Zen + Dogs: Dog Bowl Aesthetics

Nov 25

  • Lesson from Sugi: Even dog bowls can be “shibui”
  • Sugi says, “I enjoy a lovely piece of pottery from which to sip water”

robson bowljohnson bowl

In the summer of 2012, Greg, Tom and Sugi and I were enjoying our camping holiday on Saltspring Island touring the studios of local potters. We had visited Meg Buckley, known for her beautiful and useful large bowls and tea pots. She was spending her last summer in the house on Saltspring, moving into a condo in order to be less tied to the maintenance of a large property. She urged us to visit the Saltspring market on the weekend and to look for a small stand of pots by Lari Robson. Although we had started to avidly collect Westcoast pottery, we weren’t yet familiar with Robson.

The morning was cloudy and a bit chilly even though it was the middle of summer, so Lari was huddled over a hot water bottle wearing a toque and scarf. He tried to talk us out of buying anything, saying that, with the exception of a few mugs and cups. the pots were no good. He explained some of his techniques: wood firing and salt glazing—a particularly difficult and toxic form of glazing. Wood firing allowed for unexpected patterns and colors to grace the pots. We ignored his attempts at dissuasion and bought a bunch of things including this small gray tea cup.

Recently I’ve been reading about Japanese aesthetics in relation to pottery. Robert Carter writes about Shoji Hamada, the renowned potter and Living National Treasure of Japan. Hamada, and the English potter Bernard Leach, had profound influences on Westcoast potters: Wayne Ngan, John Reeve, Tam Irving, Michael Henry, and later Charmaine Johnson, Lari Robson and others. Robson called himself a “slave to the Leach/Hamada tradition” (Carr 2012). In the language of Japanese aesthetics Robson’s pots are examples of shibui: austere, subdued, plain, simple, serene. The wood fire kiln and the use of salt glazing allowed for unexpected irregular qualities to emerge in the final pot, events that recall mushin (no-mind). The wood kiln provided an uncontrollable atmosphere, therefore overcoming the authorship of the potter.

Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese philosopher and friend of Hamada, writes eloquently about the inherent qualities of particularly auspicious pots from Korea, China and Japan. Yanagi discusses the differences in Song era pottery in China, and the everyday use pots made in Korea during similar periods. Song pots are especially renowned for Ru ware, a style characterized by delicacy, exact shape and flawless celadon glazing which has a color close to “the blue of the sky after rain”. (Krahl 2012). An auspicious Ru dish using the name Taizhen Woshi Pen (Great Perfected Little Dog’s Dish) dated to 1761 was used by the emperor’s dog as described in the poem inscribed on the bottom of the dish by poet Yuzhi Shiji. Charmian Johnson’s azure bowls—an example shown here—follow the tradition of Ru, having perfect form, gentle texture and translucent opulence of an after-rain sky like those we experience in Vancouver. Korean ware from the Yi dynasty (17th century) used hakeme technique to brush on a light slip as a glaze, with swift brush energy. Robson used the hakeme brush technique on this unassuming little gray cup.

A few weeks after we got back from Saltspring, we got a call from Charmian Johnson who told us that Robson had recently died! We were shocked and saddened by the news and realized that the little table he had set up at the Saltspring Market probably displayed his last sale of pots. I felt extremely fortunate to have met Robson and had come to love the humbleness of his pots.

references:

Carr, Diane. “Remembering Lari Robson” in the Potters Guild of British Columbia, Sept 2012, Volume 48 No.7.

Carter, Robert. Becoming Bamboo: Western and Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life. Montreal & Kingston: McGill University Press, 1992

Krahl, Regina. Ru From a Japanese Collection. Hong Kong: Sotheby’s, 2012

Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. New York: Kodansha USA, 1972.

Zen + Dogs: Stone Wisdom

dogs-and-rocksThis post is Inspired by Robert Carter’s and Graham Parkes’ writing on Zen aesthetics specifically the role of rocks in Zen landscape design.

Nov 12

  • Lesson from Tom: Dogs like rock energy
  • Tom says, “I love to jump from rock to rock and run on the uneven surface”

Living on the Westcoast, one can’t help but appreciate the power of mineral world: the grand wall of Seymour and Grouse Mountain to the north; the diverse shapes and textured rock formations on the water’s edge of each Gulf Island; the rock outcrops, small mountains in themselves, emerging from Victoria’s front yards. Athletic dogs like Tom, and timid but adventurous dogs like Sugi, like to get to know stones by exploring the boulders on shorelines, and navigating the rocky hills of hiking trails.

In Zen Buddhism, rocks are particularly auspicious sites of kami, the vital energy of the universe present in all things. Shinto, the ancient belief of indigenous Japan, practices ‘the way of Kami‘, a belief in the wondrous and divine nature of the universe. Zen Buddhism adapted the aesthetic practice of garden design developed by Shinto masters, to produce the Zen rock garden. The rock garden is specifically designed as a meditative aesthetic form where rocks can be seen as sources of understanding.

In Zen, it is thought that mountains are particularly strong sites of kami, and the rocks in a Zen garden take on the specific role of attracting kami. These rocks may also function as scaled representations of specific individual mountains, a practice influenced by ancient Chinese landscaping practice. In the Zen rock garden, no water and very little plant life participates. Instead, the absence of these are emphasized through the arrangement of ‘dry’ elements: fields of raked, patterned sand; cascades of rocks recalling waterfalls; and rock paths seen as dry stream beds. In the practice of creating the rock garden, according to the classic treatise Sakuteiki, the master gardener would dialogue with the site and elements at hand, understanding the fuzei, “wind” and “feeling”. Following the principle of kowan ni shitagau (“following the request of the rock”) he would choose the most powerful rock as the starting point and dialogue with it and the rest of the rocks about their placements.

The Zen garden serves as a site of attention, where the observer can partake in a harmonious arrangement of living and nonliving organics, and participate in the contemplation of “dependant co-arising”, the interdependence of all things. The great Zen Master Dogen (“Valley Sounds, Mountain Sights”) said that all sentient beings and non-sentient things have the Buddha-nature and therefore all are equally divine. In this dharma discourse all of nature, including rocks, have something to say and teach us about existence.

references:

Carter, Robert. The Japanese Arts and Self Cultivation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Parkes, Graham. “The Role of Rock in the Japanese Dry Landscape Garden”, from Reading Zen in Rocks: The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005

Zen + Dogs: Enso Meditation

ensoThis post is Inspired by Robert Carter’s writing on Zen aesthetics ¹‚ ² specifically on enso sumi-e (ink painting) ³ and the energy of the brush.

Oct 12

  • Lesson from Sugi: Dogs are attuned to the moment and sensitive to energy from others.
  • Sugi says, “I feel good when Julie is practicing art or mindfulness.”

Calligraphy and other Zen arts, such as landscape design, ceramics, tea-ceremony, and aikido are seen as a practice in self-culitivation; as forms of meditative practice towards cultivating a positive state of mind leading to compassion, benevolence and equanimity. One key aspect of Zen arts practice is that the mind become “unattached” so that the body can move freely with energy.

The image is a photo of a mark I created based on enso* (circle), a stroke traditionally made in sumi-e. I enacted an ‘enso’ session by meditating on mark making, with Sugi’s assistance of course. I made numerous marks trying out different relationships with energy, brush and mindfulness. The most successful marks had a represented energy, a balance of elements, and fluidity. I noticed that these ones were created when I did not think about controlling the brush, but instead focused on the energy needed.

I sent this one to my dear friend Sandra (who also designed the stamp image in the photo) as a birthday wish.

 

References

1. Carter, Robert. The Japanese Arts and Self Cultivation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

2._____________. Becoming Bamboo: Western and Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life. Montreal & Kingston: McGill University Press, 1992.

3. from wikipedia: In Zen Buddhism, an ensō (  ), “circle” is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void). It is characterised by a minimalism born of Japanese aesthetics. Drawing ensō is a disciplined practice of Japanese ink painting—sumi-e (墨絵)“ink painting” . The tools  and mechanics of drawing the ensō are the same as those used in traditional Japanese calligraphy: One uses a brush to apply ink to washi (a thin Japanese paper). Usually a person draws the ensō in one fluid, expressive stroke. When drawn according to the sōsho (草書) style of Japanese calligraphy, the brushstroke is especially swift. Once the ensō is drawn, one does not change it. It evidences the character of its creator and the context of its creation in a brief, contiguous period of time.

Zen + Dogs: Thanks-giving

tom-thanks-giving-sThis post is inspired by Robert Carter’s discourse on ethics in his book Becoming Bamboo. He integrates views from Western philosophy and Zen Buddhism. Zen practice is inseparable from ethics. It is a way of life, a ‘spirited caring and effective willing’.

Oct 12

  • Lesson from Tom: Dogs are attuned to their human’s emotional states and often mirror this state back to the human.
  • Tom says, “When Julie’s anxious, I get anxious and I don’t know what to do!”

“We got this amazing delivery of twenty pounds of pork yesterday!” she said. “We had the whole machine there and all the materials for making sausages!”

“It was incredible to dig your hands into the meat…!” he said.

I look at them and don’t respond except with a weak expression of interest. Greg, at my side, just says “Oh.”

“Are you vegetarian?” she asks.

“Vegan” I say.

“Ah” they both say in unison. “And you?” they both look at Greg. I don’t look but hear him say, “I live with her”, gesturing to me. He elaborates, “I eat vegan at home, but sometimes away from home…” his sentence peters out. Then, as though intending to deflect the attention, “the dogs are vegan too.”

Instinctually, I glance over towards the front door. Tom is there, mildly hyperventilating with wide eyes, giving me a look that says, “get me out of here!”

We are at Greg’s sister’s place for thanks-giving dinner. She kindly invited us over while we were in Victoria visiting my mother. She warned that there would be meat, but that she and her daughter would provide vegan options which they generously did. I often feel torn about going for dinner to meat-eating houses. It is uncomfortable for me to watch people prepare, eat and discuss the meat meal because it brings up images in my mind of animal suffering. On the other hand, I feel grateful that people go to the trouble of inviting and hosting. I usually offer to bring something. I try to look at these dinners as opportunities for small openings towards conversations on ethics. This time, the couple changed the subject to growing veggies, which I welcomed.

I take Tom and Sugi outside, sense the crisp damp air and feel better. They let me know that they’d rather wait in the truck than in the house. After, I return to the dining table to be seated.

  • Large browned turkey. I think about the appalling living conditions of turkeys bred for consumption.
  • Brussel sprouts with bacon. Don’t they taste great already? The image in my mind is of the crammed conditions of pigs who never get to see the outdoors, and the gestation crates where females are forced to lay on their sides for months nursing the piglets who’ve had their tails and other parts cut off without anaesthetic.
  • Mashed potato with butter. There are great alternatives to butter! I think about the male calves born into the dairy industry who are born and disposed of, or kept alone in veal cages for months before slaughter.
  • Apple pie made with lard. Seems that this would conjure a disagreeable image for anyone.

The whole evening, I practice meditative techniques of breathing, attention to the moment, compassion towards the other guests, but with mixed results. I continue to feel a small familiar cloud of despair hanging overhead…

Zen + Dogs: Every-Minute Zen, 30 minute Union Street

This post is inspired by “Every-Minute Zen” a classic Zen koan reproduced in Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1985.)**

Oct 4

  • Lesson from Tom: Pay attention to the present moment, it’s the only one there is!
  • Sugi says, “When I’m walking, I take in the scent each step along the way.”

dogs

 

cracked sidewalk, uneven underfoot

skin and lungs/nose feel warmth and humidity

mild breeze, hum of landscaping machines

sprinkle of brown leaves crunch under sneakers

breath in just-discernible autumn scent

Maximum 30km

motorcyclemotorcycle parked but exploding hard pannier

City of Vancouver Heritage Building, mustard brown, black railings as outline

newspaper flicking cafe drinkers

hairy stock of a palm tree

ivyivy-type plant, interior leaves of green, pink on fringe

same pink, but deeper, flower with bright yellow centre

yet another, same pink outer petals on fuchsia bells, soft white interior, blooming crazily

across the street side by side smart renos with alternating black and white paint

Trans Canada Trail / Sentier TransCanadien, this way points the arrow

Residents Parking Only, clack of bikes passing

lionsgate to Vancouver Special, two concrete lions surrounding, right lion – right front paw lifted, left lion – left front paw lifted

guy in black with a large black cap accentuating his head

scent of detergent as he stops

“Cute dogs! How old are they”

“Black one’s 10, brown one’s 9″

guerilla folk festivalwhite and green Urban Guerrilla Folk Festival poster

crows caw about nut

guy in a bright green T-shirt, white earbuds letting out dim sounds

cross Gore, more crowded, cafés and bike shop

stop for water out of my pack

remove and fold sweater and stow,

change glasses to interior set

enter shop, browse the beautiful blues and blacks

Tom points to the door, so we head back, I still have a lot to learn

________________________

**Every-Minute Zen
Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.” Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.