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What if they Gave a Party and Everyone Came?
Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Debuts on the World Stage

By Julia Sagebian

 

Photos by Michele Laporte











A small sampling of media coverage

The Guardian

New York Times

The Washington Post

CNN

The Economist

Kuensel, (Bhutanese news site)

Shambhala SunSpace

Matthieu Ricard's Blog

We have seen the power of disruptive technologies and companies, but are we now witnessing the birth of disruptive countries? (The Guardian, UK, April 3, 2012)

On April 2, 2012 at the United Nations headquarters in NYC a large assembly of over 600 individuals gathered for a high level meeting entitled ""Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm." The group included heads of state, UN officials, government representatives, eminent scholars, sustainability activists, think tanks and non-governmental organizations, religious figures of all major faiths including several Buddhist sects, university students, and members of civil society. Visit the Wellbeing & Happiness site for a complete list of presentation and participants.

Country representatives touted their GNH-like policies (e.g. the Sarkozy/Stiglitz Commission in France); the UN further proclaimed its recent happiness resolution (65/309); Columbia University's Earth Institute presented the first-ever World Happiness Report, a document commissioned by the UN for this meeting; activists made impassioned pleas for action along sustainability fronts before "it is too late"; and religious leaders grounded the discussion on the primacy of human kindness and elevated it beyond mere mental activity by invoking blessings and grace. Audience involvement was ensured through lunchtime breakout meetings and Q&A sessions.

The meeting received near universal positive coverage by the mainstream global press (e.g. The Washington Post, Le Monde, New York Times, Time, The Guardian, Canada's CBC and Global News), and it is likely to receive even more positive press from alternative media sources in the coming weeks. Surprisingly, despite the lack of a visible business community representation, even conservative financial and business publications including Forbes and MSN Money positioned the GNH story not as a wacky fantasy from a miniscule feudal country in a far off galaxy — but rather — as an idea whose time might have just come.

The GNH paradigm promotes sustainable development; preserves and promotes cultural values; enshrines environmental conservation; and attempts to achieve fair distribution and efficient use of resources. GNH vision is supported at a national, regional and local level by practical public policy tools and mechanisms, such as new progress measures (partly derived from Genuine Progress Index indicators), and working towards accounting systems and regulatory institutions that can guide and nudge the process along. In essence, GNH conceives and measures national prosperity by focusing on people's well-being rather than on economic productivity. It builds into traditional economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the output within a country's borders) and Gross National Product (GNP, the global output of a country's enterprises) the value of a healthy society, a healthy environment, a healthy state of mind, as well as a realization that there are limits to the planet's carrying capacity and people's capacity to produce and consume. As such, GNH counters the negative volitional force unleashed by growth models based on greed, self-interest and material indulgence which not only fail to bring us well being, but also speed up our trajectory towards devastating climate change, ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss and entrenched poverty. GNH is basic goodness gone politics. It is an attempt to join the vision of an enlightened society with the skillful means of national governance. It is a citizen-Bodhisattva's 21st century path.

Like in all things, the devil is in the details. The April 2nd conference was followed by two days of workshops examining the various components (pillars) of GNH in order to collectively shape a document articulating a new economic plan. Bhutan will present the plan at the Rio +20 conference in June of 2012, and in 2014, it will hold a conference in Bhutan aimed at developing new GNH- based agreement to rival the Bretton Woods Agreement (the 1944 meeting that established the post WWII global economic order). Amazingly, this might all just happen. And it might just happen through the inspiration of a remote and diminutive country of 700,000 individuals where according to some estimates, a quarter of the population lives on less than US $1.25 a day, and 70 percent of the population is without electricity; a country which borders political unrest in Assam (India) and Tibet (China) and with a large, painful and embarrassing Nepalese migrant problem within its borders. The fragility of a nation is, often, the essential force of its strength and inspiration.

Not surprisingly, the meeting was well attended by Buddhist practitioners (I recognized close to 35 individuals), many of them, at one point or another on their path, members of the Shambhala community. Most visible and largely represented were Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche's students given Rinpoche's deep connection with Bhutan. Shambhala International was formally represented by Executive Director Carolyn Mendelker. The official conference website posted an inspiring statement from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Ashoka Mukpo, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's son, Acharya Emeritus Sam Bercholz (a student of recently deceased Thinley Norbu); former members of the Shambhala Board of Directors and of the Council of Warriors were also in attendance. Zen teacher Joan Halifax, and the Venerable Matthieu Ricard (Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche's student) formally represented the Buddhist 'faith' in collective prayers and in public speaking. Rather than a sense of Buddhist religious chauvinism, a gentle humbleness permeated their heartfelt invitation to quiet the mind, put the benefit of others before one's own, and to devote one's whole life to building a better world, non-aggressively. This feeling of Meek and Perky in the face of the potential devastation in the dark ages, and the Outrageousness of the lungta derived from collective GNH-oriented action — also emanated from the intervention by Bhutanese speakers such as Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley, Dasho Karma Ura, President of the Center of Bhutan Studies, Dasho Karma Tshiteem, GNH Commission. There was probably Inscrutability too — but in my Forest Gump-like amazement to actually be there - I missed it.

How so many people, from so many places and so many walks of life, managed to say so many different things within such consensus and harmony in such a short amount of time — was simply — ordinary magic. The fact that the conference was bookended by SMR's April 1st Sadhana of Mahamudra Abhisheka in Halifax, and the 25th anniversary of VCTR's Paranirvana on April 4, 2012 is the haunting side of that magic.

Many thanks to Dr. Tashi (Ron) Coleman, Gwen Coleman, Dahlia Coleman, and others for their indefatigable work in building a people and information bridge between Bhutan's GNH project and Western efforts to build an enlightened society. Thanks for helping us to see that the Kingdom of Shambhala might just be - one state of mind away. Jolly Good Show!

***

Please send comments to

Comments

It was pain|ful and funny to have to read this article twice before I caught the reference to the human rights atrocities of the current Bhutan government. "Nepalese migrant problem"? This politically correct language is offensive in its obfuscation. That it is ethnic cleansing has been clearly set forth by many reputable sources including Amnesty International. (A list of references can be found at the end of my comments.)

It is so sad to me to see this whitewashing continue by Shambhalian people who know better, who have told me privately that they know better, and yet who continue to leverage the Bhutan government in their fight against GDP in the West. It is so sad that this whitewashing and avoidance of the Lhotsampa "issue" would trump their concern for over one hundred thousand refugees, and would trump concern over world acceptance of one of the worst governments in history as the owners of principles of enlightened governance, coming to save the West from its terrible practices.

I only can hope that Shambhalians engaged with Bhutan manage to seduce Mr. Thinley and his government to publicly factor into the GNH equation of its own country the loss of 1/6 its population, the confusion and suffering that that expulsion caused and still causes, and the ongoing willful ignorance of the government to even admit to the problem much less take responsibility and help these people. Honestly I think they would come out ahead if they reverted to GDP standards.

The ethnic cleansing and moreover the refusal to resolve it is in itself damaging to the Bhutan and Shambhalian goals. Keeping it in the closet only makes it worse. It just makes GNH more and more of a cynical joke. Any engagement with the current government really must include public discussions and resolution of this continuing human rights violation, which is a disgrace to GES vision and to the Buddhist Mahayana vision the Bhutan government professes to have.

I am not saying condemn Bhutan's culture, its people, its religion. But since their government is Kargyu Buddhist and has not yet really become democratic, and since the Shambhala organization has conflated church and state in the same way as Bhutan -- we absolutely must pay attention to human rights issues in light of GNH. As Julie said, "The Kingdom of Shambhala might just be - one state of mind away."

All the best,
--Suzanne

Some references:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/bhutan
&
http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/bhutan (Amnesty International statements on Bhutan)

http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/bhutan/backgrounders/index.html (A very balanced background report from the South Asia Intelligence Review)

http://www.thehimalayantimes.com (The Himalayan, March 31, 2012)

http://www.thenation.com/article/166667/enigma-bhutan (The Nation, March 7, 2012, article by Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prizewinning historian -- read "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate" for a new understanding of the Middle East -- Kai was the son of an American foreign service officer who spent his youth in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon. The reader comments for this posted article also shows the depth of passion and bias on both sides.)

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/south-asian-equation-145317045.html (Winnipeg Free Press -- why Winnipeg? Because "the start of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983, the beginning of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan in 1988 and the start of the Nepalese civil war in 1996, all led to waves refugees winding up in Winnipeg, many after years or even decades of living in camps.")

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhutanese_refugees (Wikipedia)

http://www.bhutaneserefugees.com/ (website collaboration from PhotoVoice and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, two UK-based organisations that have worked closely with the Bhutanese refugees since the 1990s)

http://www.amnesty.org/en/50/inspirational-stories/ratan-gazmere-bhutan (A personal story from a refugee, via Amnesty International)

http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/sca/154479.htm (2010 Human Rights Report: Bhutan - BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR - 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices)

***

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks for your comments and annotated reference links. They should be posted since they are very informative and add balance to the discussion. Perhaps Tashi who lives in Bhutan and knows more than I do about the Nepalese migrant situation can add further context to the discussion.

I am open to meeting with you and to learning more about what can be done in practical terms along the suggestions you make. We can explore ways to help with the refugee situation along with our support for GNH and for Bhutan's effort to promote it - which I continue to think - are commendable and possibly very useful to the world at large. However, as we have discussed - being a Cuba - I certainly now about the dark side of good and even commendable things, people and events. I also know how being an 'ideologue' that is blind to the cowardice of the setting sun in any situation...is ultimately not helpful. But seeing the contrast does provide path..and I am willing to walk it.

All the best - and I look forward to continuing our conversation - and hopefully - to seeing you soon

-Julia Sagebien

***

Hi Julia!

Thanks for your note. Just a note -- that so far, anyone "living in Bhutan" has not been able to understand the situation. They are limited to their view from northern Bhutan. Individuals such as Tashi, and organizations such as the U.N., are not allowed into southern Bhutan. Also, the Lhotsampas likely to be encountered in northern Bhutan either do not know about the situation, and those who do are not likely to talk about it due to the persecution they and their family members would suffer as a result. Please note that even some members of the government do not believe that refugees exist at all.

Here's to future bas reliefs of the contrast...
love,
Suzanne Townsend