The key to Bhutan's happiness

As the Kingdom of Bhutan opens its borders, a Buddhist monk shares his secrets for understanding the nation's unique approach to happiness. "Happiness is the concern of everyone," said His Eminence Khedrupchen Rinpoche. "Whether or not you acknowledge it, this is the purpose of every human being." The Fifth Reincarnate and head of the Sangchen Ogyen Tsuklag Monastery in Trongsa, Bhutan, Rinpoche knows all about the pursuit of happiness. Ascending to his position at the age of 19 in 2009, he was one of the youngest ever Rinpoches (spiritual master) in Bhutan at the time. Now 31, he has dedicated the last 12 years of his life to teaching the world about Buddhist principles and how they can be applied to make life happier every day, regardless of one's culture or religion. Sandwiched between the economic and political powerhouses of China and India, with a population of just more than 760,000, the Kingdom of Bhutan is known around the globe for its unconventional measure of national development: Gross National Happiness (GNH). The concept was implemented in 1972 by the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Eschewing traditional economic quantifications, Bhutan assesses its country's overall wellbeing on the basis of sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance. "Gross National Happiness is [a] set of collective conditions; one that [is] generally needed to live a good life," said Rinpoche. Before the pandemic, Rinpoche journeyed around the world giving lectures and workshops through his Neykor Initiative. He was also working to build the first Buddhist Academy in Bhutan that will be open to anyone interested in learning about Buddhist philosophy, regardless of background or religion. "Everything I was doing was put on hold. I decided to see this as an opportunity to deepen my own experience and isolate myself," Rinpoche said. "I went to the mountains and lived there with very little food, in harsh weather conditions, with no shelter but a cave. It gave me the time to truly imbibe my own teachings. What became very clear was that true happiness has nothing to do with external phenomena; it is innate." Of course, Rinpoche stressed that one does not need to go to such extremes to find peace: "We must stop searching for happiness in experiences outside ourselves. There are, in my opinion, four pillars: loving kindness, compassion, non-attachment and karma, that can be easily embraced by any one at any point in their lives, from anywhere." According to Rinpoche, loving kindness "is the key to generating happiness not just on a personal level, but for others as well." He stressed the importance of being kind to yourself first and how this leads to compassion to others. "You must love yourself and truly know, that no matter the circumstance, you are good enough. From there, you can spread that [compassion] to others." Chunjur Dozi, a former tour guide, believes that Bhutan's sense of collective compassion is rooted in religion. "We have a strong communal sense of helping others, which comes from most of the population being Buddhist. I always consider if what I do will benefit the community." After no longer being able to work as a guide during the pandemic, Dozi reevaluated his perspective and returned to his village of Tekizampa in May of 2020. "The most difficult for me was coping with losing a job that I thought was secure," he said, "However, I was not without any alternatives. I was able to go back to my village and return to the earth, farming and selling produce." He has since used his experience as a tour guide to engage his peers in finding ways to promote local culture to tourists now that the Kingdom has reopened its borders. "I encouraged people to elaborate our homegrown recipes with red rice to make it as authentic as possible so people can learn about our local cuisine," he said. Rinpoche's third pillar, non-attachment or impermanence, is a Buddhist concept that is at the root of Bhutanese culture. "When something goes wrong, don't become depressed immediately because things will change," Rinpoche said. "If we accept that all things are impermanent, then that means there can be change, and with change there is hope." Rinpoche explained that this also holds true for the positive things in life. "Accepting that things don't last, including success and wealth, allows you to truly appreciate what you have at hand." In addition to embracing self-kindness and living compassionately towards others, the pandemic has also reinforced the importance of welcoming change to Dozi. Since returning to his village, he has learned carpentry and has been helping his neighbours repair their homes while embarking on a big communal project. "We renovated a traditional farmhouse that was abandoned by a family and transformed it into a farm stay. I have been advocating a long time for a more immersive approach to tourism and for people to explore the culture and lifestyle of the more rural areas of Bhutan. At the end of the day, I learned to be happy with what I have and make the best of it." According to Rinpoche, the fourth pillar, karma, isn't what it seems. "Karma is totally misunderstood. Most people think it means that if you do something bad, then something bad will happen to you, like a form of universal revenge or punishment. It isn't that at all. It is about cause, condition and effect. Accepting that your actions and choices have an impact on the world around you. It is like planting a seed of a tree. If we plant a mango seed, we get a mango tree. We can't plant an apple seed and expect a mango tree to grow!" he chuckled. "Believing in karma is an opportunity for you to transform yourself, to shape yourself, to really work on who you want to become and do what you want to achieve." By Stephanie Zubiri