Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Russ + Blyth Carpenter's "The Blessings of Bhutan": Book Review

Previous reviews (Amazon) have been brief if enthusiastic; here's mine with more detail. Russ and Blyth Carpenter offer short "sketches" about eight cultural aspects of this Himalayan kingdom. Coming in 1996 to visit and then do community improvement work there, this 1999 book comes quickly given their recent immersion. However, as with Martin Uitz's similarly pitched Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (reviewed by me Dec. 2012) from a decade later in this rapidly modernizing nation, the Carpenters provide a thoughtful Western p-o-v that avoids romanticizing or ethnocentrism. This rural Oregonian couple diminishes the personal touch and entertaining or dramatic anecdote common to others who report from this realm often seen from afar and close in soft focus. Instead, they accentuate the mindset that Bhutan tries to perpetuate by Gross National Happiness and its nuanced adaptation of global technologies and expectations. They remind readers of wisdom, in balanced, ecological perspectives.

They begin with a geographical and historical overview, then move into archery (in more depth than any other book I've read on Bhutan); Tantric Buddhism (more commonsense and demystifying, refreshingly); art and medicine (same applied to a more agnostic, balanced East-West perspective on traditional Tibetan remedies and the attitudes that they instill); reincarnation's impact on environmental policy (subtle: how does "you only live once" clash with "what goes around, comes around"?); Drukpa Kunley (given the rarity of this source material available in English, welcome excerpts from the "Divine Madman"); sexuality and women (an honest appraisal of the cost-benefit of matriarchal inheritance of the land vs. education and careers for girls); and the GNH policy (with comments from its proponent Karma Ura--see Mary Peck's
Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth photo collection with Ura's essay, reviewed by me Dec. 2012).

Just a couple of highlights of this unpretentious, casually presented but accessible essay collection: comparing and contrasting Dante's "Inferno" with the Buddhist Wheel of Life to show the differences between a linear and cyclical, ends-based and care-based, eternal vs. reincarnated worldview. Distinguishing the left-right brain with the folk Bon practices and the "intellectual polish" of formal Buddhism to show how Bhutanese beliefs integrate these approaches sensibly.

Commonsense is crucial. Ice can break, water can flow; colors in a rainbow or prism show the evanescence of what appears so tangible: this is the teaching transmitted by Khyentse Rinpoche (see reviews Dec. 2012 of the films
Brilliant Moon and Words of My Perfect Teacher for more). The book in earlier sections can feel uneven--probably as it's a joint effort--and tonal shifts and sudden transitions in some portions slow the pace. The Carpenters deepen their appreciation of the circularity of life, as the book progresses. The study of Bhutan's attempts to live in a delicate, harsh, and rugged "Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs" (to use an old Chinese placename) ethically and spiritually, while moving towards more justice and equality, gains traction.

The Carpenters show how in a fir forest in Oregon, lessons learned in Bhutan reverberate, and how stewardship within the ecosystem can challenge those in Bhutan as they try to protect their fragile heartland while accepting--in an overly bureaucratic and civil-servant dominated system--the need for progress, however controlled and gradual. "Sacred paint" can show sexual liberation and psychological understanding; they look at a depiction of "yab-yum" male-female union with fresh eyes and find meanings that work for themselves, not what a prominent if over-indulgent scholar or New Age website might peddle. This honesty speaks well for this unassuming, but well-illustrated (snapshots try to express some of the colors that can overload the senses) and welcome introduction to this too-often idealized, but still appealingly idealistic, realm that few of us will be able to afford to explore outside the pages of such books. (Amazon US 1-11-13)

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