Home > Blog: Currents & Futures > Tsering Dolma and the Economics of Happiness

[This is Part Two… what happened after I got to Hunder-Douk…]

Tsering Dolma 01Tsering Dolma is one of the poorest people I’ve ever met.  In a world that measures wealth by money, she has next to none.  The UN sets the poverty standard at two dollars a day.  I’ll bet that Tsering Dolma doesn’t have two dollars a week.

Paradoxically, Tsering Dolma is also one of the richest women I’ve ever met.  Walking her fields of barley, peas and carrots, cooking dinner in the house that has served 10 generations, cutting her vegetables by the generous stream that flows through her property, she lacks NOTHING.

Meeting Tsering was the culmination of a three-year long promise that was extracted from me by her daughter, Stanzin Changchub.  I first started corresponding with Stanzin via email, introduced to me by Wasantha, a mutual friend.  I was struck by how OPPOSITE her life was from mine… she lived literally on the other side of the world, in the Himalayan country of Ladakh.

And, as I found out, her mother lived even further.

From her first emails, Stanzin would write: “You must come to Ladakh!  And, you must meet my mother!”

[Getting to meet her mother took some doing.  See my earlier article on Getting to Hunder Douk.]

What Sustainability Really Looks Like…

Once I recovered from the journey to the village, I got a chance to look around.  Hunder-Douk consists of a series of flat plateaus high above the Douk River.  Stanzin’s mother and brother live in one “village”, the next one is only a baseball throw away, but more than an hour’s distance on foot, separated by its own ravine – and a plank and rope bridge, no handrails, over a 100 foot plunge into a tributary.  (Needless to say, I didn’t go visiting.)

The plateau is terraced into various fields, each field planted with what would sustain Tsering, her son and her animals for the long, cold winter in the mountains.

No one knows why the first people settled in that area.  What called them? Tsering guesses that at least 10 generations have lived on that spot.  Perhaps more.

Ten generations of people.  Ten generations of animals – cows and dzou’s, the cross between yaks and cows.  A few hundred years of the same barley and peas being planted and harvested, year after year generation after generation.

This is “genetic manipulation”.  Give your food a few hundred years to get to know you – and vice versa.  Give your food enough time to fall in love with you.  Why are you in such a hurry?

This is also radical sustainability.  This is spiritual sustainability – to know one’s place in the Cosmos, to live one’s life fully, to live one’s life well, to know where your children were born and where you will die.

The Economics of Exercise

Make no mistake – Tsering Dolma’s life is hard.  She’s up at 5:30am every day, climbing to the Buddhist shrine at the top of the hill for prayers and offerings, fixing meals, tending crops, planting, harvesting… She takes it all at her own pace, never rushes, always has time to pause to check out the weather, or look at her fields.

Or talk to me.  She doesn’t know a word of English, and doesn’t seem to grasp (or care) that I can’t understand a word of Ladakhi.

Tsering’s life is hard… but life is SUPPOSED to be hard!  If you don’t engage your body with hard work, the consequences are dire. (What is the first thing that your doctor says to you?  Almost regardless of the malady, he/she says, “Eat more vegetables and get more exercise!”  What the doctor is saying is, “Live like Tsering Dolma!”

Most of us in the West work for money, so that we can buy “labor-saving devices”, then work for MORE money, so that we can buy a membership in a gym, so that we can rent “labor-extracting devices”.

Tsering gets to skip all that.  I watched her washing her clothes, then washed my own, in water that was ice just a few minutes before.  My hands were numb from cold in just a few minutes.  I was panting from exertion after wringing out my pants.  Tsering gave me a look that seemed to say, “What exactly is your problem?

The difference between Tsering walking two miles to deliver a pot of chai to the family of some road workers, and you walking two miles on a treadmill in a gym is that her walk is MEANINGFUL.  It builds community, compassion, respect, inclusivity…

The Economics of the Present Moment

One of my most pleasant experiences in recent memory: Sitting on a rock by the stream, drinking fresh, cold (unfiltered) mountain water, watching white butterflies chase each other through the barley fields, watching Tsering squatting a few feet away, cutting up the vegetables that would go into our lunch, chattering away at me, handing me fresh pea pods to eat, waving her knife toward the fields to emphasize some point… I realize that I am HAPPY.  Not “happy” as in “well entertained”, but “happy” as in “fulfilled”.  At that moment, I want for nothing.

It is in that moment that Tsering Dolma lives her entire life.

In that moment, a lot of work gets done.  But, there really is no “doing”.  There is an effortless flow of energy in, energy out, a dance of simplicity.


The Economics of Service

A big part of Tsering’s life is connecting with the trekkers who make it that far up to Dok River Canyon.  For those who make it, Tsering’s house is the first they encounter.  And what they encounter is the legendary hospitality of Ladakhi villagers.

On my first day there, two people came in – a woman from England and a local Ladakhi guide.  The woman was a professional tour guide and experienced trekker, having just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in East Africa a few months earlier.  And SHE said that she was wiped out… that the Path to Hunder-Dok had taken all of her energy.  (Made me feel less like a wimp!)  She stayed for several hours, while Tsering watered, fed, tea’d and otherwise made us feel like long-lost friends, returning home.

Tsering’s main concern throughout the day was making sure that

Stanzin, Tsering and Austrian trekkers (don't be fooled - Stanzin is standing on a hill!)

Stanzin, Tsering and Austrian trekkers (don’t be fooled – Stanzin is standing on a hill!)

her guests had enough.  More milk tea?  More butter tea?  More food?  She came across me on one of the paths, sitting on a rock. She went back to the house to get a pad for me to sit on.  (I assured her, through words and pantomime, that I carried plenty of internal padding for a stone.  She looked skeptical…)

What she offers to trekkers:  Stay as long as you like.  Eat and Typical lunch (edit small) DSC00471drink as much as you like.  Leave some money, but only if you want to.

She does this, not because it makes her MONEY, but because it makes her HAPPY.  This is the “Economics of Happiness” in action.

Do people abuse her generosity?  Of course they do.  Does it matter to her?  Why should it?  Rain falls on the good and on the unjust.  And Tsering is like the rain…

The Economics of Love

I think it’s safe to say that Tsering Dolma’s actions are motivated by METTA, the notion of loving-kindness.  She loves us, and that love takes the form of caring for us, even though we are total strangers.

Is feeding a stranger or tending to their needs a form of “love”?  Jesus thought so, and so do I.  In our culture, we tend to give out hugs and warm fuzzies, but skip the parts about meeting basic needs.

At one point, Tsering was talking to her daughter, with a sad look on her face.  Stanzin said, “My mother doesn’t think you are eating well enough.”  In the morning, either mother or son bring me

Typical Ladakhi breakfast

Typical Ladakhi breakfast

“morning tea”, followed by breakfast: thick, heavy barley cakes, with either yogurt, curried vegetables, or butter and jam.  With more tea.

The barley cakes and yogurt are so rich, I can only eat one of them – hence her concern.  “My mother eats four of them every morning.”  (I wonder where she packs them on her thin, not quite 5 foot tall frame!)

The next morning, I manage to eat one and a half cakes.  She seems happier.

Is feeding someone an act of love?  You bet it is.  It’s a demonstration of love and caring that I didn’t understand from my own mother until I was an adult.

So, thank you Tsering Dolma.  And, thank you, Mom.


At one point, Tsering picked up the aluminum trekking poles where her guests had laid them, turning them over, balancing them, tried walking with them, all with a frown of concentration.  Then, she picked up the hat of one of the trekkers, put it on top of the poles, and started moving them back and forth, like someone turning their head. Her own personal puppet theater.  Her entire face lights up in a big grin – this is the funniest thing she’d seen in a long time.  It was a precious, innocent, and sweet moment.  (Sorry, folks – I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough.)

Tsering is as hard as nails, but with a sense of wonder and presence that is child-like (but not child-ish).  Whether watching me brush my teeth in the morning, seemingly fascinated by my multi-colored toothbrush holder (at the stream – no privacy), or watching the trekker fill up her “camel-back” drinking pouch with water, it was always accompanied by “Oh!  Ah!   Aha!”

 What “The Economics of Happiness” Really Means

I started out saying that Tsering Dolma is “poor”, according to the United Nations.  They measure things in terms of money.

Tsering Dolma doesn’t need money.  At least, not much.

Six of her seven children send her money when she needs it – which isn’t often.  (Her seventh child lives right on the property with her and helps her every day.)

Her children have offered to pool their resources and get her a place in the city of Leh.  She rejects the notion.  “I love this place.  Besides, who would feed the guests who come here?”  And, she says with finality, “I will die right here.”

She equally rejects operating her homestead for a profit, charging the trekkers for water, food and accommodation.  “If they give something, that’s okay.  But, if I charge, how can I accumulate merit for being generous to strangers?”

Yes, that’s right.  Ms. “Less-Than-Two-Dollars-a-Day” Tsering Dolma has SO MUCH, her main focus is in how much she can GIVE.  She is the very definition of wealth.

This, to me, is the essence of “The Economics of Happiness”.

May All Beings be WELL

May All Beings be SECURE

May All Beings be HAPPY.

Tsering Dorma in fields 20130810121740(4)






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