An interview with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

Many Bhutanese are leaving Bhutan because of economic reasons. How can a small country like Bhutan with its traditional culture and values manage in this fast-paced modern world? And what impact will this migration have on Bhutanese values, traditions, and the Buddhadharma?

I think that what we’re seeing is inevitable. If people from much larger and more powerful countries like India and the Philippines are migrating in search of jobs, how can people from a small country like Bhutan resist that trend?

In this past century, so much emphasis was put on the economy. To some extent that’s understandable, as people want to live comfortably if not extravagantly. But that material focus has created our present society, where everything from education to values to government planning is geared towards the economy – to what we have, rather than who we are.

That’s how whole countries are judged. For instance, these days we read how bad the German economy is, which somehow means that everything about Germany is bad. That’s really unfortunate because the economy may play a big role in how a country is doing, but it’s certainly not the only important part. No one seems to be noticing the really good things happening in German society.

Given this global materialist trend and thinking, I totally understand why so many Bhutanese are emigrating. They too are swept up by the universal focus on economic gain above all else.

Hopefully, some of these emigrants will return home, but many may not. While they are away, I am sure they will try their best to uphold their Bhutanese identity and culture. But how much can they really do beyond celebrating National Day once a year and perhaps some other traditional day that we celebrated back home. I think that as they discover that the lure of economic gain does not always bring glory and greatness, many Bhutanese emigrants will really go through a major identity crisis.

And, due to past history, many countries like Australia and those in Europe have had the upper hand. But these western countries are now declining and their economies will suffer. And when that happens, immigrants to those countries will experience great challenges, from racial resentment, a resurgence of nationalist fundamentalism, and ethnic hatred to inferiority and superiority complexes. In short, the world is in a mess and Bhutanese are not exempt from the fallout that this will bring.

In terms of the impact of migration on Bhutanese traditions and values, there will obviously be changes. But the changes are already happening even at home, regardless of migration. If we believe that we can uphold our Bhutanese values and traditions forever, we are fooling ourselves. In my own life as a Bhutanese over more than half a century, I have seen so many deep changes.

That’s partly because Bhutan, like many other Asian countries, thinks that modernisation and westernisation are one and the same. Japan boasts even at the official level of having its own special customs and traditions, but the country practically, metaphorically, and literally subscribes in every way to western and, especially, American values. In that regard, at least for the time being, Bhutan is still better than Japan.

For instance, my parents used to call me “lepo”, which literally means “idiot.” But the thought of suing my parents for emotional damage has never occurred to me, not even in my dreams. Still, I don’t know what will happen when a version of wokeism or the coddling American mind or megalomaniac individualism arrives in Bhutan. Will we become like the Americans, where people seem to be suing each other for ridiculous reasons?

As for the impact on the Buddhadharma, I don’t think Bhutanese migration to different places will make much difference. Some might like to think of Bhutan as the custodian of Buddhism, but that is simply not true. While Buddhism is the dominant “religion” in Bhutan and one could say that most Bhutanese are Buddhists, many of them may just be culturally Buddhist. As the entire population of Bhutan is no more than that of a small town in India, our influence on the Buddhadharma worldwide is negligible.

What do you think of the Gelephu Mindfulness City Project? What impact will this project have on Bhutan?

In every era, our leaders must make bold and visionary decisions that align with present needs while also envisioning the future we desire. These decisions should uphold our sovereignty, identity, and safeguard our core vision, values, and traditions as a nation. That is the challenge His Majesty the King faces. So many factors are involved in such decisions.

For instance, the decisions of our monarchs in the 1920s and 1960s first united our country and then strengthened Bhutan’s sovereignty in ways appropriate to those particular times and situations. But at the same time, they also looked ahead and created the foundations of the modern Bhutan we witness and feel today. And yet the methods of those times cannot be used to move forward as we need today, as His Majesty has wisely recognised.

As leaders from small companies to powerful nations can testify, bold decisions almost always come with a lot of risks. I am sure that His Majesty’s bold decision on this project must have been very carefully considered and thoroughly assessed to minimise those risks. I am equally sure that there are many reasons as to why His Majesty considers this project the best step for the future of Bhutan. And so, as citizens, we must fully support His Majesty’s vision in the context of today’s world and geopolitical realities, as well as in considerations of Bhutan’s demography, migration patterns, and more.

I recently had the good fortune of a brief visit to another visionary and forward-thinking project initiated by His Majesty – the Royal Academy in Paro. I was immediately impressed by the very thoughtful architecture and layout that had all the traditional elements and none of the shallow, gaudy, kitschy pomposity one sees in so many posh houses and hotels in Bhutan.

But the real reason I was moved was not the outer structure of the Royal Academy but its curriculum and educational vision. Even at this early stage in its development, the Academy seems to have the goal of enabling future generations of Bhutanese to have their own mind. And that, to me, is very importance. My wish and prayer is that the Gelephu project will have similar outcome, on a much larger scale.

What do you mean by Bhutanese having their own minds? And how can we best protect our own core values as we move boldly forward?

 The issue of core values is a vast subject and I can’t explain my view in just a few words. My concerns on this issue are totally my own personal opinion, based on my very narrow interpretation.

When people come to Bhutan, they feel they’ve entered a totally different world, with its traditional attire, different official robe colours, prayer flags, and unique architecture. But, in fact, I feel that Bhutanese have come dangerously close to losing their capacity to think as Bhutanese. 

This is, obviously, partly due to us being such a small nation sandwiched between two giants. But I think there has also been a lot of complacency, particularly on issues like education. This is especially true among Bhutanese think tanks and elites who are almost all educated outside Bhutan. Even the term “educated” refers to western education.

And, so, we find tremendous veneration towards Ivy League graduates by members of the Bhutanese elite and think tanks. Since those elites were themselves largely educated in the western colonial system, they can’t be blamed for thinking like that. After all, that’s what education does – it is basically a way of brainwashing us without us even realising it’s happening.

It is mind boggling for me to see so many Bhutanese frantically and fanatically defending colonial values, when colonial influence must be the single most harmful destroyer of other cultures, values, and traditions – more so than a thousand cultural revolutions in China. This negative influence continues to this day.

The colonial education we have inherited really kills all ability to think critically and analytically. That’s because colonial education subtly leaks in its own individualist, materialist, and self-serving values and creates a slavish mentality that, without our being aware of it, ends up making us completely co-dependent. It’s this outside infiltration of destructive values and influences that make me worry that we have almost lost our ability to think and act genuinely as Bhutanese.

We can see this trend in so many different fields and daily experiences. We now get embarrassed and amused by things that culturally never used to embarrass or amuse us. We have adopted new etiquettes. And, if we don’t outright believe it, we still consciously or unconsciously give more weight to what is spoken or printed in English.

In fact we see this trend even at the national level in the way we think about our own country. For instance, Bhutanese sometimes whine about how small and landlocked our country is, insinuating that we lack the opportunity to reach out. But we don’t even try to reach out the other half of our landlocked country, and so we make both our nation and our own mindsets even smaller.

We have two neighbours. We know so much about one neighbour and almost nothing about the other. And the little that we do know about that other neighbour is all written by the first neighbour. And that narrative in turn is written or informed by other far-away countries that are wary, if not hostile, to our other neighbour. 

 But isn’t this what happens in any small country? For small nations, wouldn’t it always be challenging to protect their values and have their own mind?

 Even if a few of us Bhutanese get curious and puzzled about what I’ve been describing here, it can help to safeguard our values and sovereignty, and to have our own mind. But for that to happen, Bhutanese first need to recognise the power of that colonial influence and learn the lesson that “friends” are often much more dangerous than “enemies.”

It is unthinkable that Bhutan will ever become a powerful nation or hegemon in any sense. But Bhutan can still be an example, as it has been.

It is wrong for Bhutanese to think that people pay a lot of money to visit Bhutan because of our amazing dzongs or high-class hotel experiences. If I were looking for that kind of experience, I would sooner go to Bali, Kyoto, or Corfu. People come to Bhutan because it still has something incredibly magical and genuinely human about it.

In a world that is changing so much and so rapidly, often in questionable ways, Bhutan could really stand out as a model of sanity and peace. This is very achievable. But we have to do it within this generation, because we are now at a crossroads. What we decide now, at this crucial junction, will determine who we are far into the future. If we fail, we may never recover it.