Swans Commentary » swans.com May 6, 2013  



The Macrobiotic Faithful (Part II of III)


by Michael Barker



(Swans - May 6, 2013)   How George Ohsawa envisaged the global spread of his macrobiotic spiritualism is confusing to say the least. This is because in his frequent rants about education, he says that schools and professional education itself are "the makers of slaves," as their didactic methods are the "cause of all misery and unhappiness." As an alternative he suggests that solutions should emanate from within, not from teachers. But of course Ohsawa sows confusion among his intuitive disciples by dictating that they can only reap the benefits of macrobiotics "by complete and strict observance of its fundamental directions" for ten days (if not for the rest of their life). Consequently, many of Ohsawa's followers misunderstood him on whether they should think for themselves or follow their guru. In light of this confusion, the forth edition of Zen Macrobiotics (1995) actually includes a footnote which warns readers to develop their own "judgment in order to gain complete freedom from following any diet prescribed by others, including Ohsawa himself." The implication being that once one has memorised, or internalized Ohsawa's macrobiotic principles, your "judgment and understanding" will have been "deepened to the point" that you can eat whatever you like "without fear or ill effect." (1) In Ohsawa's case this meant he was able to occasionally indulge in Coca-Cola, Scotch whiskey, cheesecakes and doughnuts, and daily treat himself to cigarettes. The latter being considered by Ohsawa as more of a treatment than treat, as in his book Macrobiotics: The Way of Healing he claimed that tobacco smoking could both prevent and cure cancer. (2)

Despite such contradictory advice on the need to educate oneself about macrobiotics, on the closing page of Zen Macrobiotics Ohsawa calls for fellow self-taught enthusiasts to take up the cause of macrobiotic evangelism. For those who would prefer not to "educate" their friends about the "superiority of the macrobiotic way to health and happiness" he threatens that if they fail to do so they won't achieve the full benefits of macrobiotic therapy. Such a failure to teach others how to eat means, in Ohsawa's mind, that: "You are still exclusive, antisocial, egoistic, and arrogant; you will surely fall ill again." And woe and behold if you suffer from exclusivity as it "is both the most difficult disease in the world to cure and the origin of all unhappiness." (3)

Education and schooling in macrobiotic ideas were, as it happens, key to the spread of Ohsawa's ideas. The formation of macrobiotic retail outlets and restaurants likewise played a central role in the dissemination of his faddish dietary regime. So, when against the macrobiotic ideal, Ohsawa somehow succumbed to heart disease in April 1966, his unexpected death only seemed to provide further fuel for his eager disciples, who in that same month formed a macrobiotic and natural food store in Boston, Massachusetts. Named Erewhon, this shop was founded by Michio and Aveline Kushi, but by August 1967 the management of the small but growing retail store was taken over by Paul Hawken. Hawken quickly expanded their business model, and in the process changed the stores name to Erewhon Trading Company.

Prior to joining Erewhon Hawken had been an active member of the San Francisco Calliope Company, a psychedelic theatrical group -- headed by Hawken's housemate Bill Tara (a man who would come to play an important role in the macrobiotic movement) -- which had worked producing shows for local rock acts like the Grateful Dead. (4) Hawken's subsequent decision to leave the Calliope Company and work full-time at Erewhon was proceeded by a profound spiritual revelation while experimenting with Ohsawa's macrobiotics with his good friend Tara -- a transition that came to them fairly naturally given their obsession with Eastern philosophy and psychedelic drugs. One should add that this natural, not drug-induced, mystical moment of clarity was a byproduct of Hawken's five-week fast that was augmented only by brown rice and water; that is, the macrobiotic cereal diet. Hawken was trying this diet in a bid to cure his asthma, and as he recalled about his life-changing moment: "I could fully experience in that one moment the indivisibility of consciousness and body." (5)

With Hawken now fully converted to the macrobiotic faith things went from strength-to-strength at Erewhon Trading Company. In June 1971 Hawken married Dora Coates, and succeeded in persuading her father to leave the motorcycle industry to help him set up a base for Erewhon in Los Angeles. The following year, financial backing for this extension, to the tune of $150,000, was provided by Hawken's close friend and macrobiotic fellow-traveler John Deming. As luck would have it, his friend was independently wealthy, living on a trust fund derived from his family's history as wealthy oil barons, with Deming having already used part of his inheritance to set up a commune in the Californian wild lands. Macrobiotic circles were tight indeed, and polygamy was not abnormal, (6) and so it is not surprising that Hawken had become close to Deming in part because prior to marrying Dora he had dated her sister, Judy Coates, who had gone on to marry Deming in 1972.

Deming and Hawken eventually left Erewhon in the early 1970s, and both were soon broadening their spiritual horizons in the organic realm. In this regard, Hawken was first off the mark and he set off for Britain on an epic pilgrimage to the biodynamic Findhorn Garden in Scotland, a transformative story that was later recounted in The Magic of Findhorn (Souvenir Press, 1975). After returning to America from his initial foray, Hawken spread the good word about Findhorn's anthrosophical angels. He then returned to Findhorn in November 1972 for just over a year, accompanied this time by his wife, her sister, and her husband. Deming's prior experience of working the land on his commune proved useful in his latest organic adventure, and for part of his stay in Scotland he served as Findhorn's head gardener. But while Hawken emphasized the other-worldly gardening that took place at Findhorn, Deming corrects the misconception that magic was involved. Instead Deming recalled: "We trenched down about 3 feet and put in this incredibly powerful, all natural compost of seaweed and manure. I don't think it was the elves and fairies that grew those huge vegetables. During the summer the sun is in the sky almost 24 hours a day for 2-3 weeks." (7) Here it is interesting to note that another interesting person involved with Erewhon Trading Company during its early years, and with the Sams's brothers Seed Restaurant in the UK, was Eric Utne, who later founded The Utne Reader. Eric is now an influential anthroposophist, whose wife Nina will be introduced later. (8)

Around the time that the Soil Association's Wholefood Baker Street shop was taking off in London, American macrobiotic diet enthusiasts Craig and Gregory Sams arrived on the scene, opening the Seed Restaurant in Paddington, London, in 1968. (9) Regular customers at their restaurant included counterculture celebrities such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Yoko Ono, and many others. A few years later the exceedingly driven macrobiotic brothers formed Ceres, the UK's first natural food shop, on the Portobello Road. This shop soon became the center for macrobiotic food supplies, and in 1970 the brothers followed this success by founding Harmony Foods (now known as Whole Earth Foods). These natural food outlets meshed well with the countercultures' oppositional dietary needs, and when the first Glastonbury Festival took place in 1971 the only food available at the festival was the macrobiotic fare of the Sams brothers. Consolidating their influence in Britain further still, in 1971, Gregory and Sam, with their father's support, launched Seed, a monthly magazine of the alternative and complementary health movement. Seed "contained many elements of what would come to be known as 'New Age' thinking, and was often distinctively pagan in tone." (10) Notably, in 1972 Seed's secretary was Sue Coppard, which is significant because the year before, while working as the secretary at Resurgence magazine, she had founded Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms with help provided courtesy of John Davy's biodynamic farm (at Emerson College). (11)

This now brings us back to Paul Hawken's friend, Bill Tara (whom we met earlier). Having gained a macrobiotic apprenticeship by working as a manager of Erewhon in the United States, Tara set off to Britain in the early 1970s with the intention of creating an Erewhon-style operation overseas. But when these initial plans fell through he did the next best thing and took over management of Ceres -- the Sams brothers' food shop. Spreading the macrobiotic word came naturally to Tara, and soon he teamed up with Peter Bradford -- who had just returned to England from a period of macrobiotic study in Boston -- to form Sunwheel Foods in 1974: a macrobiotic food company modeled after Erewhon, and set-up in competition with Harmony Foods. Another important person who helped found Sunwheel was Bob Harrop, and when their health food enterprise was sold on in 1983, Harrop continued working with Bradford running the Freshlands shop in the City of London. When this shop was sold to the Fresh & Wild chain in 1999 Harrop became the accounts/HR director of Fresh & Wild, which in turn was purchased by the American natural food empire Whole Foods Market in 2004. At the present time, however, Harrop is the finance director of the London-based macrobiotic food distribution company Clearspring Ltd. The owner of Clearspring being Chris Dawson, a man who after studying biodynamic farming at the Rudolf Steiner Emerson College, had founded the East West Natural Food shop (in Old Street, London) in 1977.

In 1975 the macrobiotic crew that had coalesced around the charismatic Tara organized a new venture known as the Self Health Center. Although initially established as a squat on the Caledonian Road, when they soon obtained permanent premises on Old Street (in London) this enterprise evolved into the Community Health Foundation -- formed with the express purpose to promote macrobiotics and other holistic and spiritually-oriented teachings. (12) Using his stellar contacts in the United States, Tara then arranged for Michio Kushi to travel to England to speak in London, and keen to spread the good word Tara soon organized Kushi's first European tour. Fellow macrobiotic leader, Simon Brown, served as the CEO of the Community Health Foundation between 1986 and 1993, and Brown's work clarifies the strong connections between macrobiotics and Theosophy. In his book Macrobiotics for Life: A Practical Guide to Healing for Body, Mind, and Heart (North Atlantic Books, 2009), Brown highlighted the impact of both Western and Eastern thinkers on the evolution of macrobiotics history, naming nine individual European thinkers that he considered to have influenced macrobiotics over the past few thousand years: Brown suggested that the three most recently lived of these nine people were Theosophists (these being Madame Blavatsky, Alice Bailey, and Annie Bessant). (13)

As this article has demonstrated (so far), food fads that may at first glance sound healthy and wholesome are not necessarily so. Macrobiotics will never the source of world peace, any more than the ridiculous ideas of the Theosophists or Anthroposophists -- whose ideas are so intertwined with the macrobiotic community's -- will ever point the way forward toward a more healthy and equitable future for all. Global peace will not be associated with a flight from reason. Quite the opposite, social movements will need to be built that expressedly engage in rational and democratic debate, not irrational flights of fancy into the spiritual realm of the infinite consciousness. So it is that macrobiotic harmony seems able to only strengthen, and profit from, the very real health inequalities that are fueled by capitalism's relentless search for profits. Capitalism is presently in crisis, and we must now seize this moment to start planning for how all our planet's citizens' dietary needs can be met under alternative political arrangements. Romantic and sometimes reactionary food faddists stand directly in the way of the type of clear thinking that will be required to create this better future. Nevertheless in such times of crisis many people will still be drawn to irrational solutions to the world's ills. This makes it all the more important that we fully understand the history of their ideas so we can propose alternatives that are capable of nourishing a socialist alternative.


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1.  George Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity (Oshawa Foundation, 1995 [1960]), p.10, p.49. p.52.  (back)

2.  Jack Raso, Mystical Diets: Paranormal, Spiritual, and Occult Nutrition Practices (Prometheus Books, 1993), p.27.  (back)

3.  Ohsawa, Zen Macrobiotics, p.168.  (back)

4.  The person who turned Bill Tara and Paul Hawken on to macrobiotics was Roger Hillyard (who was also doing light shows in San Francisco). Hillyard later worked with Tara and Hawken at Erewhon and in 2011 retired from the natural foodstuff industry to live at the San Francisco Zen Center.

In 1965 Hawken and Tara had lived with the Calliope Company in a warehouse in San Francisco known as The Russian Embassy. Although Hawken had previously worked as a photographer for CORE in Mississippi, he soon adopted an altogether more New Age approach to social change. As Tom Wolfe notes in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Black Swan, 1989 [1971]) -- a book that is largely about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters -- Hawken, in 1965, now had "a withering attitude toward all those who are still struggling in the old activist political ways for civil rights, against Vietnam, against poverty, for the free peoples. He sees them as still trapped in the old 'political games,' unwittingly supporting the oppressors by playing their kind of game and using their kind of tactics, while he, with the help of psychedelic chemicals, is exploring the infinite regions of human consciousness..." (p.316)  (back)

5.  Like so many nice-sounding mystical enterprises, the workers employed at Erewhon were often mistreated by their macrobiotic peace-loving bosses. For example, on 27 April 1979 the "workers in Erewhon's production, trucking, shipping, and kitchen departments voted 42-19 to form a union affiliated with Local 925, the Service Employees International Union... Erewhon employees cite as a major reason for the unionizing effort -- in addition to concerns about wages, working conditions, and medical benefits -- their feelings that behind Erewhon's New Age image lay the reality of an uncaring and unresponsive management willing to exploit them just as any 'straight' business might." As one might expect, "Management refused to deal with this group..." and Michio Kushi and his fellow macrobiotic managers "all worked to stop unionization -- but they failed." William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi, History of Erewhon -- Natural Foods Pioneer in the United Sates (1966-2011): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook (pdf) (Soy Information Center, 2011). p.130.  (back)

6.  In June 1967 Bruce Macdonald "moved to Boston, and began to live in the University Road study house. After four quick affairs with lovely young women ('I was really yang'), Michio called him over to 216 Gardner Road and asked him to 'chill out' (calm down) with these girls, since Michio was 'involved' with the same young ladies. Michio and Aveline had initially gotten together in a marriage arranged by George Ohsawa, who sent Aveline to America to marry his best student. Michio and Aveline had an 'open marriage,' and both of them had affairs with younger people of the opposite sex the whole time that Bruce was in Boston. This was well known in the upper echelons of the still small macrobiotic community." Shurtleff & Aoyagi, History of Erewhon, p.194.  (back)

7.  John and Judy returned to America after the summer solstice in 1974. Hawken had two children with Dora Coates before obtaining a divorce soon after returning to America: they are Iona Fairlight Hawken (a girl) and Palo Cheyenne Hawken (a boy).  (back)

8.  The close links between biodynamic and organic farming become apparent when Hawken sourced rice for Erewhon from Carl Garrich of the Lone Pine Rice and Bean Farm, in Lone Pine, Arkansas, who proceeded to use a biodynamic compost to grow the first crop of rice. In addition, during the late 1960s it is notable that Alan Chadwick taught biodynamic gardening at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Chadwick would eventually leave the university in 1973 "to start new gardens in Marin County (at the Green Gulch Zen Center), Saratoga, and Covelo, California, and New Market, Virginia." One might add that Chadwick was famous for working the land using only a Bulldog spade and fork that Paul Hawken's later business, Smith & Hawken, "would one day make popular." Moreover, as Julie Guthman observed: "The decidedly counter-cultural milieu" of Chadwick's agricultural programme at University of California at Santa Cruz "set the idiomatic tone for organic farming for a long time to come, as many farmers were apprenticed in this programme." Shurtleff & Aoyagi, History of Erewhon, p.255; Julie Guthman, "Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of 'yuppie chow,' " (pdf) Social & Cultural Geography, 4(1), 2003, p.47.

Like Paul Hawken and John Deming's connection to the biodynamic community at Findhorn, Wendy Cook, author of The Biodynamic Food and Cookbook: Real Nutrition That Doesn't Cost the Earth (Clairview Books, 2006) recalls that Hawken had first turned her on to macrobiotics while both were resident at Findhorn; although she subsequently decided that Rudolf Steiner's biodyamic movement offered the best spiritual alternative. (p.15) Similarly, Kristina Turner, author of The Self Healing Cookbook: A Macrobiotic Primer for Healing Body, Mind and Moods With Whole, Natural Foods (Earthtones Press, 1996), first worked at Findhorn before going on to commit her life to macrobiotics.  (back)

9.  Craig Sams recalls that when he first came to Britain in 1996 he "imported the books and pamphlets published by The Ohsawa Foundation in Los Angeles and sold them through the Indica Bookshop (part owned by Paul McCartney and also by Barry Miles, who wrote the definitive McCartney biography a few years ago)." Sams presently serves on the certification board of the Soil Association and is the chairman of Slow Foods UK.

Craig Sams notes: "In 1990 my kids launched Gusto, the world's first energy drink, based on guarana, ginseng, Siberian ginseng and 'Free and Easy Wanderer', a Taoist herbal formula dating back to the 12th C. It was the spiritual descendant of the macrobiotic 'beer' that Ohsawa was working on for the 1966 Spiritual Olympics and which his wife Lima thought reactivated the filariasis he contracted at Albert Schweitzer's Lambarene institute and killed him. ... I am also working, with my son Karim (who produces Soma organic smoothies) on a new range of unique and yummy macrobiotic products..." Paul Hawken and Dora Coates son Palo Hawken (born 1972) has likewise adopted the New Age capitalist sensibilities of his parents and is known as the "beverage innovator" behind the anti-oxidant Bossa Nova Superfruit Juice and Zico Chocolate Coconut Water.  (back)

10.  Philip Conford, The Development of the Organic Network: Linking People and Themes, 1945-95 (Floris Book, 2011), p.232. "Seed's 'alternative' stance was thoroughly pragmatic, placing faith in the established channels of media power as a means of spreading its message." (p.235)  (back)

11.  Sue Coppard recalled that while working at Resurgence: "A friend suggested that Michael Allaby, editor of the Soil Association journal, might know of a suitable farm, and he put me in touch with [John Davy at] Emerson College in deepest leafy Sussex, the training college for the application of Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical philosophy -- including bio-dynamic agriculture on their 200-acre farm." In Autumn that year Coppard then founded WWOFF with her initial volunteers working at Emerson College, and to aid with the promotion of her new venture she spent the next year working as the secretary of Seed. (Notably, issue No.2 of Seed, published in 1972, led off with the eco-mystical story titled "Diet and ESP," (pdf) which argued that it is possible that an organic diet might help you develop a sixth sense.)  (back)

12.  Tara recalls that: "An American guy I had met was working for a group in London that was developing biofeedback technology" gave them the "lease to a building on Old Street in London..." He (the St. Lukes Trust) then leased them the space to set up the Community Health Foundation.  (back)

13.  Brown, Macrobiotics for Life, p.256.  (back)


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Published May 6, 2013