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—

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December 8

Goodness, I just read over everything, and this looks like such a serious blog! You can really tell how unfamiliar I am with the medium! I’ll try to be a bit more personal and entertaining today.

For all you Naropa folks, I wanted to let you know that Jane Carpenter is here, and it is so great to see her. As you may know, Jane was on sabbatical this semester, and came to Bhutan in the late summer (in late July, I think) to work with Royal Bhutan University on developing mindfulness programs for students. She has worked in Paro at the teachers’ college and in Samtse (I hope I have the name right) and has had a wonderful time. She’ll tell more of her adventures after returning, but seeing her here, she seems to have lived in Bhutan for years—calling her Bhutanese friends on her cell, running errands, helping arrange the events, and generally involved in everything. It has been so helpful to us to talk with her about Bhutan. Jane came to Thimphu for the workshop, and is one of the official observers. Val Sanford came as an observer as well, and is staying with Jane.

This was the first full day of the workshop, and we are all beginning to settle into our work together. Ivy Ang, the facilitator, worked very hard today, managing a central group of 50, monitoring the 120 observers and multiple videographers, transcribers, recorders, and staff. I can see that in such an endeavor, the first day of working with such a large group is challenging, especially if people are unfamiliar with large group collaborative work. Some people want to talk all the time, others who have a lot to offer say too little, and keeping everything on track takes discipline, clarity, kindness, and firmness. Ivy was great.

The day began with a short keynote by Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian eco-feminist, who spoke of the dangers of the force of consumerism and commodification on the ecology and quality of life throughout the world, backed up by powerful statistics about the shocking loss of clean water and access to food even as there are so many more billionaires everywhere. Her main challenge is to the unquestioned goal of “growth” she sees everywhere, which cannot be currently supported without the additional use of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources. Fantastic! She is amazing, a dynamo of economic and culture critique, backed up by years of research and activism. She is here only for a day, as she is off to Copenhagen. As she said, she had to give up three conferences and rearrange her schedule, but “Copenhagen is completely stuck, and Bhutan is the way forward!” We must invite her to Naropa sometime, she is one of us!

The purpose of the day was to get to know each other and to become familiar with the central objectives of the workshop, preset by our group in the answers we gave to questionnaires months before the workshop. The Prime Minister and Education Minister and most of the Ministry of Education were present for most of the day. What I learned today is how the international participants and the Bhutanese present understand Gross National Happiness. It is really inspiring to me, as it accords so much with Tibetan Buddhist perspectives on happiness, with a modern development twist. It is based on the view that all beings want to be happy and want to avoid suffering—the only problem is that habitually they pursue the opposite, things that bring pain. With clarity, practitioners resist the temptation to seek happiness in material gain, pleasure, power, distractions, or addictions. Instead they have the possibility to cultivate real happiness, both the happiness found in the mind in meditation and the wholesome happiness of community, kindness, peace.

In our little breakout groups today, I happened to find myself working with a group of six to eight Bhutanese as the only foreigner, having vigorous discussions about what a GNH community would look like. I was so struck that these men and women have a strong sense of belonging, compassion, love of community, and wonderful humor. They vigorously interact and refine their thinking, and politely moved freely between Dzongkha and English. What wonderful human beings they are! Several were monastics, the rest lay government officials, teachers, and principals, and they spoke with some formality, but with such intimacy and respect. What is learned is how much they valued care for each other in community as they gave examples of how they respond when a baby is born or someone dies in the community. When the monks travel to Thimphu, where do they stay? When someone graduates from high school, what do they do?

One of the ongoing issues that came up repeatedly had to do with village young people pursuing education outside of the village—where do they go? There are few jobs, and none in the village, unless one is a farmer, artisan, or merchant. How to bring people back to the village is of great concern. I remember my days as a college student at the Gujarat Vidyapith, a Gandhian ashram college, and how it was addressed there as we mixed our studies with agriculture, sanitation work, and spinning, and so I’ve been able to vigorously take part as well. What a wonderful endeavor!

Tonight, about 10 of the international participants were invited to dinner with the Prime Minister and about an equal number of his senior officials. The dinner was held at the posh Taj Hotel, only two years old, in Thimphu. Impeccable in details, fantastic food, no alcohol served at any of our events whatsoever, very interesting conversation. I was sitting across from the PM, and he spoke of such matters as Bhutan’s main crops, the effects of global warming, the skill of the pilots of Druk Air, and his own love of his garden. One fascinating topic was Bhutan’s refusal to let any of their mountains be climbed, with regulations put in place by the Fourth King, and how they have had to negotiate with the Chinese to make sure that no climbers come in from the north. This led me to ask about the Bhutanese view of drala, and he responded with impassioned description of the drala, that many might consider it superstition, but that drala were the underpinnings of Bhutan’s new emphasis on eco-literacy. I continued the conversation with the Education Minister on my left, and he was so surprised to find a western person who also has a deep appreciation of drala, and how this might help develop appreciation for the beauty and sacredness of the natural world

Monday, December 7, 2009

December 7

This is the opening day of the workshop, with more and more participants arriving throughout the day. Twenty-four of us are “participants,” the official international delegates, matched by twenty-four Bhutanese educational leaders as participants. An additional 120 are observers—the international visitors from 18 countries—and Bhutanese leaders from every province. The hotel where we are staying, the center of the workshop, is positively buzzing with excitement of preparations.

This morning, the workshop participants and some observers visited a Bhutanese elementary school, a public school with a spacious campus of traditionally built two-story brick structures with ornate, carved wooden pillars and decorations, in the hills in the edge of the city of Thimphu. We were greeted by a beaming principal, five of his teachers, and only five sixth grade boys, as the school had already begun holiday. All were dressed in traditional Bhutanese national costume, mandated by law in all government buildings and schools. Such a proud group they were, describing how the curriculum was designed so that every child studies English, the local dialect Dzongkha, math, science, social studies, and literature. They also choose an extracurricular club in the fourth or fifth grade onwards in which to learn practical skills like carpentry, masonry, sewing, haircutting, painting, woodcarving, and music. Most of the participants in the workshop are educators, and we asked many questions about the school, and we found the staff so capable, articulate, and open-minded.

This evening’s highlight was the opening ceremony of the workshop, presided over by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, including the somewhat hesitant but helpful Education Minister. It was quite a display of friendly formality and Bhutanese culture. All the men wear ghos, which are like brightly colored knee-length men’s bathrobes, handwoven in plaid designs, with knee socks and dark shoes. Women wear similarly colorful striped woven wrap skirts, like sarongs, with silk jackets and blouses. For formal occasions, they also wear an additional fringed shawl wrapped over the left shoulder, and when paying their respects, they quickly bow from the waist and touch the fringe to the floor in a graceful gesture. There was a lot of such bowing tonight. Everyone was dressed in the finest clothing, and the government officials wear similar garb, with orange (the government color) shawls.

We were arranged in the beautiful basement conference room in a mandala-shaped quadrangle—government officials on the low stage on one side, the three quadrants of raised sections populated with the observers, and we participants sat in the central section. The room is all marble, with traditional Bhutanese carved and painted wood trim, and lots of thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings) are hung on all the walls. The Prime Minister is incredibly impressive, clearly intelligent and well-educated, with a passion for finding an alternative path for Bhutan—sustainable, contemplative, modern, harmonious. His keynote address was so moving, and he spoke very personally, from the heart. We had a feeling of being part of a large family gathering as he is charting a course based on Gross National Happiness rather than economic development based on the wealth of the few. You can feel the thrill of their new constitutional monarchy, with democratic participation, and yet incredible love for their young king.

I have to say that being here is so very encouraging and hopeful. The participants are the really deep thought leaders in education, each of them at the hub of powerful experiments in learning that is in keeping with what we are doing at Naropa, and they represent such diversity of culture and community. It makes me feel that we are part of movement that can actually affect the world at a time of such hopelessness, fear, and alienation from the roots of harmonious human culture. Our lunchtime and dinnertime conversations are rich and inspiring. We had breakfast with a New Zealand business school professor, Ross MacDonald, who is teaching collaborative business culture based on interdependence instead of competition. We had lunch with Gregory Cajete from Santa Fe, who teaches indigenous culture in Native American traditions—I was delighted to tell him that our Contemplative Learning Seminar students all read a selection from his Native Science book that shows that science can benefit from inclusion of the participatory element of human caring. At dinner, we spoke with Arun Roy from Delhi and Sulak Sivaraksa, my old friend, the political activist and social critic from Bangkok. Each person has tremendous presence and the kind of confidence that comes from experience, service, and reconnecting with the depths of human yearning for peace, harmony, and prosperity. I know this sounds corny, but it feels an expression of what the Vidyadhara called “enlightened society.”

It is wonderful to be here with Richard. After our year in Boudhnath, Nepal, twenty years ago, we were left so disheartened about the course of that beautiful country—destitute and devastated by a king and a government that appears to care nothing for its people. In a subsequent visit five years ago, I could see that things are even worse, in spite of some governmental changes. Richard vowed never to return there, but here there is such a different atmosphere. There is a kind of pride, graciousness, and confidence here that is so inspiring in spite of the many challenges and difficulties faced by a country moving so rapidly from a medieval culture to the information age.

Richard and I walked through the streets of Thimphu today, exploring and getting a sense of the capital. The streets are all paved, with raised sidewalks, and not too many cars. The only “traffic light” is a booth at the center of the only major intersection, with a uniformed police officer directing traffic with a gloved hand. (Several years ago, Thimphu installed a traffic light which the populace so hated that they insisted on the return of their more gracious traffic cop.) While there’s lots of trash in the streets, like everywhere in South Asia, we saw lots of people picking up trash and cleaning the gutters, something you rarely see anywhere else.

I’ve been asked to begin the workshop proceedings every day with meditation instruction for the entire assembly and 3-5 minutes of sitting. (The workshop facilitator, Ivy Ang, did a program with Pema Chodron and me several years ago, and asked me to do this.) I also was asked to lead a dedication of merit for the end of each day, and I wrote one just for this incredible event, and it works here as the close of my blog. Tonight the Prime Minister thanked me publicly for the dedication, and every applauded—it was so sweet.

May the benefit of our endeavor

Extend to all of the inhabitants

Of the Kingdom and the world.

May all beings overcome the darkness of ignorance,

Find enjoyment in learning and clarity of insight,

And live in harmony with each other

And with all the elements of the natural world.

May we all find happiness in service

To others and the world.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Educating for Gross National Happiness

Richard and I arrived in Bhutan around noon today, after a fantastic flight from Bangkok. The full-sized plane suddenly descended from the brilliant sky into a narrow valley with a single runway--it seemed the wings would touch the steep mountains on either side. After clearing customs on our "official" passports, we were greeted at the airport by the Ministry of Education, and were offered khatas of greeting. On the hour's drive to Thimphu (the capital), it is evident that Bhutan is pristinely beautiful--forested with striking long-needled pines, crystal-clear rushing rivers, laced with paved and well-maintained roads. Richard and I marvelled at the difference from Nepal, the "evil twin" of Bhutan, where everything has been so devastated.

The gates of Thimphu were decorated with banners announcing the Educating for Gross National Happiness workshop, and the hotel where we are staying is buzzing with excitement. The delegates are arriving from everywhere--so far, we have counted eight or nine countries of origin. The meetings will be held in the marble meeting room in the basement, formally set up in square formation, the room decorated with traditional painted carvings and carefully arranged chairs. Richard and I were given a lovely corner room with a view of the surrounding mountains, and are delighted that there is actually heat in the room! As the sun is setting, the lobby where I'm sitting is getting colder and colder--no central heating, and in December, it gets quite chilly in the evenings!

Tomorrow morning we visit a nearby elementary school, and in the afternoon will have a chance to explore Thimphu a bit before the official opening dinner tomorrow night, hosted by the Education Minister. We are looking forward to a good night's sleep, and then the unfolding adventure! Thanks for joining us!