A King's Life: Meditation and Hoops

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TIM McGIRK ThimphuAs a youngster, Jigme Singye Wangchuck stopped playing goalie in soccer when he realized that none of the players dared to knock one past the future King of Bhutan. So he switched to a more egalitarian sport: basketball, where the game's fast pace and sharp elbows tend to blur any distinction between royalty and commoners. His jumpshots on the public courts of Thimphu ended abruptly in 1972 when his father died and Jigme, then 17, became the world's youngest monarch. Yet after about a quarter-century as Ruler of the Thunder Dragon people, he is still a team player. This summer he agreed to relinquish some of his sovereign powers.We're hemmed in between two of the most populous and powerful nations on earth--India and China--and it's important that people realize the future survival of Bhutan doesn't depend on any single individual, the King told TIME. The elected National Assembly now has the right to demand his abdication in a confidence vote, if that's what the Bhutanese people want. It's unlikely to occur. To use a metaphor the King would appreciate, it would be like asking Chicago Bulls fans if they wanted Michael Jordan to hang up his sneakers.While other kingdoms have vanished across the Himalayas--Tibet fell to China, Ladakh and Sikkim were engulfed by India--King Jigme has preserved Bhutan's independence and cultural heritage. His subjects now live longer, earn more and eat better than ever, and they receive free education and health care. Certain strictures, like obliging men to wear traditional robes, are a small price to pay. The King still plays hoops with his palace guards: at 1.8 m, he's a playmaker and three-point shooter. He is also accessible: any Bhutanese citizen can receive an audience.King Jigme has four wives, all of whom are sisters. (It wouldn't work if we weren't sisters, one Queen once explained. There would be too much rivalry. Bhutanese joke that the arrangement spares the King from having four mothers-in-law.) Every night, though, he retires to a simple, two-story log cabin where he works until late. His Majesty has no desire for material wealth, says a cabinet minister. He would have made an excellent lama.When the King first began touring Bhutan, people were too awestruck to confront him about their needs. He told his ministers to goad the villagers into speaking out, says a civil servant. These days, he is besieged with demands. The King is oddly reticent, however, when asked what makes him content. Happiness isn't that important to me, he says. It's enough that I can achieve my responsibilities to strengthen Bhutan and give it a bright future. For the moment, satisfaction found in the swish of a three-pointer will have to suffice for the ruler of the Thunder Dragon people.
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