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American University Assists Bhutan in Reforming its Education System

In the late 1960s, during a Taktsang monastery meditation retreat in Bhutan, Naropa University's founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, had a vision to bring Buddhism to America. In recent years, the natural connection between Naropa and Bhutan has led to an ever-growing relationship, and four members of Naropa's faculty just attended a workshop in Bhutan designed to help overhaul the Bhutanese educational system.

His Excellency Jigme Y. Thinley, the prime minister of Bhutan invited Naropa's Richard Brown, contemplative education professor, and Judith Simmer-Brown, religious studies professor, to participate in the prime minister's "Education for Gross National Happiness" (EGNH) workshop. Naropa professor Jane Carpenter and adjunct faculty member Valerie Lorig also attended as official observers.

Held from Dec. 7-12, 2009 in Thimphu, Bhutan, the workshop was attended by an international assemblage of academicians and environmentalists who aspired to help Bhutan develop a new innovative education policy and reform its teacher-training program. The team included 24 international delegates, 24 Bhutanese educational leaders, 120 observers and Bhutanese leaders from every province. Twenty-five percent of the delegates were American.

Why was such a workshop necessary? Bhutan today stands at a remarkable crossroads in its history, where decisions made today may well influence the future of the country for generations to come.

On the one hand, the country's guiding philosophy since 1972 has been the principle of 'Gross National Happiness' (GNH), which seeks to integrate sustainable and equitable economic development with environmental conservation, good governance, and preservation and promotion of the country's ancient culture and profound traditions.

On the other hand, rapid modernization-including the social influences transmitted via the Internet and cable TV-has had an impact on the pillars of GNH. The culture of Bhutan now incorporates western elements, including cigarette smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and the wearing of blue jeans, especially among its youth. Bhutan is so remote, it seems to have moved from the Middle Ages to the Information Age in only ten years.

Bhutan hopes to implement a very different kind of educational policy that will transform the nation, and be responsive to both modern influences and traditional culture.

"Although the implementation of a national education program will be daunting, the Bhutanese recognize the value of incorporating it as a model for their people and the rest of the world," said Simmer-Brown.

The Bhutanese are very interested in Naropa University's contemplative education approach, which bridges secular education with the wisdom of eastern traditions. Such a learning approach may be a perfect fit for the Bhutanese vision of GNH.

Naropa hopes to assist the beautiful culture of Bhutan in its adaptation of traditional Buddhist culture into an increasingly modernized society.

"Meeting western sensibilities with the teachings of meditation and contemplative education is what we have been doing for over 35 years at Naropa," said Simmer-Brown, author of Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. "There is an acknowledgment that now this kind of education, this way of training the mind, is extremely valuable to Bhutan. Naropa stands to have its leadership in contemplative education become more recognized on the world stage through this collaboration with Bhutan."

Change moves quickly in Bhutan. "Where has there ever been a meeting to brainstorm the complete reform of a country's educational system and before the next morning, the leaders move quickly to implement the ideas that have been presented?" says Richard Brown. Before the end of the EGNH workshop, the prime minister and secretary of education had invited all Bhutanese principals to a meeting at the capital from Jan. 17-25, 2010. By the end of the workshop, they had also networked with funders at the event such as UNESCO, to request the monetary support for EGNH initiatives.


A reciprocal relationship between Naropa University and the country of Bhutan has also been at play here, where alliances have grown over time into an historic educational exchange. Since 1998, Bhutanese monks have studied in Naropa's Religious Studies programs, and since 2009 Naropa faculty have been consulting with the Royal University of Bhutan on the design of a contemplative psychotherapy program and a teacher training in mindfulness awareness practices.

Dasho Pema Thinley, The Honorable Vice Chancellor of the Royal University of Bhutan, has shown great interest in bringing mindfulness meditation practice and contemplative education into the training of teachers at the Paro College of Education and the Samtse College of Education. He visited Naropa during the fall 2008 semester, and the collaboration began.

In spring 2009, the Royal University of Bhutan invited Naropa contemplative psychotherapy professor MacAndrew Jack to Bhutan to help to design postgraduate and master's level study in contemplative psychotherapy. "Bhutan is attempting to train psychotherapists in a way that is consistent with its culture, and so the contemplative psychotherapy approach, with its emphasis on meditation and Buddhist psychology, is a natural fit within the university system in Bhutan," says Jack.

For the fall 2009 semester, Jane Carpenter, who attended the EGNH workshop, was a visiting lecturer at Bhutan's Paro and Samtse colleges, training teachers in Naropa's contemplative mindfulness approach. "It is a wonderful beginning of what promises to be an ongoing collaboration between the universities," said Carpenter.

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