Macrobiotic principles

Practitioners feature | by Jon Sandifer | on: Tuesday, 1 August 2006

"Our search for health and longevity begins either when we fall ill or after we reach the age of 40 and begin feeling weakness. Thus sickness and weakness are necessary in this world. It is through our efforts to change them into health that we learn gratitude. How dull life would be without the challenge they present! Many people think that macrobiotics is a 20th Century variety of stoicism. Macrobiotics is a way to build health that enables us to eat and drink anything we like, whenever we like, without being obsessed or driven to do so. Macrobiotics is not a negative way of living. It is positive, creative, artistic, religious and philosophical. He who thinks that macrobiotics is merely a cure for physical ailments can never really be helped. It is not a new medicine to stop pain or suffering, but rather a teaching that goes to the source of pain and eradicates it." George Ohsawa

Macrobiotics has a rich and colourful history that can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation in the orient where the great classics of Chinese medicine emerged some 3,000 years B.C. It is important to put into perspective this long lineage with a traditional and holistic view of humanity‚s relationship with the environment rather than perceiving macrobiotics as simply a diet that has emerged in recent years. Despite the fact that many of the principles, practises, remedies, lifestyle suggestions and ingredients are thousands of years old, we as human beings, have not evolved dramatically in a physiological sense over these past millennia. While we may have evolved in leaps and bounds from a scientific perspective, there is a good argument that we are collectively much weaker constitutionally as a species. Without modern medical aid, how many of us can truthfully claim to have survived childbirth, infectious disease as we grew up, had lifesaving surgery or at some point in our lives had benefited from the intervention of modern medicine? Our ancestors would have survived the scourges of disease or famine and were largely helped by a combination of commonsense, strong will, a simple diet and a far more taxing physical lifestyle. Set against this background, the wisdom of oriental medicine has much to offer us today as it did then. Its message is clear and simple. Prevention is better than cure!

There are many parallels between the emergence of traditional Chinese medicine and our own western medicine, insomuch as they both originally acknowledged the connection between body, mind and spirit. This underlying theme in oriental healing has remained steadfast over thousands of years whereas it is only in the past 300 ˆ 400 years that western medicine has developed a more scientific approach to healing and has slowly withdrawn from the connection of mind, body and spirit. Macrobiotics maintains this theme of prevention by encouraging individuals to be more responsible for what they eat, their lifestyle and their actions. Sickness, accidents and misfortune are regarded as opportunities for self-reflection and change from a macrobiotic perspective encouraging more responsibility to be placed with the individual in order that they may learn from the experience and prevent them from occurring. Western medicine, on the other hand, generally deals with major symptoms in one of two ways. Either:- 1) the symptom is neutralised or 2) the symptom is suppressed

Either way, the underlying cause is still present and may emerge in a different shape or form in the future. In the UK, only 3% of the annual National Health Service budget is spent on prevention and two thirds of this amount falls into the category of Family Planning. This translates to a meagre 1% being spent on prevention and most of this is spent on screening, rather than education as to what we can do to be more responsible for our health.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional times, it was the sages who passed down their wisdom through word of mouth until finally their ideas and insights were put to paper. Over the dynasties, whether it was medicine, religion, astrology etc., their work was subject to heavy political editing by the emperor of the day. However, the essence of what was passed down regarding medicine has remained largely in tact. The forefather of medicine is generally regarded as the Yellow Emperor who is believed to have lived between the years 2696 BC and 2598 BC. Over the years, his treatise called the Nei Ching or the Yellow Emperor‚s Classic of Internal Medicine has been translated and re-written countless times. Like all Chinese classics, whether medical or not, the book is part philosophical and part practical. To this day it is still the foundation of modern acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and moxibustion. The central theme of the Yellow Emperor‚s work is that of prevention and it is this aspect which still pervades today in the more modern expression of macrobiotics. The Yellow Emperor‚s message was one of encouragement of their patients to remain in harmony with the natural world through activity, their diet ˆ which he encouraged should be in harmony with what was seasonal and local, through to encouraging physical activity, proper rest and taking care of avoiding chills, the cold and the damp. In the following extract from the Nei Ching, it is possible to see how his ideas have inspired the more recent teachers of macrobiotics.

"Those who rebel against the basic rules of the Universe sever their own roots and ruin their true selves. Yin & Yang, the two principles in nature, and the four seasons are the beginning and the end of everything and they are also the cause of life and death. Those who disobey the laws of the Universe give rise to calamities and visitations while those who follow the laws of the Universe remain free from dangerous illness, for they are the ones who have obtained Tao, the Right Way"

Hence the sages did not treat those who were already ill; they instructed those who were not yet ill. They did not want to rule those who were already rebellious; they guided those who were not rebellious. To administer medicines to diseases which have already developed and to suppress revolts which have already developed is comparable to the behaviour of those persons who begin to dig a well after they have become thirsty. Would these actions be not too late?‰

The Yellow Emperor‚s comments on „modern‰ lifestyle (some 5000 years ago!) is no doubt one of the foundations of the Taoist approaches to health and longevity that emerged some 500 years BC. It is also the theme that is resurrected by the forefathers of modern macrobiotics in the 17th, 19th & 20th Centuries. His observations are:

In ancient times the people lived in harmony, but nowadays people are not living according to the seasons, eating what is local and available, they are erratic in their behaviour and sleep and they spend more time amusing themselves and less time in self-reflection and prayer.

Japanese Folk Medicine

The influence of Chinese philosophy, medicine and Buddhism began to spread from its shores initially in the 6th Century AD when Buddhist priests travelled and settled in Korea. In the 9th Century AD, again with the influence of Buddhist priests, Chinese medicine arrived in Japan and a long tradition of the Japanese interpretation of Chinese traditional medicine known as Kampo evolved. Kampo is still widely practised in Japan today and incorporates acupuncture, herbs and moxibustion in the treatment and the diagnosis is pure Yin/Yang and Five Element based.

However, when tracing the early origins of macrobiotics in Japan, it is important to acknowledge the 17th Century sage Ekiken Kaibara who spent a lifetime travelling in Japan and studying philosophy, geography and botany. He retired at the age of 83 and in 1713 wrote the classic „Japanese Secret of Good Health‰ ˆ which to my mind, is the bridge between the roots of traditional Chinese medicine, Taoism and what is now understood to be the basis of macrobiotics. Kaibara‚s message was simple ˆ to maintain health and attain longevity one needed to lead a life of moderation, especially regarding food, sleep, talk and sex. Sickness or dis-ease he considers within the grasp of an individual to create. Although his book may seem too austere for the modern reader regarding temperance ˆ especially in the area of sexual activity where he is almost suggesting a monastic lifestyle, he does show great humour, vision and humility in the following statement:

Saints always expound on the delights of living. A poor fool like me can hardly understand the mind of saints but at least I know that delight is something that Heaven and Earth meant living things to have, and something that man is born possessed of.

His basic views around food, the preparation and choice, have largely influenced the development of macrobiotic principles in contemporary times. Much of his advice can be summarised as follows:

• Eat fresh seasonal vegetables
• Make rice the staple food eat a little daily
• Eat light meals
• Eat freshly prepared food
• Eat balanced food in terms of the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent
• Avoid heavy, greasy, overcooked, raw or unripe foods
• Avoid hard and fatty meat
• Fish eaten whole and cooked with ginger and soy sauce
• Do not overeat
• Eat only 80% ˆ 90% of your capacity
• Never eat when worried
• Do not eat between meals
• Avoid eating before bed
• Take a short walk after eating
• Self-reflect (a grace) before eating
• Thanking the farmer, those who have supplied the food, those who have cooked, those who have served it. Remembering those who are without food.

In the 18th Century there emerged another individual, Namboku Mizuno, 1757 ˆ 1825, whose understanding of physiognomy and oriental diagnosis became legendary in his lifetime. Born into a low caste and soon in trouble with the law in his youth for drinking too much saki and stealing it, Mizuno talked with a fortune teller who said that if he carried on his current way of eating, drinking and living, he would be dead within a year. To change his destiny, the fortune teller advised that he lived in a monastery eating principally barley, abstained from alcohol and took on rigorous physical or manual labour. He followed the fortune teller‚s advice and lodged at a monastery and worked during the day off loading ships in the harbour. A year later he returned to the fortune teller who decreed that he had changed his fate. Mizuno then asked him how he could learn the fortune teller‚s skill. He was advised to study physiognomy and to this end, he had a job working as a barber and then as a masseuse in a Japanese public bath and finally he worked as an undertaker. He used this time to study the relationship between individual‚s physiognomy and their personality and, in the case of working in the morgue ˆ their destiny. The first of his books on physiognomy and destiny were published in 1788 and although he wrote some 10 books on the subject and was widely sought after by nobility and the merchant classes, he was deeply committed to his belief that it was possible to change your destiny through how you ate and how you lived. Why, he wondered, had so many individuals that he had met and seen with potentially strong constitutions and a bright future, were degenerating despite their strong potential? Others he observed with more delicate constitutions were able to override this. Why? His humble reflections, suggestions and ideas are translated from one of his books called „Food Governs Your Destiny‰ and the influence of his ideas no doubt had a strong bearing on the type of oriental diagnosis practised by the early macrobiotic practitioners.

Sagen Ishizuka

By the 1860‚s, Japan was beginning to emerge from its seclusion from the world after the historic visit of Admiral Peary from the United States. Almost disarmingly, Japan began rapidly to sideline many aspects of its cultural richness in favour of adopting a western approach. This included the study and practise of western law, science, religion, medicine, engineering and education. As a young man, Sagen Ishizuka was caught up in this rapid change. Employed by the Japanese military, he was well aware of traditional Japanese folk medicine and was trained by Dutch missionaries in western medicine. Some years later, a recurrent skin complaint of his failed to respond to conventional medicine and he reverted to Japanese folk medicine and successfully cured his condition. This experience inspired him to study and experiment with traditional Japanese folk medicine, particularly the effect of food and lifestyle on health.

Without a doubt, his mentors in this quest were Kaibara and Mizuno. He researched the history of food and discovered that during the brightest phase of Chinese culture (the Han dynasty 207 BC ˆ 220 AD), the staple food in China had been brown rice. Further research indicated to him that every major civilisation owed its development to a staple grain e.g. rice, millet and wheat in China, Japan, rice in India, barley in Tibet, rye, oats and barley in Europe and the Americas maize. After years of research which he carefully presented in what he considered at the time was a scientific presentation, he concluded that good health could be achieved by a return to a traditional diet coupled with physical exercise and hot baths to eliminate excess minerals and salts from the system.

By the turn of the century, when many Japanese were becoming disillusioned with alapathic medicine, his simple dietary and lifestyle suggestions were followed by thousands. He became known in Tokyo as Dr Miso Soup or Dr Brown Rice. He founded what could now be considered the first macrobiotic centre in 1908 and when he died in 1910, his funeral cortege was some 2 miles long. Undoubtedly the father of the future macrobiotic movement, his ideas and vision are alive today with the future generations of macrobiotic teachers, counsellors and practitioners. His contribution to the development of macrobiotics was that he questioned modern scientific nutritional approaches and looked at humanity‚s connection to the environment from an ecological perspective. He made the timely reminder that the body was a self-regulating organism and given its proper source of fuel, could maintain health and balance. Deep down, like future teachers of macrobiotics, he had the vision that inner health and peace would be reflected in a world that was at peace.

Whenever I have met Japanese people over the years and have told them that I eat brown rice, they immediately ask whether I am ill! This speaks volumes of the impact that Sagen Ishizuko had on the Japanese culture as the Japanese can always to this day remember their grandparents recommending their children and grandchildren to revert to a simple diet of brown rice and miso soup when they were unwell.

George Ohsawa

Born in 1893 as Yukikazu Sakurazawa, Ohsawa had a particularly difficult and turbulent childhood. His father, who was descended from Samurai tradition, was rarely at home as he sought whatever work was possible. Two of his sisters died young with TB as did his mother at the age of 30 leaving Ohsawa, aged 10 and his younger brother aged 6, to be brought up by family. At the age of 18 Ohsawa himself developed similar symptoms to his mother and decided, against all odds, to practise the ideas of Sagen Ishizuko. He recovered his health and decided that his life's mission was to study Ishizuko's ideas and, in time, after Ishizuko's death, he picked up the baton and lectured, travelled and wrote prolifically on macrobiotics until he died in 1966. From World War I until World War II he spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, primarily in France, where his mission was to introduce the Unifying Principle of Far Eastern medicine and science which we now call macrobiotics. He introduced these concepts through sharing his knowledge of judo, Buddhism, macrobiotics, Bonsai and flower arrangement. He wrote some 300 books and more than 20 were published in french. At the onset of World War II, he returned to Japan where he busied himself trying to prevent Japan from entering into the conflict as he was convinced it would destroy Japan's culture forever. He was imprisoned during the latter stages of World War II and his devoted wife, Lima, brought him food daily and helped to restore his health on his release in 1945.

After the war, Ohsawa dedicated himself to teaching the future teachers of macrobiotics at his new centre in Japan which he called "The Maison Ignoramus". It was at this point that he changed his name to George Ohsawa and coined the phrase "macrobiotics", possibly derived from the 19th Century German philosopher Christolph Wilhelm von Hufeland, who had first used this word to describe his theory in 1860 of "the art of prolonging human life".

Satisfied that his training of future teachers and leaders of macrobiotics was complete, he set off in 1952 to travel the world and to encourage support of his dream which was that World Peace began by maintaining inner peace through biological means - namely a return to traditional foods, lifestyles and values. From 1959 until the early 1960's many of his former students had travelled to Europe, the United States and Brazil to establish centres. It was at this time that Ohsawa wrote his famous books "Zen Macrobiotics" where he made the Unifying Principle simple to understand in terms of Yin & Yang and made the famous declaration that "all diseases can be cured in 10 days". The book is brilliant and to the point but typical of Ohsawa in his impatience to get his word across, he did not consider the backlash that might follow. In essence, Ohsawa was simply saying that if you eat simply for 10 days and primarily base your diet around whole cereal grains, especially brown rice, your intuition can return and you will understand how to cure your illness. The book became a huge inspiration for many while at the same time it was deemed dangerous, unscientific and laughable.

He died suddenly of a heart attack aged 72 at home in Japan and in 1998 his widow, Lima, celebrated her 100th birthday. His vision, tenacity and extraordinary energy and discipline inspired a whole new generation of teachers who continue his work today.

The Kushis, the Aiharas et al

After the initial shock of losing their teacher and mentor so suddenly and so soon in 1966, his former students from Japan began to develop macrobiotic activities throughout the world. Michio and Aveline Kushi established themselves in Boston, Massachusetts and from humble beginnings teaching cooking classes and supplying basic macrobiotic staples from the basement of their home, they soon developed a school and a store that gained momentum in the 1970's. Michio and Aveline Kushi were responsible for developing the Kushi Institute - a teacher training programme for macrobiotic practitioners with affiliates in Europe as well. They established what is now one of the largest chains of natural food stores - Erewhon Foods and the natural health magazine, the East West Journal. Meanwhile, in California, Cornelia and Herman Aihara established the Vega Study Centre where they devoted themselves to teaching Ohsawa's work, translating his books and training future teachers and counsellors. Another former student of Ohsawa's, Tomio Kikuchi, established a centre in Brazil where he continues to teach the Unifying Principle and travels and teaches extensively throughout the world. Shizuko Yamamoto, another student of Ohsawa's who came to the United States in the early 1960's, established herself in New York and has made an enormous contribution to the development of Shiatsu through her teaching and her books.

The Present

There are literally thousands of people worldwide who have adopted macrobiotic principles and dietary practises in their daily lives. There are various publications, networks and internet sites, summer camps and schools, details of which I have listed at the back of this book. In many ways, macrobiotic education peaked in the 1980's when several thousand people attended talks, seminars and even teacher training programmes. Since macrobiotics is such an individual choice, it undoubtedly attracts people with an inquisitive mind and and independent nature. Naturally it is harder for these people to form any kind of group or to have necessarily one voice or necessarily a unified approach to what they are doing. However, the impact of macriobiotic principles has reached many areas of our society with the growth and interest in organic farming, natural food processing, Shiatsu massage, the interest in traditional in far eastern medicine, the growth of the awareness of Yin & Yang principles and the belief that we are all responsible individually for our health and destiny.

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