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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

Later, in a small Paro restaurant, I'm joined by Drolma (not her real name), a 23-year-old woman with a broad, grinning face. She's clearly of Nepalese descent. "Go down to southern Bhutan and you'll see what's really happening," she says quietly. "When the ministers come to town,the Nepalese can't meet them. And it's always the Drukpa who get the advancements, the promotions, and the opportunities to study abroad." She shakes her head.

Although Drolma was born in Bhutan, she's not a citizen; her identity card labels her Class 6, a nonnational resident. But she hates Nepal, and there's no work in India, so she'll stay in Bhutan until her status is discovered and she's kicked out. "Nepalese living here have no human rights," she says, shrugging. "Gross National Happiness? I don't think so."

No country, not even a Himalayan kingdom founded on Buddhist principles, is perfect. But Bhutan at least has a framework for self-improvement and a conscience about its actions. And the country is in the process of creating a new constitution. The draft document is full of wonderful phrases—for example, it gives inalienable rights to wildlife and trees as well as to people. It transforms Bhutan into a constitutional monarchy, governed by a council of ministers. Most astonishing, it contains—at Wangchuck's insistence—a clause that allows the king to be removed from the throne if his subjects lose confidence in his rule.

One thing about Camelot: It wouldn't have worked as a republic. Many Bhutanese fear that government "by the people" is too much change, too soon. They're not sure Bhutan is ready for democracy and point to the corruption in Nepal and India as examples of what the new constitution might bring. "We don't need to rush or keep pace with the modern world," insists Pema (again, not her real name), an articulate nurse. "Yes, democratic principles are what we aim for. But we have to take them into our own context, without necessarily following what other people have done."

As Bhutan prepares to adopt some American political and cultural values (from creating its own Bill of Rights to broadcasting Sex and the City), a question bedevils me. How might the United States change if our government and people set aside the mantle of a superpower and focused on happiness as the ultimate goal of our national and individual lives?It's a frustrating subject, as the resources to create such a society are clearly within our means. But resources are not enough. The crucial thing, as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, is motivation—and ours has been compromised by decades of corporate greed, personal materialism, and sitcom reruns.

Still, we can continue to hope for an enlightened American era—an age in which our national politics are based on compassion rather than greed. Getting to that point is no more difficult, perhaps, than solving a famous Buddhist koan: Who is brave enough to untie the bell from the fierce lion's neck?

Answer: The one who tied it there in the first place.

Jeff Greenwald (, a YJ contributing editor, wrote about the ethical implications of spiritual travel to Burma for our November 2003 issue.

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amazing article - thank you

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