Moelam – the bedrock of Bhutanese self and community

The Bhutanese society, in general, is founded on the Mahayana Buddhist understanding of emptiness and interdependence, which entail the practices of unconditional compassion (སྙིང་རྗེ། snying-rje) and loving-kindness (བྱམས་པ་ byams pa). One concept, or a tool, that enables you to carry out these practices in daily life, and which binds individuals, families, and communities and relationships in Bhutan, is Moelam.

Literally, Moe-lam (སྨོན་ལམ། sMon-lam; and also Romanized as Mon-lam) means “aspiration path” – as in an aspirational prayer to remove obstacles that lie on one’s path to enlightenment. In popular practices, however, moelam has a wide range of usages. It can be understood as destiny or reason – as in our moelam has brought us together in this life or on this occasion; fortune – my moelam has given me a birth lottery; synchronicity – everything happens because of moelam; or blessing – you have my moelam so that you succeed.

Moelam as aspiration

Perhaps the most powerful of all the perspectives of moelam is as the human agency to make things happen by the power of mere aspiration. Moelam is often perceived as, or confused with, Karma (ལས། : lé or ley in Bhutanese), a Sanskrit word borrowed from Hinduism. Karma, literally means “action” or “deed” while moelam is “aspiration”, which in other words means “intention”. While the law of karma dictates that good-begets-good, and bad-begets-bad, and that you can do nothing about it, moelam provides more hope in that moelam empowers you – and empowers you to even overcome your karma. This can be done, firstly, by seeking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and then by committing to good deeds. For example, if negative karma is following you, you can seek moelam and commit to spiritual, social or charitable acts such as building stupas, temples, statues, scriptures, or by feeding monks or hungry people. For example, my birth prophecy required me to donate statues of Guru Padmasambhava to temples and monasteries. One could further complement by conducting rituals to invoke the Dharma protector deities and divinities.

Mahayana Buddhists, however, don’t deny the concept, or consequences, of karma, especially if it has to do huge unforgivable negative karma. Thus, in common parlance karma and moelam are often paired as ley-dang-moelam (karma and moelam). We often say that one cannot escape the karma, or that some things are happening in my life because of ley-dang-moelam. Furthermore, the Bhutanese word for karma, which is ley (ལས།) is the same word for sin. The opposite of sin is virtuous acts which is known as Soenam (བསོད་ནམས། : bSod-nams). Hence, by practicing moelam one accumulates more soenam, which ensures one to get closer to enlightenment – or better rebirths.

Moelam as the reason of connections, community and synchronicity

Neutralizing a negative Karma is just one of the many aspects of moelam. The more common practice is moelam as the divine providence for connections, community, synchronicity or togetherness. Simply put, moelam is the reason that brings us together.

Earlier we said that moelam is ‘aspiration’. One aspiration – or desire, which we all have is that we want some things to last forever. Lovers vow to be together eternity. In Bhutan, people seek moelam to be reborn again in Bhutan. My brother often jokes that he seeks moelam so that in the next life he will have fewer financial problems or more brain. Moelam offers you all these possibilities. We can aspire for anything – to be together again or get a birth lottery. It is not easy though. We believe that if you recite the moelam mantra for 108,000 times (in Bhutanese moelam boom) and make your wish, you may be born in the same country but as different species and so you never get to meet your entire lives. If you up your game and say you increase your moelam prayers to a million (moelam saya), maybe you could be on the same flight one day or attend the same college, but nothing more. If you further increase to one billion (moelam dungjur), maybe one is born as a crow and the other as a cow and they occasionally hang out together in the same farm and be friends.

Now let’s reverse the argument. Here we are, alive and kicking, and with all our limbs intact and with the five senses. Can you now imagine how much moelam it took for us to be together regardless? How many lives! How much hard work! So, congratulation to all! We are a great product of our moelams. Now, think beyond this group. Think about your parents, your siblings, or your spouses. To be together every day, there have to be even more moelams, for sure.

Is this a religious fantasy? I don’t know. Personally, I take this perspective very seriously. It has helped me to define my relationships with everyone – to cherish every person I work with – or meet – even when it is as simple as sharing the same row of seats on an American Airline flight to Dallas. Of course, I have to be careful not to be too friendly and smiling for no reason – because Americans are too suspicious (That was a joke!)

Moelam, basically, states that nothing is casual or arbitrary. There is a reason, a rationale, for your Being – for every situation or circumstances you are in. And for every encounter you make in your life.

Moelam as fortune

Some of us are born in a wealthy family, while some came with poverty. This is also considered as a result of your past moelam. If you are thriving financially, please know that you deserve it all. It is all thanks to your moelam from several lives in the past. Maybe you made some aspiration prayers in your previous life to be born rich – like my younger brother. Cherish that your moelam has been fulfilled. Don’t feel guilty about it. However, moelam is like your bank balance. It also depletes. So, one needs to keep replenishing by good actions and thoughts.

You also need to cultivate moelam together. In Rukha, since the Pandemic of 2020, we have instituted twice-monthly rituals and festivity to cultivate a collective moelam. One needs to use one’s advantaged position to accumulate more moelam for this life – as well as the next.

Lastly, moelam is also transferable like money – because it is a blessing. You can confer moelam or seek moelam for your children and friends. We always seek the moelam of our elders. Last July, I constructed an altar to deity Tara to seek the moelam and support for my grandson and for my two daughters. Those donating to charities and the works of good people, can do with moelams, by aspiring for something good, for their children, grandchildren or parents.

Conversely, if you feel that you are not in the best of situations or circumstances, know that maybe your moelam is simply not there, or that it has depleted– or that the moment has not come. The absence or depletion of moelam is not necessarily bad. For example, it helps you to overcome painful situations – like divorces, separations or losing a job or income. In my case I was booted out from an organization (BBS) that I had built with my own hands. But I told myself and my well-wishers that I didn’t blame anyone. It was just that my Moelam was probably over. It was time to move on and time to look forward to my next Moelam.

And in fact, here I am – happier than ever, in my third career as an academician and educator. My last job was even in the prestigious Ivory Tower.

As Steve Jobs said,

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

He was referring to Moelam.

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