Sunday, June 06, 2010

Let's not lose sight of the big picture

PERSPECTIVE 5 June, 2010 - Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s article “Many questions, few answers” has generated much debate, both online and offline, just as he intended it to. I would like to offer my honest views on some of the issues he raised and some other related issues.

People’s opinions and perspectives differ. HH the Dalai Lama writes in his book “The Universe in a Single Atom” that “Any experience of consciousness – from the most mundane to the most elevated - has certain coherence and, at the same time, a high degree of privacy, which means it always exists from a particular point of view”.

Rinpoche’s view comes from a broad perspective of time and space, and a genuine concern to see Bhutan do well. Therefore some people’s reaction, questioning his qualification to comment on a mundane issue, is unfortunate. While we may not necessarily agree with him, we should be grateful to him for sharing his wisdom. Somebody has said, “In order to keep a true perspective of one’s importance, everyone should have a dog that will worship him and a cat that will ignore him.” So too would Bhutan need not just people, who lick up to us and say, “everything is wonderful”, but also people that drive us into a reality check now and then.


Considering our population, size, geopolitical situation and the current global scenario, our culture and identity are of utmost importance to us. No Bhutanese would deny this fact. Historically, we have been fortunate to have never been under the yoke of a foreign power. This has ensured the continuity of our state institutions, culture and traditions in line with those established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century to this day. This continuity has always worked to our advantage, but will it continue to do so, if we are not willing to change some aspects of our culture, in tune with our newly adopted political system and the rapidly globalising, highly interconnected world of the 21st century?

This is a question that begs serious and honest contemplation with an objective mind rather than an emotional one. There is no doubt that most aspects of our culture are still relevant and very much kicking, but this should not deter us from looking objectively and modifying those aspects, which may no longer be relevant, and might do more harm than good in the long run to our efforts at cultural preservation itself.

On the other hand, my perspective differs from that of my friend Dorji Tshering, whose recent article implied that we better give up the phallic symbols that adorn the walls of Bhutanese houses, if at all we need to change any aspect of our culture. The phallic symbols have a sacred, but not pornographic, meaning for the people who use it. As long as they are used out of free will and not enforcement, there is neither the need to feel ashamed, nor the need to hasten their passing. In fact, I also showed postcards of phallic symbols from Bhutan to Japanese friends and their reaction was one of understanding and openness.


In our efforts in cultural preservation, Driglam Namzha, GNH, etc., I think the external appearances and actions are highly emphasized, while internal values are given little thought or attention.

Most of us, who are now engaging in these debates, grew up in an environment completely different from the one in which our younger generation in cities and towns are growing up. So, we have imbibed that strong sense of independence and pride, and belief in the age old values that define our relationship with others and the world around us. However, our new generation grows up watching foreign made Hindi and English TV programs seven days a week. And even in school, what they learn has little content on Bhutanese values. Whether they will share the same internal values that define our culture and GNH is a big question.

Attempts should be made to explain the significance and reasons behind the way we do certain things in our culture to our increasingly curious new generation, who have access to global information at the click of a mouse or touch of a remote control button, lest they lose this vital connection.

This reminds me of the driglam namzha lessons we used to receive as students in the early ‘90s and the graduate orientation program in 2000. The driglam namzha lopen was well-versed in all the facts and figures of how long the lagey should be folded, how low to bow to a minister and dzongdag, how elegantly the khadar should be unfolded while offering it etc., but he never explained to us that driglam namzha was a set of rules (not necessarily so rigid as he made them out to be) of social etiquette that one should observe in any setting, be it at home, office or even while in foreign countries. So the essence of driglam namzha was lost in all the nitty-gritty details of how many times to prostrate, how low to bow, how to push dressi quietly into one’s mouth with the right thumb, etc.


I include language as one important aspect of our internal cultural values that require urgent attention and support. Today, because of information and entertainment overload we experience, almost all of which comes in foreign languages via the Internet and cable TV, our languages are seriously threatened.

Dzongsar Khyentse rinpoche has observed our largely ineffectual efforts with Dzongkha’s progress, and suggested that we stop wasting time and resources on Dzongkha. However, Dzongkha is enshrined in our constitution as our national language, and I don’t think we should give up on it so easily. Moreover, Dzongkha is a language that is closely related to Chhoekay - the bearer of “our precious wisdom heritage, culture, and Buddha dharma”. Learning Dzongkha can lead to the understanding of Chhoekay and vice versa.

One of the main problems with Dzongkha’s progress is that we have been offering it only flowery lip service, while not taking the interest to learn or use it ourselves. In this connection, as a practical measure and our commitment to our national language, I would like to request all newspapers in Bhutan to start Dzongkha news websites like the one BBS has. Secondly, I would like to request all ministries and government organisations to open Dzongkha websites. Isn’t it hypocritical on our part to extol so many virtues and not make even the national newspapers and ministries start websites in Dzongkha?

A New York Times article in April read, “As far as the records show, no one has spoken Shinnecock or Unkechaug, languages of Long Island’s Indian tribes, for nearly 200 years. Now Stony Brook university and two of the Indian nations are initiating a joint project to revive these extinct tongues, using old documents like a vocabulary list that Thomas Jefferson wrote during a visit in 1791.”

Let us not put our own descendents in the same situation 200 years from now.


Ever since I got a chance to study abroad in 1996 after high school and see the world, I worried if Bhutan would one day join the ranks of developing countries teeming with poor street children, dirty drains and glaring inequalities. But over the years, I have come to believe that Bhutan will take a different path. GDP-wise, we are still one of the least developed countries, but if we look at the general living standard of the people, we are different from other least developed countries.

Thanks to the wise and dynamic leadership of our successive Kings, we enjoy unprecedented peace and stability today. However, the forces of change that will be sweeping over us in the coming years will be so strong that it may create great regional imbalances and big gaps between the rich and the poor. Indications are that the west will develop much faster in the next 10 years, compared to the rest of the country, mainly spurred by private investments over which government has little control. Improved transportation networks will be crucial to maintain some degree of balanced development and fight rural-urban migration. I wonder if it would be too big a challenge to try to halve the road distance from west to east to one day in the near future as one of the measures.

Yet, there is hope for us as we stand as one people united behind our King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Even as we debate issues from different perspectives, we should never lose sight of the bigger picture of what concerns us most as a small nation of very small population between two giants. Each and every one of us has a role to play to make each Bhutanese feel included and cared for; to enable each Bhutanese achieve his/her fullest potential; and to make Bhutan truly a land of Gross National Happiness.

This article was published in Kuensel on Saturday, 5th June 2010.

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