Thanksgiving in Bhutan: Happiness, Deathlessness & Hope


Thanksgiving morning in Thimphu I awoke to the news of the violence Mumbai. Just hours before the terrorist attacks took place I was speaking with Bhutanese youth from radio station Kuzoo about how the world crises we face present us with an opportunity to move towards a new consciousness where we are more connected and teachers have a crucial role to play and must be filled with optimism. The magnitude and scale of the attacks in Mumbai is shocking and it makes my heart ache but I have to remind myself that the best thing about impermanence is that it gives me hope that things can be better. When I go to school tomorrow morning and see my students for the first time since the attacks all I can do is tell them that the more misguided the more compassion we have to have—the terrorists are victims too and we must not lose faith in humanity and continue to have hope.


I traveled to Bhutan to give a presentation on Educational Practice at the Fourth Annual Gross National Happiness Conference. More than thirty years ago, the Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, felt that his country’s success should be evaluated by the degree to which its citizens are happy. Essentially, gross national happiness (GNH) is more important than gross national product (GNP). The four “pillars” of GNH include: environmental conservation, socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage and good governance.


I would be lying if I said that Gross National Happiness is alive and kicking in Bhutan but I would also be lying if I said it was just a catch phrase to attract foreign tourists. The truth is most Bhutanese are unfamiliar with GNH even though it is grounded in Buddhist philosophy and Bhutanese culture. Some of the researchers at the Center for Bhutan Studies (the organizers of the conference) told me that even though many Bhutanese are unfamiliar with GNH it doesn’t matter because the majority of them live the values embedded in GNH. Regardless, GNH as an actual policy hasn’t really been operationalized since the King first espoused the idea.


The first GNH conference was held in Bhutan in 2004 and it focused on the purpose and meaning of life. Since then, two additional conferences have been held, one in Canada and another in Thailand. Close to 80 researchers and presenters from more than 25 countries gathered in Thimphu for a multi-layered discourse centered on the theme of “Practice and Measurement” and translating GNH into real policy. The idea is that if you can’t measure it then it doesn’t exist so a bulk of the conference involved economists going over indicators and indexes to measure and account for well-being. But “happiness” and “well-being” are elusive, complex phenomena and it seemed that any attempt to quantify them would be imperfect. Still, a lot is being done in this field. In November of 2007 the European Council held “Beyond GDP” and Nicholas Sarkozy has commissioned Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to measure “quality of life” and their report will come out in April of 2009. Last Spring, I read a book by Richard Layard, an economist and Professor at the London School of Economics entitled “Happiness as Science” and even though I can see how he isn’t well received in academic circles he has done a lot of work advising the UK government.


My contribution to the conference focused on GNH as practice. It is crucial to focus on measurement but I feel that one of the dangers in all of this quantification is that the actual practice can be lost. I shared how as a teacher, inspired by the values embedded in GNH, I attempted to practice them in the classroom through creating educational activities that promote GNH philosophy. In the education portion of the conference I was actually the only presenter that had ever taught in a K-12 classroom. It reminded me of my experience when I was interning at UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education last summer in Geneva. IBE basically advises countries on what to teach and how to teach yet none of the researchers had ever actually taught! I showed the films my students have made for “Project Happiness,” lesson plans I’ve crafted on how ethics relates to happiness and student work. Education is much more than imparting knowledge and skills and the values embedded in Gross National Happiness can promote an ethical, ecological outlook that has the potential to make our world a better place for all its inhabitants. The values of compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, harmony and social responsibility must be taught in schools and modeled by teachers and administration must make this a priority. Much to my surprise the presentation went better than I could have ever expected and it has rippled out in ways I never imagined and it seems like it will continue to ripple. I have so much more to learn and honestly have no idea of what I’m doing most of the time but for some reason mindful educational development consultants came to speak to me, Bhutanese youth interviewed me for their local radio station, and educators from all over the world want to start dialoging on how we can translate GNH into a classroom practice.  Personally, I think it has to start with training teachers. I don’t know where this all will lead but I’ve learned that it is best not to ask questions and just sit back and enjoy the ride. You just never know where life will take you!  


This fall, Bhutan celebrates 100 years of monarchy with the coronation of the fifth King. His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk is exactly 12 days older than me. The foreign delegates to the conference were invited to a lunch at the Royal Banquet Hall given by the King. Each one of us was formally presented to the King and then we all sat down to lunch. Maybe it was because I was wearing a bright orange Indian outfit but much to my surprise (and everyone else’s envy) the King sat in the seat right next to me! I have to admit I was nervous at first but he was so gracious and spoke to me at great length about education in Bhutan. He said that it was very important for teachers to give individualized attention and know that each child is different. I asked him how Bhutan can modernize its educational system without compromising local wisdom. I also asked him about the conflict I see with Western educational models that stress the individual and how this directly conflicts with the Buddhist teaching of no-self which is an issue for Bhutan’s majority Buddhist population. He didn’t have a clear answer to my questions and said that education is very important and that these are critical questions that the Bhutanese government had to address. Initially, curriculum was imported from India just to get something out there and thankfully the government is currently in the process of revamping curriculum. The King spent one year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts but they asked him to leave because he didn’t perform well academically. He also spent a year at Oxford but he has no formal degree. But he doesn’t need a degree, he needs to learn how to be King and it seems as if his people love him—I’ve never seen anything like it! When I asked him if he saw himself as a global promoter of GNH he told me that he just wants to travel around his country and really get to know his people and he doesn’t see himself traveling abroad much in the next few years. During my short time in Bhutan I experienced the deep love most Bhutanese citizens have for both their King and their country. I have a Bhutanese student in New Delhi and he always tells me that he cannot wait to return to Bhutan. Many Bhutanese I spoke with that spent time studying outside of Bhutan told me how much they missed their country when they were away.


Last Spring, this tiny Himalayan nation with a population of about 650,000 became the world’s youngest democracy. The current King’s father who was also universally loved by most of his people decreed the drafting of a constitution and the creation of a democracy. In the past decade the fourth King began stepping back from decision making positions and in November of 2001 commanded the drafting of a Constitution. The construction of the constitution was absolutely fascinating! Constitutions of other countries were studied by the Constitution Drafting Committee and His Majesty the King discussed the draft with a representative of every Bhutanese family in this country the size of Switzerland. Still, many academics feel that Bhutan is only a democracy in name and there is a Nepali minority that doesn’t seem to have much of a voice along with non-Buddhists.  Even so, I spoke with a few Nepali-Bhutanese that are from the southern part of the country and all of them still shared in their love for Bhutan. Bhutan is a complex place and in my week here I’ve only scratched the surface. 


Exactly two weeks before I came to Bhutan I attended dharma teachings with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (the Bhutanese Lama, writer and film maker responsible for “The Cup” and “Travelers and Magicians”). When the teachings ended I told him I was traveling to Bhutan for the GNH conference and he shared his skepticism about GNH with me. In Bhutan I had the chance to speak with Sonam Kinga, a member of the National Council and the actor who plays the monk in “Travelers and Magicians” and he shared some of Khyentse Norbu’s sentiments. I met a young Bhutanese woman whose teacher is Khyentse Norbu and she told me that he wanted the Center for Bhutan Studies which is headed by a very sharp gentleman, Dasho Karma Ura, to organize a GNH conference just for monks. I think this would be an excellent idea because the monks could really play more of an engaged role in society, the type of role my beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, advocates. An Oxford trained Western economist that closely advises the Bhutanese government told me that there are plans to have monks work as school teachers and the monks are beginning to recognize the need to espouse human values that are not so Buddhist specific.


The Prime Minister, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley, gave the keynote address at the conference and he posed some challenging questions in his opening remarks: “How does one go about persuading people to adopt a new ethical paradigm that rejects consumerism? Is it enough for us to know how to measure happiness and to hope that this will influence policy making? How do we as academics, thinkers, scientists, leaders and concerned citizens change our own way of life and behavior?” I don’t have any clear answers to the Prime Minister’s questions but I know that change can only occur when we begin asking the right questions and change must begin with ourselves. Clearly, the old way hasn’t served our society well—we are faced with numerous crisis (food, financial, fuel, environmental etc.) Next year’s conference will be in Southern Brazil, from November 5-9. The website was launched in Bhutan during the conference. If I am able to attend it will be great to see all of my Brazilian friends! Between now and then I hope there will be more answers to some of the Prime Minister’s questions.


It is important not to romanticize GNH. Like any place Bhutan has many problems and in my week here I haven’t even begun to tackle the complexity of issues this country faces. Many rural Bhutanese want to move to Thimphu because materially speaking it is better off and this shows a complete absence of GNH. Annually, Thimphu residents earn an average of Nu. 320,000 (47 = about $1 USD) compared to Nu. 20,000 in Wangduephodrang.


In his closing address, the editor of Bhutan’s National Newspaper, Kuensel, Kinley Dorji said: “GNH must be radically reinterpreted as a responsibility. Gross National Happiness is not a promise of happiness. Happiness is an individual pursuit. GNH is a mandate of the state, a responsibility of the government, to create the right environment for our citizens to seek happiness…For Bhutan democracy is not the goal. It is a path to good governance which is a pillar of Gross National Happiness…but where do democracy and GNH meet? …For Bhutan, GNH must be the skillful means of survival.”  Discussing where democracy and GNH meet is a crucial conversation that needs to take place. There are talks about gathering the world’s top thinkers on this subject in the next year.


Both during and after the conference I was able to do some sight seeing and as usual tried to learn as much as I could. If I had the time and energy this email would be 100 pages long but I’m composing it on my flight home just so I don’t forget the essence of what I’ve experienced in the past week. Bhutan was first opened up to tourists in 1961 and its early history is steeped in Buddhist tradition. The country is known as “Druk Yul” which means “land of the thunder dragon,” to its inhabitants since the 13th century. The official language is Dzongkha which is similar to Tibetan (though they fought wars with the Tibetans in the past).  Not too far from the beautiful dzong (fort-monastery) where the lovely film “Little Buddha” was shot there is a path that leads to Tibet and takes only one day. The people call themselves Drukpa, and their religion is the Drukpa Kagyupa lineage of Mahayana Buddhism. 


I visited many dzongs (there are 2,007 in the country) including the famous Tiger’s Nest, also known as Taktshang, where Padma Sambhava is said to have flown to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress. He then meditated in a cave there for three months. The dzong is perched on the side of a cliff, 900m above the Paro Valley. The original dzong was destroyed in a fire in 1998 and was rebuilt only a few years back. The climb up is breathtaking and I spent most of my time climbing to the dzong chanting the mantras for Padma Sambhava which I learned this summer from the nuns I taught English to in Ladakh. Well, the cave in which Padma Sambhava meditated is still in tact and luckily I was able to just sit and meditate there for quite some time and receive a blessed necklace which I am wearing right now with Padma Sambhava’s picture on it from one of the monks.


There is a small meditation hall I was able to sit in where one of his consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal, practiced. Speaking of female dharma practitioners I unfortunately was unable to make it to Bumthang where a spiritual institute, the Pema Choling Anam Shaydra, seeks to empower anims (nuns). I was pleasantly pleased with the confidence Bhutanese women seemed to exude. The Bhutanese women I spoke to told me there is no such thing as dowry in Bhutan, no arranged marriages and women were encouraged to be educated. While this is refreshing news, in a documentary on Bhutan entitled, “The Middle Path” Kuensel Editor, Kinley Dorji, said that in the past an attractive Bhutanese woman was one who was a good worker and a good mother but since television was introduced to Bhutanese society many young Bhutanese girls think they are fat and unattractive if they don’t look like the women on TV. (One of the popular cartoon characters in Bhutan is a young girl named Meena!) There was a lot of discussion about how TV has adversely affected society since it only came to Bhutan in 1999. The Fourth King has multiple wives and polygamy is still practiced in Bhutan. I asked a young woman about polygamy and she just laughed and said with a smile, “It’s no big deal and it just teaches you not to take life to seriously.” This is an attitude we could all learn from time to time!


I came to Bhutan with the Middle School Principal at the American Embassy School, Dr. Barbara Sirotin (Barb is amazing, she was a former Superintendent in a few districts in the US and former Principal at the International School in Bangkok) and the Coordinator of our Indian Studies Program, Sharon Lowen (Sharon is one of India’s most famous classical Indian dancers and those of you that live in Delhi see her in the social pages every week). Barbara, Sharon and I chaired the Peace & Activism Task Force I launched at the American Embassy School last year and they have been great supporters of my commitment to promote an ethical, ecological, humanistic approach to education and all of my crazy ideas. Sharon also brought her 92 year old mother with us who is just amazing. I now have a “Bubbie” (I think that means grandma in Yiddish) to add to my global, spiritual family! I really love spending time with dynamic elders because they have so much to teach me, are great role models and mentors and they pass on such great life advice. Some of my favorite advice from this trip included: “Don’t be afraid to jump without a parachute.” “Don’t be bitter because only you suffer.” “Don’t trade the now for security in the future.” I also met so many wonderful, incredibly interesting individuals at the conference I know I will continue to stay in touch with.


At 28, I was the youngest foreign presenter at the conference and as crazy as it sounds I’ve spent most of my time in Bhutan with my “Bubbie,” Sharon’s mother. At 92, Ethel Lowen just might be the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. I’ve learned more from Ethel in the past eight days than I learned from anyone in my entire life and I can only hope to emulate her unique zest for life and love of learning as I age. My second day in Bhutan I actually found my first white hair and before meeting Ethel I may have pulled it out but instead I embraced it and combed it in front instead of hiding it behind the rest of my hair. In a lovely piece on “Dynamic Aging” she discusses what she learned about mindfulness from my beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Much of what she writes incorporates the attitude necessary in order to live the values of GNH.


Ethel writes: “My way has been awareness of the connectedness of the human race, shared understanding of the joy and brevity of our trip on the planet. I have followed this mantra:  to not harm anymore, to not harm the planet, to not allow oneself to be harmed. The sentient state of awareness I first learned in New Delhi, at IIC (the Indian International Centre), during a lecture in the garden by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. His simple lesson involved a huge basket of oranges brought in and distributed to the men and women in the group. The questioning began: How did these oranges get here?  Who planted their seeds? Who watered them? Who plucked them? How did they get to the city? Which hands passed them on and on till it reached our hands? How many journeys has this orange taken before it was peeled and eaten? How does a tiny seed grow and eventually fuse with our bodies and our histories? Throughout our lives we will eat many oranges. As a child we may experience the delight of the newness of its taste. We may not understand how it became an orange but we can enjoy it. As we grow into maturity, we can lose this awe and delight if we are not mindful of what we are doing. We must bring that orange back into focus again. And how do we shut out all of the noise of our daily lives while eating this orange? We hold it in our hands, and remember its history; focus on what connects us to the human experience of growing and eating oranges. We use this simple act of peeling and tasting a sweet slice of an orange, as a way of remembering that we are human. Like this orange, we are a part of a life cycle, and we pass through many hands and hearts to become who we are. And if we can do this with a simple orange, perhaps we can learn to do this in other areas of our lives, increasing the joy and peace obtained by the simple acts in life. And if we do this often enough, then the very last orange we eat in this life, will be the very sweetest, ripest, and will fill us with the greatest contentment as we pass pieces of it to the child sitting beside us, taking a first bite of life.”


Two months ago, at a retreat in Dehradun, my dear teacher (Thich Nhat Hanh) spoke in a very liberating way about “deathlessness”. He said: “I will never die. I see my continuation in my students, in my books, in the trees and in all of nature and humanity.” A few days after this retreat in Dehradun, he gave an inspiring talk at Gandhi Smriti on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. He spoke about how we must strive to see the continuation of Gandhi in each of us and notice his presence in all aspects of life. Doing this will inspire us and give us hope. I’m so very thankful for this time in Bhutan, it has been such a sacred gift because amidst all of the horrific violence that has occurred in Mumbai. I’ve been able to see the “continuation,” the “deathlessness” of Gandhi here and it gives me hope. GNH echoes much of what Gandhi stood for and even though they have a long way to go it seems as if the Bhutanese government is committed to a path that seems very much in line with Gandhian ideals.


Bhutan is a nation steeped in Tantric Buddhism. When I was visiting Tiger’s Nest I noticed on the altar that offerings of whisky and wine were made. I asked the monk why alcohol was being offered (even though having studied some Tantra I knew why) and he said that when alcohol is offered to a Bodhisattva a Bodhisattva can transform it into nectar. Tantra is all about transformation so it seems only fitting that this tiny Himalayan nation can inspire us with a philosophy to transform our own lives and as result transform the world.


Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings continuously remind me that there are always conditions of happiness even in times of great tragedy. In fact, in these times of despair people reach out for no reason. Seeing my Indian features many Bhutanese have reached out to me, giving their condolences for the atrocious violence that has occurred in my ancestral homeland.


No matter what we must have courageous spirits. Maybe I’m too idealistic (I guess that’s why I’m a school teacher) but I’m not going to stop believing that things can get better.  So, as we deal with India’s own 9/11 let us remember Gandhiji and his commitment to peace. May we look for his continuation in others but most importantly within ourselves. Like Bodhisattvas may we take the pain we feel about the bloodshed in Mumbai and transform it into compassion and do whatever we can to promote peace and happiness and partake in acts of kindness.


Tomorrow morning at 8:35 am New Delhi time we will hold a moment of silence for the victims in Mumbai. I will then lead my students through a compassion meditation. Please join in and share in our prayers.


On Tuesday evening, December 2nd, an embodiment of peace and Gandhian ideals, Satish Kumar, will be speaking at the American Embassy School at 7pm. He will also be meeting with High School students in the afternoon. If you need more information about this event just send me an email or call me at AES. Gene Harrell and I are organizing his visit.


In Peace and Love,




“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.”- Thich Nhat Hanh