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….

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