Every year women ranging from professionals to housewives get together as volunteers in Thimphu, Bhutan, to raise funds for a nunnery in a valley far from the city. They collect donations, organize monsoon balls, sell lottery tickets, and write about the life and hardships faced by the nuns who reside there. Thanks to their diligent efforts, conditions in the nunnery have improved in recent years: A new housing facility has been built, and the nuns are provided with warm clothes and proper food.
Viewed through different lenses, the women’s work appears either as a Buddhist act known as jimba or a secular act of public service. Reflecting on these alternate names for a common work inspires hope for a new approach to mobilizing human resources to meet the needs of a suffering humanity, not only in Bhutan but throughout the world.
The women’s work is an act of jimba because they were motivated by compassion, contributing their time and money to secure refuge and protection for the nuns, who in turn provided the women with spiritual refuge by teaching them dharma (truth) and humility. Their work is also an act of public service because the women gave something back to their community by helping the nuns, who are less fortunate than themselves, with no motive for profit.
Jimba is an Act of Kindness
More specifically, the Vajrayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan identifies three clusters of jimba actions, each with its own name. The zang zing nor kyi jimba includes contributing your time or money to an individual or group. Mi ji kyab kyi jimba involves helping someone through such diverse acts as giving a kind word or wise counsel, or providing refuge and protection. In contrast, the dam-pai chos kyi jimba is more explicitly spiritual, involving teaching the distinction between right and wrong (showing the right path), teaching the dharma, and helping beings reach “enlightenment.”
The Lord Buddha Sakyamuni practiced jimba when he gave up all his worldly belongings and devoted his whole life to service for the needy and the poor. Describing this model life, the great teacher Swami Vivekananda has written, “Sakyamuni the preacher to the poor and the miserable, he who rejected even the language of the gods to speak in the language of the people, so that he might reach the hearts of the people, he who gave up a throne to live with beggars, and the poor, and the downcast, he who pressed the Pariah to his breast like a second Rama.”
While the term jimba may be unique to Buddhism, jimba actions are propagated by all religions in the world. For example, Mother Teresa committed her whole life to helping the slum dwellers of Calcutta.
The full meaning of jimba is neither appreciated nor realized. In Bhutan, many think such acts are performed only by monks or those purest of heart. The fact is that ordinary people may sometimes be doing jimba but fail to recognize it because their Buddhist viewing lens is not clear. For example, a person who helps his neighbor by providing food and shelter may not see this act as being anything substantial, but it may mean salvation for someone in a desperate situation.
Could it be that jimba is viewed as beyond the grasp of ordinary people because it has been idealized too much? Surely the distance our concepts create between jimba and the common person is a disservice not only to ourselves but to the community as a whole. The powerful concept of jimba is wasted if it is not put into practice. Looking beyond Bhutan to the secular West, we find the key to closing the gap between jimba and the common person through the concept of public service.
Jimba and public service are sister concepts that complement each other so much that we could reasonably assert the following: Jimba provides meaning to public service, and public service provides practicality to jimba. Merging the two concepts suggests a paradigm shift in viewing them both.
Already, jimba, in secular terms, is essentially public service. As such, it can be divided into three components:
- Who gets served? The beneficiary may be the general public, the local community, the less fortunate, mankind, or specific people;
- What gets served? The kind of service may be giving back to your community, working for the good of society, helping the community, or even being a contributing member of society;
- What is the reward? The benefit to the provider may be having the expectation of getting nothing back except that warm feeling of doing your part, or earning a living either as a public servant or as the employee of a nonprofit organization.
Some define public service almost entirely in terms of helping people, community, nation, or society while working for the government, the military, or the nonprofit sector. In addition to this concept, doing something selfless, volunteering, and giving money to charity can also be considered as acts of public service.
Volunteerism is a form of public service as well as jimba. It has been practiced for many thousands of years by peoples of all races. In Bhutan, traditional forms of volunteerism have existed since the beginning of history. An example is woola, or free labor when community members get together to help build a neighbor’s house.
Although the actions of jimba and public service look quite similar externally, some might argue that the two concepts are independent because of fundamentally different internal features. Jimba, when applied to Bhutan or any Buddhist culture, is seen as essentially religious, whereas public service, which is more a Western term, is associated with nonreligious institutions.
Furthermore, jimba is something that comes from the heart. Such actions are impelled by an innate desire to help all sentient beings, without wanting anything in return (at least in this life), and will earn merit for a better reincarnation. In contrast, public service can be viewed as an external reaction or a fulfillment of an obligation to give back to the society or community. The motivation may not be altruistic, and the person performing public service may not perceive the action as building merit.
Whatever the disputes about the meaning and motivations of jimba and public service, the fundamental relationship between the two is undisputable. Some of the main themes common to both are selflessness, generosity, honesty, leadership, social consciousness, and social responsibility. Jimba and public service are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing with different names and contexts.
In terms of motivation, one cannot say that the motivations for jimba are exclusively either an altruistic intention or a self-gain motive. The same can be said for public service. If we were to identify the reasons for such acts, they would probably consist of mixtures of three types of motivations:
- true altruism with no intentions of self-gain;
- merit in a religious sense;
- merit in the sense of “opening doors,” or career development.
On both institutional and personal levels, public service/jimba can reduce the desire to end suffering and therefore increase happiness. If everyone in the world did some public service/jimba in his own way, it is conceivable that the poor would not be poor, the hungry would have food, and the homeless would find shelter. All in all, the level of suffering would be much lower. When the level of suffering is low, the pain involved in thinking of the amount of suffering will also be low, and so will the desire to end suffering. Thus, people will be happier, because according to Buddhist philosophy, with desire comes more unhappiness/suffering.
Bhutan’s national health-care program and the charity of individual acts of feeding, clothing, or sheltering the poor can reduce suffering. However, unless a subtle balance and thoughtful consciousness is applied, charity can increase suffering and decrease happiness. In Western societies, the institutionalized charity of welfare programs often produces dependency and idleness while increasing desire and unhappiness. The foundation of true happiness in Bhutan can only come from the spirit, from Bhutan’s spiritual heritage, individual practice, and belief in creating happiness through the practice of jimba. Of course, jimba/public service creates happiness for the giver as well as for the receiver – perhaps even more happiness.
Measuring the National Well-Being
Bhutan challenges the conventional yardstick for measuring economic development and growth, the quantitative measure of gross national product (GNP). Bhutan has introduced and is working with the holistic, multidimensional measure of gross national happiness (GNH).
According to the Royal Government of Bhutan, “Gross national happiness comprises four pillars:
- Economic self-reliance
- Environmental preservation
- Cultural promotion
- Good governance
These four goals are mutually linked, complementary, and consistent. They embody national values, aesthetics, and spiritual traditions.”
The ultimate goal of development in Bhutan is to maximize happiness while balancing economic progress with the spiritual and emotional well-being of the people. This effort requires much more than just satisfying material needs. Public service/jimba can provide the “much more” by personalizing GNH for an individual, group, community, or organization.
Jimba/public service is a natural complement to governmental initiatives based on GNH because such acts contribute to all four pillars of GNH:
Economic self-reliance: If everybody contributed with jimba actions, working sincerely as a public servant or offering some form of public service, all would reap the benefit of economic progress. Not only would the poor be better off but the lonely would have company.
Environmental preservation: Performing jimba/public service means taking a holistic view of things, which is thinking beyond ourselves and our time. It is thinking about future generations, about the animals, about the plants, and the environment they live in, or in other words, Mother Nature. Through this mind-set of jimba, we conserve our natural environment.
Cutural promotion: Doing jimba is an integral part of Buddhist philosophy. Since the Bhutanese culture is essentially Buddhist, many customs are based on Buddhist ideals. Practicing jimba helps promote Buddhist values, therefore promoting national culture and traditions.
Good governance: People who think about doing jimba/public service are guided by sound ethical principles and values like social responsibility. Those doing jimba/public service incorporate and support values and ethical principles by demonstrating accountability, honoring their commitments, and acting in the public interest. This value-oriented and conscious action helps prevent corruption and brings about good governance as they work for the benefit of the country and not for themselves.
Jimba/public service has a strong role in all four components of GNH. Therefore, through jimba we provide meaningful public service and help realize GNH. Integrating the spiritual and the secular, jimba and public service further the common purpose of serving the social whole. They open new possibilities for harnessing the full goodness and resources of humanity as we grapple with the complex issues of the twenty-first century.
Buddhist organizations in other countries can advocate for public service as volunteerism by giving it a religious meaning and understanding. At a philosophical level, this new model provides grounds for discussing and understanding an individual’s life circumstances, thoughts, and actions and the way these are setting the stage for the next life.
Buddhist values like ley jumdrey are related to jimba. Ley jumdrey states that for every action, there is a reaction. It explains that what you are today is due to what you did in your previous life; what you do in this life will decide the fate of your next life. Your actions have implications and therefore have to be undertaken with a conscious mind and awareness. Acts of jimba/public service and education about them would surely enhance the lives of many Buddhists.
In Buddhist Bhutan, combining jimba and public service can contribute greatly to realizing the goal of gross national happiness. Other countries and religions could have their own reasons for uniting the spiritual and the secular in support of public service. As they do, this could help gross national happiness spread to other nations. Through this small start of uniting jimba and public service, something even greater might develop: we could one day replace GNH with GGH–gross global happiness.
About the author:
Thinley Choden lives and works in Thimphu, Bhutan, where she is a program assistant with the UN World Food Program. If you are interested in travelling to Bhutan please visit her website at:
Bhutan Tours & Travel.
It will look like this: Bhutan Expands Focus on Gross National Happiness