Bhutan has been in the limelight in the last few years. The country is synonymous with GNH (Gross National Happiness), a more holistic measure of national development first coined by the 3rd King in 1972. There is even more interest amongst Buddhists because GNH is, in part, inspired by Buddhist philosophy and is seen by some Buddhists (especially in stressed out Singapore) as some sort of Shangri-La on earth.
Below are my reflections on my recent visit to the country. I have to say I only stayed in the country for 5 days so it is in no way a comprehensive study of the country.
Bhutan is a small mountainous country about the size of Taiwan and has a small population of only 700,000 people. It is surrounded by the Himalayas (China) to the north and India to the south. It is landlocked and has never been colonized. The reclusive Buddhist country opened up to the outside world in the 1970s. The country is politically very stable and the 4th King voluntarily gave up power in 2008 and introduced democracy to the country.
While the country is considered a “developing country”, the government is very far sighted. The country has universal healthcare and free education for all its citizens. All subjects in school are taught in English. Because of this most people could communicate in English. And during my short 5 days stay, only once did I see a homeless person.
The country also places high premiums on protecting the environment (one of the measures of GNH). During my stay in Bhutan, I did not see any dirty streets and every rivers and streams I saw were clean. Most mountains and hills, even in the capital, are covered with trees and according to my guide, everyone is encouraged to plant 2 tree samplings every year. Many shops use paper bags and the country only allow bio-degradable plastic bags to be used.
Charging USD250 per day per tourist helps ensure that only “quality” tourists visit the country. The strategy seems to be working – protecting the local culture (another measure of GNH) while earning precious dollars for the local economy.
The people are deeply religious (they practice Vajrayana Buddhism), while I had limited interaction with Bhutanese other than my guide, it seems that and Buddhism is indeed a very integral part of Bhutanese identity and way of life (more so than Thailand).
So are the Bhutanese as happy as reputed? Well it depends on what we mean by happiness. If happiness is measured by how often people simple and laugh, then I feel the Philippines would come across as a happier country. However, if we measure happiness by GNH (sustainable economic development, protecting the environment, and culture and good governance) then I think Bhutan has certainly done a great job.
The government seems to genuinely care about the happiness and welfare of the people and has learned the lessons many other developing countries have made and tries not to make the same mistakes. However, the country is not without its challenges.
Bhutan wants development; my guide shared with us how as a child he used to spend an hour each morning gathering fire wood in the forest just to collect enough fuel to cook. Bathing during winter is rare due to the lack of fuel to heat the water. Kitchens were often dark, smoke-filled rooms with poor hygiene. With the introduction of electricity and cooking gas in recent years, all that has changed.
Nevertheless these modern amenities cost money and the majority of the people can’t afford it without support from the government. Most students today still spend an hour or more walking to school daily (how many parents in Singapore would be happy if their children had to walk an hour to go to school?) – Development has their benefits, but in order for more people to enjoy these benefits the country needs to have greater economic means.
(I feel that Bhutan faces many economic challenges. The country is very mountainous, land locked and the small population is sparsely spread throughout the country. Today, hydro-electricity export to India forms the main source of income for Bhutan, while 80% of the population survived on subsistence farming.)
So why does my reflection on Bhutan sounds more economics than Buddhistic? Many of us have the “grass is greener on the other side syndrome”- Over-enthusiastic Buddhists may have a romantic view of Bhutan, thinking that with its Buddhist inspired GNH, Bhutan is happy and troubled free. Truth is the country faces many challenges, just like Singapore (or any other country).
In addition, as Buddhists, we sometime see only the spiritual dimension to happiness. However, the reality, is many other factors (like family, environment, security, health etc) also contributes greatly to our happiness and general well-being.
Therefore I feel that there are much we can learn from the Bhutanese system. For many money minded Singaporeans, we can start by learning a little contentment and take a little time to seek our inner Bhutan (peace).