Professor French in Bhutan

In her element in Bhutan

Professor Rebecca French was invited to speak at Bhutan's first law school, established just last year.

As the crow flies, it’s 7,521 miles from Buffalo to Bhutan. In real life, it’s not so easy. For Professor Rebecca Redwood French, the trip to the tiny South Asian nation meant flights to Tokyo, Singapore, Calcutta and Parol, and then a long and bumpy car journey to Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital.           

But, says French, it was all worth it for the chance to be among a community of scholars devoted, as she is, to studying how Buddhism-based law codes play out in real life.

The occasion was an academic conference held this past summer at Bhutan’s first law school, established just last year. Invited scholars discussed how Buddhist traditions, including law codes laid down by the Buddha himself, have informed and become part of the judicial systems of a variety of nations.

For French – who has devoted much of her career to studying Buddhist legal systems, especially in Tibet – it was an atmosphere in which she felt right at home.

“It was tremendously exciting to be with these scholars and to discuss some of these ideas,” she says. “This has been a largely overlooked area of legal study for a long time, and finally I was with a core group of scholars doing important work in this area.”

The setting, too, was a source of inspiration. Students at the new Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law, located in Thimphu, are working within the legal framework established by Bhutan’s constitution, itself only a decade old. Key to that set of laws is the concept of “gross national happiness” – the idea that the success of a nation can be measured by its population’s collective happiness and well-being.

That philosophy also finds expression in Bhutanese law, French says, with its privileging of communitarian benefits over individual rights and goods. “It’s quite different from what we’re used to in the United States,” she acknowledges.

And so, for example, the Bhutanese law school’s five-year curriculum includes required courses in the Bhutanese native Dzongkha language and literature; general and Buddhist philosophy; the history of Bhutan; and “Law and Gross National Happiness,” as well as the more familiar exercises in property law, torts and contracts.

Those courses are taught in Dzongkha, but French says English-speakers are commonplace, and at least for the purposes of the conference, translators bridged any language gaps.

French says that she has found great insight into our own legal system by studying Buddhist systems. “You can’t take the law out of the context in which it was written,” she says, “and the religious environment is a large part of that context. It’s important to get outside your own culture sometimes to get a better understanding of law and how it works in society.”

Professor French

“It was tremendously exciting to be with these scholars and to discuss some of these ideas. This has been a largely overlooked area of legal study for a long time, and finally I was with a core group of scholars doing important work in this area.” - Professor Rebecca French

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