King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk of Bhutan

Black and white close up image of a strong featured bhutanese man.

In the eighth century, Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan and meditated in retreat there on his way to and from Tibet. To this day, the country remains a place where the Vajrayana is held precious above all else. There is a special quality there that can be found nowhere else on earth. Alhough Bhutan is a tiny country surrounded by giants, it has remained sovereign. Rinpoche credits the fact that Bhutan has not been “swallowed up” by its neighbors—India and China—to Jigme Dorji Wangchuck,also known as the Third Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), the third king of Bhutan.

Born in 1928, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck succeeded his father and grandfather as the third king of Bhutan. Under his leadership, this Himalayan Buddhist kingdom emerged from an isolated feudal state to become a country that values its modern infrastructure while preserving its environmental and cultural heritage.

Bhutan is a small country of only about 850 square miles with a population of about 700,000 in 2008. It is situated between India to the south and Tibet to the north. In 1952, when Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was enthroned, Tibet was in political turmoil. The Druk Gyalpo understood that the independence of his beloved country, rich in Buddhist culture but still isolated and feudal, was fragile. Then only 24 years old and in poor health (he’d had his first heart attack at age 20), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck began his life’s work of securing Bhutan’s independence and preserving its culture.

The king was apparently tireless. Rinpoche knew the king’s chamberlain, who told him that the king never slept. At 22, he was the first of his family to travel to the United Kingdom, where he lived with George Sherriff, a botanist at the British Museum. He spoke English and Hindi as well as his native Dzongkha, and he was well-versed in international politics and economics. He had served as his father’s attendant, and so learned how to treat statesmen and how to accept the same treatment with grace.

The visionary king understood that many reforms were necessary to make the country stronger and less vulnerable. Believing that much-needed modernization could not occur in isolation and without the cooperation of all the country’s people, one of his first tasks after being enthroned was to establish a National Assembly, the Tshogdu. Composed of 10 government representatives, 10 monastic representatives, and 110 representatives of the people, the Tshogdu gave the population a voice, involving them in decision making and inspiring them to be politically conscious and active.

In 1958, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Indira Ghandi, visited Bhutan. Jigme Dorji was inspired to create a 5-year plan, which he launched in 1961. That plan effectively brought the country into the twentieth century in a thoughtful and well-ordered way. His Bhutanese Department of Forestry was an important first step in protecting and conserving the country’s rich forests and other natural resources. He also abolished slavery and capital punishment and built a national museum, a national library, national archives, and a national stadium and created institutes of dance, painting, music, and sculpture.

Because he could imagine a future in which Bhutan’s ages-old Buddhist culture was eroded by outside influences, the Druk Gyalpo commissioned a huge statue of the Buddha in Thimpu Dzong to face the parliament building. He commissioned the manufacture of 10,000 gilded bronze images of the Buddha, and oversaw the publication of astounding editions of the 108-volume Kanjur and the 225-volume Tenjur, hand-tooled by monks in gold and lapis calligraphy.

“He did everything he could do,” Rinpoche says. “He achieved so much. The survival of the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma tradition in Bhutan is due to him. Bhutan may be the only country that has yogis and practitioners who chant mantra on the payroll, and this was very much because of him.”

To ensure Bhutan’s independence, the Druk Gyalpo knew that his country must be recognized by the United Nations. As part of that organization, Bhutan would be recognized by the global community and could receive financial support for its growing infrastructure and social programs. With the help of the Indian government, Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1970.

Jigme Dorji Wangchuck died 2 years later, at the age of 44. He was succeeded by his son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who furthered his father’s work by establishing elections in 2008. Bhutan is therefore the youngest democracy in the world—and is still successful at preserving its ancient culture and Buddhist heritage.