“Tsig zi tenpey lopen la, lama daktu ma zin na, Khi ye kewa ngabja lang.”
“If you do not consider a teacher, even if he teaches only four sentences, as a lama, you will be born as a dog for the next five hundred lives.”
This is the land of Bhutan. At least that was Bhutan when I was a little girl. This was one of the very first Dzongkha (national language) quotes that I had dedicatedly memorized with a fervent belief and I did not spare any opportunity to cite it if any of my classmates attempted to speak a word against a teacher. And it was not just I; every student had a favorite quote. Words of wisdom darted back and forth amongst us, the aspiring Bhutanese philosophers. Locked in our own little world in the Himalayas, we were ourselves Plato, Seneca, Descartes and Locke, all living under the same roof of our school. Little did we know that Bhutan was awakening from her medieval slumber; and with every yawn, these little philosophers retreated, their principles threatened by the complexities of modern times. Modern Bhutan soon debuted in the ballroom of the world with a new philosophical song of Gross National Happiness. The states with their guardian angel, the United Nations, stood mesmerized by the grandeur of Bhutanese thoughts. A land that discounted gross domestic product in favor of national happiness! Even the United States of America expressed sighs heavy with nostalgia and envy – pursuit of happiness? Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness as good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation – the four pillars that put materialistic progress into shame and doubt. The greatest of the democracies and republics gasped in adoration. Donors oohed and funders aahed. The song continued. The four pillars fleshed out into nine domains, i.e. psychological well being, health, use of time, community vitality, education, culture, ecological diversity, governance, and standard of living. The only low note to the song was how to measure this subjective and abstract concept of happiness. Then came the knights in shining armor to the rescue of this beautiful maiden nation. Yes, scientists, from the western world with their ivy-league prestige, came forward stating that happiness could be measured. Thus, the nine domains conveniently gave birth to a total of 33 indicators. For example, the telltale signs of psychological well being are life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions and level of spirituality. Likewise, each domain is allocated their own indicators. Now, like the solitary reaper’s song (William Wordsworth), you do not have to understand it to be magically falling in love with it. You will fall in love with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness even if you are not sure to whom the happiness belongs – it is such a happy philosophy. But if you really want to understand it, you can. Like any other program, measurable goals have been planned, objectives have been outlined and concrete results are recorded. The indicators give an index, which is said to be the exact measurement of happiness. Happiness in Bhutan lies in the shelves of the Gross National Happiness Commission’s offices and the archives in libraries of Bhutan Studies Center. Happiness in Bhutan also lies in the everyday Bhutanese news and stories. You are the auditor, you are the monitor – you can choose where to look.
Headlines such as “200 households, 100 jerry cans, one trickle for a spring,” “Like fields, a diet deprived of greens,” “Hospital short of 29 drugs,” “6,129 tail away from Govt. Schools,” “Cuts like a knife”, “Half those held are minors” frequent Bhutanese media, indicating something amiss in the actuality of Bhutanese progress. As in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, are all the states and the United Nations singing along with the beautiful song of gross national happiness? Are the developed states so sick and tired of their own materialistic abundance that they now long for more simplistic lives? They choose to hold onto Bhutan as a compensation for what they miss. Exotic and euphoric! But do they not hear the cries of women in the land of snow and waterfalls fighting for a jar of water? Do they not see that the Himalayan lush is not providing enough food for the Bhutanese children? Do they not know that while they have selection of brand names, Bhutanese patients do not have basic drugs? Do they not calculate that 6,129 out of 10,190 students in the nation will not even go to preparatory college? But still they continue to applaud and encourage. Gross National Happiness! And Bhutan, gleaming in pride, spends more money and time in developing more intricate methods to doctrine Gross National Happiness. I am sure that His Majesty, the Fourth King of Bhutan, developed the four guiding pillars for the people, but not for the government to dogmatize it. The laws of the land should be guided by this benevolent principle and proper caution should be taken so that the principle is not forced into becoming law. Imposed happiness cannot bring happiness. Romanticized happiness will wear off when the embers of romance are burnt out.
And who will keep the romance kindled? No, not the likes of the 6,129 whose faith in their future has dimmed because neither their test scores meet the required minimum to continue their education in government schools nor their bank balance is bountiful to get into private institutions. Let us say that 100% college admission, 100% employment, running taps in every Bhutanese homes, might be a far fetched dream for a newly developing country, but we can begin with what is achievable. Cultural preservation. At least the government seems to have realized that cultural preservation is not enforcing mundane practice like hairstyle uniformity or shying away from modern technology like they did in the 1980s. However, the recognition of cultural values is fast disappearing. Culture is time relative and will change, but values define culture. We do not walk forward with both feet forward – the one in back propels the front. Bhutan in a hurry to modernize has forgotten to recognize the past. If the future torchbearers of this philosophy are not taught to look back to the roots, Bhutan’s tomorrows will be devoid of heritage and moral foundation. But if the romance can be kept continually glowing, it can be sanctified to eternal bliss. For this, a good practice by the government of Bhutan would be encouraging, instead of mere preaching of this profound philosophy.
In this light, I put forward a proposal. In doing so, I will go back to the quote that I have in the beginning of my paper. Teacher (guru) meant everything for my parents too; so much so that I remained nameless for months after my birth until my parents could arrange a travel to Kathmandu, Nepal to visit my father’s lama, His Eminence Dudjom Yeshey Dorji. I carry the privilege of being their first born and receiving the highest form of Buddhist blessing, my name from my Guru of my guru, my father, Lopen Jampel Dorji (Lopen means teacher).
Lopen Jampel Dorji (as he was reverently referred), my apa (father) passed away when I was hardly ten years old. He was the first Dzongkha lecturer at Sherubtse, the first college of Bhutan and then the only college. Many of us who studied in Bhutan know that Dzongkha instructors’ roles do not end in the classrooms. They are beacon of Bhutanese culture and tradition and it is through them that the students understand the core meaning of being Bhutanese. As the first ever Dzongkha lecturer of the country, my apa shouldered these responsibilities until his last breath. He died young, leaving behind his widow with four children. That was thirty years ago. He is long dead, long forgotten.
Yet who can console the pangs of emptiness that haunt me every single day? How can someone be forgotten so easily? That someone who was a teacher! The pioneer of Dzongkha language! That teacher in the land of Bhutan! The sustainer of Bhutanese values! I am in denial that the land of Gross National Happiness has forgotten its first teacher. How can I accept that the nation who claims that its cornerstones are built upon the promises for promotion of development, cultural values, good environment and good governance has forgotten the very first promoter of these core values? I try telling myself that my apa cannot be forgotten. He will not be forgotten. His students are now ministers who lead the nation, parliamentarians who author government policies and diplomats who champion national progress through Gross National Happiness. It is Bhutanese culture to recognize and respect their teachers. Without missing a day, I check The Kuensel online. With a childlike expectation, I wait to see a headline with my apa’s name. How many new colleges and schools have been built since he passed away in 1981? How many new buildings in Sherubtse where he taught? It would not take much to name a school after my apa. I comfort myself that my apa’s students are honorable students of a respectable teacher. They are engaged in the process of nation-building, but they surely must remember their old Sherubtsean days. Father William Mackey (a Canadian Jesuit who arrived in Bhutan in the early 1960s) earned a name, “The Son of the Nation” after receiving the Druk Thugsey (soul-son of Bhutan) award for his contribution in education. I remember Father Mackey coming to our house (we lived in a teacher’s quarter in Sherubtse College) almost every evening to discuss matters with my apa. How could a foreigner accomplish such great feat without a support from a local? The significance of endorsement needs no explanation in the world we live now. If Father Mackey brought western education to Bhutan, my apa nurtured acceptance in the Bhutanese minds. If Sherubtse was a blossoming center of Bhutanese education, my apa was the gardener who day and night without complaints saw to it that no hail, no snow damaged the tender buds. If my judgment is vague because it was so long ago and I was very young, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgay (Supreme Court’s Chief Justice), Lyonpo Minjur Dorji (Home Minister), Lyonpo Zangley Dukpa (Health Minister), and other veterans of the nation should definitely be able to correct me. I have clear memories of them sharing close relationship with my apa and they would definitely have clearer vision than I do.
Father Mackey must have appreciated my apa’s influence in his success. His wish was to be buried in Sherubtse where my apa was cremated. Sadly for both these sons, there is no tombstone in Sherubtse that mark their lives. Father Mackey never got his wish granted, and as for my apa, they build a hostel over his cremation ground immediately after a year, and therefore annihilating whatever little consideration he had received. Even then, in the mind of an eleven year old, I wished that they had left that sacred ground untouched. I would rather have had a tree planted in the place than a concrete building. Thirty years have passed, but it is not too late to honor my apa. My request is supported by the principles of Gross National Happiness. This is not materialistic happiness. This is the value I want to pass on to the future generation. This is cultural preservation. This is Gross National Happiness!
If it sounds selfish for a daughter to be proposing recognition, I am selfish. If seeking recognition for what my apa deserves is emotional attachment, I am emotional. If it is foolish to care for matters that have died with time, I accept to be called one. If my expressing concern for my motherland is considered intrusive, I would rather be one. I would rather not remain silent than suffer in the silence. For a good end, I would rather be a harsh critic than a passive onlooker. If you feel the slightest offense in reading my well-wished thoughts, you need to read again. In the bitterness lies the kernel of truth. There is no denying that I am my father’s daughter, there is no denying that I am my father’s student, there is no denying my Bhutanese blood: the truth is painted in my name. I will always remain a daughter of the land where emotions rule – the land where gross national happiness overshadows gross domestic product!
(Based in Georgia, Atlanta, the writer can be reached at [email protected])