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.