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Buddhist Constitutionalism in the Hidden Land of Bhutan

Darius Lee, National University of Singapore

A century after Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, the secularisation hypothesis has since come under serious challenge. Modernity has not resulted in the universal decline of religion. There has even been a rise of theocratic constitutional orders in the last century.

The goal of constitutionalism is limited government, which is opposed to any form of absolutism, whether religious, cultural or secular. Where strong religion prevails, the challenge for states is to manage the role of religion in society.

Bhutan (known locally as Druk Yul, ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’) promulgated its first written Constitution in 2008,  transforming its system into a ‘Democratic Constitutional Monarchy’  and moving away from an unwritten, theocratic, absolute monarchy that had lasted for almost 400 years. Although the Constitution of this majority-Buddhist state establishes a Buddhist Commission for Monastic Affairs, it also stakes a claim to ‘secularity’ by formally declaring that ‘religion’ is ‘separate from politics’ under art 3(3).

In this post, which is based on a larger paper, I explore Buddhist constitutionalism in Bhutan.


Having traditionally viewed itself as a Be Yul (Hidden Land) preserving the Buddhadharma (teachings of the Buddha), Bhutan’s traditions and culture are deeply intertwined with the Buddhist religion. Located between China (Tibet) to the north and India to the south, majority of Bhutan’s population of about 700,000 is Mahayana Buddhist, with three-quarters of Bhutan’s population adhering to the Drukpa Kagyupa or Nyingmapa schools, schools of Mahayana Buddhism, which are also practiced in neighbouring Tibet.

Early European explorers labelled unknown or dangerous waters with the warning, ‘Here there be dragons!’ In my article, “Here There Be Dragons! Buddhist Constitutionalism in the Hidden Land of Bhutan”, I explored the largely uncharted territory of the majority-Buddhist states of the ‘East’, focusing mainly on the idyllic Himalayan country of Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon, ruled by the Dragon King (Druk Gyalpo).

I examined the model of ‘secularism’ adopted under the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, and compared it with majority-Buddhist states like Sri Lanka and Thailand which do not declare Buddhism their official religion. On the assumption that religious freedom and religious tolerance are socially desirable, I then investigated whether Bhutan’s religion-state model achieves the goal of protecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance in a religiously heterogeneous society.

I found that the Land of the Thunder Dragon reflects a unique marriage between modern constitutionalism and Buddhism, quite unlike secular Western states or theocratic Islamic states.

Due in no small part to Bhutan’s history and demography, two ideological influences have a particular impact on the interaction between religion and state in Bhutan, as well as the scope of religious freedom.

The first ideological influence is Buddhist political thought, which lays down certain fundamental assumptions about the sacred and the secular. Buddhism differentiates the spiritual and temporal realms under the theory of the ‘two wheels’, which represent two distinct realms of action. A monk (bhikkhu) is a world renouncer, who acts in the spiritual realm. A king (cakkavatti) holds a complementary, but hierarchically lesser, status as a world conqueror who turns the secular, temporal wheel, focusing on worldly pursuits such as politics and governance.

The second ideological influence is the Bhutanese government’s particular conception of ‘tolerance’, which it regards as rooted in Buddhism. Unlike the classical version of tolerance, where one tolerates persons while left free to discriminate between different views in one’s search for truth, the Bhutanese conception of ‘tolerance’ vilifies those with other views as ‘intolerant’. But neither does Bhutan embrace the postmodern conception of ‘tolerance’ which regards all views as being of equal veracity, since Buddhism holds a de facto privileged status under the Bhutan Constitution.

Therefore, despite its claims to ‘secularity’, Bhutan boasts a model of Buddhist theocratic constitutionalism, which seeks to entrench the majority religion.

The distinction between religion and politics is merely formal, under a Dual System of religion and politics united in the person of the Druk Gyalpo, the ceremonial figurehead of Bhutan. The Bhutan Constitution establishes a relationship of mutual interdependence between religion and state, establishing the Buddhist monastic order and governing part of its internal organisation. Though Buddhism is not the official religion, Buddhist values are constitutionally enshrined as a source of public law, which the state aggressively promotes and protects.

In its vigorous attempts to defend its traditional religio-cultural values, Bhutan has proven intolerant of religious minorities. Bhutan’s conception of ‘tolerance’ is hostile to and discriminates against these groups on account of their beliefs. As a state dominated by strong religion, Bhutan often rides roughshod over the practices of religious minorities due to the ban on public practice of religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism. Even Hindus are discriminated against due to aggressive ‘Bhutanisation’. In order to entrench Buddhist identity in Bhutan, the state criminalised the act of ‘compelling others to belong to another faith’, an act which effectively deters proselytisation and limits the free exercise of religion. Education is used as a means to inculcate Buddhist values in students.

In conclusion, Buddhist constitutional orders such as Bhutan have presented the world with their own religion-state model, based on the theory of the ‘two wheels’ and the teachings of the Buddha. It is a model which differs from Judaeo-Christian ‘separation of church and state’ models and Islamic theocratic constitutionalism. As one writer noted, there is now a market for constitutionalism.

Suggested Citation: Darius Lee, Buddhist Constitutionalism in the Hidden Land of Bhutan, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 1, 2014, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/08/buddhist-constitutionalism-in-the-hidden-land-of-bhutan

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Published on August 1, 2014
Author:          Filed under: Analysis
 

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