Bhutan's therapy for happiness: Better evolve at your own pace

“At our own pace” may be the best catch phrase for anyone who wants to live a balanced life. 

“DO they look up to you because you are a foreigner — someone from big Shanghai?” A colleague asked me on Tuesday upon hearing my praise of the Bhutanese people I had met during my recent trip to the Himalayan nation for their kindness and courtesy.

“No,” I replied. “Bhutanese people are simply nice to all, and to each other. They do not make extra effort to please you just because you are a foreigner.”

My colleague mused over my answer, hesitating to believe. After all, some of our fellow countrymen habitually kowtow to foreigners, especially those from what they gather to be rich countries, while giving a cold shoulder to the weaker ones.

Sensing his doubt, I told him of my experience with our Bhutanese guide, a Buddhist man who is in his 30s.

At Paro Airport, he and his company’s driver warmly greeted and welcomed us — three tourists from China — with white hada (a piece of silk). After ushering us into the minivan, he took his seat, turned around and said politely, but firmly: “Let me tell you something that applies to all foreigners as well as to ourselves. First, please don’t smoke. Second, we don’t turn on air-conditioners in our car, as we believe the fresh air is best for our health. For example, if I sit with air-conditioners on for 20 minutes, my nose would not feel well. Let’s breathe fresh air.”

On another occasion, he warned us against wearing shorts when visiting certain places, like dzongs (Bhutanese-style fortresses) and Buddhist temples.

He was polite, yet principled and didn’t make any exceptions for foreigners.

When he was explaining the history of a famous dzong in Thimphu, capital of Bhutan, a lady tourist and I went to take some pictures. He said slowly but sharply: “Don’t go away. Listen to me first. Then you can go and take photos.”

We would meet many more Bhutanese people, like our guide, in the next three days of our stay in Western Bhutan.

We saw drivers yielding the right of way to each other in crowded crossroads where there were no traffic police or traffic lights; we saw old men and women sitting with smiles in temples; we witnessed a small girl of about 5 years old hiking on a high plateau with her parents; we were privy to a Western TV crew interviewing a Bhutanese monk at the world-renowned Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery, which is about 3,000 meters above sea level. The anchorman and the monk laughed heartily while conducting the interview; and we saw another Bhutanese guide silently picking up a burning cigarette butt, thrown by a middle-aged Chinese tourist, from the grass ground where littering was prohibited.

Later, as I read “Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: a Portrait of Bhutan” written by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, Queen Mother of Bhutan, I came across a passage which echoes my observation of the Bhutanese characteristics. In her book, she cited George Bogle, a Scottish adventurer who spent five months in Bhutan as saying: “The simplicity of their manners… and strong sense of religion preserve the Bhutanese from many vices to which more polished nations are addicted… They are strangers to falsehood and ingratitude. Theft and every other species of dishonesty are little known.”

I bought the book in a local bookstore with a hope to get a better understanding of Bhutan (“Druk Yul” in local language, which means the Land of the Thunder Dragon) beyond what I would learn from my short travel experience. It’s not a scholarly book, as the author admits, but it’s also more than just a tourist guide.

“The portrait of my country is one that is drawn from a very personal perspective, and based almost entirely on my own experiences,” she notes in the introduction.

Inner peace

In plain prose, the author saves us from academic jargon or religious terms and yet at the same time explains succinctly how a combination of social values, customs and the Buddhist teaching of compassion for others and for nature has worked to foster inner peace in Bhutanese people.

By now, my colleague ceased to be cynical about Bhutanese kindness to foreign tourists, but he turned the topic: “Isn’t Bhutan a very poor country? So what’s good about your trip?”

“They are not poor,” I said. “Of course you don’t see metropolises like ours, or high-rises like ours, and sometimes you drink muddy water after a rainstorm (you don’t get a stomachache from that, though), but they have fresh air which we don’t have. And even if you regard cars as a symbol of progress and prosperity, many households in Bhutan have a car, but cars do not define their level of happiness.”

I told my colleague that I ate simple vegetables in Bhutan but relished ample sunshine, and he queried: “What for? Were you not starved?”

“I was not starved at all,” I said. “Sunshine and trees are nutritious as well.”

As the author observes in her book: “A keen appreciation of wild, natural beauty is a typically Bhutanese trait…” This reminds me of the small Bhutanese girl who hiked and trekked on her own foot, seemingly never tired.

Like in Chinese traditional culture, mountains, rivers and trees are living beings in the eye of Bhutanese. In other words, nature has life, it breathes, it watches.

Says the author of the book: “Bhutan, with its pristine environment, is something of an anomaly in South Asia. Other countries in our neighborhood have seen their forests depleted, their rivers contaminated, their plant and animal species die out, their mountainsides scarred with quarrying and mining, and their air polluted. In Bhutan, in contrast, the forest cover has actually increased — it now covers 72 percent of the country’s territory.”

Gross National Happiness

On the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), proposed by the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck several decades ago, she says: “Put very simply, GNH is based on the conviction that material wealth alone does not bring happiness… The highest priority has been given to rural development through making health care and education accessible to all, including those living in the most remote villages…”

On prosperity, she says: “We want prosperity, but not at the cost of our cherished traditions and culture. We want the benefits of modern technology, but at our own pace, according to our own needs, and when we feel the time is right. It was why we waited until 1983 to build an airport and start air services to Bhutan; why we gradually increased the number of foreign tourists from 200 in 1974 to nearly 40,000 in 2010; why we introduced television only in 1999.”

“At our own pace” may be the best catch phrase for anyone who wants to live a balanced life. An army man my wife and I met at Thimphu could epitomize such an ideally paced life. As we got up early to walk outside our hotel in Thimphu, more than 2,000 meters above sea level, a man who looked in his 60s came around the corner of a mountain and greeted us warmly. He was a military commander. He walked upright, his sun-tanned face radiating with smile. He told us that every dawn he would circle the mountain and walk the distance of 20 kilometers as a way of exercise.

With only a few steps, however, we felt a bit dizzy because of the high sea level.

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