Special Interview with
Venerable Guo Xiang

An Incredible Journey of Natural Farming Inspired by DDM’s Protecting the Spiritual Environment

Ven. Guo Xiang (果祥法師), the current Vice Abbot at Dharma Drum Mountain, is well known for her tireless work on promoting natural farming. Her work began 20 years ago as an interest but over the past two decades it has transformed not only how conventional farmers work with their land but also how we perceive our relationship with nature.

This special personal interview with Ven. Guo Xiang provides a closer understanding of her compassion for all living things and her mission connecting us back to nature.

Could you share with us your experience in promoting natural farming?
What are the turning points over the years?

I think there are three causes contributing to my work on natural farming, the remote, intermediate, and proximate causes.

The remote cause can be traced back to my early childhood. I grew up in a farming family and naturally I became very familiar with the diversities of plants, birds, and animals around. I have developed deep connections to nature.

My childhood days were filled with fun activities on the farm, such as collecting dried firewood in the mountain, clams in the crystal clear ponds, and peanut sprouts on the ground. In those days, clear water, fragrant flowers and the abundance of all kinds of living creatures were everywhere in countryside. However, as time went by, it became not as pleasant as those good old days when the water was no longer clear; flowers and creatures were gradually gone; rare plants used in Chinese medicine disappeared. These happenings truly upset me because I have deep love for nature and the farming life.

The intermediate cause took place in 1997 when I was a Monastic Advisor in Hsinhsing Monastery, Taitung County (台東信行寺). I visited an organic farm run by lay people and was very inspired by their natural approaches respecting and nurturing all living things. I started experimenting the natural farming techniques which were self-sufficient and sustainable to grow some plants on my own, as to see how it could progress. Later on, an unexpected successful loofah harvest with more than 300 fruits – which was sizable – enhanced my interests and confidence.

I returned to Taipei around 2004-2005, then I had a chance running a vegetable garden with a lay friend. Though it was only for a few months, it was when I had gained a lot of actual and practical experiences in growing vegetables. I was very grateful of all the supports, merits, causes and conditions that I had received otherwise it would not have been possible for me as a DDM monastic to specialize in growing vegetables.

In 2013, the proximate cause became a reality when I was invited by the Farming Studies Society in Beitou (北投農法研習社) to embark on real farming practice. This was also my starting point as a real farmer. The next year, I began teaching farming methods at DDM Community College in Jinshan (法鼓山社會大學金山校區). With the full support from the College, we were able to integrate natural farming approaches into DDM’s system and named it officially as “Protecting the Spiritual Environment Natural Farming” (心靈環保自然農法). It had been a gradual progress of the convergence of causes and conditions.

What are the challenge that you encountered?

It has been a very long progress since 1997 when I first experimented with farming in Tatung. In 2014, I was assigned with a new role by the Sangha to lead the Natural Farming Project to promote DDM’s mission, “Protecting the Spiritual Environment.” Now looking back, it has taken almost 20 years of time and effort for causes and conditions to become more and more favorable.

There were many circumstances when the conditions were not ready. Take the land for example, finding an appropriate and sufficient land for us to rent wasn’t easy. We started from a small piece of land as little as 16 square meters, then slowly we had bigger land like 160 square meters and now we have 496 square meters of land in Beitou.

Other factors as man power, techniques, experience, weather, and the conditions of the land were also at play. Among all, the condition of land really matters. Before we could fully apply natural farming methods, we had to revive the soil’s natural fertility because they were previously treated with chemical or organic fertilizer. To naturally treat the land, we need hey and dried leaves to condition the land. However, due to our limited spaces, we are not able to grow hay on our own farm. Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of help from other farms in Jinshan and Beitou regions to supply us with hays and leaves.

As for man power, I am limited as a one person and I am not as experienced as a full time farmer. Luckily, I have students who became my teaching assistants to help out. One of them is in his late 60s from DDM Community College in Jinshan and is actually far more experienced than I am because he has been a farmer all his life. Another one is a retiree but serves as a volunteer advisor in teaching farming techniques. He came to my class because he was interested in learning more farming techniques in order to help others in the community. Like heaven sent helpers, they are actually my teachers sharing their farming knowledge and experience with me. What I really teach is the connections between Dharma and farming approaches. We are like a big family.

Does the ideal of “Protecting the Spiritual Environment Natural Farming” match with the Buddhist philosophy?

Yes! Absolutely.

Protecting the natural environment is part of protecting the spiritual environment. I was inspired a lot by Masanobu Fukuoka’s (福岡正信) Buddhist method, or so-called Dharma Wheel Farming approaches (佛門農法). Mr. Fukuoka applied Buddhist concept as emptiness into his farming practice. He was truly an enlightened person. The deeper you go into his philosophy, the more you would agree that what he said was as same as Dharma. On the other hand, he also made some critiques on conventional farming, such as the use of fertilizer and pesticides.

In my teaching, I specifically emphasize the concept of “interdependent origination”(緣起) which is as same as emptiness in essence but not fully explained in Fukuoka’s term. I also talk about “All is one; One is all” (一切即一、一即一切) and “Mount Sumeru contains a mustard seed; a mustard seed contains Mount Sumeru” (須彌納芥子、芥子納須彌)" from Avataṃsaka Sūtra (華嚴經). I often say that we should see ourselves as the Mount Sumeru and the soil as the mustard seeds. Humans and microorganism are interdependent of each other. Everything is interdependent, incredibly interrelated.

Would it be difficult for those who are non-Buddhists or without any Buddhist background to understand the philosophy behind the approach?

Actually, I don’t apply any other aspects of Buddhist philosophy, no more than what is mentioned above.

Many of the farming methods and techniques are solid and straightforward. Farmers without Buddhist backgrounds can acquire useful skills and do very well by following the developed approaches. Mr. Yang Daji, a researcher at Hualian District Agricultural Research and Extension Station , also shared similar observation. He said that farmers switched from conventional farming to organic operation are mostly concerned with pest problems and diseases in the first 3 years. In the next 3 years, they are mostly concerned about the conditions of the soils. From year 6th and onwards, farmers would become philosophers themselves and already figure out what it takes for the land to produce.

Buddhists farmers would have their insights from inward and apply them into their work whereas the non-Buddhist farmers would develop insights from their farming practices. What fascinates the most is that either way is true and valid. Whether it is from thoughts to action, or from action to thoughts, both ways reach the same objectives.

How is the principle of “interdependent origination” observed in Natural Farming?

Causes and conditions form unperceivable correlated connections beyond our imagination. For example, the fact that we can meet today and talk about farming also follows the principle of “interdependent origination”. Our interview today is a phenomenon but how its causes and conditions come forth is beyond our understanding and much more complicated than it seems. All phenomena follow this principle which is also true in farming. How the land would produce great food is based on its incredible causes and conditions, interrelated at all times.

Humans should not control Mother Nature. Everything in nature actually follows an unperceivable, complicated, mysterious and yet wondrous mechanism. Follow the rhythms of nature. Don’t think about dominating nature. Naturally, it would give you great rewards. Yet, we humans are often too greedy, desire to too much, and presumptuously intend to change nature. Consequently, we end up destroying it.

Did you have any plan of how your work would develop?

That was not something we could have planned or imagined. I have followed the causes and conditions available to us and there are just so much work to be done. I had never thought that an initiative could have become one of the projects under DDM Office of Vice Executive Officer to support “Protecting the Spiritual Environment”, nor anticipated to offer Natural Farming classes in DDM Community College. When causes and conditions arise, we just cease the chance to do our best.

What are the most significant inner driving forces for you to stay on this journey?

I think a sense of justice for nature is the driving force to me. Destroying the environment to get the food we need is just so wrong!

Humans are supposed to eat natural and healthy food. Why the food on the table is made available by killing numerous lives, damaging water resources, soils, and the Earth while creating greenhouse effect? Why can’t we have food produced by nurturing abundant lives through sustainable and harmonious ways from nature?

Unfortunately, it is the former circumstance that we are in. Food is no longer nutritious and doesn’t provide energy to us. What food meant has changed not only to us but also to the natural environment and other living beings. But, I think otherwise, even no one else is doing. I just had to take on the mission. I didn’t care that I had no farming experience nor my initiative would be successful or not, as long as I have students or some followers who can continue to keep it going or make it better.

Besides, farming or working with land is real work. We eat vegetables, not pictures of vegetables. Therefore, what we are doing had to be very convincing. People could only be convinced from the practical results not empty words.

For ordinary or amateur farmers, they need to have good harvest for a good living. It is really hard for them to accept that they could have good results without any form of fertilization or pesticide. I even had one volunteer who refused to believe that we had a great harvest by natural farming.

It takes time for people to accept a new concept. When participants follow through the farming practices with us for a while, they would gradually change how they think.

I also need to continue to improve my farming skills and methods. Certain crops are harder to grow but some vegetables are easier to plant like lettuce family. In terms of farming techniques, mix farming and crop rotation could yield better outcomes. Still, it takes time to make the soil resilient for positive results, yet many farmers are not patient enough to wait.

Therefore, it is very crucial to have proper understanding of how natural farming works and be confident in what we believe in. As an old nun, I do have strong beliefs in that.

For my students to have confidence in the process, I take them on field trips to visit other developed farms to hear from the farmers in person to validate what they have learned. These trips provide them with feedback, new experiences and friends who shared the common goals. It is really hard and rare for farmers to strictly follow the natural farming. Not only my students but also I cherish the affinities and friendships developed through natural farming.

Is transforming humanity the ultimate goal of this initiative?

I agree with Mr. Masanobu Fukuoka’s words that natural farming is the pursuit of happiness for humans, as a starting point, a process, and the ultimate goal.

Natural farming is a form of Buddhist practice itself. When you grow vegetables or crops with such kind of mentality, it would benefit your practice as well. Dharma taught us “less is more” and “compassion”. If you regularly eat food that come from natural farming, you will realize that not much of the food is needed for sufficient nutrition and energy. Sometimes, we eat a lot of food but poor in nutrition. In fact, humans don’t need that much besides the basic necessities such as food, air, water and Sun. I think we should slowly return to the level of basic needs. Master Sheng Yen said that “our needs are little but our wants great”. Our current problem is that what we want has jeopardized what we truly need.

As a part of natural farming practices, we also need to protect the natural environment and think about how we make choices for other necessities, like clothing, housing, and transportation. Look at our habitual tendency and ask ourselves, “Do we waste too much resource? Do we have reasonable and harmonious relationship with nature?” Live a simpler life, try to live a practitioner’s life, and be in harmony with nature.

“Protecting the spiritual environment” is a good starting point. My ultimate goal is to see our lives being changed in multi dimensions through our efforts.

We know that you attended IDCC- Inner Dimensions of Climate Change- Asian / Pacific Youth Ecologists Forum earlier this year in Thailand. Please share with us about the forum.

In the Opening Ceremony, the representative from UN talked about the issue of global warming and the rise of sea level with great concern for humanity because both of which have resulted in natural disasters. He also stressed the importance to make changes in our daily lives from what we eat, what we wear, to what we drive to protect the environment.

An officer from Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Thailand said that Thai government has introduced policies in recent years to protect the environment. The impact and damages of what building constructions have done to Thailand’s natural environment is concerning.

Taiwan has also the same issue – waste generated from building construction. I am personally deeply concerned by the overwhelming waste from construction and the severe pollution from staggering numbers of factories in Taiwan. When we were looking for a farmland, lots of lands were filled with construction waste on top or below. You can see deserted land or empty buildings left uninhabited in the mountain but filled with trash and waste. This is a growing problem and concern for us because useable farmland is getting less and scarce in Taiwan.

A new development in high-tech farming with LED lights and without real land is trending but I don’t think this is the solution to the environmental problems we have.

Conventional farming is taken over by high-tech farming. What’s the future for natural farming?

It depends on different conditions in various regions. Natural farming has better success in Bhutan, Australia, and Europe. Trends can be created and changed by people. We don’t know how far or how deep the impact of natural farming can have. All we can do is our best to stay on this track.

Do you have any plan to publish books to share your experience?

I do hope so. I have written many articles for Buddhist magazines and newspapers on farming related topics and I also have a Facebook page to promote Natural Farming. Through words, we can educate and make greater influence. I would like very much to put all the materials together to publish a book with photos and videos. A book has longer shelf life than my time on earth and it will be greatly useful for the future generations to come. What I need is more time and more resources to make it happen. I welcome volunteers who share same visions. It is even better if they have relevant knowledge or experience.

Conclusion remarks

It is incredible that I can do this, devoting myself to natural farming. There are two important things that I have done in my life. One is being Master Sheng Yen’s Taiwanese interpreter for 20 years; the other is promoting natural farming. I wouldn’t be able to do any of them without the support of DDM and Sangha. All the causes and conditions along the way are beyond my imagination.

What I am doing is for Master Sheng Yen, for DDM group, for Buddhism, for the society, for the mankind, and for all living things.

This is a blessing, a responsibility, and a vow for me to carry on. I am not good at multitasking but I am able to focus on one thing or two and do it wholeheartedly well. I believe that natural farming to us is like the nest to birds. Birds can’t survive without a nest and we rely on land for food and for survival. Everyone is connected to land and food comes from land. I hope the more people know about natural farming, the more people would care.

Interview by: Elenda Huang
Translation: Elenda Huang
Photos: Venerable Guo Xiang (果祥法師)
Editor: Angela Chang (Toronto); DDM Editorial Team

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Venerable Guo Xiang