Speaker: Hang Mai & Chau Duong 

Guest: Hang Mai and Chau Duong

Host: Jignasha Pandya

Moderator: Ragunath (Raghu) Padmanabhan

Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the simple principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!

Jignasha: Greetings everyone.  My name is Jignasha and I'm delighted to be hosting today's Awakin Talks. Welcome and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is to share stories that nurture our own inner transformation while planting seeds for a more compassionate world. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind every call, there is an entire team of volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this kind of a space. 

 

Today our special speakers are Hang Mai and Chau Duong. To begin our call, we will begin with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves in the present moment, and then we'll move into a prayer. So we'll just begin with a moment of silence.

Welcome back everybody. Now I'd like to invite Tim, who's actually joining us from another part of the world, from the East Coast of US, late at night, and who's been up to offer a song. Before we start the conversation, Tim, if you can come and offer a song.

Tim: Thank you, Jignasha. So this is a little song inspired by the most loving farmers I know, Hang and Chau. 

Living in a composted house with open doors

rooted at the heart of those forest floors

 

growing a jungle of love

in nature’s design we trust

farming permaculture gives life full color

it’s nature’s cure healing us and one another  

 

go deep into this rich soil

smile with ease, no need to toil

move at the pace of slow

learn to go with the flow

 

practicing indigenous wisdom

it’s a beautiful, holistic vision

for all of life in one harmony

all of us in a gift economy

 

start the one straw revolution

a movement of human evolution

Trust your essence, swa-dharma

Flow with this cycle of karma

 

service, simplicity, and surrender

loving all, our hearts so tender

sowing seeds of inner peace

it’s changing me with humility  

 

bowing to the rivers and trees

becoming all we were meant to be

in nature’s design we belong and trust

let’s grow this jungle of love and love and love and love

 

-- "Jungle of Love" by Tim Huang

Jignasha: Thank you. Thank you, Tim, for this beautiful song.  Like in so many ways, you have just touched our hearts by really connecting with the spirit with which Hang Mai and Chau, our guests today, live. Thank you so much. 

So welcome everybody again to our fortnightly Awakin Talks and today in conversation with Hang Mai and Chau. Now it is my pleasure to introduce our moderator Ragunath (Raghu), who is a dear friend, and it is really hard to encapsulate him in a few words, but I’ll try. A long time ServiceSpace volunteer, Raghu is actually more often tuned into how invisibly he could serve. And,  you will not even know and he'd be serving you. He lives on an organic farm in a village, along with his wife. While he's on the farm, he's actually nurturing innumerables slow stories that are emerging around him, wherever he is. So with that,   in a few minutes,  he'll be engaging us in an initial dialogue with the speakers.

And just to take you through the call, by the top of the hour, we'll invite all of you to share questions and reflections. At any time, you can submit a question or a comment using our webcast form on the livestream page. And you can also email us at ask@servicespace.org.  And just a friendly reminder that all of us are operating in a virtual space and we are all in very rural locations, so there might be some issues with technology. So just be a little patient and we'll try to  be back in a few seconds.  So with that,  I invite Raghu to introduce our guest speakers today and take it over.

Raghu: Thank you all for joining. I'm really thrilled to have a longer conversation with Hang Mai and Chau. In many different ways I resonate with the ways they live their life. I got to know about them from a blog that Nipun had posted in ServiceSpace about his trip to Vietnam, where he met them and ever since I read the blog, I always wanted to have a chance to meet them. And then, that wish was granted to me when both of them came to India a couple of years back to attend a retreat in Ahmedabad. My wife, Nisha, used the opportunity to steal them for a week. So we routed the flight tickets in such a way that they ended up at our farm in Coimbatore in the south of India, and spent a week with us, engaging with a bunch of farmers in our region, in the name of doing a permaculture course.

So I got to know both of them more intimately in that period. And then I spent another seven, eight days with them in Ahmedabad. So, I just wanted to do a spontaneous introduction of them, the way I see them instead of a very formal way of introducing. So, from my understanding of both of them, it takes a certain degree of clarity and a certain degree of courage in certain measures to make certain radical decisions in your life, as they have done. 

Hang Mai used to be in the corporate world. She's Vietnamese, but she's very fluent in French because she was working with a French sports retailer, going to different places outside Vietnam and helping them to get work on their way. In that period, she came in touch with a lot of local people in Vietnam. They had troubles and, over a period, slowly, she was able to see that, in the corporate world, even a well-run, well-meaning company, one way or another, has to give in to the pressure of being a for-profit company and do things that are not totally aligned with values. That journey to rural places, meeting with a lot of folks and hearing their stories, certain things took over her. And in that journey, she ended up at a workshop that was being conducted by Chau, and that's where they met. There was a lot of connection and then they ended up getting married and moving to a farm and all that.

On the other side is Chau. He had been working with an NGO and through the NGO, he was  practically living his life for 20 years in the jungle, visiting a lot of tribal populations in Vietnam, the indigenous people. Though working with an NGO,  his day-to-day engagement and day-to-day living and interaction and work, all of them, were in the context of literally living in the jungle. So that gave him a view, which is very hard to acquire. Even if you do a PhD! I mean, you wouldn't use, I know for city folks, most of us don't get that kind of a view of life. And that, obviously, changed him inside-out.

And then both of them met. There was a commitment to shift from what they had been doing to try out life experiments on their own. They decided that they'll buy a small farm and then start building up their life from the ground up, pretty much everything for a couple to live - growing your own food, building your own house, running their own retail shop and a lot of local economy and nurturing people around them in multiple ways, including helping a lot of youth and newcomers to make a similar shift, which a lot of people want to do, but have a lot of confusion, a lot of doubts and fear, and all that.

So, by being the example for a lot of people, they were giving a lot of confidence for a lot of people to try a life like this. So, their life is a life of  moving from a so-called mainstream life into a homesteading life, a life closer to nature and following the rhythms of nature. And, one of the primary guidance for them, for doing this, is what can be called as "permaculture".

So "permaculture"  has been a way of living and working with nature for a long time. A person in Australia, Bill Mollison, and all of his colleagues -- they started this way of looking at nature and relating with nature. And they called it "permanent agriculture" and the short form is "permaculture". Chau has actually been trained with Bill Mollison in understanding and implementing permaculture, which is the knowledge. He went back to Vietnam and started doing a lot of workshops. And, for the last six plus years, they have been living and working on their own farm, trying to live in a very down-to-earth sustainable way. So that would be sort of a very short mention of who they are and what they're trying to do. And,  I have heard a lot of amazing stories from them. I'm going to start off with a few questions of my own, and some questions shared within our circle to us. I'm going to ask them those questions also. 

Hang said a beautiful saying in Vietnamese, and all of us on this call, we can say that along with her after she says it. And it'll be beautiful. Maybe you can just say the English version and then lead us in Vietnamese?

Hang: There's a proverb in Vietnamese that we really like. In English it means “Human beings are Earth’s flowers.” In Vietnamese it’s “Người ta là hoa của đất”.

Raghu: Yeah, in Vietnamese first at a time. And we can probably repeat after you. 

Hang: Yes.  “Người ta là hoa của đất.”

Raghu: “Người ta là hoa của đất.”

Hang: Yes, yes, Raghu, that's correct.

Raghu: Human beings are Earth’s flowers. So beautiful. So what it says represents all the diversity and the pollination and there's a lot of things about the flowers that match with our aspiration. So that's quite amazing. So I just wanted to start off with a question about, you guys were telling us before the call that you are sitting on a mountain of rambutans.

So that is a really amazing picture, you know, to just even picture somebody doing that. So, tell us about rambutans and what's going on in your farm right now. 

Chau: Well, yeah, we have more than a hundred rambutan trees. This is the main season of rambutans. Every year it's a very busy time for us to harvest. It’s another food for us. This year we try to make  many different things from rambutans, because of COVID, you know, so we cannot just sell too far away. And Hang tried to make rambutans become a kind of liquid, you know, so we can use it as sugar. We use this rambutan liquid to cook many different kinds of soups and different kinds of juices. Normally you have to use sugar for example, or another sweetener for that. Now we use rambutans for that. Actually, we never tried it before. We thought that the only way we can eat rambutans is to eat it fresh. But now we can do it in many different ways, different dishes also. So it's very good. And we also can keep it for longer, without  using any kind of electricity like a fridge or something like that, just by heating and fermenting them. It gives us a lot of a chance to share with our neighbors a gift. One thing is, in our area now, actually only two farms still have rambutans. So this has become quite special in the local areas here. So that also gives us a good chance to make better relationships with our neighbors also. Now they can come to gather rambutans and we also can bring rambutans to give them as gifts, at least for three months now.

Raghu: So following that, I just want to ask. If there's like a drone flying on top of your farm, tell us what we would see. What is the extent of the farm? In a permaculture design, how does it look? What is there in which place, and just give us an overview of your farm.

Chau: So, how can I describe our farm now? Our farm is located in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, in southern Vietnam. In the past, this area was already converted to rubber plantation, since French colonization. It means for a very long time already, the land has really changed a lot from the natural forest into rubber plantation for over a hundred years now. Our farm is located almost in the middle of this rubber area. The previous farmers planted a monoculture of rambutans. The way they farmed is the same way other farmers in the area, as well as all over the world, do it -- intensive monoculture, for about 30 years to 40 years now.

After we moved here, we allowed the land to regenerate naturally. We let any tree, plants, whatever occur in the farm grow. We spent much of those 3-4 years just learning and observing what happens on our farm. It's really amazing. Even as I’ve travelled to many places in Vietnam where it's very nearby forests, I am always surprised at how nature regenerates very fast and very quickly, with so many diverse species, different plants and many other small animals also coming in, within only four years now. It’s really like a jungle now, from a land with only one single plant -- rambutan. But now, I can see ... I could only know and make a list of over 100 species or so. The rest I don’t know. I’m still in the learning process in order to explore more. What is this? And that is something very, yeah, amazing. If you don’t stay in the farm, you cannot imagine how amazingly nature regenerates.

Raghu: You know, one of the questions people have asked a lot is that there is a perception that you are living a life of minimalism, trying to live a life of simplicity and minimalism and all that. But on the other side, what you are telling now sounds like not minimal at all! There are hundreds of species on your farm. It's pretty rich to me in multiple ways. So, this on one side, living in abundance. On the other side, there's a perception that you're living a minimal life. So how would you explain that? 

Chau: We can also realize that we're living in abundance, in gardens. We have a lot of choices, in our garden here, to use or not use what is in the garden. We try to live a simple life. It really started from our background living in the city. The more civilized we are, we use a lot of facilities and products from industrialized production. We use less of those things now, and learn to adapt and rely on our garden. You’re right, it's true that our farm grew richer and richer and more abundant. The more we stay in our farm, the more we know how to use things, not only for food, medicine, but also building materials, making a roof, and many other uses. We have many things to share with our neighbors. The problem is our neighbors don’t have many types of trees or fruits any more. They focus on monoculture, since that’s what makes you rich now, in terms of money. 

We are actually very abundant now, we have a lot of things to share. It’s not about the things from the garden, but also the knowledge now. We know this tree. We know what it can be used for or what kind of disease it can cure. We can make them as a tea and we can share this knowledge with others. Only this morning our neighbors brought their children to our garden to get rambutans. They just play around and pick rambutans. We feel very rich living here.

Hang: I like your question about abundance and minimalism. In fact, it's related to what Mahatma Gandhi said. "The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for one man’s greed." If we see the universe from the zoom-in, zoom-out view of this farm, we know there’s a limit. If we don't minimize your needs, we take all from others. But if we minimize our needs, we leave space for others. Then since we’ve come back and we live on the farm, we see the abundance every day, every hour.

We think, to live a happy life, there are 2 axes. One is to minimize your space, and the other is that you return the maximum to others. The first thing is that you leave space for other sentient beings. 

Chau: I just want to add one point here. We try to move according to the sun's direction. Everything on our farm is a product of biomass. It’s a really free energy bomb, the sun. It’s free for everyone, not only for us. It’s very abundant also, very generous, if we change the way we go. 

Hang: You should explain a bit about the sun and others, the natural aspects…

Chau: It’s all about renewable energies. We minimize by using less non-renewable resources, to live a simple life. It's very much about the way we try to practice now in our garden. 

Raghu: Yes, so the sun being the primary source of energy that fuels your life. It's very renewable as opposed to all kinds of other types of energy that require a lot of different investments and industry and whatnot.

Hang: We should do it quickly now, before they commercialize the sun!

Raghu: This kind of leads me to, Hang Mai, to ask you, one of the questions somebody asked us. How can we create meaningful change, in complex, interconnected systems? So now I remember during the course that both of you were doing in my farm, this term "interconnectedness", when that came up,  you shared something pretty deep and profound, which is that normally when we talk about interconnectedness, we talk about one side as human beings, and on the other side, there's nature. On the other side, there're all the systems created by human beings. 

So we talk about the connectedness of all these different categories, as if they're all of equal importance. You know, generally people tend to draw these pie-charts kind of circles. They talk about the triple bottom line. They say economy and ecology and community, things like that. And you said something about how, the way we look at interconnectedness is actually very flawed, compared with what reality actually is. So yes, reality's interconnected, but you have a different picture of what that interconnection is. Can you share some of that?

Hang: Yeah, I worked in CSR, corporate social responsibility. I think up to now it is more than 20 years because in parallel to my entrepreneurship, I still do some freelance on CSR. So in CSR, we were made to believe that economy, society and ecology are equally important. Like three cookies taken out from one box. But, one man named Tobias Stöcker changed my mind. He arranged those three circles in a different way. Ecology is at the base. Upper layer is society. On top is the economy. It’s like a three-layer birthday cake. If the ecology base is ruined, damaged, there’s no more society, and of course no more economy. 

Source: THE ECOLOGY BASE | Hang Mai | TEDxHCMUSSH

Our focus is always in the wrong place. If we focus on the economy, we focus on the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself. If ecology isn’t there, human beings cannot be there, of course money is not there. Because we are the only species that need money to survive. We think we need money to survive. Now with the COVID pandemic, it's proved differently. Only if we see that or not. 

Raghu: I mean, that is something, you know, it's nice to hear that and feels good about it, but I'm sure people listening here would wonder how practical that could be. If somebody alludes that maybe we don't need money, or at least as much as we think we do. How could that possibly work in this globalized economized industrialized world? So, how does it actually work for you? You know, what's your relationship with money and do you earn enough, and what do you do to earn, or is it not required for you to earn? What’s the economy of living that kind of life?

Hang: Many people think because we’re rich enough, we can afford to live ‘minimalism’ now. Actually, we have many friends who are not rich and they still choose this lifestyle. Once you choose this lifestyle, you lighten your burden for yourself. You have more time to live than to earn a living. But, we don't deny money. For example, if every month, we need 100 dollars, and if we have only 50, then that’s hard. But if we need 100 dollars and we already have 200, then we decide we don't earn more. Then we spend time on other things that are important to us. 

And about the questions and how others can shift their life, I think it's all about their inner call. Minimalism requires some kind of courage. You have to step out of your comfort zone. Consumerism creates something that we call a comfort zone. That is why many people stay inside and find it difficult to step out. For us, the last four years since we lived on the farm was a learning process. The more we learn, the more we trust that there’s always enough for everyone, if we know what is enough. We know how to adapt to nature, instead of making nature satisfy all that you want but not what you need.

Chau: But I think also, we used to live in the way where for everything we have to use money. So we think without money, it’s difficult to live in the garden. Since we moved to live on our farm, we’ve learnt there are lots of activities and things, skills, that we used to use money to do. But now we can do them in different ways without involving money in this, or very less money. For example, we have a lot of activity. For example, people come and help us build the house, to do lots of work on the farm. We exchange and rotate labor in our community here. Of course I also go to work with them. In return, they can come and help us. 

By working together, for me, I learn many other skills I didn’t know before I moved to live on the farm. It’s not only become a habit to do things, but also it’s a learning process. It helps to depend less on money. We learn to use less money in daily life.So I gain more knowledge and skills, but also, we can do work, without using money on the farms. So it's really helped us to depend less on money. Or another way is to use less money in daily life. For example, now, from our farm, since we came here, we start to rebuild again the way how people give and share together. For example,  this time of year, we have rambutans. Now, we give rambutans to people. We have bananas, we give them. In return, if they have anything, our neighbors also give to us. We don't use money in this. That fulfills a lot of needs in our daily life. 

Another added value here is to strengthen community relationships. It’s not just labor. It’s about people who can help us in many, many other activities in daily life. And we see that this is the one of the ways, instead of trying to earn more financial capital, we also can increase social capital, and knowledge and skills. Especially skill capital. That is important. Not only living on the farm, but in many other cases you need skill also.

Raghu: When you say these, I'm reminded of the story of how you guys ended up building the houses you live in. And that seems to kind of bring to life what you just shared of, you know, multiple forms of capital and, not having to use money. All these things are brought to life  in how your houses came to be. So could you share a bit about how that happened? The house you're living in actually.

Hang: Thanks to our friends, at the beginning we had an idea to build a house from recycled materials. We were not confident it was possible. But when we visited their place, and they came and helped us, and finally it was feasible. It took us like six months to collect materials. And, for the first house we have to ...

Raghu: Yeah, it looks like the internet has frozen. Hopefully they'll come back. And I guess, one of the volunteers could share some photos of their farms. This is a hand drawing from Chau. So before you go forward, I just want to explain these blue little things here, right? These are actually ponds that they have dug. They have four ponds in their farm, which they themselves have dug, and they collect the rainwater in that. And these four ponds form some kind of a center. And the houses are near the ponds and in permaculture, they talk about, you know, zone 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And the house and the garden where they grow stuff they eat, all of that is around the house and the farm. And then further away from the ponds, they have all kinds of trees and other diversities that start there. So this is kind of a lateral look of the farm. 

Imagine a large square with four quadrants. And if you were to look at it from the top, you would see that the four ponds are like the full four corners of a square. So there are four ponds in the four corners and then the home garden. And then they rotate growing food around the pond. So, six months a year, they grow on this side of the pond and the other six months, on the other side of the pond. 

They explained this in the permaculture course they conducted. It's quite beautiful, you know. Chau was explaining most of the stuff they had been doing. They learned from the tribal people, the indigenous people in Vietnam that Chau used to work with -- Chau picked up a lot from them. And he had combined that with Permaculture he had learned from Bill Mollison.

I am really hoping to go to their farm someday and stay there, see what's going on there. And, based on  my own farm experience, even though they have been farming for a lesser number of years, I have a feeling that their farm is probably richer in multiple ways. Because I came from a corporate background in the US to India, most of the initial setup we ended up doing in our farm was just using money. You know, we had some money. And so we bought the farm and built the house, all of that, using that money. And that seems to be the difference between what ended up happening at our farm and their farm, Since they didn't go the route of using money to create their farm -- there is a lot of stuff in their farm, including the crops and the house that is completely different. It is of a completely different kind than what we ended up here. 

So that's another thing to think about. Normally we consider money as an enabler, but in this context that I am portraying, where I at least have these two examples, my own farm and their farm. My farm probably is not as great as theirs because I used money. It's an interesting thing to think about. 

I can also share some stories from our own farming experiences... You know, it's actually material they got from so many people. The thing that they did not mention is that when they got married, they were gifted a truck, a pickup truck kind of thing. And they got on the truck and went around many villages that Chau was familiar with. Imagine a new couple riding an old pickup truck, that's their honeymoon trip. And they're going around visiting people, from village to village. And their actual intention of going around was actually to connect with people and have spontaneous gatherings, to talk about shifting to a farm-based life, sustainable life and all that. 

As they did that, they also mentioned to people they visited that they are going to build a house. And when they said that -- a lot of people in the different villages they visited spontaneously offered them material that they could use to build the house. They started filling the pickup truck with a lot of these materials, you know, windows and frames and beams and tiles. And I think they did a few rounds. They went around for about six months and most of the stuff you see in this picture, all of that is actually gifted to them as material.

So they got all the material and they got volunteers to make the material suitable for building and then actually helped them build also. Most of the material was gifts no one wanted. So it's quite an accomplishment actually, if you think about it, that is, the house gets built and in the course of the house getting built, the community's also getting built. You cannot get that part by giving money. You know, you could give money and get some material and build your house, but you cannot give money and build a community.

Jignasha: Raghu, I’m not sure they shared about this part -- they shared about living with nature, right? You're living with nature. I'm in the Southern part of India right now, and we just had a cyclone and a lot of the farmers lost their entire banana crop. When you meet with floods, when you meet with storms it is very bad. Farmers generally are living on the brink, they don't have extra capital to just boost themselves up. So, in situations like that, how do they cope with nature? Where do they find that strength? Or, you know, what are their inner strengths and what are their coping mechanisms to work through that?

Raghu: So, that's, that's the kind of question that people really have in the back of the mind, usually when they think about these things. From what I know, from what they've shared is that -- I actually sat with them. And started asking them questions like what do you do for this? And what do you do for that? And what do you do for that? You know, a series of questions.

Like, for example, I asked Hang Mai when washing dishes together in the kitchen -- I spontaneously asked her, “So what do you use to wash dishes? You got to use something, right? What do you use to wash dishes?” Oh, she said, “We use ash.” They have a lot of wood in their farm and they chop and mulch it and all that. Some of it, they bring home and wood is what they use to heat their home or as the fuel for cooking and all that.

So when that burns and the resultant ash, that's what they use for the dishes. And they taught us the way of treating the ash and converting that into a dishwasher. And, it is smooth and it's sort of like a detergent. If you see all the pictures, you know, it lends itself to be able to wash and it washes very well.

I didn't stop. I started asking, so what about the clothes you're wearing? You know, what about the utensils they're using in the kitchen? What about the farm tools you're using? And for every one of them, they had very similar answers. So, they make a lot of little things, containers, utensils from food and other material. From the roots, they weave baskets, they make mats, little products that they use themselves. They make stuff from their farm, as well as the community they built around the farm. I remember Hang Mai calls Chau the ‘External affairs minister of their family’, meaning that he is constantly in communication with people around the farm most of the time.

Essentially, the way they deal with difficulty is the way they have set up themselves is quite robust. It's very diverse. And because of the diversity and because of maximum use of the local economy, it becomes very possible for them to hedge their bets and do that.

Jignasha: You have been with Hang Mai and Chau, you know, they were there building a living fence on your farm, and, out there doing it, it was like a tough job. So, I think one of the questions, which has been coming up is, how do you maintain joy in the middle of all of this, right? You're moving from a life of comfort to moving out of comfort and it's a tough life, right? In that sense, also for city folks moving into a farm. Physically tough, emotionally also, challenging in that sense. Within that, what is your source of joy and how do you cultivate that?

Raghu: In terms of joy, what comes to me when I listen to that question is that if a person is asked to sit in one place in a dark room for, let's say a one and a half to two hours, and not move, to be quiet, right -- if a person is asked to do that, people would feel that it’s quite impossible. People would feel frustrated. It'll be physically very uncomfortable, all kinds of difficulties. But if you think about it, people do that every day around the world, millions of them every day. People go to the theatre and sit there and watch a movie for one and a half hours, two hours.

They sit at home and do binge watching for, you know, two to three hours. They watch serials and whatnot. Right? So, it's the same thing -- they're sitting in one place, not moving. And yet they don't feel frustrated, it's possible for them to do so. And the reason would be obviously the case of watching a movie or TV would be that mind and the heart is engaged in something. There's a certain degree of involvement and engagement. And if the mind is held by something, then, you don't feel whatever negative emotions are coming up in you. So, in the case of a movie, the state of being concentrated, the state of being involved is induced by and held by something that is external.

So, something out there is making that happen, but it's possible to flip that, and we can do it ourselves. You don't need a movie, you don't need a video game, or you don't need something external to do it to us. And that is something that comes with a certain degree of practice. But it's quite possible to do that.

We end up doing that a lot in our home, you know, myself and my wife, my twelve-year-old son Aum.  We have been living on this farm for 12 years now. We don't have a TV at home, we don't have a video game. We don't have any source of entertainment, about 25 kilometres from our house.

We live just near the foothills of the Western Ghats mountains. So, you know, five kilometres from my house, you hit the mountains; you cannot go anywhere else. Beyond that on the other side is 25 kilometres that you must pass to come to the city. So, there's no restaurants, there's no malls, there's no libraries.

There is nothing which we would normally consider to be hangouts or places of entertainment or places to go spend money and do something, right. So, we have a farm and there's a house on the farm where we live. So, how could we possibly entertain ourselves? The notion of entertainment itself being a separate activity that you do in between some other activity, for the sake of livelihood and all of that -- if you remove all of that and if you find ways to live your life such that there's no difference between work life and personal life and entertainment and things like that and get yourself involved.

I think the real answer for that is the degree of involvement one can have in pretty much anything one touches, allows us to discover so many different dimensions and depths to what we are engaged with. For example, the most favourite activity that all three of us do in the early morning is to sit on the steps outside and just keep watching. So, we have a lot of trees around the house. And if you keep watching, in less than a minute, you will see at least like 20-30 different lifeforms.

And I'm saying, besides the plants and trees, you know, the different kinds of birds and squirrels and rabbits and peacocks, and they just keep coming and going and doing their thing. And to watch the squirrel keep jumping up and down, chasing one another, to watch the birds coming and going, and to watch the rabbits hopping around us, you know, the peacocks gliding and waving -- and all that is happening in front of our eyes.

And we can keep watching that to no end. It's like real time TV. Whatever way one relates to whatever one relates to -- that determines what kind of experience that will be. So, I wouldn't restrict myself to joy alone. Joy is one feeling. There are so many other feelings besides joy, which are all very uplifting and very engaging, which we get by being involved in ways that normally we don't allow ourselves to be involved in, in the context of corporate work or work that we do for money.

In that context, the connection and the involvement are very narrow, very constricted. You're doing a very little thing for which you are lending money, but most of your personality is locked up. It's like in India, before you enter a house or a temple, you remove your sandals or shoes before going inside. Similar to that, when people enter their workplaces, their corporate offices and stuff, they remove a lot of their own self. Most of the personality is removed and kept outside the office. And you enter with only a very, very, very narrow definition of who you are, and you do that little thing and get money from it and then rush out. And then you kind of reclaim the rest of your personality and go home. So that seems to be happening everywhere.

But the idea of living a full life, when you actually bring it down to the actual practical living of it -- it is all about how your time is spent, and the nature or the relationship you have with whatever you're engaging with. And that opens up, I guess, all kinds of amazing stuff, including struggles which become very uplifting. There are struggles that are worth going through that really enriches you. So, I look forward to that kind of struggle every day, living the kind of life we have been living.

Jignasha: I am glad we are having this conversation and so many unassuming things are happening all the time. So Raghu, I think what you just shared was quite amazing. And when I think of it, a lot of images come up in my head, like, you know, one of the images that came up was almost like swimming against the tide, the current tide. But at the same time, it was also being rooted, in your own way of being.

And, that kind of gives them immense strength and where there is no swimming against, then the way of being becomes very different. And, there is no other, and there is no against also, in that sense. And the way you shared that you were encouraging these kinds of struggles every day, it kind of re-centers you to that point, again and again. I think Chau had mentioned that farming is not about growing crops, but it's about polishing the human spirit or it's about, kind of continuously working with the human spirit.

I think we put some light on that. So, I think, one other question that I had was about what is your relatability with everybody around you who is not living that kind of life?

What are your places of connection? And in that sense, where do your values get challenged when you are living this way?

Raghu: The first part of how we connect? What's the nature of connection we have with the people around us, in the village, and people from the city and other people that we are related to who may have a different perspective, different needs, and different ways that they look at life -- how do we connect with them?

The thing is when we were living in the cities, we were very exposed to a lot of good people, good literature and all that. They were talking about holistic life or sustainable life and things like that. And in that context, some of our thinking and perspective had changed even though we were living in the city.

And, what we used to find is that we decided to not do things that people in the city generally used to do. For example, on a weekend, instead of going to the mall and the theatre and the restaurant, we used to just go for a hike, things like that. It was very difficult for us at that time to relate to other people who had not shared all that.

When we came to the farm and started living here, something else happened. The very same people we had not been able to relate to, we were able to relate to them now, much better. And thereby, the relationship itself and mutually both of us, are being enriched. And the reason is, and I'll give you an example to illustrate that.

If you think about different people of different ages and different background cultures, education, what not, let's say 20 people, completely different from each other, if they all were to come into a room. And if in that room you have, let's say 15-20 two-year-old to five-year-olds. We can easily imagine that in spite of all the diversity of the people who get into that room, because of the kids, every person will be able to relate to these kids with joy, without bringing their own biases and their own conditioning and what not.

And we see that that's quite possible. We can easily imagine that it is possible, right? And the reason obviously is that they are relating to the kids. So, which means there's something about interacting with kids, being with the kids, that allows adults to get into a space within themselves, which is open enough, which is, you know, that carries a certain degree of innocence and courage and sort of openness and playfulness. There is a willingness to allow oneself to engage, in a way, when you're dealing with them. 

Right now, nature offers us a similar opportunity. So when we started living on a farm and being much closer with nature, it started teaching us and telling us things. Such as being able to relate to people in ways we were not able to relate to earlier.

For example, you know, people come to our farm. If there's no nature, if there's no guidance from nature, I would have dealt with them in a different way. But now when they come, I can easily ask them to sit under the tree, which is a very different experience. I can pluck something from the custard apple tree outside the house and give it to them.

So, then I relate to them that way, through nature and ask them questions, invite them into sharing their own experience or their connection with nature. So, nature is the mediator between me and other human beings. I find a lot more choices for connections. It suddenly enables me to connect with people in multiple ways, compared to when I'm not mediating with people through nature.

So that's the one part of the question. The other part you are talking about is what to do about a difference in values. You know, the value system we are living by has changed quite a bit for the last, you know, 12, 15 years.

Again, it was nature that helped us deal with a situation like this, which is that we tend to plant a lot of things throughout the year on the farm. It's the same farm, the same soil, the same weather conditions, the same water, and yet the different species behave differently at different times. Some grow very fast, and some of them take two years to even sprout a little bit. Some of them don’t yield very well. Some of them don't even grow very well. A certain number of seeds just don't even grow. They just die. They don't even sprout. So, it's like then, a certain degree of acceptability comes into our heart by saying, okay, this is what the land is doing. This is what the land wants. And I cannot have a say on that. It does what it does. So then I come to that acceptance about what the land is doing and I cannot command it like you know, I got the sapling by paying a lot of money, you better grow! I need this much yield from my bananas this year. I cannot make such requests to my farm, to the soil right? So, that's the thing that I know. 

And I adopt that same mentality when I'm meeting people, when they come from different backgrounds, there is a degree of acceptance of who people are, where they come from, how they're looking at life, all of that. If I accept them at that level, then it becomes much easier on me to not see them as a source of friction. Instead, there is an acceptance, and then there's an attempt to see if there's a way to still relate, despite the differences. Even if there is a little bit of a foothold to relate, that provides a means for being in touch or keeping touch. So, I start valuing the connection itself as a value, as opposed to what happens because of the connection. You know, I'm not even thinking I should have a great conversation, or I should exchange this. What happens because of the connection is secondary. If I can maintain a connection at all, I see that itself as something. And allow whatever happens because of the connection to emerge. You know, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. Again, I guess, learning from nature helps us deepen.

Jignasha: Thank you, Raghu. That was a beautiful insight. So Hang Mai and Chau, they've just come back and it's amazing. It's awesome. You know, this is how nature works and it is so amazing that we've got glimpses of it on this call. So it's beautiful. And I don't know -- how did you come back?! Because you know, electricity burst,  there was a burst on your farm and you managed to come back.

It's awesome. Thank you so much.  Raghu, would you like to continue the questions from where you left? 

Raghu: Yeah, of course. I guess we can take some audience questions that you might've got. 

Jignasha: I think one of the questions which came up was -- while you were gone, we had a look at your farm. And Raghu who was sharing about how, on his farm, when they started off, they started off with the resource of money. You both started off your farm -- you live there, you were kind of being there with the farm, just being there in nature, tuning in, and slowly and gradually giving shape to what was emerging, or just surrendering to that. And, so he said, because of that, the way your farm looks, the nature of your farm and the nature of his farm are different. 

And so in that context, I also wanted to ask this question that Fukuoka talks about how farming is actually about the purification of the human spirit. How do you kind of relate with that? And if you'd like to share some stories around that 

Hang: There is something we would like to share. First is about the inner gardens and the outer gardens. In fact, for Fukuoka -- Fukuoka is like a Zen master -- he's not at the spirit or the levels of other regular people -- for him, farming was a means to cultivate himself. That is the ultimate goal. At first when you read that, it sounds deep but complicated. But the more we practice, we see that it is true. I relate to what Raghu said -- that when we start the farm, we wait to see the emergence. Fukuoka talks about doing nothing and Lao Tzu  also talks about doing nothing.

Most of the time we heard this question from the new practitioners, “How can you do nothing on a farm?!” And we come to understand that when we talk about doing nothing, it doesn't mean that you do nothing! It's more about being able to stand still to realise all the invisible forces around. 

For example, our neighbor has a rambutan farm next to our farm and he maintains chemically-intensive farming. He waters it a lot. They water the rambutan farm, just like we water the rice field. This means a lot of water and chemicals. And one day he came to our farm. Our rambutan gives fruits before those on his farm. And he says, “How come and you don't even water them? And they still give fruits!” And that has made us understand more about doing nothing. Doing nothing doesn't mean doing nothing.

It is a process of learning. You observe things, you are aware of invisible forces around you. Like the rambutans. They still blossom, they still give fruits without water. We have to do something directly. We don't have to fertilise them. We don't have to water them. But all other invisible forces -- we're doing that. We don't have to do (much); also because we know very little! 

Most people think that being a farmer is an easy job. And if we can find our jobs in a city or something like that, then you have a better social class than people in the countryside. But the more we stay on the farm, we become aware that farming requires a lot of wisdom. Farming also requires a lot of contentment because if you bring the greed to the farm and you want the farm to satisfy all your greed, it is not possible.

If you need that much money when you are living in the city, and you go back to the farm, the farm cannot supply you with that much money. But it can supply you with many other things -- abundance of food, abundance of material that you need for your life. But not that much money. You know? So being a farmer means that you have to work a lot with your inner farm, your inner garden. 

The three poisons that Buddhism talks about --  ignorance, greed and anger. You have to work a lot with your inner garden in order to be a good farmer. You should replace ignorance with wisdom, you replace greed with contentment -- that you are happy with what you have and what you found around you -- and you replace anger with serenity. So only when you work very well on your inner garden, will you be happy with your outer garden. But it takes a process. It doesn't come right away or immediately. It takes some time. It really takes some time. 

And again, I would like to repeat that ‘doing nothing’ does not mean doing nothing. ‘Doing nothing’ means standing still, learning, observing, and being aware of invisible forces around you. Even a small flower in your garden -- behind that is a huge force of the universe. You just don't see that! You just see the flower blossom. You don't see the invisible force. Just like when you are watching on YouTube with this Awakin Call, you see Raghu, you see Jignasha, you see Chau and I, but the invisible force behind this is huge -- how many volunteers and so many others. That is one example, but it is the same for the farm.

So farming requires a lot of wisdom, contentment and serenity. And you don't achieve it right away, but you will achieve that on the way, practicing farming. That's what we learn.

Jignasha: Hang, that was really beautiful. I think what I gathered from what you just shared was that it requires a certain slowing down. It requires a certain (preparation) for the wisdom to emerge. So I think,  you know, if you can, it would be really nice if you can share a story. A personal story or a personal experience where you have allowed for that to happen. 

Hang: Chau has 20 years working with minority ethnic people and he learned a lot from them. He learned permaculture too. But last time when we came to Raghu and Nisha’s farm, we preferred the term prema-culture. Prema means love in your language (Sanskrit). Right? And we love the principles of  permaculture (permanent culture/permanent agriculture). But however, for us, the name means ‘permanence’. And because we come from the East, we believe in impermanence.

So there's nothing permanent anyway. And Chau says that everything in permaculture that he learned, he learned from the minority ethnic people too. It's just that they don't document it. They don't give it a name. They just live in it, you know? And they share it for free! A permaculture course (PDC), you have to pay and it’s very expensive. Yeah?!

So just like water. Water that comes from the well, you call it well water. Water that comes from the spring, you call it spring water. Water that comes from the lake, you call it lake water. The water with the brand, whatever brand that you have, you just remember the brand of drinking water. But you don't see other forms of water body.

So when we first came to the farm, I was the one who was more impatient than Chau, because I was born in the city. I grew up in the cities, and only at 42 years old, I go to the farm and live on the farm. At first. I wanted Chau to do this and to do that, you know? I wanted the flowers here. I wanted the vegetables there. 

I want this and that, you know? It's more kind of a comfortable farm. And Chau, he just said that -- you can’t do that. You can’t require this of the farm, because after 20, 30 years of chemical-intensive farming, you cannot ask for all these things from the farm. Now you just let it be, like a cure, to give them some time to get healthier. And we will receive whatever the farm can give us. Yeah? Now we nurture the farm, like someone who's sick. And we don't ask anything from the farm. 

And I realized that that's true, because if we go back and we want to earn our living from a farm, it is not possible because basically we don't have farming experience. Even the farmers around us -- they are struggling to earn their living from the farm. How come that we come from the city and we think that we can earn a living from a farm? 

We can have a lot of things, but not much money. We can have some, but it's not enough compared to our need for money for the first years. And step-by-step, we reduced our money needs by improving our skills. For a very long time, I didn't cook, because when I went to university and when I worked for a corporation, I didn't have time to cook at all. But once we lived on the farm, I made three meals a day. And I became a homemaker. Really! One day, I find myself in the kitchen and three meals a day, (I’m cooking). 

And Chau, he didn't know anything about the handiwork before. He didn't know how to build a house. Yes. Even cutting the grass, he didn't have to do it before, because he had a team who would do that. You know? So we learned all that in our forties. And day by day, we realized that the amount of money that we need is inverse proportion to the skills we have. The more skills we have, the less money we need because we can do it by our own hand.

So that's what we learn. And we learn how to cook from what the farm can provide us, instead of buying or forcing the farm to give us some food that we know from the city. Because, actually from the city, you know, your list of food is very poor. You have about 10 to 25 kinds of vegetables. But once you are in the farm, they give us 80 others, but they are not the 20 that we know from the city.

And we think that, oh, there's no food at all on this farm. But in fact, there are 80. But because of our poor database, we just know 20 and we want that 20! And then we have to change ourselves. We adapt, we learn how to eat and how to use those 80 species to nurture ourselves, to feed ourselves, instead of forcing the soil to grow the other 20, which it is not able to, because they are all very intensive kind of thing (farming). And the question of Gayu (Gayathri) about edible weeds on the farm, there's a lot. One day when we come out to the farm in this monsoon, we can easily find 30 species that's edible. 

Jignasha: Wow. That's awesome. I remember, last year, during the monsoon, I was in a tribal belt in India and the four kinds of greens that I've always known in the city were the things that I thought, okay, maybe there are another couple of 15 that I don't know. But when I spent that monsoon there, I figured that there are around 350 to 400 varieties of greens, which they consumed during the monsoons. So they were like living totally in connection with the forest.

So it's beautiful when you share this experience. There is a very different kind of abundance that you tune into when you are living on the farm. And, also what I feel is, it's also a kind of freshness that you are experiencing everyday. And there is a certain kind of newness that you're experiencing every day. So in the cities, while everybody's constantly looking for something new to keep the mind busy; here, the mind is quiet and there is always something new or fresh that appears. And you get to experience it, in every moment. So that's actually very nourishing. 

I think so one thing, which I'm wondering is that, you know, right now, you have this land, but for people who are city folk right now, and they're not bad, you know? They are people who are planted there, for whatever reasons. How do they cultivate this mindset? Because when you're talking about purification of the human spirit, in a city space, they are actually in some ways disconnected from Nature. What are your insights or learnings from the farm, which they can take into their lives, and use that as a way to heal the human spirit?

Hang: Your question is about how for the people in the city, when they don't have a farm, how can they connect better to nature, and heal their spirit -- that was your question, right? 

Jignasha: So back to nature, some people might have that option. Some people may not have that option, right? So if you're living in a metropolis, you may or may not have that option. The best option of actually seeing nature would be going out on your balcony and probably looking at the sun or looking at the moon, you know. That would be the thing. You might not even see a small weed growing around. So in a situation like that, you know, what do you think, what are the learnings that you can offer city folk, or practices, which you found meaningful? It could be a small thing.

Chau: Yeah. Also, thanks to the last trip to India, especially when we visited Raghu and then attended the  G-3 (Gandhi 3.0) retreat in India, we were inspired a lot by the way of the people there. I mean our friends there, what they were doing, and so inspiring other people. Since then, when we came back here, we decided to, actually, organize more different activities.

For example, we try to organize, every month, one sharing in Ho Chi Minh city, just to put people there in touch with maybe farming or the ways in which one can live more simply. We also believe that even if people don't have a farm, but what we often call the ‘inside garden’ or the ‘inner garden’ -- if you can make it very beautiful, already there is very beautiful variety to see. You can change your ways, how you can be happier, and also the way you act, and the food you eat.

Of course, if you have a garden, then the physical garden just reflects your own inner garden actually. We can see that with a lot of intensive agriculture -- the way the farmers behave with their farm, it is exactly the way they behave with themselves, with their own bodies.

It's directly connected. Our farmer neighbor, for example. The way he treats himself, with only Western medicine and trying to fit everything quick, quick, quick! He cannot stay patient for maybe two or three days. So that's the reason why we try to organize every month, one sharing in Ho Chi Minh city.

Of course, now with this COVID, we cannot do that. But we hope... And the other activities we try to do are, especially in the dry season in Vietnam, we travel to what we call the Central Highland. We tell the young people there about how we farm, about our experiences. We do it quite often there. 

Hang: So to continue with what about city people -- what we can do? And of course, as Chau said, it is about inner gardens. And, when we talk about the city, we talk about the consumption. So they saw that with the COVID, they cannot earn their living anymore with the lockdown.

And what you can do when you live in the city -- there are many small things that you can do. First, that you are really aware about your consumption. There are many kinds of consumption that's really destructive, and there are some kinds of consumption, which are less destructive. So you can choose, when you buy something, do you need it or is it just because you want it? So reducing consumption is the first thing that you can do for yourself and for nature in general. 

And in terms of food, because you eat three times a day, and that's the way that you relate with nature, through your food, if you know, about where it came from and how it was grown -- that's one small step to understand. And one more thing you can do with that -- don't waste food. And I believe that once you know, where does it come from? How was it grown? If you choose healthy food, you won't be able to waste it anymore. So that's for the small things. 

Jignasha: Wow, that's actually really the farmers' wisdom coming through -- very simple, very small things,  but it can bring very big changes in our lives. Thank you. Thank you for sharing these very simple wisdom tips.  People like us who are actually in the cities and being very mindful of small things. And I think just a simple thing, like a little grain of one rice, can share the story of how it came onto our plate. And there would be like so many people, so much labor involved in that one rice grain coming into our plate. Yes, the invisible universal force behind it, you know, behind the flower blooming and behind the rice coming into our plate. That's really nice. 

So,  I think we can take one more question before we close the call.

The one question would be --  what do you think, in today's time, and especially in Vietnam,  the policies,  the way the government is, it's a pretty interesting environment out there. When you speak a lot about ‘from permaculture to prema-culture’ and when there are so many opposing forces, and we're seeing that across the world, not only in Vietnam, but we're seeing that across the world, that there are these very,  difficult conditions which are there. And so how do we practice prema-culture? 

I think you shared a little bit about the small practices, but when you have big giants out there, what do you do and how do you navigate through that? 

Hang: You know, whatever we do, like Fukuoka says, there's no value in whatever we do. You know? We don't create anything! But we take a lot! When we were discussing with Raghu, one of the themes that we would like to talk about during this webinar is about ‘making a home’. Then I think that we don't have that sense of home for many things -- for family, for communities and for this Earth. 

For example, we're living on the farm and with the neighbors. You know, in order to be self-sufficient in five years from now -- there are many things that we still need that we buy from outside, but many other things that we don't need to buy from the market, but we can come to our neighbors. Many things that we don't have, but our neighbors have, and we just come and we give them what we have and then they will give us what they have. So, relying on our communities is much easier than relying on just a family. If you see this at a  bigger scale, relying on other countries will be easier than just relying on regions. And so on. But step by step, we need to move towards self-reliance. 

With the current situation, in order to satisfy our needs and our greed at the same time, we consume a lot of energy. For example, we are sitting in Vietnam but if we want to eat imported food from Europe or from the US,  that consumes a lot of energy. So the point is, if we consider everything like our home, we will try to take care of the home. Then I don't think that many of us have that sense of home.

And because we don't take care of the ‘commons wealth’, the ‘common richness’, then we always have the fear of scarcity, or what’s missing. So now in this time of the COVID, in Ho Chi Minh city, because the city was locked down for two weeks, even the food delivery was forbidden. It's not allowed. Then even in the city where the food is not abundant, people learn how to share what they have. And the poorest still receive food from someone who's wealthier than them, to share with them. 

The city is not the ideal place to live in, because it consumes a lot, but they still can share if they put it in a “commons wealth”. To deal with this situation, we are living on a farm. We don't have a lot of problems. But we wish that many other friends who have an intention, who have a piece of land, if you care about the safety and the happiness of your own, come back as soon as possible. Because when we come back, we need some time to learn and to adapt and to live in nature. It doesn't come like that. We were disconnected with nature for a very long time. And we also need time to learn how to come back, to find the way back. Did I answer your questions?

Jignasha: Yes. Yes you did. Yeah, I think of a sense of home, one thing that always warms my heart is that when I go to the villages and especially unknown villages,  my experience has been that I have never come back with an empty stomach, even if I've not known anyone over there. Till date, like I have traveled across many villages in India, and my experience has been that I've always been welcomed with open doors, open hearts. And whatever little is there, I have always been offered. 

What you shared -- it's really beautiful -- how do we open up that sense of home and the larger home, and the sense of entitlement , in that sense. It's really beautiful. 

So I think, Hang and Chau, before we end the call, one thing that we always ask and we'd like to ask you too, is how can we, as ServiceSpace, how can we be of service to you? If there is anything that we could do, please share with us. 

Hang: I discussed with Chau -- what can we do for Saigon or Ho Chi Minh city because I was nurtured, I was living there for 24 years, and now what can we do for the city now, in the situations of lockdowns and many poor people? Maybe the best thing we can do is we continue what we are doing -- to support people in their journeys to return to the village, because actually the city is just like the lake. And when you see water in the lake, it's not where water comes from. But you can also see that we are like the resources that the city draws from.

So if we move out of the city, it is also one of the acts of kindness for the city. That's what we did. That's our discussion this morning because of the density of the population; and also for the COVID, when we grow a plant, when we grow trees, if we grow monocultures, then you will see the disease spread out. When the same kind of species are too close to each other, then the disease and many other things will spread out. So we just have the same reflection for people. Where there are these very dense densities of human beings, instead of the biomass, now we have too much 'human-mass'. So from the eyes of a virus -- that is the same as disease for a monoculture plantation? You know?! 

So, yeah, we think that we want to continue to do what we are doing. We continue to live on the farm, and we support people who want to return to the village. Chau says that, "The function of the highlands is not to produce food for the lowlands. The highlands are there to protect the lowlands, to do its job, like the water.” This means that we continue our work and you continue to work -- this is your best service to us.

Jignasha: Okay. All right, Hang, so that's amazing. Before we close the call, Hang, can you sing a song for us? The song that you sang for us earlier, you know -- "I'm the cloud, I'm free".

Hang: Yeah. That's from Plum Village. You know that song too!

I am a cloud

I am the blue sky

I am a bird

Spreading out its wings

I am a flower

I am the sunshine

I am the earth

Receiving a seed

And I am free when my heart is open

Yes I am free when my mind is clear

Oh dear brother

Oh dear sister

Let's walk together

Mindfully.

 

Jignasha: Thank you. Thank you, Hang. Thank you for this awesome, beautiful song and this amazing call. There were so many, so many nuggets, so many gems that you shared and each one of it is actually a practice of a lifetime. And, thank you for giving it. Thank you for being an example of it because, I think, what you shared, what we are taking back is what you're living.

And I think that's what I have personally felt from this call and having this conversation with you. So thank you. Thank you very much for being there with us.

Hang: Thank you Service Space and all the friends who attended this webinar.

Jignasha: Awesome. So we can end this call with a minute of silence.

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