Fukuoka and non-action

A practical application of non-action is the farming method of Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008). While farming is today viewed as a complex technological endeavor, Fukuoka shows that non-action, which is cooperation with nature, yields clean and healthy food in abundance; he called the method “natural” in contrast to traditional (tillage) and modern (chemical) methods.

This method completely contradicts modern agricultural techniques. It throws scientific knowledge and traditional farming know-how right out the window. With this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer and no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese farm.

The virtue of natural farming is its deep-rootedness in a philosophy of nature derived from Taoism and Buddhism.

Although he studied agronomy and plant pathology, and worked as a technician witnessing farm methods, Fukuoka’s insight was based on his experience of the arrogance of modern scientists, technologists, and their political apologists. One day early in his career, a realization occurred that

completely changed my life. It is nothing you can really talk about, but it might be put something like this: ‘Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.’

Although this conclusion seems negative and nihilistic, it responds to the pretensions to knowledge of science, technology, and modernity. It returned the young Fukuoka to a rich cultural heritage of philosophy and reflection. Then, one night, the young Fukuoka sat in a grove overlooking the harbor and awaiting the morning mist, in mental darkness and silence, when suddenly a heron cried out. The sound struck him like enlightenment.

My spirit became light and clear. I was dancing wildly for joy. I could hear the small birds chirping in the trees, and see the distance waves glistening in the rising sun. The leaves danced green and sparkling. I felt that this was truly heaven on earth. Everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions, and something one might call ‘true nature’ stood revealed. I think it could safely be said that from the experience of that morning my life changed completely.

Fukuoka quit his lab job and eventually returned to his father’s farm in the country. He worked on the farm but always questioned why human intelligence intervenes into the natural course of sentient and insentient beings to transpose its own ways. And because he was eventually growing grains and fruit trees, he questioned the farming methods based on assumptions of experts. He discovered that doing less, and arranging so that nature can take its best course, worked best. Not that hard labor was shunned but that it was reduced considerably, as was expense and environmental damage, by non-action.

Today Fukuoka’s method is usually called no-till, and has become the basis of permaculture. The “non-actions” of no cultivation or tillage, no fertilization or composting, no weeding by tillage or herbicide, and no chemicals nevertheless yield equal or better harvests of better tasting and healthier food. The notion of non-understanding means focusing attention completely on the natural process of plants, animals, microbes, sun, air, and water. The forest floor is a model biological cycle. “Simply serve nature and all is well,” writes Fukuoka. Careful observation saves time and effort while being as productive as any modern method.

Non-action has more lasting practical value:

Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage, says that a whole and decent life can be lived in a small village. Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, spent nine years living in a cave without bustling about. To be worried about making money, expanding, developing, growing cash crops, and shipping them out is not the way of the farmer. To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and plenitude of each day, every day — this must have been the original way of agriculture.

Fukuoka goes further and characterizes natural farming as two methods: broad transcendent and narrow natural, which he puts into Buddhist terms:

Broad Mahayana natural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature. It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is. It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything. …

Narrow [Hinayana] natural farming, on the other hand, is pursuing the way of nature; it self-consciously attempts, by ‘organic’ or other methods, to follow nature. Farming is used for achieving a given objective. Although sincerely loving nature and earnestly proposing to her, the relationship is still tentative. … In terms of personal practice, this is fine, but with this way alone, the spirit of true natural farming cannot be kept alive. …

Pure natural farming, by contrast, is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory. Putting ‘doing nothing’ into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish. Lao Tzu spoke of non-active nature, and I think that if he were a farmer he would certainly practice natural farming. I believe that Gandhi’s way, a methodless method, acting with a non-winning, non-opposing state of mind, is akin to natural farming. … The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Fukuoka spent many decades on his small farm with his family, shunning cities and society, but he entertained groups of young people who would stay in huts on his mountainside property to work with him, learn his methods, and listen to his philosophizing. He developed a food mandala, and elaborated on natural diet based on the seasons, cherishing the wilder versions of modern vegetables and grains. He composed The One-straw Revolution (from which the quotes here are taken) and other books on natural farming that must be deemed classics today. Fukuoka wanted to articulate the idea of a human community based on “a village without war or peace,” ideas familiar to readers acquainted with Taoist and Buddhist classics and with the Tillers and Farmers movement in ancient China. Toward the end of his life, Fukuoka retired from work and lived in one of the huts on his mountainside overlooking his land, which he considered a “Garden of Eden.” From retirement he writes that

The way of natural farming is forever uncompleted. Nature can never be understood or improved upon by human effort. In the end, to become one with nature, to live with God, one cannot help others or even receive help from them. We can only walk our paths alone.

Even for anyone who has never farmed or gardened, knowledge of what is happening to food and, indeed, what constitutes food today, is absolutely incumbent upon us, as much as or more than an abstract intellectual knowledge. Food is the vital link to nature. Harmony with nature is best evidenced with what and how we grow as food. Fukuoka shows that philosophy is indeed bound up with daily practical life — or, rather, that practical daily life is intimately an aspect of philosophy and nature.