Sensa, December 2015

If there is a country anywhere in the world where one should seek the recipe for happiness, it is certainly in Bhutan. This little kingdom in the Himalayas has made happiness a part of its Constitution, the supreme value and the main goal of development. I travel by jeep along the only road meandering at the foot of the Himalayas, where the entirety of urban Bhutan is located, and then by foot for weeks to the furthest valleys of the Himalayas where people live. With the help of my companion and translator, I ask them clearly and bluntly about the recipe for happiness. 

It seems that the combinations of ingredients and the ways to apply them are endless, and differ from one person to another and from one region to another, so that everyone must, naturally, come up with their own winning combination. The results of my attempted survey are as follows. You ought to regularly burn butter lamps and incense made with cloves, nutmeg and red sandalwood. You should spin prayer wheels clockwise. The prayer wheels can be either small and portable, or built into the lhakhangs, stupas, chortens and mani walls. You need to put out prayer flags on mountain passes, crossroads, river confluences and mountain tops. When visiting a temple, you should give small donations to monks and drink holy water tinged with saffron, and eat ritual tscho rice.

Many of my cordial and pleasant interviewees confused happiness with good or favorable circumstances, so they would answer me in the following manner: when there is mettok-chharp, or when the sun shines and the rain falls at the same time – it is a good omen, just like seeing seven crows in the sky at once, or a white yak bathing in a lake. On the other hand, it is a bad omen if clouds build into a maleficent formation, if you travel in the company of six, move a large stone, throw garbage into the fire, or even sit next to someone who has done that, or God forbid, meet a Yeti. If the latter ever happens, you have to urgently place empty egg shells on a green juniper branch, draw a phallus on the wall of your house, eat a raven of the sex opposite to yours, and, of course, place as many prayer flags on key locations as possible, and circle in a clockwise direction as many lhakhangs, stupas, chortens and mani walls as you can. However, to return to my original question, this “bad luck” can be avoided by the regular burning of incense, releasing prayers into the wind, spinning prayer wheels and following the schedule written in the stars, and explained by astrologers.

I can attest to Bhutanese devotedly honoring the signs and regularly carrying out everything their customs require, that are woven deeply into the fabric of their world. Still, is this the real reason for their happiness, and are they actually any happier than other people? At first, they seem to be simple, humble, quiet, gentle and cordial people who always smile, free from stress and all the ills of our (post)modern society. Nevertheless, this is not the exclusive prerogative of the Bhutanese. It is what people are like, more or less, in all the rural parts around the world, far away from urban centers from which “civilization”, or modernism, spreads its influence aided by the forces of globalization. At a second, deeper glance, there does seem to be a difference, which can be felt. Bhutan truly is, and so far remains, different.

An important role in this has been played by the highest mountain range in the world – the powerful Himalayas – that has protected the Bhutanese for centuries, like an unbeatable and unconquerable fortress. It shielded them from all the global events and plagues, so they never faced wars, colonizers, or world crises. The Bhutanese quietly nested in faraway mountain valleys and minded their own business. They did not fight each other. Instead they collaborated. The sedentary people tilled the land, and nomads tended cattle. They would come together to exchange grain and dairy products. Very few outsiders ever reached them, because the mountains are so impassable and difficult to navigate through that nobody cared about this harsh part of the world. Those who did come had to be creative. For example, Guru Rinpoche flew to Bhutan on the wings of a flying tiger in order to bring the new teachings of Buddhism. This half-historical half-legendary person is still one of the main Bhutanese saints and heroes, and whoever goes on a pilgrimage to the nest in which the flying tiger slept, and visits the spots where it left its paw-prints, can also significantly aid in the attainment of happiness.

Buddhism has managed to spread throughout Bhutan, harmoniously mixing with the earlier shamanistic traditions, and has taken deep roots. In my opinion, having visited twelve Buddhist countries so far, this is the first one where some stereotypes about Buddhism are actually true. For example, people do not eat meat and they try to be nonviolent towards all living beings. A wonderful example of this is given by Lhendup Tharchen, the director of the National Park Jigme Dorji, where the Bengal tiger has been spotted at the highest altitude yet – at 4200 meters. However, Mr. Tharchen admits it has never been noted that tigers can fly, which attests to his credibility according to our western, skeptical and rational outlook. Mr Tharchen is currently observing snow leopards – elusive beasts which are critically endangered everywhere except in Bhutan. “When a snow leopard kills cattle, young yaks or sheep, in Nepal, India or Tibet, the herders search for it until they kill it for revenge. The Bhutanese prefer visiting an astrologer, who tells them which rituals need to be done in order to regain balance, and this is enough. Everywhere else, people become aware of the need to protect their environment only when they lose it. We are traditionally aware of this need, and we have still not lost it. We are currently working to enhance the awareness through modern education. The combination of two is a formula for success.”

The environment, it seems, is the sole source of power for the Bhutanese, and its protection is one of the main pillars of their development. The Himalayas protected Bhutan from the rest of the world until late into the 20th century. The Bhutanese consciously chose isolation; they were happy with what they had instead of curious about what was offered elsewhere. As late as 1961, there were no cities, money, schools, roads, or electricity in Bhutan. The small and simple kingdom governed by a dynasty of righteous rulers did not have a health or legal system, or even an army. However, by the mid-20th century, plagues and threats had evolved. Significantly superior neighbors, India and China, began to occupy the kingdoms in the Himalayas, and the wise Bhutanese kings understood that the only way to protect themselves was to open up to the world, voice their existence, and embrace development, in an intelligent and controlled manner.

When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972, he observed how his kingdom of about 600,000 people, pressed between a billion Indians in the south and a billion Chinese in the north, would never become a military or an economic force. In order to survive, he concluded, they needed a strong identity such as is formed by culture, language, religion, architecture, costumes… He did not understand why other countries measured their development by the GDP, when the deepest desire of every person was not only material wealth, but happiness as well. He therefore invented the philosophy of gross national happiness (GNH), and made it the primary goal and the measurement of development. Of the four pillars constituting the GNH, only one is material well-being, while the other three are a healthy and diverse environment, a strong traditional culture, and good leadership.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck – the last absolute monarch in the world, was truly a good and righteous leader. Everywhere in Bhutan, I meet people who knew him. In the Chozo village in Lunana, the furthest inhabited valley of the Himalayas, I talk to Kamchen Dorji: “He visited several times, always without any prior notice. He did not like us to clean the village and prepare a feast for his arrival. He did not like us to look down and not look him in the face, as custom requires. He was accompanied by his family and the royal guards, and everyone slept in our houses, ate ema-datsi (a national dish, chilly with cheese) – just like us. We were deeply impressed.”

When he last walked through all the villages, between 2003 and 2006, he told people something that shocked them. He had decided to give up his absolute power in favor of a parliament, and instate democracy. “He explained to everyone that he was trying to be a good ruler, and that he was raising his son, the heir, to be a good ruler as well, but there might once be a mad king, and if all the power was in the hands of a single person, they could ruin the entire country on their own. He said more people are always wiser than one man.”

The people believed him and so, in 2008, the country took a turn towards parliamentary democracy. Changes are still being cautiously introduced. The roads are slowly being built. Schools and health institutions are being established further into the Himalayas, step by step. Economic development exists, but cautiously. The pressures of foreign capital are resisted if they threaten the natural environment or culture. Building is allowed only in accordance with the traditional architectural design. Most Bhutanese still wear their folk costumes. Electricity arrived in the eighties, and today even the most remote nomadic tents have solar panels. Television and internet arrived in 1999, but people still prefer watching locally produced romantic soap operas to foreign channels. Tourists are few, because in order to avoid the negative effects of mass tourism, the price of a single day in the country is $250.

Today, the Bhutanese are living in their golden era. Their standard is on the rise, and their desires are well within their possibilities. Buddhism teaches them that desire is a source of suffering. They are not free from wishes, ambitions or aspirations, but they do not wish for something they do not have, but rather have more than they wish for. Is not this the actual key to happiness?

Perhaps the best epilogue, and the answer to the question, is offered by Chador Ghyeltsen of Shakshepasa, a village which is a week’s walk away from the road. Chador is middle-aged and, like all highlanders, he is strong and hard-working. His family owns many horses and for generations has been leading caravans across the Himalayas. For the past ten or twenty years, since tourists who like to walk in his mountains appeared, he has offered them, like many others, his caravan services, which has made him richer than ever before. In the last couple of years, there has appeared an even more profitable economic activity in his world: the hunt for Cordyceps sinensis. The Chinese have discovered that during the rainy season in the hills of Bhutan, sinensis  is a fungus that grows from the bottoms of dead cordyceps caterpillars. This fungus has proved more effective in dealing with their complaints than the ingredients of the rhinoceros horn, elephant tusk and tiger scrotum – together! They therefore pay a hefty price to obtain it. So this year, just like many other highlanders, Chador Ghyeltsen spent the entire summer getting rained upon in the hills and looking for dead caterpillars with fungi sticking out of their bottoms. He picked two kilos, earned $20,000, and has decided to rest this fall.

I find him in front of his house, refusing the guides of tourist expeditions, who are trying to persuade him to lend them his horses. They leave angry as I approach with a curious smile. I ask him why he does not want to work now, in the height of caravan season – after summer monsoons and before the winter snows in the mountain passes which will cut Shakshepasa off from the rest of the world, until next spring. “And what would I do with the money?” the relaxed wise man answers my question with his own, smiling blissfully. “Next year, I will go into town to get solar panels and a metal roof for my house. Next year, I will go into town to buy shoes and other things for my children. But now, I just want to sit here quietly and watch my children grow, and my horses graze peacefully on the slopes of these mountains.”