Gross National Greed

July 12, 2012 - Uithuizen, Netherlands

Currently in retreat in Zen River Temple monastery in Uithuizen. Last week we were visited by Bhutanese Lama Kuenga. On this occasion I would like to share some thoughts on recent events and developments in Bhutan and how we in the west may relate to them.



Early October 2011, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk and Jetsun Pema got married. Jigme Khesar is the King of Bhutan. Jetsun Pema is the daughter of a pilot. Although she is not of royal blood, I find it somehow inappropriate to refer to her as a “commoner”, taking into account that Bhutan has just one international airport and one airline operator, which owns exactly three airplanes in service. The airport approach in it’s mountainous surroundings is apparently so difficult, that only eight pilots in the world are certified to land there. Who would call one of those pilots “common”? [i] [ii]

Yet, putting all that aside, the King chose someone not of royal descent, out of a love that already long existed. Story has it that Jetsun Pema already hinted at their marriage to come at the age of seven. For a young King it is probably a matter of courage, more than modesty to choose a love marriage over a traditionally arranged one. For his family, his entourage and the Bhutanese establishment, it may have been a matter of modesty however, to accept his choice. Modesty and Respect, I suppose.

Modesty and Respect may well be the dominating themes to describe the wedding. At four o’clock in the morning Buddhist monks started their rituals and prayers in order to find proper agreement and blessings from higher sources. Before that, the date of the wedding was carefully chosen by the court’s astrologer.

The amount of visitors to the wedding was limited. No rich-and-famous, no royalty, no governing officials or other dignitaries for that matter were invited. In stead, the party existed of a select group of friends and direct acquaintances from Bhutan and surrounding countries. And the people of Bhutan. As soon as the ceremony was done with, the couple dashed out to greet the assembled people who were patiently waiting outside.

In a Dutch newspaper a photo was published of the scene that followed. What we see are hundreds of people in their best dress sitting patiently on the grass. There are no barriers or other obvious crowd control measures. The crowd is orderly separated into two sections with a small aisle in between, about 40 centimeters wide. The royal couple, some officials and a row of monks are passing slowly down that pathway. Slowly, because the King and the new Queen are bowing down and shaking hands left and right with the people in the crowd. The people of Bhutan revere their King above nothing and nobody except Buddha. Yet we see no yelling, no screaming, no reaching out, no crying or begging for attention. In stead there are calm, smiling faces. Some in the front, hands folded, quietly awaiting their turn to greet the couple, but most others behind the first three rows, happily watching the scene, no attempts to move forward, no pushing or struggling. [iii]

The people of Bhutan, a country that values Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product, are blessed with Modesty and Respect. A modesty that comes with respect and an intelligence that tells them that this way, with this attitude they will achieve a greater peace of mind than in any other way. And a greater peace of mind is nothing less than greater happiness.

Now we are blessed, too. If we think about it for a little while we may understand that it is a great blessing indeed that we have the chance to witness these examples and perhaps derive some inspiration from them.

Yet, by revealing itself the example becomes endangered. For centuries the Kingdoms of the Himalaya: Tibet, Ladakh, Nepal, Mustang, Sikkim, Bhutan, have been closed for the outside world and probably so, for good reason. Bhutan is the last Kingdom to gradually open up to tourism and other outside influences. Since the year 1999 Bhutan has a television station and internet has also reached the country and its people. Acculturation is inevitable and the Bhutanese leadership has the wisdom to acknowledge that. Now do we have that wisdom, too? [iv]

The question at hand is whether we, the west and the economically more developed eastern countries, will recognize this window of opportunity for what it is and show the responsibility to learn from the example before it is gone. Will we learn from the wisdom and intelligence that is briefly revealed to us?

Will we adopt some of the ideas of Gross National Happiness and the like, or will we continue to confusingly expand our Gross National Greed and believe it to be the closest thing to happiness that we’ll ever know? How sad that would be.





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