Zen and the Art of Smallholding

PUBLISHED: 09:38 25 March 2011 | UPDATED: 08:37 28 March 2014

Zen and the smallholding

Zen and the smallholding

As smallholders, we work closely with nature. Nick Blewitt examines how we might strengthen this bond…

As smallholders, we work closely with nature. Nick Blewitt examines how we might strengthen this bond…

I think it is a fairly safe assumption to state that most smallholders have a strong pull towards nature. This pull will, of course, show itself in a myriad of ways - the love of keeping animals, organic vegetable growing, woodland crafts etc. However, at the heart of this desire, can we assume there is a unifying theme within all of these various manifestations? How does it feel on a beautiful spring morning when you are going about your activities and see mottled sunlight coming through the tree tops? When you hear bird song riding a calm breeze? Do these experiences give rise to any special feelings in you? Could we say these feelings lie behind this pull to the land? Is this the quintessential essence of why we work on the land?

Is it going too far to say that these moments in nature bring us a deeper sense of fullness, purpose and ‘aliveness’ to nature? Fleeting as these experiences may well be, do they give us a sense of a deeper mystery of nature? For many, they raise the question ‘is there a way we could try to develop a deeper connection with this mystery we’ve touched upon?’

It is questions like these, and the search for a deeper union with nature, that provides the inspiration for what could be called the green Dharma movement. Dharma is a Sanskrit word denoting both the teachings of the Buddha and ‘nature’ or things in themselves. The heart of the Buddha’s teachings is the practice of meditative awareness or mindfulness. This is a practice of gathering and stilling the mind to enable one to see the patterns of their inner dynamics. As this awareness deepens, ‘insights’ can arise into the higher truths of reality. Meditation teacher Martin Aylward stresses that the importance of being in connection with nature was highlighted by the Buddha as a fundamental part of the meditative path.

At Martin’s meditation centre ‘le Moulin’, a former Zen monastery in the south of France, meditation retreats are held in a beautiful bamboo grove. Martin uses this natural setting to communicate what the Buddha was pointing towards.

“Some of the most essential truths of reality stand out very clearly to us in nature, especially when we consciously attune ourselves, through meditative awareness, to those truths”

As this awareness and contact with nature deepens within us it gradually matures into deeper insight and appreciation towards all life. It is at this point that it turns outwards and manifests as ‘wise action’ in the external world. As Martin also states:

“When we really discover the depths of the life that lives us, the nature that we are, how could we not respond also to the call to outer responsibility (response-ability) to do something?”

This call to ‘outer responsibility’ manifests itself in different ways in different people. For one it may be to paint natural landscapes in order to share its beauty, to another it maybe hands-on environmental campaigning. How spiritual insight manifests itself in agricultural practice is fascinating as it often leads to systems that lie contrary to the accepted horticultural norms of the time. Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer on the southern Japanese island of Shikoku in the 1940’s, dedicated his life to expressing his ‘enlightenment experience’ through agriculture and arrived at a technique he called ‘natural farming’. Unlike his neighboring rice farmers, Fukuoka practiced a method of agriculture that that was dependent on none of the usual costly and harmful inputs typical of even today’s farming systems. Natural farming advocates:

No cultivation
No chemical or organic fertilisers
No chemical treatments
No compaction of the soil

Fukuoka used a system of permanent raised beds, green clover for fertility, and mulching of the soil through a returning of the straw and chaff after harvesting. The only other input was a small amount of chicken manure to assist decomposition of the straw. Fukuoka laid out his philosophy in his 1978 book entitled ‘The One-Straw Revolution’. In describing his system he stated:
“It throws scientific knowledge and traditional 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.”

For Fukuoka natural farming was not just a way of healing the ecological damage caused by large scale chemical farming, it was also a way of living in harmony with nature and a spiritual practice in its own right.

"Natural farming is not just for growing crops….it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings."

Since Fukuoka’s time, European growers such as Emila Hazelip and Marc Bonfils have adapted the principles of natural agriculture to suit their own geographical climates with great of success.

‘Biodynamic’ agriculture arose from the spiritual insights of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner and his teachings in anthroposophy. In 1924, Steiner gave a series of lectures that laid down the principles of an agricultural system aimed at healing the land. At the heart of biodynamic agriculture is a collection of seemingly bizarre ‘preparations’ used to develop soil fertilily and strengthen the cosmic forces between plants, animals and the wider atmosphere. It was dismissed as quackery at the time by most of the farming and scientific community and it is easy to see why. ‘Preparation 505’, which is added to compost heaps on completion, is composed of shaved oak bark which has been pushed inside the skull of a farmyard animal and buried for six months on the edge of a lake or stream so that the water can run over it. These days, however, research has shown that biodynamic agriculture produces some highly fertile farms and vineyards that not only provide high quality produce but also a high yield. The renowned Demeter label stands as a testament to this.

These kinds of agricultural techniques are increasingly being used within the wider principles of ‘permaculture’. The practice of ‘permaculture’ was conceived in the 1970s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, to function as an ecological design system. Permaculture is a holistic way of organising the interactions between people and nature. It is becoming popular among smallholders as an effective tool to create resilient and sustainable homesteads. It uses a system of zoning, where the individual remains at the centre of the design (‘zone zero’), from which all plans emanate. This is a very good analogy for spiritual life and how inner wisdom informs the outer world.

So in conclusion, the next time you come to face-to-face with the mystery of nature and experience that feeling, take a few moments…. to reflect on the wisdom within and where it could lead to. Martin Aylward encourages us on this very path when he states:

“Go outside. Be sensitive. Listen, look, feel deeply into what is happening. Life is beckoning you into its embrace, inviting you to wake up to a deeper, fuller, truer, freer participation in the true nature of things.”

About Nick Blewitt

Nick has a background in biodynamic agriculture and manages the Dharmahouse non-profit organisation with his partner Lisa. The Dharmahouse runs courses on the themes of spiritual awareness and sustainable agriculture. Nick and Lisa are currently seeking land in Sussex to set up a ‘low impact’ smallholding to act as a permanent venue for courses and to be a living example of what they represent.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a meditation practice that was taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. Practiced diligently and consistently mindfulness meditation can bring about an inner calm and wisdom in our lives. A wonderful explanation of mindfulness by the author and teacher Mahathera is 'Mindfulness is non-conceptual awareness. ... It is not thinking. It does not get involved with thought or concepts. It does not get hung up on ideas or opinions or memories. It just looks. Mindfulness registers experiences, but it does not compare them. It does not label them or categorize them.” ('Mindfulness in Plain English' By H. Gunaratana Mahathera) Increasingly mindfulness is being used in therapy to help people with mental health difficulties.


Retreat centres to visit:

Le Moulin - www.moulindechaves.org
Gaia House - www.gaiahouse.co.uk
The Bodhi Garden - www.bodhigarden.org
The Dharmahouse – www.thedharmahouse.com

For more articles and links to green Dharma topics please visit

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