One of the most frequent questions I hear from Bhutanese is a query regarding my thoughts on their culture. The culture here is considered by the Bhutanese to be their identity and rightly so. The culture is omnipresent, consistent, and in many ways unchanged in the past century. Vajrayāna Buddhism was introduced from Tibet about 1400 years ago. It is still the religion of a large majority of Bhutanese and is the official religion as well. Everything in Bhutan is based on Buddhist values and Buddhism is intertwined into all aspects of life.
The first king of the current Wangchuck line, Ugyen Wangchuck, was unanimously chosen as the hereditary king of the country by an assembly of leading Buddhist monks in 1907. These five kings have led Bhutan into the 21st century. Their interest in preserving the intrinsically human values which are central to Bhutanese culture while at the same time attempting to provide a path for the Bhutanese to assimilate their lives into the 21st century is an amazing example of how an enlightened monarch can do tremendously positive things for his people. The relationship between the population and their king is, even though the term is overused, unique to Bhutan. When the Fourth king decided to move the country in the direction of democracy and established a constitutional monarchy, which included a parliamentary system, there was quite an outcry from the people many of whom loved the traditional monarchy and wanted the king to continue to rule.
The shift toward the modern world is a challenge for all cultures let alone a culture which is consciously striving to maintain many of its traditional values. This is where the pragmatic approach comes into play. The policy of GNH, Gross National Happiness, is essentially and updated form of Buddhism which takes into account people’s natural desires to take advantage of the modern world. A modern world which includes things like commerce, communication, entertainment, and a growing sense of what might be going on in places away from this little country snuggled up against the Himalaya. Somehow I can’t imagine the Pope taking such a pragmatic view on how to lead his flock into the future.
Bhutanese pragmatism leads to many interesting results. Many Bhutanese eat meat. This is not a Buddhist practice yet many people here feel comfortable enjoying the pleasures of being a carnivore and feel quite comfortable being a Bhutanese Buddhist at the same time.
Last week we had an in-service day at school. The students were given a reading day during which they were to read one book and write a brief book report. The faculty met for a day of Life Skills training. Much of this session covered decision making etc, etc. A portion of the time was spent on other life topics Drugs and sex were high on the list. STD’s, drugs, harassment all were covered briefly. A lot of surprisingly straightforward information. Once again I thought of the Pope as an anchor around the neck of Catholics and here the King, along with the government, was trying to be proactive and current. The government took this proactive stance when it came to litter, It outlawed plastic shopping bags and many sorts of packaging. Unfortunately the current desires of the people are stronger than these lofty goals and plastic bags and junk food packaging are ubiquitous. But back to STDs, HIV and such. One of the recommendations was of course abstinence. However, the Bhutanese seem to recognize this as a fairly unlikely choice in most cases. So they have come up with something that might help a bit. I am not sure of its effectiveness but I gave it a lot of credit for creative, pragmatic, proactive thing in the face of a challenging social problem. They suggest the 3 M’s. Meditation, music, and masturbation. These are at least 3 practical suggestions that might actually help one along the path of abstinence. Of course my first question was, did they mean all at the same time?
As the year passes I will be interested to see if I can get a handle on how well this idea of joining the modern world while preserving traditional values is fairing. It is a noble quest and perhaps an indication of why the current line of Wangchuk royalty has been so popular and effective in Bhutan over the past century plus.