of their homes with images of K-5 (as he’s known), and why they swell with so much pride whenever they speak of him. Long live their majesties the King & Queen!
I end by sharing a poem beautifully composed by Tshering Tashi of Punakha HS:
The moment I heard the news,
I emptied my heart, and filled it with happiness,
For I could not help but feel overwhelmed,
For I could not help but feel sheer joy.
Your Highness Ashi Jetsun Pema,
Thank you for making my King happy.
Thank you for holding his hand,
And thank you for being kind to us.
You are that new light,
That will further brighten my King’s World.
The World that two of you will nurture together,
In happiness, in love, with compassion, and with maturity.
My King has always made His people happy.
But by deciding to give us a Queen,
He has made us even happier,
And by choosing Ashi Jetsun Pema.
On this joyous auspicious occasion,
The gods and goddesses will come to Earth,
For Heaven then will be on Earth.
When our King will take his bride.
I wish I could express all the joy that’s in my heart.
Join my hands and smile a contented smile.
A smile like a smile at the end of reading a fairy tale,
For I see and know the pair will live, ‘Happily Ever after’.