Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Opening-Buddhism-Gross National Happiness and row,row,row your boat..

 Written by Meadhbh Costigan, from Ireland, one of the workshop participants

The opening ceremony of the pre-congress workshop began with a traditional Bhutanese Marchang ceremony, which involved chanting and an offering of rice beer to local deities. The keynote speaker of the ISE pre-congress event was Dr. Dorji Wangchuk, the Director General of the College of Natural Resources (CNR), Royal University of Bhutan.
Dr. Dorji Wangchuk, photo by Attila Paksi
The workshop was titled; “walking across generations towards peaceful coexistence”. Core values of the Bhutanese community were addressed and their relationship with Buddhism was highlighted. The culminating effect was an enlightened perspective on how we might learn to promote happiness in their own lives.

Buddhism in Bhutan
The presentation began with a statement which underlies Buddhist philosophy; help others, and if you cannot, then do no harm. This is one of the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We were then told that Buddha was a Great Teacher. 
Buddha is not God.

Dr. Wangchuk explained to us, that from a Buddhist perspective, we had gathered together in Bhutan to reconnect with one another as we all had shared relationships in countless passed lives. As different beings, our paths cross throughout time and space. Again. And again. Unto infinity. This pattern is known as Karma, a principal which addresses the interdependent nature of life. Karma is a gift allowing us another opportunity to reconnect with those we have loved before. A text by His Holiness the Dali Lama XVI was recommended for further reading, entitled; “How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life” (Hopkins 2002).

Gross National Happiness (GNH)
These words were followed by a definition of Gross National Happiness, which is a government directed development course aiming to achieve a standard of health and happiness for its community members. The Gross National Happiness plan is being implemented through the provision of; governance, education, medical care and communications.

Holistic Education
In Bhutan, education is understood as a universal human value that promotes an advanced understanding of relationships at three scales; the internal (the individual), the social (the community), and the external (physical environment). The term self-development could be used to encompass this rigorous and continuous practice which improves understanding about oneself, one’s family and by extension the world at large. The cultural ideal is that an academic institutions provide a holistic education, by providing a forum for self-development. So human value education is about co-existing in harmony and peace.

The “Four Harmonious Friends”, wallpainting at CNR, Lobesa, photo by AnnaVarga

Emic healthcare systems
The discussion then moved to Pranic healing, a non-invasive self-healing medical practice. Pranic healing uses the life-force of the body to promote well-being. Those which practice Pranic healing acknowledge that there are energy centres in the body which can be cleaned or manipulated, ultimately resulting in less health problems. In Bhutan, patients have the option to be treated by biomedical doctors or traditional healing practitioners. The speaker recommended a text detailing Pranic healing (Sui 1987).

GNH and the Individual
When you see me I am actually one person, but I exist as two; the body, and the self. The body is an instrument directed by the self. In order to have peaceful co-existence at the individual level, we must learn not to abuse the body or the self (through substance abuse, bad relationships etc.) Co-existence at an individual level will bring peace and happiness. When the state of peace and happiness is reached by one person, it can be extended to the family, then to the wider community, and will spread throughout to the world. The aim is achieving world peace and the method is of a spiritual nature.

Prayer flags in the woodland at Dochula Pass, by AV
On a personal level, promoting GNH boils down to setting limits to our own greed. It is necessary to take the responsibility to be satisfied with one’s state. Without setting this limit we cannot be happy, as one day we may desire the moon, then the sun, then the stars in the sky.

The Director General questioned the necessity for unlimited desires and negative emotional states, including; self-centeredness, jealousy, lust, and hunger. Each of us has the capacity to navigate one’s own internal cosmos. His point being, if we could acknowledge that all we ever have is the “now”, then perhaps we would be freed from these base emotional states. Perhaps one would instead decide to be happy.

In Buddhism, any state of disharmony is considered man-made. So it follows man has the capability to promote harmony, within himself, and the wider world. A beautiful idea. Love is considered a redemptive transformative power. A loving person wishes peace and well-being to all sentient life-forms. These insights underlie the practice of meditation.

Butter lamps at Dochula pass, photo by AnnaVarga

To conclude Dr. Wangchuk invoked the children’s rhyme, Row, Row, Row your Boat, and asked: “A dream? What is life all about?” Every passing moment is a dream. This simultaneous appreciation for and detachment from the world is a dualism in Buddhism, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the most difficult for an outsider to understand.

The worldview expressed during the commentary reminded me of the hippie movement popular in the counter culture during the 1960s. Those who celebrated this life-style were influenced by Eastern esoteric practices; talking “peace”, burning incense, eating vegetarian, and smoking cannabis For me, this shift in popular thinking is epitomised in the music of the Beatles. I would like to see such a cultural revival in my part of the world. But perhaps it is within myself that I should search for this peaceful and harmonic state.

Learning about the lives of the congress participants, I realised there is no “typical ethnobotanist.” A lot of us choose to live the ideal we hold in our minds eye. I found this very inspiring. I have long worked to “be an ethnobotanist”, but I am now realising that for some it is not just a profession, but also a philosophy and a life-style. If I were to turn the anthropologists spy glass on the ISE community, I would say; we are a compassionate people searching for an alternative and mindful way to participate in the world. Wouldn’t we say the same about the Bhutanese? For me the address seemed like an appropriate lesson, as we struggle to take responsibility for who we are as individuals and as a species.
Meadhbh Costigan with Incense censer in Bhutan

Hopkins, J (Ed.). (2002) How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life. New York, USA: Atria Books.

Sui, C. K. (1987) Miracles through Pranic Healing. Philippines: Institute for Inner Studies Publishing Foundation, Inc.

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