The Royal Grandmother

A few weeks ago I visited the palace of Her Royal Highness Phuntsho Chhodon, the second Queen of Bhutan. After her husband's, the second king's death, she was known as the Royal Grandmother. The palace is high up on a mountain outside Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. A blue pine forest, an apple orchard and a Buddhist temple surround it. The Royal Grandmother wasn't home. She had died four years ago at the age of 92. For forty-nine days after her death the Bhutanese made a pilgrimage to this palace to pay their final respects.

The Royal Grandmother had a lifetime companion. The daughter of that companion is a friend of ours. That is why we were able to visit the palace. It is not open to the public. As we approached the gate, I heard barking. My friend said, "Wild dogs are a problem. They roam the streets in packs. Sometimes they attack people." Just then two dogs appeared on either side of the gate, glanced at us, and to my relief, veered off down the mountain.

Although the gate was more ceremonial than functional, stepping through it was like stepping-if not into another world-then out of this one. It was raining hard. A curtain of water spilled off the winged roof into a concrete channel twelve feet below it with mathematical precision. It was as if the roof and the channel were part of an elaborate fountain. Inside the palace, covered with a golden shawl, was a four-foot high solid jade statue of the Buddha. The face was painted gold. Next to the statue a monk in a red robe sat crossed legged on a mat reciting passages from a sacred text. Incense filled the room. It was as if the statue were chanting. Nearby, by order of her son, the bed in which the Royal Grandmother had died looked as if it had just been made.

My mind kept returning to the dogs. They were everywhere in Bhutan, including the Royal Grandmother's palace. Why? Because the Bhutanese value all forms of life, even those that are a nuisance. The idea of exterminating them just doesn't compute. Evidence of this habit of mind is everywhere. In the fields where crops are growing one sees tiny thatched huts. Farmers spend the night in these huts to chase away deer, wild boar, bear and, of course, wild dogs. They don't kill them. They clang pots together to frighten them away. If that doesn't work and the animals destroy the crops, the government reimburses the farmer. The government stands behind the view that all life is sacred. The idea is that one can't be happy unless everything alive is happy.

It is not surprising, then, that the Bhutanese government has decided that tallying the Gross Domestic Product of Bhutan-its GDP-must involve an assessment of the happiness of its people. Bhutan calls this Gross National Happiness. A countrywide poll was taken to see how well Bhutan was doing. 68% of the people said they were happy.

I recently read an article by Eric Weiner. It began, "What does the war in Iraq, the sale of cigarettes and the recent fires in southern California have in common?" The answer is: they all contribute positively to America's GDP. What, I wonder, would the GDP look like if our happiness were folded into the equation? As Robert Kennedy once said, the GDP measures everything except "that which makes life worthwhile."

Bhutan seems to have gotten something right, even if the barking of its wild dogs keeps you up at night.

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