Lessons from Bhutan: “May all beings be at peace and may this begin with me.”

Mountains and river in Bhutan

Mountains and river in Bhutan

I’ve been back in California for a month, having returned from another trip to Bhutan, and I’ve been reflecting on the experience of traveling. When we travel to a new place we are not distracted by the routines of our daily life at home, and as a result we are exceptionally open to everything in our new environment.  We take in sights, sounds and smells more deeply, experiencing every moment more intensely. This heightened experience may be one of the reasons that travel is so compelling for some of us, and provides a new vantage point to view ourselves and our place in the world.

For travelers the journey eventually comes to a close, and airplanes, trains and buses are boarded to quickly transport us back to our homes and our daily routines.  While we go through the motions of unpacking, doing laundry, checking email, returning phone calls,  there is still a part of us living in the place we have left behind.

At odd moments like driving or washing the dishes, vivid images flash before my eyes and suddenly transport me back to the unforgettable images of Bhutan—snowy 25,000 foot peaks against an azure sky;  the branches of huge ancient trees lined with red stag ferns  and draped with delicate wisps of lichen;  bridges nearly obliterated from view by streams of prayer flags which send off prayers for the entire universe  on the water and wind; excited families in traditional dress almost effortlessly completing the steep climb  to the lovely Tiger’s Nest monastery on an auspicious day. These images have become indelible experiences which have changed me forever in ways that are difficult to put into words.

Bhatnese villagers--woman and child carrying firewood

Bhutanese villagers–woman and child carrying firewood

I’ve also been thinking about the friends we have made on our travels in the last four years and what we can learn through the stories of their lives. Things are changing there perhaps faster than anywhere on earth.  As my own life whizzes past me and I find it harder to keep up with technology, I think that perhaps I return to Bhutan year after year to learn how to accept change while at the same time reflect on what I value and what I hope to keep alive from the past.

One of our new friends is Kunzang Choden, a remarkable author and social activist, born in the 1950s during a time of dramatic change in Bhutan.  She was the youngest child of a wealthy family in the days when Bhutan was still feudal, and she spent her early childhood in an imposing manor in a rugged, remote valley in central Bhutan.  Even for the noble class, life was hard.  People had to be completely self-sufficient since there were no roads or large trading centers in the country.  In 1963, the second king announced plans for land reform, meaning that each Bhutanese family was allowed only 25 hectares (10,000 square meters) of land, the rest being divided among local farmers.   She recalls her parents at this time with their heads together, whispering tensely.  Amazingly, land reform took place without violence or bloodshed.  Her family kept their house and some land surrounding it, and while the villagers were offered the choice of taking their allotment elsewhere, none left the area.  They remain close neighbors of Kunzang’s family today.

At the age of 10, Kunzang tramped stoically through a roadless countryside for 10 days to attend school in India—there were no schools in Bhutan.    She didn’t learn that her father had passed away until she returned from India for summer vacation.  Her mother died a few years later of loneliness, says Kunzang, with her husband gone and her children studying so far away.  Both parents were only in their 30s.  Raised then by an aunt and uncle, Kunzang continued her education through university in India.  She and her Swiss husband later did graduate work at University of Nebraska, where a homesick Kunzang began compiling the folktales of her childhood to pass on to her children who were living in a  foreign land.  She returned to Bhutan to finish her collection, but television had been introduced in Bhutan in the 1990s, and she realized that in just a few years, people had begun to forget the old stories.  With a sense of urgency, she continued to collect these stories, publishing her collection in 2003.

Nancy with Kuzang outside homes in Bhutan

It is with that same sense of urgency that Kunzang has continued her work in many areas as Bhutan hurtles into the 21st century.  Of course, she’s happy for many things: that her children were able to get a good education through high school without leaving Bhutan , that most people have a very good chance of living beyond their 30s into their 60s and that there is a road through the valley to her family home.  But she is aware that the rich cultural traditions of Bhutan are in extreme danger because of the new pace of life, urbanization and mass media.   To keep these traditions alive, at least in print, she has published Chile and Cheese, a nostalgic memoir of the role of food in traditional culture, and also Circle of Karma, a novel whose main character exemplifies the challenging experiences of women in a changing society.

Although Kunzang honors the traditions of the past in her writing, she looks ahead to the future with gusto.  As someone who loves the printed word, she is acutely aware of the fact that the Bhutanese have skipped from an oral tradition straight into the computer age.  Hoping that children might still learn to love books, she’s written several traditional stories with colorful illustrations for kids, and she has begun revitalizing the first community library, a gathering place in Thimphu, the capital city, where she provides story hours and activities for families and books to take home.  The idea is taking root slowly.

Traditional home and cookware, being turned into a museum to record a way of life that is changing rapidly.

Traditional home and cookware, being turned into a museum to record a way of life that is changing rapidly.

She’s also bringing the past together with the present by turning her family’s manor, Uygen Choling,  into one of Bhutan’s first museums, inviting Bhutanese and foreign travelers to share a way of life that has now disappeared.  She and her husband have moved from Thimpu, where their children live, to the house in the isolated valley where she grew up.    They are painstakingly cataloging and displaying the artifacts from the entire house, arranged where they were originally used in the blacksmith shop, printing shop, granaries, kitchen and living areas, etc.  Since it is still a two and a half day journey from Thimpu to the house, this is a major transition that reflects their commitment to this project.  Despite all the rapid changes in her own life, Kunzang is one of the most serene, compassionate and gracious people I’ve ever met, personifying the prayer in this region:  “May all beings be at peace and may this begin with me.”

Just writing this blog has been a reflection for me on the ways in which my life has changed through the years and whether or not I’ve made the best choices about what to keep and what to let go.  For example, I no longer play the piano or knit or browse through cookbooks, but I’m in more frequent contact with many faraway friends, I find recipes online and my fingers fly over a computer keyboard.  I regret not keeping a better balance between an e-life and more contemplative and creative activities.  I also regret not spending more time and money in locally-owned bookstores—I really miss them now!

Still, some things have not changed, including my commitment to improving education and my unwavering belief that education holds the key to a sustainable future for us all.  That is why I am committed to the Center for Global Awareness, whose materials promote these two goals.  I invite you to return to this site soon for my blog on media literacy, discussing how educators can help students become more critical consumers of media, which I believe is a crucial skill these days.  I also invite you to peruse any of Denise’s GAPS books to learn about her transformative worldview.  The values outlined in this worldview can light the way to a more humane and compassionate world community that honors and protects our shared planet.

–Nancy W. Harmon

Critical thinking questions for educators:

1. What has been lost and what has been gained in our everyday lives in this age of globalization?

2. What has been lost and what has been gained on a global scale?

3.  Which factors do individuals have some control over?

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