Telling the Gospel my way

ROG_0cIt’s me! I haven’t written here for a long while now, I know. A lot has happened in my life during the past 3 years, and especially in the last 6 months, but let me just say that I’ve been working on something very important to me: Drawing, writing and editing a comic book based on the Bible — it’s a retelling of the Jesus story, to say it simply (but it’s a lot more complex than that!).
This has been the project of my heart, my dream, for many years. And I’m happy to say that I’m hitting the last few miles on this marathon! A few more pages, and then lots of editing and book-making, and the comic will be ready. And you can find everything about it on my new website

“The Reign of God”!

This website is tiny now, but I will work on this bit by bit. And I will write about art and faith on a new blog on The Reign of God soon, under my pen name Issey Fujishima. Make sure you subscribe to the newsletter. It will be exciting!

Telling the story of Jesus, his life and passion, it’s always been important to me. I believe that this comic is how I can tell it in a fresh, fun and profound way that makes you care about the people who have laid the foundations of Christianity, and think about the meaning of faith and love. Yoroshiku!

ROG_0a

Prayer for Paris

The attacks on Japanese tv.
The attacks on Japanese tv.

When I heard about the Paris attacks yesterday morning I felt as if power was draining out of my body in the span of of a heartbeat. I spent the rest of the day at home, almost paralyzed, until I forced myself out in the evening. I’ve been to Paris a couple of times in the past, and I’ve recently taken up learning French again, so it’s natural I feel sth personal this time. I saw many comments and posts on the web, asking why there is (again) such an outcry for Paris vs. Beirut or Bagdad or any other non-Western place, and I understand there’s all kinds of systematic bias at work. But for me, it’s just a personal connection I feel naturally, as France it’s so close to Germany.
I’m much better today, and I simply went back to my desk – and worked.
I can’t donate loads of money to charities. I can’t be in France to show solidarity. And I can’t help all the other millions who have been struck by violence or injustice in their lives, be it from the IS, or the US or whatever. It all makes me feel angry and helpless and sad. So this is my response to the manifold evil in this world: To keep on working on stuff that will improve other people’s lives. The little comic that I’ve been drawing in solitude for almost a year. The tasks that I do for ARI. The book that I’m helping a colleague with. These are my tiny contributions to help someone on the other side of the globe becoming a more compassionate person or have one more meal to eat. My role might be small, but I wouldn’t work a single minute if I didn’t believe it would contribute to at least a fraction more of peace and wealth to this world.

NoPrayParisAnd here is where I disagree with that post that I saw on Facebook. One of Charlie Hebdo’s artist, John Sfar saying sth like “Don’t pray for Paris. We don’t need more religion.” And the comments of people who make this post viral read like “religion is the problem!” and “prayer helps nothing, do sth instead!” I understand that a non-religious person would prefer some visible, concrete “action” instead of “prayer” or a “religious response,” but why create more division between religious and non-religious folks in times like these? For a religiously matured person prayer is not the replacement of action but its very basis, its starting point.

Prayer expresses the wish for good, and switching to that mindset alone is important. When we pray together, we unite our hearts, become firm in our sense and gain courage to act. When we pray we fight the darkness in our minds, the kind of darkness that can lead people to hurt others. In prayer, we can connect not only to some higher existence whose goodness we aspire to imitate, but also to the spiritual realm within, where we feel solidarity, compassion, truth. When Sfar mentions that his faith goes to music, kisses, life etc, he talks, in essence, about universal spiritual values. The stuff those terrorists are aiming to destroy. They are the worst enemies of religion.
I know dozens of great religious people, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, whose creed and spirituality give them the purpose to – often under great personal sacrifice – serve others. Those who think religion is the root of all evil because of all the violence, war and injustice it’s supposed to be causing apply the same logic as Islamist terrorists who point to decades of war, torture and exploitation committed in the name of Western Democracy. Both positions contain truth, and both miss the point. This war isn’t between between “their” -ism and “our” -ism. This war is as old as humanity itself, and it will forever exist as long as humanity exist. All we can do in this short life is to take sides and hold the darkness back. As long as you light a flame it doesn’t matter whether your candle burns on art, or faith, or humanism.

イジメ、ウソ、マインドコントロール —— ライフハウスの裏側

Lixehouse

2011年の2月にこのブログにジーザス・ライフハウス(現在はライフハウス)とういキリスト教会についての記事を日本語・英語・ドイツ語で載せました。その後『疑問に思えば、疑問に賛成 — ジーザスライフハウスの光と霧』がこのブログの一番人気な記事となり、13,600 回もアクセスされました。英語版とドイツ語版のアクセス件数は合わせて 4,200 件です。読んで下さった読者の方々に感謝です!

あれから3年も絶ちますが、その間に記事に対して多くの読者さんがコメントを残してくれました。メールでは、東京の大学教授や教会関係の人もJLHに対しての心配を説明して下さいました。今回の記事はコメントから浮かぶライフハウスの疑わしい正体について問います。

実は、英語版には30件以上のコメントがあり、そのほとんどはライフハウス経験者の話です。何人の方が「ここで初めて真実を語ることができた」などと言い、詳しく書いてくれました。その中で私自身の記事よりも深刻なストーリーが語られています。コメントによりますと、ロド・プラマー牧師を中心に活動するライフハウスには様々なイジメ、洗脳、争いと偽りが生じるらしいです。これは、ライフハウスに対して最初から疑問を感じて遺恨をもつ者の書き込みではありません。ライフハウスにまめに加わりライフグループ・リーダーや牧師に何年間も協力した方々がいて、熱心な信者がたくさんいます。

コメントを書いてくれたサラさんはこういいます。

「JLHによって傷付けられた人はたくさんいると思いますが声を上げることを恐れています。[・・・]他のプロテスタント教会で「普通」と思われること、特にJLHの盲従を強いる指導方法を疑う人たちはチャーチ内でびっくりさせるほど攻撃的な扱い方をされます。」

ライフハウスについて知りたい人たちは大勢います。キリスト教に始めて出会って教会について調べたい人たちもたくさんいるでしょう。この方々のために、30件のコメントからいくつかのポイントをあげてここでまとめていきます。ライフハウスの裏話、それは単なる悪口ではありません。多くのコメンテーターは、「楽しくて」「元気いっぱいのチャーチをめざして」いるライフハウスは、 方向のない都会の孤独な若者をかき集める危険なカルト集団であると主張しています。

私にはすべてのコメントの正確さを調べることはできません。そして全コメントを翻訳することも無理です。しかし少しでも日本語に直してダイジェストとして紹介したいです。もちろん、英語ができる方はそのまま英語の記事で読んで頂けます

Continue reading “イジメ、ウソ、マインドコントロール —— ライフハウスの裏側”

Am I the only Christian having problems with the cross?

(contains graphic image)

Ever since the militia of what is now called the “Islamic State” became a constant news topic, we have been battered by images of their fighters’ brutality. Among the disturbing videos and photos of their blood rage one practice sticks out particularly for its anachronism: crucifixion. I’m not in the mood of analyzing the asymmetrical media war between the IS and the US. I want to talk about how these images have confirmed in me a sense of unease with the Christian symbolism of crosses and crucifixion.

The cross as religious and cultic symbol is actually much older than Christianity. It has represented the Tree of Life, Fire, the Sun, the Four Elements etc. It’s been used in many different cultures and there’s nothing to argue about those.
But the Christian cross doesn’t originate from some blurry cultural past. It marks a very specific event, at a specific time and place: The public execution of Yeshua of Nasrath by the Roman military government in Jerusalem in about 28 CE, of course. And because of its historical context, this event had a specific meaning that everybody at that time who walked by understood. It was the Roman Empire’s way of letting its colonized subjects know: This is what happens if you protest against our authority. You’ll end up spiked to a piece of wood, naked and helpless. You’ll be mocked, spat and stared at, to die as slowly and painfully as possible, and you’ll be finally eaten by birds and dogs until nothing is left of you. We are in control – don’t you ever forget that.
Only Rome had the authority to crucify. It was considered to be such a cruel and shameful punishment that Latin citizens were reprieved from it. The cross was reserved for the enemies of state from the colonies, for slaves and brigands who dared to rebel against the imperial rule. Each crucifixion was a PR statement. The unequivocal psychological impact of its sight terrified the people. It was about showing power.

The more I study about these historical circumstances the stronger my understanding of the cross as a symbol of state terror becomes. And I wonder: Is this an appropriate symbol for my faith? Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable with crosses dangling on people’s necks, erected on altars, glowing on church buildings at night, printed as logos of charities? Many treat the cross with the same reverence as an idol. Yes, the cross does remind me of my savior – but I imagine the horror he had to experience dying on that thing. I see in it a symbol of deep injustice.

Christians will argue that Christ has turned the cross into a symbol of positive religious ideas such as atonement, salvation and hope, and that this can be interpreted as triumph over its meaning of death and imperialism. The cross is a powerful sign of unity of Christian faiths. I understand these argument and their appeal.
But when I look at the current photos from Iraq and Syria, all the theological rebranding falls apart. Young men – often Christians – strung to lampposts or wooden scaffolds, dying on market squares, signboards around their necks. Pedestrians snapping Instagram pics of their agony. The IS executioners turn public spaces into killing sites. They understand what Rome understood: This intimidates anybody who disagrees. Crosses and crucifixions along other harrowing acts like stoning and gunshots in the neck belong to the aesthetic of violence which they eviscerate. I was deeply shocked by these images from the first time I saw them on CNN. They bear no resemblance to the cosmetic Jesuses peacefully hanging from church walls.
The IS propaganda reveals the true nature of the cross. It’s a cruel instrument of death, invented by cruel people, no better than the guillotine or the electric chair. There is nothing beautiful, nothing triumphant or glorious about it, as Christian art wants us to believe. For centuries after Yeshua’s death, when the cross continued to traumatize people across the Roman Empire, Christians hardly used it as their sign, because they knew what it represented.

SyriaCrucifixion
Crucifixion in Northern Syria. Photo by www.aina.org

There is debate on how Yeshua’s cross – or let’s just say “execution pole”- actually looked. That is not the matter of discussion here. What counts is the idea that a religion approves a torture device as its logo. The ease with which believers today accept, even worship the cross image not only reveals historical oblivion but also how much theology has deviated from Yeshua’s original message to the extent that many Christians support the death penalty, torture and imperialism.
For me, I cannot consider this imagery to represent my religious values. There are plenty of other Christian symbols that are much better than the cross, I think. Animal symbols such as Fish, Lamb, Dove. Alpha and Omega. Bread. Wine. The images that Jesus himself used: Light and Salt. The Pearl, or the Vine Stock. The Good Shepherd. Many churches and Christian organizations use these. They have a longer tradition than the cross and are more appealing to people of other faiths. They express affirming ideas that are directly connected to Yeshua’s teaching about the Reign of God. But perhaps that’s just me feeling this way.

Pageturner

This week is my last full week as staff member of the Asian Rural Institute. On February 28th, I will take an airplane to Yamaguchi Prefecture and move to Kudamatsu City in Southwest Japan, where my partner Ayumi is waiting for me. We will start a new life together, focusing our energies on making and teaching art. We have been planning this for more than a year. While I am very sad to leave ARI, I am looking forward to taking our relationship to the next stage and to be able to work on my dream. Oh, and of course, if possible I want to continue Foodlife Work at my new home.

It has almost been three years since I moved from Tôkyô to Nasushiobara City, to live and work at ARI. I can’t find the appropriate words to describe the tremendous growth I underwent during this time as staff and community member of ARI, and how much I appreciate all the wonderful people who accepted me. This is truly one of the most inspiring places on Earth.

I arrived here on a cold day on March 26, 2011. It was two weeks after the catastrophic events of 3/11, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake Disaster. I remember the violent aftershocks continuing for months on end and the fear of facing radioactivity from the destroyed Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (65 miles away). I remember how we supported each other, working like horses to cope with the situation. Slowly, we rebuilt, and reclaimed our hope. I will never forget the joyful moment of last year September, when we celebrated ARI’s fortieth anniversary with fifty extraordinary graduates on our beautiful new campus, an exciting moment that would have been impossible to imagine right after the disaster. When I see ARI today I see the miracle of God’s guidance, and believe firmly that he has guided me as well. Being part of this place makes me deeply thankful, proud and happy.

ARI 2013
Rice Harvest with members of the ARI commune and graduates. I’m in the center of the picture!

Now the time has come for me to close this chapter in my life and start writing on the next. But I’m not burning bridges behind me. Some of my graphic design and video work for ARI will continue. And not only do I carry many new friendships with me but the mission of ARI, and I will try to fulfill it in my own way.

Life is unpredictable, like an earthquake. I never plan beyond three years ahead. I follow where God sends me to. Starting a new life in Kudamatsu will be demanding. I know nothing about that place yet. But it’s a great chance to do what I actually want to do, living in accord with my values. I will use everything I’ve learned to create a meaningful life, serve others through art and finally return the riches I have received from you all.

Zero Meat Thirty

Three weeks ago, on May 5th, I decided becoming a vegetarian. Over the past couple of years, I had consciously kept my meat consumption to a low level, but I still enjoyed a good hamburger or tantan-men (dandan noodles) once or twice a week. But now I’ve resolved on going Zero.

Buta

There’s more than one reason for me to quit meat completely. My tipping point came during a sleepless night, when my mind – annoyed from the perpetual snoring of my room mate – was wandering off to arrive at a murky, half-dreamed image.
But before I describe it I have to go into some background info: Since the beginning of this school year, rules concerning livestock hygiene at ARI have become stricter. The Japanese government wants to halt the spread of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, so we have to follow new regulations. If a visitor carried an infection into our pig pens or chicken houses, we would have to kill all animals at once. But not only us, our neighbor farmers would have to do the same with their livestock, too. New rules determine who’s allowed access to the animals and who’s got to stay out. It’s a change from our former practice where just about anyone was welcomed to our farm without checks.
So, this issue, I was lying in my bed, half-awake with a stream of images emerging in my mind, where I saw all our chickens and pigs in this earth pit right where they’re constructing the new pig pens, and some of our farm staff had to bulldoze soil on them because we had found an outbreak. All our ARI community members were watching. And even though I was upset, I had to shoot pictures for documentation. The squeaking animals being buried alive was like those tv images I remember of the BSE scandal in the 90s, and worse, what the Japanese army did to Chinese citizens during the war, or National Socialists to Jews. I asked myself “What’s the difference between us burying these helpless animals and the worst dictatorships committing war crimes? These pigs and birds and cows, precious lives which we supposed to be taking good care of are completely and utterly at people’s mercy.” People, or market rationale, to be more precise.

I knew it was just a phantasy in my head, but it was like the last trigger that made me say “no” for good. Apart from losing my appetite, the question of what and how you eat is and has always been a moral one. Industrialized meat farming happens in death factories that look like something planned by heirs of  SS General Theodor Eicke. We do not see the lives of animals that we label livestock (Nutztiere). I agree with my mother who calls what we do to animals a sin. Right now, for me, rejecting meat is to protest against a merciless society in which mistreatment of life as a commodity is the norm.

Aigamo

At ARI, I sometimes observe the butchering of small animals like chickens, fish and ducks. (We don’t have the livense and facilities to butcher pigs, so we “ship” them to the slaughterhouse in Utsunomiya. To “sip za pig” has become a euphemism here.) It makes me think deeply about life and eating and responsibility. I’ve always felt conflicted that I hadn’t had butchered chickens though I was eating them.
Those animals make a big noise when they are caught and put into baskets. But once the blood starts flowing, there’s no sound. I always feel pity, and I never understand how some people seem to have fun killing.

Being alive creates suffering. I want to at least reduce some of it. Years ago, I stopped eating sea fish, because of our plundering the oceans, and beef because of the nuclear power plant disaster. It’s time for me to say no to meat whenever I have the choice. I know that this is very difficult in Japan. They put bacon in every sandwich and salad. I know I have to compromise occasionally. But for me this is about something more than flavor. It’s a matter of justice, a matter of ethics. A matter of faith.

21st Century Crusaders

I was still in middle school when George W. Bush won the presidential elections of 2000. I had a committed history teacher, a chubby lady by the name of Mrs. Bechtel who was passionate about democracy and the EU. One day after the Supreme Court’s decision to make Mr. Bush president, she rushed into the classroom and released an angry tirade against him. She got all worked up in her fury until she prophesied wars, finally shouting “Ich hasse diesen Kerl – I hate this guy!” at us. Her thickly painted eyes seemed to radiate lethal laser beams which would have turned Bush – had he been in the room – into powder. (In hindsight I remember that she even had the looks of a Gipsy fortuneteller.) My friends and I were puzzled. So far, the German media had characterized Bush as no one more than a clueless cowboy. We didn’t see any particular danger.
This all changed after September 11. It was my first week in highschool when I saw the towers fall on tv. I was 17. The next day at school there was a somber atmosphere. Shock and fear had penetrated teachers and students alike as if it had been their own country under attack. With a concerned expression, my new history teacher called for a minute of silence. Afterwards we all walked to the big American military base nearby. Candles were lit – signs of solidarity repeated across the country.

After the silence came the bloodshed. US soldiers invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and is still fighting potential enemies across the globe as part of their world war on terror, a war that has created a world of fear itself. I wonder if German kids would still walk up to the gates of that military base and express solidarity.

In Germany, something unusual happened after 9/11: Its thoroughly secularized society turned its attention to religion. Public discourse suddenly foamed over with debates on Islam and Christianity, fueled by Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, an unfortunate theory publicised in Germany under the even more unfortunate translation “Fight of Cultures”. Ever since I could remember, religion was hardly ever thematised in the German media. Most Germans nowadays are so detached from it that they got completely jumped by the religious implications of America’s War on Terror. “Why are there so many crazy Christians in the US? And why do they support the Republican Party?” – “Why are all these Muslims so angry? Are they all terrorists? ”
At school I had to face similar questions. And as most of my classmates had little sympathy for religion I as a Christian became close friends with three Muslim girls from Turkey, Iraq and Iran. For us, the years after 9/11 meant a time of confusion and friction. Especially Ethics lessons became collision ground for us and atheist students. Sometimes my strongly devout Iraqi friend would get agitated and even praise suicide bombers as heros. Saddam Hussein was the reason her family had to flee from Iraq, but she was terrified to see her home country threatened by another war. She and my Iranian friend would express their resentment towards Israel as well as the white “Christian” invaders oppressing Muslim nations.
The latter hit me personally. As a Christian I felt the same urge to defend my religion. Yes, there had been countless genocides and massacres in the name of Christ in all countries, and Muslims had suffered a lot under Western powers. But I wanted to let them know that these things were completely against the heart of Jesus’ teachings. I told them that the Bushes and Cheneys and Powells were not real Christians, just politicians with Christian masks. Because how could “real” Christians be holding high positions in the arms industry and wage horrible wars for profit? How could true followers of Jesus revive a crusader rhethoric and deceive the world?

Then, one day I found this article in a weekly magazine. It showed daily work at the White House. On one of the photos was President Bush and his staff assembling for morning prayers. The article explained how carefully the president observed this prayer time, and all the other religious activities together with his top leaders. It mentioned Bush’s dramatic change from an alcohol-addict to a pious “born-again” Methodist, now attracting the votes of the Christian right.
I was startled. The article challenged my notion of religious club membership. I wrestled with it but had no choice but to accept the thought that these people were just as serious about their Christian faith as myself, and – even though they were throwing bombs on Afghan children – believed in the same god as I. Their motivation for war was not only money and vengeance, but the belief that having tanks roll through the streets of Kabul would spread the God’s justice.
Moreover, accepting George W. Bush as a fellow brother in Christ made me rethink my relation to the blood-soaked history of Christianity. I realized I could not just conveniently separate myself from crusades, witch hunts and the Inquisition, saying that Christian atrocities had nothing to do with me. I am one part of a long chain. Even if I am innocent of the Church’s brutalities, I bear – along with the Christian label – the responsibility of learning from its past.

Reflecting on this post 9/11 situation led me to another painful realization: How much the faith I had grown up with was actually the ultra-conservative, right-wing American version of Christianity. The US-influenced Baptist church of my childhood accepted it as the nly right one. Literature from screwball fanatics such as Tim LaHaye, Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson sat on our bookshelves at home. I had no idea that this Christianity rooted in the fornication of religion and American nationalism – the kind of force that supported President Bush and his henchmen.
I could see this stream of fundamentalist subculture flow more and more into the independent churches in Europe – by worship music, films and all sorts of spiritual merchandizing. (Japanese churches also becoming increasingly influenced by this.) Towards the end of my highschool days I had become extremely dissatisfied with all of this. It was just the right time to go to Asian Rural Institute and to seriously reflect on my faith.

More than ten years have passed since 9/11. As for German society, the issues that this conflict has stirred up continue to boil. Immigration policy, racism, freedom of religion, the type of society Germany wants to become. Many young migrant men, for example, rediscover their identity in Islam. Some of them fall into the hands of rhethorical arsonists such as German-born Salafist Pierre Vogel. On the other hand are disturbed Europeans reacting with paroles that conjure memories of 1933. Those are not crazy neo-nazis, but ordinary middle-class citizens, steaming against multiculturalism. And politicians jump on this populist train running on xenophobia. It was only last year when a young Norwegian named Anders Breivik places a car bomb in the government quarter of Oslo and later shoots dozens of young people who were attending a youth camp on a small island. Together, he kills 77 people, and injures almost 100. The shock wave of this home-grown terrorist attack rattled Europe and pundits declaring Breivik a mentally disturbed loner were quickly to hand. However, this explanation is too convenient. Breivik thought himself as a kind of 21st century crusader, who saves European Christian culture from Marxists and Muslims. He was active in internet forums, were hatred against Muslims and immigrants run rampant.

It makes me angry that the very faith that teaches me about the Reign of God, a kingdom of forgiveness, in which people reach out to those in need, is being taken over by people who abuse it as an instrument of hatred. How can we people of different religions live together? How can we create a more peaceful and tolerant world?

The night Jesus was arrested, so we are told in the Gospel according to Matthew, his followers panicked. One of them – Peter – thought he could protect Jesus, his beloved master with a weapon, by his own force. But Jesus stopped his violence. “Put back your sword. I don’t need your protection.” For me, this means that you cannot defend Christianity by force.
Jesus’ tought compassion and justice. His spirit is not with the powerful who let soldiers crush everything in their way, but with those who are being crushed. He is with those who have lost their families by cruise missiles. He is with those who are being tortured in the name of whatever they come up with as an excuse to dehumanize others. Jesus says “I am your brother, because I suffered the same thing.”

How can we live together? As a religious person, I’ve got responsibility. I will refuse to let my spirituality be infected by fear. I stand with Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion”, published in 2008.

We therefore call upon all men and women
~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion
~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate
~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures
~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity
~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings” even those regarded as enemies.

The Reign of God is not brought by the works of mass-murdering criminals like Anders Breivik, Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush. It is made real by people who heal the broken, who strengthen the weak. It is supported by dialogue between religions. It is spread through works for social justice.

I firmly believe that my work at ARI, the work for sustainable rural development, is part of God’s Reign. No matter what religion you have or not have, when you serve the marginalized, that is where divine salvation takes place. ARI proves on a small scale that coexistence with different religions can be possible. I am convinced that it is possible on a global level as well.

Lessons from the fields

Last month, I learned a lot from working the vegetable field of my Foodlife Work group, here at the Asian Rural Institute.

Every day, groups of four to five people take care of each one’s field. But since the training participants were off-campus for a study trip it was me with a volunteer and occasional visitors who managed all the work with the plants for two weeks. Normally, the participants take lead and outline the plans for all the different tasks. I follow their orders and observe their leadership. In the end, most of them are much more experienced farmers, and I perceive the field work as something recreational.

But this time I had to take responsibilty and see that all activities are managed well by myself. I had to observe the plants, think about the timing for certain jobs, and guide the visitors who came to help us.
To welcome guests and letting them join the farm work is not so difficult. The real challenge was to care for plants whose language I am barely familiar with. I didn’t think deeply about it in the first few days. We prepared beds and transplanted more than a hundred seedlings of Chinese cabbage and cabbage. On harvest days, we cut corn, eggplants, leaf vegetables and so on. In between these things we weed the beds.
The shock came on Thursday evening when I found almost all of the cabbage seedlings having dried up under the hot summer sun. I had transplanted almost hundred of them by myself in the morning. We rushed to pour water, and – much to my relief – most of them had recovered the next day. However, dozens remained dead. Filled with a completely new sense of responsibility for these small lives, I made sure to provide enough water every day, but then another problem came in form of insects eating holes into their small leaves.

Due to these problems, I slowly started paying more attention to the plants. Most of the different vegetables in our field are doing fine, especially the leaf vegetables such as mulukhiya, kangkong and shiso (“Japanese basil”). The soy bean plants look all strong. Eggplants, bell peppers, chili, ocras are growing so quickly that daily harvest is necessary. Beautiful winged beans are now increasing in size and numbers. But some other varieties are obviously struggling. The tomatoes used to grow beautifully big and red. Recently, however, they spoil with an ugly yellow color, or they burst out of their own skins. I sprayed fermented plant juice and water calcium acid (made from natural materials) to repell insects and encourage growth. I am not sure if it had helped. Tomatoes get also attacked by crows. So we added a very simple net system that will scare them away.

My biggest regret of all are the pumpkins. We’ve got about four or five pumpkin plants whose vines were crawling vigorously along the ground. The week before the participants left, we cut the grass around the plants’ arms to relieve them from the weed. One participant warned me that it was this very grass that the pumpkin needed for growth. By clearing the earth we would kill both grass and pumpkin. I didn’t think it would be that serious, but then two of the pumpkin plants – one of which had been growing well so far – withered away. Watering and spraying liquids did not help it. I must confess I am ashamed of such a wasteful – mottainai – action, and that I failed to protect their lives.

The next issue was the ongoing heat. There was almost zero rainfall during those two weeks, but even after the incident with the dried cabbage seedlings I did not think of watering other plants from time to time. It’s curious: Many vegetables seem to do fine, even great without rain on a dried up soil. Are they nourished by morning dew alone? Do they absorb moisture through the leaves? Does the rice husk charcoal buried with the fertilizer work so effectively as water holder? And how comes that some other plants dry up quickly? Again, I failed to be aware of the climate, the soil, the plants’ needs, the situation of insects or animals. In a broader way, I was blind and deaf to the environment’s whole ecosystem.
Perhaps this is symptomatic to a city boy, whose mind is constantly occupied with stuff, never being mindful or aware of the moment. But I believe that when you pay attention to the seasons and cycles of life, to all the subtle signals of nature you will become a more complete person, more aware that you as a human being are unevitably connected to the ecosystems, even the entire cosmos. This is just one example of how farming enhances spiritual awareness. If I can’t even recognize a plant in need of water, how will I hear the craving of my own soul or that of others?

I always say “I am not a farmer,” though I dream of having a natural vegetable garden of my own some day. But this time I was strongly reminded of how little I truly know about agriculture and plants, and of just how mysterious their lives are. Farming means to care for life, to understand the silent language of plants. In industrialized agriculture – where vegetable is only treated as commodity, as products with price tags – there is no time for such carefulness.

Of course, it was not all failures, though those were precious to open my eyes – working in the field is enjoyable, seeing hundreds of frogs sitting in the corn leaves, being accomanied by butterflies on the way to the field, following the growth and fruit-bearing of different vegetables. Even when you work under the heat, they delight you with colorful flowers and scents, and make you look forward to a meal.

Out of one of the damaged pumkin plants’ arms, fresh leaves are shooting up, indicating it’s on its way to recovery. Plants have such an amazing ability to revive even after you trample on them or chop almost all of it away. They are stubbornly resilient, patient, determined to keep on until they’ve spread their seeds, fulfilling their simple mission: to be and to create. These silent, ancient lifeforms give us life.

Cambodia IV, The Countryside

An ARI study tour would not be complete without visiting the rural areas and we did so by visiting our 2009 graduate Ven Ban in his village Trapen Tasom in Takeo province. Ban runs an organic farm with his family but it was originally started by his father after he had come back from a Thai refugee camp after the civil war. They welcomed us with fresh coconuts to drink from and delicious vegetable form the fields. The farm is a beautiful place with Ban concentrating on chicken raising. We observed his fields and learned about the huge differences between rainy and dry season farming.

Not everything was peaceful, though. There are still landmines in this region, with the latest ones discovered and removed from the farm just days before our visit. Another one was still somewhere hidden meters away under a pile of rubbish. Ven Ban’s father then told us about his escape from Takeo to the Thai border during the Vietnamese invasion that brought an end to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

This was my first time to visit the countryside of a South East Asian country and it was a big learning opportunity. To feel the hot sun and get the dust in your eyes gave me such an immediate impression of the realities of the grassroots farming Ven Ban and the people of his community are practicing each day. It is extremely difficult for him to promote organic farming, but through the support of many people he will manage to create a training center soon.

Cambodia III, Small World Family

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my study trip to Cambodia was the “home stay” experience at a kind of youth community center called “Small World Family”. I went there with no idea what the young people who started this project two months ago were doing there, only to be surprised, inspired, delighted by what I saw.

It’s a bit difficult to explain what SWF tries to achieve. Basically, young people like college students can become a member and utilize the space for sharing ideas with others – ideas for businesses or social projects, for example. They are also free to use internet and get drinks so they don’t need to spend their money in cafés. Then, once they’ve come up with some plan they can further make use of the office space or facilities of the SWF building and expand from there. They also organize events and hold workshops. Some of the members actually live in the house and invest their money to pay the rent.

Everybody I met at SWF radiated with enthusiasm and energy. During the last two months these folks had cleaned the compound from ground up, sowed grass, planted trees, decorated walls… I felt as if I was meeting the most progressive young people of the whole country. They seem to be brimming over with ideas how to connect to young people and offer them opportunities. To feel their dedication to contribute something meaningful to their society was really uplifting after learning about the sad history of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge time and the civil war that followed.

Most of the SWF folks were at my age, and I felt there was a kind of mutual understanding that this can bring despite cultural differences. During my homestay, two of the founding members of SWF, Theary and Chhunny, made time to show me around in Phnom Penh. Thanks to them I felt very comfortable. I did not expect such hospitality, let alone to be so touched by their passion. My prayers are with these great people.

These are some impressions from the Small World Family house. They asked my co-participant Mr. Tamura and me to sow some seeds and we carved our names into the bamboo vessels.

This link leads to Small World’s Facebook page.

Cambodia, II: Goel Community Weaving Project

The Goel Community is located in the countryside South of Phnom Penh and was started by Korean missionary Mr. Han Jung-Min.

Women who join this project can secure themselves a stable income by weaving and dying fabrics made of natural material. This fair trade and fair labor concept helps them especially during the dry season since farming activities are limited then. Mr. Han revives traditional weaving and dying techniques which had been lost during the Khmer Rouge time. To him, this project is not just a business but a vehicle for sustainable community development, as he slowly gives away all responsibilities to the Cambodian people themselves and sets limits to the commercialization of the products. I was quite impressed not only by the high quality and beauty of the natural clothes but also by Mr. Han’s approach to rural development which was quite in line with the philosophy of ARI.

We visited some of the women at work in their houses, so it gave us opportunity to get a few glimpses of their everyday life.

Cambodia, I: Ancient Ruins

When I close my eyes I can still see Cambodia: how the bustling streets of Phnom Penh rush past me on a tuktuk drive, or the views of white cows grazing in the green plains, each mist-shrouded horizon beckoning to follow a mystery, an ancient city perhaps, a group of obedient elephants, or a purple sunrise. I hear the chatter of crowded markets, the cacophony of traffic noise mingling with street vendors’ voices, the discussions replaying in my mind, conversations with people, at times disturbing, but mostly inspiring.

I chose not to prepare myself for this ARI-organized study trip, but to let myself be surprised. And surprising a journey this was indeed. It was my first time to a country in South East Asia, and the first time to what some people still call “the third world”. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, to get a taste of the ‘real’ world, as I experience the Western affluance in which we “developed” people live more and more as mirage, a Scheinwelt (illusory world) of artificial fabric well-detached from the realities of the people from whom it sucks its wealth.

I come back with many new impressions, and I let them sink in with their inconsistencies and superficialities with which I perceived them, not yet able to grasp the deeper truths this country holds. I have nothing but gratitude for the hospitality of people and their smiles.

First gallery: Ancient Ruins of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat