“Where happiness is at home.” The national slogan of Bhutan seems like the typical kind of platitude found on tourist flyers everywhere, but in the tiny Himalayan country, they take their happiness to heart. The late King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s famously said the country’s gross national happiness was more important than its gross national product, and ever since then, the term has come to define the nation.
Bhutan is a small landlocked country in the Himalayan mountains of fewer than a million people. It sits just south of Tibet, which shares an ethnic and cultural heritage with the Bhutanese. Their Vajrayana “Thunderbolt Vehicle” Buddhist way of life is unique in the world.
Buddhist culture in Bhutan
Buddhism shapes everything in the region, from agriculture to architecture, holy ceremonies to daily chores. Bhutanese beliefs about the nature of life and the universe informed the way they built their society—a society that remains largely intact and as unchanged as anything can be in the 21st century. Wisely, they also understand the fragility of their culture in the modern era, which is why they’re cautious about their interactions with the outside world.
Fortunately for us, cautious does not mean cut off. Though the country is new to democracy, the constitutional monarchy of Bhutan seems to have found a way to balance traditions with the demands of modernization. Bhutan is one of the few places left in the world where the culture really does still feel distinct. Locals wear traditional clothes and continue to follow Buddhist lifestyles very similar to their ancestors.
Whether on the old stone streets, newly paved sidewalks, or open-range trails, the complete cleanliness of the place shows the love that Bhutanese have for their country. No plastic bags clogging up drains on the street, no graffiti on the walls or cigarette butts tossed on the ground—the people here treat the whole country with the same respect as their own home.
In addition to their common practice of meditation and Buddhist faith, the people’s reverence for their mountainous land and deep connection to nature have helped the country stay both mentally and environmentally healthy. Bhutan is the first carbon-negative country on the planet. Seventy-two percent of the land is forest canopy, and the country’s constitution demands that 60 percent of the land remain that way for all time. In addition, Bhutan exports green energy from its assortment of hydro, solar, wind, and other creative energy generators.
Mountains and monuments
There are mountaintop temples and resorts to visit, as well as exotic Asian animals such as the black-necked crane. Most of the sites have significance to the region’s Buddhist faith, and the centuries of devotion that built the nation can be felt by everyone.
The Tiger’s Nest, a monastery more than 3,000 metres above sea level, is one of those places. Some people say that if you haven’t visited the Tiger’s Nest, then you haven’t visited Bhutan.
It was built on the face of a cliff in 1692 around the cave where Guru Rinpoche first meditated in Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche is the person who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet in the 700s. Legend has it that he rode a tigress across the Himalayas to this location, which is how the monastery got its name.
It’s located about 16 kilometres north of Paro and can’t be reached by car—meaning you can only get there the old way, by walking for five hours. It’s still a mystery how people got the construction materials to this location centuries ago.
What’s interesting in Bhutan is that the great sites aren’t just for tourists. They have deep spiritual significance for the locals, who regularly visit and hold ceremonies that aren’t just performances.
The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal is a good example. It is a chorten, or stupa, which is a building signifying the Buddha’s presence. It was constructed in 2004 by the queen of Bhutan in order to dispel evil spirits from her country and to help purify the world.
One of the largest Buddha images in the world is located in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. The Buddha Dordenma Statue, like most of the Bhutan destinations, sits in a forested mountain. It’s 52 metres tall and has more than 125,000 Buddha statues inside it.
Resorts in Bhutan also reflect a spiritual theme and exude a meditative quality. The magical Six Senses Bhutan resort pampers the mind and the body into bliss. A series of five lodges, it’s nestled in the mountains, overlooking forested valleys strewn with prayer flags. Among other things, visitors are invited to enjoy stone baths infused with medicinal herbs and attend sessions with spiritual advisers.
Bhutan’s unique culture and protective society require more than just a sightseeing trip. The country stands as an example to the world of how to balance traditional culture and modern civilization, and visitors are asked to respect the delicacy of that balance.
Even for those of us who may never make it all the way to the Himalayas, Bhutan can still inspire us to view traditional cultures in a new light.
By creating the concept of gross national happiness, this small nation has led a conversation worldwide about the value of maintaining traditions and prioritizing happiness above wealth.
The wisdom of Bhutan’s Buddhist culture shines through every facet of Bhutan and challenges the world to reexamine the goals of global development and progress. This isn’t to say that every country can take the same approach—Bhutan will always be unique—but by learning from its culture, we may find a way to chart our own courses of happiness.