Friday, January 22, 2010

Much later, January 22, 2010

In the weeks since my husband and I served on the international panel of advisors for the Kingdom of Bhutan, we have been in constant touch with GPI Atlantic and the Bhutanese government regarding the implementation of the plans we made in December. I'll be adding a number of fascinating documents that come from that correspondence, and the work we did together.

Right now, the first national workshop for public school principals, 227 in all, is ending in Paro. The workshop was designed to orient the principals to immediate changes to be implemented in the schools to align Bhutan with Gross National Happiness values. Last night the articulate and passionate Prime Minister, our host last month, addressed the assembled principals for four hours, much of it extemporaneously! (We found ourselves mesmerized every time he spoke, as he has such a gift of expressing the values of contemplative education along with the other GNH values. He is truly a treasure, unlike any politician I've ever met.)

Here is the prepared version of the speech that we received today:

Educating for Gross National Happiness

First Principals’ Workshop

Keynote Address: Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley

Paro College of Education, 21 January, 2010

Honourable Minister, Aum Secretary, School Principals, Education College Lecturers, and Dzongkhag Education Officers of the Kingdom of Bhutan:

I am genuinely privileged to be with you this evening. Far from words, I sincerely hope to embark with you this evening, as true partners, on a journey that is absolutely essential if we are to fulfil the vision of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and His Majesty the King, and if we are to realize the destiny and potential of our beloved country.

I would go so far as to say that no one else in the country is as well and uniquely positioned to fulfil that noble aspiration as the people in this very room. You truly hold the golden key in your hands. I cannot honestly say that to any other audience in this land.

My friends, the truth is that we are in trouble — deep trouble. Our little country, — once so blissfully isolated in a remote corner of the Himalayas, seemingly protected by high mountain peaks, wisely and peacefully governed by a lineage of great enlightened monarchs, — is now buffeted by powerful forces we could not have imagined or conceived just a generation ago. Though some have brought benefit, those powerful forces are not always benign, and some of them threaten not only our profound heritage but even our lives and land.

To cite just a few examples: Carbon spewed into the atmosphere in Los Angeles, London, and Sydney is causing our Himalayan glaciers to melt so that we are faced with potentially devastating glacial lake outbursts that can destroy entire communities in our fertile valleys. This is not theory. It’s started to happen! And we know that, as this glacial melting continues, it is not only our own lives and livelihood in Bhutan that are threatened, but those of the billions of people downstream — nearly half the world’s population that depends on our Himalayan rivers.

But it is not only overwhelming physical forces like climate change that we now face. Equally, if not more, powerful and threatening are mental and psychological challenges of which our parents never dreamed, and which underlie and drive the physical changes our earth now faces.

I am speaking of course, of the seemingly relentless materialist and consumerist greed and ambition that is destroying communities, Indigenous peoples, and the planet’s most precious natural resources worldwide. You well know that we are not immune from that force that is rapidly taking over the minds and lives of our own people as surely as it has already consumed the lives of young and old globally. We can see it everywhere:

I remember rather nostalgically how — not so long ago — the road to the Dzong where I work was brimming with people walking to and from work in the mornings and afternoons, cheerfully chatting and socializing. Going to work was a joyful ritual of social interaction — an opportunity for making and nurturing friendship. They’re mostly gone now, replaced by cars, a status symbol, burning the very fossil fuels whose combustion is melting our glaciers. Those who walk now see themselves as ‘have-nots’.

The sad thing is that even those who want to appear well off by owning a car very often cannot afford it, and take out large loans that expose themselves and their families to unnecessary risks. A recent survey here in Thimphu found that 75% of those who drive to work do not drive more than 3 kilometres — the minimal daily walking distance considered essential for good health.

And I see this new force most profoundly in changes in attitudes and values — in an ever narrower and self-centred ambition, concern with financial success, and lack of respect both for nature and for others. Much of this may have been inherited from outside through advertising, the internet, television, and other media, but this materialist ethos now increasingly pervades our own society, and it is visible in a thousand ways……. You know exactly what I mean, and you can see it in the students in your own schools and all around you.

These and other highly questionable changes are happening at a dizzying rate. Indeed, it is truly frightening to see how rapidly this ethos has grown from just a few years ago.

I have often thought that one of our greatest strengths as Bhutanese is our remarkable adaptability. But that adaptability may also be our undoing if we adapt too readily to external forces that can destroy us. Indeed, unless we return to our common roots and values, and unless we discover together the true meaning of Their Majesties’ vision and their understanding that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”, then our country’s unique and balanced development path will surely falter, and our very existence as a nation may be threatened.

Indeed, we are in trouble, and so is the world, and we should be scared — not so much by the journey on which we are embarking together this week — but rather by what will happen if we don’t!

I don’t mean to depress you in the midst of a wonderful week about Educating for Gross National Happiness. But I need to say all this, because I am convinced that it is only through a genuine and far-reaching change of consciousness — and by returning consciously to the wisdom and vision of our beloved Fourth Druk Gyalpo a quarter century ago — that we in Bhutan will not be swallowed by the frenzy of greed, consumption, and environmental degradation that has gripped the world. Education is the key and likely the only means through which that essential change of consciousness can occur.

In fact, as I mentioned to the international educators who joined us last month, education is literally the glue that holds the whole notion of Gross National Happiness together, and it is the most essential path to the realization of that vision.

· If we are ignorant of the natural world, how can we effectively protect it?

· If we don’t know that smoking, junk food, and physical inactivity are unhealthy, how can we have a healthy citizenry?

· If we are ignorant of politics and of national issues, how can we cast an informed vote and have a healthy democracy and good government?

· If we are ignorant of the extraordinary teachings of Guru Rinpoche, Zhabdrug Ngawang Namgyal, and other great masters who taught and practised right here in Bhutan, how can we appreciate our legacy, embody our own profound culture, and serve the world?

Every pillar and domain of Gross National Happiness literally depends on good education.

We have no time to waste in embarking on this journey. Indeed, it is precisely the incredible speed with which self-centred materialism is taking root that engenders my sense of urgency about seeing GNH principles, practices, and values embodied quickly and without delay in our educational system.

I started with the Bad News! Now for the Good News! And that good news is perfectly expressed on the back cover of your delegate books — in a splendid quote from His Majesty’s recent speech in Delhi. There, His Majesty said just last month:

“GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future…. Our foremost priority must always remain the happiness and wellbeing of our people — including the generations to come after us…. GNH is development guided by human values…. I am confident that the noble goal of Gross National Happiness will be key to Bhutan’s success in maintaining our unity and harmony — indeed our character as a nation.”

And that wonderful statement should immediately dispel any worry any of you might have about whether we can do it, how we can do it, and what it all means. In His Majesty’s words, GNH is simply “development guided by human values.” And because we are all human, we actually know what we need to do and how to do it. And we already have — right in our own hearts and minds — all it takes to bring GNH successfully into our education system. It’s just a matter of reaching into our own hearts, and into our essential human-ness, to discover exactly what we need to do to bring GNH effectively into our schools in every corner of this land.

In fact, many of you are already doing it — beautifully! I have met and hear splendid stories of principals who have created an atmosphere of true respect, warmth, and delight in their schools just by treating teachers and students with genuine dignity and esteem, and by valuing each one’s unique contribution to the school community. I have personally witnessed and hear wonderful stories of schools generously serving their communities, protecting the natural environment, and using positive rather than punitive discipline to create harmony. You have so much to learn from each other this week just by listening to and sharing what already works in your schools from a true GNH perspective.

So bringing GNH into the education system has nothing to do with adding a new subject. Rather, it is about how we can enrich all our learning, and give it a heartfelt and genuine context, purpose, and meaning. That will make the curriculum and learning more enjoyable, more pleasurable, and much more relevant. When we’re not clear why we are teaching something, it quickly becomes boring and irrelevant for students. Infusing GNH understanding gives both teachers and students a sense of meaning and purpose that makes study much less burdensome, much more enjoyable, and directly relevant to all our lives. And so, there is no doubt in my mind that our journey together in the coming years in bringing GNH fully into our schools will be a truly joyful one!

Of course, we can always go deeper, and in the next months and years, we certainly will — discovering how we can bring GNH principles, practices, and values into specific disciplines like math, science, language, and history, into sports and arts, and into assessment and the school ambience in general. You are already exploring methods and practices in all these areas during this week. But the fundamental starting point for all of us is that human-ness and humanity of which His Majesty spoke in Delhi. And it is that which gives us the confidence and determination to be the change we want to create in our schools, and to embody in our own actions and behaviours what we want to see in our teachers and students.

In all honesty, I have to confess that we perhaps lacked some of that confidence when we first envisioned and embarked on our Educating for GNH path last year. And so we invited to Thimphu some of the world’s top educators from 16 countries in fields like holistic education, eco-literacy and sustainability education, contemplative education, critical thinking, and Indigenous knowledge — all approaches to education that we felt were highly consonant with GNH principles and values. Last month, we had an amazing and wonderful week-long dialogue with these renowned scholars, authors, educators, and heads of eleven leading schools.

What we learned gave us the confidence to launch this Educating for GNH initiative without hesitation, and quickly to call you all together here in Paro so that we could implement it without delay. Above all, we learned that all the international educators without exception deeply shared our own aspiration and vision, and in fact looked to us to set an example that they want to see applied nationally in their own countries. What they shared with us gave us the confidence to know we are on the right track, and the courage to proceed.

No less than us, our international visitors want to see school graduates who are genuine human beings; realizing their full and true potential; caring for others; ecologically literate; contemplative as well as analytical in their understanding of the world; free of greed and without excessive desires, knowing, understanding, and appreciating completely that they are not separate from the natural world and from others; — in sum manifesting their humanity fully. And they communicated passionately their own deep concerns that the present educational systems in their own countries were turning out economic animals who measure their success by money, career, acquisition, fame, power, and self-promotion.

One of the international educators — lamenting how conventional science education was producing technological wizards with ever greater capacity to exploit rather than conserve nature — remarked: “It is not scientifically illiterate people who are destroying the world. It is the most scientifically literate.” Something, they told us, is deeply wrong in the way science is taught. Surely a GNH-infused science approach will nurture the most deeply felt ecological consciousness, just as a GNH-infused math curriculum will teach students to spend wisely to meet their true needs rather than to satisfy the endless desires stimulated by advertisers.

The support and encouragement we received from our renowned international visitors was so strong and unequivocal that we knew we could and had to act, and their advice was so concrete and practical that we knew we had the means and resources to do so effectively.

But what was equally clear last month was that if we were going to launch this rocket, we had to land it. And you, my friends, are the only ones with the means to land this rocket effectively, by bringing it down to earth in the most practical way in your own schools. So we knew last month that we completely depend on you for this initiative to succeed.

That’s why I started out by saying that the fulfilment of my dream depends entirely on you, and it’s why I have waited so long for this moment and for this precious opportunity to work with you to bring GNH fully and properly into our educational system.

There is one thing I know clearly about this journey on which we are about to embark. And that is that we are entering uncharted territory and we are therefore going to make lots of mistakes. While individual schools have been created on the basis of GNH-type principles and values in different parts of the world, no country has ever tried to do what we are setting out to do on a national scale.

The eyes of the world are literally on us, and — while our immediate concern is what to do in our own schools, as it should and must be — we should also be fully aware that what we are now doing has huge significance for the world. No country has ever attempted to do even what we are doing this very week and in the next three weeks — to bring together all the country’s school principals with a mission anything like this. The international educators who came here last month told us very bluntly that what we are doing reflects their own deepest aspiration and that they will stand with us in full support as we proceed.

But it is precisely because there is no road map for us to follow that we will and must inevitably make mistakes. We will try things that sound good but don’t work. But I also know that we will learn from every mistake we make and from each other, and that the challenges will be at least as important and productive as the success stories.

I think our only motto as we set out on this journey is “Be Brave”. We can only move forward if we dare to try things out, if we dare to stumble and fall, and if we pick ourselves up with a little more understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

But we will not be travelling blindly on this path. By the end of this week, you’ll already have picked up many practical ideas and suggestions of what you can do in your schools to get started. And we certainly don’t expect this single week together to be more than a start, and an opportunity to begin to immerse ourselves in what it might mean to bring GNH more completely into our schools. Over the next two years, we will develop specific materials, activities, and texts that will give you further and more detailed guidelines on creating GNH-infused schools. So we won’t simply leave you stranded without resources.

At the same time, I’d like to ask you earnestly please to view this first step as an invitation to express and put into action what is already deeply in your hearts. Too often, I think, we have just asked you to focus on your administrative functions as principals. Now we are inviting you to express and implement in your own schools your own deeper passion for education, for our profound and ancient culture, for our beautiful natural environs, and for our King, country, and people — in short our innate and self-existing passion for the human and ecological values of Gross National Happiness.

None of this will be at the expense of academic excellence, and I want to repeat that what we are discussing is not a new subject or extra burden on you. That has to be said, because I know that you and your teachers are already working so incredibly hard. If we do it right, bringing GNH into our schools will, over time, suffuse their atmosphere with such joy and mutual sense of purpose, that principals, teachers, and students will eagerly look forward to each day they spend together. Every school day will be suffused with such meaning and goodwill and pleasure in learning that our GNH-inspired school ambience and activities cannot help but lighten what we currently experience as burden.

Maybe the ultimate test, as I mentioned to our international visitors last month is that our GNH graduates — and those who teach them — will sleep soundly and happily at the end of each day knowing that they have given all to their families, to their students, to their communities, and to the world. If we and our young do not have this firm commitment, there is literally no future. In the end, our GNH-educated graduates, teachers, and principals will have no doubt that their happiness derives only from contributing to the happiness of others. And every school day will deeply reflect that understanding.

Having said something about the why and the what of bringing GNH into our education systems, let me say just a few words about the how that you are exploring practically this week. Each one of your five themes this week has a practical purpose:

· Joining the contemplative and analytical modes of learning not only reflects the profound wisdom of our own ancient culture and thus strongly supports the cultural pillar of GNH. It has also now been scientifically proven that the mindfulness meditation taught by such greater masters as Guru Rinpoche markedly improves concentration and learning. I sincerely hope that the introduction to these ancient practices that you receive this week is just the beginning of a process that will enter our school systems and our students’ lives deeply and meaningfully over time.

I think you have all had a taste of this potential just in the five minutes of silence that bring you all together each morning and end each workshop day. By helping us to let go just a little of the myriad self-concerned preoccupations that habitually clutter our minds, those few minutes enhance our listening and ability to hear each other, unify us in a common endeavour, and give us the confidence to know we are not totally controlled by our thoughts but are truly masters of our own minds.

And likewise, just a few minutes of contemplation and meditation at the beginning and end of a school day or of a ceremony, ritual, class, assembly, or even sports event can change and deepen the atmosphere on the spot, and bring instant connection with the inner joy that is the essence of GNH. And we are learning this week methods on how to bring that mindfulness practice into all the normal activities of a school day.

This week, in short, we are learning personally how to connect directly with these ancient teachings and wisdom that are such a precious part of our heritage, and we are practising it! And through your own direct experience and practice, and the empowerment you received this week from Venerable Yangbi Lopen, you are now fully empowered to bring this mindfulness practice into all our country’s schools. No country in the world has ever tried to do anything like this!

· Second, you have received just a tantalizing taste of how GNH principles and values can be brought directly into all our curricula. Some had told us that they understand how GNH values might be reflected in choice of literature or in the way history is taught, but that it is hard to conceive of GNH-inspired math! So we took that particular challenge to demonstrate how we can effectively teach all mathematical functions in our current textbooks — from simple arithmetic all the way through to algebra and calculus — in a completely GNH-inspired way.

Those techniques, using simple household budgeting exercises, are not only excellent training for the economic and livelihood dimensions of GNH but also teach the difference between needs and wants and point to the social and environmental benefits and costs of economic activity that are at the root of a GNH-infused economy.

And if we can do all this with some simple math exercises, we can surely do it with all curricular content. What you experienced this week is just the beginning!

· And of course we are recognizing this week that classroom and textbook teaching is only one form of learning. Students learn as much if not more from the school ambience and atmosphere, from serving their communities, from the way they engage in sports and in arts and cultural activities, and from how they learn about, abide by, and participate in shaping the standards and rules that make their schools into living communities. That training in classroom citizenship may be the best possible support for the good governance pillar of GNH.

· And to emphasize that none of this is even slightly at the expense of academic excellence, we have devoted one session this week to a simple example of how we might teach our students to think clearly, develop sharp minds, and read with discernment. If our students are not to be taken in by the deceptions of advertisers and by the barrage of self-centred materialist and consumerist messages with which they are bombarded daily, they have to be able to discern the truth from the chaff. And they have to be able to judge their leaders and politicians with that same critical discernment.

We just demonstrate that briefly this week with a simple analysis of media reporting. The message is simple — a GNH graduate is not only good-hearted and caring, but also deeply intelligent, sharp, and discerning.

· And finally, we cannot claim a GNH-infused educational system so long as our students are judged by one narrow criterion alone — their performance on competitive standardized exams that frequently create excessive stress, and that often leave students who don’t make that particular grade feeling like failures. This week, we’ll discuss how we might properly acknowledge the unique talents and contributions of each and every student — whether academic, in the arts and music, in manual dexterity, or in their generosity, care and help to others.

And I have suggested that we might devote a short time on the Friday afternoon of each school week to quiet and written self-reflection through a GNH lens: How have we related to individuals, our class, our school, our families, and our communities in the past week? What might our GNH-inspired aspirations be for the following week? Such forms of assessment and self-assessment more in line with GNH principles and values will be on your agenda later this week.

Those five themes — mindfulness practice, bringing GNH into curricula and into the broader learning environment, sharpening our intellect and analytical abilities, and looking at broader assessment issues through a GNH lens — are just being introduced this week from a GNH perspective. We could clearly have intensive in-depth workshops and training sessions on any aspect of any one of those areas. For example, I think you already got a sense that we could easily devote a full week just to exploring how math can be taught in a GNH-inspired way.

So I want to assure you that this week is just the beginning of a path that will go ever deeper, generate ever more practical materials, methods, and resources, and hopefully last our entire lives.

If we succeed even partially in this endeavour, I promise you that our precious country and our educational system in particular, will quickly become a focus of attention for educators everywhere. The really good news is that — in the midst of unspeakable global environmental degradation, aggression, poverty, and materialism — there is an equally powerful and growing yearning for sane alternatives.

The increasing attention that GNH is getting globally is almost embarrassing when we reflect how far we have to go in putting GNH principles into practice. But this attention to our little country also points to a growing global awareness of the futility and destructiveness of our dominant consumerist and materialist growth ethic and to the desperation with which the world is seeking a new way forward. How extraordinarily fortunate we are that our beloved Fourth Druk Gyalpo had the incredible wisdom and foresight to recognize and understand a quarter century ago that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

Now our job is simply to realize his vision in practice and turn his understanding into action. And until we do so decisively, we are not worthy of the world’s attention nor can we rightly be a focus for its hopes. There is absolutely no better place to begin the transformation that is needed than with education — simply because every aspect and domain of GNH requires knowledge and understanding for its realization; because only through education can we bring about the deeper change in consciousness that must be at the root of all actions for a better world; and because, as our Majesties continuously remind us, the future of our country lies firmly in the hands of our young.

It is because of this action imperative, and because bringing GNH fully into your schools is the key to turning GNH into action nationwide, that the most important part of your week’s activities here in Paro is certainly the last day. On that day, you will consider very practically how you can best bring GNH values, practices, and principles into your own schools. That is when — based on all you have heard and learned this week — you will propose your own action plan that can effectively bring GNH into your particular school according to your own skills, means, conditions, and circumstances.

Immediately following these principals’ workshops, we’ll work out a good plan to stay in touch with you all, to share what is working and what is not, to provide you with support in this endeavour, and to go deeper in preparing the materials, activities, and resources you need to make your schools truly GNH-inspired communities.

And now let me end where I began. In all this, you in this very room are the key to success. That is not rhetoric. It is literally true that only you have the power and capacity to turn our shared vision into action in every school and classroom in our country. Just imagine the power of a simple action. If each one of you were to make a pact with your students and staff never to drop a single piece of litter in the school compound, you would very quickly change the face of this land. Adults will immediately become too embarrassed to drop litter anywhere when their own children are setting such a shining example of care for nature.

I am not exaggerating when I say that your collective power in this regard far exceeds mine. In the past two years, I have to admit that I have learned the hard way about the limitations of my own particular job. Whatever intentions and aspirations I may have for our country, whatever legislation we pass in the National Assembly, whatever rules and regulations we promulgate, in the end all depend entirely on others to carry out, implement, practice, and turn into action.

That’s what I meant at the beginning when I said that we are full partners in this journey, and it’s why I am truly honoured and privileged to be embarking on this journey with you. I mean that quite literally. Personally, I have always believed that maintaining GNH as the guiding light of our country and as our National Conscience — as His Majesty recently put it in his Delhi speech — depends entirely on bringing GNH principles, practices, and values into our education system. But regardless of that long-held dream and aspiration, I simply cannot make it happen without you. In fact, the realization of this dream and the success of this endeavour depend entirely on you!

And that’s also what I mean when I say I have waited a long time for this moment. Finally, the time is right, the circumstances are right, and the moment has come. And we are truly partners in what must be the noblest possible endeavour on which we can embark. I feel very close to you at this moment, and deeply grateful to be here with you.

If we work together as a team — all our principals, teachers college lecturers, and district education officers, with the full support of the Ministry and Royal Government of Bhutan — I am confident that it will not be long before any citizen or any visitor, simply stepping onto the grounds of a school anywhere in the Kingdom of Bhutan, will immediately feel and experience Gross National Happiness in action.

I wish you the best for a wonderfully productive, enjoyable, and fruitful week together, and I truly look forward to seeing your proposed action plans in a few days and to following your progress over the next year with intense interest and with all the encouragement I can give. We could not be gathered for a nobler purpose and we could not be serving Their Majesties, our country, our people, and especially our children in a better way than what we are doing together this week. Thank you all!


Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 12

The final day of the workshop was mostly a review of what we had done and reflections and appreciations. I think everyone was invigorated and alert, and attendance was excellent. In the morning, Ivy asked the group to contribute “what was missing?” and that brought a rather disjointed series of reflections that I found quite interesting. About half the conversation revolved around forests, their importance for Bhutan and for education, with examples from the US and Japan, where children made relationships with trees and communicated with them. The examples were beautiful and moving, and many Bhutanese responded to this, speaking of the ancient tradition of villages having their own forest to guard and protect. Khenpo spoke of three kinds of trees in Bhutan: the tsokshing, or life-force tree; the ta-shing, or sacred tree; and the lu-shing, or the naga-tree, associated with the power of water. I immediately thought of our precious Sycamore trees on the Lincoln campus, and how they serve as protectors and life-force for Naropa. The whole discussion was very moving.

Richard spoke of the potential of online education as a way to reach the remote regions of Bhutan for principal and teacher training—a very important point that I’m so glad he introduced. I expressed my dismay that the source materials and comments so far seemed to refer only to western university education, or its imports to Asia, rather than referring back to the noble Indian universities, like Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Odantapuri. I added that it is very important for Bhutan to recognize the ancient power of its own traditions, tracing back to India, rather than always thinking that the good things in education are always imported.

Of course, many reinforced the main points they wanted the Ministry of Education to remember, and a few of the reflections were tiresome, but it was fascinating to see how people responded to the “what’s missing” request.

The Secretary of Education outlined the ambitious implementation plan that she has developed, and it made us all gasp. She is on fire, and plans to take the recommendations so far and distill them into a plan that can become a blueprint for change in Bhutan. It is amazingly satisfying to see at least a plan that has come directly from our conversations. Here they are:

1. Facilitators’ training January

2. Workshops for principals January

3. Follow-up rec. for principals to choose from July

4. Workshop for non-formal education 2010

5. Training for all 6500 teachers 2011-2012

6. Website for Educating4GNH, to continue discussions among workshop participants

7. Form Taskforce to create action plan, work with all agencies

8. AEC meeting with 200 educators to share outcomes of this meeting

9. Non-formal and informal education initiatives)

(Numbers 6-7 began during the day today!)

In a “council-style” set of appreciations to close the conference in the afternoon, there were many in tears and with voices breaking, indicating the powerful connection we have all developed with each other over the course of the workshop. It’s true, by the end, a very international group of brilliant, accomplished, and passionate people—quite disjointed—came together in such a beautiful way!

This evening was the “closing ceremony,” designed to mirror the opening one that began this blog. We all dressed up and there was the kind of palpable excitement that was there before—but this time, shared more naturally with the group as a whole. There was not the intense protocol, bowing with white silk shawls, etc., that we had at the beginning, but the Prime Minister, Education Minister, cabinet members, and members of the Parliament were there. I was wearing my newly made national costume of khira and jacket and blouse (I’m misspelling everything, I’m sorry), selected during a lunch break yesterday. I asked a housekeeping lady to help me wrap it, and she strapped the waist so tight I could hardly breathe—but this is the most comfortable South Asian national dress I’ve ever worn—easier than a sari, selwa and chemise, or chuba. It was fun to wear it.

Before the evening program, I was asked to make a few remarks at the ceremony, and I had a little time to prepare something, but viewed the entire thing rather casually. So I was shocked, utterly shocked, when immediately I was formally introduced with a full introduction, and it became clear that I was to make a speech! This was especially intimidating, because of the beauty of the speeches given by the Bhutanese leadership so far, and it turned out that I was asked to speak on behalf of the entire group of participants and observers! My heart was pounding—but I also felt thrilled to be able to articulate the auspiciousness of the moment.

I spoke about the happiness found within the mind, and that it was precious, but not enough—with the dark age, the forces of materialism, warfare, and environmental degradation, more concerted effort to create conditions for happiness was required. I spoke about the sacredness of Bhutan that had been able to promote happiness because of its reverence for the dralas, it connection with life-force, and its resulting lungta, or windhorse. We have found this all the more compelling because of our own loss of life-force, and our discovery that service to others, reconnecting with sacredness, and collaborating in the solving of life issues was a way back to this sacredness. I praised the leadership, expressed my confidence in their ability to accomplish this task, and then spoke of three things I thought were needed in order to ensure the success of this endeavor: mindfulness meditation in the classroom, to promote confidence in inner happiness; critical thinking as a method to discriminate what to accept and what to reject; and the continuity of compassionate leadership—including the power of having a Dharmaraja king who really cared for his people—to ensure that the will for GNP could continue. (I’m summarizing this while I remember it, as it was definitely not a written speech!) It was gratifying to be able to speak in this way, and my remarks were received warmly by the participants and observers.

The PM spoke too, and I’m amazed at how each speech I’ve heard from him is insightful, warmly human, and thought-provoking. He spoke appreciatively about the workshop, but spoke of being “embarrassed, frustrated, and discontent.” That woke us up! He was embarrassed that he had to have such renowned world experts cut off after 4-5 minutes during the workshop; frustrated that he could not effectively use everything we each had to offer; and discontent, but I can’t remember the reason. What a powerful way to end our time together! The last thing he said was that we could all sleep well tonight, knowing that we have actually, literally, helped Bhutan. He is one of the most amazing speakers and individuals I’ve ever met.

We had a lovely dinner afterwards, preceded by a reception in the hotel lobby, much like the evening of national dances several days ago. It was friendly and warm, and the professional dancers were doing the same basic dances as before—when suddenly the Prime Minister and the Bhutanese educational leadership motioned to us all, and we all were dancing in two or three concentric circles, round and round, rhythmically raising and lowering our hands, trying to imitate the beautiful and natural mudras. Everyone joined—Bhutanese, all the international visitors, including Sulak Sivaraksa, the young students. So moving and touching, while the Bhutanese sang the songs heartfully. The songs had that kind of “sad-joy” feeling that the Tibetan songs have, and it was a great way to express our connection with each other.

It’s getting late, and I have to pack, as we are leaving tomorrow morning. I’m sad my blog may be ending—but I do expect to write a few more entries before we leave Bhutan in the middle of next week….Thanks for joining me!

Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11

Today everyone seemed a little tired, or maybe it’s my projection. The core group of fifty has a few absences, and the observer group has thinned down to less than half. Maybe it’s the pace and intensity of the workshop, with really no free time—short lunch and tea breaks with long lines, so many people in our group, and every session seems to run over, even when we start precisely on time. The other point is that we are sitting in a basement room talking about a country that we yearn to directly experience, right outside the hotel doors. Also, the weather is beautiful, clear and balmy, even though it’s cold at night, like Colorado. By the end of today, I felt I would jump out of my skin if I had to stay inside that basement conference room, as beautiful as it is, any longer.

I’m amazed at the stamina of the group, nonetheless. Ivy, the facilitator, must be exhausted, as the group is slightly easier to manage now that we are settled in together, but the pace of the work is unrelenting. The Prime Minister was right—they seek to exploit us mercilessly, in his words.

This morning there were 12 short presentations on alternative assessment. Our topic revolves around Bhutan’s reliance on a daunting single exam in the 10th standard, and then again in the 12th. The entire future of a teenager is determined by this exam, and only a small percentage pass—meaning they can continue school, and then qualify for high-level jobs. This is so stressful and demoralizing, and we are hearing from everyone, students, teachers, administrators, that this exam needs to be examined. Also, the exam is based on memorized material, and does not determine creative or critical thinking, the depth of personal experience, etcetera. Our group has determined that we really want to change the reliance on this exam. It’s a system inherited from India (and indirectly from the UK) that never worked well there as well—I remember my undergraduate honor’s thesis on the secularization of the Indian intellectual elite, where I critiqued the Indian system of education, based on Gandhian philosophy.

The assessment presentations were from school principals and education professors—and it was dismaying that most of them were not on assessment at all. Richard gave an excellent one on assessment in his classes based on the Five Qualities. Still, it was great to hear a little about a bunch of alternative schools, most of them in India and Thailand though the Shambhala School in Halifax was represented.

The best part of the day for me was the breakout in the late morning. There had been growing concern that the development of the intellect had not been discussed much, and my group on Critical Thinking was formed to address that. (This is why I was initially invited, and I’m so glad we got to meet.) The group of 15, half Bhutanese, started out with an adversarial tone, with a few professorial types pushing critical thinking with a western flavor, implying that this was foreign to Bhutanese culture. I had this moment when I realized this is why I had come to Bhutan—to serve as a bridge. I spoke about the critical thinking traditions of Buddhism, from Nagarjuna and Dharmakirti, and how that training was preserved in the monasteries, though it was often taught in a rote manner, except in the debate traditions of the shedras. I had spoken to Khenpo before our group, and he spoke a bit about his training. I could feel the entire group relax, and quickly we developed a consensus: critical thinking was renamed “analytic” thinking, it was lacking in the Bhutanese curriculum, inherited from India etc., and that it was essential for Gross National Happiness. If students could learn to think for themselves, they could develop a more personal relationship with the material and the confidence to carry their education into their lives. We agreed that analysis was urgently needed in relationship with the media, and thought that perhaps critical thinking could be brought into Bhutanese schools in the “Trojan horse” of a media literacy program that is currently being developed. Why were things presented this way on TV? What statements have fallacies, what are distortions, what are lies, and why are they presented in the commercial, show, etc?

How to change the culture of a Bhutanese school? We felt it was so very challenging to do that we must begin with the Ministry of Education and the principals, and then alternative pedagogies could be developed with the teachers. Evidently, the Teacher’s College in Paro does teach a more Socratic approach to teaching, but if the exams are not changed, the education will return over and over again to rote memorization.

Anyway, by midday I was exhausted, and Richard and I went out for a walk at lunchtime, did a little shopping, went to a “Swiss” bakery for tea and a pastry, and generally basked in the sunshine. We saw a lot of our compatriots out as well, along with the entire city of Thimphu. So many darling babies, gorgeous women in their kir and gho gracefully worn, and proud men in their gho and kneesocks. No one is obviously wearing long underwear today. I’m noticing more the ethnic diversity of Thimphu—so there are saris, Nepali-type clothing, etc. Everyone is exhilarating in the day—maybe because it’s Friday? The willows are brilliantly golden, the mountains lush and steep on the north side of the valley, the river running clear nearby. I just want to hang out!

This afternoon we talked about non-formal and informal education, and recommended vocational training and non-certificate training programs, and that they be placed under the Ministry of Education. Currently there is little such training in Bhutan, even though it is a predominantly agricultural, rural country. Some of the most impassioned members of our group, from India especially, had fantastic things to say about this—some neo-Gandhians, and even my worn-out heart was stirred. What was great was that the Prime Minister and Education Minister, on the spot, agreed to work on this. Where else does such a thing happen? (Of course, we have to see what they can actually do when the dust settles.)

The Prime Minister also was signing stacks of letters and resolutions while sitting with us, and he stopped to read a declaration letter to the Copenhagen summit, in which he declared that right now statistics show that Bhutan has a negative carbon footprint, and he was committing the country to continue this and challenging other countries to try to match Bhutan. He spoke about this beautifully—a remarkable man. As he arrived today, I was speaking with Khenpo outside the hotel, and the PM strode up and shook my hand, saying he had seen me on TV last night, and thanks for such a clear expression of the issues in Bhutan. I’m realizing what a consummate politician he is, in the best sense. He had time to watch TV last night?

Tonight we watched the movie by Helena Norberg-Haas (do I have her name right?) on development in Ladakh, based on her book Ancient Futures, moderated by Sonam Wangchuk, an activist organizer and school founder who was featured in the film when it was made 20 years ago. He feels that Bhutan can learn from the lessons of Ladakh, and demonstrated clearly exactly how that can be. The Bhutanese show up for anything that looks like a movie, and they were there in force, listening intently as Sonam showed graphically in a powerpoint presentation, how an education system can decline when the political will is not there to improve and support it. Very clear, and frightening! I am coming to feel that our beautiful Bhutanese friends really have no idea about the tsunami of modernization that is swiftly rolling toward them! Heartbreaking!

All we have to do is go upstairs and turn on the cable TV with 60 channels to see what stimulation is coming into the lives of the Bhutanese. Many of the stations are Indian and have strange Bollywood dancing reality shows, dubbed B-movies from America (lots of murders, posturing, material display), a gazillion commercials for all kinds of products they would never before have thought they would need, and news channels like Aljazeera that beam in wars, assassinations, and scandals worldwide. Our Bhutanese friends report that their young people never before knew about war until they began to see it on TV.

Thanks for sharing all of this. I will blog another day, the last day of our workshop, and then am not sure about the internet connections I will have when Richard and I are touring for three

Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 10

Only a few more days of the workshop, and while it feels that we are not really accomplishing that much, the way the work is being structured and facilitated, we are told that we have done a lot. This morning, Tashi Colman, the President of GPI Atlantic and organizer of the workshop, explained that the leadership team has met between each session, several times a day, with four of the Bhutanese leaders: the Prime Minister, the Education Minister, the Education Secretary, and the president of the Royal Education Commission.

This is a very interesting group: I have already described the first two, highly educated and articulate Bhutanese men who have won our hearts. The third, Sangay Tshering, is a brilliant, pragmatic, and articulate Bhutanese woman, who appears to implement much of the work of Education. She is beautiful, sensitive, and strong, a real warrior woman. She has been in government for almost 30 years, for many years in Finance, and most recently was the Secretary of Customs and Revenue. She was educated in India, and is married to another government secretary, and is clearly part of the ruling elite of Bhutan. Wherever she goes, people bow to her and make a fuss as well. After watching her for the last several days, I gave her a copy of my book and spoke with her about it, and she and I really connected.

The fourth person of the Bhutanese leadership is quite a contrast: Dr. Mark Mancall, the American professor I mentioned several days ago who has been teaching in the Bhutanese educational system for a number of years. As I said, he is hardheaded and a little cynical, with a more predictable emphasis on GNP, jobs, growth, and so forth. I think he brings a great alternative voice to the team. Mark is probably in his late sixties and appears not to be in good health—a bit big, recovering from a serious infection in his leg, and walks heavily with a cane. A booming voice, hook nose, slightly rumpled appearance. I sat next to him this afternoon, and at the end of my leading the dedication of merit, he criticized me for sounding like an Anglican in the way I chant and then laughed cynically and abruptly left. A bit of spice in the mixture.

Anyway, this group has already begun to implement some of the work we have done! They have announced a nationwide conference for all the school principals, 517 of them, January 21-27, to introduce them to the changes that will be made in the schools, based on the work of our workshop. As the day went on, there seems to be some thought that there might be three regional groups meeting separately at that time, in the capital, to make sure that the rural principals are note overwhelmed by the urban ones, etc. The details will be worked out. Today they asked us to design specific workshop activities related with the subject areas we represent, and to be as practical as possible about foci that can be implemented with little cost but with practical result.

I was in the Meditation group, and Richard was in the Ambience group. The emphasis was how to bring GNH principles into the classroom based on our area. I worked with a group of half Bhutanese, half international participants, and it was so satisfying. Three are learned and high-ranking monks, each completely distinct in temperament, manner, and experience; one is Gempo Dorji, who spent two months at Naropa on a University of Hawaii internship four years ago, an intensely inner person, with very strong opinions, no charisma, and an awkward social sense. The other two are very outgoing, one warm, the other a bit cold; the first is a Khenpo who steps in to speak with authority on the subject of Buddhism, the second a translator and professor, Lama Luenten who I described a few days ago. Lama Shenphen is a western monk who lives here in Thimphu, an English student of Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche, who works with drug addicts among the young people, and who teaches meditation in a variety of venues in Thimphu. We also had a vivacious young Bhutanese teacher supervisor, a professor of education, and of course, Dasho-la from RUB, who is the real mover and shaker when it comes to bringing meditation into the schools in Bhutan. He is really the patron of much of this educational reform, and the former Education Minister.

In our group, the international participants included Jack Miller, a professor of holistic education from the University of Toronto, a dear friend of Richard’s who has been to the Naropa pedagogy conference, and a passionate advocate of meditation in the classroom. Luigina is Italian and speaks only broken English, but she co-leads a somewhat “religious” Alice Project school in India; Yoshi is Japanese, and also speaks only broken English, a former student of Jack Miller who teaches at a school in Japan. Jack’s wife Midori served as Yoshi’s translator, but she is an articulate and spirited contributor in her own right. What an amazing group!

The first thing we did was to each speak about our experience and vision for meditation in the classroom—and when we concluded it was amazing, because it appeared that we all agreed about what should be done, and how it should be done.

We created an introductory mindfulness (not meditation) retreat for school principals and teachers, with lots of practice interspersed with discussion of how mindfulness could contribute to Gross National Happiness. The workshop (we couldn’t call it a retreat) included many applied mindfulness exercises, presentation of age-appropriate ways for introducing mindfulness to children, and discussion of how to lead the schools in mindfulness-based curriculum. We had such fun! The interesting thing was to watch the dynamic with the monks, who had lots of ideas along with mixed feelings. A few wanted to make it like a strict retreat that a monastery might run; the others wanted a more open, exploratory situation. The consensus of the group was that such a workshop must be run by a “neutral” person--not a monk or a hierarchical authority, but someone with deep experience in meditation who had the backing of the government. Dasho leaned toward an international person leading the workshop, and his views were really supported by the group. All of this reminded me so much of our conversations at Naropa over all of these years.

I was the scribe and spokesperson for the group—and I’m noticing that most of our workshop participants seem a bit clueless about how to bring the rich discussions into some kind of document, plan, or resolution, no matter what country they have come from. So interesting! Our plan was selected for presentation to the entire workshop, so I gather the leadership liked what we came up with.

This evening I was on a Bhutan Broadcasting System (BBS) live TV show on national issues—a panel made up of the Education Secretary, two Thimphu high school students, and Bunker Roy, a mid-60’s Indian man who founded the Barefoot Engineer program that trains women from rural villages to created solar electrification. (He’s an amazing, funny and erudite, mover-and-shaker person, very savvy about development, who has been an important person in this workshop.) The studio is in a brand-new TV building, funded by the Indian government, and the studio was a large cement-block warehouse. (When we walked in and I saw the four cameramen in heavy down coats, I knew we were in trouble—completely unheated, a bit like a prison. By the end of the interview, we were all bone cold!) The set had folding lawn chairs, and a hastily rolled out red artificial-turf rug. Still, the host is an Indian-educated young Bhutanese woman who came by the hotel to pick us up in her tiny car (we were crammed in)—she did a great job, with good questions and skill in moderating the conversation. It was a call-in show, and all the questions were addressed to Sangay, the Education Secretary, who did an expert job. We all acknowledged that the high school students stole the show, particularly an over-confident young man who loved the camera. Without him, the show probably would have been dull. The atmosphere was folksy, warm, and appreciative. It was fascinating to be a part of it.

That’s it, it’s late, I probably need to get to bed! Two more days of the workshop….

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December 9

We got down to the nitty-gritty of our work today, and the participant group has begun to develop a bit more of a group mind. The euphoria of being here is transitioning into a kind of common commitment to be of help to this country. Everyone is so inspired, but there is also a sense that we are sobered by the realities Bhutan is facing as a country. As Richard and I took a walk at lunchtime into the streets of Thimphu, we can see visibly the challenge. While even five years ago, everyone would have been in national dress and the occupations would have been more traditional, the population of young people has mushroomed, especially in the capital. The rigorous examination system in the equivalent of middle school means that only the very best students academically are allowed to complete high school, and the “dropouts” have no opportunity for livelihood. Only a small percentage of the graduates can get jobs, and the universities are few and not really adapted to the skills that Bhutan needs. The education system leads to unrealistic expectations, elitism that does not hold the dignity of labor, and a betrayal of traditional values.

The way we can see this is that within Thimphu there are many young men dressed in blue jeans and tee shirts and ragged leather jackets just hanging around everywhere, smoking cigarettes that are illegal in Bhutan. (There is a traditional Buddhist belief that cigarette smoke pollutes the dralas and keeps them away.) There are discos thumping their strange electro-music (bad) late at night; there is an increasing drug addiction problem, and the addict hangout is next to the hotel; and there is tremendous problem with depression and psychological problems among the young. All of this has come, and increased, with the cable television that came to Bhutan in 1998 and the internet that has come only in the last few years. The tiny shops look traditional on the outside, but when you go in, the young shopkeepers are in the back watching TV or movies or cruising the internet, yearning for the products and lifestyles they see there. They are suffering from the press of consumerism that is conjuring up “invented needs” that these young people would never have thought of without this stimulation. These dilemmas are replicating the crises that have produced such social and economic problems throughout South Asia.

In plenary sessions and break-out groups, we are tackling these problems. This morning’s impassioned address from the Education Minister was so articulate and beautiful, it could have been a Naropa presidential address. He spoke of how we have split mind and heart, fact and feeling, employability and humanity, etc.—and the necessity of the education system healing that split. I’m going to try to get the text of his address, as I found it so perfect an expression of our vision. Then an American who has been teaching in Bhutan for decades gave a very different address, more hard-headed and pragmatic, with a very strongly individualistic perspective re: democracy, justice, the evils of urbanization, etc. This juxtaposition generated incredible heat in the room, the Indians and Thai veteran activists like Sulak Sivaraksa and Satish Kumar and Bunker Roy challenging the American teacher, and the intensity built for everyone. What a challenging group this is to manage.

As we worked today, I noticed how the Bhutanese are more and more animated and participatory, tending to talk endlessly and feel more deeply. The young Bhutanese include two eleventh-graders, as well as young teachers from rural areas. They speak about the challenges of teaching in regions where students may have to walk three hours to get to school each day; of the lack of safe housing and medical care for teachers; of the dullness of village life, compared to the city. But in the cities (and we are talking really about big towns, as Thimphu the capital is much smaller than Boulder), everyone works all the time, and academic pressure on students to succeed is intense, even hellish. I have found myself in breakout groups that are mostly Bhutanese, and am making some real friends.

I’m also noticing the tendency of some of the international (esp. American) male professorial types—not Richard—who only seem to talk to each other, and are resolved to get “democracy” onto the agenda of the meetings. They speak of justice, of equal rights, of jobs and the economy and the importance of capital in order for Bhutan to succeed in their agenda. Frankly, to me, they represent exactly the values that Bhutan is concerned about, but it’s good to have their voices in the room. I’m yearning for a moment to publicly challenge this view—from my experience of following the Buddhist ethics international discussions in various online journals. My Buddhist colleagues from Asia say that we westerners, especially Americans, assert ethical stances focused on the individual that are in conflict with the values of many Asian Buddhists, who focus instead on the interdependence of community. The Bhutanese are too polite to challenge these guys, but I have this hopeless feminist Buddhist side that can’t resist saying something about this publicly. This is one of the things I’ve learned from Ajahn Sulak, my Thai friend.

This evening, Dasho Pema Thinley, the Vice Chancellor of Royal Bhutan University, took Richard, Jane Carpenter, Valerie Lorig and me, along with two Halifax Shambhalians, out to dinner with the senior members of his staff. We had such a warm and engaging conversation over Bhutanese beers and chili-laced food, it was amazing. Dasho-la is especially incredible—strikingly intelligent, open-minded and creative, the kind of host who puts thought into how to create the best seating arrangements at dinner to ensure the best conversation. Richard, Jane and I were seated near Dasho-la, and next to the director for research, the director of the teachers’ college, and the director of the language training school, a wonderful savvy monk named Lama Leunten. They asked us to lead Shambhala meal chants, and we talked about Madhyamaka and meditation for children, how to nurture good research, language education, and so forth. Dasho is highly revered in Bhutan, and wherever he goes, everyone does that formal bow and defers and makes a fuss, and then he just smiles at us and asks us to call him Pema.

I’ve been asked to be on a live BBS program tomorrow night (unsure whether TV or radio) as part of a panel on this workshop. It will evidently be a call-in show, and there will be just a few from the workshop, including the two young students and a dynamic and articulate woman who is the Secretary of Education, assistant to the Minister. I’m sure this will be an interesting experience!

While I appreciate these conversations so much, the schedule of the workshop is intense, from 7:15 meditation through the evening events, with short breaks for meals. I can’t wait to get out touring a bit, and having more unstructured time to just explore beautiful Bhutan. Richard and I have three days of touring at the end of our time here, and we are looking forward to this!

Altogether, I think it’s so amazing to be here, and also feel that we are making lifelong friends. While there is so much magic here in Bhutan, so much pride and joy, there is also such a real concern on the part of the leaders to preserve the best of their culture while supporting their young people to brighter futures. A completely memorable experience—