Bhutan: environmental education and Gross National Happiness (GNH)
The latitude of Bhutan is 27°47′ North at the capital, Thimpu. This is equivalent to Okinawa in Japan, and a little to the north of Miami, Florida. The size of the country is 38,390 km2—slightly larger than Kyushu island in Japan, and slightly smaller than Switzerland. The population is 807,600, according to World Bank statistics from 2017. About 80% of the people belong to ethnic groups of Tibetan origin, while the remaining 20% are Nepali. The native Bhutanese language is called Dzongkha. It is written using the Tibetan alphabet, but can be transcribed by the western alphabet as well. English is also used as a public language.
I loved climbing mountains when I was young (Matsuzawa 2016). I reached the summits of Muztagh Ata (7509 m) in Eastern Pamir near the Taklamakan Desert in 1989, and Shishapangma (8027 m) in Tibet in 1990. Then I shifted the focus of my exploration from the vertical to the horizontal: I wanted to learn more about the full expanse of the Himalayan area. I went to Hunza Valley, Yunnan China, and Bhutan in three consecutive years. First I went to Hunza Valley in Karakorum, Pakistan, in 1993. Hunza Valley is the corridor connecting the East and the West, used by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century. I went to see the Mongolian people living in Yunnan, China in 1994, and was amazed at how they succeeded in maintaining their traditional Mongolian way of life so deep in the south of China. The place was also close to the Meili Snow Mountains (6740 m), located at the southern limit of the Himalayas (Matsuzawa 2017). Finally I reached Bhutan for the first time in October 1995.
I was also charmed by the Bhutan Himalayas ever since my entrance to Kyoto University and KUAC in 1969. My colleagues and friends of the mountaineering club went to Bhutan, and, what’s more, they accomplished the first ascent. I visited Bhutan in 1995, but for many years had no opportunity to return to the country. Then, Kyoto University approached me about organizing an international social outreach program. The idea was as follows. The university should identify a suitable country and promote mutual understanding between it and Kyoto University. I had no hesitation in recommending Bhutan. There were three reasons. First, the long history of its association with Kyoto University provided an excellent basis for such efforts. Second, the size of the country is relatively small and so seemed like a good fit with a university that consists of about 3000 professors and 23,000 students. Finally, I saw a traditional way of life there that reminded me of old-time Japan: for example, the Bhutanese national dress is reminiscent of Japanese traditional wear, the kimono.
I visited Bhutan four times: in 1995, 2010, 2013, and 2018. I had the opportunity to have an audience with His Majesty the 4th King twice, in 2010 and 2018. The first meeting, in 2010, made me decide to launch a new social outreach endeavor called “Kyoto University Bhutan Friendship Program (KU-Bhutan)” (see https://www.kyoto-bhutan.org/index-e.html). KU-Bhutan, created with Prof. Kozo Matsubayashi, has sent 17 missions to Bhutan in the past 9 years; many Kyoto University faculty members, staff and students have thus had opportunities to experience this charming country. Through direct conversations with the 4th King, I learned the story behind the concept of “Gross National Happiness” and his views on how best to govern a country.
His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck was born on November 11th 1955. He became the 4th King in 1972, at the age of 16 years when his father, the 3rd King, suddenly passed away. His Majesty coined the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the key concept for governing a country. At first he used the word “Contentedness”: how content people were with their daily lives. Then he changed it to “Happiness”. “Happiness” is more abstract, broader, and more appealing than “Contentedness”.
Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution declares the country’s renunciation of war. Article 9 says “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. Article 9 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan happens to be GNH. Bhutan’s Article 9 says “The State shall endeavor to apply the Principles of State Policy set out in this Article to ensure a good quality of life for the people of Bhutan in a progressive and prosperous country that is committed to peace and amity in the world. The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness”.
His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck first formulated the idea of GNH in the 1970s, when he was still very young. He then promoted the drafting of a constitution, which was enacted in 2008, and reformed the country from monarchy to constitutional monarchy. I posed the question to him: “Why did it take such a long time for Bhutan to get a constitution?” His answer was: “I have been waiting for literacy rates to go up“. Without high literacy rates through good primary education, people cannot read the constitution. He had concentrated on enriching the entire country’s primary education, then waited until literacy rates had exceeded 60%.
I asked: “What is important for governing the country?” He said: “It is Wisdom, Power and Compassion.” We can easily understand why “Wisdom” and “Power” are important for a leader, but it took me a while to understand the meaning of “Compassion” in this context. In the original Latin, “compassion” comes from “com” (together) plus “pati” (patient). Compassion is therefore the attitude of being patient together with the people. In short, it might be Love.
I thought that it could not have been an easy job being the king of a country for decades. However, he said: “I have never experienced stress.” I was very surprised, and asked: “Why? Why did you never experience stress?” Then he said “Mindfulness.” I was a little surprised again to hear the word. “Mindfulness” is a very contemporary term in psychology, whose meaning is difficult to explain. Roughly, through a sort of meditation, you can reach a state called mindfulness. For me, in short, it means the mind that monitors the mind. You can see your mind just as you see your own body.
His Majesty was very charming. My most recent meeting with him was held in his palace on November 23, 2018. I was with President Juichi Yamagiwa of Kyoto University. This was the first time for His Majesty to meet President Yamagiwa. His Majesty started the conversation as follows: “President, I know that you are a researcher of gorillas. I know that Matsuzawa is a researcher of chimpanzees. However, we also have apes in Bhutan.” I was very puzzled! There are monkeys and langurs in Bhutan, but no apes at all. He continued: “We have snow men in Bhutan.” He told us that he had seen their skulls and foot-prints, and believes in their existence deep in the Bhutan Himalayas. He continued by saying: “Camera traps may help us capture images of these snow men”.
Primary education in Bhutan is unique in several respects. First, in pre-primary school—corresponding to kindergarten age—pupils start to learn English. English is also the language of instruction in primary schools. There are three major subjects that pupils are taught every day in school: Dzongha, English, and environmental education. How to define and how to teach GNH is still controversial. See the detailed report on GNH: ISBN 978-99936-14-86-9 (Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH Research 2016). The most recent survey on GNH in 2015 contains 9 domains and consists of 148 questions. However, observing primary school classes gave me some ideas. The school was kept clean. The school yard was also kept clean, and it was the place to put environmental education into practice. From your backyard you can make a change. Environmental education in Bhutan seems to be synonymous with teaching the ideas and underlying values of GNH through everyday practice.
In my understanding, the core part of the idea of GNH lies neither in the domains nor the questions, but in the following calculation. GNH can be expressed as a fraction: the numerator is richness while the denominator is desire. Happiness can be defined by dividing the numerator by the denominator. You feel happy when you are rich enough as measured against your desire.
People in many advanced countries have been primarily pursuing richness, and more and more of it. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNP (Gross National Product) are indices of richness: how many things you have, how many products, how much money, etc. However, as you become more rich, your desire increases too: as a result people continue to want more and more things, products, money, and so on. Thus, both the numerator and the denominator increase in parallel, such that the fraction (happiness) does not increase at all. In contrast, GNH suggests that you keep desire as small as possible. Suppose that you are moderately rich: the numerator is constant. Then you try to minimize your desire: the denominator decreases. Thus the fraction increases and you feel greater happiness.
HRH Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck spent several years in the United States, graduating from Stanford and then Harvard University in law. I was curious to ask why she majored in this discipline. She told me that she wanted to help her father. The constitution was His Majesty’s contribution, but implementing it requires an elaborate legal system. The country needs judges, lawyers, public prosecutors, and so forth. HRH Princess has taken on the role of head at the JSW Law school, the first law school in the country. JSW Law is just in the process of building a new campus near Paro, close to the international airport.
Our hope is that these materials made in Japan will reach the minds of young people in Bhutan. They may even start writing books or making animations themselves, for themselves and for their country. Through these grass-roots efforts, I hope to touch the future of the Kingdom of Bhutan.
I am grateful to His Majesty the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who kindly gave me the opportunity for the interviews. I also thank Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck whom we welcomed for the visit to Kyoto University. Thanks are due to President Yamagiwa, Prof. Yuko Nishitani, Prof. Ryota Sakamoto, Ms. Emiko Kato, Ms. Mai Tatsuno, Mr. Kazuyoshi Matsui, Mr. Norimichi Matsunaga with whom I shared many nice experiences during the 17th mission to Bhutan in 2018. Special thanks are due to President Kazuo Oike of KUAD and his staff for making an animation and e-book of the children’s book. I also thank friends in Bhutan who welcomed us, especially Mr. Karchung Wangchuk of Lohmen Tours who has helped me since the first visit in 1995. Without his kind arrangement it would have been impossible to have as pleasant a time in Bhutan as we did. Financial support for preparing the manuscript came from MEXT-JSPS grants #24000001, #16H06283; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Core-to-core Program CCSN, and the Leading Graduate Program of Primatology and Wildlife Science (U04) to the author. I also thank Dr. Dora Biro of Oxford University and Dr. James Anderson of Kyoto University for help with editing the English text.
- Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH Research (2016) A compass towards a just and harmonious society: 2015 GNH Survey Report. Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH Research, Thimphu, Bhutan, pp 1–340Google Scholar
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