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The "Underdeveloped" Happiness Kingdom



Here's a taste of how one country (Bhutan) is doing its
society a bit more sanely than most (thanks to my friend
Diana Morley for this Feb 2000 writeup)... - Tom Atlee

However, all may not be what it appears to be... - Tom


"We just watched an episode of 60 Minutes that has our
tongues hanging out. Bhutan, between China and India, is one of the most
amazing spots on earth. The people have avoided modern cultures until
recently, when they decided to allow TV (some are concerned about what that
will bring--and no wonder!). They're a Buddhist nation devoted to peace and
happiness. Their measure of success is in terms of Gross National Happiness
instead of Gross National Products. They have a king who could be deposed by
the people anytime they want. They all generally wear the same sort of
clothing, to emphasize that all are equal. No one goes hungry. They have
universal health care. They place the happiness of the people above
absolutely all else. When they were approached to sell lumber from forest,
they declined. Most people there are subsistance farmers. When they were
approached to allow commercial mountain climbing, the people making their
living raising livestock there on the mountains petitioned the government and
said the mountains were sacred, so the government made them all part of a
national park and won't allow commercial ventures. They even have signs for
drivers on the roads to the effect of 'Please be gentle with our curves.'
They only allow 6,000 tourists a year, and only of the right type (seekers of
enlightenment, bird watchers, and so on--unfortunately, it's pricey)."


This story reminds me of a great video you might like to get
hold of - "Ancient Futures" - about Bhutan's less fortunate
neighbor, Ladakh. It is a very beautiful, powerful study of
the impact of industrial global mega-culture on sustainable
old cultures. It can be ordered from


Dear friends,

A month ago I sent out a glowing report on the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, based on a 60 Minutes program. One person, MBoyd, replied that "All is not Shangri-la in Bhutan," referring me to a number of URLs, including this: which describes tensions between the traditional Drukpas (Buddhist Bhutanese of Tibetan origin) of northern Bhutan and the more recently immigrated Lhotshampas (Hindus from Nepal) of southern Bhutan. Compared with the 60 Minutes report, this critique of Bhutan certainly raises some questions. Is the Drukpa monarchy engaged in cultural oppression or preserving a sustainable way of life? Are the Lhotshampas innocent victims of cultural oppression, or part of the advancing global monoculture's destruction of traditional cultures? I don't know. Probably a bit of both.

I have been around long enough to know that there are multiple realities in any given situation and it is extremely hard (if not impossible) to weave together "the whole picture" in any situation. After reading the above report, I suspect that the glowing report from 60 Minutes was probably influenced by Bhutanese government PR and controls (although why 60 Minutes would praise an anti-development, anti-consumerist culture escapes me). I also suspect that the above URL report is slanted towards western-style democracy, which in less-developed countries usually comes clothed in rampant industrialism and consumerism. There is probably a good measure of truth in both reports, as well as some powerful ambiguity going on here. Would more research sort it all out? I wonder...

These seemingly contradictory reports remind me to be wary of anything that is painted as all good or all bad. This doesn't mean the truth lies "somewhere in between." It just means that life is complex and ambiguous. When our eyes are fully open, I believe we often find not a single truth, but rather an ever deepening appreciation of the very complexity and ambiguity that our longing for "truth" sought to dispel.

And suddenly I recall the three fundamental precepts of Bernie Glassman, the Zen master of Auschwitz and the streets of Manhattan, described in his recent book BEARING WITNESS: A ZEN MASTER'S LESSON'S IN MAKING PEACE (Random House, 1998):

1. Live a life of not-knowing, without fixed ideas or answers.
2. Bear witness to what is -- the good and the bad, the pain and the joy.
3. Help healing arise wherever it is needed.

When I think of Bhutan or global warming or Y2K or...., I think of how much we need new ways of dealing with our collective lives that help us do Bernie Glassman's 1-2-3 together, collectively -- ever more clearly, ever more effectively.