Buddhism and Agriculture I: The Philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka
Masunobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a Japanese farmer and philosopher, who pioneered a school of farming referred to as ‘natural farming’ or ‘do-nothing farming.’ Fukuoka’s methodology entailed minimal human interference in the agricultural process, instead creating conditions in which natural processes, left to their own accord, maximise crop outputs. Fukuoka became highly prominent within the global sustainable farming movement, with his texts ‘One Straw Revolution’ and ‘The Road Back to Nature’ selling millions of copies in various languages.
Fukuoka was uninterested in doctrinal religion. Instead, he took nature as the inspiration for his spirituality, philosophy and practice. Nonetheless, one of the most striking features of Fukuoka’s texts is the manner in which they incorporate many Buddhist elements, particularly those derived from the Taoist-inspired Zen school. With this Zen Buddhist influence, Fukuoka beautifully articulates natural farming as a form of spiritual practice that ultimately overcomes the sense of alienation, dissatisfaction and disenchantment that are characteristic of modern life.
According to his account in One Straw Revolution (Fukuoka, 1978/2009), Fukuoka’s journey to natural farming began with a philosophical realisation. After working as a successful agricultural researcher for several years, he found himself one morning struck by the realisation that all human knowledge is empty, all human action is meaningless and that nothingness is the fundamental nature of reality. With this basic existential insight, he began to approach life’s problems with a fundamentally different attitude. He would resist the futile human urge to impose being onto nothingness and structure onto formlessness. Rather than attempting to solve ‘problems’ through actions – new interventions to ‘fix’ things – he began to adopt a more ‘subtractive’ approach. Instead of action, he would experiment with inaction. His philosophy of farming is based around this negative, somewhat Taoist disposition. Rather than solve the problems of agriculture by adding work, he would attempt to do less.
This philosophy assumes that most of the world’s problems arise because of human interventions into nature. Our disruption of the natural balance tends to create a number of problems, which we then attempt to solve through further interventions. Natural farming requires taking a step back, recognising that problems tend to stem from human intervention, and finding a path to not-doing the problematic action – that is, a path towards minimal intervention. Importantly, Fukuoka (2009, p. 15) acknowledges that this does not mean a complete withdrawal from activity. He makes it very clear that natural farming is not ‘abandonment’ – as this can lead to a complete collapse of the farming system. Rather, it is a methodology for the gradual transition of the farming system back to nature, in such a way that less work is required with each passing season, as the natural system builds upon itself.
This ‘negative,’ ‘subtractive’ philosophy finds very clear applications in the farming techniques that Fukuoka advocates. For example, he insists that ploughing is a destructive intervention into nature. Although it has been practiced for centuries, it is an example of humanity’s meddling in nature and creates more problems than it’s worth. Not only is it an unnecessary physical exertion, but it also encourages the growth of weeds. In natural conditions of abundance, ploughing is unnecessary, as the soil is aerated by the roots of plants and the movement of soil organisms. Therefore, Fukuoka’s methods involve no ploughing of the soil whatsoever: one need only ensure that the natural balance is in place, by improving soil health. Likewise, rather than weeding, Fukuoka advocates sowing at opportune times, so that one’s crops grow and establish themselves before weeds have the chance to proliferate.
Agriculture at the Limits of Human Knowledge
Fukuoka claims that farming with nature exposes the limits of human knowledge. The ecosystem that the farm is woven into consists of an infinitely complex web of interactions which are beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp. ‘Knowledge’ of nature is always hubris; one can only know, at best, a representation of nature within the mind, and the representation cannot incorporate the complexity of reality. Rather than knowing, natural farming is about being within nature, and living in a way that accords with its cycles.
Fukuoka is particularly sceptical of the value of scientific knowledge as a guide for agriculture. He argues that science is incapable of understanding nature, as it works with linear relationships and abstracted variables. By contrast, real natural phenomena are always embedded in much larger webs of relations. The scientist becomes boxed-up within a particular sub-discipline, unable to see the complexity of nature in its totality. As such, they are incapable of recognising the merits of natural farming, which only operates as a unique complex system that is, strictly speaking, incomprehensible from a scientific viewpoint.
Rather than drawing on scientific knowledge of how particular variables might impact the agricultural system, Fukuoka instead attempts to work within nature’s complex cycles. His practices reflect his do-less philosophy and his belief in nature’s incomprehensible complexity.
Desire and Food Systems
Another way in which Fukuoka draws on Buddhism, is in conceptualising problems of contemporary food systems in terms of desire. He details how many of the problems in Japanese agriculture have stemmed from a desire for food that is ‘unnatural’ or out of sync with local ecological realities. For example, our desires for shiny, unblemished, firm and fresh-looking food leads to the chemical treatment of fruits and vegetables to give them an aesthetically pleasing appearance. The process diminishes their nutritional value, introduces toxins, and adds unnecessary and wasteful industrial processing to the food supply chain. He also notes how demand for exotic and unseasonal vegetables is leading to farming practices (such as greenhouse farming) that produce foods that are low in nutritional value.
These observations are, of course, commonplace within alternative food movements, yet the uniqueness of Fukuoka’s perspective lies in clearly articulating ‘consumer demand’ as a problem of human desire. He notes that with modernisation have come a host of new and extravagant desires for things that represent a departure from nature and which are often clearly unhealthy. ‘If we do have a food crisis,’ he remarks, ‘it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire’ (Fukuoka, 2009: 104). Moving against the modern impulse to run with ever larger desires (which create ever-larger problems), Fukuoka instead advocates restricting one’s consumption to what is close at hand. Greater health will result, he advises, from adapting one’s diet to local ecological conditions, rather than consuming foods that require unnatural interventions. He suggests that people should reflect on the hardship that they cause (excessive labour and processing costs) by consuming expensive, extravagant and ultimately unnecessary food.
For Fukuoka, the ‘extravagance of desire’ (p. 110) is at the heart of our modern ills, and natural farming is the solution. Natural farming offers the ‘Great Way’ to a more spiritual and happy life. One cultivates a lifestyle more closely attuned to the immediate natural environment and more connected to one’s neighbourhood. Where modern life is always busy, the natural farmer’s life is rich in time and divorced from the commercial Maya of money-chasing. Fukuoka laments that contemporary farmers lack any time to write poetry or to reflect, as they are so busy making money. He looks back with nostalgia to a time when village life involved ample time for socialising, meditation and cultural activities.
Scientific knowledge is also implicated in these modern ‘extravagant’ desires. Science represents the restless modern desire to understand nature – an effort that Fukuoka insists is futile. Instead, he suggests that true happiness comes from experiencing nature directly, as only the natural farmer does. While science and other modern discourses fill the mind with fears that inactivity will inevitably lead to starvation and loss, Fukuoka insists that the natural farmer never starves. The modern mind is convinced that constant work is required to stave off the threat of poverty – whereas natural farming involves no ‘work’ as such. Work implies a slavish devotion to endless expansion without any ultimate aim, whereas in natural farming, one simply sets about doing what needs to be done to meet basic needs, and finds themselves with ample time remaining to enjoy their life.
Nature and the Non-Discriminating Mind
One of the most ambiguous and intriguing features of Fukuoka’s philosophy is the status of ‘nature.’ As he notes, from an analytical perspective, it may be very difficult to distinguish the natural from the unnatural. This is particularly the case with farming, given that human intervention is always in some sense a part of agriculture. Yet, he insists that this is only the perspective of the discriminating intellect, which he distinguishes from the non-discriminating understanding. It is only from the vantage point of the latter, he claims, that nature can truly be appreciated.
According to Fukuoka, a non-discriminating disposition can only be cultivated through living a natural lifestyle and becoming a ‘natural person.’ This is, from Fukuoka’s point of view, equivalent to spiritual development. All aspects of human life, he says, should be determined by nature. This begins with one’s diet, first and foremost, which should be in alignment with the seasons. Rather than consuming every food item that one desires, one should rather recognise their ultimate dependency upon nature and allow it to provide food within its own cycles. Through this, one recognises that food is not ‘earned’ or ‘manufactured,’ but rather bestowed as a gift. In so doing, one does not discriminate between foods that are ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ to such a great extent, and thereby cultivates a more natural orientation to their food. Furthermore, Fukuoka insists that once one becomes accustomed to living in a natural way, their tastes become attuned to the natural needs of the body. The modern human being, distracted by advertising and a plethora of desires, is extremely confused in matters of taste. When one has learned greater sensitivity to their natural instinct for food and ceased to indulge needlessly in extravagant foods with excessive seasoning, they will tend to consume what the body requires.
This view, that understanding nature only emerges from living within it, ultimately informs Fukuoka’s evaluation of food systems. He accepts innovations such as the use of fire or salt, as being emergent from life within nature. What he is less inclined to accept is innovations based on scientific research, which proceed from a form of life far removed from nature and a world-view that is only capable of understanding nature in the abstract. In this sense, even many forms of ‘organic’ agriculture may not be considered ‘natural,’ since they merely attempt to apply scientific principles to maximise output through non-chemical interventions. Truly natural farming, by contrast, is not goal oriented and is not about maximising output. It simply proceeds from the realities of human life within the farm ecology.
The discriminating mind is said to be implicated in a range of modern perils. Fukuoka returns again to science, claiming that this plays the role in society that discrimination plays in the individual intellect (Fukuoka, 2009: 171). Science, in dividing the world up into individual, researchable phenomena, ensnares the human experience in the ‘hell of the intellect’ (Fukuoka, 2009: 165). Rather than experience the wonder of nature directly, one separates it into abstract variables which are far removed from reality. The effect is disenchanting – a world that is frightening, distant and abstract.
For similar reasons, the discriminating mind is argued to be at the root cause of war. Fukuoka notes that without discriminating between self and other, the emotions of love and hate are impossible. The perception that societies are like or unlike, weak or strong, winners or losers, is a key impetus for war. Peace can only be found through the collapse of these mental constructions.
Fukuoka returns again and again to the point that through living close to nature it is possible to overcome the perils of the discriminating mind. Nature can only be experienced in its awe-inspiring quality through the collapse of differences, through abandonment of discriminating categories and of the ego. Within nature, he says, all distinctions become irrelevant. All farmers, wherever they live in the world, are the same.
Bridging East/West and North/South Divides?
In my next two posts in this series, I will draw on my fieldwork in Japan in India to explore Fukuoka’s approach to farming in more depth. In the next post, I will relate my own recent visit to Fukuoka’s farm in Iyo, Japan, and look at what has happened there since Fukuoka’s passed away in 2008. In the final post, I consider the potential appeal of Fukuoka’s method in the developing world.
Despite appealing to what might be termed ‘Eastern philosophy’ (namely, Buddhism), Fukuoka’s ‘natural farming’ has clearly found a receptive audience in ‘the West,’ particularly amongst those seeking meaningful alternatives to capitalist lifestyles. What I’d like to look into is whether Fukuoka’s method also crosses the boundaries of ‘North’ and ‘South’ – i.e., between the advanced capitalist nations (including Japan) and the so-called ‘developing world.’ Certainly, his ideas relating to desire and society have much in common with Gandhian philosophy, suggesting potential for some common ideological appeal. Furthermore, farmers in the developing world who have been crippled by rising input costs and indebtedness may certainly be interested in a way of farming that not only entails low external inputs but also low labour intensity.
Nonetheless, I do have my reservations. The injunction to simplify desires and eat according to the cycles of nature may be sage advice to most of us in the ‘extravagant’ North; yet it may ring hollow for many of the farmers in the Global South, who struggle to make enough money for one solid meal per day. Furthermore, the spiritual dimension of living and farming in harmony with nature may not appeal to the vast majority in the developing world who have come to believe (and not without reason) that commercial development is their only way out of poverty. My own experience in India suggests that ecological agriculture missions have tended to be more successful when they take these aspirations for ‘development’ seriously.
Fukuoka, M. (1978/2009). The One-Straw Revolution (L. Korn, C. Pearce & T. Kurosawa, Trans.). New York Review Books: New York.
Tanaka Juuyoh, ‘Water Mill.’ Cropped and modified for this blog. Source: https://flic.kr/p/9WLd4A