Lama Shenphen Zangpo

Lama-ShenphenLama Shenphen Zangpo has spent more than 25 years practicing and studying Buddhism in different parts of the world. He spares a moment to talk to The Raven about the youth and substance abuse in Bhutan.


Q) We are witnessing, increasingly, a great deal of problems with our young people especially in Thimphu and other urban areas. How serious would you say this problem is?

From my experience with the youth in Thimphu, I would say that the overwhelming majority of so called “unruly” kids are just lacking good guidance and also, perhaps, a clear vision of how to move forward and make positive changes in their lives. With timely and appropriate help and support, the majority can become well-adjusted and decent adults.


Q) What advice would you offer to parents, and guardians, with regard to raising kids in an urban environment?

Spend time with your children. Read to them when they are young. Take them cycling or hiking when they are older. Also, parents need to realize that children are precious human beings who deserve their full attention, love and devotion. They are not inanimate objects that can be abandoned when we tire of taking care of them.

I do not give up because I know that even the most confused and lost person possesses basic goodness.  And that through guidance, that goodness can shine through.

In addition, if a parent wants their son or daughter to become a caring, confident and responsible adult, they must exhibit these qualities themselves. It is unreasonable to expect a child to develop in a healthy way if they grow up in a household where one or both parents are having extra-marital affairs, abusing each other, drinking excessively, or spending every evening in bars or clubs.

Basically, from the moment that a couple has a child, they need to understand that they have a shared future. It is no longer about them as individuals, but about them as a family and as part of the community. Personal wants and desires should take second place to the needs of their child. When done with compassion, wisdom and commitment, parenting can be one of the most rewarding and precious experiences in life.


Q) You have given much off yourself, and dedicated your time working with addicts in Thimphu. You must find it frustrating at times; do you ever feel like giving up?

I sometimes run out of options, but, no, I never feel like giving up.


Q) What keeps you going?

Well, as a Buddhist I know that everyone naturally possesses basic goodness. This is our natural state when purified of defilements. Take a diamond buried in mud as an example. No matter how thick the dirt, or irrespective of how long the diamond has been buried, it is never tarnished or tainted by the mud. Once the diamond has been dug out and washed, it appears in its natural, pristine state. In this example, the diamond represents our pure mind, while the mud is the ignorance that causes us to do harmful action.

Now, if the mud could somehow enter the diamond and permanently contaminate it, then there would be no point in washing it, but this is not the case. That is why a diamond hunter seeks diamonds in soil and mud. He knows that the dirt is not part of the diamond and can be washed away.

It is the same with addicts. The addiction was not there at birth and any negative action that is being committed is a result of their addiction or other circumstances. Consequently, like the soil on the diamond, it can be washed away.

Of course, if someone is a danger to themselves or others, they may need to be isolated from society or placed in a safe location, but we should never give up on them. In the same way that a diamond caked with thick mud might take longer to clean than a diamond covered with a thin layer, we understand that a person with a long history of addiction or anti-social behaviour might require more attention and support than a short term user. Yet, in both cases, the dirt or ignorance can still be cleansed away to reveal a pure and untainted essence.

For real-life examples of people who did negative things but finally became good, we need look no further than our own Buddhist tradition. Both Milerapa and Angulimala killed many people, but when ‘cleansed’ of their ignorance, they became masters of the Dharma who have offered countless generations a shining example of human goodness.

So, to return to your original question, I do not give up because I know that even the most confused and lost person possesses basic goodness.  And that through guidance, that goodness can shine through. Also, I try to see all interactions with a non-discriminating view. For example, from morning until night we have to do something, right? We cannot leave the planet, and so if I am working with a person who has relapsed for the tenth time or a person who got clean the first time and is doing well my physical effort is the same. It is my mind that clings to a positive result and rejects a negative one. And so if I am feeling frustrated and agitated with the relapsed case, I need to recognize that the problem lies with my own expectations, not the person himself. Therefore, to effectively address these feelings, I need to go directly to the source – my own mind. Giving up on someone is not an option.


Q) What do you think are the main causes for the increase in drug use and how can it be effectively addressed?

Well, as Buddhists, we know that many causes and conditions are required to create a specific situation.  We know that weeds, for example, only develop when the conditions, such as soil, sunlight and moisture, are favourable to their growth. It is the same with social problems. They do not arise suddenly and at random, but also develop through a number of causes and conditions.

To put it in another way, babies around the world do not have a greater propensity to become an addict now than they did thirty or fifty years ago. What has changed is the environment in which they are raised. Therefore, in order to effectively address drug problems, it is necessary to deal with the environment, not only the user. Like a farmer who adds fertilizer to his soil or adjusts the level of irrigation when his crop is showing signs of weakness, [world] leaders need to take a long hard look at their societies and to show the courage and resolve to make any necessary adjustments to counter a rising trend of anti-social behaviour.


Q) Are there any good models, or programs, around the world for dealing with addiction problems?

Well, there have been many attempts to deal with the problem, but, no, I don’t think that there have been any outstanding success stories. Countries that presently don’t have major drug problems, such as Taiwan and Japan, didn’t have them originally. It is not that they have been especially successful in dealing with them. However, I am aware that Taiwan does not criminalize people caught taking drugs, but instead supports them to undergo rehab treatment. In this way, the addicts are considered patients and not criminals and, as a result, receive treatment for their underlying problems, not punishment for their action. Perhaps the Taiwan approach is worth exploring.


Q) If we have an addict friend or family member, how should we see them?

As a valued and precious human being who is in desperate need of help.Furthermore, we should understand that their erratic or anti-social behaviour is a result of their drug use and will stop once they are free of addiction.  Basically, if we really want to help an addict, we first need to make them understand that they have a problem. This may take time as most addicts are in denial. However, once they accept that they are addicted, they should be persuaded to meet one of the psychiatrists at the Thimphu Referral Hospital and admitted to the psychiatric ward for a ten day detox programme. After successful detox, they can enter Serbithang Rehab – although there may be a waiting list of around one month to six weeks for a bed. Alternatively, the addict can be taken directly to a rehab in India. Sahayata in Siliguri and Goodwill in Darjeeling are popular options for Bhutanese. The Drop In Centre (above the taxi parking in Thimphu) can offer support and advice, as well as give information about support groups in other parts of Bhutan.


Q) What advice can you offer anyone who may be suffering with addiction problems themselves?

Seek professional help. In the same way that toothache or any other disease cannot be eliminated by the power of mind, so addiction cannot be stopped through will power. It is not your fault. It is just the nature of the disease.  Likewise, there is nothing to be ashamed of. There is not a single person in the world that has never made a wrong decision in their lives. Taking drugs was just a mistake – a wrong turning in the road. Now it is time to get back on track. Also, know that help is available. I am always personally ready to meet with anyone who is suffering with addiction problems and will do my utmost to help in any way possible. Otherwise, you can seek advice and assistance at Drop-in-Centres around the country.


Q) On a concluding note, would you like to add anything?

Please do not think of an addict as just an addict. They are also someone’s son or daughter and a precious human being. Like us, addicts have dreams and want to be free of their suffering and pain. They have just made a mistake in life. That is all. In this respect, they need and deserve our help and compassion, not our condemnation.


If you have a relative or friend who has an addiction problem you can seek help at any of these numbers:



Thimphu:  Nazhoen Pelri – (02) 333-303,

Chithuen Pendhey:  (02) 333-111

Jakar:  (03) 631-627

Mongar: (04) 641-217

P/ing:  17680293

Rehabs in India:

Siliguri (Sahayata): +91 9609996661, +91 7872984122, +91 9641349393

Darjeeling (Goodwill) +91 9800794736, +91 9679198219



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