Transformers: More than meets the eye

Bhutan's flag
Asia » Bhutan » Thimphu
January 11th 2008
Published: January 11th 2008
Edit Blog Post

You may or may not have been wondering what I’ve been up to lately. Am I settling into my routine in Bhutan? What kind of magical things are happening in the Land of the Peaceful Dragon?

At the end of 2007 I was at the Tarayana Winter workshop in Samtse. The workshop was a training for the Tarayana school clubs from every region of Bhutan. Each participating school sent one teacher and one student. It was an opportunity for Tarayana to get feedback from the clubs on perceptions and implementation of Tarayana projects. It was also an opportunity for the Tarayana Secretariat to clarify the organization’s philosophy and mission. The workshop was designed to teach leadership skills and implement a service project.

The leadership skills included Leadership: Decision making assistance, Communication: Mediation and conflict resolution, Effective presentation skills, Time management, and Empthazing: Confidentiality. To enhance the understanding of the work Tarayana implements, the participants hiked to a remote village to work on a service project. The service project was the construction of a simple stone and timber house for two orphans. The two beneficiaries were a young girl who works in the orange orchards near her village to support her younger brother who is attending school. The girl is 16 and the boy is 14.

The area is known as Lotukuchu and is the last area of the Doya also known as Lhops. It is in the southwest of Bhutan just to the northeast of Samtse. They mostly practice Bon, the old animist/ancestor worship religion of the Tibetan/Himalaya region but Buddhism is also present. Their language is reportedly on the edge of extinction as modern trends have brought Nepali and Dzongkha (Bhutan’s national language) to the area and some of the young people move away in pursuit of “economic opportunities” - a typical rural migration trend of modernity.

Modern material development has been slow in Lotukuchu perhaps because of the Doya’s resistance to outside influences and integration with other ethnic groups, as well as the perceptions that outsiders have of the Doya. Since I am an outsider to even the outsiders it’s difficult for me to say what the reality of the stereotypes are. But it is generally accepted that there is a fair amount of alcoholism and a tendency towards overhunting the wildlife; including large birds, ungulates, and even monkeys. Also, I was told there was a lack of enthusiasm from the young orphan’s neighbors in helping construct the house which could be attributed to a general lack of community participation.

The area supports some orange orchards which are one of Bhutan’s cash crops that are exported to Bangladesh and other countries. However, roads haven’t quite reached Lotukuchu, so they can’t yet enter such a lucrative market. The government is currently constructing a one track dirt road to the area; when it will be completed, I’m told is difficult to say. The soils would also support cardamom, which is a very lucrative crop, though the soils suffer from an infection that has disabled the crop. The ministry of agriculture has assessed that the soils should lay fallow for four years. Also, the soil conditions have affected several grain crops and the grain crops are reported by some villagers as being ripped up by monkeys.

Regardless of their lack of income, there is also diminished capabilities of these Doya. Some outsiders attribute it to their strict intermarriage resulting in mental deficiencies, or the rampant alcoholism even amongst children. Formal education is also a challenge in rural communities, because there are school fees and uniform and materials requirements that rural people without incomes have difficulty meeting. Tarayana is able to assist these rural students (not only in Lotukuchu but all across Bhutan) in a limited capacity. However, some rural people seem to have intrapersonal and perhaps interpersonal barriers to their success in education. Are the schools speaking their culture? Are they geared towards the needs of a rural lifestyle?

So the push and pull of modernization and the capability development of this Doya community is challenging and confounding. But the purpose of Tarayana’s involvement here is to make the lives of the old and the physically and mentally challenged a little more bearable under these extreme development challenges as well as making it viable for the youth to have some access to education. Tarayana has also been involved in establishing a handmade paper manufacturing facility while helping find markets for and improving the quality of the product. The paper is the kind that people in the US would use for wedding or other formal invitations. But it seems Doya culture is, from an outsider’s perspective, losing cohesiveness.

But are they becoming part of a Bhutanese culture, or a broader South Asian Sub-continent culture, or a globalized-modern culture, or is it more intricate and complicated? As I’ve been asked and I seem to be asking, does Buddhism and Capitalism - particularly neo-liberalism - co-exist or conflict?

My friends with the Deer Park Institute here in Bhutan seem to believe that Buddhism, the true spirit, is endangered to become similar to the patronage systems of Thailand and Myanmar (specifically chose this name over Burma) where religion is a matter of buying merit rather than devotional practice and realization of the dharma. On the surface I can agree in that many people in Thimphu are getting entrenched in the consumer culture of Bollywood (or Bhutanese Bollywood knock-offs), automobiles, and plastic packaged sweets and snacks. Garbage is increasing with imported consumption and foreign products, though more expensive than they are in India, are less expensive than say the oranges that are a hot commodity in Bangladesh.

Can people consume like this and practice Buddhism? This asks another question: what does Buddhism look like? Is Taiwan a Buddhist country with its massive foreign trade? Is Thailand a Buddhist country with its impressive Wats (temples) everywhere but also its massive appetite for electronics in Japanese style malls - at least in Bangkok? Is Japan a Buddhist country with increasing suicide rates and high rankings in unhappiness? Or are there Buddhists in these countries? What is Buddhism, right?

Well since Buddhism focuses on the cessation of suffering it seems to be quite the opposite of modern capitalism that thrives on fashions and trends that survive on the dissatisfactions of the consumer. But, as we were half joking last night, doesn’t chocolate teach us about impermanence? It’s the obsession with chocolate that is problematic. Unfortunately, truly good chocolate is rare here. Yes, read between the lines here.

So what path to development are we taking? Is it income security? Food security? Social security? Dollar parity? Trade balance? “Development as Freedom”? Happiness?

Ah yes, happiness! As in Gross National Happiness. What is Gross National Happiness? Is it just rhetoric here in Bhutan or is there (pardon the humor) substance in this happiness? The Dzongkha term used in this specific definition of happiness is “gaki”. So, since we have our own pre-defined disparate definitions of happiness, what is this gaki? I don’t have the answer for you right now, but I will explore this. You’ll have to tune in for exciting answers to these and other questions.

But for now, how about we check in with how I’m doing, this two months into the trip with eight months until I return home.

Generally, I am doing well. But let me try to tell you what this means. As I’ve expressed before, this country is easy (given I have a substantial grant supporting me). What is hard to express is the welcoming openness of the people in this country though there is a gap between foreigner and Bhutanese social perceptions that is significant. I can’t quite put my finger on it. There is a chart somewhere that shows where different countries sit in relation to communalism and independence. America and (surprisingly) Japan sit on the independence side and China and Southeast Asian countries sit on the communalism side. Then there is Argentina, which sits in the middle somewhere. Off the cuff, I would say Bhutan is somewhere alongside Argentina. Maybe a little towards the communalism side. That’s the middle path, right? But it’s awkward coming from a country that expects and glorifies independence and interacting with people in a culture that largely balances these things, and trying to figure out where each of the individuals I meet sits in that balance. Too abstract?

When I’m with these new friends it’s great. We’ve opened up to each other quickly. We have fun and understand most of each other’s humor. But there’s a double edged sword between this relationship. (Maybe it’s the flaming Khadga in Buddhist iconography.) It could be the sword that can cut together friendships because it is attractive and feels harmonious like cutting together flour and water in bread. But it can also be the sword that destroys because we’re attached to the connection like holding on to a log for life in a rushing river. These friendships are both trusting and mistrusting because they are tangible here and now, and they are impermanent and remind me of the suffering of disconnection that is inevitable with everything by way of death, destruction, and entropy. In every relationship we are in the middle of this dance of centripetal and centrifugal energy: attraction and repulsion. It’s exciting to meet new people, it’s scary and comforting.

I am meeting people in sacred coincidences throughout this journey. I almost get the sense that it is not a linear journey, but one that exists altogether. On this timeline I feel compelled to these journey points: Bangkok, GNH3; Bhutan; Himachel Pradesh, Deer Park Institute; Ladakh, International Society for Ecology and Culture. I have met people all along this journey who are connected together and are connected into my intention. Sorry if this is getting woo woo. But really look at it, it’s not. If you participate in something and you keep aware, you will see what is connected and you can make your choices to step where you need to be. You will meet the people you need to know.

But I’m just saying… the other day I wanted to get some cake at this café after I had dinner. I could have gone without cake. But I followed that knowledge that I wanted cake. My friend Jigme from Bellingham was standing right near the café. He had just arrived from another Dzongkhag (province). This sort of thing happens fairly frequently on this trip. And I meet wonderful people this way.

Then there’s another side. I meet people who want to talk to me because I am a foreigner. They want a taste of something beyond their life. They often ask me where I’m from and usually Arnold Swarzenegger comes up for the men. With women it has been the desire to live in the US. There is a trend of grass is greenerism in Bhutan.

As a traveler am I inherently part of the grass is greenerism movement? I don’t think I am. I quite enjoy my life in Bellingham and I also enjoy where I’m at now. I think I go through bouts of nostalgia for friends and fears of impermanence with the present. Pretty normal. I just try not to get too invested in fantasizations of what could be. And I’m always reminded to practice a little meditation and stretching. To limber my mind and body for better coordination.

So this is all to say that Bhutan and the spirit of this grant are treating me well, though it is cold here at night and it would be nice to snuggle with someone. Remember, Bhutan can either be your fantasy world or it can be a real place with blemishes and pleasant surprises. It’s like a Transformer, it’s “more than meets the eye.” Maybe a little less massive violence and destruction.


20th January 2008

Eric, thank you for all of your insight. I liked your explanation of individualism vs. communalism and how this plays out in your everyday interactions with others. I am glad you are finding that your path, whether linear or not, is taking you in amazing directions. I hope this finds you well. Sending good wishes from Peru-- Ali
26th January 2008

Hey Eric, I love reading about your adventures and discoveries....and am glad you are getting about and getting involved....look forward to hearing more travels, B
15th February 2008

good on you
Hey Eric. Good to see you visiting all these places and people. I hope you are not too homesick. I was wondering how is Bhutan implementing GNH now that it is 'in centrestage' and our website advertises. Take good care Petr
17th February 2008

hello friend, i am glad you are having such amazing adventures.

Tot: 0.222s; Tpl: 0.052s; cc: 10; qc: 56; dbt: 0.0528s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 3; ; mem: 1.5mb