Twenty-something Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) lives in Bhutan, a country set in the spectacular mountain regions of the Eastern Himalayas between China and India. It is most known as measuring success by the nation's "gross national happiness." Ugyen lives in the city with his grandmother, (Tsheri Zom) who is very proud that he has already completed four years of a five-year government contract as a school teacher.
But this career choice has lost its hold on Ugyen who now wants to move to Australia and become a professional singer. Like many of his peers, he's attracted to the glittery Western world of the media and popular culture accessed through his phone. In his mind, he sees himself as doing something entirely different in a new place in order to be happy.
His supervisor's response to his attitude is to post him to Lunana, a tiny village of 56 people that is a six-days walk into the mountains. It is, in fact, the world's most remote school. (The film was shot in this actual location, and since there was no electricity, they had to use cameras operating from solar-powered batteries.)
Despite being greeted by the entire village upon his arrival after a physically exhausting journey, Ugyen feels isolated. He is shocked to find that his room is spartan with no running water or electricity; for heat he needs to burn yak dung. His classroom doesn't even have a blackboard, and supplies for the children are limited. He tells the village chief, Asha (Kunzang Wangdi) that he wants to return home as soon as possible.
Happiness is a mysterious emotion which can turn us around and change our plans and dreams. In Ugyen's case, two developments contribute to his transformation. The children are thrilled to have a new teacher -- he's greeted on his first day of teaching by the vibrant smile of nine-year-old Pem Sam (Pem Zam), and soon he realized he can make a difference here, even if he does have to leave before the snows come.
And then there is music. Himself a singer, Ugyen is enchanted when he hears Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a beautiful young woman, singing in the hills. She explains that this is her offering: "It's a song I offer to all beings, to all the people, to the animals, the gods, to all the spirits in our valley. When the black-necked cranes sing, they sing not worrying who hears or what others think. They sing to offer. I want to sing like that." Ugyen asks her to teach him a song about a yak herder and soon they are practicing together.
During the trek to the village, his companions, Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) and Singye (Tshering Doril), made offerings on the mountain pass for their safe journey. Now Ugyen brings his own gifts to the village, having his guitar sent so he can sing with the children, and getting teaching supplies for the classroom. In turn, Saldon brings him one of the village yaks, Norbu (meaning "wish fulfilling jewel"), to keep inside the school so he won't have to gather dung in the fields.
In one of her memoirs, May Sarton wrote that it is wrong to expect that there will be a time of happiness in our lives. Rather, there are moments of happiness, "almost every day [contains] at least one moment of happiness." This film is filled with moments of happiness -- from a pause to gaze at the beauty of the mountains, to the joy of singing "Old McDonald" with a group of dancing children, to food shared in a special wooden bowl, to reading a letter from his students: "You showed us the importance of having good hearts." This film will show you that as well.
I like being around people with good hearts, and I bet you do, too. I thought about good hearts when I watched the trailer for Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom and read the Brussat’s review. I began to wonder if anyone had developed a theology of good heartedness and also to wonder, after all, what goes into having one. On the theological side, I thought of process-relational theology with its idea that God is within each person as an inwardly felt lure toward wholeness in community with others. Maybe wholenesss-in-community is one way of understanding good heartedness. I also thought of the Cobb Institute’s idea that, among the many transformations needed today, one is from life-denying spirituality to life-affirming spirituality. It seems to me that good-heartedness is one good definition of life-affirming spirituality.
Then I began to think about what good hearted person actually looks like, and I found the following description on, of all places, a dating site: eharmony. I began to wonder if one of the purposes of education, at home and even in the classroom, might be to help us learn the arts of good heartedness, not by preaching but by example. We see it in others and want to learn from them. We, too, wish for a yak in the classroom.
15 Ways to Know if Someone is Good-Hearted
1. Humor does not come at the expense of others. A person’s brand of humor says a lot about that individual. Is it cutting? Is it mean-spirited? A good-hearted person has a sense of humor that lifts others up and doesn’t tear them down. 2. Generosity is a way of life. In big ways (donating to charity) and small ways (picking up coffee for another), these people are glad to share their resources. 3. They give of their time. For many people in our fast-paced society, time is the most precious commodity. So it speaks volumes when someone is willing to spend a Saturday helping a friend move or doing yard work for an elderly neighbor. 4. The person gives without expecting recognition. In fact, people like this often give of themselves anonymously, perfectly happy to go unnamed and unnoticed. 5. Those who are highly accepting are highly attractive. We love to be around people we know aren’t judging our worth and evaluating us constantly to see if we “measure up.” 6. They make things smooth, not rough. Kindness is the grease that keeps the gears of daily life running smoothly. It calms anxiety, turns sadness into joy, and prevents annoyances from igniting into arguments. 7. Everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Watch how they treat the sales clerk, restaurant server, or taxi driver. 8. The person’s words and actions match. Good deeds emerge from a good heart. The old adage “Actions speak louder than words” applies here. 9. Unselfishness prevails. The unselfish person values your wishes and opinions, is not intent on getting his way, takes a genuine interest in your life, and is glad to serve you. 10. Your relationship is all about win-win. In other words, the good-hearted person wants both of you to feel like winners at all times. There’s no need for either of you to feel like a loser in any way. 11. He or she has a high degree of self-respect. A good heart comes from a strong heart. Those who love themselves in a healthy way can show the same kind of love to others. 12. They get angry for the right reasons. Getting mad at trivial matters is a sign that someone is impatient and ill-tempered. But getting angry because of injustice or inequality demonstrates passion aimed at the right target. 13. Good-hearted people help us feel great about ourselves. Our love for another person is strongly influenced by how that person makes us feel about ourselves. 14. The person consistently lives out the word “trustworthy.” Trust is broken by broken people. But trustworthy individuals know that every investment they make in the relationship will pay dividends. 15. Good people see good in the world. Sure, daunting problems confront us every day. But there are far more positives than negatives—and good-hearted people dwell on what’s going right rather than what’s going wrong.