Bhutan

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

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Religion journalists: Why are the UN's ten 'happiest' nations all secular-oriented?

Religion journalists: Why are the UN's ten 'happiest' nations all secular-oriented?

So, how are you today? Feel OK about your life? Are you happy?

Chances are you're more likely to answer those questions affirmatively -- while smiling broadly, no doubt -- if you reside in Denmark rather than, let's say, Burundi. Or if you live in Switzerland and not -- get ready for another shocker -- Syria or Afghanistan.

At least, so says the pretentiously named World Happiness Report produced for the United Nations by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international panel of economists, psychologists, public health experts and others.

Most of its conclusions seem beyond obvious. (You don't see many Danes or Swiss risking their lives, and those of their children, to illegally enter Burundi, Syria or Afghanistan, do you?) However, the report does contain a few surprises.

For example, Israelis -- who face knife attacks and other small-scale terrorist actions on a daily basis and who live with the Islamic State, Hizbollah and Hamas on their borders -- say they are happier as a nation than do Germans, Britons, the French and Italians. And even Americans. Israel was listed by the report as the 11th happiest nation on Earth, while the U.S. placed 13th.

Apparently humans prefer facing possible death on the streets than the endless drip-drip torture of presidential primary debates. I can relate.

But I jest. So let me get serious and suggest that the report has much to offer journalists. It's haunted by religion ghosts -- which is to say, there's a host of extractable story ideas in it for journalists inclined to explore the nature of human happiness today from a psychological, spiritual and religious perspective.

Religion writers; I'm looking at you.

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Blessed are the Himalayas; more on China's religious and cultural repression

Blessed are the Himalayas; more on China's religious and cultural repression

Three years ago I visited the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. It's a spectacularly beautiful place, with thick oak, pine and bamboo forests blanketing a soaring topography, the green mountainsides capped by scores of jagged, snowy peaks.

These mountains, along with strict tradition-bound government policies, have allowed Bhutan's religiously rooted culture to remain, to this day, relatively free of outside cultural influences.

Bhutan is wedged between China to the north and India to the south. Land access from India is easy, via subtropical lowland roads, and diplomatic and trade relations between the two nations are strong.

China's a very different story. Himalayan peaks more than 20,000-feet-high make land travel between the two nations virtually impossible. For the Bhutanese, that's been a blessing.

That's because, historically and to this day, the Himalayas have impeded expansionist China's desire to push southward. Energy and resource-hungry modern China would love to harvest Bhutan's forests and abundant hydroelectricity power, the latter now largely exported to India. (Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China, or, for that matter, the United States.)

Were China to succeed it would undoubtedly mean the collapse of Bhutan's carefully preserved Vajrayana (Tibetan-style) Buddhist culture. Bhutan, in effect, would go the way of the nation of Tibet and the region known as Xinjiang.

Xinjiang? More in a minute.

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