Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bhutan: can it preserve while modernizing?

Bhutan is erecting the world's tallest statue of the Buddha at its capital Thimpu.
In response to some of my Bhutan photos, Rain asked:
Do they then have a wealthy class who suck up what income there is? Their lifestyle, as you photographed it, reminds me of the Mongolians with the way parts of modern life have come but not enough income in their traditional raising of animals to support anything but minimal living. The beauty of such is great but hard to imagine living that way.
These questions seem to me on the right track. They are all questions about how Bhutan combines the mixed blessings of modernity -- capitalism, democracy, Western science, education, medicine -- while trying to preserve its particular heritage.
There are fearsome powers in this world.
No one is more aware than the Bhutanese that opening to the world brings dangers as as well as material benefits. Electricity brings a less laborious life -- and a dubious flood of television images and video games. Better roads improve people's standard of living -- and tempt many to flock to the city where there are few jobs available to uneducated peasants and family ties break down. And so on …
The court is within the traditional administrative center, the local dzong: a massive temple/monastery/fortress and court building. National dress is required to transact business in the dzong.
Bhutan has its answer to these contradictions. That response is to teach and reinforce national pride and culture using the limited monarchy as its symbolic focus, to encourage continued wearing of the national dress by law (apparently seldom enforced), and to immerse citizens ever more deeply in its historic Tibetan Buddhism.
Guru Rinpoche, who tradition holds united the country through Buddhist practice in 8th century CE, is pictured as taming the tiger. Might that animal represent these fractious mountain people as well as their animist deities?
There are strict rules for visits to sacred sites.
And above all, there are the observances of Tibetan Buddhist practice which contain an ever-present awareness of principalities and powers, of cosmic powers and spiritual forces, that individual and collective humanity co-exists with.
temple interior2 copy

temple interrior copy

The in-flight magazine of Bhutan's national airline, called Tashi Delek -- On the Wings of Dragons, pointed me to an extremely accessible dissection of some of these issues. Helena Norberg-Hodge writes about Ladakh, a region of Indian-administered Kashmir. Her insights also seem relevant to Bhutan's struggle to balance ancient and modern elements -- with the significant difference that the Bhutanese have very consciously anticipated the threats from modernity as well as its benefits.
… does development have to mean destruction? I do not believe so. I am convinced that the Ladakhis and other traditional peoples could raise their standard of living without sacrificing the sort of social and ecological balance that they have enjoyed for centuries. To do so, however, they would need to maintain their self-respect and self-reliance. They would need to build on their own ancient foundations rather than tearing them down, as is the way of conventional development.
Bhutan is striving to prove that this is possible. I can only wish these warm, smart people well.

2 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

Absolutely amazing photos. And thoughtful consideration. We haven't managed so well with our culture as we have destroyed so much for our technology making it more a god than many would admit who call themselves religious.

I've been writing a novella that required some researching of the Cheyenne people and their prophet, Sweet Medicine, who left the prediction that they would be taken over by an evil people (guess who). There is some truth in it as our rituals for spirituality seem hollow to me and end up with some worshiping wealth. We can learn from other cultures that we might see as less developed but better grasp the meaning of this opportunity humans have to live life. (Incidentally that novella at 25,000 words came from a dream and will be the first I've written that really isn't a romance.) I wonder if this is a particularly spiritual time for the energies out there.

Definitely have enjoyed your beautiful series on what you saw and photographed in Bhutan. Inspirational.

Rain Trueax said...

I was telling my husband about this remarkable series of photos you took to tell the story of these people and wondered if you've thought of bringing them together either in a book or maybe a blog just for them; so people can see them as a story. I found the photography and the subject amazing.

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