News From the Land

News from the Land: Clay 

September 2017

We had three guys here for a week this summer, working with a borrowed potter’s wheel and roller, and a need to touch clay. Now we’re planning to build a wood-fired kiln. That’s a bit of a leap, given the time and money needed. So why?

Because people deserve to encounter as many physical examples of samadhi (Zen concentration) as possible. We know how to provide this experience through shodo (Zen calligraphy) but the limitation is that calligraphy is foreign to most people. But something else happens when they experience a piece of Pat’s cherry pie, served on a small wood-fired ceramic plate, made by someone who has logged in hundreds if not thousands of hours of zazen (Zen meditation).

What happens is mostly unconscious. Yes, there is the taste of the pie but something much stronger and bigger than that is also taking place. I have watched people easily left without thought when they pick up that plate, and sometimes they are even left without fear. They are experiencing the samadhi of both Pat and the ceramist in other words.

Tanouye Roshi (my Zen teacher of almost thirty years) and I often talked about the role of such ceramics in people’s lives, a role all the more powerful because that plate is neither visual nor foreign. Most people don’t even think about a dish when they are eating off of it. He would say that the fastest way to influence the maturation of American culture is to get people eating their regular meals from Zen-crafted ceramics. Not easily done, but worthwhile.

Where does that power of a ceramic plate or bowl come from? The answer is hara, the Japanese word that suggests a deep centering and grounding of a well-trained body. (Kushner Roshi has been writing about this extensively). We could say that someone with hara has presence, and all the qualities of character that go along with that word. In our line of Zen training, this physical sensation of hara and this more ephemeral sensation of samadhi are intimately linked. How does the impact of hara get into the ceramics? In at least three ways:

  • The potter’s clay that is sold comes in twenty pound blocks. But before any of that clay can be placed on a wheel or a roller, it has to be worked in a fashion something like bread dough. This is hard work, manual labor, best done with a body so relaxed or so exhausted that only the hara is available to do the work. In the process, something of the character of the person wedging the clay because part of the clay.
  • Once you start working with wedged clay, your thoughts about the clay are of little use in it’s shaping. To get beyond thoughts takes repetition – thousands of bowls, thousands of plates. Most of them will be thrown out but learning to shape clay is not so different from the way a violinist needs thousands of hours of practice before the sound starts to transform into something meaningful. So again, when thoughts start to drop away and unnecessary muscles are too exhausted to be of any use, hara starts to show up in the bowl and the plate.
  • And then the firing of the ceramics. The surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees hot. To get to cone 10 in a kiln, you need to get just under a quarter of the distance to that sun’s temperature, somewhere around 2300 degrees. As gentle as the start of any firing can be – gentle enough to ease by the danger points when the clay chemistry is starting to change – the final twenty-four hours will be an exhausting and exhilarating experience as the crew pushes to create something of a minor sun held within the fragile confines of a few bricks. In Hawaii we used to talk about a “fire samadhi” during that last phase of a firing – beyond thought, beyond sleep, beyond conscious effort. Just the raw energy that comes from use of the hara.

That’s something of what goes into that plate or bowl you are eating out of. You may know nothing of this effort, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody needs to tell you that both you and the food have been transformed by all of this. At some level, mostly unconscious, you become shed of the normal fears of your life. Just imagine what that experience would be like, meal after meal, day after day, household after household. That’s why I want to build a kiln.

Final note – that cookbook of Pat’s based on the fundraising Feast of the Senses is available for order. Just go to: 

Spring Green Zen Dojo