Bringing back an experience, ideas, and understanding from a place like Bhutan requires, I think, more than just a casual tour. While we can all be affected and transformed by short term or limited experiences, there is something to be said for visiting a place repeatedly. As I have mentioned before, people have asked me, again and again, why I choose to travel to the same places year after year? Why do I return (with students and on my own) to Bhutan?
Let me start with a description of the philosophical underpinnings of my approach to travel and then talk more specifically about Bhutan. When I first started taking international trips with students, my goal was to offer students an experience that was deep rather than broad. So, for example, in traveling to China, I wanted students to spend more time in a few places rather than go many places in a short time. That approach, depth over breadth, is the same approach I use in classes. That learning more about a little is fundamentally better that learning a little about a lot. This approach runs contrary to the whole idea that knowledge is about knowing more….the more you know, the more intelligent you are, the more conversant you are in the world, and that the knowledge you have makes for great conversation and promotes intellectualism both in academic settings and in the world.
The thing is, more knowledge does not mean more understanding of the world or better interactions with people and communities. (We can debate this point, if you like.) Similarly, traveling to a place in the world and learning about the people, culture, and history and establishing a relationship in that place offers the traveler something more than a sightseeing tour. The question you might be asking is, how do you choose such a place? What do you look for or what are you, as the traveler, hoping to reveal in yourself?
In travel for me and for my students, I was looking for a complete experience with the fewest number of distractions. For example, my travels in China were wonderful and we enjoyed visiting the people and places. At the same time, students were captivated by shopping in some of the largest cities in the world. Nothing wrong with finding a bargain or grabbing a trinket for folks at home (or yourself) and, I found that the focus for some folks was on getting some material object as a token of travel.
In a place like Bhutan, the experience is the token. While anyone can find something to buy in Bhutan, what I designed was an experience that focused on people and place. Materialism, so far, is not the single motivating factor in Bhutanese society, IMHO. As a result, student experiences are based more closely on cultural interactions. Those kinds of experiences, I argue, help bring about internal reflection….that being in Bhutan allows for some powerful insights on what we do and who we are. Meeting Bhutanese families really has reshaped student (and my) understanding of the world. Of course this process can happen in other places and among people in many parts of the world. Bhutan, for me, is a place that offers that unique experience.
So what is IT about Bhutan. First and foremost, the fact that this country is the last of the Vajrayana kingdoms in existence makes the place, people, and society something unique in the world. Further, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, created and expressed the idea of GNH, Gross National Happiness, in 1972. His idea was to create an economy that honored Bhutanese culture and Buddhist philosophy. The combination of these two aspects of Bhutanese society offer visitors and glimpse into an alternative way of seeing the world and our place in it.
The combination of Buddhism and GNH makes for the kinds of interactions with folks in Bhutan that are memorable. Maybe the experiences I (and students) have had and the impact of those experiences is based on the very structure of Bhutanese society. That, of course, brings us back to Padmasambhava. If we can attribute some of the structural systems in Bhutan to Padmasambhava, then his influence has shaped my experiences some 1200 years later.
Finally, a number of students have traveled to Bhutan with me more than once. Some have been profoundly affected by the people and place. Other students are planning return trips on their own. From my perspective, those students are representative of the impact Bhutan has on one’s life.
Now, if you are parsing my writing, you will realize that I made a circular argument….that’s not by accident. I come back to Padmasambhava because I see some of what he (and his students) accomplished in Bhutan and elsewhere as a fundamental piece of why Bhutan represents a unique place in the world.
My next post will open the conversation about my perspective on Bhutan amounting to a kind of hagiography: a representation that makes Bhutan seem to be better than it really is…is Bhutan real?