The wisdom and relevance of Bhutan’s Buddhist tradition
>> Prof Jeffery Tim
Q. You are a frequent visitor to Bhutan. When did you first visit Bhutan and how did that come about?
A. This is my seventh visit to Druk Yul and I hope there will be many more. Events leading up to my first visit, in 1999, are rather extraordinary. In 1996 I visited Dharamsala, India, and had the chance to meet H.H. the Dalai Lama. At that time I received His blessings on behalf of my academic home, Wheaton College in Massachusetts, USA. Then in 1998 my college offered to support my summer travel to Japan, Thailand and Bhutan to better understand global Buddhism. Imagine my surprise when someone in our admissions office, learning that I was planning to travel to Bhutan, informed me that your then Crown Prince, had enrolled at Wheaton and had requested that I call him at his boarding school. That telephone conversation lasted 45 minutes and at the conclusion His Majesty asked me if he could meet me at Paro when my plane landed.
Q. What have been some of the reasons that drew you here and keep you interested in this country?
A. Besides Bhutan’s natural beauty, progressive approaches to social and environmental challenges, and the wonderful developments in the Royal University, it is the spirit of the Bhutanese people that keeps me returning year after year. I believe that Bhutan has something important to teach the rest of the world about the integration of the spiritual and the worldly, the magical and the mundane. If I can transmit to my American students just a fraction of what I have experienced here, they will benefit.
Q. Your views on the recent political elections held in the country and the political reforms at large.
A. I confess that I do not care for politics. However, this reform was inevitable. My hope for Bhutan is that the best and the brightest, and the most compassionate people, will be elected.
Q. Your views on the role of Buddhism in society (Bhutanese society in particular), politics and government.
A. Buddhism plays a central role in Bhutanese society, politics and government. I don’t think that is about to change. However, young people especially need to understand their own Buddhist traditions as lively, relevant and transforming psycho-technologies. In the MTV generation it is too easy to write off religion as irrelevant, anachronistic superstition. But you need only to delve into the theory and practice of Buddhism in order to appreciate its spiritual sophistication and its profound relevance for our mixed up world.
Q. What, in your view, are some of the important transformations taking place in Bhutan, both positively and negatively?
A. As people watch more and more TV, they will be shaped by that experience. Because the advertising culture makes its repeated appeals only to the individual, promising happiness through consumption, TV will erode the communitarian values inherent in traditional Bhutan. It’s already happening. I’ll bet a person who vandalizes a chorten isn’t spending that ill-gotten wealth on food and medicine. One the positive side: I am delighted that civic leaders saw fit to restrict outdoor advertising. May the largest images in Bhutan remain religious: Guru Rinpoche reminding us again and again of our inherent Buddha nature, the truth of an interdependent and interpenetrating experience of reality.
Q. You taught at Sherubtse College in Kanglung. What was that like keeping in mind your background as an American professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts?
A. I collaborated with colleagues at Sherubtse on several occasions. We have tried to bring our students together through on-line discussions about Buddhism and the environment. Another project involved sending students out with digital cameras to document “sacred space.” While my American students always chose a very personal and individualistic image (for example, “the woods behind my parent’s home where I felt peaceful”), my Bhutanese students documented a more collective sense of the sacred (a chorten, a lhakhang an altar). They each have something to learn from the other. I wish my Bhutanese students would think more creatively, outside the box so to say, and I wish my American students would have greater respect for the wisdom and experience of their teachers. During summer 2006 I brought six students from Wheaton to the Kurjey and Nyimalung Tsechus where they met six students from Sherubtse. The Americans, dressed in kira and gho just like their Sherubtse counterparts, witnessed the sacred dance rituals and they were profoundly affected by this experience.
Q. Do you think Buddhism is being hampered in the name of development, progress, and globalization?
A. Not at all. In fact Buddhism, especially the Tantrayana, recognizes that even negative emotions and difficult circumstances, if handled wisely, can evoke positive growth and development. Thanks to unfortunate circumstances in Tibet, for example, many wonderful and spiritually advanced lamas have settled in the West bringing with them a wisdom tradition that was previously unknown in Europe and America.
Q. Do you have any recollection of our present King, who was a student at Wheaton College?
A. During fall semester, 1999, I was deeply honored by the opportunity to meet weekly with your King for an independent study titled, “Buddhism and Development.” In this work we explored the notions of Buddhist development, from both individual and social perspectives. Buddhism has always prmoted the spiritual development of individuals, but Buddhist social theory is a work in progress. The two are really interdependent as suggested by the title of Thakur S. Powdyel’s recent book, “As I Am, So Is My Nation.” You need to work on both the personal and the social dimensions simultaneously.
Q. You are apparently doing research and planning to write a book on Lama Drukpa Kinley, a figure very endearing to the Bhutanese for a variety of reasons. What drew you to this divine madman?
A. The irony of the American worldview is that as people become more detached, individual and autonomous; they become more just like everyone else, adopting the consensus reality and values of advertising culture. Programmed by advertising culture, we thirst for the next pilgrimage to the shopping mall in order to grasp at the happiness promised by the latest electronic gadget or fashion accessory. Many Americans experience more concern for their favorite national sports superstar, or the latest antics of Britney Spears, than they do their own families and neighbors. Perhaps only the divine madman or madwoman can wake us up from the sleep-walk of extravagant consumerism currently threatening the ecological balance of our planet. This is why I love Lama Drukpa Kinley. The stories told about him are about awakening from the slumbers of consensus reality. We may not emulate the circumstances or the methods of the 15th century Lama, but the imperative is the same; to wake up. That’s the meaning of “Buddha” after all.
Q. In your opinion, being American and coming from America, with its long history of democracy and all its good and bad points, is a democratic form of government necessarily good for a people like the Bhutanese?
A. In my humble opinion the best form of governance is perhaps an enlightened monarchy; that is, a King who is also a Bodhisattva. The fourth Druk Gyalpo seems just that. His wise and compassionate leadership has set the stage for a new era in Bhutan’s history. May the new and democratically elected leaders follow his example. That is my hope for democracy in Bhutan.
Source: Bhutan Times