Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche with one of his pets at his Bir residence, India (Photo: Pawo Choyning Dorji)

Calling His Majesty’s decree on education reform one of the most inspired visions, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (DJKR), the Bhutanese lama, thinker, writer and filmmaker, talks to the writer about why the nation must rally behind the Royal vision, why this is that once in a lifetime chance to forge a unique education in Bhutan that is not only profitable economically but also true to our deepest values and aspirations, and which will stand us in good stead no matter what comes

Bhutan is looking to craft a fresh education vision for the country on the command of the King. What’s your take on it, and on the modern Western education system?

His Majesty’s command to examine the future of education in the Kingdom of Bhutan is ever so timely and visionary. I really feel the country’s educators, citizens and students should put everything into this effort.  

In fact, this is really a now or never situation. Generally, education planning endeavours are at best a guess job. But there is really no greater responsibility this generation can have than to ensure that the next generation and the one after that will have a worthy direction.

Among its many purposes, a core role of education is defining and forging a society’s values. That’s what gives meaning to life in general and particularly to life in the place you live and in relation to those around you. To shape those values well, I believe that education systems have to change all the time and be truly progressive. They always have to look ahead.

You ask about “modern Western education.” There are incredibly valuable things in Western classical and current education. But fundamentally, Bhutanese must be aware that “Western” education is not “modern” education. It is just Western education. 

Unfortunately, I feel that this honest and serious appraisal may not happen because Asians in general, and especially our big neighbour India, consciously or unconsciously, see everything Western as “modern.” And that influence is very strong in Bhutan.

Many say Bhutan’s education system has failed to equip our youngsters to compete and do well in the job market. What are your views on this?

I understand and have sympathy with this felt need to equip our youngsters to compete and do well in the job market. But isn’t that focus and emphasis far too one-dimensional and shortsighted? Instead, I would rather have the education system boost our youngsters’ confidence and creativity, so that the next generation will be resilient, receptive, and able to ride and glide with the currents of that time. 

There’s also a deeper danger in this job market focus: How much should we really become slaves to a system that is actually training the next generation’s slaves? 

Recall that India’s education system was shaped by Baron Thomas Macaulay, who aimed to wipe out traditional and ancient Indian education that he called barbaric, and replace it with a British one that he saw as representing the peak of civilization. In fact, he wrote that everything ever written in Sanskrit was worth less than the most trivial text of an English school.

The aim of his education, Macaulay wrote, was to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” And their job was basically to keep the mass of Indians loyal and compliant to the British rulers.  

India has never fully managed to go beyond Macaulay’s education system, and that is what we’ve imported into Bhutan. We really need to contemplate this deeply.

Good educators say that the main purpose of school is learning how to learn, so that our youth will be equipped to be self-reliant and sustain themselves in whatever situation they face. But the root of the whole current education system is actually destroying the individual’s sustainability and self-reliance and turning our youth into slaves of the existing system. 

But doesn’t having a good job give young people a purpose in life?

Well, the very question — what is the purpose of life — actually comes from the West and has a strong Christian influence. Nevertheless, the question is asked a lot. In response, I think it would be good for our new curriculum to convey to youngsters that the purpose of life is to have fun and be happy — above diplomas, jobs, success and whatever else they presently think is so important. 

Time and again, we’ve seen that the current way of educating our young doesn’t really make people on this earth happy. 

Can Bhutan forge a unique and different education system? Could that include the Buddhist concept of the study of mind? 

As a Buddhist I think it is of paramount importance that we study the mind. The education system that comes from the West puts so much emphasis on the observed world but any hardly any on the observer. 

Our children learn biology, anatomy and body parts but not about the mind, which is the most powerful and important thing they have. They learn to use software, pass exams, get jobs, make money, and protect their individual rights. But do they learn that others have feelings just like they do? Do they learn to be kind to others?

People should know that study of the mind in the West didn’t really start till the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes asserted the duality of mind and body. And it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the dedicated study of mind even began with what’s called psychology. By contrast, India and China have been studying and emphasizing the observer and the mind for thousands of years.  

As well, the Buddhist philosophy of dependent arising seems crucial for our next generation to study rather than the present imported focus on individual rights and individual freedoms. But does our imported individualism really teach our children that whatever they do has consequences? That using toilet paper means cutting down trees, that driving cars may give their own children lung cancer, or that buying plastic-wrapped candy kills fish in the ocean? 

The present individualistic focus is all very well if you’re the only one with that feeling. But when there are millions who only care for and cherish themselves, I don’t think the world is going to be a healthy place. Take for example the American dream of becoming a Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. The world now has about 3,000 billionaires. If even ten percent of people actually materialize the American dream, what will happen to the world?

The view of dependent arising can teach our children the consequences of their dreams, and it can also show them how doing things a bit differently can have different results and even save the world.

So it’s really time to scrutinize concepts like individual rights, human rights and democracy as they’re taught in the West and by the West to the rest of the world. And it’s time to ask ourselves what our own great wisdom traditions have to offer us and the world, and what they can contribute to our education curricula. 

Do you think the kind of big changes you’re talking about will happen here?

Well, I really do hope that our educators, citizens and students take this precious offer from His Majesty seriously and use the opportunity to move forward at a really fundamental level. But if you want me to be blunt and honest, something tells me they won’t do it. I’m a bit of a pessimist anyway, but particularly in feeling that Bhutanese won’t actually move forward. 

There are a few reasons for this, but it’s mainly because we need to be so bold to do what’s really needed here. And that includes being brave enough to let go of old habits and ways of thinking that don’t work. I’ve observed that it’s very difficult for Bhutanese to do that because they’re so proud of their so-called culture and tradition. 

I hope I’m wrong in this, but I sometimes feel that those responsible for culture and education take so much pride in preserving the old forms that they are in total denial of the ever-changing world around them. And it seems that the few who are aware are just not bold enough to do anything because they don’t want to be accused of ruining their revered and holy culture. 

In one way that attachment to old forms and customs is commendable. But true culture is an evolving phenomenon, and we want to let it evolve organically. If we don’t plan boldly and plan ahead, and if we don’t evolve organically, then those old habits will just stagnate and become lifeless museum pieces. 

I am saying all this based on a little of my own experience. Too many of those responsible for passing on the wisdom, study and practice of Buddhism in the 21st century seem completely unaware of who the next generation is and how they think. Instead, they blindly clutch on to archaic habits and customs that are not only irrelevant today but have nothing to do with Buddhism. 

Unless this changes quickly, the downfall of Buddhism will be very fast. That’s why I said at the start that His Majesty’s initiative is a now or never opportunity. If we don’t urgently develop a genuine vision of education true to our real values and deepest aspirations, Bhutan will simply contribute to the rapid downfall of civilization on this earth. This may be our last chance.

Contributed by

Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The writer is a former editor of Kuensel and can be reached at @bonzk on Instagram