What is the purpose of education?


RECENTLY, I was asked to moderate a session by a group of volunteer teachers on this topic. They were responding to the Royal Address at the National Day where education was called out for its failure to update to the needs of the new century and the changing times. The panelists were some of the best minds from the Bhutanese society.

I was curious by the question and so, as a researcher, I did a small survey where I randomly primed ten people from my contact list and asked them the question: According to you, what is the purpose of education.

I got seven different answers (see Annex).

Two things are certain when it comes to the purpose in education: first, there does not seem to be a clear understanding; and second, there is no consensus on the matter. How do we then judge, or how does the system implement, something the purpose of which we are not sure of, or agree to. This, perhaps, is the basis of why public education is in dilemma today all over the world and not just in Bhutan.

In the last two decades, though, as more people moved away from the traditional occupation of farming, the public discourse on the purpose of education in Bhutan has focussed on “preparing for the job market”. Thus, words such as “mismatch”, and phrases such as “21st century skills”, have been loosely tossed around.

But does getting a job, suffice as the purpose of education? If so, then we just need a few trade and technical schools where people can spend a maximum 2 years to learn something and then a job is secured. Some jobs can be learnt in less than a week – like sweeping or mopping the floor. Why do we need to invest in 16 years of education, taking some 20% of the State budget every year?  

If you dig into a bit of history…

The oldest formalized learning model recorded in the western world comes from Ancient Greece, which focused on developing soldiers, public servants, statesmen and well-informed citizens. Students learned from a hired tutor in a master-student environment. It was an individualised curriculum. Socrates argued that education was about drawing out what was already within the student. The word education, in fact, comes from two Latin words, educere meaning “to lead out” and educare – which means to “to culture” or “to groom” a well-rounded person.

Few often cite that we have  an education system, as old as the one from Ancient Greece, from some 2500 years ago: the monastic Sangha. Buddhism was actually an education system that aimed at seeking wisdom – and not just knowledge or information. The ultimate aim was to attain enlightenment. One of my favorite quotes, which I try to live by, is from Sakya Pandita, Kuenga Gyeltshen, who said: “Even if you are going to die tomorrow, it is still worth learning something new today”. Definitely getting a job was, then, not the purpose of education.

Diametrically opposite to the Buddhist perspective of education was the Pragmatist view enunciated by various scholars, such as the Late 19th Century American philosopher and linguist, Charles Sander Pierce. Education is to be pursued to only serve a practical purpose, like getting a job. This fitted well and further justified the Factory model of public education – the education system that became widely available following the Industrial Revolution. Hierarchy of disciplines came into existence, as science and mathematics took over art, music and philosophy.

The fourth, and the last perspective I will mention is, from John Dewey, another American philosopher-educationist from the early 20th Century, who believed that education served a greater purpose than just landing a job. He was convinced that education was an end in itself and a means – in that children became fully developed because of it. The economic goal, like landing a job, was just one of the by-products of being educated.

Which of these perspectives serve to re-define the purpose of our education system in Bhutan. 

Unless this question is answered, I expect the discussion on the New Education Reform to become either a Dilli Haat where every person is shouting and trying to sell his or her wares, or we will have another Blue Print or Master Plan that lacks in basic coherence like a link between the vision and the strategy. 




Annex: Purpose of education : result of the small survey

  1.     To get better life (2 respondents)
  2.     Prepare them for job market (2 respondents)
  3.     To make productive citizens
  4.     Give them skills to function in the 21st Century
  5.     Locally and globally competent
  6.     Create lifelong learner
  7.     To read and write

Being Responsible

Ever since the last lockdown was relaxed in September, I have tried to remain vigilant and extra careful. I have attended just one social gathering, where in that too I avoided the crowd. Otherwise, my meet-ups were with my close friends and family members. I have avoided going to town and when I did I would whiz through the place I was in – hardware shops and food marts only. My only prolonged presence was in the restaurants and that too I only chose three places – San Maru, The Pemas and Folk Heritage Restaurant, where COVID protocols were strictly followed.

Above all, I wore a face mask whenever I went out – even in the two days of training I conducted in Paro Shari ECCD, where I was temperature-checked and made to wash my hands before I entered every day. I have also used Druk Trace in all the places I have visited. Funnily enough, I used to get strange looks from other customers when my phone made the “ping” sound that I had druktraced. But being responsible as a citizen is the only way I can contribute in this fight against pandemic.

Yes, all in all, as far as I am concerned, I have done my best, tried to be extra careful, kept a check on my family members to wear masks and to avoid non-essential outings or visit places where there are strangers. So, I am also a bit relaxed as I know that I have done my best to be as safe as possible. Yet, today, as we go through a second lockdown and with cases rising in Thimphu, I am sad that we have got to this despite the best effort of our King to keep us safe. His Majesty’s weary looks on the TV, on the National Day address, is still etched on my mind. I am sure anyone with a brotherly, sisterly or motherly love would have felt strongly for our King that day.

As I write this piece, a third vaccine is on its way towards getting approval from the American FDA. While that is a good news, it is not at all a reason to be complacent. Vaccines are only useful only when we get 70% of our population vaccinated and that will not happen for another year. And, according to some mathematical models produced by epidemiologists, we only need to lower our guards for just a few days for over 100,000 people to be infected. That’s the whole population of Thimphu.

On the positive note, today is the Day of the Meeting of Nine Evils, a popular festival that would have brought together large gatherings. New Year and Nyilo are around the corner and I am sure there would have been family picnics and parties and annual family choku (religious ceremonies). Maybe, this case and the lockdown is another godsend? 

Since we cannot rely on our own people to keep ourselves safe, I would like to think that the divinities and deities are still watching over us – despite our continued indifference, complacencies and arrogance.

And of course, our King is there, no matter what physical state he is in.

Be extra careful, my countrymen, wherever you are. 

File photo: Even during a visit to a remote village I wore a mask. I thank my allergy to dust, which forces me to wear one all the time

Pioneers of radio in Bhutan

June 2, 1986, Kawajangsa, Thimphu –

The Radio NYAB (National Youth Association of Bhutan) turned into the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. In other words, a youth club radio that had started 13 years earlier in 1973 became the national broadcaster with the commissioning of a proper radio transmitter and a studio in Kawajangsa, where the Royal Audit Authority now stands. The new name was announced live on the radio by Dasho Karma Lethro, Deputy Minister of Communication & Tourism, as he inaugurated the station. Both BBS and Kuensel together with another agency, the Development Support Communication Division (DSCD), which was later merged with BBS, were under the government ministry.

After the historic broadcast, Kuensel took the commemorative photo (below) of the team that successfully launched the first professional radio station in Bhutan. I was just 6 months into the job as a junior engineer – having completed an engineering diploma from what used to be called, the Royal Bhutan Polytechnic (later renamed to Jigme Namgyel Engineering College). I received a princely sum of Nu. 875 as my monthly salary making me the fourth highest paid staff in BBS. However, Bhutan was poor and the government had no money to hire foreign professionals or manual workers. We were the experts as well as the labourers.

We didn’t even have the budget provision to buy steel tubular poles. Our country was that poor. So, we set off for the jungle one early morning, and felled two tall trees from above Chokortse. We told the Forest that we needed them for Lhadhar (giant prayer flag). We sliced off the branches, shaved off the barks, and dragged them down to Thimphu. There we dug two giants holes at 25 meters apart, made concrete mixtures and planted the two long poles that became our radio towers. And between the two towers we hung the folded dipole antenna, which we also made it ourselves, after buying the copper wire from Siliguri. Dasho Sangay designed it.

Since I was the youngest and the most agile, they made me climb up the naked tall pole. No safety gears. Just bare hands. But there were lots of passion and pride – and laughter, thanks to Neten Dorji mimicking Johnny Lever and Shatrughan Sinha all the time. Once, Phub Tshering, our supervisor nearly killed me when he switched on the transmitter while I was still coming down the pole.  

As June 2 got closer, our working hours became longer. Ashi Louise Dorji (the head) or Dasho Sangay (our chief engineer) brought meals from their own homes, since the office had no entertainment budget or money for over time payments. They even dropped us home in their private cars in the wee hours of the morning. There were no pool vehicles in BBS then. Dasho Rinzin Dorji, who was the Director of the Department of Information & Broadcasting, visited us regularly, and motivated us.

The rest, as they say, is history.


(Standing from left to right – Adap Kinley Dorji, Junior Engineer; Tashi Dorji, Program Officer; Dasho Rinzin Dorji, Director; Ashi Louise Dorji, Deputy Director; Neten Dorji, Technician; Dasho Sangay Tenzing; Station Engineer; Phub Tshering, Assistant Engineer. Sitting from left to right – Thinley Gyeltshen, Junior Engineer; Kezang Dorji, Technician; Yours Truly and The Best Looking, 😜😜😜 Junior Engineer; and Lalit Kumar Ghaley, Technician)


The rest of the BBS, from the news & programme teams, who are not in the picture are: Sonam Wangmo, Tashi Dendup, Pema Tobgye , Leki Tshewang, Wangda Rinzin, Kinga Dorji, Dorji Wangdi , Bishnu Chetri, Ugyen Tshomo. Almost all of them are no longer in BBS. 

(Picture below is a clipping from Kuensel of 8 June, 1986)

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.

Wellbeing starts by knowing who you are

You may say I am a teacher, or a civil servant. In Bhutan, we often refer to ourselves with our jobs and titles and designations because we think that is who we are. That’s also why we take offence when there are criticisms directed at our organisation, even if they are positive.

However, our titles, decorations, or our positions do not define who we are. They just give us a social standing, a place in this world but not our greater purpose or happiness. Titles will leave us one day. They will get taken away.

I know asking an abstract question, “Who am I?” is not easy – especially at your age. So I suggest you start by exploring your roots, or your ancestry. For example, if you find that your ancestors were lamas, you could create an identity for yourself as someone who helps others all the time. But again, that’s just your social identity and not your true self.

Unless you know yourself, you will never know what you want to do, or what you want to be. You will never be happy. Wellbeing, then, would be a distant dream. It won’t matter how big your car, or your office is. The question is to look for what truly makes you happy.

Likewise we also need to delve on who we are as a nation. One positive offshoot of the pandemic has been that people have started pondering on this question. Who are we? Do we keep depending on others for everything? Are we not better than that? Can we be appreciative of our own people, our own country, our own leaders? Can we stop exporting potatoes and importing labourers? Can we roll our sleeves and get to work?

You may think that you are too young to be concerned of these big national questions. Well, the fact of the matter is, this country belongs to you more than to me. I mean you have a longer stake than me. You may think that you are only twenty. But another 20 years will just fly away in a wink and you will find yourself suddenly in leadership positions. What do you do then?


(Some random excerpts from my talk on wellbeing on the second day of a three-day training in ECCD facilitation in Paro where I was encouraging to make wellbeing part of the ECCD classes )

Return to Rukha

I spent the past week in Rukha catching up on my research writing and checking the works at the two temples of Rukha and Lamga. Sacred paintings going on in the former and community kitchen and Lama’s quarter getting done in the latter. Progress has been slow because of the pandemic.

Now we are kicking off a new initiative: a permanent Mani Dungdrub and meditation hall.

I am also intiating a monthly Tara rituals (Drolma Chho or Droe-chho) and mass chanting of Lhamo Oser Chhenma ngag in Lawa Lamga. This is in view of the fact that very few people there make it past their 60th Birthday. In other words, life expectancy in that village is still that from the medieval Bhutan. The spiritual initiative also needs a parallel health and hygiene program from the public agencies, which of course is not in my power. So, we do what we can, and what is in our own hand.

The brighter news is that the whole valley has received a bumper harvest of cereals and vegetable and nga dosem. They all attribute to the bi-monthly rituals to deity Palden Lhamo, which Rukha Lama Ugen Tshering and I initiated in the beginning of this year.

If it makes them happy, I don’t want to disagree with their belief.




(Background – Athang Rukha is my adopted village having been working there since 2007. I started off as a volunteer for Tarayana and after the project folded in 2009, I continued to go back and continue on my own. We have done some pretty amazing stuff together)

The Legend of Palden Lhamo in Rukha

The lower hillock of Rukha is shrouded in mystery and in fear. Since time unknown, no one dared enter that area. Whoever defied it and even stepped in to collect few twigs would fall sick. When cows accidentally strayed there, the locals would quickly and quietly get them out without making a whispering sound. Below the hillock is the main footpath leading to the village. People taking the route would stop talking or whistling – and instead walked in silence.

Legend has it that, in the distant past, there once stood a Dzong (castle-fortress) where a demon King ruled the region – and beyond. The evil king had servants who would capture young children and women to be eaten alive. Every now and then the Khandroms (dakini) would descend from Tushita heaven and would challenge to a game of dice. If the Khandroms won, a child would be set free for each game. If not, the fate was clear. Eventually, the powerful Tantric deity Palden Lhamo came around and demolished everything, before making the upper hill of the village as her abode. A temple in her honour now stand there. A temple I helped rebuild together with the locals.

No people ventured into this hillock until very recently, when the Rukha Lama Ugyen Tshering led to explore the forested area. According to some old people, there were ruins of mud walls and stone slabs of the castle, which they saw when they went in to find their cattle there. And then, they had this story and the legend that survive to this day.

In the many years that I have been to Rukha (my first visit was in 2007) I was not allowed to enter the area. I complied. I have always respecting the local norms and beliefs, wherever I went.

Recently, two women following the advice of the Lama (and with his spiritual protections), and with the directions and descriptions from the old people, spent three days looking for the stone slab dice board. They finally found it. The stone slab is at the level of the ground but many old people remember seeing standing higher – at least three feet above the ground. The legend says that if and when the slab disappears into the ground, the world would end.

During this visit I was invited to take a look at the slab. It is hidden deep in the jungle. They asked me if I could “see” anything. Meaning to interpret from my scientific trainings. There are chessboard patterns on the slab. However, since I am not trained in archeology or Khandroma dahyig (dakinis’ scripts), I had no idea what the stone slab was.

But it doesn’t matter. Why do I need to invent another theory – or a story. I would rather like to believe that a demon King and his castle once stood here. Going by the ruins, there was a castle here. I would like to believe that the dakinis came and played dice with the demon-servants and rescued many children and women – and set them free.

I would like to believe that deity, Palden Lhamo, ultimately descended here, defeated the demons, destroyed the castle, and set all the children free. I believe she established her abode in the adjoining hill, where the current temple now stands – and which we rebuilt after it was destroyed somewhere in the 1940s.

This is their story. This is their land. This is their past. This is who they are.

Wellbeing in education

The second day of the webinar focussed on the importance and relevance of wellbeing in schools. This is because of the role of teachers now changing from being a repository of information and knowledge to that of a provider of wisdom and inspiration. To fulfil this, however, first teachers need to feel well, feel motivated and feel inspired. While much of the reforms in education have focussed on school curriculum and students, it’s time teachers take the centre stage.

Second, social and emotional learning (SEL) has to be integrated into the classical system of education. It is not a choice of either-or. Rather it should be a merger of the two. Meaning both the IQ and EQ have to be embraced.

In the real world, from my own experience running various organisations, employees rarely default on what they studied. Rather all issues I had to deal were HR related, such as insubordination, misuse of office property, false financial claims, ego trips, emotional outbursts etc. In short, all related to EQ and almost never concerning the IQ.

Therefore, as parental education decline (because parents are busy earning the livelihood) teachers have to take on the additional responsibility of making our children emotionally and socially intelligent.

It is, therefore, heartwarming to witness initiatives in recent years in this direction. Topics such as mindfulness, meditation and positive psychology have come into the discourse in the education system as well as in governance.

During this session my colleagues, Tshering Eudon and Karma Doma Tshering shared the experience of the ELC Schools in embracing the Educating for GNH Initiative in 2010 and then piloting the Four Pillars of Wellbeing Curriculum.

The stars of this session were the three students who have tried out the social and emotional learning and how they benefited.

Leadership communication

In March 2020, the country went into a “lockdown” where schools were closed, and classrooms moved online. While the focus of the government and the public has been on students and their learnings and exams, teachers and school administrators faced some of the most daunting challenges. Almost overnight, classes and course materials had to be delivered through distance-mode putting additional stress on the teaching profession. One of the responses to that call was the formation of VTOB (Voluntary Teachers of Bhutan). On the request of this group, I conducted a webinar for teachers on the topic, compassionate leadership and communication.

My choice of this topic was based on the premise that in this digital age, where information and knowledge are lying around everywhere, the role of the teachers will be to inspire and facilitate and produce leaders. Otherwise the new generation of Bhutanese will grow up with the illusion of being wise and knowledgeble, while all they have is a sporadic set of disjointed information gathered here and there from the social media and search engines.

I introduced the participants to the following:

Three rhetorical approaches

  • Ethos (ethics)
  • Pathos (passion)
  • Logos (logic)

Three personal communication approaches I use:

  • Begin with WHY
  • Follow the Rule ofThree
  • Tell stories

And thirdly, three elements of compassionate leadership

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Empathetic joy
  3. Wisdom of ramifications

The presentation slide can be downloaded here

Keep it burning

The flame never goes out in my house. 
A fire keeps burning all the time.

Yes, this is a metaphor that points to both the philosophy of my life and a physical reality based on a true story. Let’s start with the latter.

When I was growing up in Tashigang Tongling, we didn’t have matches. There were no matches those days. So the wood stove in the kitchen of the house had to keep the fire burning whole day. At night we had to cover the embers with hot ashes and lit up the next morning. The term is called “mi singsho” (Literally meaning, give birth to the fire or raise the fire). The “birth” of the fire in kitchen welcomes a new day. These practices are still there in many remote villages in eastern Bhutan – even now. If fire goes out, then we had to go smd fetch from our neighbour’s place, which was at least half a mile away. As todler that was a long walk.

Childhood memories, or traumas, follow you into your adulthood. Some kill you, some make you stronger and some just philosophical. In my case, with this thing with fire, I made it my life motto: Keep it burning – both philosophically and physically.

So a flame never goes out in my house even now. With urban amenities replacing the mud fire stove, the flame is now in the altar room, where a butter lamp burns – day in and day out.

It just reminds ne never to let the Fire die in your heart. And not to let the flame go out in your house.