WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Driglam namzha is often described as Bhutan’s code of etiquette. Drig (སྒྲིག་) denotes order, norm and conformity. Thus, driglam literally means the way (ལམ་) of having order and conformity while namzha (རྣམ་བཞག་) refers to a concept or system. Driglam namzha is thus a system of orderly and cultured behaviour, and by extension, the standards and rules to this effect.
The Bhutanese culture of etiquette is said to have started with the Buddhist vinaya or monastic discipline. For instance, crude conducts such as slurping while one is eating and prancing while one is walking are described in the vinaya as behavioural flaws to be eschewed by the monks. These are considered unbecoming for a cultured person in Bhutan. Thus, good mannerism in Bhutan is to a great extent defined by the Buddhist ethics of wholesome physical, verbal and mental conducts. In this respect, the concept of driglam, like beyzha (འབད་བཞག་) or jaluchalu (བྱ་ལུགས་ཆ་ལུགས་), in a loose sense refers to good manners, which are adopted by the individuals and heavily influenced by the concept of Buddhist good conduct.
When Buddhism spread in the Himalayas, such wholesome comportment was codified and implemented as norms of conducts in the courts and monasteries. The first effective codification and implementation of driglam in Bhutan as a formal code of conduct at an institutional level perhaps started with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and his close circle, who instituted a code of conduct for their court and clergy in the 17th century. Throughout the centuries, their codes of etiquette were enforced in Bhutan’s administrative centres and state monasteries, and the common people emulated the centres in adopting the practice.
In modern times, the Bhutanese state promoted driglam namzha not only as a righteous code of conduct but also as a marker of Bhutanese identity. The topic was discussed many times in the Parliament and resolutions passed on its preservation and promotion, mainly to counteract the invasion of western culture. The growing concern about the decline of Bhutanese customs and need for strengthening of driglam namzha culminated in the royal decree of 16 January 1989, a milestone in the history of driglam namzha. Since then, driglam namzha was considered an official set of ceremonial conducts for which special trainings were conducted. Several books were also published on the subject. Unfortunately, driglam namzha was viewed in some quarters as an authoritarian imposition of official culture, which reinforced hierarchy and existent power structures. Thus, it failed to receive the genuine and universal support it deserves in Bhutan.
In essence, driglam namzha deals with eschewing crude and bad physical, verbal and mental behaviours and adopting civil and courteous conducts of the body, speech and mind. Our external behaviours should reflect the wholesome values such as humility, self-control, calm and compassion we cherish inside and also display sensitivity and respect to others. It is as much an example the leaders and elders must show as is a model the people have to follow. It is a courteous mode of individual development as well as a civilised mechanism for the harmonious functioning of a society. It goes beyond the colour of scarves and number of bows. Its intrinsic value lies in it being an expression of civility, tact, propriety, decorum and elegance and it is by seeing this value that driglam namzha can be sustained and celebrated as a unique Bhutanese heritage.