Gross National Happiness


Talk and Q & A with Dr. Ha Vinh Tho

(Dharma Teacher in the Plum Village Tradition, Program Coordinator at the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan)

// TALK //

There is a potential to create relationship with what’s going on in Bhutan and the Wake Up movement. We share common interests and practices. Hopefully this is a beginning of cooperation with young people in Bhutan and the Wake Up movement.

I will walk you through certain aspects of GNH in the light of Buddhist teachings; I will try to make it as practical and concrete as I can.

Why GNH? Why do we need to approach the economy and the social system differently than we have done until now?

We can understand the need for a new economic paradigm in the light of the Four Noble Truths, from the first teachings of Buddha:

First Noble Truth: Suffering

This has to do with having courage to acknowledge the suffering in ourselves and outside ourselves. Difficulty of acknowledging suffering around us is that it could create despair, discouragement and anger. It is important that we have the courage to look directly at the suffering in our own mind and in the world and yet not get overwhelmed by it but, on the contrary, that it becomes a source of energy to transform suffering into Compassion and Understanding.

Three numbers to describe the suffering:

1 million – the number of people that take their own lives every year. Most of them are young people. The majority of them come from rich, affluent countries. There are more young people that take their lives every year than those that die from war. I have traveled to so many countries that are war-ridden and seen a lot of war and suffering. When I realized that more young people from rich countries are taking their lives than in war, it was a shocking realization for me. This is the first number and it points to the suffering that individuals go through and it speaks of the meaninglessness of some lives.

2.5 billion – the number of people living underneath the poverty line on this earth today. Technology, science and progress have created more wealth than ever before, and yet 2.5 billion people live below the poverty line. These people are at any time in danger of not having food or water. We are not speaking about the ones who do not have access to comfort but of the ones who lack basic resources.

1.5 – the amount of earth we are using every year. The earth needs 18 months to produce what we consume in 12 months. We are using 1.5 planets, but we only have 1 earth.

These three figures have to do with suffering on personal level, social level and planetary level. Why then GNH? We need to promote a different approach to economic development and progress; one that really puts the human being and his happiness in the centre of all policies to address these issues and transform suffering and offer alternatives on all three levels.

It has to begin with personal level, transformation of the self. But it needs to have an impact on all levels: my immediate surrounding family and friends, then on the society at large, and finally on the planet. It is important to always keep in mind the need for this multilevel transformation process. The crucial question is: how do we approach transformation of suffering on all levels; Individual, immediate surrounding, country, and the way we live on planet earth?

We start with the diagnostic so we can identify the suffering. So far, I’ve identified it from the outer perspective. But what each one has to do for himself or herself is to look honestly inward and figure out; what is my own suffering, what is my own confusion, and how does my own suffering contribute to the suffering of the world?

We then move on to the Second Noble Truth:

Second Noble Truth: Identifying the causes of suffering

There are inner causes and outer causes. We need to look at both simultaneously. Many of the social movements we have seen in the recent past try to address the outer causes and often forget the inner causes of suffering. Many of you have seen the calligraphy by Thây: “There no way to happiness, happiness is the way”. I think this is a crucial point. We cannot reach happiness by adding more suffering, fear or anger. We need to find peace in ourselves to bring about outer transformation.

There are three causes of suffering (The three poisons of the mind):

1. Ignorance. The Sanskrit word “Avidya” literally means absence of light, of wisdom, of understanding. This is fundamentally the illusion that one can attain happiness while making others suffer. This is ignoring the reality of interdependence of the world. The need to destroy others to be the best, the richest. This is the illusion of separate self; that my happiness can come from disregarding completely the suffering of others. Awakening, enlightenment is the act of shedding the light of mindfulness on the reality of interdependence of life. Your happiness is my happiness. Your wellbeing is my wellbeing. This is wisdom, understanding (Prajna in Sanskrit).

2. Greed. Gandhi famously said ‘the earth could produce enough to satisfy all her children’s needs, but not all the people’s greed.‘ There is enough food to feed every single human being on the planet. The problem is not that we don’t have enough – it is that we don’t distribute properly. Some of us take so much and do not share, and do not care that others suffer. Imagine having a birthday cake and I take 80% of the cake, and all others have to share the 20%. This is exactly what the West is doing. The West is taking up 80% of the earth’s resources.

When I honestly look at myself – why am I getting greedy, why do I feel compelled to buy more, to consume more? Deep down it is triggered by a feeling that there is a vacuum in me; that I am not quite fulfilled, I am not quite complete. I hope this experience, this object will make me complete, will somehow overcome this feeling of dissatisfaction.

So, consumerism is the result, not the cause of the problem. But on the other hand, consumerism is one of the major causes for the depletion of the natural resources of the earth. The deeper cause is the lack of meaning in our lives, the lack of purpose. So we buy things to fulfill that void. The satisfaction I get from getting a new thing is very short-lived. Still, I find myself falling into the trap again of wanting a new item- each one has his own favorite thing. Greed is very powerful, and our society is geared towards strengthening greed. The whole marketing/advertising business is trying to convince us that greed is good because it enables growth. And growth is what the economy needs. If you consume, you are a good citizen because it promotes growth and the economy will be well off. This is the way things have been for decades, and we recognize it has not brought happiness. Yet it has been difficult to overcome this want for more.

I believe the worst is when it manifests on the human level – we find it difficult to create true relationships, long-term relationships, true friendship and true love. The other person is used to bring me fulfillment, and I don’t actually acknowledge him or her. The other person is considered as an object to fulfill my own needs. This seems to work for a short time, but when things get boring, we jump to the next person, the next experience, just the way we move from one object to the next. Until we look seriously into what it is we are looking for, it is difficult to create a long lasting meaningful relationship. So I dare to say that Lisi and I have been together for over 40 years now – it was not always been easy and simple but it was a relationship based on values, common commitments, ideals, and the understanding that her happiness is the key to my own happiness and vice versa. I’m not saying this to look good, just saying this as a testimony that it is possible and if we could do it, you can do it too.

If our greed becomes less because our mindfulness grows stronger, purpose, morality, we consume less. Statistically, each of us has to consume 1/3 less. If each of us does that, the earth can survive. So it is not by consuming more that we will become more happy, it is by being happier that we will consume less, and therefore lessen the pressure on the environment.

3. Violence. Hatred, aggression. It starts with negative, aggressive thoughts, that become violent words, then manifest into violent actions. Mind, speech and action escalating to wars. We see that our governments are spending hundreds and hundreds of billion dollars every year on weapons. Weapons are a physical manifestation of fear and aggression. If I have no fear, I have no aggression. If I have no aggression, I don’t need weapons. If we could reduce our fear by a fraction, we could reduce the money we use on weapons; we could use the money to feed all the hungry children in the world. We cannot reduce fear and aggression in the world until we reduce it within ourselves. Most of us have not killed, but all of us have the seed of violence. We probably have had violent thoughts and even spoke violent words to others. We sometimes think it is legitimate to say violent things. This is the seed of violence that can grow to become guns, to bombs. We must start by transforming the violence that is in our own mind.

This allows us to look at the third noble truth.

Third Noble Truth – State beyond suffering

There is a state beyond suffering. It is important for us to realize that this state is not such a far away world that we can only reach after 99 years of meditation in a cave. It is readily available and we can create it. I would like to emphasize the collective dimension here. It is not only about myself overcoming my own suffering on my own, it is about creating a community, a society, that is conducive to generating Mindfulness and Happiness. You have heard about the mindful practices required for the achievement of happiness. But I would like to emphasize the community, the collective.

Han has visited us in Vietnam – the Peaceful Bamboo Family (s. Eurasia Association) is such a place where all kinds of people, ‘normal’ and with disabilities, young and old, people from all kinds of backgrounds can live together in harmony. It is nowhere near perfect, but it is a community that is committed towards this goal of living in harmony. Plum Village is also a place where not only people try to live in harmony, but is dedicated to teaching how to do so.


Written Questions

What is GNH?

It is an effort to create the conditions that enable for a community to live in harmony, not only in a small scale, but on a nationwide scale. And this is the innovative dimension on GNH. To promote a practice and a lifestyle that is centered on the deeper needs of people, all beings and the planet. And we need to promote an economic system that is based on these values because the economy plays a major role, so if we do not change the economy, we cannot change life and society.

Is it easy? No. Is it a success? Not yet. You can’t say Bhutan has achieved it, but Bhutan is on the path. And by being on the path, it is showing the world that there is an alternative option to an economy based on competition and greed. An economy centered on ethical values and respectful of our planet.

At the GNH Center, we are trying to create such a place, where GNH can be experienced. We want to offer people an environment that is permeated by these values, the way we build the centre in a fully ecological way, the way we run it in an environmental friendly manner, the way we practice together so that people have a transformative experience and bring this experience back into their own communities. We hope that by and by there will be GNH Centers in many places on earth.

What is the way to transform suffering into happiness?

There are three main components:

  1. WisdomKnowledge of Self: Prajna. The power to turn our mindfulness inward and understand our own mind and the way we function in order to transform it. And then applying these insights into our daily lives. Buddhism is a path of liberation through understanding. This understanding must be manifested into the way I speak, the way I act, the way I deal with friends and family, the choices that I make in my life.
  2. Discipline, the practice: Sila. If we take our understanding seriously, we need to put it into action in our every day lives. I suppose many of you have taken the 5 mindfulness training and that is a good basis for an ethical life. GNH is the effort to find this global ethics on a national level. We look at the way the government functions, the way the society functions in the light of mindfulness, of ethical values.
  3. Mindfulness, Concentration, Meditation: Samadhi. These are the tools that we are given to enable us to go though the transformation process. If we practice mindfulness and meditation daily, our understanding grows, and our practice grows. We need to transform from both sides, inner and outer. There is a need to change our environment that is conducive to the transformation. We need to take steps, bold steps to go through with it.

I would like to share with you my personal experience. I used to work with ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). I decided to change work, and got 2 offers simultaneously. One was from a big power company in France. One of the directors told me that there is so much suffering in the employees, and he would like to change that. Good salary – $20,000/month, free house, etc. This was quite tempting. I would be helping 160,000 employees and make the most amount of money I ever had.

And then I got another offer from the GNH Centre – the salary was a third of what I used to make, a fraction of what was being offered by the electric company. I had a moral dilemma: the French company is running 150 nuclear power plants, and I have always been ecologically engaged, and working for this company was going against my morals. So I decided to go to Bhutan.

Looking at this from a purely material perspective, this was a huge sacrifice. My buying power dropped considerably, but it was a boost for my mental well-being. Material wealth and mental well-being are very different things. This choice brings me much more happiness; to be aligned with my values and morals and having the feeling that I can contribute (even though modestly) to the happiness of all beings brings me a deep satisfaction.

This is to convey to you that it is not difficult to make the right choices – it just takes a little courage. It is so rewarding that you would not regret these choices.

Going back to GNH – I was asked:

What is your definition of happiness?

I don’t think there is a definition, I don’t think there needs to be one. Happiness is an experience. If you have the right practice, surround yourself with the right people, create an healthy environment, then you experience happiness; then you reflect on what made you happy and you come to a deeper understanding. When I look at myself and my life and what made me truly happy, it is not difficult to identify the causes of my happiness.

Happiness can be three things:

  1. State of mind/emotion – which is temporary, more pleasure than happiness.
  2. Trait or character – an optimistic person who seems happier, satisfied with life, and this is more trait of character often connected with childhood experiences and karma.
  3. Happiness as a skill – This is the most important; because it is a skill, you can cultivate it, learn it and spread it. This is what I’m interested in, that happiness can be learned and cultivated. For example, compassion is a key element to happiness and if I look back at my own life, and when I had the opportunity to alleviate suffering of others, simple things to big things, both bring me as much happiness. Compassion doesn’t only manifest when we can do big things. It can be manifested modestly. Compassion is a very important aspect of happiness. Everything that we do to bring happiness to others is a source of happiness to self.There was an interesting study done recently. A group of people got money to do what they want with it. They then followed up with the people who got the money and how they felt about it. All the people who spent it on themselves had lost the satisfaction rapidly; but the people who did something for others with the money had a much longer lasting happiness. So there is a lot of research on happiness – psychological, sociological and economical. I was at a meeting where many researchers shared their research and I can share that with you. But, don’t take my word for it – look back and try to really see what the causes of not just short lasting pleasure but long lasting happiness, and share those experiences.

How can we measure happiness?

If we are speaking of GNH, we are speaking of something more comprehensive than the passing emotions people feel. There is the World Happiness Report you can find online (by Jeffery Sachs and Lord Layard).

Happiness Measurement in GNH is a mix of objective and subjective factors. Objective measures include dimensions like health, education, community vitality, natural environment and more. But we should not underestimate the subjective factors of psychological well-being, and find the mix of the two. For example, some of you wear glasses. You go to the optometrist, then he will show you the letters and will ask you if you to see better or worse with different glasses. Your answers can be described as subjective, he has to take your word for it but they are objective enough so that you can get a pair of glasses that work. So don’t think only hard, material quantitative evidence can be used as scientific evidence.

I won’t go into the 9 domains and the 72 indicators of GNH. I will instead send you links on what they are. When you read up, you can see how the measurement is done. It is scientific, it is not wishy-washy.

What are the four pillars of GNH?

First pillar: Sustainable development. The economic development should directly be connected with the preservation of the environment. As soon as you realize happiness includes happiness of every other organism and mother earth, there is no way to get around sustainable development. It is an economic paradigm that enables the conservation of the environment. But it also includes a fair distribution of resourses.

Second Pillar: Preservation of the EnvironmentBhutan is the first country in the world to go 100% organic. This is a concrete example of sustainable development. It is possible. Don’t believe those who say you need fertilizers and GMOs in order to feed the world.

Third Pillar: Preservation and Promotion of Culture and Spirituality. Happiness strongly depends on cultural values and practices. One of the indicators is time use. People in developed countries have higher standard of living, but less time for family and friends.

Fourth Pillar: Good Governance. This is a political pillar. How do we promote a government that puts the right things in priority? This is our responsibility as a citizen to choose the right government. The goal is to create happiness and well-being. These are the basics and I will send you the links to the details.

Verbal Questions

Q1 // Simon Question on the noble truths of Buddha. Another cause of suffering in myself is that when you are confronted with suffering of the world, that makes me panic and want to fix it right away. I am very interested in how you can react to this kind of data in a peaceful way.

A: I grew up during the time of the Vietnam War. Although I am partly Vietnamese, I was mostly not in Vietnam during the war and saw it from outside. I joined the peace movement and was engaged politically and I was very angry. I was looking at the news and saw the bombs and people dying. I joined the left-wing political party that was promoting a change through violence against the current system. I tried that for a while, but it did not have a positive influence.

I then went to India – to Nepal, and had some kind of spiritual experience when I was lost in the mountains alone; I thought I was going to die out there. I got very upset and angry, felt unjust that I was going to die such a stupid death, then I was in despair, cried, felt pity for myself. Then, I had a breakthrough experience. I came to a moment of acceptance. Suddenly the environment was no longer hostile. I felt oneness with the world. Shortly after I came to inner tranquility and peace, an old man passed by and showed me to the next village. That was the first experience.

A second one happened in Israel in a military camp. I had been visiting prisoners all morning. I was exhausted. There is a lot of suffering and maltreatment in military prisons. I felt a lot of compassion for the prisoners and felt angry with the soldiers. I stepped outside and a soldier came out to talk to me because he heard I spoke French. After talking for a little bit, he asked me – do you think I am bad? I suddenly realized that I was unable to see the human being beyond the uniform and machine gun. This boy was younger than my son. As a practicing Buddhist, I judged the function and the uniform and I had not been able to see through the outer appearance.

Why do I share these two experiences? Because these are moments when the negative feelings arise as a consequence of feeling separated, cut off from the situation. As if these experiences as if they were outside of me, having nothing to do with me – be it hostile nature and the hostile soldier. But if you go deep in these situations, not judging too fast and touching the place of oneness, you can no longer feel anger but compassion. Things are the way they are around me because of what exists inside of me.

On one hand, it is quite normal and natural that we get shocked and angry. On the other hand if we realize the non-duality between me and the world we get relieved because we understand that we have the power to change our own mind and thereby, to change the world. I can always have an impact on the world because I can change something that is inside of myself – my actions, my words, my thoughts; therefore I can change the world as soon as I can do something about it. I am not in despair anymore. And, if I add anger, despair to a situation that is already difficult, then I am adding to the suffering to the world.

As a young man my spontaneous reaction to the war was anger and I joined the leftist group, but I realized that anger was not a path to peace. We have to find concrete specific place, small steps at a time where to begin the work of transformation. When my wife and I went to Vietnam, we had nothing, and we started modestly. It’s important to have the big picture, but no matter how small, concrete actions will grow and bear fruit. If you are in an organization helping hundred thousands of people, you are helping one person at a time, one hundred thousand times. So helping one person is as good as helping many.

Two things we should never forget:

1. If we can transform our selves, we can change the world

2. There is always someone you can help

Energy of anger can be necessary because it shows that you care, that you are not indifferent; but this energy has to be transformed. If it remains anger, it doesn’t change anything. Channel this energy into something positive and you can bring happiness to the world.

Q2 // Matthias How do you present this to people to other belief systems?

A: I presented to you in Buddhist terms because I was aware I was speaking to people interested in a Buddhist approach. GNH is deeply inspired by Buddhist principles, but it is usually presented in neutral terms, in a non-religious way. You can present the four pillars in a way that is totally accessible to non-Buddhist.

I was at a meeting in NYC with high level scholars and hardly any were Buddhist. Second day was at the UN; Bhutan had presented GNH a little while ago and 68 states has already signed support for the concept, mostly not Buddhist. So don’t think GNH can only be presented in Buddhist terms. It can be presented in other terms. GNH Centre is looking into convening a meeting with people from all different religions and non-religions to see the values and principles they have in common. The aim is to try and look at the economy – GNH is first to promote an economy that is good to people, all sentient beings and the planet. It is not limited to Buddhism. It is interesting to see that scientists, politicians, economists are all interested in GNH and are not Buddhists.

Q3 // Sander In the Netherlands, we have a new political party called ‘The Party for Happiness’. I am getting tired of politics. Relationship between Buddhism, GNH and politics. What is your vision on it?

A: Do you know the 14 Mindful Training? Yes – I would recommend you to study the 14 Mindful Trainings. You will see that it is a manifesto of socially engaged Buddhism. So politics has almost become a dirty word because people who are practicing it are practicing it in non-ethical ways. But Politics is noble because it is about serving your community, how do you do it in the right way? The GNH Centre is trying to do politics in the right way – serving people in the right way. For me, there is no contradiction between Buddhist values and politics or spiritual values and politics. What we need to avoid is political games. If we can manage to realize that real politics is something very noble, then we don’t need to be afraid of politics. We just need to stay away from power games for egotistic interest of certain groups. Politics is noble, but has to be reinvented. I can only encourage young people to join real politics, acting to serve the community. True Buddhism has political impact, but no political games.

Q4 // Collin If you are trying to increase GNH – what is the most effective action you can take nationwide?

A: GNH has to be implemented from 2 sides: bottom up and top down. Great thing about Bhutan is that it has enlightened leaders who are trying to implement GNH. In Bhutan, top down is stronger than bottom up, while in the West, bottom up is stronger. So, in Bhutan, we need to educate the people so everyone understands GNH.

Our GNH Center will have no waste, only organic food from around the center. Center is the place where people are actually doing what they are preaching. For GNH, we need initiatives like small communities, networks who show that it is possible to do it. It is small groups doing something right and showing examples that embody the principles of GNH. Small steps. One aspect is being living example of GNH principles, and the other important part is education. If we can educate the next generation to become ambassadors of GNH, it will thrive.

We hope that GNH grows in a viral way and spreads in the world. Even on the political level, more people and more are realizing present economic system is not working and GNH is one of the only serious alternatives. Bhutan is like a lab for other countries. There are a lot of possibilities for GNH Centers to be created around the world.

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