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Lessons from Bhutan, Land of 'Inspiring Generosity'

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What inspires generosity? For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by generosity -- what it is, what it isn't, how and why it manifests in our lives, the relationship between generosity and the culture from which it springs. As I was beginning the research for my book, Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom, Feb. 2014), I was lucky enough to travel through Bhutan with a small group led by the great Buddhist scholar and teacher Robert Thurman. I had studied Tibetan Buddhism with Bob in New York the preceding winter, and was thrilled to learn that he would be leading this trip to the mysterious land that I had wanted to visit for many years.

On this trip, because of the organizers' extensive experience in the country, we had access to many extraordinary monasteries and villages off the usual tourist route. The only remaining Buddhist monarchy in the world, Bhutan had been diligent in keeping its mountainous borders closed to the Western influences that had changed so many Asian countries. In fact, when I visited, Bhutan had been using money for only about 40 years. As you can imagine, every day brought a new engagement in understanding the consciousness of a country that was completely Buddhist in orientation, and had very little experience with the concept -- let alone the practice -- of money of any kind. The experience in this "Buddhist Brigadoon" was sometimes like stepping back 2,500 years in history.

One day, as a few of us were meandering through a rather remote village, I found myself engaged in a delightfully animated conversation with a very friendly villager who had come out to welcome us. I waxed enthusiastic about the beauty of the landscape, the village, and particularly the very distinctive architecture of the splendid, spacious, three-story houses. After I felt comfortable enough to step forward with a naïve and candid question, I asked my new friend to engage with me in a hypothetical: What if I, as an outsider, wanted to move into his village? How would I go about building a house given that I was a stranger and that money seemed not to figure prominently in transactions?

He fell silent, pondering for a long time what I seemed to be asking him, as if he were doing a complicated mathematical puzzle, and then slowly responded, "Well, if you wanted to move into our village and you wanted a house, we would build you a house." He did not mean that he had a brother who was a contractor or that he could get me a "deal." He meant that they would build and give me a house. He was showing me in the clearest and simplest way possible what one neighbor does for another. He was so completely immersed in a culture of giving, of looking out for one's neighbors and providing what one can, that he simply stepped forward as he knew best. There was no other possibility for him to consider. His pondering was over my lack of understanding, not his.

I share this anecdote not to convey the impression that all the citizens of this faraway land will give you the shirts off their backs, or that their every action is guided by boundless generosity. For me, this moment offered a glimpse into a spontaneously generous way of thinking that flowed naturally from an orientation that is, for the most part, vastly different from our own. It showed me just how much generosity can become imbued in a society, at the very center of a culture's values. We have a lot to learn from the land that measures success by "gross national happiness!"