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Clock at our hotel in Punakha (taken at 9:30 AM)

Bhutan Stretchable Time

Bhutan time seems less linear than USA time. The Bhutanese good-naturedly call it “BST” — Bhutan Stretchable Time. One senior lecturer attending a workshop I’d organized confided in me, as we waited for other participants to arrive, “In Bhutan it is often not a good idea to be early.” In fact, we were not “early,” we were “on time” and everyone else was “late.” In Bhutan “ten minutes” can actually be five, or forty-five. “After some time” could mean in a little while or next week. “Last time” could mean yesterday or last year. “Just now” could also mean immediately, or in an hour.

At a meeting in New Delhi enroute to Bhutan, a Cultural Affairs officer advised me that a common pitfall for Fulbright scholars in South and Central Asia is that they get hung up on accomplishing things during their tenure. “As opposed to what?” I was confused, since the Fulbright application itself stresses the importance of the applicant completing a project while abroad. “As opposed to just being there,” he said. So, I embarked on my Bhutanese journey determined not to be a slave to time and effort; determined to be a “be-er” instead of a “do-er.”

Boy in field in Phobjika with black neck cranes in background

It’s been harder than I ever imagined. Westerners in general are hard-wired to think time is real. I am all about being on time, making the best use of my time, getting the most out of my time,  using my time wisely, saving time, and managing my time efficiently. The Bhutanese don’t seem to embrace these concepts as closely as I.

Phobjika women carrying hay

What happens when a do-er is set down in a be-er culture? Time becomes a complex site of tension. Three days prior to the supposed beginning of a week-long workshop I was to conduct, I still wasn’t sure whether it would happen. I called an Indian friend in New Delhi confiding that I was afraid I didn’t have time to prepare properly and that I’d “look bad” because of it. “Be in the moment,” he advised. “Prepare gently but don’t be attached to the outcome.” Besides, he said, Bhutanese culture stresses humility, not ego. “You won’t be judged on how prepared you are. You’ll be judged on how many good vibes you put out into the air.” What a concept! Time and ego tangled into one unyielding knot.

I recently met the vice principal of Bhutan’s Royal Academy for Performing Arts, Mr. Tshering, who a few years ago earned an MFA in performing arts at the University of Montana in Missoula.  “There was a lot of culture shock,” he admitted. What was most difficult, I asked. “The timing,” he said.  He experienced USA time as somewhat overly structured and stressful; people always hurrying here and there. He knew people who, he said with his eyes wide, ate lunch at their desks  and read the newspaper on the toilet! This conversation took place, by the way, while he and I and Ruth were relaxing in the sun just after the second tea break of the day, as the RAPA dancers, swaying and turning on the grassy field near the dzong, practiced for the upcoming Punakha Tshechu, an annual religious festival. When he returned to Bhutan from Montana, Tshering confessed, he’d adopted some, not all, of these more Western attitudes about time, and tended to be a bit of a task master with trainees and students. “If you know there will be a traffic jam,” for instance, he said, “you should leave 30 minutes earlier so you don’t keep others waiting.”

Monk rehearsing a masked dance

Time, like ego, Buddhism teaches, is just a concept; letting go of both is part of becoming an enlightened being. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse in his book What Makes You NOT a Buddhist illustrates the conceptual nature of time (and space) with the story of the Buddhist saint Milarepa, who invites a student to take refuge from a hailstorm by joining him inside a yak horn. How can one man fit inside a yak horn, let alone two? Think about it. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how time stretches and bends in the midst of a kiss.  “When Siddhartha reached enlightenment, he didn’t make time stop or reach to the end of time. He simply was no longer stained by the concept of time,” Khyentse writes; he went beyond it. “If we can go beyond the boundaries. . . . then Milarepa taking shelter in a yak horn will be no more surprising than someone putting on a pair of gloves.”

I’m experimenting; gently testing Bhutan time; practicing the preparation without attachment that my Indian friend advised. When someone asks me what my plans are for the day I try to imagine that almost anything could happen: “It depends,” I say. “Just now the one thing I’m sure of is that I’d like to finish my coffee.”

Categories: Uncategorized
Posted by Gretchen Legler and Ruth Hill on February 18, 2012
9 Comments Post a comment
  1. 02/18/2012

    I love this entry! You really capture the clash of cultures and the whole Asian mindset on time. Beautiful photos!

  2. 02/18/2012
    Hood Penny

    You have bent distance and tossed us your time Gretchen. It is all in our minds isn’t it! As I head out with all I have to “do” I will allow Bhutan into my day. I can see how warpy this would be. I hope you plan some transition time this summer xoxo

  3. 02/18/2012
    Art Rivarez

    Masterly synopsis of two world views and hint at being liberated from the oppressive dictates of time as understood commonly. There is a wonderful sense of ease at even comprehending the concept experientially for a moment. Kudos, Dr. Legler.

  4. 02/18/2012
    Shirl Roccapriore

    Beautifully written Gretchen and conveyed. I always love reading about Westerners perspective on Eastern practices and vise versa. Hope you both are well. I look forward to reading more of your blogs! xoxo Please tell Ruth that my mom passed away 2 weeks ago… she loved Ruth.

  5. 02/19/2012
    Betsy Riley

    It took me two visits to your sight to find these writings of yours…..What a culture you are in. I admire you…I am such an action-person….I’m not sure their time concept would ever become relaxing…?! What a transition you’ve experienced…It will be helpful, once you’re home, to hear what your return transition feels like. I’ll enjoy you’re updates…Betsy

  6. 02/19/2012
    Arlene Plevin

    Greetings, Gretchen and Ruth, from the Himalayas in my part/time of the world. Yes…time and time and time. I find myself wondering if minutes just float up into the mountain air and are reborn, recast elsewhere. I look forward, however, to our time together in Cochin and to meeting you, Ruth. May all the hours & minutes & cups of tea between now and then fill up the days like golden light.

  7. 02/20/2012
    Richard L. Waddell, Jr.

    Beautiful, beautiful, Gretchen. That goes for both words and pictures…in fact, your words are pictures as well as the visuals. The work I do is a fascinating mix of Western time and Bhutan time–Bhutan time when with patients; Western time when attempting to fulfill the objective of improved productivity. It can be a little schizoid. Be well, and BE there.

  8. 02/25/2012

    Wonderful writing, Gretchen. It’s not just time, but a vastly different belief system of which time is but one manifestation. You express the concept beautifully. I regret that someday you, having adjusted to that world, will have to readjust to this one. I’m sure it’s beautiful beyond words. It’s very difficult to live in one world while everyone around you is in another. (Just moving from the pace of Chicago to the one in Maine was a jolt when I did it. Or from an 1870 immersion back to this century. The one you are experiencing is truly foreign!) I look forward to more insights of the Legler/Hill experience. Love your pictures, too. I’m having a great time catching up. Glad we finally connected.

  9. 02/26/2012

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, just now I’ll decide in some time this one only . . .


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