07 October 2009

Food From The Heart

I’ve heard about local food, but this was a whole new scale. Our lunch, eaten in a picturesque bungalow in the middle of Petch Thongnoi’s sun-drenched rice paddy, all came from within a fifteen yard radius. Bananas, fresh fish, rice, beanpods, bamboo, sawalots, and papaya came from the backyard; several types of chili peppers, lemongrass, and onions from the front. A feast, a cornucopia, performance art: Petch killing and gutting the fish with one artful swing of a knife as we roasted them over the fire, on a stick, like marshmellows. Our hands were soon covered in sticky and spicy food, our arms intertwined as we unabashedly reached and delved into the communal dishes at the center of our seated circle. Petch punctuated the end of the meal as he rolled up the giant place-mat banana leaf, scooping up the food scraps, and tossed it directly into the rice paddy water. Everything from the rich Thai soil, and everything back to it!

In America, how often is lunch a spiritual, or even memorable, experience? Living with the Thongnoi family (Petch, Nusaan, and their granddaughter Agnoon) revealed how one can exist mindfully, lovingly, sustainably, and full of faith in even the simplest daily routines. Their life revolves around the communal consumption of food, and around the cultivation of an incredible variety of plants growing literally everywhere. My host parents’ ethos is simple: “If you grow plants with love, and harvest with happiness, the plants will grow well. This is why it is important to be happy in all things.” This mindfulness during gardening transcends the act of merely raising crops. True to their Buddhist beliefs in self-awareness and moral action, they live their faith daily, emanating an intangible but undeniable warmth and wisdom.

Almost all farmers in Thailand switched to chemical agriculture at some point as the seemingly unstoppable Green Revolution and its chemical fertilizers spread across the globe. Members of the current reactionary organic movement have seen the environmental and human costs of planting monocultures riddled with chemicals, providing artificially high yields of a single crop for export. They recognize that depleting the soil of its resources at escalating rates and that selling produce permeated with carcinogenics to a faceless, nameless consumer are all dishonest and immoral ways to share food. As the villagers of Yasothorn reiterated, to grow food organically, one must have the love and the heart to do it. Their concern for their family’s health follows the Buddhist belief that change begins with the individual.

In a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, what does the day-to-day faith of its average citizen look like? How does the a Thai layperson reconcile the goal of being committed to renouncing the material world (the Buddhist paradigm) while being firmly rooted in it? I think it looks a lot like the Thongnoi family. They grow everything they need, create that which they can’t grow (soap from bamboo!), consume nothing other than cell phone minutes, have no debt, are mindful of their bodies, and get great pleasure from providing good food to others. Nothing they do is radical, but may hold many answers to the problems plaguing contemporary Thai society. The pastoral life of organic farmers like them across the Isaan region provides a model of living their faith by growing food mindfully with love for themselves, the environment, and the consumer.

One old man shopping at the Yasothorn Organic Farmer’s Market told us that he heard about the fledgling organic movement from his local wat, or temple. On the wall was printed the Five Precepts (abstain from killing, false speech, sexual misconduct, stealing, and taking sense altering substances), and included, almost as a footnote, a simple encouragement to eat organically grown food.

This encounter made me wonder: could Buddhism provide an endorsement, on a larger scale, for organic agriculture? The embryonic organic movement needs demand and awareness on the consumer side, to encourage current chemical-farmers to join the ranks. While the temple may hold less sway now than it once did, it still certainly remains a significant player in society. For the endorsement to be compelling, it would likely need to be more visible than something as passive as the printed suggestion on a temple wall. What if monks established a ceremony specifically for organic farmers, recognizing their position in society as different from farmers using chemicals? While this might feel like elitism, don’t they deserve this recognition? Or if monks only accepted chemical-free food for alms – how would that impact farmers? Would it drive people away from the temple?

As my host mom Nusaan said - quite profoundly - “Food is the number one issue in the world.” What role can religion play in making food more mindful, fair, and just?

Jon Springfield
Davidson College

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