Even after just a few days in Bhutan, it was hard not to start drawing parallels between here and Tibet. After all, their cultures are strikingly similar, as they’re both nations dominated by Tantric Buddhist symbolism, which permeates the land on all possible levels, from the stupas in the valleys all the way up to the prayer flags strung across the mountain tops. And in many ways, it seems that the way things are in Bhutan is how things should be in Tibet.
The country has recently become a democratic constitutional monarchy, headed by a king that’s near universally loved. Modernizing projects are being pursued gradually and responsibly, always keeping an eye on finding a balance between improving the lives of the Bhutanese while simultaneously safeguarding their rich culture. Much like Shigatse in Tibet, Thimpu is riddled with construction, but these development projects are being handled in very different ways. In Tibet, China, an outside power with an interest in transforming culture and society, is spearheading development. In Bhutan, the king and National Assembly are in charge of leading the nation into the modern era. In keeping with tradition, there is a strict building code that ensures that all new buildings will fit into the old framework of the city.
Outside of Bhutan’s few urban centers, much of the countryside still functions as a feudal society. Yet this is benevolent feudalism, an idea that might sound oxymoronic to most that are familiar with the systems of serfdom that existed in Europe. Local monasteries and dzongs (monastery-fortresses) act as castles, with the farmers and artisans scattered in the surrounding area serving as the serfs. The monasteries fulfill both administrative and spiritual needs, while the villagers provide for the sustenance of the monks through donations of food, money, and often a child to join the monastic order. This whole system is governed by a strong sense of caring, built into the very foundations of society through the strong system of Buddhist ethics that’s so apparent to outsiders but surprisingly invisible to those that live within it.
While still a 3rd world country, people appear happy and relaxed, and I have yet to see a single beggar or homeless person. Although this was something I’d regularly read about and heard when talking with people about my upcoming trip, it wasn’t truly affirmed until a visit at the home of a woman living in the Phobjikha Valley. After a short hike through the valley to look for the endangered black neck crane, my group came to a small village. We asked for the caretaker of the local temple so that we could take a look inside, and after letting us in, she invited us over for butter tea and arra, her homebrewed moonshine. Although initially extremely reserved, she gradually opened up the longer we sat in her kitchen/bedroom. Our guide asked her what she would consider to be the most important change in her life in the past decade and she responded that it was electricity, though increased nearby education opportunities and new roads were also up there. He then asked her whether or not there were any other things that would improve her laugh, to which she laughed and replied that she couldn’t think of anything at all, seeming surprised that that question was even worth asking.
We then asked her what her perceptions of foreigners were and she said that she thinks that they are all very wealthy. But this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Although she commented that having more money would be nice since it would make daily life easier, our new friend confidently said that she was very content with her life, a thing that I don’t think many people I know back home could say. The idea of living contentedly and in accordance with the Middle Way seems to be deeply ingrained into village life, with many people not even necessarily knowing what Buddhism is. It isn’t their religion or philosophical system, it’s just life. In response to how she deals with the difficulties in her daily life, the woman simply replied, “What to do. This is my karma.”
For all the troubles that might plague Bhutanese villagers, many of the numbers don’t quite line up with Bhutan’s labeling as a 3rd world country. In regards to education, 94% of kids attend school and the literacy rate is above 60%. As far as basic utilities go that people in most developed nations can take for granted, 98% of Bhutanese have access to either boiled or clean drinking water, and, although not 100% reliable, electricity now reaches out to most rural areas. Furthermore, the government subsidizes it so villagers only pay roughly $1 a month for enough energy to run electric lights, stoves, and rice cookers. However, the statistic that seems to sum up people’s happiness with Bhutan best is that 98% of students that study abroad elect to return home afterwards, which stands in stark contrast to the mere 5% of students that return to China after going abroad. As much as the rest of the world touts Bhutan’s measure of Gross National Happiness as the ideal of a tiny mountain kingdom, it’s a very real thing. Built on the four pillars of good governance, economic growth, cultural preservation, and education, GNH truly does reflect a nation of people that are happy with their lives despite not having access to as wide a range of material possessions and luxuries as we do in the West.
Additionally, Bhutan receives more foreign aid per capita than any other nation in the world, largely because corruption is kept to a minimum and investments are easily accountable for so results are easily observable. Yet despite this, Bhutan actually turns away more foreign aid than it receives. Rather than simply sucking in all the money possible to fund development projects, the Bhutanese government is very particular about only receiving money that comes as a gift with no strings attached, rather than as a foreign nation’s investment to get a foothold into Bhutan. Bhutan adamantly insists on heading its on development and rejects aid that appears to merely be an attempt to buy influence, rather than a genuinely humanitarian act. All in all, Bhutan seems to be headed in as positive a direction as a nation so recently engaged with the global community could be.
But is this how things “should be”? That question inherently carries value judgments about what’s best for a nation and I definitely don’t know enough about the situation to try and say anything conclusively. I think it’s pretty clear based on what I’ve been saying where I fall on the issue, but I don’t really think the question of “is this how things should be” is even worth asking. It’s just how it is. It appears that Tibet’s push towards modernization will outpace that of Bhutan’s at the cost of culture and tradition, but I have very little by means of the empirical to back that up and am going purely off of my brief stints in each country. As far as I can tell, Bhutan actually seems to be pursuing progress in the most reasonable way of any nation in the modern era, paying as much attention to the nation’s citizens themselves as the things that they have and the hard numbers of literacy, GDP growth, infant mortality, etc. It reflects a conception of ‘progress’ that’s far more fleshed out, sustainable, and healthy than simply looking at economic growth and superficial markers of success such as the number of newly erected skyscrapers and subway stations. However, it’s easy to make value judgments when just passing through as a traveler without full knowledge of the situation. From where I’m standing, all I can really do is watch things unfold as China’s power continues to grow, Tibet’s continues to wane, and Bhutan furthers its steps into modernization.