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—