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Leveraging Bhutan’s Cultural Diversity
Dr Karma Phuntsho, June 06, 2013
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Excerpt from closing remarks at the conference on culture at RTC.

As an enthusiastic student and practitioner of Bhutan’s culture, I have enormously enjoyed the cultural presentations and discussions during the conference and want to thank Helvetas and RTC for the wonderful experience. The presentations have not only broadened my exposure to and understanding of Bhutan’s cultural diversity but also highlighted the precarious condition of some of our cultures and the many challenges we face in sustaining them meaningfully as we embrace the process of modernization and globalisation.

Throughout the conference, we have repeatedly touched on the definition and taxonomy of culture. Let me here recapitulate our basic understanding of culture and its classifications in order to shed light on the nature of our cultural heritage and the kinds of issues and challenges we are facing in sustaining or leveraging cultural diversity.

If what we call culture is a set of transmitted patterns of our beliefs, values, world views, philosophies and their expressions in the form of behaviours or other representations, we can perhaps conveniently classify culture, using a Buddhist framework, into two categories of meaning and manifestation, (brda dang don). By meaning or don, I am referring to cultures pertaining to the inner conditions of mind, our patterns of thinking, attitudes, outlooks, values, principles, philosophies, mores and personality traits and by manifestation or brda, the patterns of verbal, physical, artistic, material and other embodied expressions and symbols.

I make this classification of culture into meaning and manifestation partly because there is a tendency among some people to equate culture with tangible material forms and overlook the inner ideas and values, and thereby misconceive culture as a relic of the past which has become outdated and irrelevant to modern times.

To those with such tendencies, I would like to emphatically state that culture is neither purely about tangible manifestations nor about archaic practices. Our cultural heritage consists largely of timeless values and patterns which are crucial to wellbeing and are as much relevant today as they were in the past.

On an individual level, culture forms the bedrock of personal identity. Cultural traits and roles define a person and make up a person’s epistemological and existential self beyond which, according to the Buddha, there is no ontological being. We are composites made up of the numerous socio-cultural factors which constitute our life. Thus, culture contributes substantially to the quality of our life experience and a wholesome culture is essential for a happy and meaningful life.

On a community level, cultural ideas and practices are the social cement which binds a society together. Culture is the blood which flows through our social-economic and political systems to keep them alive. Culture informs our view and perception of the world we live in and our attitude and approach to nature, people, and the general purpose of our existence. A wholesome cultural ethos is essential for the smooth functioning of a society.

The benefits of culture, however, are not only local. In a highly globalized world, we are today living in an age of cultural exchange and fusion and some of the formerly isolated cultural practices have today become universal phenomena. A good example is yoga, a cultural practice which originated in India but is now practised in most parts of the world. Similarly, chigung, taichi and acupuncture, which are originally Chinese cultural practices, have now spread across the globe. Meditation, a practice associated with our own Buddhist cultural heritage, is another great example of a culture which has gained global appeal and Buddhist mindfulness practice has even made its way into mainstream psychotherapy and medical practices in some countries.

Such universal relevance is even greater in the case of perceptible cultures such as music and artistic creations. Today, music and art are appreciated beyond national and cultural borders. The same can be said about tangible cultures such as textiles, architectural designs or ethno-botanical products. The recent discovery of a herbal cure for Malaria and Alzheimer’s by Phurpa Wangchuk through his knowledge of Sowa Rigpa can be considered a true case of Bhutan’s culture contribution to the world.

In brief, our cultural heritage holds enormous value both for us and in what we can offer the rest of the world. It is in the light of such knowledge that I would like to now put forth a few proposals, drawn from the discussions at the conference, in order to take our collective wisdom forward in leveraging culture:

1. First and foremost, much of our cultural heritage remains at high risk of perpetual loss as the number of custodians of these cultures dwindles each year. One of the most urgent tasks for us today is to take stock of our cultural heritage, create an exhaustive typology and inventory and carry out an extensive documentation programme. Several organizations and individuals are engaged in cultural preservation but there is a need for a united and collaborative effort.

2. Secondly, in order to appreciate the value of culture, we need to rethink our method of evaluating the benefit of culture. The benefit of a tangible economic project such as a hydro-power plant can be easily measured using well-known accounting systems but the benefits of ‘soft’ cultural assets are not easily discernible because they remain diffused in non-quantifiable forms.

Let me illustrate this with an example of a cultural event from the recent past. Nearly 100,000 people spent weeks in Punakha receiving teachings from HH the Je Khenpo. The event, prima facie, would appear to be economically unproductive and even wasteful. The actual outcome, however, is far from that given the intricate nexus of human life. The people, who attended the ceremony, did not come for wealth, power or vanity but for teachings on non-violence, non-self, compassion and enlightenment, which contribute to shaping their character and in fostering an ethos of non-violence, contentment, moral integrity, compassion and selflessness in them. In a ripple effect, they would spread the values to their families, friends and communities, which would lead to reduction in corruption, crimes and violence. This, in turn, would result in financial and socio-economic benefits such as savings on policing and court expenses and in social stability and higher economic productivity. Thus, cultural practices have far-reaching benefits. It is therefore important that we find a system of cultural accounting which can register non-quantifiable social and spiritual gains as well as quantifiable economic gains. In this respect, we hope the new GNH model with its numerous indicators will provide us with an efficacious way of assessing benefits of culture.

3. Thirdly, if we are truly serious about sustaining and leveraging cultural diversity, we must rethink our ways of engaging the custodians and practitioners of the culture in the process of cultural promotion and policy making, beyond having them as token representatives or using them as research informants. Our events also need to be more focussed on the culture and cultural experts than on our secondary analyses and discussions on them and conducted in the language they can speak. Although the linguistic diversity of the country, international participation and the dominance of English often compel us to conduct our discussions in English, it is important that we study local cultures in a language, which is an appropriate medium for culture and is intelligible to the cultural practitioners.

4. Fourthly, with the explosion of formal education which is mostly driven by regard for literacy and credentials, traditional and non-formal forms of learning and training are being generally ignored by the state. Our election rule requiring a university certificate to stand for the parliament is a very good example of our bias for the western system of education and an insult to our own traditional ways of learning through individualized instruction and apprenticeship. Isn’t it shameful that we disqualify most of our community elders from leading us while opening the floodgate for fresh graduates to do so?

We need to revisit our education policies in order to give due credit to the merit gained through traditional training. Surely, a traditional architect, who has spend dozens of years as an apprentice under a master carpenter and built many houses, would know as much, if not more, about architecture and building as a graduate who studied architecture for five years within classroom walls but has not built even a hut in practice. Ironically, such a traditional architect, today, cannot even get a licence to practise in a place like Thimphu. Have we gone too far with our regard for modern western education and have unwittingly undermined our own cultural heritage? It is about time that we see these fundamental biases in our education system and revise our educational policies to allow more cultural components, both in the medium of instruction and content, if we want culture to have widespread influence on our youth.

5. Fifthly and finally, as culture experts and promoters, we must recognize and constantly be aware of the dynamic and fluid nature of culture, particularly the public culture. While it is important to document and preserve old cultural ideas, practices and artefacts before they are lost, our main challenge in sustaining our cultural heritage meaningfully lies in our ability to innovate and adapt our cultural thinking and practices to the changing times, without surrendering to it. We have to make culture appealing and affordable without losing its core values, which are timeless.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the founding director of Loden Foundation and a research associate at Cambridge University.

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