NOTE TO READERS: A college friend, freelance writer Cathy Shufro, of New Haven, Connecticut, visited Bhutan not long ago to explore the way that Himalayan nation is promoting economic development while trying to preserve its vast forests.
The Bhutanese government also manages to bring into the mix a formal measure of happiness -- Bhutan has written into its constitution that the country "shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness."
In her article on Bhutan in the May/June issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Shufro presents a fascinating look at the way Buddhist philosophy informs the life of the Bhutanese people and their government. What follows is a short excerpt from her piece -- it may start you thinking about visiting Bhutan!
By Cathy Shufro
"Ideas of sacredness serve to preserve nature in subtle ways, too. Villages throughout Bhutan have always designated certain groves uphill from cultivated land as sacred, says Nawang Norbu, director of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, a government conservation research and education center. 'There are some forests where you would be advised not to enter because of deities,' and these inviolable stands of tress safeguard water sources. 'Some elders in their wisdom would have understood this intricate relationship between forest and water and, ultimately, their livelihood.'
"In the midst of this discussion comes one of those exchanges that illustrate how much Buddhist faith informs thought, feeling, and daily life in Bhutan. When I ask Nawang Norbu how many people the forestry department employs, he estimates 1,200. But he says the exact number doesn't matter: 'One could die tomorrow.'
"Taken aback, I attempt a joke:
'Knock on wood.'
"'It doesn't matter,' he says. He pauses, then adds, 'Emptiness.' Others in the room nod.
"I've heard of emptiness. It's a Buddhist belief that human beings are deluded in thinking of ourselves as discrete from other beings; everything is continuous and the 'self' empty. But my concept of it is hazy. 'I don't understand emptiness,' I tell Nawang Norbu. 'Nobody does,' he replies, 'so there is no point in me talking about it.'"
Writer Cathy Shufro is a tutor and lecturer in Yale University's Department of English.