The Value of Burden

Okay, I can already feel the distaste from readers reading just the title; but give me a minute to convince you otherwise with a simple anecdote from three days ago, which was also Bhutan’s 113th National Day. “If you carry this pothi (a set of Tibetan buddhist scriptures) and circumambulate three times around the center altar, you will erase your negative karma” my aunt, who had taken me to the monastery told me. Under the tri-divine gaze of Sangay Methrub, Chenrigzig and Buddha; the multi-mundane gaze of my extended family members and the singularly-internalized gaze of my masculinity, I lifted the pothi, put it straight on my shoulder and began the easy work of erasing my sins in three easy rounds. However, as I was walking … ahem! … walk-sprinting to make the rounds, I couldn’t help but wonder if the fact that we had driven all the way up to the lhakhang (monastery) had distorted the karma-erasing formula of the ‘3-rounds’ since it was written hundreds of years back when pilgrims had to walk the entire 14 kilometers up?

Photo: Akuppa John Wigham/Flickr

Fast forward to three days ago and the entire trip had been made in an AC-cooled, leather-wrapped interior of our car, steadily trudging up the 14 kilometers, unpaved, one-hour drive past Drukgyel dzong through Tsento valley and right up to Lhading monastery. Upon getting there, one of my colleagues who knew about my trip there told me how auspicious of a monastery it was. The kongyer (buddhist caretaker) affirmed this and delivered the explanation as to why this was so; constructed by Drupthop Tagsham & Khandro Metho Selden upon a dream omen involving flying gods and goddesses over a lake from which the monastery takes its name (Lha – God(s); Ding – Flying above), one of the statues also bears the thumb print of Lam Drukpa Kuenley and host a Sungjoenma (speech-uttering) statue. Why was it then that I was unable to feel the fire within my heart? Why wasn’t this pilgrimage meaningful for me?

It was here that I started wondering if the comforts of modernity had come at the price of faith?

In a world where everything is neurotically driven towards ease and comfort, I wondered if we may be losing faith in the value of burden, which is evident from the word (‘burden’) itself , filled with entirely negative connotations. At this point, I want to clarify two things right at the onset about what this blog is NOT:

  1. This is not a mouthpiece article for the older generation about the ‘hard old times’ when life was difficult but contented
  2. This is not a promotional piece, advocating to artificially manufacture ‘hardships’ with an unthinking belief that hardships are, by default, good
Photo by Mike Lawrence / Flickr

In many ways, everything about modern life seems to be an unrelenting effort towards easing burden; the burden of work, the burden of family, the burden of friendship, the burden of schooling, the burden of eating, the burden of meaning, the burden of news, and so on and so forth. We want our work to be easy. We want our friends to be cool and uncomplicated, lifting us up and there for us at our convenience. We want our education to be as light as possible and lead to good paying jobs. We want our food to arrive at our tables quick, delicious and cheap. We want life to be relaxed and happy. In short, we want to be free of burden.

Then why is it that compared to two decades ago, life is, in fact easier, but so many of us are so unhappy with it?

I wonder if burden actually might be the currency for value; which is to say, I wonder if you don’t take on the burden, do you end up valuing something? Like my example above of driving up to Lhading monastery, simply to come back with a complete lack of inspiration and meaning, back at the same place I would be if I hadn’t made the pilgrimage. Think about a moment in your life that means a lot to you. Now think if that moment is a result of challenges you overcame and burdens you bore OR if it came about easily? For almost all of the people I have had the privilege of connecting with on a deep level or my role models, their most significant moments were moments encapsulating challenges and burdens; and their stories of overcoming them. Nothing significant ever came without the weight of burden with it.

Photo: Pilgrimage by Joe

Ask someone why they are studying at their respective institutions. “So that I can get a job” they reply. Ask someone who has a job, why they are working at their respective jobs. “So that I have my salary and can work towards increments in my salary”. Why is it almost like mining for diamonds to hear a different answer?

Isn’t it so ironic for a country like Bhutan, supposedly the guardians of the wisdom of impermanence, that we have not found a deeper answer than material gains as a society?

The country could be drowning in foreign debt and crippled by her reliance on the outside world but yet, we will not take on the burden of hard, honest work. We all want to keep our lageys (traditional white sleeve) clean and our face unburned by the sun. We hold up people on pedestals who prostitute their way up in life, cheating, deceiving and bending the rules, because they drive expensive vehicles, flash their wallets at the slightest opportunity and hold their heads unashamedly up. We admire them because they live our wildest fantasy, reaping the fruits without having to bear the burden of putting in the labor.

Photo by Dave O

As we look towards the foundation of society, that is relationship, we see a similar pattern. Brainwashed by the foreign models, actors, singers, celebrities all of whom are rightly called ‘idols’ because of their godlike, distanced, un-relatable and fantastical nature, we seek to make ourselves in their likeness. We extend this one step further and apply this rigid criteria to our ‘partners’ who must be unreal and dreamlike; and then, as soon as they falter, expose their human side which is ultimately imperfect, broken and incomplete, we lose our interest. In a world where we tie up our identities to owning the latest gadgets, unfortunately, another person isn’t all that different. Likewise with our family members and parents, as soon as they impose a burden upon us, our first response seems to be getting away as far as possible from them. It really won’t be too surprising in another decade if we have a national crisis of abandoned aging parents.

Until such a time in the near future, I truly believe that we must learn to reflect honestly, if a life without challenges and burden is really a life that does justice to its sanctity and the the gift that it is.

Do we really want a life that is easy, without burden and defined by superficial circumstances and standards?


5 thoughts on “The Value of Burden

  1. Very interesting piece. We all crave that ‘instantaneous fix’ in order to gain an easier life. However, the result is that we pay dearly. And that is huge burden to carry. Isn’t that ironic?


    1. Exactly Betty! I feel in our drive to get that instant fix, we overlook longer term values and consequences of our present efforts. I wanted to keep the value of ‘working through’ something challenging rather than finding the most easiest exit as soon as possible alive. Glad you are able to join in the conversation 🙂


  2. I found this really interesting, it expressed something I had not expressed for myself. While I enjoy convenience, I was also raised in a strict manner, and although I look for ways to make my life easier deep down I do not believe there can be a fulfilling life without hard work. Anyway, nice post 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.