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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

"Not yet," he concedes. "They just go to prison. But whenever a case comes to our council, we try to view the situation as compassionately as possible—with an understanding for motivations like anger, jealousy, and passion—and see if it can be settled through mutual understanding. We call the petitioner who has made the appeal and allow him to speak his mind. Then we explain ways to come to an understanding or agreement, based on Buddhist principles. The plaintiff gets 10 days or two weeks, and during this time, they try to think and discuss the matter with people who can give them good advice. In many cases, it works."

This perspective on the law is intriguing, as it seems to depersonalize crime. The act of judgment becomes an opportunity for Buddhist practice and spiritual growth. How might our society change, I wonder, if we tried to view criminal acts—from sexual abuse to terrorist bombings—through the lens of compassion rather than disgust or vengeance? Our penalties might remain stiff, but our ability to deflect future crimes would be far greater.

THE PROBLEM WITH NATIONALISM
Bhutan is a remarkable place, and the concept of Gross National Happiness is irresistible. But the kingdom, despite its tourist propaganda, is not Shangri-la. Like democracy, corporate ethics, or instant coffee, its goal is a theoretical one that may or may not be realized.

"The obstacles to Gross National Happiness," declares Kuensel editor Kinley Dorji, "are the obstacles to Bhutan." We're sitting in the Swiss Café, lunching on samosas and apple juice. I'm expecting Dorji to focus on Bhutan's two thorniest political crises. Assamese militants in the jungly south, fighting for a homeland, have been crossing the border and attacking India from inside Bhutan. New Delhi has threatened reprisals, but Bhutan is trying to reason with the rebels. (As this story went to print, the tiny Bhutanese army had actually engaged the insurgents in armed conflict.) Then there's the embarrassing matter of some 100,000 Nepalese refugees, many of whose families lived in Bhutan for generations. These people were booted from Bhutan in the late 1980s, after census figures suggested they would eventually outnumber the indigenous Drukpa. Most are now in dingy camps in southern Nepal.

But Dorji's chief concern turns out to be television—an indomitable force, introduced to Bhutan just five years ago and coming "almost as an aerial invasion." When satellite TV arrived in 1999, Dorji says, Kuensel received letters from distressed children who had gotten a dose of the World Wrestling Federation. "We're talking about a generation of kids brought up in a strong Buddhist environment," he says. "Now they were writing to us saying, ‘Why are these grown men beating each other so mercilessly? Why?' They were very disturbed." Dorji sighs. "Today, of course, they accept it."

This is something of an understatement. All over Thimpu, I notice kids wearing T-shirts that feature stars of the WWF flooring one another with gleeful smackdowns. Baywatch and MTV T-shirts are equally popular. There's little doubt that violent and explicit shows affect social behavior, especially that of young men. During my stay, a Western woman was molested while walking alone through Thimpu—the first time something like that had occurred, an aid worker tells me. "The values instilled by our parents, the oral tradition, grandfathers' stories around the fire at night—that's what television has replaced," Dorji declares.

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Rebecca

amazing article - thank you

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