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In Buddhist Bhutan, happiness counts

By Vishal Arora
Saturday, March 20, 2010; B02

THIMPHU, BHUTAN The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is the only nation that puts happiness at the core of public policy. But its thrust on a "gross national happiness"(GNH) index is not just a warm-and-fuzzy inheritance from Buddhism; it is integral to the nation's cultural and political security.

Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the phrase GNH in 1972 on the belief that people's happiness did not depend on the nation's economic wealth, said Tshoki Zangmo, information officer at the Center for Bhutan Studies.

It was, Zangmo said, "a notion of wholeness that is embedded in Bhutan's authentic Buddhist culture." Ever since, all manner of government policies have centered on GNH in this landlocked Himalayan country -- about half the size of Indiana -- sandwiched between India to the south and China to the north.

In 2006, the king abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, who in his first address as monarch said his main responsibility would be focusing on GNH.

Two years later, when Bhutan held its first democratic elections after centuries of absolute monarchy rule, GNH was the main agenda of the ruling, royalist Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party.

GNH indicators -- as opposed to more traditional measures like a nation's gross domestic product based on economic activity -- recognizes nine components of happiness: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

It's all tracked twice a year through a survey of 1,300 people conducted by Zangmo's agency.

Many of the GNH indicators find their roots in Buddhism. Psychological well-being, for example, includes measures of meditation, prayer, nonviolence and reincarnation. The country's GNH secretary, Karma Tshiteem, said Buddhism is key to people's happiness.

"Happiness is about one's outlook on life, and Buddhist values help people appreciate and focus on what they have rather than what they do not," he said. "Values such as compassion and respect foster greater social interaction." In addition, belief in karma -- "a force that unifies past and future through the present" -- also figures into GNH, Tshiteem said. Buddhism also had a "tremendous influence" in creating Bhutan's unique culture and traditions, which he said are "the most important source of our identity." The Western notion of separation of church and state is, well, foreign to Bhutan. Here, the government and clergy operate from Buddhist monasteries, such as Home and Culture Minister Minjur Dorji's office in the palatial, whitewashed Tashichho Dzong monastery in the nation's capital.

Bhutan is perhaps the only country where culture is part of the interior ministry's portfolio. Dorji said preservation of culture is crucial for the nation's security, and Bhutanese culture, in turn, "is rooted in Buddhism." One tangible way of preserving culture is a national dress code in schools and government buildings. Men wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, and women wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist.

Bhutan also mandates use of the national language, Dzongkha, and has strict architectural standards throughout the country.

Government officials say it's not just about looking nice in public, but fostering a physical sense of identity to distinguish Bhutan from its larger neighbors.

"Bhutan is a tiny nation between two giants, India and China, and therefore it has to have a distinct culture to reinforce its identity as an independent nation. Otherwise, how is Bhutan different from India?" Dorji said.

Such distinctions are deeply embedded in Bhutanese DNA. The Indian state of Sikkim, on Bhutan's western border, was once a separate Buddhist kingdom ruled by descendants of an Indian Buddhist saint who, according to tradition, brought Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet in the 8th century.

Sikkim was gradually outnumbered by Nepalese Hindus and merged with India after a referendum in 1975. And Tibet, on Bhutan's eastern border, was incorporated into China in 1950.

Neither is it simply a matter of history. "Our little country, once blissfully isolated in a remote corner of the Himalayas . . . is now buffeted by powerful forces," Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said at a recent workshop on GNH.

"Though some have brought benefit . . . some of them threaten not only our profound heritage but even our lives and land." Dorji, the culture minister, said Bhutanese leaders plan to integrate GNH, and its Buddhist underpinnings, into school curriculum, in part to help maintain the country's religious demography of three-quarter Buddhists and one-quarter Hindus.

''It's a small country with less than 700,000 people, so why do you need more religions?" he said, alluding to a few churches that operate underground, fearing persecution.

Indeed, Bhutan's cultural and religious coexistence is fragile, and Bhutan has little patience for threats to that delicate balance. In the 1980s and the early 1990s, about 100,000 people from southern Bhutan -- mainly Hindus of Nepalese origin or Christian converts -- fled to Nepal after Bhutanese security personnel crushed a rebellion against the government's "one nation, one people" campaign to strengthen Bhutan's identity.

"Unlike India, where tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Christians are commonplace," Dorji said, "Bhutan is not resilient."

-- Religion News Service

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