Blogs >> Small country, big dilemma - Satish Kumar

Small country, big dilemma - Satish Kumar

“What is the GNP (Gross National Product) of Bhutan, your majesty?” asked a journalist.

“I don’t know, but for me Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” answered the 4th Dragon king of Bhutan, Jigme Singue Wangchuck.

This exchange took place at a press conference in 1972. The King’s spontaneous and inspired answer made headlines, and caught the imagination of readers around the world. Ever since, social activists, environmentalist, and economists around the world have increasingly been talking about the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH).  Today, a number of governments are beginning to measure happiness and wellbeing in addition to GNP and GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In 2011 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution making GNH as an integral part of the UN’s development ideals. People are waking up to a new vision of shifting their focus from economic growth to growth in wellbeing or happiness.

Last year, Schumacher College in Britain and the GNH Centre in Bhutan launched a year-long joint programme on Right Livelihood, exploring the philosophy, economics and practical application of GNH. Twenty students were enrolled. The course takes place partly in the UK and partly in Bhutan, and I was one of those invited to teach on it. So in March, my wife June and I travelled to Bhutan. The last legs of our journey took us  from Delhi to Paro via Kathmandu. Flying over the high Himalayan mountains and witnessing peak after peak of snow-covered wilderness was breath taking.

At Paro, we were met by our friend and former Schumacher college student Gabby Franco, who has been volunteering at the GNH centre for the past year and a half. After a one-hour drive we arrived in Thimphu, the capital, and settled in our hotel – like the airport, designed along the lines of traditional Bhutanese architecture.

We were impressed again and again that houses, hotels, shops and office buildings are all designed with local characteristics. We felt a sense of arrival and sense of place. This could not be anywhere else but Bhutan.

In most modern cities this is not the case. Monotonous, high-rise office blocks or housing estates are found in all corners of the globe. Whether you are in New Delhi or New York, you are in the same concrete jungle! So being surrounded by simple, tasteful and colourful architecture, specific to Bhutan, was a breath of fresh air.

Apart from the 4th Dragon King, the former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley is the other champion of Gross National Happiness. It gave us great pleasure to have lunch with him and to know more about the GNH model of development.

“There are four basic principles of GNH,” Jigme Thinley began. “First, all development should be underpinned by the ideals of environmental, sustainable and economic equality. Second, the conservation of biodiversity and natural habitat should be at the core of all human activities. Nature should not be considered as a resource for economy; rather, Nature is a source of all life. Thirdly, in the name of progress and modernity we must not destroy our traditional Bhutanese culture and Buddhist values and lastly good and clean governance should be at the heart of politics”.

These are wonderful aspirations. But sandwiched between two giant nations, China in the North and India in the South, both obsessed with economic growth, the pressures on Bhutan to embrace modernity and materialism are enormous. Moreover, educated in the western style of schools and colleges and exposed to internet and advertising, the young Bhutanese want computers and cars. They do not want to be deprived of television and other technological gadgets. So this small country faces a big dilemma: how to conserve the old culture and yet live in the 21st century at the same time?

This was a very good question to address during the discussions with the Right Livelihood course participants. Jigme Thinley kindly joined us in our discourse, and beside the log fire a lively dialogue emerged.

What is the difference between jobs and employment on the one hand and livelihood on the other? We do a job because we are paid to do it. We do the job because we need the money. Whether we like the job or not it is neither here nor there. Money is the main motive. The job is done for profit.

Employment, too, is for money. We are under the orders of our employer. Increasingly, in most jobs, there is very small chance of using our initiative, imagination or creativity. We have to abide by the rules of the corporation or the company. An employee is mostly a cog in the machine of a bureaucracy.

By contrast, livelihood is a confluence of profession and vocation. In right livelihood we love what we do and we do what we love. Livelihood emerges out of inner calling. The exchange of money is merely a means to an end.  In livelihood, work has its own intrinsic value. There is a sense of contentment, fulfillment and satisfaction. Livelihood is rooted in imagination, creativity, improvisation and meaning. To be a cook, or a gardener, or a potter, or a painter, or a builder, or a designer or dancer, whatever it is, it is to be a maker, a creator, a poet. The word poetry comes from poesis, a greek term for production and composition, in other words, making. As in auto poesis - self making. Everything we produce, compose or make with our own imagination and initiative is poetry. This way all work is and should be poetry.

E. F. Schumacher wrote an essay called Buddhist Economics. It was the first time a western economist chose to put those two words together. Someone asked him, “Mr Schumacher, what does Buddhism have to do with economics?”. Schumacher replied, “Economics without Buddhist or ethical values is like flowers without fragrance or words without meaning. Right livelihood puts ethics into work.”  In other words, the idea of Gross National Happiness promotes livelihood rather than employment.

Our discussions continued late into the night. Bhutan is under one million people, but geographically the country is as big as Switzerland. With the combination of enlightened leadership the Buddhist values and aims of GNH perhaps Bhutan can choose the way of livelihood economy rather than an economy of employment. Our one week in the lap of this beautiful Himalayan kingdom was exhilarating and inspiring.

We are now accepting applications for The Right Livelihood Programme, UK and Bhutan - Finding Deeper Purpose. Find out more by visiting the The Right Livelihood Programme page >>

A new, updated edition of Satish Kumar’s autobiography No Destination: Autobiography of a Pilgrim, has recently been published by Green Books.


This article is taken from the July/August issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. For information about the Resurgence Trust, membership and subscription details, contact The Resurgence Trust, Ford House, Hartland, near Bideford, Devon EX39 6EE. Tel 01237 441293. E: members@resurgence.org

Creative Commons License Right Livelihood Program Bhutan 2015 by Naor Elimelech is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.