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Preserving the Consciousness of a Nation: Promoting Gross National Happiness in Bhutan Through Her Rich… Evans, A. Steven 2006

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 Preserving the Consciousness of a Nation: Promoting "Gross
National Happiness" in Bhutan Through Her Rich Oral
A. Steven Evans*
His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan, has
developed the phUosophy of "Gross National Happiness" in
the Kingdom, accentuating Bhutan's vision of development
beyond material economics and growth (sometimes reflected
as Gross National Product). In order to balance and even
outweigh creeping outside influences of materialism and self-
centeredness, in addition to saying there is a better and more
applicable standard than the United Nation's Human
Development Index, a national emphasis on storytelling and
the oral arts at the indigenous grassroots level is being
The Kingdom of Bhutan has a rich heritage in its folktales
and famous masked dances, setting the stage for the
promotion of Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness" through
the time-honoured traditions of oral communication. It is
proposed that this integration of entertainment, information
and education through a grassroots initiative would
contribute to a sense of community, satisfaction and
happiness. Also, the utilization of media through such an
initiative would develop a sense of ownership at the level of
the people, allowing for its acceptance, use and growth among
the citizens of the kingdom.
A Royal Challenge
Bhutanese folklore has it that the bat would show its teeth to
the birds in order to avoid the bird tax and show its wings to
A. Steven Evans is a research associate and communications
specialist affiliated with the International Center for Ethnographic
Studies in Atlanta-USA.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
the beasts in order to avoid the beast tax. But come winter,
when the food supplies are distributed, the bat would show its
wings to the birds and teeth to the beasts to claim its share
from both ...1
The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, steeped in a Tibetan-tike
Buddhism and literally closed to all outside influences untU
only a couple of decades ago, has a rich heritage in its
folktales, religious masked dances, and other traditional art
forms. As such, it is now poised to meet a chaUenge put forth
by the nation's king: How can the promotion and preservation
of happiness for its people take precedence over an unhealthy
and ever-increasing emphasis on the nation's Gross National
A dichotomy of contrast and conflict seems to exist, however,
in the Land of the Thunder Dragon: modern education vs.
traditional education; rigsar (popular music) vs. traditional
music; mass media vs. traditional media; modern, western
morals and values vs. traditional, Buddhist morals and
values; etc. Sometimes in the pursuit of development, the
ends and means can get confused, even reversed. Debate over
form and content can constantly arise.
Like the bat of Bhutanese folklore, does His Majesty's Royal
Government bare its teeth or show its wings as it seeks to
implement its dream of GNH? From an aUegorical Buddhist
perspective, does it concentrate on the drop of water that faUs
into the pond and merges with its waters, or does it
concentrate on the same drop of water that falls into the pond
and causes ripples on the surface, or does it not concentrate
on the drop at all, but focus on the ripples? Questions that
must constantly be asked and applied are, "What is the
ultimate goal or aim of His Majesty's vision? What is right for
Bhutan and its citizens? What contributes to Gross National
Happiness?" These will help clarify ends and means, form and
content. The chaUenge is to show that a national initiative of
1   Phuntsho,   Karma   (2000)   "On   the  Two   Ways   of  Learning   in
Bhutan." Journal of Bhutan Studies, 2 (2): 96-126, p.96.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
storytelling using local storyteUers, along with other
specificaUy local cultural art forms, wiU not only help preserve
the consciousness of a nation, but also help advance the
King's vision of Gross National Happiness.
The World of Oral Communication
Oral cultures are centered in the practice of storytelling. Large
numbers of the world's population are oral communicators.
They learn best through communication that is not tied to or
dependent on print. The definition of oral communicator,
however, is somewhat fluid. At minimum, the term refers to
people who are iUiterate, around 1.5 btilion in the world
today. Many, though, who are functionary iUiterate or semi-
literate, express a strong preference for oral communication
as opposed to literate or print-based communication. When
they are included in the definition of oral communicator, it is
estimated that more than two-thirds of the world's
population, or over four biUion people, are oral
communicators by necessity or preference. However,
preferences for oral communication span aU educational,
social, gender, and age levels. Many literates around the globe
express strong preference for oral communication as weU
when tested by appropriate tools to identify their
communication patterns and choices.2
Primarily through story, proverb, poetry, drama and song,
oral communicators house their knowledge, information,
teachings, concepts, lists, and ideas in narrative
presentations that can be easUy understood, remembered,
and reproduced. Oral people think in terms of these stories,
and not in outlines, guidelines, principles, steps, concepts, or
propositions, which are largely foreign to their way of learning
and communicating. If they have a teaching, a concept, or a
principle they want to remember, they will encase it in a
story. This is the common vehicle that oral communicators
use to process, remember, and convey information. Through
2   Lovejoy, Grant, ed. (2005) Making Disciples of Oral Learners, pp. 3-
6, 20-25.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
the story and other oral art forms, they preserve and transmit
valued truths and teachings, since it is difficult if not
impossible for them to learn through principles, precepts,
analysis, and syllogistic argument (deductive reasoning in
which a conclusion is derived from two premises).
Oral cultures are centered in the practice of storytelling. It is
their primary means of communication, normally in their
mother tongue or heart language. They prefer these
integrative ways of learning rather than the fragmenting,
analytical approaches that are common in contemporary
education. Western-style education emphasizes analysis—
breaking things apart and focusing on extracted principles.
Oral communicators prefer holistic learning, keeping
principles embedded in the narratives that transmit them.
They learn better through the concrete, relational world of
narratives than they do through the abstract, propositional
framework of Western educational systems.3 Both learning
approaches deal with propositional truth, but oral
communicators keep the propositions closely tied to the
events in which those truths emerged. People who are steeped
in literacy can more easUy detach the propositions and deal
with them as abstract ideas. In both cases people are learning
'truth', but the way the truth is packaged and presented
differs dramatically.
Those of a literate-print culture mistakenly believe that if they
can outline information or put it into a series of steps or
principles, anyone, including oral communicators, can
understand it and recall it. That is a misconception about
learning and how different individuals process information.
Most oral communicators do not understand outlines, steps,
or principles, and they cannot remember them. For that
matter, neither can those of the literate-print culture! They
store information in notes, books, archives, libraries, and
computers, and Took it up' to refresh their memories.
3   Lovejoy,   Grant,   ed.   (2005)   Making  Disciples  of Oral Learners.
Bangalore: International Orality Network, pp.5-6, 21-24.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
As His Majesty's government seeks ways to implement Gross
National Happiness in Bhutan and to ensure satisfied and
content citizens at the grassroots level in local communities,
it is important to consider the realities of the oral world and
its communication and learning preferences.
Setting the Agenda: Gross National Happiness
Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross
National Product. - His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the
Ever since His Majesty the King of Bhutan initiated the idea,
there has been much talk, discussion, and debate concerning
the concept of Gross National Happiness, especially in
academic, development, and political circles. Needless to say,
many do not see eye-to-eye on the topic. In asking the
question, "What is it going to take to implement Gross
National Happiness?" two other questions must first be
considered: 1) How is the concept of Gross National
Happiness offered by His Majesty the King of Bhutan to be
understood?; and 2) Why is there conflict and confusion over
some of the solutions currently being offered?
Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley, Chairman of the Council of
Ministers of the Royal Government of Bhutan said:
His Majesty has proclaimed that the ultimate purpose of
government is to promote the happiness of the people. This
point has resonated in many of his speeches and decrees,
which stress both increasing prosperity and happiness. His
Majesty has said, 'Gross National Happiness is more than
Gross National Product,' and has given happiness precedence
over economic prosperity.5
Stressing that happiness is a shared desire  of aU people,
4 Thinley, Jigmi Y. (1999) "Values and Development: Gross National
Happiness." Gross National Happiness: A Set of Discussion Papers.
5 Ibid., 1999: pp. 12-13.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Thinley said, "It is possibly the ultimate thing we want whUe
other things are wanted only as a means to its increase".6 He
pointed out that Gross National Happiness is a "non-
quantifiable" development objective in Bhutan.
Happiness has been usually considered a Utopian issue. The
academic community has not developed the tools we need to
look at happiness, one of our primary human values. This has
led to a paradoxical situation: the primary goal of development
is happiness, but the subject of this very goal eludes our
analysis because it has been regarded as subjective.7
Thinley said that scientific proof was not needed to assess
happiness meaningfuUy, but that Bhutan must raise policy
and ethical questions about happiness. "Its absence in most
policies contrasts sharply with the primary concern of each
individual human being in his or her daily quest for
happiness. But we infer rather boldly from improvements in
socio-economic indicators that there might be growing
happiness behind it," he said.8
"I wish to propose happiness as a policy concern and a policy
objective," Thinley said. "In turn this may caU for a new policy
orientation. This also implies new departures in research, if
the concept is considered important".9 Thinley stated that
Gross National Happiness is the main purpose of
development and is rooted in Bhutan's philosophical and
political thought.
We asked ourselves the basic question of how to maintain the
balance between materialism and spiritualism, in the course
of getting the immense benefits of science and technology. The
likelihood of loss of spiritualism, tranquility, and gross
national happiness with the advance of modernization became
6 Ibid., p. 13.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., p. 14.
9 Ibid.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
apparent to us.10
Thinley said that within Bhutanese culture, inner spiritual
development is as prominent a focus as external material
development. "Suffice it to say that, in varying degrees, the
contemporary world may be too acutely preoccupied with the
self in the sense of paying excessive attention to our selves,
our concerns, needs and tikes," Thinley said. "There is a
paradox here: excessive preoccupation with our selves does
not lead to a real knowledge of our seff. Happiness depends
on gaining freedom, to a certain degree, from this particular
kind of concern".11 Thinley pointed out that a growing income
does not always lead proportionately to an increase in
In a world where everyone who has less is trying to catch up
with everyone else who has more, we may become richer but
happiness becomes elusive. People may become richer but
they will not have a greater gift for happiness. Nations will not
rank higher on the scale of happiness as they move up on the
scale of economic performance. As is widely known, this is
due to the fact that the value of money in giving happiness or
utility diminishes as the amount increases".12
Human Development and Happiness: Amicable Partners?
If happiness is among the cherished goals of development,
then it does matter how this happiness is generated, what
causes it, what goes with it, and how it is distributed—
whether it is enjoyed by a few or shared by all.13
According to the Bhutan National Human Development Report 2000,
no one can guarantee human happiness. The choices people
make are their own. However, the report said that the process
10 Ibid., p. 15.
11 Ibid., p. 18.
12 Ibid., p.20.
13 Royal Government of Bhutan (2000) Bhutan National Human
Development Report 2000: Gross National Happiness and Human
Development, Searching for Common Ground, p.22.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
of development should at least create an environment to
developing citizens' fuU potentials, giving them a reasonable
chance of leading productive and creative lives. People have a
right to make their own decisions and chart their own course,
the report implies, and it is the government's responsibUity to
create the environment in which good choices and courses
can be determined. At the same time, however, there is a
widespread growing disenchantment with the use of income
and income growth as indicators of well-being and progress.
"Clearly there is more to life than an expansion of income or
accumulation of wealth," the report said.14 The Human
Development Index assumes, however, that by adding
increased life expectancy and increased education to
increased income, chances of life satisfaction and happiness
are almost guaranteed. The question remains whether this is
Consistent with the human development approach, but from a
Bhutanese perspective, His Majesty the King Jigme Singye
Wangchuck has called for focusing more broadly on Gross
National Happiness—and not narrowly on just Gross National
Product. Already in the 1960s, the late King Jigme Dorjii
Wangchuck had declared that the goal of development should
be to 'make people prosperous and happy.' Development did
not mean a blind expansion of commodity production.
Instead, a holistic view of life and development is called for
that augments people's spiritual and emotional well-being as
well. It is this vision that Bhutan seeks to fulfill.15
The report said that the concept of Gross National Happiness
was articulated by His Majesty to indicate that development
has many more dimensions than those associated with Gross
National Product, and that development should be
understood as a process that seeks to maximize happiness
rather than economic growth.
The concept places individuals at the centre of all
development efforts, and it recognizes that the individual has
14 Ibid., p. 13.
15 Ibid.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
material, spiritual, and emotional needs. It asserts that
spiritual development cannot and should not be defined
exclusively in material terms of the increased consumption of
goods and services.16
A grumbling rich man may weU be less happy than a
commercial farmer, but he does have a higher standard of
living than the farmer. It is the sense of discontentment or
emptiness that the rich farmer experiences that constitutes
unhappiness. Happiness may be subjective, but this
subjectiveness [sic] is shared by all, regardless of levels of
income, class, gender, or race.17
If happiness is among the cherished goals of development,
then it does matter how this happiness is generated, what
causes it, what goes with it, and how it is distributed—
whether it is enjoyed by a few or shared by all.18
According to the Bhutan Development Report 2000:
Ultimately, a happy society is a caring society, caring for the
past and future.... Establishing such a society will require a
long-term rather than a short-term perspective of
development.... Happiness in the future will also depend upon
mitigating the foreseeable conflict between traditional cultural
values and the modern lifestyles that inevitably follow in the
wake of development.19
The report concludes:
As economic and social transformation gathers momentum
and Bhutan becomes increasingly integrated with the outside
world, people's lifestyles are changing along with family
structures. Assimilating these changes without losing the
country's unique cultural identity is one of the main
challenges facing Bhutan today.20
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid., p. 20.
18 Ibid., p.22.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid., p.50.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Chaos, Conflict, Contrast and Confusion
...there is a need to provide a sense of continuity amidst
change. In addition, since culture and traditional values form
the bedrock of Bhutanese national identity it is important for
the Bhutanese to ensure that its culture and values are not
undermined.... It is more necessary than ever to ensure the
intergenerational transmission of values.21
Five articles appeared in various issues of the Journal of Bhutan
Studies a few years ago that, while not directly addressing the
topic of this article, influence it to a large degree. The articles
are "On the Two Ways of Learning in Bhutan" by Karma
Phuntsho; "Ensuring Social Sustainability: Can Bhutan's
Education System Ensure Intergenerational Transmission of
Values?" by Tashi Wangyal; "The Attributes and Values of
Folk and Popular Songs" by Sonam Kinga; "Mass Media: Its
Consumption and Impact on Residents of Thimphu and Rural
Areas" by Phuntso Rapten; and "Folktale Narration: A
Retreating Tradition" by Tandin Dorji.
These five articles, coupled with a series of papers on
development in Bhutan found in Gross National Happiness: A Set
of Discussion Papers published by the Centre for Bhutan Studies
and Bhutan National Human Development Report 2000 published by
the Planning Commission Secretariat, Royal Government of
Bhutan, aU point toward an underlying situation that greatly
affects Gross National Happiness and its success in Bhutan.
There is a pattern of contrast and conflict brought out in
these studies: modern education vs. traditional education;
rigsar (popular music) vs. traditional music; mass media vs.
traditional media; modern, western morals and values vs.
traditional, Buddhist morals and values; etc.
Debate constantly arises over form and content. Phuntso
said,  "The primary factor that determines the difference in
21 Wangyal, Tashi (2001) "Ensuring Social Sustainability: Can
Bhutan's Education System Ensure Intergenerational Transmission
of Values." Journal of Bhutan Studies, 3 (1): 106-131. p.107.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
outlooks and approaches between the two [education]
systems [—traditional and modern—] is the ultimate goal they
aim to achieve—learning is not an end in itseff in either
system".22 At the same time, he makes a strong case for
"modern" education while not seeming to recognize the full
value of traditional methods. He said, "...modern curricular
structures and methods by far excel the traditional styles".23
Phuntso is right in concluding that many Bhutanese equate
traditional education with monastic Buddhist instruction and
want nothing to do with it. Two issues are raised here that
need to be addressed, those of 'form' and 'content'. Perhaps it
is needed to keep some of the form of traditional education
and provide new and appropriate content. I would suggest
that education is more than merely imparting knowledge, and
that traditional education transcends mere learning of facts
and techniques. It is an experiential process directly linked
with life itseff.
Wangyal raises an important and valid question: "Can
Bhutan's education system ensure intergenerational
transmission of values?"24 He then makes an exceUent
appraisal of the values of Bhutan.
Traditional values based on Buddhist culture have a profound
influence on the lives of a majority of the Bhutanese people.
Traditional Bhutanese values not only address individual self-
discipline and the conduct of interpersonal relationships but
also delineate responsibility of all sentient beings.... Such
traditional values are, however, being gradually undermined,
as people become more self-centered, and materialistic...
Thus there is a need to provide a sense of continuity amidst
change. In addition, since culture and traditional values form
the bedrock of Bhutanese national identity, it is important for
the Bhutanese to ensure that its culture and values are not
22 Phuntsho, K. 2002, p.99.
23 Ibid., p. 104.
24 Wangyal, T. 2002. p. 106.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Wangyal points out that Bhutanese society is now witnessing
a shift in values, attitudes and expectations. "External
influences arising from the values accompanying economic
development, the media and the modern education systems,
among others, challenge continuance of the national values,"
he said.26
According to Wangyal, one of the main chaUenges in
preserving values in modern Bhutan is the need to reconcUe
the fact that the social, cultural, and economic context in
which these values developed through the past centuries is
very different from that of Bhutan today.
Apart from the influence of foreign travel and tourism, the
mass media is [sic] perhaps one of the greatest sources of
external influences and values. The recent introduction of
television and the Internet has enabled the Bhutanese to have
instant access not only to global news and information but
also whetted their appetite for consumer goods. The process of
modernization has thus had a profound influence on the
social, economic and political outlook of the Bhutanese people
leading to a gradual shift in their values, attitudes and
This, he said, has created an insatiable appetite for material
"It is now more necessary than ever to ensure the
intergenerational transmission of values," Wangyal said.
"Otherwise, unbridled modernisation [sic] may destroy the
very spiritual and cultural fabric that has enabled the
Bhutanese society to live in harmony with each other and
with the natural environment".28 Wangyal praises the
introduction of 'value education' into the school system and
25 Wangyal, T. 2002, p. 107.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., p. 112.
28 Ibid., p. 115.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
calls for more of it. He recognizes that it is the stories found
in this Value education' that most impact a student.29
Going beyond education, Kinga puUs into the picture the
attributes and values of folk and popular music. WhUe Kinga
says that songs and music are integral parts of Bhutanese
culture—"not only as mere forms of entertainment, but also
as highly refined works of art reflecting the values and
standards of society," he also says that rigsar or popular songs
and music lack the artistic depth and seriousness of
traditional songs.30 Kinga concludes, "In their similarity and
association with English pop songs and songs of Hindi films,
rigsar songs no longer function as a repository of and a
medium for transmitting social values".31 Not knowing if this
means that they did at one time but no longer serve in
transmitting social values or not, it could certainly be argued
that they could and can. There are numerous case studies
from around the world that show how popular music has
been a powerful tool in transmitting social and moral values.
Kinga has a vatid concern, that "the popularity of rigsar songs
and the specialization of music studios in producing them are
gradually challenging the sustarnabUity of the culture of
traditional folk songs and music".32
Rapten goes in an even different direction.
The media in Bhutan have progressively enhanced individual
awareness by widening the scope of information transmission
beyond the traditional face-to-face oral interaction to literacy-
oriented communication and now to electronic media. They
have helped to share information about the past and present,
depict social, cultural and historical aspects of Bhutan that
helped to create a common culture, tradition and system of
29 Ibid., pp. 115-116.
30 Kinga, S (2001) "The Attributes and Values of Folk and Popular
Songs." Journal of Bhutan Studies, 1 (1): 132-170. p. 132.
31 Ibid., p. 133.
32 Ibid.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
He says that the mass media and information technology are
increasingly becoming powerful instruments for the
penetration of global culture and the values of a global
market into Bhutan. "This presents one of the greatest
chaUenges to Bhutan as it transitions from a traditional
society into the age of information and technology," he said.
"WhUe the aim is to reap the benefits of mass media, its
excessive influence threatens to undermine indigenous
culture and value system".34 In his study, Rap ten observes:
"It is also a fact that advertisements create desires, which
cannot be satisfied by people's current economic situation.
Crimes and corruption are often born out of economic
desires".35 He concludes: "The greatest chaUenge that Bhutan
is facing at the moment is to make a conscious and informed
choice in order to benefit from mass media and information
technology, and at the same time keep its negative forces at
A Change of Heart
'These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to
your life .... They are foundational words, words to build a life
on".37 How does a nation curb and diminish the outside
negative influences of the media and electronic technology,
while at the same time protect, preserve, and promote its
cultural values that have been central to the weU-being of its
people? Once again, the power of the story, coupled with the
inherent nature of the oral communicator, can help
accomplish this. The transformational power of stories is not
merely   found   in   the   compiled   written   transcriptions   of
33 Rapten, Phuntsho (2001) "Mass Media: Its Consumption and
Impact on Residents of Thimphu and Rural Areas." Journal of
Bhutan Studies, 3 (1): 172-198. p. 172.
34 Ibid., pp. 172-173.
35 Ibid., pp.186.
36 Petersen, Eugene (1999) Stories of Jesus, p. 17.
37 Ibid., p. 17.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
traditional folktales and heritage stories, but in the hearing
and oral transmission of them. Schools must embrace this
and even become catalysts for those stories to flow from the
classroom back to the homes and viUages from where they
Not only must the question "What to do?" be asked, but also
"What is right?" What needs to be addressed are matters of
the internal self, matters of the heart. If Bhutan were to focus
only on the external, she can never fuUy impact or influence
the internal. Some would say: "Let's change the environment
or the circumstances of our communities. That wiU give us
better, happier people!" Others would say, "Let's change their
actions; changed actions lead to changed people!" StUl others,
"Change his belief system, then we can fuUy change the
person!" Changing how people live, what they do, how they
think, and what they believe, can't guarantee a happier, more
content and satisfied people. The issues are complex.
Basically, people are shaped by the stories and events of their
individual lives, families, communities, nation, etc., as they
are conveyed and lived-out. These stories and events become
threads woven together to form the tapestries of their lives. In
the academic world, this is called worldview, and it is,
illustratively, the particular pair of glasses one wears that
determines how he or she sees the world. To completely
integrate Gross National Happiness into the lives and very
core of the people of Bhutan, she must insert new threads
into the tapestries or lives of her people. With the
introduction of appropriate stories and narrative events, the
tapestry—or worldview—changes, and the mind's eye sees the
world from a different perspective, with a new pair of glasses,
so to speak. A changed worldview, does in fact, create a
changed person.38
An old story from Japan, called "Empty-Cup Mind,"
Ulustrates the value and sometimes necessity of changing
worldview, that of replacing the old with the new:
38  Lovejoy,   Grant,   ed.   (2005)   Making Disciples  of Oral Learners,
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
A wise old monk once lived in an ancient temple... One day
the monk heard an impatient pounding on the temple door.
He opened it and greeted a young student, who said, "I have
studied with great and wise masters. I consider myself quite
accomplished in [Buddhist] philosophy. However, just in case
there is anything more I need to know, I have come to see if
you can add to my knowledge.
Very well," said the wise old master. "Come and have tea with
me, and we will discuss your studies." The two seated
themselves opposite each other, and the old monk prepared
tea. When it was ready, the old monk began to pour the tea
carefully into the visitor's cup. When the cup was full, the old
man continued pouring until the tea spilled over the side of
the cup and onto the young man's lap. The startled visitor
jumped back and indignantly shouted, "Some wise master you
are! You are a fool who does not even know when a cup is full!
The old man calmly replied, "Just like this cup, your mind is
so full of ideas that there is no room for any more. Come to
me with an empty-cup mind, and then you will learn
It is important to realize that the 'end' is happiness, and the
'means' are what it takes to get there, whether it's 'old form'
with 'new content' or 'new form' with 'old content'. The use of
storytelling to promote Gross National Happiness can serve as
a bridge among all viewpoints, spanning the traditional and
the modern, the new and the old. Story, whether narrated,
sung, or dramatized, conveys the message and quickens the
heart. Stories make up the fabric of changed lives. Whether
it's stories from an old man sitting around a campfire in a
viUage, conveyed through rigsar or popular music, seen and
heard on television, learned in school, or read in the
newspaper, the point is to touch lives with the morals and
values of Bhutan, leading to a happier and more satisfied
39 Yolen, Jane, ed.  (1999) "Empty Cup Mind." Gray Heroes: Elder
Tales from Around the World. NewYork: Penguin Books, pp.3-4.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
The Role of the Story in Bhutan
"In the memory of the people dweU the folktales ready to be
'untied' at an appropriate time".40 In Bhutan the literary genre
of khaju, or 'oral transmission', serves as an important tool of
communication between one generation and another.41
Tandin Dorji, lecturer of history at Sherubtse College in
Kanglung, said:
The role that it plays in the transmission of moral values,
philosophy, beliefs, humour [sic], etiquette, and many other
traits specific to the Bhutanese society holds an increasingly
eminent place.... What is special about Bhutanese folktales is
that it is still a living tradition in many pockets of rural
Bhutan. In the villages which are far flung from motor roads,
the narration of folktales in the pastures and in the evenings
is today very much alive.42
He questions, however, "How long will it continue to survive?
WUl the development process engulf this beautiful tradition?
What can be done to keep this heritage alive?"43
Kunzang Choden, author of the classic book Folktales of
Bhutan, indicates that stories in the Mountain Kingdom are
not narrated, but "released" or "set free" (tangshi.)44 "This
could then imply that the Bhutanese and the folktales are
inextricably interwoven," Dorji said. "It wouldn't be wrong to
comment that they are found one inside the other. The
folktales contain the traits and aspects of the Bhutanese. In
the memory of the people dwell the folktales ready to be
'untied' at an appropriate time".45 Excluding the narration of
epics and the biographies of saints, Dorji observes that there
are no professional storyteUers and no particular way or place
40 Dorji, Tandin (2002) "Folktale Narration: A Retreating Tradition/
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6: 5-23. p.7.
41 Ibid., p.5.
42 Ibid., p.5-6.
43 Ibid., p.6.
44 Ibid., p.xi.
45 Ibid., p.7.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
of narrating stories in Bhutan. "However, there seems to be
two ways of teUing stories," he said. The first way is solemn
and is done in the house of a sick person, focusing primarily
on the victory of good over evil.46 "The other type is a freestyle
narration," said Dorji, "as the narrator can be from any age
group". This is the most common and popular type of
narrative storyteUing, according to Dorji.47
By beginning a story with "dangbo, dingbo" (long, long ago), the
Bhutanese audience detaches itself from the world and enters
into the fascinating land of folktales where they identify
themselves with the heroes and the good. "People rejoice
when the hero very cleverly steals the cubs of a tigress and
laughs when he is able to make fools of the vUlains," Dorji
said. "They are worried when the monsters kidnap the
beautiful maiden, and they are sad when the marriage of the
charming Prince and the Princess fails".48 Thus, by beginning
the story with "dangbo, dingbo", the audience is navigated
into a marvelous world that takes place during an unspecified
time and is temporarily disconnected from the mundane,
everyday world around it. The other rituatistic formula for
opening a Bhutanese folktale is "henma, henma" (once upon
a time).49 "Little by little and bit by bit the narrator releases
the folktale," Dorji said, "punctuating his narration with dele,
which equates to 'and then'".50
46 Ibid.
47 Ibid., p.8.
48 Ibid., pp.8-
49 Ibid., p.9.
50 Ibid., p. 10.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
Dangbo, Dingbo
"Dangbo, dingbo," the old man slowly uttered.
"Henma, henma."
"Long, long ago and once upon a time."
The circle of crowding villagers around him grew quiet and
still. Stars twinkled above in the crisp cold air of the
surrounding mountains. Sparks from the burning fire drifted
upwards, creating a magic of their own, competing with the
impending magic of the story about to come. For a few
moments the storyteller drew incomprehensible designs in the
dirt with his walking stick, then pulled his kabney tighter
around him to ward off the chill of the night. Eventually he
looked up, his eyes piercing, reflecting the burning fire and
projecting the wisdom of generations before him. "When few
stones and pebbles could be seen," he said. "When the
saplings and grasses began to sprout out in greenness. When
a few drops of water began to the upper direction; in
the lower direction; in that, that direction; in this, this
On and on he went, with a tale captivating and enchanting,
punctuating various parts of the story with "dele" ("and then"),
leading his audience from one event to another. Not a word
was said by those around him; not an eye strayed from the
figure huddled by the fire—until he was finished. Then there
was a collective sigh, with smiles on their faces and murmurs
of approval. One said, "We can be like those of this story! Are
we not as good as they are?" The others responded in
agreement, "Yes! Yes! We are as good as they! We can be like
them!" Then there were pleas for another story from the
wandering storyteller who stopped by their village to entertain
them for the night. They would stay up late, absorbing the
stories of the old man like dry parched ground absorbs the
drops of freshly fallen rain. And long after he's gone they
would recall his words, the details of his stories, telling them
to others, who in turn would pass them on to even others. "All
is right with the world," they would say upon hearing the
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
tales. "We are content; we are happy.51
For the ancient mystic Drukpa Kunley, fondly called the
Divine Madman by the Bhutanese, life was not measured by
eight hours of sleep per night or three good meals a day on
the table. There was more to life than this, he would say.
Though some may laugh at some of his stories and be
embarrassed by some of his antics, Drupka Kunley fully
understood the power of story and song and the emotions
they evoked.
He knew that people—ordinary, everyday people who worked
hard, believed in God, and supported the royal famtiy—
needed to laugh, cry, be shocked, and even be outraged
sometimes, to give them a broader, better understanding of
life and themselves, leaving them content with what they had
around them and within them, rather than seeking after
things that would never be. Today the Divine Madman has
become more than an historical figure in Bhutan; he is a
cultural hero around whom a web of stories and legends has
been spun. An example foUows how the very life of Drukpa
Kunley (also named Kunga Legpa) was a story, an event to be
remembered, passed on, and enjoyed:
By the age of 25, Kunga Legpa had gained mastery of both
mundane and spiritual arts. He was accomplished in the arts
of prescience, shape-shifting, and magical display. Returning
home to visit his mother in Ralung, she failed to recognize his
achievement and judged him merely by his outward behaviour
[sic]. "You must decide exactly who you are," she complained.
"If you decide to devote yourself to the religious life, you must
work constantly for the good of others. Ifyou are going to be a
lay householder, you should take a wife who can help your old
mother in the house."
51 Evans, A. Steven. (2001) "Tears and Laughter: Promoting Gross
National Happiness Through the Rich Oral Traditions and Heritage
of Bhutan." Gross National Happiness and Development. Eds. Karma
Ura and Karma Galay. Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies, pp.
637-659, pp.650-651.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
Now the Naljorpa was instinctively guided at all times by his
vow to dedicate his sight, his ears, his mind, and his
sensibility, to others on the path, and knowing that the time
was ripe to demonstrate his crazy yet compassionate wisdom,
he replied immediately, "If you want a daughter-in-law, I'll go
and find one." He went straight to the market place where he
found a hundred-year-old hag with white hair and blue eyes,
who was bent at the waist and had not so much a single tooth
in her head. "Old lady," he said, "today you must be my bride.
Come with me!"
The old woman was unable to rise, but Kunley put her on his
back, and carried her home to his mother. "O Ama! Ama!" he
called to her. "You wanted me to take a wife, so I have just
brought one home." "If that's the best that you can do, forget
it," moaned his mother. "Take her back where she came from
or you'll find yourself looking after her. I could do her work
better than she." "All right," Kunley said with studied
resignation, "ifyou can do her work for her, I'll take her back."
And he returned her to the market place.52
According to Dugu Choegyal Gyamtso in the book The Divine
[Drukpa Kunley's] style, his humour [sic], his earthiness, his
compassion, his manner of relating to people, won him a place
in the hearts of all the Himalayan peoples.... He may not have
been the greatest of scholars or metaphysicians, although he
left some beautiful literature behind him, but he is a saint
closest to the hearts ofthe common people.... For the common
people it was Drupka Kunley who brought fire down from
heaven, and who touched them closest to the bone.53
The life, stories and songs of Drupka Kunley touched, stirred
and even changed the lives of the common people in a time
when they so desperately needed it. He is a successful
example of what the storyteUer and his tales can do.
52 Dowman, Keith and Paljor, Sonam, trans. (2000) The Divine
Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley. Varanasi
and Kathmandu: Pilgrims Publishing, pp.39-40.
53 Ibid., p.23.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Dorji claims that folktales represent the collective memory of
Despite the nuances in the art of narration and the use of
varying vocabulary, the central theme and principle facts
remain unaltered no matter who narrates the stories. If the
folktales talk of the society, it is in the minds of the people
that the stories lie ready to be released at an appropriate
moment ... Many beliefs, sentiments, as well as values
concerning a society are evoked in the day to day life of the
Bhutanese directly or indirectly through the vehicle of
Dorji emphasized that the teUing and hearing of folktales in
Bhutan is a grassroots event: "The old and the young alike
listen and narrate the same story repeatedly in their own way
and always with the same enthusiasm and zeal. The
simplicity of the theme and plot of folktales offer itself as a
literary genre that is comprehensible to aU...."55 He concludes:
We have to all agree that the immense reservoir of stories are
all created by man for the benefit of the upcoming
generations, not only as the entertainment but also as a
vehicle of transmission of religious, social, and moral values,
philosophies and many unique traits of society. Then, it is not
only important to document and create a treasury of folktales
but also to keep them alive.56
There is a Bhutanese folktale that poignantly, yet delightfuUy,
portrays that happiness and prosperity are not necessarily
one and the same. The story titled "Meme Haylay Haylay and
His Turquoise" is about an old man who begins the day
finding a priceless turquoise and exchanges the jewel with a
horse, the horse for an ox, and the ox for a sheep, the sheep
for goat, the goat for a rooster, and in the end the rooster for
a song.
54 Dorji, T. 2002, p. 18.
55 Ibid., p. 19.
56 Ibid., pp. 19-20.
 Promoting Happiness Through Oral Traditions
The words of Buddhist master Shantideva summarize this
story well: 'The goal of every act is happiness itseff, though,
even with great wealth, it's rarely found".57 It is through the
intentional and spontaneous teUing and retelling of such
stories that aUows them to accomplish what they are
inherently able to do—touch lives at the heart level, affecting
worldview and becoming catalysts for life transformation. As
Bhutan moves towards a proactive national promotion and
program of traditional storytelling in the entertainment,
educational, and informational spheres, the closer she wiU
come to achieving His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuck's
dream of Gross National Happiness.
Choden, Kunzang (1993) Folktales of Bhutan, Bangkok: White Lotus
Dorji, Tandin  (2002)  "Folktale  Narration:  A Retreating Tradition."
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6: 5-23
Dowman,   Keith   and   Paljor,   Sonam,   trans.    (2000)    The   Divine
Madman:   The   Sublime   Life   and   Songs   of Drukpa   Kunley,
Varanasi and Kathmandu: Pilgrims Publishing
Evans,   A.   Steven   (2001)   "Tears   and  Laughter:   Promoting  Gross
National   Happiness   Through   the   Rich   Oral   Traditions   and
Heritage of Bhutan" Gross National Happiness and Development,
Eds.  Karma Ura and Karma Galay, Thimphu: The Centre for
Bhutan Studies, pp. 637-659
Kinga, Sonam (2001) "The Attributes and Values of Folk and Popular
Songs," Journal of Bhutan Studies, 3 (1): 132-170
Lovejoy,   Grant,   ed.    (2005)    Making   Disciples   of Oral   Learners.
Bangalore: International Orality Network
Penjore, Dorji (2005) "Folktales and Education: Role of Bhutanese
Folktales in Value Transmission," Journal of Bhutan Studies, 12:
Petersen,    Eugene    (1999)    Stories   of  Jesus,    Colorado    Springs:
Phuntsho, Karma (2000) "On the Two Ways of Learning in Bhutan"
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 2.2: 96-126
Rapten, Phuntsho. (2001) "Mass Media: Its Consumption and Impact
57 Ibid., p.50.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
on Residents of Thimphu and Rural Areas." Journal of Bhutan
Studies, 3 (1): 172-198
Royal   Government   of   Bhutan   (2000)    Bhutan   National   Human
Development Report 2000: Gross National Happiness and Human
Development, Searching for Common Ground, Thimphu: Planning
Commission Secretariat
Thinley, Lyonpo Jigmi Y.  (1999) "Values and Development:  Gross
National   Happiness,"    Gross   National   Happiness:   A   Set   of
Discussion Papers, Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies, pp.
Wangyal,    Tashi    (2001)    "Ensuring    Social    Sustainability:    Can
Bhutan's       Education      System      Ensure      Intergenerational
Transmission of Values," Journal of Bhutan Studies, 3 (1):    106-
Yolen, Jane, ed. (1999) "Empty Cup Mind," Gray Heroes: Elder Tales
from Around the World, NewYork: Penguin Books, pp.3-4


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