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Religion and Environment in Bhutan  

Elizabeth Allison

Religion and the environment have been entangled for millennia in Bhutan. When Buddhism was introduced from Tibet in the 7th and 8th centuries, it incorporated existing animistic and shamanistic understandings of the landscape, developing a unique spiritual ecology built on long coevolution with the landscape. The notable disseminators of Buddhism in Bhutan—Songsten Gampo, Guru Rinpoche, Terton Pema Linga, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and others—sanctified specific sites on the landscape with their Buddhist teachings. The cultural forms introduced by the Shabdrung in the 17th century have been nurtured into the 21st century, providing a strong sense of cultural identity and historical continuity. Building on cultural and religious traditions, Bhutan’s leaders shaped a contemporary nation fed by a wellspring of ancient wisdom, connecting environmental policy and practice to Buddhist roots, in the context of rapid modernization and change. The guiding development model Gross National Happiness emphasizes the interdependence of economy, ecology, culture, and governance. Forest and conservation policies draw on Buddhist values for their relevance, as do waste and reuse practices. Bhutan’s 2008 constitution codifies the obligations of all Bhutanese to maintain culture, ecology, and religion. A long cultural and religious history interwoven with the landscape has created a uniquely Bhutanese Buddhist form of traditional ecological knowledge that contributes to ongoing cultural continuity and ecological resilience.