The conceptual foundation of Druk Zhung is based on having a compassionate leader. The founding text of the government of Bhutan is the Chayig Chenmo, or the code of law. It states that, “the head of the state should be a Bodhisattva, ” or a “compassionate leader taking human embodiment.”
In Buddhist literature compassion is referred to an “unbiased mind that aspires to the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering equally.” Compassion has to be cultivated through mind training and is not to be mistaken for pity as the latter implies a feeling of superiority towards the object of compassion.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) wrote this code for his monastery in Tibet between 1607 and 1612. In 1616, when he fled Tibet, he may have brought it with him or written a new one for Bhutan, as the Chayig Chenmo has been with the Zhung Dratshang (the state monks) for a long time.
Before the Chayig Chenmo was introduced, there was no real law in the country. For example, each region had its own law and each place had its own religious system. There was no universal value or common interest to bind the people. So when the code of law was introduced it became the common denominator and many of the Bhutanese followed it.
Ngawang Namgyal is revered as the founder of Bhutan. He introduced statecraft, which has its root deeply embedded in Buddhism. Zhabdrung strengthened the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Buddhism and became the head of the state with the title of Zhabdrung, also known as Dharma Raja, which means The King of Righteous Law. During his 38 years in Bhutan, he used the code of law to unite the minds of the Bhutanese and develop the first system of governance.
As head of the state, he earned the respect of the people and was considered the “physical embodiment of Avalokitesvara,” the Bodhisattva of compassion. After his death, it seems that the law that he drafted was not followed as he wished, as we find that in 1689, the fourth Desi Tenzing Rabgye (r.1680-1694) had it enforced more strictly.
The Prince or Devil
Until the first king’s coronation in 1907, 57 Desis ruled Bhutan. It is not clear how many of them followed the code, but Zhabdrung wrote it keeping them in mind.
The Chayig Chenmo states the three main responsibilities of the Desi– the first job was to make sure that the people were content; the second duty was to ensure that there was regard for the law and the authority that maintains it; and lastly, the Desi had to maintain the Buddhist Order.
The code of law prescribes that the most effective and shortest method of securing the happiness of the subjects was to dispense justice strictly and without bias. “If a ruler were to devote himself to the administering of justice impartially, he would make all his subjects happy in a single day.”
The Chayig Chenmo, states that the primary responsibility of the Desi was to ensure the wellbeing of the people. It must be one of the few written laws in the world that mandates its ruler to inquire daily into the condition of the subjects, to see whether the people are happy or unhappy, contented or discontent.
The code of law also states that if the people were not happy then it was the leader’s responsibility to ensure that they were. The leader had to put in his best effort to create the right atmosphere to pursue happiness.
“If those who are rulers, having the opportunity to make their subjects happy, neglect their duties, where is the difference between them and the Prince of Devils? ”
According to the Chaying Chenmo, the foundation of good governance rested on justice. It reasoned that by establishing law and justice, it would bring peace and security to both the ruler and his subjects.
While the general prosperity of the nation depended on the ruler, the local authorities were responsible for the wellbeing of the people living in the region or district. Using an example, from the code of law, let us demonstrate this rationale.
In the 17th century, when a crime was committed in a region, the village headman would report the matter to the Dzong, which served as the central government. The head of the fortress would then send an officer to the field to investigate the crime. Together with the headman, they would dispense justice.
According to Zhabdrung, people would be content and have faith in the officials and trust authority if the trial was conducted without any bias.
The Desi’s third responsibility was the maintenance of the Buddhist Order. Since the ruler was projected to be the living embodiment of Avalokitesvara, he had to cultivate certain Buddhist qualities. So, the code of law encouraged him to abide by the ten duties of the primordial Buddha and the ten perfections. These consist mainly of charity, good conduct and courage.
Most Bhutanese were and are still, superstitious. The Zhabdrung used this for the maintenance of Buddhist order. The code states, “those who offer insults to those who live in Dharma are worthy of being exterminated.” It further states, “They shall surely be offered up as fitting sacrifice at the shrine of the great and terrible Mahakala.”
On the other hand, those who followed the code of law were rewarded with the blessings of Koenchosum. The code restates that it is to promote “the general as well as their individual good.
To ensure that the leaders performed the three responsibilities, the code contains a threat, “If they neglect public prosperity and fail to check their subordinates, or if they suffer karmic laws to be subverted and tolerate the spread of evil without making an effort to remedy it, how can the Spiritual Guardians help them .”
Although much of the law and order was maintained by the prevailing high morale code, intimidation or physical force was also used but as the last resort.
“Not always can one conquer and subdue rude and evil persons by mild means in worldly matters. Sometimes, it is unavoidable to use stern measures. So when there are lawbreakers or evildoers, the ruler’s duty is to punish them sternly, without any consideration or pity and sympathy. This is how a king on the throne ensures his own salvation.”
The Chayig Chenmo reminded the leaders that the happiness of the nation depended on the proper collection and use of the taxes.
It states that care should be taken to ensure that the tax collectors were fair. They should not be partial to any wrongdoer or exempt him from punishment. The tax collector should not use his position to inflict underserved punishment on anybody through grudge or prejudice.
The code of law states that the administrative duties of the Deb in relation to tax was to ensure smooth collection of revenue, the raising of compulsory government labor contribution, and the hearing of trials related to tax.
In the western society, there is just law but it is hard to find that one outstanding person, as the notion of Bodhisattva does not exist in the culture. So, the vision of a compassionate ruler is completely lacking and hence the need to make laws that survive beyond a single ruler.
Until recently, Bhutan did not have many laws as it relied on the enlightened leaders. For example, until recently, Bhutan had no commercial code, the understanding being that the philosopher king would decide disagreements.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal wrote the Chayig Chenmo over 400 years and used it to unite the country. Today, the code of law is with the Zhung Dratshang and the state monks still abide by it. This is the tradition of the Dharma King of Bhutan.