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Happy Land

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In April 1987, Jigme Singye Wangchuck—the young monarch of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation sandwiched between the muscular shoulders of India and China—was being interviewed by the Financial Times. Asked about Bhutan’s development, which was moving at a snail’s pace compared with Nepal’s and Thailand’s, Wangchuck offered a reply that instantly entered the annals of Bhutanese legend. “Gross National Happiness,” he declared, “is more important than Gross National Product.”


King Wangchuck’s remark galvanized his people, who were already seeking a way to reconcile their deeply held Tibetan Buddhist beliefs with the obsessive materialism of the postindustrial world. And it sparked a debate about an issue that Americans, despite the promises made by the Declaration of Independence, have never quite understood. What is happiness, and how does a government cultivate this elusive state in the hearts and minds of its citizens?


After World War II, when the United Nations began spearheading development around the globe, everything was seen through the lens of economic growth: roads and airports, dams and mining. Later, “I think the world came to realize that in this quest for economic development, many countries had lost their souls,” says Kinley Dorji, editor-in-chief of Kuensel, the national newspaper of Bhutan. “Their culture was gone, their environment was gone, their religious heritage was gone. Bhutan’s approach to development, Gross National Happiness, is a clarification of that process.”

Bhutan is about a third the size of Nepal, which lies due west, just beyond a sliver of India. Buddhism arrived there in the seventh century, around the same time it reached Tibet. (Padmasambhava, the great Tantric mystic whose esoteric teachings mesmerized Nepal and Tibet, is also revered in Bhutan.) Some of the early settlers who traveled from Tibet to Bhutan called themselves Drukpa, or “dragon people,” and the name Druk Yul (Land of the Dragon) is what ethnic Bhutanese still call their country.

Bands of warrior monks swept through the region until the 17th century, when a powerful Drukpa abbot who called himself Shabdrung (“at whose feet one submits”) seized control. Shabdrung drove out a wave of Tibetan invaders, crushed an internal rebellion by competing lamas, and began the process of unifying Bhutan. Under Shabdrung, the Drukpa built fortresslike monasteries called dzongs—massive citadels that still serve as Bhutan’s religious and administrative centers.

To enter this timeless land—and this is only my second time in more than 20 years of travel in Asia doing so—I take a short but spectacular flight between Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) and Paro, where Bhutan’s only airport is located. After less than an hour, the Druk Air jet drops over thickly wooded foothills and lands at the airstrip, 7,300 feet above sea level. Despite their proximity, Nepal and Bhutan are worlds apart. Landing in Bhutan, I’m astonished anew by the sylvan mountains, sweet air, and effervescent rivers. It’s a far cry from the Kathmandu Valley, which in the dry spring lies beneath a pall of pollution, surrounded by deforested hillsides and toxic, anemic streams. Most dramatic of all is Bhutan’s relative emptiness: The nation’s total population (as of 2002) is less than 700,000, compared with 25 million for Nepal.

The stunning differences between Bhutan and Nepal are not accidental. More than any of its South Asian neighbors, Bhutan has cultivated an obsessive nationalism, driven by a powerful suspicion of change. In some ways, it seems more like a pristine religious retreat—or an exclusive country club—than a sovereign state.

This mind-set became plainly visible in the late 1980s, when King Wangchuck’s government, which viewed the exploding Hindu-Nepali population in the country’s south as a threat to Bhutan’s Drukpa identity, took desperate steps. It mandated a dress code, requiring men and women to wear the traditional robelike gho and kira, respectively, during business hours and to formal occasions. Walking the streets of Thimpu, Bhutan’s rustic capital, I feel like I’m on the set of Star Trek—an episode in which the crew members find themselves on a planet of seemingly docile, pajama-clad strangers. Bhutanese adults caught in T-shirts are fined or forced to spend a week on a work squad.

Also in the late ’80s, Dzongkha was made Bhutan’s official language, and Mahayana Buddhism its official religion. Taken out of context, these policies could be read as fascistic. But when one looks around the region—at Tibet’s brutal occupation, Nepal’s mindless development, and India’s religious strife—Bhutan’s efforts to homogenize its national identity make sense. All figure into King Wangchuck’s grand experiment to maintain his country as a close-knit community and attain the enlightened goal of Gross National Happiness.


The problem with a policy like Gross National Happiness is immediately obvious to anyone who has worked in foreign aid or development: Happiness is intangible. How do you measure it? How does the government know it has achieved its goal?

On the outskirts of Thimpu, along the banks of the river, an unmarked stucco house stands between an overgrown yard and a small lumber mill; it’s the Center for Bhutan Studies. I climb a short flight of dusty cement steps and arrive at a wooden doorway, blocked by a hanging Tibetan carpet. Lifting the heavy curtain, I gape in amazement. Within is a high-tech lair filled with computers and earnest researchers, one of whom, a man named Sonam Kinga, steps forward to greet me. Kinga is dressed in a smart black and white gho. His oval eyeglasses are perfectly matched to his handsome, symmetrical face. He speaks fast, putting a neat frame around the abstract notion of Gross National Happiness.

“Happiness is beyond measurement,” he allows. “It’s an ultimate state that we are working towards. But there are means that take you there. And it’s those means that can be quantified.” The center, Kinga says, has used Buddhist principles to identify four specific “pillars” upon which Gross National Happiness rests: good governance, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and economic development. Each of these, he admits, has qualities that have never been—and can never be—quantified, but each can be analyzed objectively.

“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.

There are many other examples of this kind of ecofriendliness. Plastic bags, the bane of the developing world, are banned; so are two-stroke engines. And the government has recently introduced tough fuel-quality laws. Fishing in most rivers is prohibited, as is hunting. Cattle grazing, which has so devastated the American Midwest, is restricted. Logging is limited, and mining is strictly controlled. June 2 is Coronation Day, but the king has discouraged pomp and parades, declaring the holiday Social Forestry Day and asking schools and communities to plant trees nationwide. At least 60 percent of Bhutan remains under forest cover, and a quarter of the land area is protected—including vast migration corridors, which allow wildlife to pass unimpeded from the Indian state of Assam into China.

“These efforts we are making at environmental protection are not a new thing,” Sonam Kinga states. “They are not borne of the latest fads or concerns of destruction. They have always been a part of Bhutanese social life and behavior, interwoven with the influence of Buddhism in our society. It is an integral part of Gross National Happiness.

“For example,” he explains, “we do not look at trees or rivers as mere biomass. We see them as living entities. Rocks are the abodes of certain deities that guarantee the protection of a community. Some animals, like the stag or tiger, are the mounts of local deities. So the influence of Buddhism has always been a key factor in conservation here. And not just of flora and fauna but even of nonhuman spirits. Our concept of protection extends beyond the physical biosphere.”

An intense unity with the Buddhist homeland seems to define the Bhutanese personality. One evening, I stop in for a shot of “Dragon’s Breath”—a local rum infused with Bhutanese chilies—at the popular Benez bar. There I meet Tshewang Dendup, a young Bhutanese journalist who has recently returned from 18 months at the University of California, Berkeley. When I ask Dendup if he was tempted to stay in America, he gapes at me in disbelief. Like nearly every Bhutanese who is educated abroad, Dendup flew home the moment his studies ended. “Standing in César Chávez Park, with San Francisco across the bay and the Berkeley hills behind me, I knew I was in a power place,” he says, nodding. “But it never, ever tempted me to stay in the U.S.A. I was continually longing for a dose of Himalayan sanity.”


One morning, three Bhutanese friends dress me up in a borrowed gho. It seems as good a way as any to experience the Bhutanese lifestyle from the inside out. I find the garment both weighty and liberating—sort of a heavy bathrobe. Thus attired, I set off with my guide for Simtokha, on the southern slope of Thimpu Valley. Here lies Bhutan’s oldest dzong, built by Shabdrung in 1627. Across from the dzong is a high school, which has just let out for lunch. I stroll up the road, stopping the kids and asking two things: their own definitions of happiness, and whether they think their government actually cares about them.

“Happiness means peace, sir,” states a lad named Sonam Dorji. “If there is peace, naturally there comes happiness. No, sir?”

“The government of Bhutan is trying to create happiness, and it cares about me and my friends,” echoes Yeshi Chudu. “My life in Bhutan is very happy,” agrees Sonam Choekyi. “I don’t worry that much, just about my studies. And yes, the government cares about us. The king gives priority to the youth of Bhutan!” I listen to all of this in awe; it’s not the response you’d get at many American high schools. On the other hand, the comments have an eerily scripted ring. I grin, understanding why some travelers refer to the Bhutanese as “Stepford Buddhists.”

The key to this phenomenon—Bhutan as Camelot East—is the single thing that most of Bhutan’s neighbors, especially poor Nepal, lack: the strong leadership of a smart Buddhist king. One of the most striking sights I have seen in Bhutan is a photograph of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, now in his late 40s. He is a notably handsome man. In the photograph, Wangchuck—wearing a snappy red gho—is crouched down, head slightly turned, listening intently to a young boy. Along with kneesocks, the king sports a pair of sturdy hiking boots. He seems every inch a people’s monarch—sharp and concerned, majestic but accessible.

And, in the best tradition of Buddhist rule, the king is accessible. Any Bhutanese citizen with a grievance can plant him- or herself in the path of the royal motorcade, holding out a ceremonial scarf, called a kopné. His Majesty is compelled to halt and hear the petition. If he feels the case has merit, he refers it to the Royal Advisory Council, the Bhutanese equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court—the difference being that the council includes Buddhist adepts.

I meet Councillor Gembo Dorji in his spare but modern office in Tashichhoe Dzong, a sprawling white compound that serves as the nation’s Capitol Hill and central diocese. Dorji, now 37, left university and became a monk at the age of 21. A calm, almost inaudibly soft-spoken man, he wears a maroon and yellow robe and a bulky Casio on his wrist. A rust-colored kopné, draped over his left shoulder, identifies him as a member of the highest court in the land.

I ask the councillor to explain how a Buddhist judiciary contributes to good governance, one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness. “We in Bhutan have preserved our culture for so long, between very powerful nations, only because of Buddhism,” he says. “So moral education is very important. We believe that true happiness can only come from inside.”

“Is there such a thing as fundamentalist Buddhist law,” I ask, “with customary penalties and punishments?”

“Our law is definitely based on Buddhist principles,” he replies. “But it doesn’t spell out penalties. There is no death penalty. Life imprisonment is the highest penalty—or cancellation of a business license, for a businessman. We weigh the priorities of each case we have to address.”

“Is there any attempt made to rehabilitate criminals using Buddhist principles?”

“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.


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.

It’s odd to hear a newspaper editor blame the media for his country’s woes. But Dorji, whose nine- and 11-year-old sons are huge Baywatch fans, is genuinely distressed. He wants to see Buddhist ideals and ethics brought into children’s lives, starting at the primary school level. He feels that those values should be part of the curriculum and integrated into school reading materials—and that modern parents, with their modern concerns, are no longer reliable sources of Buddhist training. “Bhutan is a small country, wedged between two large nations,” he says. “The principles of Gross National Happiness are merged with our survival. Bhutanese people, the younger generation especially, need to grow up appreciating the national identity: our cultural, religious, and environmental heritage. If that is understood, the people will know how to deal with all their problems.”

Some of the people, anyway. The main fly in the ointment of Gross National Happiness, to my eye, is not Sex and the City but the very xenophobic nationalism that has allowed Bhutan to survive in a nearly pristine state.

This is really evident on the streets. As I walk along Norzin Lam (an avenue that bisects central Thimpu), which is lined with wooden shops and thick with pedestrians, I think of how clothing can be a great equalizer, but in Bhutan it shows an immediate distinction between the indigenous population and everyone else. Aside from Westerners, who are exempt from the dress code, the only people not in national dress are those of Indian and Nepalese origin, who are continually reminded that they are not, and never will be, Bhutanese citizens.


An hour’s drive west of Thimpu, the city of Paro is like a Wild West town: two-story buildings with painted facades and hand-lettered signs, men lounging against wooden walls, dust devils whirling down the main street, sending old women scampering into doorways with handkerchiefs pressed over their faces.

In Paro, I meet a Swiss aid worker I’ll call Reno, who gives me plenty to chew on regarding the plight of non-Drukpa residents. There are seven ranks of Bhutanese citizenship and residency status, he says, which can be changed based on behavior. If a Bhutanese marries a foreigner, for example, his or her rating drops. And those without a Nonobjection Card can’t get passports or find civil service jobs. These nationalistic policies sometimes even work against the Bhutanese, if they happen to be of Nepali origin. “If your uncle’s sister’s son is in a Nepali refugee camp,” Reno says, “you may find you have some difficulties.”

This isn’t “ethnic cleansing” but passive-aggressive behavior that makes non-Drukpa feel like second-class citizens. “Bhutan isn’t like Africa, where they kill each other with machetes,” Reno says. “But the authorities can prevent so-called southern Bhutanese from getting good jobs and slowly get rid of them that way.”

One irony is that as many Drukpa still rely on traditional Tibetan medicine, educated Indians and Nepalese tend to serve as their doctors and health care providers. And many South Asians work in Bhutan on teaching and accounting contracts.

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.