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From Tagore to Holistic Science in Japan and China

By: Philip Franses
Senior Lecturer in MSC, Holistic Science
Schumacher College

Tagore in China

Nobel Prize Winner Rabindranath Tagore visited China in 1924, accompanied by Leonard Elmhirst (founder of Dartington Hall) and Chinese intellectuals Zhimi Xu, Huiyin Lin. In 1924, the world was poised at imminent upheaval. On the one hand, modern scientific advances into the understanding of the atom and the practical example of leaders like Tagore had seemed on the verge of providing a truly humanistic global understanding across traditions, cultures and subjects. On the other hand, it was the last year where such an open conversation could happen, before the world fell into various wars - Chinese civil war, Chinese Japanese war, and then the Second World War.

The choice ahead for the world was sparsely summed up in Tagore’s “Civilization and Progress”, May 21st  1924, (still twenty years away from the dropping of the atom bomb).

We have heard from the scientists that an atom consists of a nucleus drawing its companions around in a rhythm of dance and thus forms a perfect unit. So long as a civilisation remains healthy and strong it contains at its centre some creative ideal that binds its members in a rhythm of relationship. It is a relationship which is beautiful and not merely utilitarian. When this creative ideal, which is dharma gives place to some overmastering passion, then this civilisation gives birth to giant powers which are like the outburst of conflagration in a star that has lighted its own funeral pyre. (p.170)

That spirit of the unit is only maintained when its nucleus is some living sentiment of dharma, leading to cooperation and a common sharing of life’s gifts. (Tagore, p.173)

Destruction and creation

In 1945 when America dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities, knowledge declared itself all powerful and humankind took on the governance of a world with the power to fragment it to nothing. 

The splitting of the nucleus of the atom has been a shadow of destruction darkening our whole social outlook, and forcing us to ever placate the gods of science which we unwittingly awoke in such terrible fashion. It has led to a culture fixated on things, concepts and labels, as if by understanding everything, we might disarm the terrible threat at the centre of our knowledge.

In this confrontation of darkness and light, the world of possibility formed about its own identity of becoming. Something entered into a situation that was stuck, as if from outside, and resolved in the light of liberation of that whole “aha” sense, all the open questions in a new illumination. This moment of unlocking the puzzle was not simply thought opening up a box with a new conceptual map. It was experience finding in the world, the existential ground of being as the basis on which all happening is predicated.

We do not have to be frightened anymore by technology as if our mind has unleashed some artificial monster of destruction we have to control. For the basis of our science, as Goethe showed, is about the moment of resolution in which experience is illuminated in the worth of all that is. It is to experience that we need to look to know the pattern of the world! (Franses, p. 226)

Background to Holistic Science

In 1925 Tagore encouraged Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst to establish Dartington Hall, to extend this global conversation and experiment in living. Dartington housed various educational experiments, the latest being in 1991, when Schumacher College was set up as a pioneering educational venture looking into the themes of ecology, science and economics. In 1998, a unique masters programme in Holistic Science began.

A key difference between Holistic Science and main stream education is that modern academia has drifted more and more into the explicit. When you write an academic paper, you have to be very explicit about what you are looking at.  You have to name exactly the subject of your investigation, the question you are asking, quote the literature that has been written and foresee the outcomes of the work. Holistic Science focuses very much on the implicit, what cannot be spoken, what is innate to life itself. It searches for the methods we can develop in order to meet what is implicit. The course has its roots in the fundamentally different science of Goethe (1749-1832), who developed a methodology about how to meet the implicit in say a plant, and maybe discover its medicinal properties, without immediately journeying through the explicit, of how to label the proteins, the cells that make up the plant.  

A dialogue of cultures

Only now has the fragmentation of the world stilled sufficiently to allow a resumption of the dialogue across cultures. For the first time since 1924, in the current threat of the ecological crisis, the frontiers of India, China, Japan, Europe are again open to conduct the dialogue and work of research that Tagore had urged.

The nature of Holistic Science is that is does not begin with a definition or impose an order or seek to arrive at a fixed endpoint. The development of Holistic Science has shared the organic origin of form it teaches. It is a journey to discover “wholeness” through the act-of-faith of committing to the inquiry wholly. It is thus in keeping with the nature of the subject to be on this tour around the question, “What is Holistic Science,” and “How is it relevant today?”

This summer, alumni of the Masters in Holistic Science from Japan, Korea and China have invited me to work with them on the question, “What is Wholeness?” They have organised a programme of talks, workshops and visits. The exciting challenge for us is to work on how these different cultures share the same movement to wholeness out of the cultural state of fragmentation we are now in.

In Japan, Transformative Seeds, an organisation set up by Takuya Goto (MSc Holistic Science 2012) is organising the workshops and seminars during my visit. Transformative Seeds is creating connections with like minded people and organizations in Japan, in order to co-create programs, events and run the Certificate in Holistic Science and Economics for Transition in Japan in the future. Takuya and his colleagues Mai and Miho have organised a Japan-wide series of events for my visit, including a five day workshop in Nagano.

The program includes a one day workshop on July 3rdat The Kakuichi Institute that Satish Kumar has helped found, on July 5th visiting The Biohistory Research Hall, where Keiko Hoshino (MSc 2006) is working and on July 11th visiting The Asian Rural Institute.  Later, we will be at Hadano, where we are running another workshop with Professor Keibo Oiwa of the Sloth Club, Japan.

From Japan we are travelling to Korea with current MSc Benjamin Butler, to take part in two events, one of them with the Asia Institute.

After this brief stop over in Seoul, we are travelling to China, being hosted by Polus College, which is teaching 9000 undergraduates to learn skills of returning to and working with the land. Their notion of an “Ecological Civilisation” in China is a strange echo of Tagore’s words.

The China trip is being organised by He Longxiang( MSc 2015) along with Ziwei Fan and Lanying Zhang. He Longxiang is now working at Chengdu University on the Rural Reconstruction movement. In Beijing we will research with Professor Tian Song and colleagues on the aims of Holistic Science and ancient traditional wisdom to connect science again to our experience of life.  Holistic Science bridges theology and science, by addressing wholeness in the very fabric of existence, and thus has many associations with traditional Chinese beliefs as Taoism. Our time in China will include a stay with the Taoist monks to explore the connection of Taoism and modern scientific understandings. The questions alive in China are especially relevant to the arising of Holistic Science as an alternative understanding out of modern day scientific challenges.

The consequences of the choice for fragmentation in 1924, make Tagore’s cross-cultural project to find the spirit of the unit that can hold again the diverse stories even more imperative today.

The Holistic Science Journal has just published its 9th issue. The issue is titled Pedagogy, which forms an essential background to what we are discussing across the weeks in Japan and China. Essential contributions in this issue are from Holistic Science faculty at Schumacher College, students, scientists and practitioners from across the world, exploring the nature of creating space for a Pedagogy that is alive and enlivens. For more information and to subscribe, visit:

Franses, P. (2015) Time, Light and the Dice of Creation; Through Paradox in Physics to a New Order, Floris Books

Tagore R. (1924) “Civilisation and Progress” from “Talks in China”, pre-edition, Devon Heritage Centre