Buddhist kingdom puts happiness first


Bhutan: This tiny, mountainous Asian nation joins the televised and online world with cautious enthusiam, determined to preserve the best elements of life.

July 29, 2000|By Michael Zielenziger | Michael Zielenziger,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

THIMPHU, Bhutan - Atop these windswept and unforgiving mountains, the world's last Buddhist kingdom has turned itself into a laboratory for a brave social experiment: Can a Spartan rural society join the high-tech world without surrendering its soul?

Bhutan's enticing retort: Gross National Happiness.

After centuries of self-imposed isolation, this postage stamp of a monarchy stuck between the Great Wall of China and India's Taj Mahal is slowly unlocking its doors to the outside, even as it refuses to cast aside its Buddhist identity and culture.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk proposed the term Gross National Happiness to differentiate his nation of 600,000 yak herders, subsistence farmers and Buddhist monks eking out their existence at the top of the world from those obsessed with material well-being. More than just a slogan, Gross National Happiness seems to have succeeded in delivering compassionate development

It isn't just the singing traffic police, who never seem to give out tickets as they wander this capital city bereft of traffic lights. Or the happy-go-lucky, crimson-robed monks, who sometimes can be found shrieking with laughter as they cavort through the countryside on flatbed trucks. Whether measured by the nation's giant leaps in life expectancy, its plunging rates of infant mortality or its growing cadre of Western-educated technocrats, Bhutan has proved able to absorb the best parts of the modern world without leaving its values behind.

Bhutan would seem an unlikely place to learn lessons on the importance of balanced innovation. This territory, about half the size of Indiana, is memorable mostly for its dark pine forests and incredible peaks, its flapping prayer flags and sheer mountain gorges, its valleys secured with giant fortresses of stone.

Yet Bhutan's determination to preserve a unique identity against what it calls the "monoculture" of the larger world has relevance beyond its borders. Many Americans, no doubt, can identify with the dilemma as they wade into the vortex of a wired world, warily confronting mind-numbing technological change that makes life spin faster as it undermines economic fundamentals and social norms.

By taking Gross National Happiness as its mantra, Bhutan has provided stark and dramatic examples of roads not taken in the course of courting economic growth. What other nation, for instance, would:

Close a marble mine because it did not like the way it looked?

Refuse to clear-cut its massive forests and instead put two-thirds of the nation's land mass into perpetual timberland cover?

Strictly limit the number of tourists who can enter the country each year, and effectively specify they be well-heeled. Each must pay at least $200 per day just for the privilege of visiting.

A two-week journey through one of the world's most secluded and undeveloped nations demonstrates that in spite of years of isolation, the Bhutanese welcome the forces of modern technology.

"We felt the compulsion of globalization," explained Foreign Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley. "We see ourselves as a society that must change." At the same time, "we are very conscious of the fact that certain aspects of our culture need to be preserved. Culturally we are changing, but we want to remain Bhutanese."

Forty years ago, this kingdom of weather-beaten subsistence farmers, whose timbered houses seem impossibly stitched to the high horizon, boasted little more than its 17th century stone-walled fortresses known as dzhong, imposing buildings that still house monks and political leaders. Not a road, a conventional school or a postal service existed. The nation had only four doctors. There was no electricity, no telephone service, no radio, no motor vehicles and almost no contact with the outside world. The United States, meantime, was sending John Glenn to explore outer space.

In the past three decades, Bhutan started a system of free public schools, where basic instruction is conducted in English. It began sending its best students overseas for advanced study. (Ninety-nine percent return home after their schooling, the government says.) Gradually, it began introducing some of the best elements of Western science and technology to its poor, mountain-based, agrarian society, even as it maintained adherence to a strict form of Mahayana Buddhism, which teaches that compassion and service to humanity are as important as the wisdom of individual enlightenment.

Although Bhutan remains a poor, semi-feudal kingdom of mostly shepherds and farmers, it has none of the beggars, abject poverty or malnutrition so commonplace among such neighbors as Nepal, India and Bangladesh. It also has maintained its distance from the modern trappings of consumerism. This is one nation without McDonald's, Starbucks or Benetton, not to mention neon signs or traffic lights.

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