Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pilgrimage: Living Happiness

Bhutan 2
Bhutan 2 (Photo credit: warwick_carter)

Swati Chopra shares some of the interesting
lessons she learnt in Bhutan.

From the moment you land at Paro in Bhutan, the feeling of having stepped through a magic mirror into another reality begins to grow on you. If you have travelled from a bustling megapolis like Delhi, you might well have arrived at the gates of Shangri La. You have still not shaken off the midnight madness of T3 (the new terminal at Delhi’s international airport), and here you are, alighting from the only flight on a tiny runway, and into a building that looks like a fairytale castle.

Wooden roofs, columns and beams, intricately carved and painted, will recur time and again in Bhutan. Driving from Paro to the capital, Thimphu, you realise you have not seen any houses built any other way. Whether rich or poor, everybody in this country seems to have access to at least this sliver of beauty in their lives — elegant, well-crafted homes.

Bhutan is uncompromisingly traditional in many respects. Men mostly wear the gho, knee-length robes tied at the waist, and the women wear kira, wraparound skirts, with smart silk jackets. Both costumes are hand-woven, usually by the women of the family. Buildings, food, pastimes like archery, modes of celebration, the practice of dharma, and one imagines the fabric of social relationships and conventions, all remain largely tradition-bound.
And yet, the times they are a-changin’. The truth of impermanence, central to the Buddha’s dharma, must seem particularly relevant today, here, in the only Vajrayana Buddhist country in the world.

Bodhisattva Leadership

English: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck o...
English: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan. Probably a studio image. Français : Le roi Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck du Bhutan. Probablement une photo prise en Studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



One of the most obvious changes has been the country’s transition from a kingdom to one of the world’s youngest democracies in 2007-2008, which occurred with the active guidance of the monarchy. In fact, one of the things that have not changed in Bhutan is an unquestioning reverence for the monarchy. Photographs of the young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, and his new bride dominate all public buildings and most private ones, and even appears on badges that everybody sports.

At a time when cynicism dominates the way politicians are perceived the world over, the idea of a ‘bodhisattva leader’ is not just charming; it is revolutionary. An ethical and spiritually engaged leadership is something the world, and certainly we in India, can try and emulate.

Another lesson from Bhutan, one that has been studied internationally over the last few years, is its policy of focusing on Gross National Happiness (GNH), as opposed to Gross National Product (GNP). Articulated in the early 1970s by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, GNH has become a radical proclamation of the importance of spiritual, mental and emotional wellness over economic prosperity alone. GNH is a yardstick against which all policies and decisions in Bhutan are measured, a touchstone that places a dharmic humanism at the heart of the task of governance.

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan 21
Bhutan 21 (Photo credit: warwick_carter)
At a time when the dominant global economic model is staggering under the weight of its own contradictions, GNH offers an alternative perspective, not just of economics but of life. Today, Bhutan is the only one among the top 20 “happiest” countries in the world to have an abysmally low GDP, and a 2007 study on ‘Subjective Well Being’ ranked it eighth among 178 countries. What this means is that despite not having a consumption-driven economy — no BMWs parked in driveways, no Prada showrooms, no big, fat weddings — the people of Bhutan by and large experience well-being and happiness.

They would source this in their understanding of the dharma, as well as the traditional Bhutanese ethics of self-sustenance, social harmony and hospitality. Buddhadharma is the hub upon which the wheel of Bhutanese society turns. Happiness is, therefore, understood as a state of being, which has everything to do with a quietened mind and nothing to do with how much you have. This turning within to achieve equilibrium and equanimity, by steadily working upon the machinations of the mind, is a lesson Bhutan learned from Indian masters who transmitted Vajrayana there, and could now teach us back

Roots And Wings

The pace of cultural and social change worries many in Bhutan. If you care to venture to an underground hotspot after dark, you will find a subterranean world fuelled by rock, alcohol and yes, jeans. Nobody wears a gho, cigarettes are passed around (smoking is banned), and the young dance as only the young can, with carefree abandon. Television, introduced in 1999, might have accelerated the pace of change, as might young people returning with foreign educations and desires.

It is unrealistic to think of shutting out the outside world in this age of globalisation. Bhutan will wake every morning, as it has for many years now, finding it stands at the cusp of losing its treasured culture. It is at a crossroads where, on the one hand, is a traditional and possibly conditional modernity, and on the other is an abandonment of the past for a ‘clean slate’ future. In the middle lies the promise of ancient futures, which combine the roots of tradition with the wings of modernity. As a Buddhist nation, Bhutan might just find the middle path, and succeed in balancing these seemingly opposing forces. And in the process, give us all much-needed lessons in how to be truly, mindfully happy

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