top of page

Conceptual Basis

Macrobiotics is based on creating balance and harmony with nature and the cosmos. The universal laws of change and harmony were studied, applied, and celebrated by all traditional cultures and societies, forming the universal foundation for the world’s intellectual, social, cultural, philosophical, religious, and spiritual traditions.[i] The way to embody this order in daily life was taught by sages, poets, and artists, including Homer, Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammad, Dante, Hildegard of Bingen, Shakespeare, Steiner, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Under many names and forms this order has been rediscovered, applied, and taught for thousands of years. It is inscribed in the Bible, Upanishads, I Ching, Yellow Emperor’s Classic, Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Hippocratic writings, Qur’an, and other sacred texts and scriptures.[ii]


As Kushi explained, “The infinite universe is a paradise full of joy and peace. It is with­out beginning and without end. It is spaceless and timeless. How­ever, because it is moving in all dimensions at infinite speed it creates phenomena that are infinitesimal and ephemeral. These manifestations have a beginning and an end, a front and a back, measure and duration, and may be viewed as forms appearing and disappearing in an ocean of cosmic energy.”[iii]


The infinite universe, or the creative source known as God in some traditions, though itself invisible and beyond the apprehension of the senses, differentiates into two antagonistic and complementary tendencies of centrifugality and centripetality —expansion and contraction, space and time, beginning and end, yin and yang. At the intersection of these two forces, numerous spirals are produced in every dimension.


All phenomena are spirallic in nature, regardless of whether they are visible or invisible, spiritual or physical, energetic or material. Many of the spirals arising in the infinite ocean of exis­tence appear manifest to our eyes. The physical universe, stretch­ing over ten billion light years in every direction and itself spirallic in structure, contains billions of spiral galaxies, some hundreds of thousands of light years in diameter, which periodically appear and disappear. In turn, these galaxies contain hundreds of millions of spirallic solar systems.


In each spirallic solar system, various planets, together with millions of comets, are spiralling around the spirallic center called the sun. Each planet receives a charge of incoming, centripetal force towards its center—a spirallic energy we call gravity. Mean­while, as a result of turning on its axis, an outgoing, centrifugal force is generated toward the periphery. Together these two forces combine to keep the planet in orbit about the sun.


On earth, a small planet within a solar system belonging to the spiral galaxy called the Milky Way, centripetal force and centrifu­gal force produce unaccountable phenomena that appear and dis­appear, changing constantly. These planetary phenomena include invisibly minute spirals such as electrons, protons, and other suba­tomic particles; various kinds of elements that combine to form organic and inorganic compounds; and numerous kinds of botani­cal and zoological life, including human beings, which appeared during the most recent era of biological evolution on the planet.


As all life exists within worlds of multiple spirals, human life is also spirally constituted and governed. Not only individual human lives but also human history as a whole is subject to the laws of spirallic motion and change. The two antagonistic and comple­mentary forces govern the development of human affairs, under­lying patterns of growth and decay, health and sickness, peace and war. In the Far East, the Tao, or ultimate reality, gives rise to these twin tendencies known as yin and yang. Yang, or heaven’s force, manifests as the inward moving centripetal energy coming to the earth from the sun, moon, planets, stars, distant galaxies, and infinite cosmos. Yin, or earth’s force, appears as the upward, outward moving centrifugal force arising from the center of the earth and spiraling into the cosmos. These two forces give rise to all plants, animals, and human beings on our planet and throughout the universe.


In the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta, underlying Hinduism, this understanding is expressed as Brahman, or the absolute, differentiating into Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha, and other pairs of primordial male and female deities.


In the Gospel According to Thomas, Jesus is asked to explain his teaching and says to his disciples, “If they ask you ‘What is the sign of your Father in you?’ say to them: ‘It is a movement and a rest.’”[iv] Throughout this gospel, discovered in Egypt in 1945, Jesus uses complementary opposite energies. In both Thomas and the New Testament, these polarities include heaven and earth, first and last,  body and soul, living and dead, flesh and spirit, hidden and revealed, serpent  and dove, tree and fruit, mote and beam.[v]


In Greek mythology, the cosmos was viewed as the eternal field of play of two   forces, Love (φιλότης or Philia) and Strife (νεῖκος or Neikos).[vi] Besides Hippocrates, other classical authors, including Herodotus, Aristotle, Galen, and Lucian used the term makrobios.[vii] Their worldview was shaped by the Four Elements  (Earth, Air, Water, and Fire) that was similar to the Five Transformations in Eastern thought and the Five Trees in Paradise in the Gospel According to Thomas. (The quintessence, or fifth element, was often added in Western thought to the Four Elements.)[viii]


In early Western literature, the term macrobios and its variants—macrobiote, macrobiosis, and macrobian—became synonymous with a natural way of life centered on whole grains and vegetables. The concept may go back to the Ἄβιοι (abioi) “most just of men,” mentioned in the Iliad who abstained from war and enjoyed a life of sanctity.[ix] The Ethiopians, Thessalians, Biblical patriarchs such as Abraham, and other long-lived people were described as exemplifying macrobios. During the Renaissance, Rabelais, the French humanist, includes Macraeon Island of long life in Gargantua and Pantagruel, his satire on the follies of society.[x]


During the Enlightenment, the concept found a proponent in Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, an eighteenth century German philosopher, professor of medicine, and physician to Goethe and the King of Prussia. Going against the scientific tide, he promoted the superiority of a simple plant-based diet, warned against

the hazards of eating meat, sugar, and dairy food, and promoted breastfeeding, running, and vigorous exercise, as well as self-healing.


Makrobiotic oder die Kunst, das menschliche Leben zu verlangern [“Macrobiotic or the Art of Prolonging Life”], his most Famous book, appeared in German in 1796 and was the first book to use the term macrobiotic:


“The  life  of man, physically considered, is a peculiar chemico-animal operation; a phenomenon effected by a concurrence of the united powers of Nature  with matter in a continual state of change. This, like every other physical operation, must have its defined laws, boundaies, and duration. . . By laying down just principles respecting its essence and wants, and by attending to observations made from experience, the circumstances under which this process may be has

tened and shortened, or retarded and prolonged, can be discovered. Upon this may be founded dietetic rules and a medical mode of treatment for preserving  life; and hence arises a particular science, the MACROBIOTIC, or the art of prolonging it, which form the subject of the present work.”[xi]


Hufeland’s book was widely translated, and the concept of macrobiotics appeared in medical lexicons and ordinary dictionaries throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the U.S., the earliest mention is in the Encyclopedia Americana in 1838.[xii] Sir Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights and Kama Sutra, set out on a quest for the Bedouin heirs of the ancient macrobians whom Herodotus mentions in his travels in sub-Sahara Africa.[xiii]


In 1908, Sir Norman Lockyer, the discoverer of helium and a Nobel Prize winner, used the term in an article in Nature: “The summary of a long list of germinative tests show that a large number of leguminous seeds are macrobiotic, that is, they maintain their vitality for a long period.”[xiv] Dr. Edmond Szekeley wrote a chapter on macrobiotics in a volume on ancient wisdom.[xv]


Broadly, other dialectical thinkers in the West who introduced complementary opposite energies as the basis of their approach included Hegel and Marx (thesis and antithesis), Freud (ego and id and libido and thanatos), and Toynbee, who in his Study of History, explained that his understanding originated from a study of yin and yang: “Of the various symbols in which different observers in different societies have expressed the activity in the rhythm of the Universe, Yin and Yang are the most apt, because they convey the measure of the rhythm directly and not through some metaphor derived from psychology or mechanics of mathematics. We will therefore use these Sinic symbols in this study henceforward.”[xvi]


In his encyclopedic Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham describes the ancient art of health and longevity—in both East and West—as macrobiotics and in China identified it primarily with Taoist immortality practices.[xvii]


In the East, macrobiotic forerunners include Ekiken Kaibara (1630-1714), a Japanese physician who recommended a balanced diet to protect against chronic disease. "A person should prefer light, simple meals. One must not eat a lot of heavy, greasy, rich food. One should also avoid uncooked, chilled, or hard food. . . . Of everything one eats and drinks, the most important thing is rice, which must be eaten in ample amounts to ensure proper nutrition. . . . Bean paste has a soft quality and is good for the stomach and intestines."[xviii]


Mizuno Namboku (1752-1825), Japan’s greatest physiognomist, earned the reputation for telling at a glance everything about a person’s health and destiny. But over the years, Mizuno discovered that some people’s faces lied. They were able to defy the signs of illness, misfortune, and premature death engraved on their features. As he explains in Food Governs Your Destiny, which Aveline Kushi translated into English, dietary practice could alter one’s fate. In an era in which food quality was completely organic and natural, controlling the quantity of food

you ate, Mizuno explained, was more important than what you ate. In his own case, he ate primarily a small volume of barley (his main staple), soybeans, and

other coarse foods. Mizuno eventually renounced the diagnostic arts and focused

entirely on teaching about dietary practice and cultivating traditional virtues such as hard work, perseverance, patience, modesty, and concealing one’s merits.[xix]


At the end of the 19th century, Japanese physician Sagen Ishizuka, M.D. (1850-1910) published the results of many years' research and study, outlining a broad theory of human physiology, food, health, sickness and medicine based on the dynamic balance between sodium and potassium in the environment and diet. On the basis of his own work as a military doctor in China and general practitioner in Japan, as well as readings in anthropology, he concluded that whole cereal grains contained the ideal balance of nutrients and should form the foundation of the human diet, supplemented with beans, vegetables, seeds and nuts, and a small amount of  fish  or  game depending on the climate, region, and  season of the year. In his clinic in Tokyo, he successfully treated many people with infectious diseases and was know as Dr. Miso Soup and Dr. Daikon because these were two foods he used in helping his patients recover. [xx]


Yukikazu Sakurazawa (1892-1966), a young man living in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, cured himself of terminal tuberculosis in 1913 after reading a book on health and diet by Dr. Ishizuka. Over the next fifty years, under the penname George Ohsawa, he devoted his life to spreading a grain-based diet and guided thousands of people to health and happiness. He studied, traveled and taught in France, Belgium, and other parts of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, he was imprisoned for predicting that Japan would lose the war and for his  peace  activities. Liberated by the Americans at the end of the war, he set up a study house near Tokyo to promote a dietary approach to world peace under the name macrobiotics. Among his students were Michio Kushi and Tomoko Yokoyama, who went on to become leaders of the macrobiotic movement in America and internationally.


On a visit to Dr. Schweitzer’s hospital in Central Africa in the 1950s with his wife Lima, Ohsawa hoped to impress the Nobel Prize winning physician with the benefits of macrobiotics. When Schweitzer ignored him, Ohsawa deliberately contracted tropical ulcers, a usually fatal tropical disease, and proceeded to heal himself with a macrobiotic regimen. In 1959, Ohsawa and Lima, came to the United States and gave the first formal macrobiotic lectures in New York City. He warned in early 1963 that President John F. Kennedy could be assassinated because of his sanpaku condition (extreme weakness shown by upturned eyes), and Tom Wolfe who attended his lecture proclaimed Ohsawa the new Nostradamus in the New York Herald-Tribune.[xxi] Ohsawa is widely considered the father of modern macrobiotics and wrote about 300 books and booklets, about a dozen of which are available in English.[xxii]


The philosophy of macrobiotics was succinctly expressed in the Statement of Purpose of the East West Journal, the Kushis’ monthly magazine and voice of the counterculture in the 1970s and early 1980s. As editor Sherman Goldman wrote:


"The East West Journal explores the unity underlying apparently opposite values: Oriental and Occidental, traditional and modern, visionary and practical. We investigate the play of balance in all fields: from agriculture and nutrition through science and the arts, to politics and spirituality. We believe that people’s freedom to chart the course of their lives as an endless adventure springs from the most basic factors of physical vitality. Our monthly how-to departments are inseparable from our feature articles on the frontiers of thought. We see humanity as a foreground figure set in a larger background of nature and the infinite universe. By creating our bodies and minds from whole foods in a spirit of thankfulness, we can recover our unity with the world, as parts in a common whole. We invite you to join us in this boundless voyage of discovery. The compass we rely on in yin and yang; the staple fare we offer is macrobiotic; the dream toward which we steer is all humanity’s."[xxiii]

[i] Kushi and Jack. Macrobiotic Path, p. 15.

[ii] Kushi and Jack, Book of Macrobiotics, pp. 11–25.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 27–60.

[iv] Kushi, Michio; Jack, Alex. The Gospel of Peace: Jesus’s Teachings of Eternal Truth. Japan Publications, pp. 90–93. ISBN 0-87040-797-X.

[v] Kushi and Jack, Gospel of Peace, pp. 166–174.

[vi] Kushi and Jack, Book of Macrobiotics, p. 19.

[vii] Collins, Roy; Kerr, David (2001). “Etymology of the Word ‘Macrobiotics’ and Its Use in Modern Chinese Scholarship,” Sino-Platonic Papers, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations University of Pennsylvania.

[viii] Kushi and Jack, Gospel of Peace, p. 55.

[ix] Homer, Iliad 13.

[x] Kushi and Jack, Book of Macrobiotics, p. 20

[xi] Hufeland, Christoph Wilhelm. [Macrobiotic or the] Art of Prolonging Life, 1797, edited by Erasmus Wilson (1854 edition), Arno Press, 1979, p. vii. ISBN 0-405-11817-1.

[xii] Encyclopædia Americana (1838), Vol. 8, edited by Francis Lieber, Edward Wigglesworth.

[xiii] R. Burton, Richard (1856). First Footsteps in East Africa. J.M. Dutton, 1924 reprint, pp. 130–131.

[xiv] Lockyear, Norman (1909). Nature 79, p. 45.

[xv] Szekely, E. (1936); Weaver, L., tr., Cosmos, Man and Society. International Biogenic Society, p. 37.

[xvi] Toynbee, Arnold J. (1972). A Study of History. Oxford University Press, p. 89.

[xvii] Needham, Joseph (1974). Science and Civilisation in China, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 5, Pt 2, p.lI

[xviii] Kaibara, Ekiken (1713). Yojokun: Japanese Secret of Good Health. Tokuma Shoten, 1974.

[xix] Mizuno, Namboku (1807). So Ho Goku Syu Shin Roku. Published in English as Food Governs Your Destiny: The Teachings of Namboku Mizuno, translated by Michio and Aveline Kushi with Alex Jack. Japan Publications, 1991. ISBN 0-87040-788-0.

[xx] Ishizuka, Sagen (1897). Kagakuteki Shoku-Yo (“A Chemical Nutritional Theory of Long Life”), Nippon C.I., 1975, and Shokumotsu Yojoho: Ichimei Kagakuteki Shoku-Yo Tai Shin Ron (“A Method for Nourishing Life Through Food: A Unique Chemical Food-Nourishment Theory of Body and Mind”), 1898. Nippon C.I., 1974.

[xxi] Ohsawa, George; Dufty, William (1965). You Are All Sanpaku. Citadel (1998 reprint). ISBN 978-0806507286.

[xxii] Kotzsch, Ronald, Ph.D. (1985). Macrobiotics: Yesterday and Today. Japan Publications. ISBN 978-0870406119.

[xxiii] Sherman Goldman, “Statement of Purpose,” East West Journal, 1974-1982.

bottom of page