Pure Earth, Pure Spirit
Buddhist assails environmental destruction
Upon entering seventy-two year old Yanase Giryo’s living room, one is immediately surrounded by an array of landscape paintings, their soft pastel oils depicting fields, villages, forests and rivers all co-existing in a state of aesthetic harmony. A large white bust of Beethoven sits alone on a shelf, his penetrating gaze seeming to look into a future wrought with destructive acts of humanity.
“Most of these pieces were painted by an artist friend of mine named Hanano,” comments Yanase, Buddhist priest, physician, and researcher of organic agriculture. “He tried to express Eastern philosophy in his paintings and used his deep insight to show that nature is the essence of life itself. He and Beethoven, whose music I consider as a prayer to life and to the soul, are the two people I have most admired besides my father, who was a great and spiritual monk of pure mind and deep knowlege.”
It is this sense of spirituality along with its inherent respect for nature that Yanase has been struggling to revive in the hearts of Japanese people and society for nearly forty years from his hometown of Gojo in Nara prefecture. He is the founder of “Jiko-kai” (the foundation of Merciful Light) and its Buddhist offspring “Jiko-bukkyo-kai.” Both organizations share a stated purpose to “spiritually awaken people to the reverence due to Mother Nature, restore culture to rural communities and to promote the research, practice and spread of chemical-free organic agriculture.”
Through the work of these two organizations Yanase has untiringly attempted to combat the culture, which he feels bagan developing during the seventeenth century and came to Japan during the Meiji Era, a way of life dominated by materialistic desires and a belief in human supremacy over other living and non-living entities.
“Human beings have forgotten the gifts of nature,” says Yanase with a sad smile. “We have also forgotten the benefits and importance of love in respect to life itself. Consequently, cooperation among humans has all but disappeared and in its place a renegade culture has been created, with earth pollution and destruction as its accomplishment.”
In its place, Jiko-kai offers an alternative culture in the form of organic farming and sells its chemical-free fruits and vegetables along eith other natural products to about 4,000 participating families and the general public from its small market store in central Gojo. Also, on the second Sunday of every month, about sixty people from all over Japan gather above the market to attend meetings of Jiko-bukkyo-kai, a group without membership or regulations who chant sutras, listen to Yanase’s lectures on Buddhism and, if time permits, enjoy the music of Beethoven.
“We practice Buddhism but are not part of any sect, since we can see that throughout history any religion quickly becomes corrupt if they try to form an exclusive sect.”
It was in 1952 while he was a practicing physician that Yanase first started researching agricultural methods after he noticed a marked increase in patients suffering from various disorders, particularly farmers with lesions.
“By 1959 I was firmly convinced that over a period of one or two decades the continual use of agricultural fertilizers in modern farming technology leads to an increase in such disabilities as cancer, leukemia, stomach ulcers and liver and kidney diseases well as mental disorders, such as depression,” Yanase states emphatically.
Feeling compelled to act, Yanase issued an appeal to the Japanese government asking them to ban the use of pesticides and instead research at a national level the potential use of traditional agricultural practices. It was at this time that Jiko-kai’s predecessor was formed, “Kenko o Mamoru Kai” (Association of Health Protection) whose one hundred members immediately began to research and implement organic farming in terms of economy, labour, product yield and quality.
“Of course our movement was far too ahead of its time and nobody really listened to us,” comments Yanase. “In fact, we were once threatened at night by more than 130 people trying to force us to cancel our appeal.”
In the face of such opposition from the mainstream society, the group became isolated and almost disbanded. Around this time, however, Rachel Carson’s pioneering work ‘Silent Spring’ appeared which echoed Yanase’s warnings and helped to revive the members leading him to reform the group under its present name. Later, in the 1970s, Yanase’s work attracted national attention through Sawako Ariyoshi’s ‘Fukogo Osen’ (Complex Pollution), which often refers to his research.
“What I foresaw thirty-five years ago is exactly what is happening now,” Yanase states wryly. “The soil has become sterile from the short-sighted use of herbicides and insecticides which cut the ecological cycle and, while initially bringing good harvests, eventually causes water pollution and the desertification we can now see occuring in America and Australia.” “On the other hand,” he continues, “in organic farming we keep and protect the ecological cycle and even kitchen garbage has life given to it in the form of compost.
While Jiko-kai focuses on sustaining a pure life and earth, Yanase feels the root of today’s culture stems from a loss of spirituality and true religious feeling.
“Since the Meiji Era, which through state shintoism only emphasized national prosperity and the advance of science, the Japanese have become very primitive people in religion,” he remarks ruefully. “They are no longer the sensitive and generous people whom Lafcadio Hearne praised so highly in his works.”
Yanase believes that since this time true religious thought has all but died out in Japan. What Yanase’s organizations are thus attempting is to combine the spiritual and the physical once more to show that neither can exist healthily without the purity of the other.
“We are nearing the dead end of modern civilization,” he states prophetically. “People’s minds and the earth are totally poisoned. We have forgotten that Buddhism and religion in general are deep ecology itself, not just the ecology of the earth at the present time, but the ecology of the whole universe in the past, present and future.”
Recently, Jiko-kai has issued another appeal titled: “An Appeal for Your Help in Halting World Environment Destruction Now for Future Generations.” This, and an English Translation of his book “O Buddha! A Desperate Cry from a Dying World” are now available from the Jiko-kai centre.
“We don’t even have to use the term religion,” Yanase concludes. “All we need to know is that the core of all the world’s problems lies in our own egoistic hearts and minds and then become aware of the Law of Mother Nature herself, which is the law of life and ecology. That is why we are working on organic agriculture as the basis for bringing our minds back into the natural cycle on which humanity and all life depend.”