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Moonlight casts a cool glow over the ocean as a night surfer prepares to paddle out a Publics
Vol. 11, No. 1
February/March 2008

  >>   Night Shift
  >>   Ancient Pathways
  >>   Trees of Life

The Art of Happiness 

story by Sue Kiyabu
photos by Shuzo Uemoto


The country of Bhutan, nestled between Tibet and India, is about the size of Switzerland, with a population of 700,000. It’s famous for its isolation and its reluctance to embrace modern technologies (television, for example, didn’t come to Bhutan until 1999). But in other ways, Bhutan is leading the world: There’s no smoking in the country, plastic bags are banned and the majority of forested lands are protected. The government, famously, promotes a policy of “Gross National Happiness.”

And then, as all of us in Honolulu are about to find out, there is the art. Bhutan has more than 2,000 temples and a history of Buddhism that dates over 1,000 years. The country’s religion follows the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana (Tantric) Mahayana Buddhism, making this the only nation in the world with an intact Tantric culture. One of Mahayana Buddhism’s central beliefs is that enlightenment can be attained in this lifetime—and painted thangkas, mandalas, sculptures and historical portraits are all considered ritual supports along that path to enlightenment. A centuries-old belief in the spiritual power of art, a closed nation and a prolific people all add up to an abundance of fascinating and heretofore hidden cultural effects—art that has now traveled from a mountain kingdom to an island one.