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Happy Land

In the tiny Buddhist country of Bhutan, the government's policies actively promote the contentment of its citizens. But can this grand experiment withstand the growing pressures of the 21st century?

By Jeff Greenwald

"Let's take cultural preservation," Kinga says. "We have about 2,000 monasteries in this country. The very fact that they are still active, that they are being supported by the state, that there are monks doing what they have been doing for centuries, is a tangible aspect of cultural preservation. We can count the number of monks who are studying; we can count the number of old monasteries and how many new ones are being built. What we can't count is the cultural impact of all this—the value of keeping these traditions alive."

Like every other Bhutanese I speak with, Kinga sees Gross National Happiness as a personal, as well as a professional, goal. It's a way of life, fostering nationalism and spiritual practice. "In Bhutanese society, the king is the unifying force," he says. "He's not just a political figure; at the core, he's a Buddhist leader. The wisdom of our king—in integrating wisdom and compassion with scientific methods and approaches—is the bedrock of our national policy. When we break down every aspect of Bhutanese life, there are few places where the government does not come in. Not as an intervening force, but as a force that supplements the initiative of private people."

Schools are being erected everywhere, despite the fact that Bhutan, Kinga reminds me, is intensely agrarian. (About 85 percent of all Bhutanese are farmers.) Education is free up to the college level, and the government provides college scholarships, for study at home or abroad, to students with qualifying test scores. Kinga ticks off some additional benefits of being a Bhutanese subject: Medical care is free to all; a national pension plan, designed to reinforce the diminishing role of the extended family, has just been released; maternity leave is three months for women, 15 days for new fathers.

Bhutan's government is also deeply invested in the third pillar of Gross National Happiness: the country's environment. One strategy for protecting the nation's environment is the tight control of tourism. No tourists at all were allowed into Bhutan before 1974. The policy has since been relaxed, but the number of visitors is still strictly limited. In 1998, half a million foreigners swarmed into Nepal; Bhutan admitted just 5,000. And with all visitors charged about $250 per day (which includes transportation, lodging, a certified guide, and all the chilies you can eat), you don't see a lot of shoestring backpackers.

Even this limited amount of tourism is under siege. Recently, when Kuensel ran outraged letters reporting that tourists had outnumbered locals at a traditional Buddhist festival, tramping across the temple grounds and shoving their camcorders in the faces of the dancers, some Bhutanese began asking if any.

When it comes to preserving their natural environment, though, the Bhutanese are of one mind. Almost every educated citizen can recite statistics about the country's astonishing biodiversity. Bhutan hosts 165 species of mammals and more than 675 species of birds. There are 600 species of orchids alone and more than 300 medicinal plants—the Bhutanese still practice traditional medicine, as taught in the Buddhist sutras. The Bhutanese commitment to environmental preservation is nothing short of inspiring and could serve as a model for the world at large. One anecdote indicates the depth of this commitment. A few years ago, residents of Phobjikha Valley, famous for its migratory cranes, proudly installed electricity in their village. It was soon discovered, however, that some cranes were flying into the power lines. So the villagers tore them down and switched to solar power.

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amazing article - thank you

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