Click the image to the left to go to the Kingdom of Bhutan’s website, which we have been visiting in recent months in advance of a planned visit for work. Our friends to the north will surely appreciate the sentiments and insights of this essay in the current issue of Orion magazine, which we find useful background preparation in case our visit, and prospective new project, come to pass:
FROM THE FORESTED HILLSIDE above us, a bulldozer sends giant rocks and tree limbs sailing down onto the hundreds-of-years-old footpath leading us from the Paro Valley floor to Dra Lhakhang, a cliffside temple where the six of us plan to sleep on the first night of our three-day hike to, Dragipangtsho, a lake considered holy. Karma Wangchuk, the leader of our hiking party, blows his pocket whistle and screams along with the rest of us, hoping our distressed voices will penetrate the roar of the machine. Finally, the bulldozer stops and the road crew hollers and waves down to us in acknowledgement, oblivious to our peril.
It is the week before final exams at the Paro College of Education, and Karma, a teacher of Shakespeare and advisor to the drama club, is guiding five of us—my partner and me and three students—to the holy lake whose name, translated into English from Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan, means “in the lap of the mountain,” or “in the lap of the guru,” the guru being Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century.
As a visitor here, teaching for nine months on a Fulbright fellowship, so much of this country is surprising to me. But this is a surprise even to my Bhutanese friends: on our way to this very holy site, where ordinary Bhutanese, let alone Westerners, seldom tread, we have come across a scene of demolition, or perhaps you could call it progress. This first day of our journey has thrust us unapologetically into a collision of competing desires that marks Bhutan’s own journey from an isolated, largely self-sustaining Buddhist kingdom to a modern democracy. Karma cannot believe there will be a road to the cliff temple, and if that comes to pass, a road to the holy lake, the ultimate destination of our hike, may not be far behind. “Oh, the road,” he says with a groan. “The road means so many things. This is what is happening. It is the thirst of people for an easier life. But there is a trade-off between peace and convenience.”
A few more yards and we emerge from the forest onto the raw, red dirt swath that is the beginning of the new road. There to greet us is Sangay Dorji, the temple caretaker. He has been contracted to bring the road crew a daily hot lunch and a thermos of suja, or butter tea. He cooks the meat, lentils, rice, and ema datshi (Bhutan’s signature dish of hot chilies and melted cheese) in his kitchen at the temple over a wood fire, pours the tea into an enormous thermos, packs the food into plastic insulated tiffins, and hauls the meal an hour down the steep mountain in a basket strapped to his back. His legs are braided steel rope; his face is lined with wrinkles, his mouth ringed red from chewing doma—betel nut and lime paste wrapped in a waxy leaf. Sangay Dorji’s outfit is that of a Bhutanese country rustic—camo-patterned long johns and a tattered red t-shirt, a man’s striped button-down oxford pushed up at the elbows, the sleeves of his traditional gho tied around his waist, and on his feet what the Bhutanese call “China shoes,” olive-drab canvas high-tops smuggled over the border from Tibet.
By the following month the road crew will be at the doorstep of the temple, Sangay Dorji tells us, laughing with delight. He can simply invite them in for lunch! It was he who made the dream of the road a reality. He regards this act as one of his greatest achievements, accomplishing it by convincing local officials (and gifting them with generous hunks of fresh butter and cheese) that the road is vital for the community. The small village at the bottom of the mountain holds all of its important rituals at this ancient, mist-enfolded dwelling mind-bogglingly perched on the side of a cliff. The temple is built in traditional Bhutanese style with thick, earthen, whitewashed outer walls, dark heavy timbers, gently curved tiled roofs decorated with gilded dragon’s head cornices, its woodwork adorned with the painted signs and symbols of Bhutanese spiritual life—the fish, the wheel, the lotus, the conch. Now it will be easier for everyone to attend the ritual offering ceremonies, or pujas. No more huffing and puffing up the mountain with one hundred pounds of rice on your back. No more horses. Even the old people can come, by car!
DRUK YUL, the DRAGON KINGDOM, has been incognito for a long, long time. A country roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, but with less than half the population, it sits sandwiched between its giant neighbors, China and India. It has never been colonized by a foreign power and was only once unsuccessfully intruded upon by the British. It has remained a place apart—a secret, secluded jewel of a Buddhist kingdom in the lap of the Himalayas, ruled by a family of kings and queens whose pictures adorn nearly every household. Suddenly, however, it has burst upon the global scene, not only as an elite tourist destination, but as a champion in the quest for human happiness and sustainable economics, its leaders making international headlines as they invite other nations to wake up and get on board with the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.
GNH, as the Bhutanese call it, was conceived of by the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who, in the mid-1970s, realized Bhutan could no longer remain hidden from the rest of the world like a real-life Shangri-La, but would need to modernize or risk being erased entirely. How could this be done without wrecking Bhutan’s diverse and precious natural resources, subjecting its people to unfettered capitalism, or prostituting its complex and rich Tibetan Buddhist culture to tourism? His answer was Gross National Happiness, and he is famously quoted as saying, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
GNH is both a development paradigm and an instrument being offered as a more holistic way to measure material as well as nonmaterial indicators of well-being. Most nations of the world use GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, to measure their economic health. GDP, developed in 1934 by economist Simon Kuznets, measures the market value of all the officially recognized goods and services produced in a country within a given amount of time. The higher the GDP the better, from an economist’s point of view, because that means a country is better able to provide those things to its citizens that are deemed necessary for a happy life, such as education and health care. But even GDP’s inventor warned that it was a blunt instrument with which to measure “economic welfare” because it only measures material aspects of human life. Economists stick with it, however, because nonmaterial aspects are so hard to measure.
With a GDP of just $1.8 billion, Bhutan is an undeniably poor country whose economy hasn’t caught up to much of the rest of the world’s. Bhutan held fast against the introduction of television and the internet until 1999, ATMs have just arrived, credit cards are nearly nonexistent, the first domestic air service started in 2012, there are no trains, loans and savings accounts are unfamiliar accoutrements of another world, and as recently as fifty years ago a cup of salt was the price for a bolt of hand-woven cloth. Perhaps, the king of Bhutan might have imagined, there was a development indicator that might measure other qualities of life in which Bhutan might be considered rich, in which it did not need to “catch up,” but in which it was already sufficient. Bhutan’s GNH index was born from this idea—that there must be a way to define well-being more broadly than in terms of dollars.
Westerners, in their dawning realization that money can’t buy happiness, often misinterpret GNH, holding out hope that Bhutan alone knows one last magic trick that will rescue us all from the dystopia of late capitalism. But GNH is more complex than that, and Bhutan is more than a Himalayan Disneyland. GNH is part of Bhutan’s plan for negotiating the wilderness of modernization without losing its soul. Every schoolchild, public policymaker, teacher, citizen, and civil servant has been asked to help create a society based on the four pillars of GNH: sustainable and equitable economic development, conservation of the environment, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.
Another thing that confuses Westerners, says Nyingtob Pema Norbu, a GNH Commission planning officer, is the very word “happy.” In Bhutan, happiness is not a perfect life softly cocooned in pillows of cleanliness, security, and abundance. “I like to start by translating what happiness means in our language,” he says. “Ghakey—the first syllable, gha, is a word that you can use when you say you like something, when you say you love someone; it can also be used to describe a state of elation. The second syllable, key, means peace. When we refer to happiness, we are talking about harmony, striking a balance, so you’re not just focusing on individual emotion but the enabling conditions that will facilitate an individual pursuit of happiness.”
Can a country that claims in its brand-new constitution that happiness is more important than money survive, let alone thrive, in a global economy that measures everything by the dollar? How do you measure happiness? Can governments actually help people be happy? Can this tiny hermit kingdom really serve as a model for change for the rest of the world? You could argue that these are some of the most vital questions of our time.
Read the whole essay here.