My Story, Our Legacy

Extracts from my opening and closing remarks at the 4th Bloggers Meet/Conference, Feb 2, 2018

Friends and fellow bloggers,

Thank you for sacrificing your weekend to be here at this 4th Bloggers Meet. I apologize for all the confusions surrounding the venue and the nature of this Meet. Since we are in the election season, we have made this Meet for registered members only. So, this is not open to public like other meets . I know many out there will be unhappy about this. My apologies to them.

The Community of Bhutanese Bloggers is a loose collection of writers who use the web to tell their stories. It is non-political, non-religious and non-commercial – with no affiliation to any individuals, groups or organizations. All expenses for the meets and conferences are borne by few of us. And despite that no incentives are given out for attending these meets, we have participants who travel from other districts.

The theme of this Meet is My Story Our Legacy. This was chosen to reflect the historic times we are going through. Few people today realize that fifty or hundred years down the road, our future descendants will scramble to look at this period for written records and references. Even if we don’t write on events of great historical importance, the written records we leave behind will be told as stories one day. In fact we often use the phrase, dhi gang ngache ghi pham ghi kad su. (those days during the times of our forefathers). So, what we write,  whether they are worth of being read or mentioned, will be talked about and read. So I invite you to be mindful of what you write and share.

My Story Our Legacy was also coined out of the belief that the story of a nation is nothing but the stories of ordinary people. We all have a story to tell. Today, we have three speakers – three storytellers who I believe are also creating their little stories in their own little world. Pawo Choyning Dorji is a filmmaker – photographer who tells stories through pictures, Amrith Subba is spreading the love for sharing and compassion and Tshering Pelden writes about everything from ants to drayang girls. My thanks to them for accepting to share their stories today.

Lastly, the question: what is your story?

For me, writing has been a way to share my life, beliefs and my concerns. It has served as a place where I could offload my feelings and frustrations, share joys and sorrows, and drop ideas and inspirations. It takes time, of course. And sometimes I have even wondered if anyone is even reading them. Yes, I know this hollow feeling of talking to a wall – especially in your early years of blogging. But do not despair. Keep writing. Keep going. Keep flowing. If for nothing, one day you will also turn 50 like me. Your shoulder will get frozen. Then you discover that a physiotherapist is your fellow blogger and is ready to do the magic on you.

Yes, this is a true story.

Also few days back as I walked away from one of these physio sessions, a young woman walked up to me with a beaming smile and went on with something like, “Sir, you don’t know me but we are friends on Facebook and I follow your writings. I work as a nurse in the …. section. If you need anything there, just look out for me. It will be my pleasure to serve you”.

It is these pleasant and unexpected encounters that make your life worth living, pains worth taking and time worth spending on this small activity of sharing called writing.

Happy blogging to all

 

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Advent of TV in Bhutan

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June 2, 1999 – This is me making the final connection and screen test for what was a historic moment for Bhutan: Television.

Yes, I led the team to a world-record launch of a television channel – 3 months from the scratch to the screen. That the was the biggest and the most prestigious project I executed as an engineer  😍😍😍 And I made it to the pages of Guardian UK and New York Times and host of other news outlets. I was also also conferred the Asia-Pacific Engineering Award for that stunt. However, those were pre-internet era. So, no way to social media about. Meaning, it is as good as it never happened. 😜😜😜

Still, it is nice to have your past smiling at you although, for me really, I just miss my engineering colleagues. They were the best foot soldiers I had. They were always ready to charge uphill into any battle with me. And we did many battles. In the final days leading to June 2, we camped at Sangaygang so that we could work round-the-clock to complete the task. Not a single complaint was uttered by anyone in my team. Really great guys. I will always be proud of you. As a saying goes in Bhutanese, “Your share, you have to chew even if they are gravels”. Yes, we did chew our gravels. And much more. 😎😎😎

But, my god! Almost 20 years that we have TV ??? HA HA HA

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Uli, our German friend, taught us how to use cameras and studio lights. I am the only one not paying attention 🙂

Holidays and calendars

January 17, 2018 – Today is celebrated as another local new year although as per the lunar calendar it is the 12th month of Year of Rooster. Some may wonder why we have so many new years in Bhutan.

Since ancient times, different communities around the world, ethnic groups, religions and nations have different times to celebrate a new cycle in life – a new beginning. Some followed the Sun (like the Egyptians) and some the Moon (Chinese), while others followed both (Indians). They also had different days to observe as holidays (derived from the words, holy days) to attend to religious activities. There were also rest days. In Sharchop communities, for example, there used to be a day for rest known as saa nyan (earth rest) – when the farmers give the soil some rest. (By the way, isn’t this beautiful? Earth rest day)

As communities came together as nations and states, the calendar system was introduced to bring everyone to synchronise their lives so that they can all work together. Therefore, the calendar system is more political and administrative in nature. However, it included the religious holy days and rest days to allow people to take some time off for themselves. While the calendar systems have changed with political changes, the religious holidays have remained constant. Even today while we follow the western Gregorian calendar, our local tshechus have to follow the local lunar calendar known as dathog.  Religion and culture runs deeper than politics.

This is the reason you will find different communities in Bhutan celebrating the start of a new cycle (new year) at different times of the year. These cultural practices predate the formation of Bhutan as a nation-state in the 17th century. This is what makes Bhutan diverse and beautiful. And when we say that we have been successful in maintaining our culture and traditions, we are talking of retaining such practices.

Furthermore, since Losar means new year or new cycle, the term, Chunipa Losar, is technically and linguistically wrong. It is more appropriate to say Sharchop Losar as in Parop or Haap Lomba. Chuni is 12. No new cycle begins at 12. It begins at 1. This day also coincides with the first day of the new moon according the older Gongdu calendar. So it is not a random or modern invention. The Tibetan tradition of celebrating the new year on the second Moon was introduced after the Mongols overrun them and imposed the Hor calendar. I would guess that they followed this day as the losar before that event.

Of greater historical importance for Bhutan is that as Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel brought together the nation of Pelden Drukpa, in around 1637, this day became the day when regional governors and noble families from around Bhutan made the buelwa phuelwa (offerings of tributes). The day was marked with great festivity in Punakha where goods and foods from different regions of Bhutan were shared and celebrated. Some might argue that the “offering” was actually the annual tax – which is right. However, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel didn’t believe in taxing his subjects – and rather declared that the state should be so good that the people would offer taxes as offerings to maintain the central administration, which they did. (Can we learn something from him?)

Everything evolves. So do holidays too. Bhutan, as the nation founded on the ideals of the Zhabdrung and on the selfless sacrifices of the Wangchuck dynasty, could view this day beyond its traditional significance of a local new year – and as a day of national thanksgiving, where we come together to celebrate our elders, our ancestors and monarchs. It could also evolve like the Thanksgiving in the US.

After all, more than the medieval times, it was in the modern era – during our time that we have faced the greatest threats to our survival. And our Kings kept us, and continue to keep us, as a sovereign nation – and as proud sons and daughters of Pelden Drukpa.

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Offerings to His Majesty, a practice that should be encouraged more to pay homage for the selfless service of our Kings

Who are we?

National Days are a time to reflect who we are as a nation – just as a birthday is a day that one ponders upon as a person. 

Who are we? What does it mean to be a Bhutanese? Does wearing a gho or Kira make me Bhutanese? Does simply loving my country make me a Bhutanese? Do I have to eat ema datsi or drink Ara? Do I have to perform religious rituals or be a civil servant? Or is the search a search within and somewhere far deeper or greater?

Firstly, in my view, what makes us Bhutanese is neither an external display nor just an internal sublimity (aka thib thib in Dzongkha). It is a fine balance of both – between the tangible and the intangible, the seen and the unseen, the extraordinary and the ordinary. Second, what is means to be Bhutanese is also a far bigger question than one could possibly answer. Bhutanesity cannot be just characterized by one or two overt symbols or with few internal rhetoric.

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When I won the Japan Prize 2003, I chose the national dress over a suit someone sent me. A small contribution to Bhutanesity.

Only a fool would think that wearing a gho or kira would suffice to be Bhutanese or parroting tsawa-sum constitute as Bhutanese. Many Thais love our King and our country as much as we do. Being Bhutanese requires o\ne to be even more than that – do much more. 

Being Bhutanese is also process with the variables in constant flux with several dimensions – cutting across social, cultural, geo-political, economic and religious contexts and circumstances. What it was to be a Bhutanese when I was growing up has changed to what it is now. That too less than in one generation. To put it simply, we are still a work in progress. To paraphrase an Italian freedom fighter and the PM, Cavour, we have a State. Now we (still) need to build the nation. And so it will be for many generations to come.

We are but a small country susceptible and vulnerable to even the slightest of changes within and in the neighborhood. And of the many external factors, the influx of new technologies, materialistic ideals and new individualistic values will pose serious challenges that will continuously force us to question ourselves. Within our own Lhomon khazhi, the growing indifference, complacency and declining empathy of those who make it in life – will be the greatest threat. Of the two challenges, external and internal, I would tackle the internal one first. It won’t be enough to be strong and united but we will need to look out for each other. 

Therefore,

what does it mean to be a Bhutanese is not limited to having genuine thoughts or flattering words for ‘tsawa sum’ but also calls for serious altruistic actions too. 

National Day was the day we came together as a nation under our first King Ugyen Wangchuck. 110 years since, we sing praises to our monarchs for the unprecedented developments that came about. For me, however, the greatest achievements of our Kings have been to keep us safe and sovereign. Every king had to pull some legendary acts – one as late as December 2003. It is no secret that countries and territories that were far bigger and affluent than us vanished into the wikipedia of history. No other nation or people face a continuous existential question like we do. Therefore, the search for what it means to be Bhutanese itself is quintessentially Bhutanese. It is a search for survival – as a nation, as a state and in the 21st century as an economy.

My hopes and prayers on this 110th National Day is that the Bhutanese people, wherever they are, will continue to ask this question.

As is life, so is a nation. What we ask collectively is ultimately what we seek as a goal – as a country. To ask who we are is to know our place, our roles, our responsibilities and our duties to our King and our people. Conversely, to cease asking means to cease being a Bhutanese. A tall and provocative statement? Maybe.

For now, I will stand to this claim. 

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Knowledge of humility

So I have just crossed two of the four hurdles towards my next doctoral degree. I have completed all the course work (the last one was very demanding) and cleared the much-dreaded Qualifying Exam.

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With my supervisor, Prof. Todd Sandel

Now what is a qualifying exam? In different countries it comes with different names, shapes, sizes and formats. In the US and Canada it is called Comprehensive Exam, in other countries it is referred to as General Exams or Preliminary Exams. It consist of a long written part spanning for few days followed by an oral defence where you respond to the committee of 3-4 professors. You have only two shots. If you fail once, you can take another one. And that’s it. The objective is to test your overall knowledge in the field you will be getting your PhD and also see if you are deemed fit to be called a scholar. It is not simply a test of the cumulative knowledge of the courses you have taken (I took six) but a test of your preparation to work independently at the highest level hereafter. In other words, it is a rite of passage from being a student till now – to a distinguished title or status of being referred to as scholar, doctor, etc. Simply put, as a student you absorb knowledge. As a scholar you produce knowledge. Big difference. The next step is for you to produce something new in the form of a dissertation, which, if accepted, confers you the title of doctor. Doctor comes from Latin word, docere, which means “to teach”. In other words, after your knowledge is accepted by the discipline, you are also entitled to teach it to others. This practice has its roots in Italy that saw some of the first universities in the western world (e.g. my Alma mater, University of Bologna). Now, of course, titles of PhD and doctors have changed in their meaning and purpose. 

To come back to my experience of this Q exam, it’s been few months of consuming lots of coffees, kit kats, communication theories, research methodologies and selected works from philosophy, religion, sociology, history, anthropology, sociolinguistics, semiotics and technology. Communication cuts across many fields and take almost all the theories from sociology. The written exam was a solitary confinement for 3 days in a row (you can also choose to spread it over a month but I like getting done away with) – each lasting 8 hours to finally produce some 12,000+ word length of what could be the last humanly readable paper. After this, no one will understand what you write. 👿👿👿

Then the oral part was a 3-hour slash-and-burn farming on my ideas 😂😂😂. 

Now that I am done with it, how do I feel? I don’t know. Have I learnt anything? A lot. Do I feel wiser? Not at all. In fact, now I feel less confident (or may be more humble) than before I started. I was sharing this feeling with another Bhutanese friend who is also in a PhD programme. He is going through the same kind of transformation. Basically, PhD is a process where you finally know how much you don’t know – and that is really a humbling dose. And perhap the greatest lesson one learns in a grad school. 

So then, is one of the ultimate objectives of knowledge to make you more humble? Perhaps. When I look around and imagine some of the most learnt Bhutanese I have come across – people like my family lama – Rangshikhar Rimpoche, my lama-friend – Eminence Tsugla Lopen (I say “friend” because I am spiritually not at the level to be his disciple), our historian, Dr. Karma Phuntsho and then my last employer, RTC President Thakur Singh, they are all very humble people. In fact, in Bhutanese we say “behaving like someone has no knowledge” if your acts are rowdy and uncultured. Maybe there is a wisdom to that.

I guess, ultimately

Knowledge makes you humble. Ignorance inflates your ego.

Coming back to the Q Exam, I am sharing my experience not to scare anyone but to show how the system works. PhD is absolutely doable. I hope our universities back home will offer because it leads you to another world of knowledge, discovery and perspectives of life. You should go for it – especially if you are a teacher – in a school or in a university. But don’t go for it, looking forward to a fancy title and the world to bow down to you after you complete it (see the cartoon below). You should go for it because learning excites you, it makes you really happy and you can leave behind some knowledge for mankind. If I can, so will you. I am not even doing it in what I studied in undergrad (engineering) or my career (film and journalism). Those subjects would have been too easy. As is of me, I chose the red pill and I am looking broadly at communication as a tool in sociolinguistics and philosophy. These are challenging concepts but very exciting. 

As I wrote in my earlier blog entry, you should keep learning because if you stop learning, you stop living.

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Get busy livin’

Time flies, wounds heal, scars remain – and life goes on, regardless.

A little more than 5 years have passed after that moment when the world cracked open – sucking me in. I also saw the sky closing over me. There were two options : I could accept that everything was over, resign to the fate and disappear into the irrelevance. That was the easier option. For a while that was my option.

OR cry your life out, wipe your tears and slowly claw yourself out of the hole. That was the difficult choice but the one I ultimately took. 🏊🏊🏊

btyTo all those who stretched out their hands to help me to get me out of that hole, I thank you. You were so few; so I will never forget your faces too. 😇😇😇

To others, thank you nonetheless – for, I came out stronger. 😎😎

And to all those, who may find themselves in a hole, big or small, don’t let yourself get buried. Cry, if you must – but pause for a moment, take a deep breath and reflect in silence. Then grab your fate by its collar, shake it and say, “You can’t kill me”, and move on. There is no greater satisfaction than beating the greatest of odds. There will be no greater regret than giving up. Many choose the latter. You shouldn’t.

Fate, more often than not, deals you a heavy hand. Play with whatever you are dealt with. Don’t believe when people say things like, it happens for a reason. That’s rubbish – a mere rhetoric. There is no reason for things to happen unless you caused it. If they do, try making sense out of it, a motivation that will drive your further. Turn it into THE reason for you to launch yourself. Run with it, fly and then dunk it.🤾🤾🤾

You will also hear old moralistic cliches like, forgive and forget. Of course, you should forgive. That will make you feel much better. There is no point bottling up inside you. But unless you are going dement, you shouldn’t forget. Remember the faces, especially of those who stood by you.

When you are back on your feet, don’t forget to look around with your head held high and smile at the world. Most likely, it will smile back.

To paraphrase a line from my favourite movie, Shawshank Redemption,

Get busy living or get busy dying

As Andy, the lead character in that movie says, “It all boils down to that one choice”.

Make the right one.

Moving closer to “doing something”

These days I am swamped in books, journal articles, papers, coffees, kitkats and computers, as I work towards my PhD qualifying exam – transiting, hopefully, to being a real “scholar”. That’s what the study guidebook says, whatever that means.

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However, I have rarely been fixated with titles and designations and decorations. I have had many in my career. Rather, I am happy that I have done things in my life that I am passionate about, while doing things I had to do with the same zeal. In others words, I love what I do, and I do what I love – something that I always preach. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, I did it my way.

I won’t say I was fortunate – or that I am lucky. I don’t believe much in fortune or chance happenings. Try waiting, if you believe in it. In life, it is the choices you make, the decisions you take that will in large part decide what will become of yourself.  

Nevertheless, there are people you draw inspirations from. And I must say, in learning, my inspiration comes from a quote by Buddhist Sakya scholar, Kuenga Gyeltshen (1150-1203), popularly known as Sakya Pandita, who said,

“Even if you are going to die tomorrow, it is still worth learning something new today”.

“Even if you are going to die tomorrow, it is still worth learning something new today”. Isn’t this wonderful?

Also as Buddhists we believe in reincarnation where your mind-soul-spirit, or whatever, passes on to the next living thing after you die (leave one’s body). My illiterate elder sister, who thought I had finished studying “everything” from Italy, asked me if I am studying again for my next life. I said, yes. She was very pleased.

To the great Sakya Pandita and my illiterate sister, thank you for your words of encouragement.24_lis_kirkby

You also just don’t get inspired by famous people, or learn from your own circle of friends, family or tribe. You can draw from some distant, unknown and unusual figures. For me one such person is Elizabeth Kirkby. Now who is Elizabeth Kirkby? I don’t know. I just saw her on the news (on the Net). She became Australia’s oldest PhD – at 93. And this is what she said that caught my imagination.

You can’t believe that when you retire you just play golf or bowls or sit round with your mates. You always have to do something

There was a time when I was seriously pondering if I really should, or shouldn’t, go to another grad school. Of course, I always had this crazy dream to meet Nelson Mandela, fly a plane and enrol for a PhD – by the time I hit 50. But you know, you always need that one last push. This news of some 93-year old graduating somewhere flashing on my newsfeed did that work. I jumped up and told myself, “I have 45 years to go. Better do something”.

Thanks Aum Elizabeth, wherever you are. 

 

(NB – I first heard of the quote by Sakya Pandita from lama Dzongsar Khyentse in his talk at Yale. The video is on YouTube. Watch if you follow him)

My mother

On this Thanksgiving day (I am not American but I love this festivity), I express my eternal gratitude to my late mother who not only brought me into the world, but also defined my character as a person and continue to guide me even after 25 years that she is physically no more.

“If you can’t do good, don’t be mean to anyone” was her advice when I was growing up as a child. I would complain about my peers and how I planned to retaliate and won’t be taking things lying down. She never allowed me to do fight back. “If it’s okay that others are bad to you, it is fine with us. That doesn’t make you any less.”  Untitled

She had a magnetic character and positivism that attracted people around her to listen to her stories, jokes and wits as they went about with their hard labour at the farm. The air would be filled with laughter wherever she was and she never seemed to have one bad day. That’s not because we had everything. In fact we were poor – very poor, that at times we had to resort to taking food loans (known as kindru) from richer neighbours. She always protected us from poverty and more than that, from poor thinking. “We are descendants of great lamas and kings. This is just a temporary hiccup,” She reassured us. She never wanted us to grow up as losers and whiners. In fact much later I learnt that our family were once rich and powerful.

She always protected us from poverty and more than that, from poor thinking.

She suffered a long terminal disease and when she was told about it, she replied, “It’s fine. All my children are grown up now and can fend for themselves. Actually we are almost there. Few things to tune up and then I will decide when to go. So Choeken Gyalpo (Lord of Death), please don’t make a big deal out of it,” She joked. She smiled and made all the other people in the hospital laugh till her last day. When it was time she told up my aunt back in our village to make sure that the funeral tent was new and had the 8 lucky signs. She told another distant aunt not to miss her cremation.

I have always tried to live like her, which gives me strength to move on from the toughest days – and not to let power or success get on my head.

People don’t go – unless they die in your heart.

#thanksgiving #mother #motherlove #livethemoment #smile

Honoured in America

It’s with great humility to share that my first scholarly paper, Influence of Buddhism on Communication Behavior – Search for the Middle Path, has been conferred the Top PhD Student Paper at the National Communication Association – in Dallas, Texas. I am simply overwhelmed to be embraced into the big league of communication scholars, as my foray into the field of academia happened only a few years ago. I am still a “young” scholar – and this is a 102-year old organization that has defined, and continues to redefine, the media and communication scholarship globally. I was informed of the award a month back but was in disbelief that I didn’t have the confidence to share with many people until now – until I was formally inducted to the awardees. I am still processing this recognition in my head.

I am very humbled that this somewhat crazy idea of middle path communication, which I first presented at the Bhutanese Bloggers Meet in Paro, would get this far. I would like to thank everyone (including our deities and denizens back home) for the support, love and friendships. Special thanks go to my blogger friends, who sat through that first presentation in Paro – and my gratitude to the The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH​ for Bhutan Studies for giving me the first international platform by accepting my semi-developed article at the International GNH Conference in Paro in 2015. And, of course, to my guru, Professor Todd Sandel and the people at the Department of Communication, University of Macau​ of Macau, for having me there and treating me in the most generous and gracious manner.

Greetings to all from Texas, where they say “everything is big.” This award is definitely one for me.

NB - Influence of Buddhism on Communication Behavior – looks at how the core philosophical concept of emptiness and middle path of Mahayana Buddhism are reflected in the everyday communication behaviours among the Bhutanese people. It also introduces to the challenges posed by the social media and mobile phones.

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Middlepath to America

Hong Kong, 14 November:

Bracing for one of the longest flights in the world. Hong Kong – Dallas Texas – 16 hours only. The route will take us over China, Russia, polar circle, Alaska, Canada and the US. However, I won’t be bored. No time for that. It will be 16 hours of coffee and powerpoint. Got to brush up two presentations that I will be making at the Annual Conference of the prestigious National Communication Association annual conference in Dallas, Texas.

More than my own papers, though, I am looking forward to meeting and listening to communication scholars whose theories I have studied and practiced and who books I have read, photocopied, underlined, etc. and whose perspectives rule the media and communication industry on this planet.

Meanwhile, I will be timidly offering my own Middlepath Communication model to the field. So nervous. So excited.   

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