Category Archives: Engaged Buddhism

The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference

By Randy Rosenthal

A recent UN report ranks nations by way of their quota of happiness, utilizing a complex set of metrics. But can happiness actually be quantified? Several glitches in the ratings suggest any such effort, while revealing in some respects, will always be far from perfect.

The top 20 happiest countries (World Happiness Report 2019)

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the United Nations released the World Happiness Report. This includes an annual ranking of the happiest countries in the world, along with several essays about the relationship between government policy and individual happiness. A few weeks later, on April 13, the editor of the report, John F. Helliwell, participated in a panel at the Global Happiness Conference, held at Harvard Divinity School, and which I attended.

Any discussion of Global Happiness or the World Happiness Report usually includes at least a mention of Bhutan, whose former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, invented the term Gross National Happiness (GNH), as an alternative measurement to GDP. Since then, GNH has been a new paradigm of progress and development in Bhutan. “Happiness is a place,” has become Bhutan’s motto, and the nation’s tourist department describes the Bhutanese as the happiest people in the world. Unsurprisingly, several Bhutanese nationals planned and participated in the Global Happiness Conference. The morning’s Keynote address was given by Madam Doma Tshering, the ambassador of Bhutan to the UN. In the speech, she clarified that the purpose of the conference was “to exchange views on how happiness can shape a better world.”

In the texts of Early Buddhism, the words hita and sukha, “welfare” and “happiness,” are often joined together, and so it’s interesting to look at the relationship between government welfare programs and individual happiness. For instance, one of the most illuminating aspects of Madam Tshering’s speech was the concrete policy measures the Bhutanese government takes to deliberately create the conditions for happiness to arise. It’s a movement that goes back centuries, at least to Bhutan’s 1729 legal code, which states “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no reason for the government to exist.” But the idea also has a history here, too; even Robert Kennedy said that GDP “measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

And what is it that makes life worthwhile? That is, what is happiness? Well, the Bhutanese government, along with the diverse range of panelists who participated in the conference, seem to have determined that happiness is not only quantifiable, but can be implemented as government policy.

Bhutan focuses on nine domains to increase GNH, and while some of these—such as health, shelter, a clean environment, and good governance—are found across the world, the list includes four unique and innovative domains of focus that the Bhutanese feel specifically cultivate happiness: community vitality (that is, the depth and quality of relationships); cultural diversity, which creates a strong sense of identity; psychological well-being, which is a manifestation of spiritual fulfillment (and thus religious practices; Buddhism, in the case of Bhutan); and finally, time use.

Time use? Yes, this is actually the most acute technique of the nine, according to panelist Dasho Karma Tshiteem, Chairman of the Bhutanese Royal Civil Service Commission and previous Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission. Tshiteem said there is actually a recipe for happiness: “When you align the use of your time with what you care about.” In Bhutan, the GNH office is actually feared, kind of like the IRS in the States, because they really grill citizens. They ask people what they most value, and a popular answer is spending time with family. But then when asked how they actually spend their time, many people respond they are on Facebook and social media. This, Tshiteem said, is “a recipe for unhappiness,” as time spent is not aligned with what they value. (I couldn’t help but think that many people I know spend time on social media in order to connect with their families, so perhaps this isn’t the best example.)

It should be noted that Bhutan’s approach to GNH as an alternative policy of development can be contextualized with what is called “Buddhist economics.” According to panelist Wolfgang Dreschler, of Tallinn’s University of Technology, Buddhist economics “is based on the idea that happiness is not based on getting what you want, but managing your wants.” That is, minimizing your wants. It sounds wise, but this actually means the system is not as transferable as we might think. Buddhist economics is inherently Buddhist, so trying to transfer it to Western countries might be as feasible as trying to transfer Western democratic models to countries without a tradition of democracy; it doesn’t really work. Yet while we can’t transfer it, Dreschler says, we can learn from it.

As he’s been working in the field perhaps longer than anyone else, WHR editor John Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia, had several illuminating things to say about what makes a country happy—or unhappy. For instance, he said, to live in a country with great inequality makes you less happy, even if you benefit from that inequality. That’s likely why the US ranked nineteenth in this year’s GHR, one place lower than last year—though not as low as other, more unequal countries, such as China (93rd) or Russia (68th).

In this year’s report, Finland was ranked the happiest country on earth, followed by Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. We can certainly credit Nordic happiness to the social democratic welfare state model; years ago I lived in Copenhagen, and witnessed how government assistance alleviated the strain of marriage and child-raising, allowed students to graduate debt-free, and everyone to have health care without breaking the bank. This is all very significant, for such programs eliminate the financial stress that suffocates happiness. But happiness goes deeper into the Scandinavian social fabric than that. For example, the conference took place on a Saturday morning, and Helliwell said that on a Saturday morning in Norway, people paint each other’s houses. That is, Norwegians “do things for each other, with each other.” And that makes people happy.

One panelist, Sophus Reinnert, of Harvard Business School, is Norwegian, and he didn’t disagree with Helliwell’s claim about painting the houses. But he admitted he was often baffled by Norway’s consistent high ranking in the WHR, because Norwegians are so darkly brooding. Hilariously, he shared that once the semester is over and he’d get to do what made him happy, he’d want to walk along a cold Scandinavian beach; the picture he showed his class to illustrate his desire, of a lone man in a gray coat walking on a snowy beach, was actually the third image that comes up when googling depression. His point is that happiness for one person can be very different from happiness for another. And to further nuance the issue, it can’t be ignored that Scandinavian countries also have a high rate of suicide. So how do we square that with them being ranked as the happiest people on earth?

Another wrench in the gears of the idea of happiness came from Arnaud Colley, who, in addition to being a motivational speaker, author, and “Chief Happiness Officer” for several luxury corporations, is French. “In France,” Colley said, “we are happy when we get together, put on yellow vests, and shout ‘We are not happy!’” While we can again say that what is happiness for one is different from what is happiness for another, a deeper response would be to look into the idea of happiness itself. Can shouting about one’s unhappiness actually be considered happiness? Just because we like to do something, even if it gives us pleasure, doesn’t necessarily mean it makes us happy.

And that brings us to another crucial factor, one that occurred to me when Helliwell mis-spoke; in a slip of the tongue, he meant to say, “we want welfare economics to be considered applied science, rather than something purely theoretical,” but instead of “theoretical” he said “a theology.” And to me, that’s actually a more accurate word to describe happiness studies, and the science of well-being: a theology. Like one’s spiritual beliefs and understanding of the divine—things that are unverifiable and unquantifiable—happiness is inherently subjective and highly mutable. And so I am very skeptical of efforts to quantify it, including reports that are based on such studies. The whole endeavor is similar to how evangelicals claim to be able to prove the existence of God; it’s a misconceived mission.

In the second panel of the conference, Arnaud Colley said he has two goals when consulting with corporations: “Bring joy; bring purpose.” This seems to be what we mean by the word happiness: joy and purpose. After all, as Bob Dylan once said, “anybody can be happy,” implying that happiness is a misconceived goal. Fulfillment and purpose are more important—for Dylan, fulfillment through artistic creation, a grueling act that many artists will admit makes them anything but happy.

With all this nuance in mind, it must be noted that, ironically, Bhutan ranked 95th on this year’s happiness index—despite being ranked fifth by their own metric. This poor ranking may be due to Bhutan’s Buddhist nationalism, which, like similar ideologies in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, has led to persecutions of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly ethnically Nepali citizens from south Bhutan. After protesting laws prohibiting their language, dress, and other expressions of their Hindu identity, they have been driven from the country. Several members of this community attended the conference, and a couple of them asked questions that made the Bhutanese moderators visibly uncomfortable. Bhutan has also criminalized homosexuality and an LGBTQ identity. Clearly, there is a discrepancy between theory and practice in the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth,” if not a faulty conceptual approach of looking at happiness in this way altogether.

Yet despite such complexity and my skepticism regarding Happiness Studies, there are certainly benefits in studying Bhutan’s focus on GNH, and these are policy goals that every government should prioritize, especially in developing nations. In fact, by having GNH as “the conscience of the nation,” as Ambassador Tshering said, Bhutan was able to lower infant mortality, raise literacy rates, reduce poverty, and increase per capita income. These material domains create the conditions for strong communities and relationships, which are, according to these emerging theories, the foundations for happiness.

Yet Dasho Karma Tshiteem said that because most people in Bhutan do not meditate—as they don’t in any country, Buddhist or not—the government is pursuing a policy of promoting meditation practice for its citizens. And this brings us to the most important point. Yes, it is good for governments to take responsibility by enacting policies that provide their citizens with the foundations for creating happiness, and yes, we should do things for people and with people. But ultimately, happiness is dependent on oneself, through purifying the defilements that cause unhappiness—greed, anger, delusion, craving. And this can only be done through meditation.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at


Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well.

Working under the aegis of the Kabliji Memorial Trust, Building Bridges India (BBI) is committed to empowering women whose husbands committed suicide because of their indebtedness, leaving them to repay mounting debts and support their families. Over the period October 2017 through September 2018, Buddhist Global Relief partnered with Building Bridges on two projects in the Sangrur district in the southern Punjab:

(I) a project to increase food production by introducing women to organic farming, which would improve their health and nutrition and increase their incomes; and

(II) a project to train women for long-term sustainability through handicraft and garment production.

Underlying both projects is BBI’s commitment to fostering women’s sense of efficacy, community, and ability to negotiate the challenges they encounter within their own families and in the broader society. Since BGR sees the empowerment of women as one of the most effective ways to rescue them from degrading poverty and chronic hunger, we were delighted to join hands with Building Bridges in sponsoring these projects.

I. Organic Farming Initiative

BBI’s organic farming initiative is designed to promote the use of organic farming techniques, increase the production of nutritious fruits and vegetables, and improve the health of women and their families. BBI has trained a total of 300 people at ten workshops on organic farming. The workshops were held on land adjoining gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in Makod Saab, Balran, Hamirgarh, Chotian, and Khokhar from October 2017 to August 2018. Most of the participants were from poor, landless, and small farmer backgrounds. Two professors from Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, Dr. Daljit Singh Khurana and Dr. V.K. Kaul, facilitated them.

The main objectives of the workshops were to teach women about the nutritional value of particular fruits and vegetables, introduce them to natural farming techniques, and involve them in educational hands-on activities. The target group was from the social strata that either never had the chance to attend school or dropped out because of their social circumstances. The project also nurtured the women’s capacity for self-reliance and identified some among them who could act as master trainers or drivers of change.

A workshop in October 2017 taught participants how and when to sow such winter vegetables as radish, spinach, peas, turnips, carrots, fenugreek, eggplant, and tomatoes. A workshop in April 2018 taught them to sow summer vegetables like beans, cucumber, pumpkin, okra, tomato, ridge gourd, and lemons. In March 2018 women were taught how to grow several varieties of fruit, including mangoes, apricots, papayas, melons, and watermelons.

A total of 45 women and men participated in three workshops conducted by Professor Kaul in November and December 2017. The professor taught the participants about simple, bio-efficient methods of growing oyster mushrooms. Of the 45 women who had participated in these workshops, a year later 20 had taken up mushroom cultivation in their homes, both for personal consumption and for sale on the market.

BBI organized workshops in producing pickles from vegetables that the women harvested in the winter, both to donate to the gurdwaras and to sell on the market. Over the past six months, approximately 25 women produced 100 pounds of pickle from winter vegetables. These women were each able to earn about Rs 2,000 after selling the vegetables and pickles the first time they tried this.

Health Awareness Workshop
To increase women’s understanding of their own bodies, particularly reproductive health, Sunita Gupta, a medical doctor, organized four workshops with a total of 100 women in four centers from July to August 2018. She provided women with information about contraception, personal hygiene, and ways to prevent and treat common infections. She also spoke to them about the causes of malnutrition and the importance of a balanced diet. The women who participated were able to ask questions and clarify common misconceptions.

In collaboration with Rajan Gupta Eye and Health Care Hospital in Tohana,BBI organized five day-long camps  in July and August 2018. The camps were held in Makod Sahib, Balran, Gaga, Hamirgarh, and Khokhar Bishanpura centers, and were open to all the women who participate in BBI centers. Over 250 people joined the camps. Most were diagnosed with eyesight-related problems for which they were treated with medications. Ten women underwent cataract surgery. The eye screening camp taught women about the importance of routine eye care and the causes of eye disease and blindness.

During the health camp in November 2017, participants’ blood was checked to determine their nutritional deficiencies. The tests revealed that most women had moderate to severe anemia, caused by malnutrition, particularly inadequate iron and vitamin A. BBI did a follow-up survey at the end of the project cycle in September 2018 and found that the incidence of anemia and malnutrition had declined. The women are now much better informed about the importance of a nutritious diet and they eat more vitamin-rich vegetables and place more value on their own health. These women look healthier and seem more energetic than they did in the past.

II. Capacity Building: Handicraft and Garment Production

This project aimed to develop economically marginalized women’s vocational skills and entrepreneurial abilities, with a focus on sewing, embroidery, and craft production. During the project period 100 women in Lehel Kalan, Balran, Chotian, Hamirgarh, and Mandvi were trained in basic sewing and embroidery. After providing them with basic skills, BBI identified a designer who could conduct the workshops and help the women reach a more upscale market. This was Ms. Shalini Saluja, a graduate from Pearl Fashion Academy in New Delhi. Ms. Saluja founded Indie Cotton, a successful boutique that collaborates with craftspeople from all over India to create exquisite handicrafts. Indie Cotton aspires to offer sustainable livelihoods to workers and thus make trade commercially viable for everyone involved.

A total of four design workshops were organized with 100 women in the Balran center from November 2017 to March 2018. Ms. Saluja and Ghazala Khan identified suitable designs for workshop participants, and instructed them on the threads and patterns required to do many different kinds of embroidery. The focus was on the revival of phulkari, a traditional hand embroidery from Punjab, and its adaptation to meet contemporary tastes. In addition, BBI decided to make home furnishing items like cushion covers, table mats, napkins, table runners, tablecloths, accessories, key chains, and stoles, using traditional hand embroidery and crochet.

The workshops were organized with 50 women in collaboration with a government institute, the Indian Technical Institute (ITI) Moonak, in June and August 2018. The main topics covered during the workshops were communication skills, the importance of group work, product design, pricing, quality standards, reliable product delivery, publicizing the goods, and learning about market demand. Participants acquired skills in functional and numerical literacy including learning about bank operations, basic accounting, and marketing skills.

Long Term Sustainability: Self-Assessment and Impact
BBI has regularly monitored and evaluated its programs to ensure that participants are from the most economically disadvantaged groups. Although they have made a particular effort to include women who have experienced a suicide within the family, they have included other women with pressing financial needs. BBI’s goals in the last phase of the BGR grant were to expand the scale of activities to include more people, provide them with additional skills, and enable the women who had been trained to become agents of change within their communities.

With respect to the organic farming initiative, over the past year, BBI has hired experts who have taught women new methods of cultivation and food storage. For example, women were able to produce more green vegetables than they could consume and learned how to dry and store them for use the following season. BBI organized health camps at regular intervals, which local government officials, doctors, and nurses attended. A survey found that the health of the women and their family members improved and the incidence of anemia and malnutrition declined. This was likely due to the organic farming initiative. With respect to garment and handicraft production, BBI hired a designer who has worked with women to improve the quality of their products and ensure greater consistency in the quality of their work. It forged a partnership with the ITI which developed women’s entrepreneurial skills.

As a result, trainees’ income has increased from around Rs 4,000 a month before the workshops began to about Rs 7,000 a month today. In addition to paid professionals, BBI selected 15 of the most enthusiastic participants to train other women in their villages in the skills they acquired.

The BBI report concludes by thanking Buddhist Global Relief for providing them with the resources they need to give opportunities and hope to destitute women. They write: “Our efforts would have been unimaginable without your support.”

 Voices from the Field
“I joined Balran Vocational Training Centre in July 2017 to get training in tailoring and embroidery. With this training I can now stitch clothes for my family and myself and I’ve been able to earn an income by selling my clothes on the market. I am thankful to Dr. Sunita and other experts for helping me understand my health and how it’s related to social issues. I hope they will continue to visit and provide support to young women like me.”
Kiranpal, Balran center, December 17, 2018

“I attend the activities at the center regularly and have learned so many new things there. My family is very poor and we need to learn how to increase our income by developing new skills.”
Sukhjinder Kaur, Lehel Kalan center, December 19, 2018

“I participated in the workshops on organic farming with Dr. Khurana and Prof. Kaul. I enjoy growing mushrooms and other vegetables. I learned so much from the workshops and want to continue to participate in them and in all the other activities at the center.”
Rani, Makod Sahib center, November 27, 2018

“I come from a very poor family and did not have any means of earning an income until I joined the center in August 2016. I learned to use a sewing machine to make clothes and do phulkari embroidery with different color combinations. Since receiving this training I’m earning enough money to pay for the school fees of my two younger siblings and contribute to household expenses.”
Jasveer Kaur, Balran center, November 26, 2018

“I joined the center to learn how to sew. After that I became interested in organic farming and participated in the workshops in October 2017. I’ve been able to grow vegetables to feed my family and to sell them for an income. Although our family is poor, our living conditions have improved since we became involved with these projects.”
Neetu Sharma, Hameergarh center, December 17, 2018

This post has been largely based on the final project report from Building Bridges India to Buddhist Global Relief for the period October 2017 to September 2018.

Hot Meals and Mentoring for Poor Kids in Mongolia

By BGR Staff

One-third of Mongolia’s population experiences extreme poverty and is unable to afford basic food and shelter. The Tibetan monk, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, was determined to do something about this.

Born in Eastern Tibet in 1939 to nomadic parents, Ven. Rinpoche received full monastic ordination in 1961 under His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He completed his formal studies in India and was awarded the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa, equivalent to a Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. In 1995, the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to go to Mongolia to teach Buddhism to the Mongolian people. After his arrival in Mongolia, he set about finding ways to overcome the high levels of poverty he encountered there. He established Asral NGO in 2001 with the objective of keeping families together and preventing children from going onto the streets. Asral is the Mongolian word for “care.”
Continue reading

BGR Exceeds Its EWEC Target

By Tom Spies


In 2016  BGR made a commitment to the Every Woman Every Child initiative (EWEC) that it would help to advance EWEC’s global strategy through our projects.  Here is some background on EWEC:

Every Woman Every Child is a multi-stakeholder movement to implement the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2015 in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since its launch in 2010, Every Woman Every Child has mobilized hundreds of partners for maximum effect, with hundreds of organizations having made commitments to advance the Global Strategy. The partners include governments and policymakers, donor countries and philanthropic institutions, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, civil society, the business community, health workers and their professional associations, and academic and research institutions.

BGR had committed to expending $1,600,000 over the 5 years from 2016 through 2020 towards programs to advance the EWEC goals, benefiting an estimated 16,000 individuals.  A few days ago we made an interim measure of our progress to date, and found that after 3 years we have already exceeded our 5-year commitment, expending $1,844,317 towards the EWEC goals, and benefiting an estimated 30,000 individuals.

This is an achievement truly worth celebrating. From this you should know that your donations are part of a worldwide movement helping to ensure the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents around the world. Thank you all for your compassionate concern in supporting this endeavor!

Tom Spies is Executive Director of Buddhist Global Relief.


Learning about Home Gardens, Nutrition, and Public Speaking in Vietnam

By Randy Rosenthal

With so many problems in the world, it sometimes feels like nothing we do can makes a difference. But Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) is showing that by improving the lives of individuals, we can in fact make a difference. A great example of this is BGR’s partnership with Helen Keller International (HKI) on the Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project in Vietnam, which is now in its third year.

With BGR support, during 2018, HKI expanded their EHFP project to the provinces of Hoa Binh, Son La, and Lai Chau, which is one of the poorest areas of Vietnam. In July, the latter two provinces were heavily hit by tropical storm Son Tinh, which caused flash floods and landslides, but the program’s goals were successfully reached in all areas. These goals focused on alleviating hunger mainly through training mothers and pregnant women about nutrition and horticulture. Continue reading

Cooking Porridge and Training Health Workers in Côte d’ Ivoire

By Randy Rosenthal

One of the leading factors in infant mortality in Côte d’ Ivoire, where about 40% of the population lives in poverty, is malnutrition. This is especially the case in Korhogo District, in the northern region of Poro, where malnutrition is the most prevalent. That’s why Buddhist Global Relief chose to support Helen Keller International’s (HKI) effort to greatly reduce instances of malnutrition among women of child-bearing age in Korhogo, and especially among children during their first 1,000 days of life.

Compared to their projects in other countries, the way HKI approached their effort in Côte d’Ivoire is quite unique. And this is because they focused their efforts on training local community health workers, who could then continue to share knowledge locally, rather than solely holding information sessions. Continue reading

Helping Indian Dalit Girls Rise Up and Shine: The Mission of the Bodhicitta Foundation

By Patricia Brick

The Bodhicitta Foundation provides schooling and job training, legal assistance, social justice and women’s rights education, and other services to impoverished Dalit women and girls in Nagpur, India. Founded by the Australian Buddhist nun Ayya Yeshe, the foundation operates a girls’ hostel and a women’s job training and community center in slum areas of Nagpur. A three-year Buddhist Global Relief grant supports both of these projects.

The Dalits in India–the people formerly known as “outcasts” or “untouchables”–have historically been relegated to jobs considered “below” even the members of society’s lowest caste.; Their work traditionally involved such tasks as cleaning or processing human waste or animal carcasses. Women and girls in this group face additional gender-specific burdens including domestic violence and child marriage. An estimated 30 percent of Indian women experience physical or sexual domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the U.N.’s Global Database on Violence Against Women. More than a quarter of Indian girls are married by age 18, and 7 percent are married by age 15.

The Bodhicitta Foundation seeks to break the cycle of poverty by giving women and girls the tools they need to financially support themselves and their families. An estimated 2,000 people benefit from the foundation’s initiatives in Nagpur each year. Continue reading