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Bhutan: A Buddhist Development Model That Could Be Emulated

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A Lotus News Feature by Venerable Dr Omalpe Sobhitha Mahathera

There will be many answers to the question: which is the country where the happiest people live? In response many famous, developed nations will come to our mind.  But you will be surprised that the name of a little-known country could be the right the answer to this question. It is Bhutan, the wonderful and amazing country that beats all others in the happiness index.

Bhutan has been so identified following a worldwide survey done under the theme Gross National Happiness (GNH) – not Gross National Product (GDP).  Her Capital is Thimpu, which reminds us of the peace talks held there between the Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE terrorists in 1985.

Recently I found the opportunity to fulfill a long-cherished hope of finding out more about this wondrous country, which recalls the Island of Uthurukuru mentioned in Buddhist literature.  The experiences I had in Bhutan, proved the visit there was truly my good fortune.    

Bhutan with a population of 750,000 people is located above 23000 feet (7000 metres) sea level in the Himalayan region, near the world’s highest point, Mount Everest.   The country has a cold climate (0 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit).  The sky above Bhutan is always filled with white clouds rising above the mountain peaks surrounding the country.  The human settlements are located some distances away from each other.

A foreign tourist visiting in the country actually finds himself/herself on a Buddhist pilgrimage.  The reason is that all the important places one sees are Buddhist temples and monasteries.  Tourists are drawn towards the many big and small temples, which have been built since the arrival of Vajrayana Buddhism in the 15th Century. Most of these temples are located on hill tops surrounded by thick jungle. Visitors are overjoyed by the wonders of the places when listening to the tour guide. The Buddhists among the visitors engage in worshiping the Buddha according to their traditions. Non-Buddhists too go about in calm and relaxed mood, respecting the sanctity of the temples.

Tourists take their own time in observing the places since there are no obstructions unlike in Sri Lanka where all types of unscrupulous elements try to fleece visitors on the pretext of trying to sell different items or become self-appointed tour guides to extort money from the visitors.

Although there are various items on sale at shops near the places visited by tourists in Bhutan no one tries to force items on tourists. They are allowed to pick and chose whatever they wish to buy. The prices are fixed so there is no bargaining.  Unlike in Sri Lanka no vendor tries to hoodwink visitors by selling items to foreigners at a price higher than at which it is sold to locals. 

The restless behaviour of some Sri Lankan ‘bhikkus’ and lay persons whenever a group of local or foreign pilgrims visit a place of worship has become a joke.  The reason is that all of them want to exploit the visitors and fill their pockets.

There is no selling of tickets or charging in any fee to visit any place of worship in Bhutan. Also nowhere did we see beggars or children running behind visitors and pestering for money or food.  If we on our own give the children something they are very shy to accept but eventually do so and thank us in English.

It is most unfortunate that begging has become a ‘tradition’ in places of Buddhist worship in Sri Lanka. Needless to say it tarnishes the image of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the eyes of foreigners.

There are both bhikkus (monks) and bhikkunis (nuns) in Bhutan.  Thirty thousand of them are bhikkus and 18000 are bhikkunis.  Bhikkus are addressed as lamas. Becoming a bhikku or bhikkuni is voluntary and temporary ordination is very popular there. Entering the Order of the Sangha even for a short period in life is considered essential. Children are trained to adapt themselves to life in hermitages from the age of seven.

The saying, “surprising but true” comes to the mind a thousand times when

touring Bhutan. 

It is surprising to see that heaps of garbage is not to be seen anywhere, neither in villages nor towns. No bags of rubbish are kept at roadsides or hanging from lamp posts. Garbage bins are kept in specified places but they are not overfilled making the rubbish visible from the outside.

Also the Bhutanese are way above all other societies in moral conduct and ethical way of living.

The Government restricted cigarette smoking from time to time until 2015 after which a total ban was imposed on tobacco production, cigarette manufacture and cigarette smoking. Foreigners are permitted to bring a limited number of cigarettes (200) and special places are allocated for them in hotels for smoking.

Strict laws are also enforced on consumption of liquor. Liquor sales are banned in the vicinity of temples, schools, hospitals, universities and community centres. No liquor imports are allowed. All liquor sales outlets are closed every Tuesday.

Cattle are a treasure for the Bhutanese who make use of them in a very meaningful way.  In addition to being a source for the production of milk, ghee, cheese and butter cattle are used for agricultural purposes in the rural areas.   It is an example to us in Sri Lanka that the Bhutanese in accordance with the Brahmana Dhamma Sutra of the Majjima Nikaya, show due consideration for the welfare of cattle which help the people in their sustenance and livelihood.  Cattle slaughter has been banned throughout Bhutan and it is a common sight to see cattle roaming freely on the streets causing no trouble to people.

For those who are addicted to flesh consumption, meat is imported.  But during the first and fourth month of every year, meat consumption is completely banned, since the two months are considered religiously important based on the lunar calendar in Bhutanese culture. This mercy shown to animals reminds us of a similar law Sinhala King Amandagamini (67-79 AD) introduced.

Another amazing sight to the foreign tourist is that no huts and shanties of the poor are seen anywhere when passing small villages on the way to main towns like Paro, Punakha, Thronsa and Mongar located hundreds of miles away from the Capital Thimpu.  No helpless and unfortunate persons are seen on pavements and at bus halts anywhere in the country.

Every citizen has a permanent house built according to state-approved plans. The plans are drawn up according to national cultural standards and artistic designs.  As a result all houses almost look alike. And because of the beautiful designs and carvings they might be even mistaken for temples.

The three most important factors that bind the Bhutanese and contribute to their unity and harmonious living are the king, country and religion. It is compulsory to prominently display pictures of the king and the royal family in every house, government and private establishment, hotel, hostel and temple.  Up to 1974 the only foreigners permitted to enter the country were those invited for specific purposes.  Others were allowed only after 1974.  

The Bhutanese government is not interested in attracting foreign tourists at any cost. Hence, when applying for a visa to enter Bhutan the applicant has to comply with a number of rules and regulations. These are meant to prevent troublemakers and dubious characters from entering the country and corrupting the people of Bhutan. Their rulers are teaching us Sri Lankans a far-seeing lesson by giving priority to protecting society’s moral standards and its physical and mental health rather than earning foreign exchange through tourism.

Bhutan communicates with the outside world by two government-owned airline companies.  No other airlines are allowed into the country.

No foreign tourist or groups of tourists are allowed to roam freely. Their attire and behaviour should not violate the country’s cultural norms.  Accordingly, every tourist should register with a government-approved company and should travel with an authorized tour guide. A special examination is held for tour guides. They should always be in national costume and observe national and institutional customs when they are guiding tourists.

When thinking about Bhutan we are compelled to question the widely accepted criteria of development. Economists and social scientists as well as politicians and the majority of us consider acquiring more and more physical resources and increasing personal incomes is the way to happiness. Consequently we are solely focused on reaching economic targets having entered a dream world via theories based per capita income and foreign-exchange reserves. We are engaged in a relentless, tiring rat race towards so-called progress, symbolized by skyscrapers, flyways, high speed trains, luxury vehicles, palace-like buildings etc. 

Mesmerized by this mirage, we have become so selfish and ruthless that we are ignoring not only ethical living and moral standards but also obligations towards our parents, as proved by what is happening in our country and rest of the world.

The people of Bhutan are the living example on this earth that happiness alone is wealth as taught by the Buddha. The time has now come for us to realize that the true criteria of a happy country is where the people, without being trapped in unlimited desires, have fulfilled their basic needs and lead relaxed and healthy lives both physically and mentally, spreading goodwill among everyone.  Bhutan has already set this powerful example to the world.

It is no political ideology but the Buddha’s incomparable teaching which has brought about this unique state of happiness in Bhutan.

* Dr Omalpe Sobitha Mahathera is a senior Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, who founded a Buddhist development network Sri Bodhiraja Foundation in the rural township in Embilipitiya in southern Sri Lanka. He is a former member of parliament and general secretary of the Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU) a political party founded by Buddhist monks. This article was originally written in Sinhala and translated for Lotus News Features by Janaka Perera.

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