PERSPECTIVES 9 May, 2010 - In Laos there is a saying that too much education makes
you unhappy. This proverb is contrary to everything you hear these days namely that education is the key to everything.
But this kind of folk proverb has a lot of wisdom, in part because we often only identify issues
as problems when we have knowledge and information about them. So we dont really know whether our peace and happiness are due simply to ignorance or to our ability to make
ourselves truly happy even when we have knowledge.
But there is more wisdom in that Laotian proverb, because education sometimes seems to
make us so greedy and stressed. Many of my friends, particularly in Asian countries like
Singapore and Hong Kong, are pushed relentlessly from a very young age to study so hard,
get As, go to university, be competitive, get bank jobs, work around the clock, and live totally scheduled lives. They dont have a life; they are stressed; and they arent very happy.
By contrast, Laotians still manage to smile and be friendly despite having been bombed more
than any other country for a mistake they didnt even make. From my own experience there, I think it may have something to do with Laotians being very laid back and seemingly not very
ambitious or greedy.
Educating for GNH S o what does Educating for Gross National Happiness mean? For Buddhists, I dont think GNH is anything new, and in fact was taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago when he said
that where there is greed, there is no happiness.
Thus, for a trained Buddhist ear, peoples lament about the recession last year was simply their complaint that they could no longer satisfy their greed. And globalization really means
multiplying our individual greed globally.
Considering some statistics that show the average American presently consumes 30 times the
resources of one Indian, it is frightening to think what will happen when the Indians and
Chinese become as rich as they want, or even to half the level of Americans and (perhaps unfortunately) they are becoming rich. For a start, there wont be many trees left and we are already nervous about the climate change impacts of growing energy use in India and China.
So if GNH means anything, and if it has to do with protecting the natural world, then it must
also be about not letting greed be the driver. But how do we teach that, and how do we
implement that in practice in Bhutan? These are questions not just for the Royal Government
of Bhutan, but for all Bhutanese.
Sovereignty and independence require that we dont owe too much to others, which in turn requires economic development so that we can achieve greater self-reliance. But can we do
that without encouraging greed?
Educating creatively S o genuinely educating for GNH in Bhutan must somehow meet the challenge of the modern
world, including preserving and strengthening precious sovereignty and developing
economically and materially, while at the same time preserving our most vital, core traditional
values and not giving in to greed. I believe that fine balance is the essence of the Fourth
Kings great pronouncement that GNH is more important than GNP.
That fine balance means not simply preserving just for their own sake traditions that have become counter-productive but allowing them to evolve creatively.
So educating genuinely for GNH will require greater clarity and understanding and then some
tough decisions made with real courage and honesty to redefine our priorities and values, and
to change deeply ingrained habits that no longer work.
To find the right balance between tradition and innovation, we have to be truly creative.
Culture cannot be preserved genuinely and joyfully through imposition or obligation. Rather
we have to find ways to practice elements of our ancient culture in ways that are relevant,
vibrant, alive, dynamic, inspiring, modern, and even fashionable. A good example is the current popularity of Zen simplicity in clothing fashions and home decorations, so that it is a compliment to call someones taste so Zen!
Meeting these challenges is urgent. Major social problems are beginning to emerge like drug abuse, youth unemployment, and alienation. These are growing at least as fast if not
much faster than our commitment to GNH, and will not be solved simply by adhering rigidly
or blindly to old habits and traditions. Because the stakes are high, and because GNH as our professed guide for development and change requires honest discourse, I will focus on some of our most sacred cows in the examples that follow.
1. Rethinking jobs S ome of the causes of drug abuse, youth problems and alienation are certainly in the growing
wealth, consumption, and affluence that young people now see and take as their own goals,
and in trends that come with urbanization.
But, given our traditional hierarchical society, some likely stem from things like the status we
still accord civil service positions compared with other jobs. I remember when I was young
how much pride our village families took when a family member got even a low-level civil
service job in the capital. In a traditional society like Bhutan that values status highly, even
small symbols like having the white lagye (sleeve), were such a big deal.
Sadly, these outmoded values are still nurtured by the many perks and privileges given to
higher-level civil servants with desk jobs. They are perceived to be the ones with titles, the
biggest houses and cars, salary raises, overseas study and travel opportunities, and special
robes still one of our countrys biggest obsessions now joined by special number plates for cars. And of course, they have the greatest job security and perhaps the illusion of power.
Not surprisingly I hear of young people who wont tell their parents they work as restaurant waiters, and simply say they work in Thimphu, so that rural relatives will believe they have some important job.
At a time when the government cant provide enough civil service positions for our young, and promotes a policy to grow the private sector and encourage young Bhutanese to stand on
their own feet, we must have the courage to change this old value system that no longer serves
our countrys needs. Thats difficult for strong traditional cultures like India and Bhutan, but we must do it in our educational system, in the media, through awards and recognition, and in how we assign privilege, security and opportunity.
Its not as if Bhutanese are not adaptable. Ive seen even high-ranking Bhutanese in Jackson Heights, New York, flip hamburgers, make sushi, and do all kinds of so-called menial jobs,
and they are proud to be able to send money to their relatives back home.
Dignity of all labour seems to have a little more meaning there than in Bhutan. We need to
respect and value all kinds of work in Bhutan as well, not just desk jobs in the civil service.
One example of how we could tackle these issues is to reduce our obsession with traditional
symbols that no longer serve us, including robes and scarves. As we Bhutanese well know,
symbols matter. We might say that sweeping the office floor is an important and dignified job.
But if the one working in the office wears a special robe laden with meaning and the sweeper
doesnt, the visible differences can undermine all talk of job dignity. Perhaps we could learn from some of the worlds most powerful leaders, like the British Prime Minister, whose dress is exactly like any other professional Englishman going to work.
So if we are not yet quite ready to equalize some of the actual perks and privileges that are
now the almost exclusive domain of civil servants, we could begin with symbols. One way or
the other, we have to start respecting all kinds of productive labour if we are to move ahead as
This is even more important in our new and supposedly egalitarian democracy. By contrast,
our traditional dress codes are a residue of a very hierarchical system that was a brilliantly
appropriate method at the time the Zhabdrung, in his wisdom, needed to overcome tribal
divisions and unify the country. Equality was not a core societal value at that time. But now,
when our democracy values equality, these hierarchical dress codes are a form of
divisiveness, which is actually contrary to the Zhabdrungs unifying vision for Bhutan.
One person driving the latest Land Cruiser while another has to settle for a Maruti and most
cannot afford cars at all seems contrary to the equitable economic development that is one of the key pillars of GNH. In any case, civil servants generally have enough power through
their positions that they do not also need to flaunt decorations and visible symbols of elitism.
In all my remarks about the civil service, needless to say, I am not talking about front-line
workers like teachers, nurses, and police, who do some of the hardest and most challenging
work, often for very modest pay. Elsewhere in the world, as well as here, these front-line
workers need more, rather than less, support and care.
2. Rethinking culture O f course, one of the core pillars of GNH is culture, which is obviously very important for
the identity and sovereignty of a nation. But keeping a rich tradition and culture vibrant and
alive does not mean pushing people to do exactly what their ancestors did 50 or 100 years
ago. If we try to do that, we will not only ruin the creativity and critical intellect of the young
by teaching them to mimic rather than create, but we wont even keep our culture alive or survive as a nation in the modern world.
Resisting change might serve a supposed purpose of GNH by encouraging people to be happy
with what they have. But unwisely insisting on the mimicking of old habits also stifles avant-
garde activity and innovation, fails to value excellence, and ends up settling for mediocrity.
And in the end, that approach undermines rather than enhances GNH by making our culture
static rather than dynamic.
For example, the handicraft skills, about which we often brag, have become stagnant, lack
innovation, and in fact are fast eroding in Bhutan. Its far more expensive to make a traditional clay Buddha statue in Bhutan, even of mediocre quality, than to buy a bronze one
of much better quality in Kathmandu.
We are proud of our basket weaving, but the Indonesians put us to shame in quality and
innovation, let alone price. Our silver-smithing, wood-carving, and thangka painting are
generally mediocre at best, lacking in innovation, effort, and attention to detail, and with poor
workmanship and many imperfections.
And aside from the extremely expensive kiras and textiles that only the richest Bhutanese can
afford to wear, we have to admit that Lao, Cambodian, and Thai weaving, textiles and arts are
often far superior in quality to our own. In fact, if the truth be told, there is very little hand-
made coming out of Bhutan that is exceptionally good in quality.
We just have to hope that tourists will still buy Bhutanese crafts just because they are
Bhutanese, and that Bhutanese will buy them out of patriotism! But sooner or later people will
find out that our handicrafts are mostly both mediocre and expensive, and that really doesnt work in this competitive age.
Of course, there are talented individual craftsmen working away quietly with excellent
motivation, who should really be helped and supported to create first-rate products of which
we can be truly proud. But sadly, our crafts people rarely get to compare their own work or
learn from other cultures, because civil servants (not craftsmen) are the ones who take most of
the funded study tours to see industries in other countries.
Actually, many so-called traditions are little more than habits that we have no choice but to
change for our own sakes, such as our health. After all, our lifestyles have changed
drastically. For example, even though we still eat the same amount of rice, cheese, and fat as a
hundred years ago, many of us now drive and sit behind computers rather than walk and work
manually. For health reasons alone, we need to change our diets.
Of course, some traditional forms can serve us well in the modern world, like the traditional
rammed earth buildings that are not only economically sound and aesthetically pleasing but
also ecologically responsible. But even here, it is embarrassing that it took a billion dollar
modern corporate hotelier like Aman to show us Bhutanese that rammed earth design can be
extremely elegant rather than low-class and backward. We should be taking the lead in such
And while we are on architecture, there is nothing traditional about the ugly corrugated tin
roofs that now deprive Thimphu of architectural elegance. Of course, traditional wooden
shingles are both expensive and ecologically unsound given our Constitutions commitment to 60% forest cover. But a creative and innovative solution would be to design the new roofs so
that they at least look a little more like the elegant traditional wooden roofs that are more
aesthetically pleasing. For example, even though slate is mined in Bhutan, the technology has
not been developed.
Such innovations would be much better investments, for example, than the endless paintings
and carvings that are overly elaborate, expensive, difficult to maintain, and not particularly
creative since they look like they are mostly made in the same mould. My point here is simply
that as we talk about preserving our culture and traditions we need to be much more discriminating and precise in our choices. In particular:
What are the true core values and principles in our ancient traditions that are timeless and genuinely contribute to our wellbeing?
What forms, traditions, and practices do we cling to rigidly that no longer serve us, and that can be easily discarded, adapted, or changed in ways that are far more appropriate to our
current needs? And which ones are truly valuable, aesthetically pleasing, and relevant to the
And when we adapt, we need to choose our models carefully and with discrimination. For example, Ive noticed a growing tendency for affluent Bhutanese to send their children to study in Bangkok rather than in India. Yet Thailand, while it has a reputation in other areas, is
not particularly well known for its educational excellence. In fact, some of what we learn
from Thailand may teach us what not to do here in Bhutan.
By contrast, India, which also provides 70% of our foreign aid, produces some of the worlds most highly educated people and has some of the best innovative educational models
available. As well, Bhutan and India share centuries of thought, philosophy, and
understanding, particularly since Bhutans two major religious traditions originate in India.
3. Rethinking language I want to say a few words now about the most sacred cow of all language. Qu...