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Reflection: From Tagore To Holistic Science

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

Eastern mirror

The premise of Holistic Science is that the language of nature has to be wholly experienced and cannot be reduced to thought objects that become more real than the phenomena themselves.  Developing the practice of Goethe (1749-1832) the MSc in Holistic Science on which I teach, has run at Schumacher College since 1989. On 30th June 2016 we arrived in Tokyo for a six week tour, invited by Schumacher alumni and hosts Takuya Goto, Miho Koshimura and Mai Goto in Japan, Benjamin Butler in Korea and Ziwei Fan and He Longxiang in China.

Holistic Science is a mirror able to reflect back something of the deep spiritual heritage alive just below the surface in Eastern tradition. Holistic Science reconnects with the deep motivation of the East to live through the moral code of wholeness. The mirror of Holistic Science shows Japan China, and also Korea for one day, as very different societies.

Kinship in creation

The people and the social structure of Japan have contrasting faces that we discover as we travel through its beautiful lands. Kazuaki Tanaka, founding director of the Kakuichi Institute for renewing Japanese values, invites us to a traditional Kabuki play, which explores the betrayal of honour for the sake of power during the rule of the Samurai. Such an elemental divide in the psyche between honour and power is present in Japan even today. Individually people have a huge respect, recognition and appreciation of the quality of wholeness, however often there is little outlet for this at a social level. The depth and honour of people, especially since the Second World War and the Shinto religion decline, has realised a perfectly running technological order, with many deeper questions remaining unanswered beneath the surface.

Travelling out of Tokyo for the first workshop with Echan Deravy, a colleague of Kazuaki, an hour passes on the superfast bullet train, before we leave the houses behind and cross into the mountains of Karuizawa. In opening anew to the adventure of experience, through personal narrative, Goethean observation of the Maple, natural water landscape restoration and reflection on time, (the first workshop, left) East and West meet in the primal relation to wholeness. 

After many experiences of the delightful architecture, landscape and people of rural Japan, we arrive into Kyoto, the ancient capital until late 19th century. Kyoto still holds many of the cultural values that Tokyo (the new capital with the same letters ordered differently!) has lost. Kyoto makes more sense as the spacious centre that holds the values of a different Japan.  

The Asian Rural Institute (ARI) is a thriving community teaching organic farming and leadership to farmer students from around the world, annually. It grows almost 95% of its own food, as the enthusiastic head gardener tells us. The beauty and simplicity of the communal life in its 43 year existence, was challenged by the 2011 earthquake, damaging the ARI campus, with the subsequent tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown releasing radioactive material onto ARI land.

Although governmental inquiries insist no major health hazard resulted from the nuclear accident, there is a mismatch between the happening of destruction and the cold technological language of assessment of its aftermath. The technological mind treats the atom as a thing to be controlled, when the experience of nuclear meltdown is of something greater than anybody can comprehend. There is in this story of the atomic accident, an expression of the choice between concealment and revelation that is symbolic of the world at large. My talk at ARI urges the formation of a movement to go beyond feeling we can conceal nature within the cold science of matter and see the atom as revealing our place in creation.

From ARI we move on to the five day workshop at Suirin, in the mountains above Nagano. The 5 day Holistic Science workshop with 21 participants, two translators and organisers Takuya, Miho and Mai is a very moving experience (left). The meals using vegetable ingredients from their own local organic farm, the new building housing the lecture room and participants, the field trip to the Shinto shrine through old forest and the hospitality of the hosts, all add up to a magical week. In the workshop itself, each day explores a tension of opposites - finite and infinite, whole and part, dark and light, time and matter - before at the last throwing the Dice of Creation, the freedom to let the word of novelty gives new view on the world and its opportunity. The practical side of Holistic Science is shown in the revival of rivers, bringing us back to our own individual responsibilities. It feels Holistic Science is rediscovering itself, in this deep openness of the Japanese spirit for real transformation.

Moving from Nagano the next workshop is with writer and activist Professor Keibo Oiwa. The workshop to a forty strong audience involves a Goethean study and then writing a Haiku or a poem at the end. This brings home the quality of wholeness in many-sided verses.

An alumni reunion just outside Tokyo identifies the great regard in which Schumacher College is held. Schumacher has the ability to unite people from many different backgrounds and social standings in their shared motivation to allow a more just and natural world to be.

The final workshop in Japan is at the independent Freedom School. Takuya shares the holding of this workshop. The challenge of having the 80-strong audience  experience the methods of Goethean Science is solved by having half the people drawing a lotus-related water plant while the other half are on their tea break, and vice versa, before putting together the journey of the plant, into the  expression of irreducible wholeness.

Big ask

From Japan, en route to China, we stop in Seoul, (Korea) where Benjamin Butler organises a joint talk at the Asian Institute with a high powered audience of professionals and professors. In my call for a Holistic Science to unite again with ancient Eastern wisdom, an Indian professor in the audience, along with thanking me on the call to return spirituality to science, makes a pertinent point. He asks, “How can the West, having taught greed and competition to the East for 400 years, now expect the East to comply by returning to share its wisdom of wholeness?”

From Korea we fly on to China.  

Gateway of existence

China has a very different energy to Japan. In China there is still a living tradition of the I-Ching, Taoism, Chinese medicine and many other practices based upon an ancient understanding of wholeness. Holistic Science is able to learn hugely from these ancient Chinese traditions.

The ancient belief of China is founded on the balance of the tensions of heaven-earth, universal-individual, space-time, as these possibilities of opposition give birth to the specific of existence. As in Chinese medicine this balance precedes the manifestation of health/ illness on individual and planetary scale.

China achieved a huge level of sophistication in this understanding as shown in the ancient irrigation system at Dujiangyan. The wild waterway descending from the Himalayas was transformed by using the landscape and the movement and power of the flow of the water itself to slow the river, through new divisions, channels and slipways cut into the mountainside. The waterway prevents floods and provides reliable irrigation for a huge agricultural area. The mind and imagination able to conceive of such a huge work, still benefitting the region, was developed alongside the study of the I-Ching and the birth of Taoism in the nearby Qing Cheng mountains.

This sophisticated practice of a holistic wisdom trading along the ancient Silk Road was overthrown by the colonialist ambitions of Britain and other powers, through the creation of a market for opium among the people, a business that the imperial powers stimulated and managed. The Opium Wars of the late nineteenth century still leaves a huge scar. From the 1940’s communism organised on the basis of democratic centralism has been the ruling system. The rapid industrialisation of the last 27 years has again given China a platform to decide its own future. This future involves for many, the reuniting of their culture with ancient traditional wisdom.

The first dialogue in China is with Dr Shu Li, an I Ching Master. It is organised by Ziwei Fan and Longxiang, the main organisers of our China trip, with Ms Lanying and the Institute for Rural Reconstruction and by Jing Li, who, amongst other jobs, also publishes I Ching material widely. The dialogue is held at Phoenix Hill Biodynamic Farm where we also stay.  The dialogue is spontaneous and real, in the discovery of the riches that are to share between Holistic Science and I Ching wisdom. What we know of the I Ching in the west is the surface of a deep tradition of understanding. The I Ching centres on the balancing of opposites before the world shows itself in the specifics of existence. The I Ching masterfully depicts the positioning of the two trigrams of opposites before these manifest in the reading given to the specific questioner of the way of change ahead.

During the dialogue, I discover to great appreciation from the audience, that my book Time, Light and the Dice of Creation also is structured as two sets (parts) of three oppositions(chapters) that leave open a tension resolved in the last chapter, where the Dice of Creation is thrown to allow existence the specific form in which the opposites manifest.

The I Ching is based on the freedom of the consulting person to choose the hexagram appropriate to the question he/she asks. In this choice, his/ her situation becomes the active expression that lives space-time, heaven-earth and universal-individual in the circumstances of the particular. The world is described first in terms of archetypal transformations, which hold a space, allowing for the individual dilemma to be the focus for the revealing of the form of the situation.

Modern science seems to have understood itself as an exact language about the world. But the I Ching gives us a different perspective. The richness of science is not to describe the world exactly but to hold open a weave of alternatives, to which the context of internal choice gives particular reality. Archetypal aspects frame the wholeness of the world to be spoken of and acted upon newly.  The atom holds concealment and revelation at the gateway of choice.  All of existence finds form in the move of creation that interprets the balance of possibilities newly.

The next day we visit a little known section of the Great Wall, after a short Goethean observation of the flora along the path, the book we use to press the plant leaves is fittingly Jing’s translation of the Tao and the figure of Lao Tzu.

We share another dialogue at Little Donkey Farm CSA, where we are joined by Professor Tian Song of Beijing Normal University. We again find the secret key linking Goethean Science and the I Ching. Goethean Science and the I Ching both explore the transformation of archetypal possibility, until space is able to show itself as a journey through time and the universal expresses the specific of individual case. In the Goethean exercise with a Paper Mulberry tree, the tree continually corrects our assumption of what is the outcome and what the means. What we felt to be the green round fruit turns out to be the flower, and the bright red flower shows itself as fruit! We discover time only in the phenomena we observe, of the transformation of leaf, to flower to fruit.

After drawing the tree, the very hot and muggy afternoon turns into the wildest thunder storm, where as Dr Shu Li later observes, after the Qi communicates between heaven and earth, it rains, in a sign of peace.

Little Donkey Farm is an experiment of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction and we travel to Beijing to meet its founder Professor Wen (left). Professor Wen outlines the story of China, contrasting the indigenous culture of China with the colonial cultures of Europe and colonised cultures of the Americas and Africa. This connects with the move of Holistic Science to restore science to its indigenous roots of learning from nature, rather than the technological mastery imposed by what one could call ‘colonial science’. In listening carefully to Professor Wen’s account of the Opium Wars and the rebuilding of China culturally and technologically, a new China is spoken of, able to transform its past and the future of the world.

In Xian, we visit the tomb of the Terracotta Warriors (right), a formidable army of clay, waiting for the signal to fulfil time in their standing for the ideals of ancient China.

Given language

From Xian we go to Chengdu in the west of the country. We are the guests of Polus International College that is home to 9000 undergraduate students learning the skills to return to a rural way of life. Ms Yan, its president and Ms Wen her colleague, show how practical vision can again bring to life a different kind of value in shaping modern China. The proposed Ecological Civilisation College on newly bought land has much in common with Dartington Estate, the home of Schumacher College, with much scope for the two enterprises to learn from each other in taking this vision further globally.

We then visit the Taoist masters and temples of the Qing Cheng mountains (courtyard paving of the temple, left). The true balance is made before the world expresses existence. Our cultural and existential malaise in the many symptoms of dis-ease we see all around us is not to be solved by developing new orders through the mind, but in attending again to the balance of opposites - science and spirit, universal and personal, space and time - so these manifest a new harmony.

From the Qing Cheng Mountains, I learn the seemingly haphazard way meanings arise, in the honour shown to the ancestry of Taoist founders, and how these accidentally discovered truths accrue into the fluidity and beauty of the language of the spirit. The word of creation speaks a meaning recognised to the separate learnings of Eastern wisdom and Western science.

Ancient eastern wisdom gives to western science a defining challenge to allow the pre-play of possibility before fixing on the form of the world. In taking up this challenge the new lens of Holistic Science allows us to see into life, where heaven, earth and humanity meet.


Philip Franses

Senior Lecturer - Holistic Science, Schumacher College