Ha Vinh Tho: when the well-being of citizens is a political priority

- through Henry Oudin

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President of two NGOs, Ha Vinh Tho is also a Buddhist teacher in the Vietnamese Zen tradition and a disciple of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. After serving with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), he was the Director of Programs and co-founder of the Center for Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, an organization that promotes an alternative vision of development based on ecology, a fair and sustainable economy, good governance and cultural and spiritual values. In this interview, he evokes what he calls the laboratory of Gross National Happiness and the spread of this philosophy throughout the world.

At what period of your life did you reconnect with your Buddhist roots?

This journey took place in several stages. My father, who came from a Vietnamese Buddhist family, was not very religious. I really discovered Buddhism, by myself at the age of 18, during a trip to India and Nepal. That's when I started meditating. Back in Europe, I undertook higher studies while continuing this practice of meditation, without however affiliation to a particular school.

In the early 1980s, when I returned to Vietnam after the war was over, I discovered that Thich Nhat Hanh, originally from Hue like my family, was the spiritual teacher of part of it and lived in France. I went to visit him in Plum Village for the first time in 1989. And it was this meeting with him that marked the beginning of a stronger involvement in Buddhism. I was immediately seduced by the committed Buddhism he advocated and put into practice. This link between inner work and action in the world was, in my eyes, essential. I therefore embarked on this path, trying to combine meditative practice and commitment in the social and economic field.

What attracted you to Thich Nhat Hanh who was your master?

He embodied the values ​​he advocated in an extremely authentic way, in every aspect of his daily life. The dimension of compassion was very strong and very present in him. This was not limited to a form of prayer for the well-being of all beings, it was accompanied by a deep authenticity and practical and concrete commitments.

When you were working at the Red Cross, as head of the C.IC.R. Training department, were you able to introduce the notions of mindfulness into your programs?

This dimension of work on oneself and introspection was particularly useful in the functions that were mine. As responsible for the training paths of people who went to the field, our role consisted in particular in helping these people sent to war zones to strengthen themselves mentally, so as to be able to face extremely difficult and potentially traumatic situations. I had, however, to take into account the fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is strictly secular, multicultural and multi-confessional. You have to be very careful. To do this, I relied on scientific research on mindfulness, rather than a formal Buddhist approach.

You were appointed in Bhutan, in 2012, program director of the Center du Bonheur National Brut which you co-founded and remained in post until 2018. Does this BNB philosophy have its roots in Buddhism?

Yes, to a certain extent, because in Bhutan the vast majority of the population is Buddhist. This is Vajrayana Buddhism, which in the West is somewhat erroneously called Tibetan Buddhism. Bhutanese culture is steeped in Buddhist values. We therefore find, as a result, within the BNB elements that have a Buddhist origin. This is the case, for example, of the notion of happiness. This does not refer to a form of sensual pleasure, but rather to the notion of "soukha"., transformation of suffering. The idea that BNB is not only addressed to humans, but to all living beings is also a typically Buddhist concept. There are also elements that are colored by the Buddhist tradition such as everything related to the protection of nature. However, the whole effort of Bhutan has been to present this philosophy in a secular way, based on scientific, political, economic arguments and not arguments of religious types. This, so as to be able to promote the BNB on an international scale and in particular within the framework of the UN, as was the case in 2011.

What can the philosophy of Gross National Happiness bring to the world?

Bhutan, with its philosophy of gross national happiness, implemented throughout the country in the 1970s and 80s, constitutes in my eyes a sort of laboratory. As in a laboratory, research and work are done on a small scale. But, the lessons learned can then be extended and used around the world. And failed experiments are also part of the learning process. But be careful not to project on Bhutan an ideal fantasized image of a small paradise on Earth. This is not the case. It is a country which has its problems, like all the others. On the other hand, the effort made there to initiate and formalize an alternative development model to the dominant model based mainly on economic development is very interesting. There are, of course, lessons to be learned from this experience. Particularly today, where the systems that were put in place after the Second World War are collapsing one after another. There is a total loss of confidence in politics and in economic systems which are extremely fragile. We also observe, today, returns to old reflexes of nationalism and protectionism, which call into question the model on which our societies were founded.

“The idea that Gross National Happiness is not just for humans, but for all living beings is a quintessentially Buddhist notion. »

We are at a pivotal time during which we will have to find solutions. The idea of ​​putting well-being at the center of the social and economic development of countries, by refusing to bet everything on economic growth alone, has begun to gain ground. This is what New Zealand has done in particular, by launching, in the spring, under the leadership of Labor Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, its “well-being budget”. This places the well-being of citizens at the center of decisions relating to public expenditure. This is a first for a large state. This budget provides in particular for an increase in public spending on mental health, allowances for indigenous populations, as well as the fight against child poverty and family violence. We should also mention the Well Being Economy movement, which has been defending this same idea since 2009. Today, we see the coexistence of two diametrically opposed movements: on the one hand, a step back with the rise of almost fascistic nationalisms, and on the other, the proliferation of alternatives which aim to find new solutions to address climate, environmental, social and political challenges.

Gross National Happiness has outlined a new path, proposed possible solutions, just like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015. And is part of these new ideas that fuel the reflections of all those who want to go from forward and never go back.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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