The Blessings of Bhutan

As a Bhutanese I feel fortunate and blessed. The fresh air we breathe, the free healthcare and education we receive, the pure mountain water we drink, the peace and tranquility we enjoy, and the beautiful nature and caring society we live in are valuable blessings in every Bhutanese citizen’s life.

Even though we were late starters in the modernisation process, we have done much better than most countries in the region. While achieving tremendous progress in socio-economic development, we have managed to preserve our distinct culture and pristine environment. Bhutan is one of the top 10 global diversity hotspots in the world (places that together constitute less than two percent of the globe’s surface area but contain more than 50 percent of its biodiversity) and for its size, it probably has the greatest biodiversity of any country in the world. Our ecosystem harbours some of the most exotic endemic species of the eastern Himalayas, and we represent one of the best and last hopes for conservation of biodiversity on earth.

The world outside refers to our country as a Shangri-La and the land of happiness. Our country is also considered one of the most peaceful and beautiful places on earth. In Buddhist circles, as the world’s last independent Mahayana Buddhist nation, Bhutan is considered a “Beyul,” a land of hidden treasures, and a hidden paradise.

So, in this remote corner of the world, quietly pursuing a distinct development approach, under the Bodhisattva leadership of our Kings, perhaps, we have been able to set an example and demonstrate that development can be achieved without having to destroy our culture, values, and the environment. Perhaps we have been able to show that development need not be a zero sum game; that socio-economic progress and conservation of environment, values, and culture can all go hand-in-hand.

But what really is it that makes Bhutan what it is today? What are the secrets of success and what are the blessings of Bhutan?

Of the many blessings, I humbly believe the following to be the most important: the timeless Buddhist wisdom and values that forms the basis of our culture and our way of life; our Kings and their Bodhisattva leadership; and the special bond between our Kings and the people.

The Buddhist wisdom and philosophy is based on the ultimate reality of life. It has been developed through extensive learning, debate, research, and practice over a period of 2,500 years. Its teachings are vast and profound. At the highest level it helps us achieve enlightenment. At our human level, it teaches us how to live a wise and skillful life. As Dzongchen Penlop Rinpoche, one of the foremost contemporary Buddhist teachers, says, Buddhist wisdom is timeless and highly adaptable. As it is based on the ultimate reality of life, it will remain relevant forever—for all generations to come. It is like the water that has no shape and form of its own but takes the shape and form of the container we use.

Our culture and way of life—the way we think, act, and behave—are strongly influenced by the Buddhist principles of compassion, peace, harmony, inter-dependence, and impermanence. These are the values we incorporate in our daily lives. In some countries people go to a church or a temple on a particular day to practice their religion. But here in our culture, we live and practice Buddhist values in everything we do—it is our way of life. This is the reason we have a caring society and, even though around 12% of our people live in poverty, there are no beggars on the streets, no one dies of hunger, and no one goes to bed without a blanket.

At the national level, our policies, programs, and projects are also based on important Buddhist values and principles. Bhutan’s unique development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an example of such a policy. It is due to the influence of Buddhist values that we have been able to preserve our unique culture and the pristine environment. The Mahayana Buddhist principle of compassion for all sentient beings encourages us to pursue policies that are holistic and inclusive and benefit all people. The Buddhist teachings of the Middle Path advises us to avoid extremes and encourages us to pursue a balanced development approach between modernization and conservation, spiritual and material, planning and implementation, and short term problem solving and long term investment. Meditation on Impermanence and the law of Karma keeps us grounded and encourages us to become better human beings—better parents, better neighbors, better teachers, and better citizens. It also helps us evolve and embrace change. The principle of inter-dependence and interconnectedness encourages us to live in peace and harmony with not just other human beings but also with our environment.

But, most importantly, Bhutan is what it is today because of our Kings and their far-sighted vision and leadership. For more than a century, Bhutan has steadily moved forward under the leadership of our great Kings. They have worked hard, day and night, to build a better nation, not just for ourselves but for next generation. As Bodhisattva leaders, our Kings put our country and people before themselves. Out of compassion and love for his people and from his deep understanding of the Buddhist wisdom, our Fourth Druk Gyalpo introduced the development philosophy of GNH that places the wellbeing and the happiness of people at the center of all development activities. Today we have all the necessary socio-economic services, facilities, and infrastructures in place. We have schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, water supply, electricity, and telecommunication services in every corner of the country.

So, after building a firm foundation for sustainable and accelerated socio-economic growth; after establishing a sound foundation for democracy, and after ensuring peace and security of the nation, our Kings gave everything back to the people by introducing democracy in our country. That is how our Kings measure success—through positive change that touch people’s lives.

I come from a remote village and my parents were simple hardworking farmers. We lived a difficult life. But under the enlightened leadership of our Fourth Druk Gyalpo, together with so many other children, I received free education and a scholarship to study abroad. I was given a government job and the opportunity to travel and study in many parts of the world. I also had the opportunity and freedom to start my own business. I don’t think there are many countries in this world that provide such opportunities to an ordinary citizen.

Another precious blessing of Bhutan is the special bond that exists between our Kings and the people. This is the most important safety net for our people, our nation, and our democracy. When we look at the problems and sufferings of people in democracies around the world, it often makes us worry. But as soon as we think about the unspoken bond that we, the people of Bhutan, have with our Kings, all our worries just disappear.

It was heartening to have hundreds and thousands of people from all remote corners of the country come together to celebrate the Coronation of our King in 2008 and the Royal Wedding in 2011. It was moving to see hundreds and thousands of people, including young children and senior citizens, wait alongside roads and at Changlingmethag ground—from morning till late in the evening—to greet our beloved King and the Queen. And it was inspiring to see our King and the Queen, soaked in sweat, walk many miles in scorching heat to greet and talk to each and every person who had gathered to meet them. I had tears in my eyes when I watched the rebroadcast of the event on BBS TV the following day.

Our Kings give us hope, inspiration, and confidence that our tomorrows will always be better than our yesterdays and todays. They are there to protect us, inspire us, and guide us as we continue to build a sustainable socio-economic future and as we continue our experiment with democracy to develop a system that truly benefits all Bhutanese citizens.

We need to count our blessings and understand their true value. We need to make the best use of the Buddhist wisdom we have in our country. It will help us manage change and the growing influence of the outside world. We also need to reflect and write about the Bodhisattva deeds and leadership of our Kings. It will help us connect our past with the present and the future. It will also inspire our future generations to love and serve our nation in meaningful ways. And most importantly, it will help us understand who we are as a nation and a people.

I live a busy life dealing with the everyday twists and turns of an ordinary human life: running a small business, managing financial liabilities, and providing for a young family—basically making ends meet. But in 2007, inspired by the selfless deeds of our Kings, I gave up everything and joined politics. And even though I have lost everything—the election, my business, job, and financial savings—I look at it as one of the most valuable experiences in my life. Following the devastating election results, our party’s survival was in serious question. I saw another precious opportunity to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum and volunteered with a group of friends to keep the party going on, and to help ensure the survival of our two-party democratic system. I still believe politics offers the best opportunity to give back to one’s country as it affects every citizen’s life. We all need clean water, fresh air, good schools, hospitals, roads, communication services, jobs, and opportunity and freedom to pursue happiness and our dreams.

Bhutan today has a unique and precious opportunity to become one of the finest nations on earth within our lifetime. But this opportunity is not going to wait for us forever. Today, we have all the basic necessities, infrastructures, policies, and institutions in place. But unless we work hard and continue to build on what we already have, we face a clear and constant danger of losing everything we have achieved so far. As a democracy, we must realise that the future of our country is up to us, the Bhutanese people. Unlike in the past, we cannot remain complacent. Every Bhutanese citizen, whatever our station in life or where we come from, has an important role to play in shaping the future of our country. For any one of us to succeed, we must succeed as one nation. As such, we have a shared responsibility in making Bhutan what it can be.

But at this transformational time in Bhutan’s history, first and foremost, more than ever, we need a pool of far-sighted and selfless leaders who can inspire us to come together and work towards a common national goal – leaders who can learn from the Bodhisattva leadership of our Kings; leaders who count their blessings and realise how fortunate they are to be in a direct position to serve the Tsa-Wa-Sum, and leaders who can say, “I have enough and I don’t want anything more” –and dedicate the rest of their lives to serving the nation and the people in the most meaningful ways.

In the long run, what will make Bhutan one of the finest nations on earth won’t be military, economic or demographic strength, but our Buddhist values and wisdom, our caring and compassionate culture, conservation and caring for our environment and biodiversity, justice, welfare, visionary and selfless leaders, responsible citizens, and the enduring bond between our Kings and the people.

— Sonam Jatso

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