Global Politics

Buddhism and Modern Life in Bhutan

The guys in the band are in black, with shaggy hair, and attitudes. They do a sound check in their rehearsal room, and then let it rip.

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Guitars shriek through a familiar opening, and then move into a hyper-paced riff on the Pachelbel Canon. This might not be the usual punk rock fare — but then, not all self-proclaimed punk rockers are polite, well-spoken Bhutanese college students.

"Most of our audience is not into hard music, like what we like to play," says 19-year-old guitarist Ughyen Phuntso, a communications major. "So mostly, we end up playing in my garage."

Or they play here, at the Youth Development Fund's youth center in Thimpu, where rehearsal space and instruments are offered free, as an attempt to keep young people off the streets and out of trouble.

"We had noticed there were very few places where the youths could engage productively," says Dorji Ohm, the center's program director. "They'd go to the movies or to the bars. In fact, we did a survey and found 500 bars and one library, which was shocking."

Perhaps it wouldn't be so shocking in many places, but Bhutan is experiencing growing pains. It has long been a mostly rural, deeply Buddhist, largely isolated mountain kingdom. But in the dozen years since it decided to modernize, and opened up to television, internet and other outside influences, cities have grown and, some Bhutanese fear, mores have changed.

"People are becoming more self-centered, less considerate of society and less sensitive," says Lungten Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and director of Bhutan's Institute of Language and Cultural Studies. "And this is because of the global culture, modernization and development whatever you call it — internet, television, and all kinds of media."

As part of the effort to modernize Bhutan, villages that were once days' walk to the nearest road are getting connected, with roads, electricity, television and mobile phones. That has opened up new worlds to Bhutanese villagers, and has attracted ever more young Bhutanese to cities and towns — but the economy can't yet provide jobs for them all. Youth center director Dorji Ohm says some unemployed young people have taken up disturbing new habits — like smoking marijuana and taking ecstasy.

"I remember when I was a child, we never had drugs," she says. "We saw the marijuana growing — lots of it — but we didn't know what it was for. We saw our grandparents feed it to the pigs, so we looked at it more as fodder for animals.

I observe that they must have been very happy pigs. "Very happy pigs," she agrees.

Drug use is still not all that common in Bhutan. But as a younger generation grows up with internet and satellite TV, and other influences from the outside world, older Burmese wonder what will become of Bhutan's spiritually-based identity.

Buddhist monk Lungten Gyatso believes modernization has shifted Bhutan's moral center off-balance. He refers to Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index — the government's effort to measure well-being — and says, the very definition of happiness seems to be changing.

"If you are to consider, in terms of good feeling, or a feel good factor…modern amenities can give you happiness, because you have a good place to sit, a good bed to rest, and good food to eat" he says. "But I think that's not the definition of happiness. Happiness is the peace of mind deep down even beyond the couch, cars, and buildings, even beyond the sense of relaxation you have…is happiness. So it is totally upside down."

Gyatso would like to see Bhutan find a better balance, as it modernizes. Radio personality and film star Phubgyel Tshen says, he already has.

"I would say I'm balanced, and I'm happy in the present situation," he says.

Tshen works at the radio station Kuzoo FM — which tries to draw young listeners with — among other things — Western pop music. It broadcasts both in English and in the Bhutanese language, Dzonka, encouraging young people to stay grounded in their own culture as they navigate a rapidly changing society It also offers talk shows, call-in advice shows, and public service announcements — including frequent ones on sexually transmitted diseases, which are on the rise.

"We let the student speak their own view on radio, like what are their concerns and responsibilities," Tshen says. "Some have family problems. Dad and Mom are divorced. And there's no one to sponsor their education. So they really lag behind, compared to other students."

Divorce is becoming increasingly common in Bhutan, but Dorji Ohm thinks that's not necessarily all bad.

"When I look at my parents' generation, it was the wife who stayed at home," she says. "And divorce was something the Bhutanese didn't really see as a choice. If there were some extramarital affairs, or some abuse, the wife would take it. I think with education, you have more of a sense of independence. You realize your rights. You are more economically independent. So you aren't as dependent on your husband."

Ohm sees the higher divorce rate as yet another sign of a society trying to find its balance. Not all Bhutanese feel it's all that hard.

On a mountain's edge, where pilgrims pause to turn a Buddhist prayer wheel, carpenter Norbu Torsha still seems quite grounded in the Buddhist culture he grew up with. He says his Buddhist beliefs tell him the cutting of trees is sinful, so he's come here to the Tiger's Nest temple, to light a butter lamp as an offering, to at least slightly make up what he has to do to make a living. On balance, though, he says he sees Bhutan's development as a good thing.

"In our village, we used to have to walk days to get a message out," he says. "Now we can just use our mobile phones. Our country is developing fast, and I'm happy with it. I'm happy to have been born here."

Back in Thimpu, high school students Sonam and Nanjita feel the same. Stopping to chat on their way home from school, they say they like listening to Usher and Justin Bieber on Kuzoo FM, and playing around on the internet. But Sonam says it doesn't change who they are as Bhutanese:

"We can listen to the songs, but (inside) we have the sense of (being) Bhutanese," she says. "So we won't forget our culture and tradition."

Nanjita chimes in. "We still like Bhutanese culture and tradition, more than Western things."

The girls say they like the fact that, at school, there are lessons in Buddhist mindfulness, with time given for silent meditation. They're glad the government actively thinks about the happiness of Bhutan's citizens, as it seeks greater economic growth.

In Bhutan, Buddhism's counsel to choose a middle path seems to provide both a guiding principle, and a challenge — develop, but don't lose your identity. Modernize, but don't lose your soul. Many cultures have faced this challenge — few have done it as consciously.