Brave New World?

(In this second part of the talk I gave in Tenzin Higher Secondary School and in Karma Academy, I share some tips to survive in the fast and changing world that they are going to live in. The following is a transcript of my talk)

First of all, let me apologize to the teachers for taking away your classes. You got some make up classes to do now.

I have been asked to give a talk to motivate you (students), to provide you some inspiration. Now this is bit frightening for me because the last thing I know you would want is for someone to tell you what to do, and that too from someone with no official status these days. I had come here just to meet the media studies students but your Principal thought I would have something worthwhile to share with you.

Let’s admit, there is so much of negativity in the air these days – of corruptions, nepotism, abuse of power, dirty politics, miscarriage of justice, and so on. I am sure for you growing up with these stories flying around must be very discouraging. I don’t say that they are not happening. But not everything is true and in any case they do not define our country – or who we are as a nation. Let me tell you that everywhere in the world there are similar challenges and unlike here, where we have a King who will ultimately take on the most difficult of issues we face, in other countries people often have to fend for themselves.

When I was growing up there were also talks of corruptions and nepotisms. Yet, I sort of succeeded to do what I wanted to do, achieve what I wanted to achieve and go wherever I wanted to go. I neither had a powerful uncle nor was I born into any influential family. My father was a truck driver and my mother – an illiterate housewife. In other words, if I can be successful, so can you. Do not be discouraged by the negativity that is engulfing us. Even if they were true, they cannot stop you or bring you down – if you are determined to pursue your goals.

The other widespread perception that we have these days is that no one cares for anything or anyone in this country. Well, I do. Really. And that’s why I am here. And I know lots of people who care for what is going on in our country. And they are  mostly ordinary people like me. It is from them that I derive my sense of optimism. I have lived in countries where leaders only enrich themselves. I have been to other nations where every man is for himself. Our country isn’t one of those countries. There are, of course, people among us who only think of themselves. But we can’t help it. In Buddhism, we say we are, after all, saang magaybi sem (Unenlightened Beings). So, the people who care for you and your future will keep working for you. And as is life, so is our nation. It keeps moving forward.

Having said the above, though, let me tell you that every generation faces its fair share of challenges and I faced mine. I walked for days to get to school. I slept on hard wooden beds without mattresses and blankets. I travelled on open trucks in the rain with potato bags. I went barefoot for much of my childhood. That was okay. But I also went hungry at times and that was not okay. It was terrible to go to bed with an empty stomach. None of you I know go barefoot or hungry. In other words, you are already ahead of me – in relative terms. So, be positive.

What is really difficult for you though is the fact that the country I grew up in will be very different from the one you will live your professional life through. And by that I am referring to the additional skills required to have a so-called successful life. Just studying hard and getting good marks in your exams is not going to be enough. Adding some hard skills may not also suffice to even land a job, let alone do well.  The competition will be fierce. When I completed class X, there were only 126 of us coming from six high schools in Bhutan. Now every year we see over 10,000 of you. However, not only the number is bigger but of late, the world is also changing at a faster pace. The skills and knowledge that you possess gets outdated sooner than you realise.

Hence, let me share the four skills/attributes/characters that I have found handy, which should also be useful for you. For me more than my degrees and “talents”, these softer skills have brought me this far.  I call this VARA.

  1. Values – Cultivating basic principles and moral standards helps you not only to be a respected member of a community but also to stay grounded on your feet. Neither positions of power over-excite you – nor being ‘nobody’ kills you emotionally. Values also keep you away from bribery, materialism, temptations and troubles. The time to sow the seed of good values is now – when you are young.
  2. Attitude – If there is one thing that I hate about us, the Bhutanese, is our over-blown ego and attitude. Instead, developing a sound attitude towards your life and learning and towards other people will ultimately determine whether you will be accepted or whether you will turn off people who want to help you. Nobody achieves anything alone. If you put on an attitude no one will take you in their team.
  3. Reputation – In this age of free-fall social media, where you cannot hide anything, a new form of capital is emerging. It is called reputation. With moral decadence, people’s trust in you will be your greatest asset – far greater than money or social capital. You will face temptations. Endure them. Do not lose your credibility. As you grow older you will be extremely proud that you never sold your soul for anything. It is the greatest of feelings. Believe me.
  4. Adaptability – The world that I lived through my professional career was at times cruel – and very heartless. But if there is one thing that saved me, it was my adaptability – my resilience – my ability to reinvent myself time and again. From an engineer to documentary filmmaker to entrepreneur to palace staff to an educator, I sailed through seamlessly. I must admit that it wasn’t easy. The world that you will inhabit will be in constant and greater flux – changing more rapidly. If you cannot adapt quickly or if you cannot reinvent yourself, you may find yourself in a corner. Start acquiring skills now and newer skills as you move ahead in life.

If you do the above, I can guarantee you that you will not go to bed hungry at night.

 

(In the Q&A that followed, students asked me on the state of Bhutanese broadcast media, the difference between rights to information and freedom of speech, the news of a vice principal charged with sexual harassment, skills to become a journalist, etc.)

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The school is located in Lango gewog in Paro valley.

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Ready to go. Laptop, projector, mic and laser beam.

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The Assistant Principal, me, Diksha Gurung (my former student now teacher), and Lopen Kesang. Behind me is a photo bomber

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Over 560 people gathered to hear the Messiah 🙂

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I am in my element when I have smiling faces listening to what I like to talk about.

Managing your social media

This is the first part of talk I gave in two schools in Paro – the Karma Academy and Tenzin Higher Secondary Schools. I was invited by two of my former students, who are now teachers, to talk about media literacy – an elective subject recently introduced in Bhutanese schools – and also to motivate our youth towards positive thinking about future.

Social media literacy: managing Facebook

The advent of democracy has put one requirement on us: media literacy. This was because no democratic process would be successful, if people did not understand the mass media.  Now we have yet another requirement that has come about so quickly: social media literacy. And unlike the former, where one could possibly chose not to (meaning you can live your life without reading newspapers or watching the TV), social media and technology such as mobile phones do not give that choose. It is there with you, it follows you. The choice is you consume, or be consumed.

Yet one could still choose to consume wisely and in which case it becomes a very a powerful tool that you could shape to benefit you and to serve you. Here are some strategies that I adopt for myself.

  1. Take a break – I make sure that I don’t get addicted to social media and I do that by taking regular Facebook break – sometimes for a week and sometimes for much longer. I choose to control the social media and not be controlled.
  2. Refresh your page regularly – Every few years I delete my social media accounts and start fresh. This time around there is no much private information – about where I worked, what I do and when I was born. This way the algorithms developed by Facebook and other marketing sites cannot target me that easily. I invite you to do that. Delete all private information from your pages. Those who know you, know you.
  3. Beware of predators – Do not post pictures of your siblings or children studying in India or elsewhere. You are putting them at risk. Delete any picture of your baby sister or anyone who is under-aged.
  4. Turn off the Location information- You are making a moving target of yourself. And do not make running commentaries of your flights. Please leave Paro Airport without posting a picture of yourself posing in front of the plane. If you must post any pictures of your travels, do after you have completed your trip. And do not post pictures of your passport and boarding pass. The bar codes have all your vital information.
  5. Beware of what you say and what you share – Do not make damaging statements even as a joke to closest friends. Statements like “I hate you, woman”, can later cost you a job at some UN organisations. Showing off a travel to certain regions of the world can be a reason for visa rejections to some countries. Simply sharing a picture or a news story of some controversial world leaders may also be costly too. Be careful what you ‘like’, share or comment.

 

 

(To be continued: The second part of the talk is titled Brave New World?)

The following are pictures from Karma Academy, Paro

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Class XI Arts students. I was called back by the class to have a group picture with them.

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Mr. Nice. Dorji Tshering, the Principal, and I worked together briefly in His Majesty’s Secretariat. Our parents were also very close friends in the 1970s in Phuntsholing 

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View of Shaba from Karma Academy

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View of Dra Karpo sacred sites

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I loves cafes

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Food, Glorious Food!

Teaching, a noble profession? You bet

Yangchen Gatshel School, Dakarla, Thimphu

I resourced a professional development (PD) session today on the invitation of Lopen Sonam Dendup, a teacher at the school. Hate to admit but we met on Facebook. He invited me through FB too.

I shared my short journey in teaching- filling in as an adjunct professor in Sherubtse College where I stayed for three semester followed by a short stint as a Dean at Royal Thimphu College. And now as a PhD candidate (where I am also a teaching assistant) and researcher at the University of Macau.

I added, “They say teaching is a thankless job. For me, having been in more ‘prestigious’ jobs, professions and positions of power, my two and half years in Sherubtse and RTC are the only ones where I am remembered, thanked and cherished. So I disagree with that statement. These days, even after years that I have not seen them, I have my former students who visit me or are very thankful. But I never had a former employee even make a mention. Some are now even embarrassed that I helped them secure a job or a skill. They would to believe they are self-made. Nor has there been any contractor who is grateful for the millions made from my projects. So as teachers do not feel so cheap. You will have smiling faces come up to you as you age. That’s worth more than anything money can buy. But you have to do your job well. ”

After a two-hour discussion on demystifying terrifying words like research, Masters, PhD, and talking about my works on Buddhist communication and middlepath journalism, I concluded with where I started off the day,

“However, for those of you who are young, I do not wish to dissuade you from dreaming. We all have dreams and aspirations to be better off – financially, intellectually and emotionally. Go for it but stay around this area of education and research. Trust me, it is a field that provides you the most fulfilling life. And it only gets better with age. However, whatever you plan to do, just do not chase money, though. Work hard. Work smart and get your priorities right and let money follow you. It does, believe me.”

For the content of the interactions on how to be a good teacher, I will detail them in my blog. Because what I learnt from the teachers of this school merits some careful analysis and a blog entry each.

So stay tuned.

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For our future leaders

I took some time off today to guest lecture the PGDPA class – the elite group of RCSC-selected officers trainees – at the Royal Institute of Management. Here is an excerpt from my three-part talk. I shared a skill, a tool and a concern.

Skill – Communication: Communication is key to any successful relationships or leadership. Just because we can talk, read or write does not mean that we can communicate well. In fact it is difficult to communicate effectively. I struggled all my life and I still do. And also it is easier to miscommunicate than to communicate well. That’s why conflicts occur, relationships die or misunderstandings happen because of miscommunication, or from not communicating enough.

As future leaders in the government, what might eventually make or break your career will be your communication skills. How effectively can you communicate your ideas, views and visions – to your bosses, peers and subordinates. You will be leading teams to complete certain tasks – big and small. Unless you can communicate effectively to your members, you won’t get anything done.

There are three things to remember in communication. First, it is contextual – in that every communication must happen within, and accompanied by, the necessary premise. Don’t assume people know what you are talking about. Second, you need to know your audience. How you talk to a stranger should be different from how you talk to your lover; How you talk to a group of students is different from talking to a group of farmers. Third, it is about meanings in that your audience will make their own meanings of your messages, which may or may not be what you meant. If you are cognisant of these three aspects, you will learn to communicate well.

Tool – Postmanian Approach to public policymaking. As public officials you will be involved in making rules, laws and policies. Now public policy has its own theory and practice, which you will study in another course. Here I will offer you a simple tool that I have adapted from media ecology theory by Neil Postman.

This is in light of the countless numbers of rules that government agencies make every day. Rule-making by our public offices rivals archery as our national sports. Only gossiping, perhaps, overtakes the two. In many cases, rules are made to ease their work or protect themselves – and rarely for public interest, convenience or safety. ‘Who exist for whom?’ is a question, at times.  For example, the requirement to submit same set of documents to different government agencies for different purposes. Why can’t the agencies, operating under the same government, coordinate among themselves and verify the information based on a central database.

As a new generation of civil servants, I would like you to be more civil and be of service to the people – not to lord over them. This is mainly because “your” public will be different than “my” public, although we are talking about the same Bhutanese people.

Public policy analysis or regulatory impact assessments are complex subjects. So I will present you a tool, which is a set of three questions that you can ask against before setting out to work on an expensive piece of legislation, policy or a regulation. The questions are:

1. What is the problem that this rule/policy provides the solution?

2. Whose problem is it anyway?

3. What other problems or consequences are likely to emerge as a result of this rule/policy?

Let’s take the example of the one-way street rule around the BOD, where cars coming from Chorten cannot shoot straight towards Lungtenzampa bridge – and instead have to take a trip along the Norzin Lam. What is the problem that this rule provides the solution? Possible traffic accidents that will involve car owners, police, insurance companies, etc. Whose problem is it anyway? The car owners, police, insurance companies. What other problems or consequences are likely to emerge as a result of this rule? Time waste, traffic jam, fuel consumption, pollution, frustrations, road rage, accidents. I estimated that just doing this stretch is costing our country, annually, Rs. 7,000,000 in fuel. I say “Rs” and not “Nu.” because we don’t produce petrol. Why are we burning this amount unnecessarily to avoid accidents that may or may not even happen? Thimphu has more than 30 such one-way streets. So you can imagine the cumulative amount wasted for nothing. Teach people to be civil and to drive responsibly.

Concern – Sovereignty and nation-building: As future leaders, you, more than any group have the added responsibility to fully understand the issue of sovereignty and nation-building. Both these tasks are a work-in-progress. And the moment we think that we can relax or be complacent we are in trouble. We cannot take sovereignty for granted. Nor can we think that nation-building is over. It is an unfinished business. For a small country, the geopolitics realities will remain the same. Only people will change. In this age of globalised economy and interconnected world, threats to sovereignty may also come from massive cyberattacks or economic dominance. As you take your positions in the civil service, you will need to keep these somewhere deep inside you – at all times. Don’t get caught off guarded.

My generation and the generations before me have brought the country till this point. Let me assure you that we have done our best. It may not be the best country in the world (we actually think it is) but we have given our best. What you do or where you want to take the country in your time is up to you.

I wish you all the fun when you are here. Out there some unfinished business is waiting for you.

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(photo: RIM Website)

Dasho Megraj Gurung and I

Among various people I caught up with at the Vajrayana Conference (a very good conference by the way. Thank you, CBS), I was particularly moved to meet Dasho Megraj Gurung – a red scarf officer, and an icon of his time.

The first time I met him was in 1981 when I was studying in Kharbandi school. Me and my friends were strolling along the highway near the school when a tall gentleman jumped out of a dusty truck with a simple jola (bag). “Hey, boys! Are you studying here?” he asked us. We replied, “Yes, Sir!” “Is Father Thomas in?” he continued. Father AP Thomas was our Principal in that school that was run by the Selesians of Don Bosco. We replied, yes, and offered to take him to his living quarter since it was Sunday. We had nothing better to do anyway.

As we were walking, he continued, “I couldn’t get a seat on BGTS, so I took a ride on the back of that truck carrying potatoes,” he told us. The way he narrated had us all laugh. As we kept walking, I started thinking, ‘Who is this guy speaking a perfect English and getting off a truck carrying potatoes.’ Those days anyone who spoke good English were high officials and they always came around in a Jeep (the top pool vehicle of its time). We continued walking with him and answering to his queries about what we studied and what we wanted to be in life. It was very informal and, besides, he cracked jokes about himself and his school days – making us laugh our life out.

When we reached our destination, Father Thomas rushed out of his quarter and greeted, “Good afternoon, Dasho Megraj. What a surprise visit!” They shook hands and started talking and we were all like  “Dasho?” We looked at each other, partly amused and partly embarrassed to have not followed the set decorum for a high official. So we slowly tried slipping away when he called us out again, “Thank you, boys, for bringing me here.” This time we just bowed and slowly slided away – giggling at each other.

In the years and decades that followed, when our paths often crossed in government meetings and social gatherings and academic conferences, I always looked at him with the same kiddish smile towards a person who was as humble and humorous as when I first met him – and yet had the depth of knowledge and wisdom that are second to none.

Despite his age, I am so happy to see him still active – attending academic events and smiling and making me laugh still.

Wishing him a long and a cherrful life.

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To Vote or Not to Vote

It’s less than a month before we will be electing our parliamentary leaders. And here I am, far away from home, with absolutely no idea of who I will be voting for. Yes, there is one familiar name – and one of my distant nephews is in the fray too. This is all I could gather from a very rationed media coverage this time. I have been craving for more information on the candidates. What do they stand for, what solutions they have for our issues, what visions they have crafted for our country. But absolutely nothing.

Other than these two candidates I even don’t know who the other candidates are from my Dzongkhag, Tashigang. So I might vote for one or the other – or not vote at all. I don’t want to be undoing the very spirit of democracy, which is to vote for the best. In voting for someone familiar, I would be diluting the decisions of well-thought votes of other Tashigangpas, who would have made a more informed choice – a privilege that we living abroad don’t have. But it seems the back-and-forth blame game between the Election Commission and the media is pushing us in that direction. And mind you, we are not electing a class captain for the school year. But national leaders whose decisions will impact us one way or the other and have solid bearing on our collective future.

Is this how our democracy is going to be, henceforth? Where we vote for familiar people, friends and relatives? Where we make uniformed choices because of a very restrictive so-called electoral laws? Aren’t laws supposed to be subordinate to the provisions of the Constitution, which, in my view, is crystal clear? This is not how I understand the Constitution – especially Articles 7.2, 7.3 and 7.5 pertaining to freedom of speech, press or information. No law is above the Constitution.

Or is it even the electoral laws that are limiting? Anyway, I don’t think this is how we build, or how a vibrant democracy works. I always thought that as a small country, we are better than this. That we can sit down and iron out the differences in understanding and interpretations of rules and processes. Ours is a new democracy and obviously not everything will be perfect. The media agencies and the Election Commission should sit down and clear this fog. Are they not working for us, the people?

Or, do we brace ourselves for a set of parliamentarians who come from big or influential families and not necessarily from the best lot? And after the elections, we just whine for five years, right? Or should we just enjoy the massive campaign of misinformation and disinformation that dominate the current political narratives?

Just asking.

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Myths, memories and contentment

Rukha (Wangdue) – Eleven years ago, today, I landed in this village, with officials from Tarayana Foundation. My job was to visually document this village and its way of life as forces of modernization eventually took over. That was my assignment. Nothing more. I later produced a documentary titled, “People of Darkness”.

It was a two-day trek – braving landslides, heat strokes, leeches, cobras, leopards – going through some of the harshest terrains and jungles. However, if the journey was a killer, what I saw there was even worse.

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Known as the Oleps, this group is the smallest ethnic group of Bhutan

The place was in terrible condition. Something that I had not seen anywhere in Bhutan. People living in empty and makeshift bamboo sheds. Little children, most of them barefooted with just one set of cloths they had on, playing in the dirts. There was no water to farm. Other modern amenities like electricity that we take for granted, was not even heard of. The land was almost fallow. Of the 18 households only three had barely something to eat. Many were going hungry. I had seen poverty elsewhere but not misery. Here was one. It was as if God had forgotten this people. The place was lifeless.

I was shocked. I was sad. I was angry. Although I had just resigned from BBS and didn’t even have a job, then and there I made a wish, “For each day that I live from this day, may I be able to help this people out of this hell”.

Back in Thimphu, I shared my prayer at the Tarayana annual dinner where Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo (the Patron) was extremely pleased. I signed up as a volunteer for Tarayana. And then together with Sonam Pem – project officer, and Passang Tobgay – the field officer, and with rock-solid support from Chimi Payden, the head of the foundation, (actually Passang and Sonam did most of the work. I just provided some essential back ups and occasional views), and together with the people of Rukha, who started believing in themselves, we took off. Step by step. Building one house at a time; sending children to school and providing non-formal education for those who have been left back; water, hygiene lessons, seeds distribution, fishery ponds, nutrition classes, farming tools, solar electricity. And above all, giving love and care that this vulnerable community badly needed. They just wanted someone on whom they could say, he or she would there for us. They found that in Tarayana.

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This long bridge is from where we used to start the long arduous trek

In few years, life slowly came back to this village. Ten year since, it is one of the few villages in Bhutan that is self-sufficient in food, and the overall life is pretty decent. “Now we only buy tsha-tshotor” (salt and oil), says Chokila, who played the chairman of the village project committee to help Passang, who was stationed there. Now these people gift me with rice, cheese, smoked fish and fruits when I go to visit them.

What a transformation! 😍😍😍

Moral of the story – If Rukha can become self-sufficient in less than ten years, I am sure our country can. We just need to work together. But that is too difficult to ask, I know. Two Bhutanese put together will have three opinions, these days.

Anyway, what has remained from this decade of engagement? Tarayana project closed in 2011-12. But I stayed on to help build a community temple – again together with the people, who did most of the work. The full story is blogged here. Their life has changed forever, for sure. Some challenges remain but people are generally content. And so am I. It has been a wonderful journey – a life-changing one for me that led me to find contentment and terrific sense of fulfilment.

If there is one valuable lesson that I learnt from this experience, it is that you can do a lot with very little. People talk of money and resources. Yes, money and resources are important and they make life easier but sometimes it is more than that. But you got to be there – giving your time, heart and your ears, so that people will feel loved and cared for. I applied the same approach thereafter in many aspects of my professional and personal life – with fair amount of good results, I must say.

So what next?

I would like to raise and establish a trust fund to organise an annual Baza Guru Doongdrub (collective prayer ceremony) for perpetuity. However, it won’t be just for Rukha but also involving the whole valley that includes Samthang, Lawa and Lamga, where I have worked and in fact where I am as welcome – if not more.

Imagine a week or fortnight of togetherness in prayers and contemplation – in absolute isolation from mobile phones and materialistic thoughts. In that beautiful valley. In other words, this valley will become, not only a self-sufficient valley but also the first contentment valley in Bhutan. This is my vision. This is what GNH stands for me – contentment. Happiness, we know, is subjective – and it has been elusive too. Lasting happiness is what we all seek and never find. Contentment can be. And lasting happiness is known as contentment.

May all of you find contentment.

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What we found. (In the picture is Sonam Pem (left), who headed the landmark project and Karma Choden)

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Passang (extreme left), Tarayana field officer, lived with the community – worked, ate, slept and drank with the village for over two years. An amazing guy. Wonderful soul. (From right to left: Kingka, Nima Wangdi, Chador and Passang)

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One of our first meetings. Terrible outcome. The people didn’t believe us. Took time to convince them. Maybe they were neglected for far too long. (From left to right: Yeshey, Gyetse, Kingka, Ugyem, Chokila, Passang, Dacha Gyetse, Chador, Tretay, Gyem Lham, Payden, Baychu, Passang and Sonam Pem)

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The house design. “Oleps will never have a home, so says an ancient myth”, one guy told flat on my face when we were trying to sell the project. Really? We broke that myth, if there was one.

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The celebration of something as mundane as water. We piped the irrigation water from a spring that we found some 2 kilometres away in the jungle. If there is one thing that started the upward change, this was it – water. It costed us Nu. 700,000, which is what the state gives to every member of parliament to buy a car – every five years.

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Rukha was granted to Oleps in 1982 by the His Majesty the King. Until then they lived as hunters-gatherers in the Black Mountains of central Bhutan. Their origin is lost in time.

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A temple is not just a place of worship. It is a social space. A space for negotiation. A space for reflection. A space of peace. A space of rest. With this in mind, I helped build this for them.

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There is a place in your heart
And I know that it is love
And if you really try
You’ll find there’s no need to cry
In this place you will feel there’s no hurt or sorrow

There are ways to get there
If you care enough for the living
Make a little space
Make a better place
….
….
….
From the song, Heal the world, by Michael Jackson