News / Asia

Bhutan's Education in Gross National Happiness

Young monks practicing a dance at the Neyphug Monastery
Young monks practicing a dance at the Neyphug Monastery

Multimedia

During my three-and-a-half year stint in South Asia, I have made five trips to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

In my six-nation area of responsibility only the Maldives, a nation composed of atolls, has a smaller population.  Compared to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, the other four countries I was tasked
with covering, Bhutan is an obscure and sleepy afterthought for most foreign correspondents.

But something kept drawing me back.

It was not only the serenity, cleanliness and the esoteric form of Buddhism practiced there.

Morning meditation at a Bhutan public school classroom
Morning meditation at a Bhutan public school classroom

It was also the attitude of its people.  

Contrary to the modern image of Himalayan Buddhists, the Bhutanese had a reputation as warriors - fending off, centuries ago, Tibetan invaders.  The Bhutanese strike visitors as friendly, although a bit restrained and superstitious. Sociologists will likely tell you the Bhutanese have a spiritual and protective psyche.

The Bhutanese have certainly done their best to carefully filter the demands and fashions of the modern world.

Modernity has gradually crept into Bhutan. It was the last nation to begin TV broadcasting, in 1999.  And now nearly every Bhutanese I met in the capital, Thimphu, seems to be on Facebook.  But traditional fashion still dictates dress: men go to work wearing the gho and women don the kira.

Bhutan, in recent years, has gained some outside attention for its unique concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This was a term coined by Bhutan's fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 and meant as an alternative to the traditional measure of development, gross national product.

The small country of about 750,000 people is now taking GNH beyond an intellectual discourse and incorporating its values into its educational curriculum.

On several of my trips to Bhutan I sought to scrutinize this national state of happiness. Was it just a gimmick? Is it actually being implemented? Is it something the rest of the world should seriously explore? These were some of the questions I attempted to answer in my reports from Bhutan since 2007.

My most recent exploration took me to two places in Bhutan.

Entrance to the Changbandgu Primary School, Thimphu
Entrance to the Changbandgu Primary School, Thimphu

The first was the Changbangdu Primary School where classes begin with a moment of absolute silence. This is part of the new GNH curriculum Bhutan has introduced into its schools.

Teachers say they have already noticed a difference from the daily moments of meditation. Their students, they claim, are now more focused.

GNH also includes lessons on conservation and recycling. It also means teaching, for instance, why one should be considerate to other people. As a government policy, GNH, recognizes other components besides education, psychological well-being and ecology. They are: health, culture, living standards, proper use of time, community vitality and good governance.

Principal Dolma, who uses only one name, explains that Gross National Happiness is not only meant to be a classroom exercise.

"It's not just classroom teaching that we impart values," she explains in her office. "But the way a teacher speaks to the children, the way a teacher behaves with the children, so much so that even while we play games, value is imparted."  

Bhutan's educators stress that happiness values, closely in line with the country's deep Buddhist faith, are not meant to bring religion into the classroom.  But it is certainly not in conflict with those religious values.

That is what I found out when I visited the other important spot on my most recent Bhutanese journey - an old monastery difficult to find, up a winding side mountain road between the capital, Thimphu, and Paro.

Neyphug Monastery grounds, Bhutan
Neyphug Monastery grounds, Bhutan

At the Neyphug Monastery, established in 1550, the young head lama has set up a parochial school for some of Bhutan's most underprivileged children. They are learning similar GNH concepts although it is not called that there - rather it is part of the traditional Buddhist values taught to help attain enlightenment.

This is what they strive to achieve permanently, partly through leading a compassionate life, avoiding evil and eschewing material gain.

The 30-year-old chief monk and professor, Ngawang Sherdrup Chokyi Nyima, regarded as the 9th incarnation of the Neyphug Monastery's founder, sought to shed some light on the subject.

"In Buddhism, we call it enlightenment. People call it happiness. The happiness we have is very temporary, at the moment. But there is a day that you get this happiness permanently."

Ngawang Sherdrup Chokyi Nyima speaking during VOA interview at his monastery
Ngawang Sherdrup Chokyi Nyima speaking during VOA interview at his monastery

The trulku, which refers to an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist lama, added that the world's people should work on "the part of happiness in this degenerate time" by applying compassion, love and kindness.

The young professor, engrossed in his studies of traditional Tibetan Buddhism since he was a child in India and Bhutan, admits to not deeply understanding the nuances of the government's Gross National Happiness policy.

"I should really learn more about it," he acknowledges.

But even with my superficial understanding of GNH and Buddhism it is clear to me that the two are deeply intertwined.

I had initially become aware of this during a previous interview with one of Bhutan's senior monks, the Shinghkar Lama, Ngidup, who said he believed Bhutan was one of the few countries where the "very primary philosophy of Buddhism" has been put into practice and made a national goal. But how does one gauge the success of GNH in the method of metrics applied to Gross National Product, now better known as Gross Domestic Product or GDP?

The advice from the traditional experts, which will certainly befuddle economists: Do not get hung up on the numbers.  The gauge for Gross National Happiness is probably abstract, explained the head monk of Shingkar.

"So whether you want to enjoy it in the forms of numbers or you can say like 'I'm having like 10 happiness' a day or something, I don't know. But as long as you're feeling peaceful that's how we want the measurement of feeling happy or peaceful or whatever," the Shingkar Lama told me.   

The GNH concept is winning sympathy, if not endorsements, from those used to measuring development by the economists' measuring sticks. Talk to U.N. and World Bank experts these days who have spent their careers in the developing world and they will usually acknowledge that enormous growth is not equitable, creating new divisions that fuel further tension. The current upheaval, say in Thailand and Nepal, can be partly attributed to such disparities.  

The good news for Bhutan is, that by any measuring stick, the country is gaining.

Sales of hydro-electric power to India means Bhutan's gross domestic product has been rising by double digits in recent years.  On the U.N. Human Development Index, Bhutan - just a few decades ago considered one of the world's poorest countries with few schools or hospitals - continues to climb.  In the 2009 rankings it is at 132, two spots ahead of its giant neighbor, India and closing in on South Africa.

That is enough to make anyone here smile.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs