This article was written by Greg Johnson and originally published in the Winter 2021 edition of Macrobiotics Today.
We all have come from infinity, we all live within infinity, we all shall return to infinity, and we are all manifestation of one infinity.
– Michio Kushi
With these words, Michio Kushi has distilled the essence of a unifying cosmology that was founded on the idea of biological integrity centered on food awareness, but also encompassing all phenomena in a grand vision of the order of the universe. This body of work has come to be known simply as ‘Macrobiotics’. However, at the outset, the founder of this movement, George Ohsawa, thought that macrobiotics was at the very least an expression of Zen 禅, a distinct school of Buddhism that sought spiritual enlightenment through rigorous training and practice.
As this body of work began to take hold and become popular in the West, the original Zen designation was dropped. In a recent talk I gave online at this year’s International Macrobiotic Conference in October, I made the claim that the body of work we refer to as macrobiotics was essentially incomplete, and unable to deliver fully on the promise it was making implicitly or explicitly regards health and spiritual fulfillment.
I further stated that a major threshold needed to be crossed in which macrobiotics would be appropriately empowered to fulfill its mission of laying the ground for a comprehensive transformation on what it means to be human. In order to accomplish that, it had to step out of the artificial enclosure it finds itself and restore the spirit of Zen in its education and training. To demonstrate this, I presented the other online participants with a puzzle to solve that as metaphor revealed the trapped nature of our current situation.
A number of years ago I wrote a two-part article called; Where’s the Beef? (Woops I Mean Zen). The article questioned what happened to the original Zen designation for macrobiotics and whether we might have lost some of the original spirit and intention that Ohsawa had envisioned. So I ask again.
Where’s the beef? The catchphrase was used by a fast-food chain in the 1980s to distinguish them from their competition. We also ask again in the same vein — Where’s the Zen? It was there at the start. In fact, my first encounter with macrobiotics in 1970 was with the book Zen Macrobiotics written by Ohsawa. I liked the sound and inference it was making. It suggested a path toward spiritual awakening via a yin/yang based dietary program.
Without the Zen, macrobiotics seemed to no longer have a North Star to orient itself. It is well-known that Ohsawa never underwent formal Zen training, but he was a Buddhist, and apparently drew an association between the cooking at Zen temples called shojin ryori (精進料理) and his personal quest to return Japan to its more traditional diet. He in fact had cured himself at a very young age of tuberculosis by returning to a diet of traditional Japanese foods.
It seems that the reason why the Zen was dropped from the original name had to do with the association of the book, Zen Macrobiotics, with the death of a woman who had attempted to strictly adhere to a quite restricted diet espoused in the book as a universal cure-all. Later editions of the book made clear that the diet in question should be used only for fasting and for short periods of time.
The following excerpt is taken from the preface to the fourth edition of the macrobiotic classic Zen Macrobiotics published in 1995:
‘Zen authors objected to Ohsawa’s linking of the spiritual practice of Zen with such an austere and restrictive diet. Many people still believe he used the term “Zen” to capitalize on its popularity at the time. However, Ohsawa’s intention may have been more fundamental. The original title of his manuscript was Macrobiotics: The Biological and Physiological Foundation of Zen Buddhism. Ohsawa wanted people to realize that theory and practice are equally important.’
The question I posed to my fellow macrobiotic colleagues in this recent talk is whether we have lost some of the original spirit intended by Ohsawa by disassociating ourselves from Zen. I believe the inclusion of Zen will restore to us its original context and orientation and thus open a new dimension of growth and possibility. I am convinced that the use of Zen was more than a marketing strategy. A man of his standing in Japan just does not throw that word around lightly.
It is my opinion, and shared by many, that we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift, an evolutionary moment in which the human species is undergoing a profound transformation. Most of us believe that macrobiotics is part of that transformation. What we must remember, however, is that macrobiotics itself is not immune to these same changes and must continue to question the fundamental assumptions upon which it “stands” and “under-stands” itself.
Paradigm shifts imply wholesale changes, not merely improvements or modifications. They represent a sea change, literally one worldview or reality supplants and replaces an earlier worldview and model of reality e.g. Einstein’s theory of relativity and unified space-time upended Newton’s ideas of absolute time and gravity.
Like all paradigms, they start out in an efficient phase in which everyone gains enormous value. They disrupt and replace older models and theories to which people previously subscribed. As the new paradigm continues to roll out, it gradually matures, ripens and reaches a high point before it goes into decline, entering what might be called a deficient phase in which it becomes irrelevant until one day it finally expires.
When I came to Boston in the early 1970s, arrangements were made for me to share a room in a macrobiotic study house in neighboring Brookline managed by a husband-wife team, Duncan and Susan Sims, who among other things provided macrobiotic meals, gave lectures, taught a little Tai Chi, and generally provided encouragement and guidance. After a few months of doing odd jobs, I heard about an opening at the Erewhon retail store on Newbury Street. I went to work there as assistant produce manager, overseeing the buying and selling of organic fruits and vegetables. Soon after I was promoted to produce manager and not too long after that, store manager.
During this time, I also attended weekly lectures at the Arlington Street church given by Michio. Boston was humming with macrobiotic activities. In addition to the Erewhon businesses, there were several macrobiotic restaurants, several new age bookstores, a dozen or more study houses, and of course the East West Journal, the first of its kind magazine on natural living and spirituality. It was not only happening in Boston either, but centers were also popping up in major cities along the East Coast and out West as well. This was a movement inspired by the dream of transforming health and human consciousness in the process. It seemed nothing could stop it.
What happened? In hindsight, I can see now the emphasis had shifted to healing and away from big picture cosmology and evolution or what was called ‘order of the universe’. We were starting to make what I consider grandiose claims for the healing efficacy of the macrobiotic approach. Little appreciation was given to how much time and effort it required to learn about so many new foods, cooking methods, proportions, cravings, and so forth; and to develop these skills sufficiently enough to stave off an aggressive cancer, for example, that had built up a certain momentum.
That shift in orientation toward being a healing paradigm in the late 1970s and 80s was for me the beginning of the decline and fragmentation of this movement. That, and the untimely deaths of key figures in macrobiotics, signaled a time for reflection and re-evaluation. That is where I believe we find ourselves at this current time…in a kind of limbo.
What now? It may be time to start thinking outside the box in order to reestablish the original spirit of this body of work. I can share what we have done in London at our center. Of course, this could vary from center to center, person to person. Here in London we offer a range of transformational programs that form the basis of our curriculum. In addition, we offer courses in conventional macrobiotic cooking and philosophy.
A paradigm functions like a cultural lens that defines the parameters of how and what we perceive. It mostly lies in the background. As an example, we no longer perceive the Northern Lights as the spirits of the caribou and whales as people once did, or the light of the Great Spirit as others did. We in modern times see the Northern Lights as electrically charged particles of solar radiation being captured by the magnetic fields around the earth’s north and south poles. We see in this a clear paradigm shift and new cultural lens.
In modern times, we adhere to a Cartesian worldview or paradigm. We experience life in terms of an individuated self (me) confronting an equally independent world (it), existing in a linear stream of time.
It is this consciousness which is the issue. We have been unknowingly perceiving reality through a cultural lens that we have not accounted for in the way that it shapes our understanding of macrobiotics. It sets up the dimensionality of what and how we perceive. Without realizing it, we become trapped or enclosed within a structure of consciousness. We only perceive the world in a way that reinforces the way we see the world. The way we act is correlated by how the world and events of our life are perceived.
The task first and foremost for us now is to unmask this structure of consciousness so as to lay the ground for a breakthrough into a new possibility of being, a crossing into a new world, unfolding a new state of being. During the recent online conference, Simon Brown concluded his talk with this most simple yet profound saying, “Life is a state of mind”. It may be time that macrobiotics itself enters a new state of consciousness and ushers forth a new human being, what Michio once referred to as ‘homo spiritus”. This is what the return of the spirit of Zen could mean for the future of macrobiotics.
‘The acquiring of a new viewpoint in Zen is called satori (sudden awakening or realization). Without it there is no Zen, for the life of Zen begins with the “opening of satori”. Whatever the definition, satori means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of the dualistic mind.’ An Introduction to Zen Buddhism – D.T. Suzuki
It seems a shift in orientation is called for if macrobiotics is to unfold a new world. It may mean introducing new programs or courses that are able to produce breakthroughs in consciousness. What that would mean is that macrobiotics shifts its orientation from a movement centered around food to a movement centered around consciousness – the bringing together of matter and spirit in a new paradigm. We may find that a butterfly wants to emerge from the long caterpillar stage in our development.
Unable to cross that threshold, we have to consider the possibility that the macrobiotics we know through our writings, teachings and conferences is not the ‘real’ macrobiotics. In the same way that the ‘you’ you have always known yourself to be is not the real you. Consider perhaps that both are products of a particular way of being in the world, a particular consciousness, that has not been fully appreciated in how it shapes our perception of who and what we are.
When the Earth used to be the center of the known universe, an amateur astronomer named Galileo had an aha moment after studying the retrograde movement of Venus. It turned out to be for him a kind of satori in which he declared, “It moves”.