If Bhutan were a garden ornament, it would be a wind chime. Prayer wheels are as common as turkeys at Thanksgiving. They come in all sizes, big as compact cars, small as a can of soup. They are everywhere; in the monasteries, high up on the sides of Bhutan’s craggy mountains, in its public squares. Each turn of the wheel rings a bell and the Bhutanese are constantly turning them. It is a civic duty, like giving blood or voting.
Even though prayers are sent skyward by the muscle power of the people, people aren’t really necessary for prayer. One day I was walking in the mountains near Tango Monastery. I came upon a prayer wheel set over a mountain stream. The rushing water turned a paddle that turned the wheel. The bell rang incessantly, like an unanswered telephone. It didn’t matter that people weren’t there to do the turning. The important thing was that prayers were ascending. The Earth itself was praying.
The prayer wheels of Bhutan symbolize the essential serenity of the society. But that serenity doesn’t come from prayer. It comes from three things: a homogeneous population, the complete merger of church and state, and a monarchy. These values could not be farther from my own: diversity, separation of church and state and free elections. Bhutan taught me that my values come with a price tag. Democracy engenders conflict. Conflict dominates everything from politics to playgrounds. If Bhutan is a serene wind chime, America is a silver dollar, one side labeled freedom, the other, turmoil.
Next year the 4th king has declared that Bhutan will be a democracy. The new constitution allows for deposing a bad king. The Bhutanese love their king. If the king wants a democracy, then it must be a good idea, they told me. But, they added, maybe it is coming a bit too soon. Perhaps they looked at the price tag.
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