The Japanese Arts and Self Cultivation.

Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship.
August 4, 2011
Zen centre Gong Stand
October 6, 2011
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By Robert E Carter.

Chapter Six, The way of Pottery, Beauty is in the Abdomen.

On my reading on craft I have found a lot of interesting writing around the practice of ceramics and pottery. There does seem to be alot more written on this than other crafts, not in the technical sense of how too, but on a back story of why, its place in culture and the development of individual practice. This has  maybe developed in pottery as it is seen as being more ‘artistic’ than other crafts and therefore more has been written about the artistic process.  Pottery has been lifted above other crafts from being more easily removed from usury, is it also more impractical or is it not attached, like woodworking to so many trades and jobs where it becomes dissolved and therefore less rarefied!

I relate to a lot that is written on pottery and as a woodworker there are many similarities so for the sake of furthering my reading I have been swapping the word pottery for woodwork and a whole field of interesting ideas opens up. Talking about wood in the same way as clay is talked about!

Carters six chapters of his book focus on the various practices in Japan that embody the idea of ‘do’ or ‘way’ a practice that leads one on a path of self discovery, and include Aikido, the Tea Ceremony and Pottery.

The history of craft and the its tradition within Japan also seem relevant, as Japan has, arguably a more intact tradition of craft and there is an appreciation and literature to support it. It is unlike my background in England where the craftsman/artisan as a form of common employment was mostly destroyed by the Industrial revolution in the early 19th century.

In the chapter on pottery he focuses mainly on two Japanese potters Shoji Hamada and Yanagi Soetsu and their ideas of ‘intution’ in the craftsmen process, a place ‘ independent of, if not prior to thinking ‘. They both saw beauty in certain utilitarian objects, 19th century hand made tea bowls become through the almost unconscious perfection of the craftsmen who made them a high form of art, one where the ego was absent.

The bowls express something the Zen buddhists talk of, a state of awareness that is ‘ non dualistic….no past or future, ugly or beauty, good or evil ‘. Here the potters emphasis the idea of Tariki or other power which is different from the Zen focus on Jiriki or self power. The art comes not from wilful intent but the ‘ spontaneous unfolding of a style that has no intent or pretense ‘. There is a unity of body and mind something beyond ‘ technical know-how or intellectual brilliance ‘. Hamada felt this,  ‘ beauty is not in the head or the heart but in the abdomen ‘.

Shibusa a word that is in everyday use in Japan describes this aesthetic, Yamagi suggests English words to try and define it as, ‘ Austere-subdued-restrained- quietness-depth- simplicity-purity-unobtrusive ‘.

Hamada in his life as a craftsman wanted to make things that were not ‘ acceptable from the stand point of the usual idea of beauty… but  aiming at making correct and healthy things…. pottery that is practical and not forced that responds to the nature of the materials, …. he did not want to make something outwardly beautiful, but to begin from the inside……I simply look at the pot and ask it what it wants ‘.

One of the reasons I read this book was for some ideas for a recent commision of a Gong Stand for the meditation hall of the  Victoria Zen Centre. I was wanting it to reflect a tradition, I have a name for it now, Shibusa, but I also wanted to ‘ respond to the nature of the materials ‘ and  the unavoidable influence of the natural world here. And bee able to combine them,I recently  purchased the wood, Western Maple, which coincidently had come from a tree, fallen by BC Hydro from just down the road from the Zen Centre in East Sooke, it has interesting potential. Im going to try and post some pictures of the process of putting this together to see if I can honour these two distinct but complimentry elements.