To understand Natural Agriculture, imagine a seed placed in your hand. Its weight hardly registers, and only with intention will you feel its touch against your skin. But however slight, the seed is the place where all earthly food begins, and what you notice about it will tell much about your relationship to food. A gastronome might recognize the seed as a spice or grain. A scientist might tell you its chemical structure or nutritional value. A farmer would certainly recognize its worth. But the average person would see little to remark upon and hand it back shortly.
Those who practice Natural Agriculture would look at the seed and see a provider, a partner, and a teacher. In their eyes, the seed grants physical energy to nourish the body, and spiritual energy to nourish the heart and mind. It partners with the soil and its human caretakers to make the natural world healthier, more complex. And as we humans build that partnership, the seed shows us how to live with respect and gratitude. In the palm of a Natural Agriculturist’s hand, the seed registers a tremendous presence, for there it is brimming with promise, wisdom, and hope.
The practice of Natural Agriculture is rooted in the teachings of Mokichi Okada (1882–1955), a Japanese man who became at once a spiritual leader and a farming pioneer. His work was informed by two things: the difficulty of life in Japan between the world wars and the difficulty of his own life, which was rife with illness. His philosophy aimed to address and correct these misfortunes through lifestyle. Okada believed that by purifying the spirit, one would build both a healthy body for oneself and a new, healthier society. The latter offered a direct counter to the violence, fascism, and uncertainty that was unfolding across the world. Spiritual purification would lead to a world centered around the health, safety, and fulfillment of all people—a heaven on earth.
When Okada died in 1955, Ms. Mihoko Koyama carried on his teachings in founding the organization Shinji Shumeikai, called Shumei for short. After Koyama’s death in 2003, her daughter, Hiroko, became the group’s leader and has since made great efforts to bring Shumei’s message to an international audience. As of 2005, Shumei has 370,000 members worldwide. The activities are sectarian rather than religious; membership requires no conversion process and is nonexclusive. In Japan, many Shumei members practice both Buddhism and Shintoism as well.
Shumei’s headquarters are located in the Shigaraki mountains just outside Kyoto. Throughout Japan and the world, members are organized on a regional level through local centers. Each has a main building where activities take place, and each center is run by a director and staff. Although these formal positions offer structure and guidance, the organization is run largely on volunteer work.
Just as in U.S. temples and churches, the personalities of their members and region shape these centers. But what does not change is the basic philosophy guiding them. Mokichi Okada believed that purifying the spirit improved both the life of the individual and the world he or she inhabited. He saw three ways to enact that purification. First was to be in the presence of beauty, such as fine art. Second was to receive what he called Jyorei, God’s light, a spiritual healing reached through prayer. This he referred to as the art of life. Finally, he believed purification would come from living harmoniously with nature. This was called the art of agriculture.