The 3rd International Conference on Gross National Happiness Conference 2007, Nongkhai & Bangkok, Thailand

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เว็บไซต์ GNH ของเราเปิดพื้นที่เนื้อหาภาษาไทยแล้ว
ท่านสามารถเข้าได้จากเมนูหลัก "ไทย" หรือจากลิงค์ด้านล่างนี้

 



"I feel that there must be some convergence among nations on the idea of what the primary objective of development and progress should be - something Gross National Happiness seeks to bring about".

                    H.M. Jigme Khesar Wangchuck



Smiling in the Land of Smiles
SEEDS OF PEACE, Vol.24 No.1 Jan. – Apr. 2551 (2008) Article summarising the GNH 3 conference from the perspective of a speaker and participant.

Smiling in the Land of Smiles

Extracted from SEEDS OF PEACE

Vol.24 No.1 Jan. – Apr. 2551 (2008)
(downlod full PDF 485kb version with photos here>>>)

Crisp and cool, the morning air at Wat Hin Mak Peng felt nice and refreshing in the lungs of all gathered for the start of the conference. Some were still recovering from jet-lag, having traveled from as far away as Canada, Brazil, and Mexico. Others had been there for over three months, orchestrating the planning of this event. But when all sat down in the temple and heard the hypnotizing chants from Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist monks, and Hindu, Muslim, and Catholic priests in an interfaith exchange, the spiritual feeling that marked the beginning of this event united all.

This was the official start of the 3rd International Gross National Happiness Conference entitled "World Views Make a Difference: Towards Global Transformation." It took place in Thailand from November 22 to 28, three days at beautiful Wat Hin Mak Peng along the Mekong River, one hour outside of Nong Khai City on the Thai-Lao border, and three days at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. With over 500 people from over twenty countries, the event was extraordinarily diverse and fruitful. Among the many prominent figures at the conference were: the prime ministers of both Thailand and Bhutan; Dr. Pitsuwan, upcoming Secretary General of ASEAN; Sheldon Schaeffer, Director of UNESCO Asia-Pacific; Phra Paisal Visalo, the leading engaged Buddhist monk in Thailand; Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC); Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Thai intellectual and social critic; and Dasho Karma Ura, Director of the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS);to name only a few of the incredible figures who attended the conference. Through a diverse combination of forums — keynote speeches, discussion panels, academic circles, workshops, cultural events, and also pre- conference events: an excursion to Laos, a meditation retreat, and a special youth program — speakers and participants discussed and tackled a wide array of issues and topics. The issues and topics discussed at the conference all fell under the four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH): cultural promotion, environmental conservation, good governance, and socio-economic development.

Cultural promotion aims to protect and conserve traditional cultures in the wake of the ever growing capitalist, consumerist psychological empire that seeks to homogenize humanity. Cultural promotion also includes the search for alternative social paradigms upon which to organize ourselves in more meaningful, sustainable and satisfying communities. Environmental conservation deals with our current consumption of the environment being at a much faster rate than the earth can replenish itself, which inevitably leads to extinction of our natural re-sources if we fail to reverse this trend. Nic Marks from the New Economics Foundation in the U.K. noted that if all people on this planet were to consume at the rate of the average American, we would need 5.5 planets to sustain that lifestyle.

Good governance seeks to consider not only economic benefits and costs at the policy level, but also the social and environmental ones when making governmental decisions. Dr. Ronald Coleman, Founder Director of the Genuine Progress Index for Atlantic Canada, said, "If at least two or three of the youths in this conference can go back to their home countries and become the finance ministers and rewrite the economics textbooks at home, this conference will have been successful."

Socio-economic development addresses the long discussed issue of sustainable development, which is economic and social development without jeopardizing the livelihood of future generations and with social justice.

The week long journey to discuss the many issues encompassed by these four GNH pillars started with that first chanting session by leaders of different religious faiths to set the spiritual foundation for the conference. Following this interfaith exchange at Wat Hin Mak Peng on Thursday, November 22, three intellectual and spiritual leaders discussed their understanding of happiness: Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, a present figure throughout the conference; Phra Bodhirak, founder of the Santi Asoke new Buddhist movement in Thailand; and Phra Paisal Visalo. Ajarn Sulak said, quoting the Buddha, "There is no better happiness than peace." Phra Phaisal discussed how "even if more wealthy, people around the world are not more happy. They ignore the real sources of happiness." Letting go of the ego is the true source of happiness, said Phra Phaisal. Phra Bodhirak concluded the discussion saying that "attachment to suffering is the source of suffering itself." In the afternoon, participants had the option of joining over 9 different workshops, ranging from "Unhappiness and Development" to "Living and Dying." In the spirit of the conference, these workshops were not purely intellectual exercises held in stuffy meeting rooms, but involved lots of interaction and in some cases physical exercise. They were held underneath bamboo and straw roofs sprawled out over the grounds of the temple, creating a festive and interconnected feel.

The second day at Wat Hin Mak Peng began in the main area of these bamboo and straw meeting places with the traditional Bai Sri Welcome Ceremony, in which participants tied cotton threads around each other’s wrists as a way to impart blessings on each other. Marking a communal tone for the day, the Bai Sri Ceremony was followed by daylong workshops in which experts in different fields facilitated discussions on topics like sustainable agriculture, alternative education, and the spirit of youth and volunteerism. After five hours of heated and stimulating discussions, workshop leaders presented their discussion summaries to the plenary so all could hear their insights and conclusions.

The third and last day of the Nong Khai portion of the conference took place at the Nong Khai Provincial Hall where a panel discussion on the role of local governments, NGOs, and the business sector in happiness and well-being occurred. It was lead by the governor of Nong Khai, the deputy prime minister of Thailand, Ajarn Sulak, Dasho Karma Ura, the minister of education from Laos, the deputy minister of social development and human security in Thailand, and representatives of Nong Khai local groups. The governor of Nong Khai signaled during the discussion that "with globalization and the opening of frontiers and borders, local values and wisdom are no longer safe. It is necessary to conserve wisely and incorporate good parts of both." Ajarn Sulak said that the Buddhist approach to happiness is "caring for all sentient beings." The afternoon was followed by more work- shops at the local alternative trade OTOP Center, where participants learned how to make their very own Khrathong, small flotillas made of banana leaf, for participating in the Loy Khrathong festival on the Mekong River that night. Originally a festival originating in India similar to the Hindu festival Divali as thanksgiving to the deity of the Ganges River, Loy Khrathong has become a specifically Thai holiday which honors the Buddha. The festival began with a parade through Nong Khai City with drums and signs showing the four pillars of GNH, and finished at a local temple at sunset with the releasing of the Khrathong to the river as a symbol of releasing grudges, anger and defilements. With a mix of cultural performances and candle rituals at the banks of the moon-lit Mekong River, the participants concluded the first half of the GNH conference.

After day of travel back to Bangkok, the conference resumed on the sunny morning of November 26 at the architecturally beautiful Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. The second part of the conference took off with energy and enthusiasm that morning with many excited academics, researchers, and activists from around the world presenting their research on a wide range of topics related to GNH. Participants were again offered a range of issues to study with presentations organized around the thematic areas of: 1) Global Standards, 2) Social Transformation and 3) Inner Transformation. Among them, Prabhat Pankaj, a university professor from India, presented his findings that in Bhutan, 88% of self-reported life satisfaction is correlated to four factors: freedom, religion, trust, and morality. Only 12% is correlated to concrete external variables like income, water, and electricity. Linda Nowakowski from the USA discussed the psychological disorders in child soldiers from Uganda who have lived the most atrocious and abusive of experiences. Kaemthong Indaratna, a professor of economics at Chulalongkorn University, drew on the teachings of Thai Buddhist masters to plot a three stage level of happiness and satisfaction which starts with 1) satisfaction of basic needs, both material and relational, which are mostly concerned with "getting"; 2) experiencing kindness as well as sharing and giving with others; and 3) the highest level of independence and inner contentment which cannot be disturbed by external factors.

That afternoon Helena Nor-berg-Hodge presented her new film, "The Economics of Happiness" in which she presents her arguments for the importance of moving from globalization to localization in terms of the production and consumption of goods. It this way, she argues, "an apple from 10,000 miles away will not be cheaper than an apple from 1 mile away like it is now." The second half of her as yet unfinished film documented numerous cases from around the world of people recreating community through learning to grow their own food. The case of a ghetto in urban Detroit, where grocery markets are scarce and nutrition is poor, showed how those left out of "the American Dream" are developing self-sufficiency and rebuilding community. Later that afternoon the prime ministers of Thailand and Bhutan spoke at the official opening ceremony of the conference and wished the attendants a productive conference. That night participants were offered an enjoyable mental break through cultural entertainment like Sri Lankan drums and Thai dancing.

The following two days of the conference consisted of global leaders in their fields addressing participants in the main auditorium, both through speeches and panel discussions. Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, talked about the interconnectedness and interpenetration of everything on this planet. "By helping others," said Rinpoche, "you are actually helping yourself. This is the true source of compassion." During a panel discussion called "World Views Make a Difference. Shaping Globalization?" Helena Nor-berg-Hodge warned, "American media is making children around the world feel that if they are connected to their own land, language, culture, and even skin color, they are backward and primitive."

During his keynote speech on the morning of November 28, the last day of the conference, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan talked about the American Declaration of Independence. "When the Americans wrote about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what they really meant is life, liberty, and the pursuit of property," he told participants in his powerful voice. This is the American definition of the pursuit of happiness, which he warned against while noting that the Buddhist conception of happiness extols renunciation and letting go so that life shall not be completely tied down by the material world. Later that day, as Nic Marks talked about his Happy Planet Index, in which none of the countries with highest GDPs are in the top ten of the list, he was optimistic about governments listening to the GNH paradigm, as indicators like his own are undeniable proof of the damage consumerist countries are having on the global population and environment.

Ajarn Sulak gave the farewell speech during the closing ceremony on the evening of November 28. He emphasized that before we can achieve change and peace in society, we must first succeed in fostering change and peace within ourselves. These, he said, are the seeds of peace. He finished his speech by wishing all the participants of the conference, as well as all sentient beings in the world, a happy and fulfilling life. Sitting down for one last meal together before saying farewell, the attendants of the 3rd International Gross National Happiness Conference looked like a marathon runner at the end of his race, exhausted but satisfied and happy.

What comes of the GNH conference, as with so many other global forums, remains to be seen. However, beyond the wide variety of events and the continued building of friendships and networks among people around the world, two important things were seen at this conference. The first was the strong presence of young people. From the second GNH meeting in Nova Scotia, Canada in 2005, there was a strong network of young people especially from Canada and other western nations who made the long journey to Asia. In addition to this, the circle of Thai NGOs associated with Ajarn Sulak did an excellent job in drawing in young people from various parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia. Finally, the Bhutanese delegation, which was significant in number, also brought a strong and lively group of young people to the meeting. For those of us from older generations, it was heartening to see not only their enthusiasm for the issues, but also their critical awareness and natural embrace of alternative thinking and ways. If they are to become the elders of the next half of this decade, perhaps the world will be in better shape than all the doomsayers predict.

The second was how the grassroots and the upper echelon sectors met, and more than engaging in dialogue, actually seemed to share common ideals. The conference organizers should be praised for their work in so effectively bringing these two groups together. The conference was hosted by the most elite (and often most conservative) university in Thailand, Chulalongkorn. It was supported and sponsored by various offices of the Thai government as well as major international bodies such as UNDP and UNICEF. In many ways, the conference marks the fruition of forty years of arduous work by Ajarn Sulak and other Thai social activists. We can now see in Thailand a wide range of progressive and effective NGO groups, many grounded in spirituality, who have influenced Thai culture and certain parts of the upper echelon in Thailand. The King of Thailand is now spurring a movement towards "sufficiency economy". This is more than ironic as in the 1950s Buddhist values were seen as an anathema for national development by foreign experts and hence were marginalized in Thailand’s subsequent national development strategies. The King is now taking credit for this "new", creative mandate, which of course now Thais want to embrace as they embrace their king. However, the ideals underpinning this mandate were actually something that engaged Buddhists in Thailand have been developing and unwaveringly working towards over these last forty years, from Buddhadasa’s seminal teachings on "Dhammic Socialism" to the flowering of the Thai "development monk" movement, many of whom were prodded, encouraged and supported by Ajarn Sulak and his network of NGOs. That the Thai monarchy and government are now championing these values is a sign of their quiet revolution from below. From the microcosm of the host country of this 3rd GNH conference, we can therefore not only see hope but real results in our global movement.

Alejandro Adler and Jonathan Watts

Alejandro Adler and Jonathan Watts are a generation apart and both come from elite backgrounds in North America. Experiencing the "belly of the beast" from deep inside, they are attempting to renounce their privilege and dedicate their learning and skills for the betterment of all sentient beings.
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