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The Buddhist Truth of Happiness Spirituality and Development - the case of governance in Bhutan Prakke, Diederik between 2005-06 and 2005-08

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 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
Spirituality i and Development - the case of governance in
Diederik Prakke*
A telling anecdote
'Although my father is highly educated, he is very religious'. I
hold this as a key quote from a young Bhutanese since I first
visited Bhutan back in 1990. 'Although my father is highly
educated, he is very religious'. It's concise and powerful like a
mantra. The word although indicates that it is self-evident to
the speaker that education and spirituality are opposites. His
father knows about the universal law of gravity, but in
meditation still magically pretends that he can learn to fly.
Daddy has switched the light of logic on, but still reserves
some dark corners to cherish a superstitious belief. The
speaker seems embarrassed that education didn't cure his
father's spiritual obsession. Or would he be proud that his
father combines tradition and modernity? Possibly he secretly
even adores that his daddy despises Western indoctrination',
even though he masters the Western way of thinking.
In any case, the quote makes clear that modern life is not
necessarily experienced as fundamentally spiritual, as it was
in  all  traditional  societies.   In  this  paper  I   re-explore   the
possibility    and   potential    of   creating    spirituality-inspired
' Diederik Prakke is a trainer and consultant in human and
institutional development with MDF (Management for Development
Foundation). For the past twelve years he is a Buddhist practitioner
and member of the Shambhala Buddhist community, headed by
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Diederik lived in Bhutan for over seven
years working as a water engineer. Currently he lives with his
Bhutanese wife and their two children in the Netherlands.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
societies, that however build on the irreversible achievements
of modernisation. I am struck how in Western Europe we
attempt to be neutral in terms of religion (over-aware of the
past wrongs of colonialism and aggressive conversion) and
therefore are silent, in our professional life, about what really
inspires us. We take out the heart of the working place. This
approach employs and addresses mainly the brain, paying
less attention to the body and the soul, and is therefore not
spiritual (which is about joining body, speech and mind).
Thus our approach is actually everything but neutral, but
spreads a materialistic worldview, that has become the
dominant, impoverished global paradigm of our world today.
And I am frustrated to see (after I personally stumbled across
Buddhism and was taken by surprise by its profundity) how
most Bhutanese have no clue about the jewel they hold in the
palm of their hands. I can accept that people choose to
disregard spirituality, setting other priorities in their lives.
But I feel thwarted that a clumsy and shallow presentation of
Buddhism puts off open-minded Bhutanese who are actually
in search of the very inspiration, meaning and fulfilment that
Buddhism can help you find3.
Contents of this paper
I hope this paper serves a dual (not dualistic) purpose:
1. In general: To promote that people take genuine spirituality
as the basis, path and purpose of development, rather than
as a 'specialism' to be protected, conserved, ignored or
disposed of.
2. In particular: To support a profound and unleashed
Buddhist approach to governance in Bhutan. While in line
with the deeper nature and aspirations of Bhutan, I believe
this vision nonetheless differs in crucial respects from
practice until date.
So this paper is about the potential relevance of spirituality to
development,    and   how   this   differs   from   the   presently
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
dominant global business and governance culture. In order to
bring this about, I first highlight the way my view differs from
the general direction and background of the GNH debate so
far. I write the present document so that the reader can
consider new perspectives, rather than proof myself right. I
therefore provide limited evidence and both present the Tiard
core' of my argument as well as 'side issues' that, if
demonstrated wrong, would not undermine the central thesis
of my discourse.
Next I finger-paint what spirituality is about and then discuss
why I bring in particular Buddhism into the debate, at least
for the case of Bhutan. To apply my view of spirituality I focus
on a particular country, because I do not believe there is a
'one-size-fits-air blue print to put spirituality centre-stage
globally. I zoom in on Bhutan, because I believe this country
has a vital and unique potential (and therefore a duty) in
expounding this vision. I discuss the developmental
challenges of Bhutan, as I see them. In meeting these
challenges I envision a key function for spiritual paths
(whether these be religious or secular) that give life meaning
and purpose. I discuss how Buddhism may be a key to
balanced development, rather than an awkward 'thingy' or
some excess baggage being dragged along from the past. I
conclude this paper with some proposals or dreams for
applications. I brainstorm about what others and I can do in
the coming years to enhance joy, liberation and wisdom in
The way my view differs
My conviction that Buddhism (or other traditions addressing
the spiritual level) should be central to the GNH debate
differentiates my paper from most contributions at the 2003
Seminar in Bhutan. In the mean time the 2005 Conference in
Canada has taken a tremendous leap forward in
acknowledging (and expressing) the central role of spirituality.
This recognition should be further consolidated (and its
implications carried through) to let the GNH discourse
contribute true alternatives to what is currently mainstream
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development. Below I highlight differences between the first
international conference and my own vision, noting that the
rerouting I advocate is in many respects in progress4.
1. A large number of early contributions5 focussed on
(pseudo-) scientifically measuring GNH, by putting it into a
(single) formula. If done too quickly and mechanically, this
quantifying approach trims GNH down into an amalgamation
of statistical hocus-pocus, cutting off the possibility of any
real re-orientation, thus strangling any chance of true
transformation. Hastily limiting GNH-ing into an amateur
counting exercise risks to entirely lose what I find refreshing
and inspiring about the concept.
I do see the need to quantify individual aspects beyond the
GDP, as focussed information forces policy-makers to wake
up to facts they traditionally turn a blind eye on. Yet simple-
minded abracadabra lures you into falling asleep, relying on
an autopilot with a disturbing track record. Fortunately the
Canadian Conference has meanwhile convincingly bypassed
and shut the door to such short-sighted quick fixes.
Nevertheless the larger challenge ahead of us remains to
allow the spiritual dimension in work and governance on its
own terms. If done skilfully and properly this would prove to
even the most hardcore sceptics that spirituality in a true
sense is neither arbitrary, nor wishy washy or impractical. It
is in this area that I focus my contribution.
2. That summons me to share a first hint of what I believe
'doing things spiritually' means in practical terms. It isn't a
matter of throwing the boring accounts and singing hallelujah
all day long in an empty office. It means two things to me:
That we see and approach each other and the world as
essentially spiritual, rather than as brains and matter
respectively. That implies the same result-orientedness and
fun we hopefully already have, but adds a profound sense of
connectedness. And secondly it means that we employ and
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
train our intuition just as much as we currently engage and
develop our intellect.
We will discover that the heart is indeed subjective (in the
sense that its observations appear in our heart), but that its
messages are in no way arbitrary. Currently most societies
deny or underestimate how decisive a role intuition plays. By
not developing the heart, most people do not systematically
separate between genuine observation and projection,
between accurate sensing and mental garbage (which is a
twisted replay of past experiences of the observer, rather than
a reflection of qualities of the observed). Paradoxically the end
result of this situation is that subconscious prejudices
secretly continue to dominate our decisions and behaviour,
without ever being disciplined or checked.
3. Another chunk of 2003 papers discussed subjective self-
assessments of happiness. By emphasising the subjectivity of
fleeting emotions such papers seem to suggest that there is
nothing objective and value-free about inner psychological
and spiritual development. And self-assessment data give you
nice details on the moods of the day in society (something
populist politicians have a sense for already), but non on your
target. Taking subjective self-assessment data as the basis of
GNH policy-making is like driving a car merely by looking in
the rear-view mirror. You adjust your course based on the
volume and duration of applause, rather than on progress
towards your aim. Even in democratic institutions a true
leader is not the one who follows public opinion blindfolded,
but a person who influences it in the direction of her Vision6.
'Satisfaction' is nice-to-know information to assess your
room-for-manoeuvre, but it doesn't make daring choices
about the society you want to help create.
To my understanding it is crucial to recognise and
acknowledge that lasting happiness is rooted in a foundation
that can be nurtured, and that is in no way shaken by the
craze of the day. And I am not saying that happiness-research
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data are irrelevant to 'spiritual policy-making', but I point out
that such information cannot replace a vision.
4. Until the 2005 Conference there was little consistency
between the various environmental best practices, economic
and cultural reflections and innovations in good governance
that made their way into the GNH debate. Though happy
about such initiatives, I feared that they would completely
scatter the discourse and Trijack' the GNH-brand. As ransom
the hijackers would require Mrs. GNH to learn Old Speak and
worry away about everything that everybody else already
worries about. After all, the most effective way to shipwreck a
refreshing idea is not even to fight or ignore it, but to
'integrate' it into a misty multitude of vague and rusty ones.
Be sure this would drown the GNH discourse in an
underwater jungle, at best to be remembered with a pitying
smile by a bunch of hardcore hippies. Even the most creative
collection of brainwaves will not get mainstreamed into a
comprehensive, undeniable and authoritative body of
knowledge, unless there is a red thread through the heap of
chops. And what do I propose to make that binding force? Of
course I advocate as red threat that all contributions should
have a vital spiritual dimension - which absolutely does not
require that the GNH-debate should be orchestrated by any
institutionalised religion7.
5. Until and inclusive the 2005 Conference trendy concepts
like constitutional (multi-party, one-man-one-vote)
democracy, decentralisation, (blindfolded, rule-based,
professionalised) uniform justice, secular public
administration, individual free choice, and free-market
competition were hardly questioned and by implication
accepted as inherently universal ideals8. They were (as
customary) assumed to be by default superior ideologies,
rather than simply potent strategies (which is the way I look
at them). They were inferred to be inevitable and value-free
principles, rather than valuable options that come in useful
in certain cases.  And they were regarded as untouchable
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
truths, rather than as factors to be weighed and balanced
against other legitimate concerns.
At the risk of being deemed an ultra-conservative I like to
make a strong appeal to carefully reflect whether (or at least
when) such concepts are truly applicable. Whereas a
therapist should fundamentally make his client heal himself,
a surgeon should not take that approach. Similarly I believe
doing justice is assisting parties to reconsiliate, rather than
letting them throw dirt at each other. I hope to meet a
friendly, inspiring human being at the counter in my
municipality building, rather than a neutral robot. I value a
mortgage advisor who assists me to choose my own bank, but
I don't want my doctor to leave it to me to diagnose my
disease and to pick the appropriate medicine. When you buy
a car you're damn right to look at the price, but I trust you
don't select your wife through public tender. In short: Let us
ponder if our choices still make sense or if we are afflicted by
an overdose of decentralisation fever, freedom myth,
participation dogma, democracy hallucination, equality
paranoia or regulation illusion9. For Bhutan such reflection
seems particularly opportune as that country is in the
process of adopting a Constitution, and the draft Constitution
may not be entirely compatible with Buddhism10.
6. Some (but not all) papers that mention Buddhism refer to it
as cultural glue to mould a strong society. In this perspective
Buddhism is a means to make people accord to the
establishment, rather than (as I prefer to conceive of it) as a
tool for personal and social liberation and transformation.
7. At the same time most GNH-papers with a Buddhist slant
approach Buddhism merely as a philosophical and moral
system with do-it-yourself recipes for life. Morality and ethics
are indeed included in the lower teachings of Buddhism, but I
do not see that as the part with most immediate relevance to
(Bhutan's) challenges. I believe many societies are longing for
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
inspiration, insight, meaning and love that Buddhism is able
to satisfy.
8. Many papers implicitly or explicitly refer to culture and
religion as a specific sector to be preserved. In this view
culture is a soft-sector next to e.g. health, agriculture or
trade. I allot religion a much larger role, as the inspiration,
the foundation, path and purpose of development. In my view
spirituality can and should be takes as the foundation rather
than as a segment of society. I'm not interested in just
facilitating that monasteries and festivals are maintained, but
that there is vision, inspiration and heart behind what people
do. Besides, as I discuss later, the very intention to 'preserve'
a living tradition kills and mumifies its life forceii.
9. And most papers that focus on Buddhism refrain from
applying this philosophy to the actual current society, but
focus only on personal spiritual development. They refrain
from expressing a humble, honest personal perception of
what is positive and (especially of what is) negative in society,
and coming up with recommendations to public or private
actors. The 'Buddhist' papers deal rather with individual
salvation than with creating enlightened society.
10. And finally, in looking at society, previous contributors
have avoided the sharp points. They have stated quite a lot of
what is awe-inspiring and tremendously good in Bhutan, but
have not added the fundamental pains and sorrows of that
country as well. In my view it is vital to fully acknowledge and
touch the shadow that each person and nation has, simply
because it is inseparable from the sunny-side, and because
liberation can only be achieved by embracing one's shadow. I
try to do this in a way that opens rather than closes hearts on
all sides of the dividing lines. And I try to be neither arrogant
nor aggressive, but begin to speak straight, simple, fearless,
frank and without mothering or excuse.
 The Buddhist Tv
4   4
Spirilual inlegrily
Pillar model
Foundation model
In the section 'Challenge of Bhutan' I elaborate further on
what I see as the shadow of Bhutan, but at this point it
seems obligatory to note that it includes what is popularly
referred to as 'the Southern Bhutanese problem'i2. Without
belittling this problem in any way, I should say that I
personally regard it as 'only' a (dramatic) manifestation of an
integral but problematic aspect of Bhutanese society, which
also surfaces through other tensions and challenges. The
reason why I name this particular issue here is that I believe
this subject has led to most tension and misunderstanding
between ethnic Bhutanese and other people in this worldi3.
Exploring 'the Southern problem' usually creates 'cat-and-
mouse' dynamics in which one party accuses the others, and
the defendant denies, ignores or indulges in counterattack. I
hope to contribute to the healing of this very open wound
within and outside Bhutan, by touching it in a way and at a
forum where it is obvious and tangible to all parties that I
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
want nothing but good, and uphold a deep connection to
In analytical terms my most fundamental recommendation is
to take spirituality as the foundation of the GNH discourse,
rather than as a sector (as part of culture - see illustrationi4).
The 'ReThrnking' conference, based on Lyonpo Jigme
Thinley's pivotal paper, took culture (presumably including
spirituality) merely as a pillar of GNH15. The pillar model
simultaneously over-estimates and under-estrmates
spirituality. It underrates spirituality in the sense that in
truth it isn't just another area next to trade and agriculture.
Spirituality is more than that, because it is the foundation of
all enlightened action. And the pillar model overvalues
spirituality in the sense that that model assigns it a 'private'
domain. In many ways it is correct to only cherish spirituality
as far as it leads to practical compassionate action. Religion
isn't anything in itself unless it bears fruits in other areas of a
person's life.
The second conference made the step from merely reflecting
on what GNH may mean, to practising it. In this sense the
'ReThinking Development' conference joined heaven and
earth, and went beyond dreaming about heaven alone. With
this paper, however, I call people to regularly take a step
aside while taking this forward leap. I do not want to be an
obstacle to actually doing something, but I do want to keep
the question alive where (and how) we are going. If we forget
that, we might as well continue the good old common road to
development (and/or to an environmental holocaust).
Or, to put it more bluntly: I am by far more afraid that the
GNH discourse will become too instrumental than that it will
stay too vague and unpractical. I am more afraid and alert of a
debate that throws about facts and figures to conceal the
absence of a View or the confidence to express it. The debate
will not become vague if spirituality is powerfully pronounced
as the foundation. On the contrary, the debate may become
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
vague if it continues beating around the bush in terms of
spirituality. Then the discourse falls back to swimming on dry
land, increasing the urge and neurosis that it should show
tangible, measurable results to be taken serious by the 'real'
world. If we don't dare to connect to the spiritual stream that
is always present in society... then we might indeed continue
wasting lots of time, hibernating on statistics in the outskirts
of the 'real' world. So let's be proud and humble in declaring
that GNH is about creating an enlightened society on (in the
case of Bhutan) the foundation of Buddhism.
Observed in other
The shift this paper
GNH is about
Measuring more
than money
Taking spirituality at it own
GNH should
Innovations in
huge fields
... if rooted in spirituality
Happiness is
A subjective
Being in accord with the
Advance GNH by
Using self-
assessment data
Making daring choices
Western values
Universal ideals
Potent & applicable in
many cases
Buddhism is
A glue to
maintain society
A tool to liberate
Buddhism offers
A moral system
Inspiration, insight,
meaning & love
Culture is about
Imposing a
binding factor
Multiple roads to the soul
Spirituality is
A (sub-) sector
The foundation, path and
Use spirituality
Reflect on
Reflect on individuals and
In Bhutan
Avoid sharp
Integrate shadow with love
Debate should
Share practical
Keep questioning what we
aim for
Debate should
Engage and train
the brain
... as well as the heart
Discourse risk
Being unworldly
Cowardice, not daring to
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Spirituality and development
As stated above the current dominant worldview is deeply
non-spiritual - so much so that few of us have any clue at all
of how profoundly different (yet more practical, accurate and
effective) a mystical vision would be. Our materialistic outlook
is unique in history, while we mistakenly take it to be self-
evident and imperative. Below I like to finger-paint what the
world may look like if we redevelop (but now knowingly) what
is called a 'sacred outlook'. I will attempt to sketch how
radically different we may perceive and therefore relate to
reality. Or, to put it differently, I will point out how little
actual reality there is to the mental constructions that we
normally call realityi6. Unless we open our minds and allow
ourselves to reconnect to a larger and livelier picture, we will
remain, to put it in the words of a Buddhist master, oblivious
of the 'cosmic orgasm' going on all around us. We miss so
much of what makes life worth living, also missing out on
that what can make our actions powerful, accurate and
So first (before discussing what to do about it) the challenge to
sketch what perceptions we cut ourselves off from. I love one
of the scenes of the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life'.
An upper-class British gathering is conversing over high tea,
when Death enters the room. He tells them that they will all
die in minutes, but they do not see him and only vaguely
catch his message. After a moment of disorientation, the get-
together starts chattering about the subject of death. They
discuss how absolutely impossible and imprudent it would be
to die just now, and joke how absurdly inappropriate it would
be. Who would do the dishes, and take their poodle out for a
Death warns again, and the party keeps on ignoring the
reality of it. Then Death takes them away, and they turn into
shadows. But the most brilliant (astounding) feature of the
movie is that they just keep on yapping away! Really, they are
so completely self-absorbed, immune and cut off of actual
reality, that they even manage to miss their very own death! It
is both hilarious and outrageous.
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
What this story aims to hint at is how the facts and figures
we normally cast our minds on are but drops in the ocean.
The bigger picture is spiritual: unknowing and absence of
control. It's not so much that our mental constructions and
reasonings are faulty - but they acknowledge only a tiny slice
of reality. So let's keep on making development policies,
strategies, and plans and define objectively verifiable
indicators. But in the mean time let's not forget that these
efforts only perform a supporting role in a much, much larger
We may collect poststamps, watch football and follow the Dow
Jones, but there's something cooking behind all that. To he
spiritual' we don't need to stick to limiting dogma's, lull
ourselves to sleep with reassuring illusions, throw ourselves
undignified at the feet of a master, swim with dolphins, or
half-close our eyes to seem holy. But we can humbly and
simply open up to a much bigger sense of surprise and
appreciation, acknowledging that institutionalised religion is
just one possibility to be spiritual. What I'm trying to say is
that we all deserve to experience ourselves as partaking in a
dance that extends so much beyond the minutes of our
weekly meeting, beyond our laptop screen or what have you.
In our society we are shy to see and proclaim that we are
embedded in a spiritual context. In trying to conform to the
'no-nonsense' norm, we withhold ourselves a deeper sense of
connection. We limit ourselves to a materialistic worldview.
This, however, also has a bearing on what we do, and on the
decisions we take. In other words, materialism has a social
impact as well, next to the purely individual consequences.
Two examples of short-sighted decisions
I was perplexed to understand that in France symbols of
religion are now forbidden in schools and public offices. That
seems like throwing away your child with the dirty bath water.
The French wanted to promote Muslim integration and fight
gender  suppression  in  the  name  of Islam,   but apparently
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
found a truly targeted intervention too confrontational. That
would imply explicitly having a value system, a conviction you
stand for. So the Western solution is to take the whole heart
out, not only the cancer. However, I believe we can only offer
true tolerance and freedom of faith and religion, if we embrace
our own belief without embarrassment, if we have one. In the
name of religion horrendous crimes have been committed, but
this has not stained or contaminated the heart of the human
longing to dedicate himself to that what is good.
Another example of decision-making from too narrow a
perspective comes from my own country. Our current
immigration policy compels second generation immigrants to
choose to maintain only one nationality. I see such a rule as a
sign of being disconnected from reality, from actual
psychological and spirituality reality. There may be valid
arguments to take a stronger stand to limit asylum seeking,
and I am not against implementing tough and unpopular
measures as such. Yet this denies that people can only
become whole by integrating the background they come from.
A person can only be truly Dutch, if he also values his non-
Dutch roots. Likewise a person can only be truly unbiased
and beyond sectarian favouritism in the spiritual realm, if he
connects to the tradition (or individual path) written in his
destiny. Not seeing such 'hidden' truths is a dust particle of
proof that the life force in our society is in ashes (ashes from
which luckily new life is designed to appear).
Reflecting on examples of short-sighted decisions that result
from not recognising reality (see boxiy) I conclude that the
Western split between life (and more in particular work) and
spirituality is unfortunate, if not catastrophic. Of course
people are free not to have a connection with any religion or
meaning-giving dimension at all, but people who do should be
encouraged (and at least feel free) to engage that inspiration
in their life and work. If you take the 'spiritual' dimension
away, what remains is intellectual speculation and
materialism. In trying not to impose any philosophy,
development co-operation and science currently preach that
the material world is all there is. You may separate state and
church, but you shouldn't separate work and spirituality.
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
Until this point I indicated how spirituality is the larger
picture, and how this view may yield more comprehensive
and wise decisions. That is a somewhat ephemeral and farfetched argument to pay attention to spirituality (it is indeed
an example of spiritual reasoning itself). But there are also
more mundane, obvious and socially pressing reasons to pay
attention to spirituality. One of them is its potential to
address the frustration and despair expressed in terrorism,
crime and social disintegration. People turn to destructive
conduct only if they can't find meaning and a dignified
position in society. They turn to radical deeds in a desperate
attempt to escape from the sense of futility and deathlike
evenness that comes from having no self-respect or hope to
climb the social ladder. The hardest terrorists are people
whose material situation is bearable, but who have no sense
of dignity and purpose. People scarred by childhood sorrows
and a deprivation of love, care and meaning. People without
access to 'the American dream', who are doomed to stay
second or third rank world citizens regardless of what they
And those who cause most social problems long for meaning
most. The more sensitive a person isi8, or the more desperate
a person's perspective, the larger the chance that he turns to
drugs or crime. Of course I won't suggest that establishing
churches and temples is the fast track to halt crime and
terrorism. But I do see an increasing need for positive identity
and meaning in a world that seems to be merging into a
uniform global village. Whereas superficially religion seems at
the root of many conflicts, I believe spirituality has much
more potential to healing them. I dare say that fundamentally
the challenge of our century is a spiritual challenge. It is a
challenge of meaning, identity, and connectedness. Accepting
spirituality as the central challenge does not mean we have to
run into the slums and back streets of this world with a
Bible,  Koran or Buddha statue in our hands.  But it does
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
imply that we identify with people on all sides of the divides
we have created in this world, as spiritual beings.
We are not just allowed to integrate spirituality back into our
lives, we simply cannot afford not to do it. The very idea of
separation at the level of the individual is based on a
misunderstanding. Since a few decades there is global
support for the idea that basic education is a fundamental
human right. Nowadays not sending your children to school is
much more criticised than imposing over a decade of
intensive indoctrination ('Dumbing them down' as John
Taylor Gatto calls it). How different do we look at spirituality
and religious upbringing! When I tell friends about the
traditional Tibetan way to raise a Tulku (a person recognised
as reincarnation of a realised teacher), they're likely to be
disapproving how that system of tutoring 'imposes choices on
the child'. And sceptical of the actuality that this method has
proven to produce incredible wisdom, social engagement and
inner freedom.
I do not particularly wish to idealise East over West (or
tradition over modernity), but I do like to point at
contemporary biases that have become so common and
dominant that we fail to notice their relativity. Whereas we
are (luckily) wary of religious fanaticism, we seem insensitive
to the much more disastrous results of materialism. Should
we not regard spiritual integrity at least as much as a
fundamental human right (and parental duty) as basic
Why Buddhism?
Above I have advocated revaluing religion. But why zoom in
on Buddhism in particular and why connect it to the GNH
debate? Buddhism has much to say (and even more to offer in
terms of experience to those who practice it) about happiness.
It says that knowing and living the truth, is true happiness.
The happiness that Buddhism seeks does not depend on the
subjective and passing experience of psychological ups and
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
downs (as measured in self-assessment research on
happiness). In final instance it also doesn't look at outer
phenomena (such as economic growth, environmental
protection, or education levels) to assess development.
Buddhism looks at the spiritual development of people and
society, expressed as wisdom and loveiQ, which is an
absolutely objective fact, even though it occurs inside people
and may therefore not be unambiguously perceptible to the
untrained eye.
So I bring in Buddhism because it points at truth, the truth,
which is at the same time the basis for true and stable
happiness. We often talk of 'Buddhist' truth, but actually
truth is merely truth, regardless of the denomination of the
path you walked to find it. So that's why I put 'Buddhist' in
the title of this paper in quotes. You may have come by air to
Halifax, but that doesn't make Halifax an aeroplane. You may
get to see the truth through Buddhism, but the truth itself
isn't Buddhist. Just like the law of gravity isn't a Western
truth, the luminous essence of mind is the truth, rather than
a Buddhist version of it.
Probably other religions and wisdom traditions point in the
same direction, and I focus on Buddhism in first instance
simply because it is obviously intimately interrelated with
Bhutan. In fact I personally believe that Bhutan's significance
to the world at large lies in its Buddhist heritage and
tradition.20 As far as I am concerned it's great that Bhutan
also houses Hindus, Christians and increasing numbers of
non-religious folks, but to the larger world I believe Bhutan's
contribution lies in being a Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom. The
country is soaked for centuries in Buddhism, and even those
who do not consciously know (or misconceive) its philosophy,
are profoundly affected by it.
Buddhism is of interest also because it pre-eminently offers
non-religious paths for inner development. More than many
other religions, one can study and practice Buddhism without
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accepting any dogma. If humanity has secularised and
become suspicious of obscure believes, Buddhism is a
relatively well-digestable' way to reconnect to basic
spirituality. Whereas Buddhism has at times undoubtedly
served to maintain feudal societies and social injustice, it also
has an impressive tradition of proclaiming truth in an
uncompromising manner. This feature again is of particular
interest to Bhutan, where culture and tradition make certain
issues hard to debate open-mindedly. When proven to belong
to a genuine Buddhist tradition, however, the Bhutanese
accept and take pride in their 'crazy wisdom' Saints, who act
as 'Fierce Destroyer of Illusion' (a title of a recently diseased
Buddhist master who lived for years in Bhutan)21.
And last but not least, I bring in Buddhism because I have
become a Buddhist. When I first visited Bhutan I loved to see
the ceremonies, regarding them as an exotic, animistic and
naive relic of the past. Back in the Netherlands I visited some
of the many small Buddhist groups, increasingly impressed
by their wisdom, which (at least sometimes) went beyond
holding on to groovy flower-power hippie dreams. At some
point in 1991 I was completely captivated, ashamed and
shocked reading a book by the Tibetan teacher Chogyam
Trungpa Rinpoche. His book gave a sharp description of the
functioning of the human mind, in which I found all my
personal secrets displayed, whereas I had assumed that a
Tibetan meditator would only have some sweet and moralistic
advise to the backward herdsman in the valley below his
Participating in the second GNH conference was exciting and
gratifying for me, as it brought together Bhutan and
(Shambhala) Buddhism, which are two key elements of my
life. The conference created a ground (or Mandala) that
allowed the Bhutanese participants to experience what our
world can look like if we take unbiased spirituality as our
point of departure. For years in Bhutan I tried in vane to get
friends  exited  about  the  possibility  of a modern  spiritual
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
society, as I intuited it. But attempting to share that heart-
vision felt like trying to show a blind friend through a narrow
window a distant mountaintop. My vision met with vacant
looks and seldom seemed to land. This second GNH
conference, however, simply dropped a sizeable bunch of
Bhutanese right on that mountaintop. And they visibly
enjoyed it, whether or not aware how much deliberate
preparation underpinned the natural spontaneity of the
Challenge of Bhutan
Of age Bhutan is a religion-drenched society, yet currently I
sense an increasing tension, in which Buddhism often
emerges as a conservative force rather than as a
transformative boost to development. A better understanding
and personal experience of Buddhism may reconcile the
artificial contradiction between boldness and brightness of
the educated generation on the one hand, and spiritual
integrity on the other hand. In fact I believe that embracing
Buddhism may be a key medicine to transform the latent
tensions present in societies like the nation of Bhutan.
At this very moment, however, many young Bhutanese loose
interest in Buddhism, because on the superficial level that
they get to see Buddhism ignores the questions of their
modern life. You could almost say that an educated
Bhutanese who still adheres to old traditions must be kidding
himself. If you just see some superstitious rituals and hear
sweet moralistic teachings, be honest, how impressed can you
truly be? You must be trying to hold on to some illusion of
grandeur and nationalistic superiority, if you maintain that
that is better than anything imported from the West.
Above I claim that Buddhism presents potential solutions,
but I haven't discussed to which problems. So let me share
some personal perceptions on Bhutan's current assets and
challenges, on the understanding that these are impressions
and conclusions rather than judgements. My views change
over time, and I will not even try to prove myself right. I just
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offer the reader food for thought, informing you of how
Bhutan comes across to a certain Dutch Buddhist. This
particular guy lived in the Himalayan Kingdom for most of the
nineteen-nrneties, and is still connected to Bhutan through a
Bhutanese lady, with whom he cares for their two children.23
What I see as the key challenge for Bhutan is to overcome its
particular way of hierarchically binding people: Children to
their parents and subjects to the nation-state. To put it in
Vajrayana language: Based on ignorance every society has its
own style of torturing and mutilating its children, which is
karmically passed down from generation to generation. Of
course this happens next to passing down the best of life and
love. Or rather than co-emerging: The life force and the
poison are intermingled. Today, you can't accept one if you
don't accept the other. You don't accept Bhutan if you don't
accept its shadow. But you can have an aspiration of
purifying, cleansing. In Bhutan children are often seen as
property of their parents - both by the parents and by the
children themselves. The message of basic goodness and the
news of liberation can sink in much deeper. In the future I
hope that the care Bhutanese children will give to their ageing
parents, and the gratitude citizens will feel towards their
rulers, no longer has any trace of obligation, but becomes an
act of total freedom.
And then back to Buddhism, which in my view should be
spreading just this message. In Bhutan it strikes me how
little both laymen (including government servants) and many
monks and nuns know about Buddhism. Some of them know
quite a bit about the daily rituals and the local natural
deities. And many have a deep devotion for their revered
incarnate lama's. Although this may be called 'blind-faith', I
do not look down at it at all, specially when the devotees are
still deeply rooted in Bhutan's traditional rural culture. As a
Jesuit Father said about the Bhutanese 'I don't try to convert,
because they live in the Holy Spirit'. Or in the words of a
Bhutanese   lama   They   are   so   pure   in   their   innocence'.
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
Buddhism is in its core not an intellectual affair, but a matter
of a completely open heart. So this T)lind faith' is congruent
with what the Buddhist teachings attempt to help you
Yet for the younger, educated generation it usually doesn't
work the same way. People of that generation have developed
their intellect, their curiosity. If their questions about
Buddhism or their questions about life are not responded to
by Buddhism, they are bound to loose interest. To many
youngsters Buddhism is no more than a cultural form (see
endnote iii). I then feel sorry that they do not enjoy the fruit of
a tree so close to them, but actually I do not consider this as
a problem. Let them search fulfilment in their lives through
other means. Let them watch sports on TV without the
illusion that it is something spiritual, or let them practice
sports, which can actually lead to spiritual experiences. At
least that is no worse than anybody else on this planet
wasting his or her life.
I first see a problem when young people search but cannot
find a truly satisfying purpose in life, or when people try to
conserve Bhutan's Buddhist heritage in an unskilful, at times
doctrinaire manner. The latter is unfortunately what I see
happening, with the best intentions. I see it happening when
people actually still sense that there is something worth
preserving to Buddhism, but when they do not know exactly
what it is.
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Developmental challenge of Bhutan
Presence of
spiritual energy
Original balance
Intuition and
Blind devotion
Sensing profundity
Searching but not
finding ground
Sensing hypocrisy
Allowing unbiased
New balance: Revalue / integrate
The mechanism seems to work like this. Karma attended
primary school and learned to pray, yet intellectually he
doesn't know what this is all about. However, he feels
connected and inspired and wants his children to experience
this too. He feels frustrated because something in Buddhism
is dear to him, but he cannot let his enthusiasm spark to his
very own children. It's like Karma's children do not long to eat
his best medicine, and so he starts trying to shuffle it down
their throats. As long as Karma can't explain and prove to his
kids what exactly is so great about Buddhism (and he can't as
long as he doesn't precisely know for himself), his only option
is forcing.
But generally this will be counterproductive, because his
children experience him as needlessly intruding. Even if they
yield temporarily to his power, Karma's approach sows
resistance for the future. The problem is not that the
medicine isn't good enough. The problem is that as long as
Karma himself doesn't quite know what exactly is so good
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
about it, he can't rouse genuine curiosity. Or compare it to a
jacket passed down through generations. If the jacket is too
tight, but re-tailoring is not allowed, the next generation will
put it aside. This generation will shop for a new jacket, but is
in for bad buy as nobody is clear about what exactly wasn't
OK about the old coat.
To my perception (and to my dismay) this happens a lot in the
area of culture, tradition and Buddhism in Bhutan. The
younger generation doesn't automatically adopt old
conventions. In response the older generation feels
disrespected, and starts pushing for obedience and
compliance, using the best arguments they guess may
constitute the heart of Buddhism. Yet here blind-faith
becomes a problem. Whereas the Buddha ran away from
home to achieve liberation from suffering, attachment and
untruthfulness, the uneducated interpretation of Buddhism
has it that being a good citizen is a matter of doing what you
are told to do. In this case the attempt is to use Buddhism to
draw people together socially, rather than to liberate them
and empower individuals to take their own innate freedom. In
short, tradition becomes empty and oppressive, rather than
warm, personal and liberating.
In a slightly better case, Buddhism is not misused to make
you abide by the rules, but is misrepresented as a self-
improvement project. Just try a little harder and you will
become a Buddha'. Rather than saying that you already
possess basic goodness (as Buddhism teaches in truth) the
Buddha is then said to accept you if you admit your sins, bow
down and try harder to be nice. You are still denied your
Kingdom, are still encouraged to become other than who you
are already, thus making you prone to disappointment.
And to mention another common misunderstanding:
Buddhism is not a love-and-light approach either. Nor does
Buddhism propose living a slow motion version of reality,
promoting that you glide through this world with half-closed
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eyes. In fact tantra is said to go faster, rather than slower,
than the desperate chaos of samsara. Much like Freud in the
West, it is said in tantric Buddhism that you should Irill your
father', which stands for going your own way, free from the
fetters of expectations and reward.
If Buddhism is reduced into an attempt to suffocate and
make you predictable24, it is no wonder that people start to
look elsewhere for fulfilment in their lives (which, as I said
before, is not the basic problem). The problem I mentioned
comes when modern searchers don't find true happiness
elsewhere. Some find another religion and are happy with it:
Great. But others try alcohol, drugs, sex or machismo,
craving for satisfaction. The most sensitive among them have
to take an extra dose, because they see through their own
deception, and can't cover up that deep down they know they
didn't find it yet. And they have no clue that there is an
answer much bigger and much closer to them than they
expect. Because to them the Buddhist lama's on their thrones
don't seem very near, nor are the moralistic stories of their
teachers and parents very appealing25. And to me that is a
problem, an ironic problem. Young boisterous people roaming
in a Golden Palace looking for gold (meaning), but finding
none because the gold is covered by a thin layer of moralistic
narrow-minded 'Buddhist' dust...
The tension I perceive underlying society in Bhutan is not
particularly something to be afraid or exceedingly ashamed
of. However, its consequences can sometimes be far-reaching
(more Buddhist understanding could e.g. have limited and
reduced suffering in Southern Bhutan). But according to
Buddhism the root cause of suffering is basic unawareness
(an unfortunate misunderstanding) rather than original sin.
The challenge is to look at it and accept it honestly without
deception or denial. In Bhutan this is extra challenging,
because people are generally very bonded to their society and
government. Even a dispassionate open-ended question can
be interpreted as an attack.  However,  especially if Bhutan
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
takes the challenge of setting a shining example (which is not
the same as setting a 'model') to other societies (which I
believe Bhutan should), it is important to address these
And that brings me to a final possibility that Buddhism may
hold for Bhutan. The basic practice of shine (or shamatha)
meditation is exactly designed to bring about the kind of
equanimity that is needed here. Shine, peaceful abiding, is
about looking at what goes on in your mind (and in the world)
without judgement, but with tremendous curiosity and
softness, willing to bear witness and be surprised at any
moment. More shine may in the long run make topics that are
now highly loaded more readily debatable. Bearing witness in
a dispassionate (to the facts) yet loving (to the people) way
ultimately heals more than aggressively pressing for
acknowledgement and change from the outside.
On my wife I have seen the double blessing the Buddha
Dharma stores for the Bhutanese. While for years she took
my interest in Buddhism for an escapist cult for frustrated
Westerners, at some point she decided to participate in a
retreat. She had never doubted being a Buddhist in heart and
bones, but wasn't impressed with for example intellectual
deliberations about the non-existence of ego. Practising shine
meditation for a month(!) she experienced a path to develop
her own mind, and at the same time deepened her ties with
her own cultural background. So now both of us share this
positive frustration/inspiration that most Bhutanese seem to
unknowingly crave for a treasure that's right in the palm of
their hands. So I sincerely wish Bhutan and the Bhutanese
many healing and opening experiences, through Buddhism or
any other means at hand.
Below I share dreams I have for myself, and dreams I hope
may sprout in the minds of Bhutanese (be they in government
service or working in the private sector). I used to be afraid to
share such thoughts,  believing it might be perceived as a
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foreigner trying to push an external agenda onto Bhutan. But
my experience is that the more roundabout I present my
ideas, the more resistance I raise. In that case people sense I
have some further ideas which I hold back. That 'secrecy' may
raise more suspicion and irritation than the thoughts
themselves. So on this note I feel free to brainstorm
straightforwardly on what may be done to face the challenges
described above.
When our family returns to live in Bhutan probably in a year
from now, we will be curious to see whether we can be of
help. No stronger: I will be dying to see whether I can reach
and benefit anybody with the burning believes that are closest
to my heart.
However, some developments that we would love to contribute
to are already taking shape. I rejoice very much in the
production of the movie Travellers and Magicians' cast
recently by a boisterous lama (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche)
in Bhutan. And at the ReThrnking Conference I was delighted
by the movie The Words of My Perfect Teacher', which is a
movie about him. Moreover, I heard that one of his brothers
(Garab Dorji Rinpoche) has established meditation centres in
a number of Bhutanese towns were lay-people come to
practice, whereas otherwise meditation is often only practised
by monks in Bhutan. And at the moment I first drafted this
paper I was looking forward to hear how the visit of the Dutch
rock group Blof to Bhutan turned out. I don't know the band
well, but have sung a beautiful ballad of theirs in a music
school band that I joined some years ago to become more
fully alive myself. And that is what the spiritual dimension
simply comes down to: Ways and means to help and hearten
people to come alive26.
Below I summarise some ideas in a table (with some
fragmented comments below it). The telegram-style of the
table illustrates that it is about dreams rather than about
solid plans. Dreams for which I hope to meet with enthusiasm
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
and further ideas during and after the Conference. If we
develop plans that depend on establishing networks (and
possibly fund raising), this is the time to start preparations.
Brainstorm - Private
Brainstorm - Public
•     More Travellers, lay-meditation and
•     Weekly opening meditation
and prayer
•     Series at schools and monasteries
•     Meditation before meetings
•     Retreats for laymen / government
•     Study groups
•     Workshops on applications
•     Youth camps
•     Twist in debate on sensitive
•     Prison visits with meditation
•     Dualistic democratic system?
•     Practice evenings and Dharma
•     Nationality law?
•     Seek more direct guidance
•     (Private) monastic curricula
from (and dialogue with)
Buddhist teachers
•     Inter-religious exchange
•     School and institute curricula
•     Songs and poems in training &
•     Participate in government
Example: Curricula review - What
Example: Curricula review - How
•     Current                   •     Future
•     Consultation: Decide with
•     Experience              •     Experience!
•     Good boys &          •     First liberate
•     Workshops: Decide what to
girls                          •     Change
strife for
•     Eternal values       •     Dance
•     Woking groups: Develop how
•     Happy ever             •     Basic
•     Tests and feedback system
after                                goodness
•     Teachers' training
•     Conditionally         •     Middle way
•     Implementation and
OK                            •     Magic as
continuous learning
•     Asceticism                     reality
•     Power and
The Upper-left box ('Brainstorm - Private') lists ideas of
possible activities I may support or undertake personally, or
in  collaboration with  organisations  and  individuals27.   The
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'Brainstorm - Public' (to the right) suggests measures that the
government of Bhutan may undertake to revive Buddhism as
a living experience and basis of its own functioning. When
suggesting 'meditation' as week opening (in government
offices) or before meetings, I think in the first place once
again of formless 'shine' practice, because it is highly
experiential and does not require faith. Provided that free will
isn't tempered with, daily meditation practices, retreats,
rituals and for example talking circles could enrich the
development of adults and children, adding the levels of
Buddhist teachings that I indicated are currently obscure to
the average Bhutanese.
Under 'application workshops' I list some topics that may be
debated freely after the personal practice of meditation starts
to take definite effect on people. So I list automatic results
that I expect to flourish, rather than plans I propose striving
for. Although the fruit is desirable, I do not suggest
mimicking the leaves and the flower to get to the crop. We
may just wait to see what sprouts spontaneously some time
after we sow the seed.
Take for example the debate on sensitive issues, such as e.g.
the significance of Dodup Rinpoche to Bhutan, or the
Southern Bhutanese (refugee) issue. So far I observe that
discussions on issues like these, generally lead to cat-and-
mouse-play dynamics. One party becomes the prosecutor, the
other the defendant who denies all charges. Once the debate
takes such a dualistic turn it is generally no longer fruitful. It
is then more about proving oneself right and over-powering
the other party, than about respect and acceptance. It is no
longer truly open and people dig themselves in rather than try
to shift perspectives and look from new angles. Debate then
arrives at a deadlock that isn't quickly overcome by trying
harder to be nice and flexible. Personally I usually do not
manage to stay impartial amidst a fire with others who get
entangled  in the  heat  of debate.   Therefore  the  best  may
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
simply be to leave those issues alone to ripen, simply
acknowledging that they are there.
Under the bullets 'Dualistic democratic system?' and
'Nationality law?' I refer to questions that I do not pretend I
have easy answers to. Bhutan is in the process of approving a
groundbreaking new constitution, choosing to adopt a
dualistic multi-party system. Multi-party democracy is,
among others, a system aiming to reduce the changes of
abuse of power by ill-intended politicians. I do not have an
easy and absolute alternative, but I find this a remarkable
and short-sighted choice for a Vajrayana Kingdom (see also
The way my view differs' and its endnotes). In the West it is
common to try solving motivational issues through checks
and balances in systems, and by making leaders answerable
to large constituencies. In other words the standard approach
of the West is to reduce the chance of abuse of power by
using the relatively stable, educated mass as an anchor.
In contrast, in a Vajrayana Kingdom, I could equally well
imagine paying explicit attention to whether leaders make
themselves sub-ordinate to spiritual guidance, or form parties
with a clear spiritual identity28. Just like a Tulku who refuses
to be enthroned can be regarded as rejecting responsibility,
the adoption of multi-party democracy may be viewed as
'dumping' responsibility on the population. 'Buttom-up
participation' can be an excuse for the King and government
not to present a Vision. At least it clearly 'bets' on control
from below, rather than on guidance from the top. Implicitly it
tends to discard the possibility and relevance of strengthening
true(!) spiritual guidance of individuals and governments29. In
contrast (or in addition?) I suggest practising and speaking
more about spirituality and linking it to the day-to-day work
of the government. Bhutan may draw more on its Buddhist
teachers seeking both guidance and dialogue.
In the lower two boxes I elaborate on the last option I
mentioned in the brainstorm: The possibility of reviewing the
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curricula of schools and institutes on Buddhist contents.
Taking advantage of international experiences in this regard,
the education sector in Bhutan could develop a curriculum
that engages body and speech as much as it currently
employs (conceptual) mind. And, to honour the principle of
'practice what you preach' similar initiatives could be
developed within the civil service.
The left of these two boxes wonders in what respect the
emphasis and key messages may shift (presenting a
comparison), whereas the right box suggests steps in a
participatory process of such a review. In terms of giving
education a Buddhist colour, I believe the rituals (such as
morning prayers) can well be maintained. This is the reason
why both the 'Current' and 'Future' columns in the What' list
start with the words 'experience'. I am not suggesting that the
tea of Buddhism can be drunk without any cup, so the
experience (which in final instance is more important than
the philosophy) needs to be conveyed as per a particular
cultural tradition. It is only in the underlying messages that I
suggest changes, e.g. from accepting people if they are good
citizens, to an unconditional recognition of the basic good
nature of all beings (see the concepts in the 'Current' and
Future' columns). Changes that pay heed to my belief that
true spirituality can simultaneously completely embrace the
wisdom, scepticism and curiosity of modernity, and be very
orthodox and uncompromising in keeping the essence of
Vajrayana Buddhism.
I look forward to exchanging further ideas (particularly on
how I may contribute to the above dreams). To be truthful to
my own call to stand up for one's spiritual connection, I like
to end this paper with a supplication.
The ones who are Nobly born as Mukpo clan,
Who defeat the eclipse of the Great Eastern Sun,
And sharpen the blade of primordial presence,
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
They   are  victorious   over   all   their   enemies,   the   forces   of
They see the Tiger Lion Garuda Dragon Vision,
They are fearless in the midst of barbarian arrogance,
They tame the untameable beings,
They inspire the savages of the setting Sun,
Into the sophistication of the Great Eastern Sun;
I pay homage to the Sakyong and the Sakyong Wangmo.
Radiating confidence, peaceful
Illuminating the Way of discipline,
Eternal ruler of the three worlds,
May the Great Eastern Sun be victorious!
Ki ki, so so!
i In this article I use the term 'spirituality' more often than the term
'religion'. With spirituality I refer to personal experiences (be they
spontaneous or cultivated) of inspiration and connectedness. It is
about showering (if not drowning) yourself in the understanding that
all beings deserve to be loved unconditionally. These are experiences
that everybody has access to, regardless of whether one practices
any religion. Religion on the other hand has a connotation of being
linked to an institution, in fact usually an organisation that outlines
ethical rules to its members. Moreover, in religion the follower opens
himself to the blessings of (a) God or elders on the path, and in
'exchange' normally commits his life to a particular way of service.
Whereas spirituality can exist without religion, and (sadly enough)
religion without spirituality, it seems that one only experiences the
full power if the two are combined. One may for example, regardless
of whether (and if so which) religion one follows, benefit from
meditation, but to benefit fully from the insights and blessings that
earlier masters hand down to us, one has to devote oneself to them
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
(which often implies 'officially' becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or
Interestingly enough such dedication is not required to obtain love
and acceptance for who you are in essence. Dedication is not a
compensation for being fundamentally not-OK (left alone that it is a
trick to buy God(s) over and thus ensure yourself a seat in heaven).
It is merely a pre-condition to take full advantage from the path that
God or the elders show (and which they earned through their
complete dedication). Rather than a repayment to the giver, religion
requires you to 'pay forward' (to the rest of human kind and the
To me, organisations that maintain power over their followers by
instilling fear and dependence exploit and abuse feelings of guilt,
inadequacy and superstition. Often such organisations prescribe
tight norms and adamant values that deter relaxation and (physical)
joy, whereas I believe that taking delight in this life is 'mandatory'. If
we don't dare to embrace the good that comes to us (even if it is
because we see others suffer), then what example do we set to our
children? Unless we ourselves gratefully celebrate the good we get,
our life example will invite future generations ad infinitum to live for
others rather than for themselves.
2 In the 'tradition' of my 1999 paper 'Placing the Hamburger in the
Mandala', the present paper could also be named 'A HappyMeal with
ema', with ema being the Dzongkha word for the ever popular
chuilli's in Bhutan (see the headers). Whereas The Hamburger' dealt
with not fearing modernisation, The HappyMeal' elaborates more on
how to base a society on Buddhism.
3 In a 1998 debate on good governance a young Bhutanese claimed
that Buddhism needn't be taught in Bhutan, because it was
'ingrained' in its people. I fully subscribe to the 'ingrained' part of the
statement, but not to the conclusion that Buddhism can therefore be
left implicit in Bhutan today. Yes, the essence of Buddhism is deeply
ingrained   (or   karmically   sown)   in   the   minds   of  all   Bhutanese
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
through centuries of uncorrupted devotion and intense meditation
practice. But even so this profound and precious seed needs to be
nurtured, especially in a time of pungent transformation. In fact,
because the seed is so rare and good, it would be a shame to waste
it, and in my view this hard-earned, fortunate karmic condition calls
for extra careful tending. Even though the seed is perfect and potent,
I believe it is also as fragile as a rich and abundant rainforest, full of
vitality and health. Once the forst is uprooted and the topsoil eroded,
this rich jungle nontheless turns into a desert...
4 The Preface to the 2003 conference papers (published in Gross
National Happiness and Development, Karma Ura & Karma Galay,
CBS, 2004, ISBN 99936-14-19-x) notes that 'the concept meant
different things to different participants' (which I accept as a fact).
But it goes on to claim that 'Mainly this was a matter of emphasis',
and I believe that that assertion is courteous wishful thinking.
Whereas I am happy that all interpretations were welcome until
date, I believe that it is imperative and vital that leaders of the
discourse as well as leaders who take inspiration from it, make
deliberate choices about their View. Without a View the debate is a
loose collection of grains of sand, with a View it can be a runway to
liberation (or a highway deeper into confusion, if the View is
s Starting with 1998 and 1999 letters to the editor of Kuensel,
Bhutan's National Newspaper
6 In his electoral campaign Henry Truman, then low in the polls,
commented something linke 'Mozes did not rely on the polls to lead
his people through the Red Sea'. In other words: A leader first states
his Vision and then looks for allies and supporters, rather than the
other way around.
7 With the latter remark I hope to even pacify a Conference
participant who came to me to express that he opposes my proposal
to re-link inspiration and work (which is not the same as remarrying church and state). Irritatingly enough he introduced his
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point by casually 'verifying' that I am what he called a 'recent
convert' (with the connotation of being a naive hallelujah freak). To
use imagery this person is familiar with: He (knowingly or intuitively)
attempted to blow me away (as a person) before fighting my view.
Apart from hurting my ego, this exchange made me realise that it
isn't common knowledge that we have to be willing to change, to
effect change. Simple as it sound: You have to change to change. In
the mentioned manipulation my friend regarded fresh inspiration as
an embarrassing stage, whereas I regard it as the saving grace for
our planet. I hope I will still have the devotion of a 'recent convert' at
the time I die.
8 The below table (though still cryptic) gives some more details on
specific inadequacies I see as inherent to the quoted concepts. (This
does not make these approaches worthless, but just undermines
their claim of universalism, just like a spoon is not a bad utensil
because it doesn't cut).
Multi-party,   one-
Obviously in many countries democracy has
prevented   evil    dictators    from   coming   to
power.  In many (e.g. African)  countries the
(partial)       imposition       of       parliamentary
democracy   is   not   the   quickest   and   most
secure road to better governance (though it is
the only modality under which the US still
dares   to  give   allies   a  leg  up  into  power).
Bhutan   is   clamped   between   the   world's
largest         democracies,         which         have
governments that are not only enticing.
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
justice    and    in-
court settlement
Quite implicitly modern justice takes away
the job of doing justice (and reconciliation)
from the people concerned. And worse: It
wastes abundant time and money on
professionals (prosecutors and defendants)
whose job it is to put maximum blame on the
other party. Though this is done in words
that the people concerned hardly
understand, it certainly does not lead to
reconciliation - which I see as the true aim of
a justice support system
uniform justice
Refers to 'Symbol of Justice' (blindfolded
Lady holding a scale). This system of justice
rules out corrective interventions like the
famous verdict of King Solomon, and more
recently the ways Dzongda's corrected erring
Rule-based policy
making            and
Refers to the conception that through
systems (such as laws and rules) future
mismanagement can be curbed. In real life it
is much more useful to invest in the
development of people, rather than
attempting to steer them through rules.
Happiness as free
Some define poverty as lack of choice. At
least it is important to question which
choices we talk about. The lifestyle I choose
influences others in time (effects of global
warming) and space (purchase of child
labour products, support to ambiguous
regimes, pride boosting envy at the West)
Free            market
This ideal often expresses a belief that the
human mind is egoistic by nature, which is
at best only part of the story. Money is only
one motivator for people to give their best,
and open tendering ignores the often positive
aspect of stable, long-term and intimate
relationships between clients and suppliers.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
9 The story of King Democratia (written by Godfried Bomans)
illustrates the limitations of democracy in an amusing way. This
King was born with a vacant brain. In fact, ifyou beat His Head with
a spoon, It produced a beautiful gonging sound. But King
Democratia loved his people, and genuinely wanted to serve them
well. Whenever confronted with opposing views He distressed which
view to adopt, because He knew enough to know that His Thoughts
about such a dilemma were not dependable. Troubled by His
Indecisiveness He consulted his councillor. When asked how the
King should take decisions the councillor smiled. But that isn't
difficult at all, Your Majesty' he replied. 'Just request one group to
make their point and listen. Then send them away. You then
summon the other group, listen to them and send them away as
well!' With smuggish confidence the councillor smiled at King
Democratia, with an air as if he had now settled the problem. When
asked what else to do, the councillor replied that this was all, and
that nothing else was needed. Confused and desperate The King
then asked his councillor But which of he two parties then, should I
agree with?' At that point the councillor's smile expanded into a
malicious grin and with a twinkle in his eyes he bend over to The
King and whispered in His Ear: The biggest'.
i° I make some further brief remarks on this issue in the section
'Challenge of Bhutan' and in some endnotes. A more exhaustive
discussion, however, would require a paper exclusively dedicated to
the (one-sidedness of the) paradigms underlying current Western
justice and governance concepts. I hope others will further elaborate
on this issue, also because (as I mention in the main text) Bhutan is
in the process of adopting a Constitution. The draft Constitution
seems to rely (at least in part) on 'theistic' (in the remarkable sense
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used this term) conceptions that are
incompatible with the 'nontheistic' philosophy of Buddhism.
Personally I also hope that (in the Constitution and especially in the
debate around it) the View, considerations and choices behind the
articles will become much more pronounced.
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
n At some stage I even felt Culture should be taken out as a GNH
pillar altogether. I emphasise the tea (what is to be transmitted) over
the cup (the particular tradition of transmission). Just the very label
of 'Culture' puts many people in a narrow-minded and conservative
'preservation mood', which then easily transgresses into promoting
and imposing one dominant sub-culture over others. Culture made
it back on my personal radar-screen due to seeing the crucial
importance of culture in my multi-cultural marriage. While my wife
is more eloquent in English than in Dzongkha, she can only express
her deepest emotions in the latter language. She almost becomes a
different self when she speaks her first language. The language of
her infanthood evidently connects her to her identity in a way that
nothing else can. So I acknowledge Cultural (and Social) identity as
a pillar in the sense that everybody should be encouraged to connect
and take pride in his or her own cup. Obviously this automatically
leads to what is called 'an inclusive approach', rather than an
approach in which one sub-culture is favoured and imposed over
i2 An eminent outer aspects of this problem is that specially in the
early '90 many Southern Bhutanese left Bhutan and settled in
refugee camps in Nepal. Today these camps still house about a
hundred thousand people (whereas the total population of Bhutan is
estimated just over sevenhundred thousand).
13 When commenting on a draft of this paper, my Bhutanese wife
recommended that I take out my reference to the refugee issue, as it
seemed obnoxious and stupid to drag it into the GNH debate, which
is so positive and passionately dear to me. But I believe I precisely
need to mention the Southern Bhutanese issue here, because the
invitation and cultural pressure is so large to ignore and avoid it on
this happy occasion. And the more it is denied, the more I have to
salute this shadow, if I am to look Bhutan straight in the eyes and
take it completely serious. I refuse to inwardly write Bhutan and its
government off as a lost case (and I pride myself for choosing to do
so). Through this paper I choose to speak up calmly because the
timing seems right (and addressing the wound lead to healing rather
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
than only to pointless pain), and because I have personally
experienced that covertly addressing sensitive issues raises more
suspicion than it evades (...).
14 To elaborate on the relationships between the pillars (and the
foundation) I below depict them in a Logical Framework. Of course
this is a brainteaser, rather than a final proposal.
Rural wellbeing
Sodo-aitural identity
Wholesome education
Good governance      ^^^J
(to citizens)           ^^^|
Efficient and transparent
Urban wellbeing
Dignified health, living
and dying
Restorative justice
The green box (Spiritual integrity (=GNH) symbolises the overall
objective of Bhutan, and the yellow box (Psychological wellbeing (is
not GNH) the purpose or aim of all government efforts. The aim is
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
sought for through the planned results in the red boxes, which each
are to be achieved through a set of activities (some of which are
listed in the white boxes). In my further notes I start at the level of
the planned results (red boxed).
I put the environmental sustainability pillar under the economic
wellbeing pillar, to show that environmental preservation is a
sustainability condition for material wellbeing. As a last result I put
good governance (which I see as an 'internal project' of the
government), which again has the advance of the spiritual
foundation (within governance) as a condition or sub-component.
The advancement of spirituality countrywide I imagine as an aspect
of socio-cultural identity, which is practised e.g. through wholesome
education. The main results (material wellbeing and socio-cultural
wellbeing) all contribute to psychological wellbeing of the population,
which is only a conducive condition for GNH or spiritual integrity.
Spiritual integrity
Psychological wellU-        ^
(is not GNH) ( Cabinet
Rural w^- Trade
Socio-cut^    Assembly
Good governance
(to citizens) y_
Finance       \
GNH          >*
Directorate     J
Efficient and transps^
service     V
Finance       ^
Urban Vlf^   Conrmunications
City corporations
Digmfied/T       Health
Restorat^     court
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
In this second image I suggested which government parties might be
responsible for which activity or objective. Worth pointing out is that
I believe the government cannot (and should not attempt to) achieve
GNH or spiritual integrity, because this is up to individual people.
15 A note to rule out possible misinterpretation. I have a high esteem
of Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, so my questionmarks to the basics of the
GNH concept are not meant as a hidden attack to (any person
within) the Bhutanese government. In fact I have good memories
ever since I first met with Lyonpo in a village in 1990. Although he
may not remember them, these moments and a few later encounters
have boosted my esteem of the government of Bhutan.
16 Needless to say that my picture will be highly shoddy because I
am not a master established in what is called the View, but only a
defective practitioner who has read and glimpsed further dimensions
to The Truth.
17 Probably someone else with further opened spiritual eyes than
myself, may have a completely different take on these two examples.
I give these examples not so much to pretend that I am an
unmistaken oracle transmitting the only possible message from
Mother Earth. I rather share these examples to show that, even
while not-knowing, we have to have the bravery to make affirmative
connections between inner intuitions and outer practical situations.
is Worth noting in this context is the emerging of the concept of
'Highly Sensitive Persons' (HSP) in the field of psychology. Perhaps
there is not only increasing attention for the characteristics and
demands for such persons, but an actual rise in the numbers of
HSP's themselves. If true, this would make paying attention to
spirituality all the more important.
19 Here I refer to what is referred to in Buddhism as two inseparable
wings of a bird: Wisdom (the female principle, connected to the sun
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
and emptiness) and compassion (the male principle, symbolised by
the moon of skilful means or action).
20 Let me add a 'geo-political' argument in favour of focussing on
Buddhism (in Bhutan or elsewhere), and let me present these
thoughts simply in the terms and language in which I think.
Whereas further crumbling down in the West, Christianity (and in
particular the Pentacostal type of churches) is exploding in Africa. I
am delighted that these churches are full of love and joy. My worry
though is that this approach is pedantic, self-satisfied and too
sugary in promising salvation. Although the West is blind to this
movement, I believe Africa is rising, not due to development cooperation but by means of religion. The more African Christianity -
though currently imported from America - (re-) connects to the soul
of Africa, the more I think this sweeping advance is a critical hope
for our planet.
Meanwhile I am expectant and curious whether within the Muslim
world the mystical and blazing manner of professing Islam will
become more mainstream. While Muslim cultures cope with vast
perversion (it's not completely co-incidental that terrorists abuse
Islam of all religions), there is also so much potential and depth in
the cultures still alive.
As for the Buddhism: The general image of Buddhism is that of a
friendly way of life without many obvious historical excesses, and
therefore a 'religion' worth the benefit of the doubt. Buddhism gets
sympathy rather than admiration. And that's what it currently
deserves; the time of impressive empires and imposing social
achievements has passed. Today there is no swaying example of a
country where Buddhism is the central scorching force for
progressive movement in a direction that truly differs from
mainstream development. I would love to help create such an
example, not to outsmart other religions, but to contribute this
particular inspiration and possibility to humanity.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
2i Ngoshril Khyenpo Rinpoche. A similar willingness to get to the
bottom of the truth speaks from the poem 'I want it all', by Thich
Nhat Hanh (1954, quoted in Being Peace'). From this poem:
This morning my brother is back from his long adventure.
He kneels before the altar and his eyes are filled with tears.
His soul is looking for a shore to put an anchor,
My own image of long ago.
Let him kneel there and weep,
Let him cry his heart out.
Let him have his refuge for a thousand years.
Enough to dry his tears.
Because one of these nights I shall come.
I have to come and set fire to this small cottage of his on a hill.
His last shelter.
My fire will destroy,
Destroy everything.
Taking away from him the only life raft he has, after a shipwreck.
In the utmost anguish of his soul,
The shell will break.
The light of the burning hut will witness, gloriously, his deliverance.
I will wait for him beside the burning cottage,
Tears will run down my cheeks.
I shall be there to contemplate his new existence,
And hold his hand in mine,
And ask him how much he would want.
He will smile at me and say that he wants it all.
Just as I did.
22 Now I am an increasingly devoted student of Sakyong Mipham
Rinpoche, who addressed the participants at the opening of this
second GNH conference. The Sakyong touches me and draws me out
through his teachings and especially through his life example. By
fully manifesting both in the West and again in Tibet, and engaging
in the full vitality of life (next to being a Buddhist teacher he also is
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
for example a marathon runner) he wakes me up to the full width
and depth of life. Recently he made spontaneous visits to important
Buddhist monasteries and teachers of the so-called crazy wisdom
lineage, showing a fearless direction and complete dedication to both
East and West. To me hearing of the Sakyong's actions is always a
bit of a painful shock and a welcome fresh breath at the same time,
knocking me out of a cosy Buddhist cocoon in which I exclude the
vastness of this world and the Buddhist vision.
23 My personal perception of Bhutanese society had a number of
stages, which I often see back in the way other foreigners relate to
1. At first I saw Bhutan and Buddhism as picturesque, but naive
and backward.
2. Then the profound dimension of Buddhism captured me.
3. In step three I romanticised: I tried seeing the whole government
of Bhutan as implementing completely enlightened policies. I was
setting myself up for a disillusion in the
4. Fourth stage, being a resentful acknowledgement that not
everything was perfect.
5. Currently I consider myself as mostly in the fifth stage, in which I
see both unique and fantastic practices and opportunities, as well as
problems, pain, wrongdoings and challenges.
24 A specific feature of Bhutan in this regard is that the government
plays such a big role in development. Much of what is appreciated
today was forced on the people a few decades ago. Disadvantage of
the irrefutable success of 'forced' or 'top-down' development is that
the population is rather passive, and the government easily self-
contented. A challenge for the government is to step back into a
serving role, rather than sticking to a position of control. The
government cannot make the mind of the people, but it can allow
people to express themselves and appreciate that. The Bhutanese
government aims to empower and liberate the human mind and
spirit, and is challenged to stimulate and let go more on the level of
self-expression  (on  the  level  of freedom  I   am  happy  that  many
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Bhutanese recognise that freedom without duties is another form of
25 Above I haven't talked much about the many wonderful, free and
alive characteristics of Bhutan, which I also recognise and enjoy
profoundly (I had my reasons to work so many years in the country).
To get a balanced picture, I should praise the fun, laughter,
earthiness, singing and dances in the villages (and in fact even at the
ReThinking Conference), the peace in the mountain retreats, the
sacredness of many a shrine room, and the stunning beauty of the
Himalayas themselves. And I would have to indicate how much
Bhutan does change over time, and for the better. While living in
Bhutan (as an ambitious idealist) I was often frustrated how little
change took place after the facade of friendly smiles. Yet looking
back over a fifteen years period, I do see enormous growth in
genuine openness to new ideas.
However, altogether I do not exhaust myself trying to sketch a
balanced picture in this paper, because it is not about passing a
judgement on Bhutan.
26 On this level Buddhism isn't all that different from other religions,
and paradoxically Bhutan may maintain its own identity best by
fearlessly opening itself to the larger world. Earlier this year I
attended a moving Christian service in Nairobi, realising that this
service had made a round trip to the USA. Africa's most precious
contribution to the world is probably its music (as much as Bhutan's
contribution can be Vajrayana Buddhism), which awakens the life
force in the stiff and frozen hips of even a man like me. But to get in
that Nairobian Church, the music first travelled with the African
slaves to Louisiana and Virginia. Having been assimilated in the US,
white missionaries brought Pentecostal Christianity and its gospel
songs back to Kenya...
For a Buddhist, knowing the doctrine of non-self, this isn't even all
that surprising. You become yourself, by opening yourself to others
without any hesitation or prejudice.
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
27 The reader may conclude that, although I am absolutely a
foreigner to Bhutan, I am not too hesitant to play a role in the most
'private' aspects of Bhutan. I feel it is inappropriate to shy away from
playing a role (insignificant or magnificent as it may be), for two
In the first place Bhutan already looks at the West (where I come
from). Young Bhutanese either admire or despise Western lifestyles
(which both binds them to the West), and think and act in Western
academic concepts. If they are already infected by these sometime
dubious blessings then let them also see how some Westerners take
the eastern heritage completely to heart.
And secondly the West has picked up Buddhism in a vibrant way
that can enrich and re-ignite the latent Buddhist inspiration in the
East. Although the Buddhist gene is perfectly encoded (or ingrained)
deep in the Eastern mind, Eastern societies are not Shangri-La.
Tibet for instance was (according to e.g. Chogyam Trungpa
Rinpoche) an easy catch for the Chinese because Tibetan society at
large had become a rather self-snugged, backward and degraded
civilisation. Western Buddhists don't have something fundamentally
alien or superior to offer to Bhutan, but may be instrumental to re-
igniting appreciation for its own spiritual heritage.
28 Similarly I believe (like Amnesty International) that it is not
appropriate only to grant Bhutanese citizenship to children who
have both a Bhutanese father and a Bhutanese mother (see also the
box with examples under 'Religion and development'). However, I do
acknowledge Bhutan's legitimate desire to remain a Buddhist
country in a region where the Bhutanese are an insignificant
minority. Therefore Bhutan is in a dilemma to which there may not
be an easy way out. And that illustrates once again that this listing
records actual dilemma's rather than rhetorical questions.
29 The issue of power is intriguing (see also endnotes viii and ix).
Vajrayana Buddhism offers  moving examples  of Saints who kept
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
themselves sharper than any control mechanism ever could have
commanded. However, the history of Zen and Vajrayana in the West
also illustrates how easily even genuine masters get trapped by sex,
alcohol and extravagance when acquiring positions of veneration. Yet
even such shortcomings of great practitioners do not make me
sceptical about the ultimate potential and integrity of all human
beings. Therefore I do not blindly promote (as 'the West' in general
seems to) a 'flat-thinking' control mechanism to tightly inspect all
leaders. Or at least I wish to also pay attention to trusting and
strengthening intrinsic powers, rather than only debate external
control mechanisms.
Closer surveillance on government servants to observe that they
truly serve seems valuable in Bhutan, although it breaks with the
culture of respect or even devotion for leaders. I learned to see the
enormous positive side of devotion, but won't promote blind
adoration. Therefore 'Control versus Trust' remains a dilemma I have
no absolute answers to. Nonetheless I believe that promoting a true
spiritual inspiration within governance is at least as important as
It is interesting that both the King of Bhutan and my teacher
Mipham Rinpoche are enthroned as 'Sakyongs', or 'Earth Protectors'.
Whereas the King of Bhutan is to lead a nation in a spiritual way,
Mipham Rinpoche's challenge is to provide spiritual guidance to a
global community of individuals. The difference between those two
missions isn't too big, if we believe the story of the Buddha.
According to the Shambhala tradition, the King of Shambhala
requested the Buddha for spiritual teachings that were relevant to
him as a Ruler, because he did not want to let his people down by
renouncing his Kingdom and becoming a monk (as the Buddha's
students did until that point). In response the Buddha taught this
King the Kalachakra teachings, and the King established an
enlightened society in which spirituality was the basis for
governance and all citizens practised meditation. From this account
I conclude that Bhutan should designate a central role to spirituality
on a very practical level, not only for the benefit of its own citizens
 The Buddhist Truth of Happiness
but ultimately in the first place to serve humanity at large as (at this
moment) last and only Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom.


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