After centuries of isolation, change has finally come to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and quickly. Long a closed country whose traditional Buddhist society was ruled by a hereditary monarchy, it first opened its borders to tourists in the 1970s. Television and the Internet were introduced in 1999, and nowadays about three-quarters of the population use cell phones. English is a mandated language in school, and in 2008 the government, under its present, Western-educated young king, officially transitioned to a parliamentary democracy.

Despite better access to healthcare and education, as well as to a more developed infrastructure, Bhutan’s leap into the modern age has come at a high cost: its population is ill prepared to defend against the predations of consumer culture, which is swiftly eroding the country’s unique traditions. In villages, plastic bottles and other waste overflow comically small trashcans; young boys, even monks, play with toy guns imported from India; religious festivals are now an opportunity for vendors to line the streets hawking Nike knockoffs; and youth unemployment, suicide, and substance abuse are growing problems.

Not surprisingly, a cultural chasm has opened between the older generation, brought up in premodern Bhutan, and the young, who have had a taste of the kind of life a globalized era offers but little means for achieving it. Last year, in an issue devoted to the country’s modernization, the Bhutanese policy publication Druk Journal asked, “Are we driving change, or is change driving us?”

No one is perhaps better suited to answering this question than Dr. Karma Phuntso. The first Bhutanese to earn a doctorate at Oxford, Dr. Karma was also educated as a traditional monastic. His work has had a twofold focus: as a “disruptive thinker” and social worker, he promotes social entrepreneurship among the nation’s youth, the vast majority of whom are either unemployed or underemployed. As an academic, he has been engaged in an effort to document and write about Bhutan’s fast-disappearing cultures. After nine years heading up a project to digitize Bhutan’s sacred manuscripts, he has now begun to record the country’s oral traditions, which are integral, he says, to fully understanding a country like his, where until recently 80 percent of the population was illiterate. He and his team have spent the past three and a half years traveling through the mountainous nation, speaking to and taping conversations with elders, endeavoring to save these “intangible cultures,” as Dr. Karma calls them, before the older generation passes away.

Tricycle’s managing editor, Emma Varvaloucas, sat down with Dr. Karma in October 2016 at Lhodrak Kharchhu monastery in Bumthang, Bhutan, where he was scheduled to address a group of Westerners about Bhutanese history and culture. Wrapped in several blankets—much of Bhutan does not have central heating—Dr. Karma painted a nuanced portrait of the nation, which, as he tells it, finds itself on the brink of inalterable change.

We often hear two conflicting characterizations of Bhutan: that it’s an extraordinary land of happiness on the one hand and that it’s a third-world, backward state on the other. Where does the truth lie?
Yes, Bhutan has been a victim of different misperceptions. The first one you mention is just a Western fantasy. The other image—that of a third- world, authoritarian system—is also not the case. The true picture is in between.

Bhutan is still a developing country. So a fair number of people—about 12 percent of the population—live under the poverty line. People face many difficulties sending their children to school and accessing proper health facilities. On the other hand, one reason people see Bhutan as a special place is that the countries in our immediate neighborhood—Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Tibet—are in a far worse state, and not necessarily heading in the right direction. It’s not just a matter of comparison, though; in many respects, you could say that Bhutan is blessed. One blessing is our geographic isolation, which has benefited us throughout history. The Himalayan watershed to the north kept the Tibetans out for many centuries, and likewise the malaria-infested, subtropical forest to the south stopped the Indians and the British from infiltrating the country. If Bhutan had happened to be west of Nepal, we would have been raped by modernization before they were, and Nepal would have learned some lessons from us instead of vice versa. But by a mere geographic stroke of luck, we are further removed from Delhi and Calcutta, which were the main doors of change and modernization for this part of the world in the last century. Another blessing has been our small population. If we had even half of the population of Nepal in this space, we’d probably be facing the same issues and difficulties that they and India are facing—we would no longer be able to commit to 60 percent forest cover if we had, say, 15 million people instead of 750,000. And like those countries we would now have problems feeding everyone.

If these young minds tip into a chaotic state, which they easily could, it could burst into social unrest and screw up everything good about Bhutan.

The third blessing is Buddhism, the Buddhist culture. People on the whole are very content, peace-loving, nonviolent, amiable. That helps our leaders make a lot of good changes. You might want to introduce democracy here, for example, but if the population is by nature rebellious and demanding and egoistic and so forth it will be very difficult for even a benign leader to do anything good. These days the younger generation is a bit different, but the older generation was born and brought up in a Buddhist culture, and they are much more willing to listen and obey, to be sort of passive and submissive. So that has been a true blessing in the sense of having a very quiet and peaceful and harmonious society.

We Westerners are not used to hearing words like “passivity” and “submissiveness,” especially with regard to democratic values, in a positive way. They have pejorative connotations in our culture.
I don’t think passivity is such a negative characteristic. Certainly, it shouldn’t lead to diffidence or a lack of morale. But I think if you understand humility and passivity well they are actually a much greater strength than being too loud and too egoistic and too arrogant. We can be very humble but at the same time very effective and firm. And arrogance especially is a weakness in many ways. You are being arrogant because you think you have to prove something. And that is a symptom of inner insecurity.

But I can see where you’re coming from—it’s a cultural conflict. I’ll give you an example from my own life. When I was planning to apply to Oxford, I was living in the middle of nowhere in a small monastery, and I needed a reference. I asked one of my teachers to write one, and he said, you write it and bring it to me, and I’ll sign it. That was such a difficult task for me, because if I wrote something glowing about myself it would have been the exact opposite of the things my teacher had been instilling in me—a sense of modesty and humility— and he would be visibly disappointed. But if I wrote a modest statement using the basic data of my life, it wouldn’t have worked as a reference. So I was really struggling.

Around that time I met a Taiwanese guy who was doing his MBA at Harvard. I asked him if he could help me, if he could tell me what should go into a reference. And the first thing he told me was “Karma, you should be able to sell yourself.” I asked, “What does ‘sell myself’ mean?” “You should really praise yourself.” I told him that was wrong. He said, “Well, if you don’t do that you will never get in.” So I can see how the two worlds would have a conflict over how to look at these terms.

Could you tell me about some of the challenges Bhutan is currently facing?
One of the challenges is youth unemployment. In the past, there were very few people who graduated from college, and whatever number came out of colleges, the government could easily recruit them for the civil service. But as more and more young people graduated from school, the state couldn’t absorb them all; it is already bloated at about 26,000 civil servants for three-quarters of a million people. So at most they will take 300 to 500 young graduates per year, and the rest are left to fend for themselves in terms of employment. But Bhutan’s private sector is still very poor, very young, and it isn’t able to take in the rest of these graduates and employ them meaningfully.

Another challenge is that there has been a serious decline in rural life, a major population shift from villages to towns. In the past, there was no unemployment because people worked on their farms, but people no longer see farming as an attractive option. The problem is, if everyone is looking for a comfortable job where they can sit on a chair behind a computer, then you’re certainly going to have an unemployment issue, because not everyone will be able to find such a job.

When the youth are not meaningfully employed, it leads to frustration, low self-esteem, and substance abuse. One of the issues we have now is a lot of young people taking their own lives. This is why we started the Loden Foundation eight years ago, our entrepreneurship program, to help young people not to seek jobs but to create jobs. We are trying to instill in them the right values while also inspiring them, and in a pragmatic sense, giving them funds to start a business and the support to establish and manage it.

Dr. Karma Phuntsho at Burning Lake, one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites | Photo by Matthieu Ricard

And what about the dangers moving forward? You adopt a very dire tone in your book, The History of Bhutan.
I’m sorry. Being a cultural scholar, I might have been glorifying the past a little too much, a little bit more than the present. Due credit should be given to the present, especially for making people’s lives easier. No doubt about that.

But there’s still a feeling that Bhutanese culture is on the brink? Some of it is simply the fear of the unknown. What do you imagine the world will be like in 15, 30, 50 years’ time? Technological advancement is so fast—who knows, maybe in 15 years they’ll take a cell out of you and create a second or third or fourth or fifth version of you. And that will be exactly what traditional Buddhist texts describe as manifestations. [Laughs.] I think there is a great deal of excitement as well as anxiety about where the world is going, and where it’s going quite quickly. Who knows? Maybe we’ll burn through the whole ozone layer in a few decades and then we’ll all parch to death.

But if the world doesn’t change drastically, and if we assume that most things will stay relatively the same as they are now, then I would say that in Bhutan there’s a higher chance of people being much more mentally stressed and disturbed, in part because the values we have received from Buddhism and other spiritual traditions are disappearing. The culture of social and mass media is very restless and hectic and frenzied. This is going to make the human psyche, especially among young people here, very volatile. There’s already quite a lot of linguistic and cultural fragmentation in the inner psychology of the young Bhutanese, and as a result they have low confidence, poor creative thinking and communication skills, and very little resilience. If these minds tip into a chaotic state, which they easily could, it could burst into social unrest and screw up everything good about Bhutan. There could be burglaries. There could be murders.

The risk is also greater because this psychological disruption is not visible, and because Bhutan’s transition into the modern world has been so fast. We’ve already relinquished all of the support systems we had in the past without putting in place new support systems to look after people.

Could you give me an example?
Alcoholism is a good example. If you look at a Bhutanese village, like my village, you have a lot of people who drink. But their drinking cannot go unchecked. Alcohol is produced locally. You’ll never have unlimited grain to make it, so that’s a natural constraint. Also, say an alcoholic comes to a house asking for alcohol. The residents of the house may give it to him because it’s the custom—in moderation, of course. He may beg for more, but after a while the lady or the man in the house will say, “Stop drinking. You’re overdoing it.” They’re part of the same close-knit community. You know, if this man fell sick, there would be repercussions for the whole village. So there is the sense of being responsible for each other.

But take that same alcoholic out of the village and put him in Thimphu [the capital city]. In the city, there’s no limit on resources. These drinks that you get in bars are mass-produced in distilleries. What does the barman do? He’ll make as much profit as he possibly can by selling as much booze as possible. Also, there’s no peer support unless you know the barman and the barman happens to care about you. Usually, though, there’s the anonymity that comes with living in a city; people don’t recognize you, so you care less about your reputation, which removes yet another constraint.

That’s the kind of transition Bhutan is going through, moving from that original rural community with its safeguards and support systems, to the anonymity and rootlessness of the town. We’re adopting many new things that we don’t know how to handle well. And if we don’t learn how to handle them very fast, it will be a major problem. If, though, we make the right decisions and implement the right programs, since our population is small we can change the course of things, pull ourselves back from the brink. I don’t know if I mentioned any optimism in my book. Maybe a little bit.

A little. Do you have a vision of what that optimism might look like in practice, if Bhutan were to make the right decisions?
I have been pondering more and more how to bring spiritual values, Buddhist principles, into real life and mainstream society. We live in a world where we assess our progress and status mainly through economics—it’s not like we distinguish a country as developed or undeveloped based on the caliber of its intellect or values, for instance. So basically we see ourselves as economic animals, which means we present or understand our lives in terms of production and consumption.

There’s been a lot of concern about how classic economies practice a wrong form of production—that you exploit nature and other people to produce your wealth. Personally, I’m fully for production, because your life can only become fulfilling and meaningful if you are productive, whether in terms of artistic endeavor, spiritual attainments, or something else. One’s existence should not be a matter of extracting value from what other people have made; rather, one needs to add value, be productive, and contribute to the general pot of well-being in the world. That’s the only way we can achieve progress. So at the Loden Foundation, we’ve been talking about healthy, sustainable, wholesome means of production. We see this functioning mainly through social entrepreneurship; in other words, we need to groom a new global generation of producers who have real concern for the environment, real concern for other people, and real concern for one’s own welfare—people who are not driven purely by monetary profit or fame.

But recently, as I’ve studied Bhutan more and more, I’ve realized that whatever effort we may put into production, if we don’t address the other end—consumption—the problems won’t necessarily go away. Being proactive about consumer culture is particularly important here in Bhutan because, as I said earlier, people today are being exposed to new things with which they are not familiar and that they cannot handle. They have a romantic idea about things like TVs or clothing or plastic bottles. They think these things are good for them, but they don’t really know how to use them well. In particular, they don’t see the consequences of the waste that they produce when they use them.

This is one area where I think some of the old values can really help us. My generation grew up being taught by our parents that the farmer sheds one drop of sweat for every single grain of rice you eat. They would scold you very, very harshly if you dropped any food, saying that at one point when the food drops you, then you will suffer. [Laughs.] There are a lot of cultural values like this that we have lost along the way.

Another good example I have concerns our consideration of the body. In the past, traditional Buddhist communities would go get teachings from the local priest. The first lesson is always on the four thoughts that turn the mind toward dharma, which includes the meditation on the preciousness, the rarity of the human body—how special the human body is as a medium to reach high states of development. Because your body is so special, so rare, so precious, you view your body as this great asset you have, so you would never commit suicide. You want to hold on to your body for as long as you can because every second you live is another chance to cultivate the dharma. These days we’ve lost the traditional Buddhist education; instead, the younger generation is going into science classrooms where the teacher shows them a skeleton and says, “This is your skull,” and so forth, and they basically get a very materialistic understanding of their bodies. Now, when a young person gets frustrated or depressed, they think, “Well, this body is the one that is really the problem. If I get rid of this body, I am dead, and all my problems are solved.” That view of one’s body is part of what is leading to suicides here. So we are risking some major losses with all these new changes here, and we need to think about how the old values can be brought back.

You seem to be a bit of a lone voice, fighting against the cultural tide.
On the whole, I’ve been more critical than laudatory. That’s happened partly because if you read any other material on the topic you’ll read only praises to the king and the leadership who are doing all these wonderful things. It’s something everyone bandies about a lot, so I consciously decided to give an objective and even slightly different point of view.

In Bhutan you hear a lot of repetitive, uniform opinions, because in the past there’s been a general belief or assumption that you have to stick to the party line. I don’t blame people for that; we’re born and educated in a system that makes you think uniformly. You sing the national anthem every morning. You bow to your teacher in a certain way every morning. So there’s a certain degree of herd mentality. Of course, you cannot always do things differently—for a society to continue, you have to be harmonious and agreeable—but there should also be elements of our education and upbringing that make you think outside the box. Our education system hasn’t been very good at that; instead, it’s very good at making students think alike. So I don’t blame people for not questioning, not challenging, not thinking critically about issues and policies.

I imagine you’re different in that way because of your long education abroad. And now you’ve brought that back to Bhutan.
Yes, I spent most of my adult life abroad; 10 years in India. The Buddhist education I had there taught me a great deal of critical thinking. And India gave me the freedom to deploy that criticism. It’s such a free country that you can go and urinate in the middle of the highway and no one is really going to bother you or tell you not to do that. [Laughs.]

In seriousness, though, one of the greatest things that Indian civilization, particularly the system of Buddhism, has given the world is the quest for one of the highest values in life, and that’s freedom. You start with freedom from thirst, hunger, disease, the basic freedoms that the state has to help its citizens achieve. Then you go beyond that to social freedom, from discrimination, inequality, from crime, and lawlessness, and insecurity, which the state also has to provide. Then ultimately you find further up the ladder political freedom, the freedom from authority and tyranny. And then Buddhism brings you even past that, to seek freedom from internal bondage.

Seeking freedom as the ultimate value—that certainly has made me much more liberal and outspoken than others. And I see my work now as spreading the message of freedom in all these different ways.

To learn more about Bhutan’s rich history, traditions, and cultural connection to the dharma, join Tricycle’s latest online course, Teachings from the Kingdom of Bhutan. It begins on March 13, 2017.  

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