Zen Practice and Clay – an essay

The following essay originally appeared in the June 2013 newsletter for the Seven Thunders Zen community. I am so honored to have been asked to contribute my reflections on the relationship between my Zen practice and my clay practice. Perhaps these words will resonate with other artists — I would love hear your thoughts. A bow to you, my friends.

Reflections on Practice and Clay

“[She] may be unlettered … but it is not from these causes that beauty is produced. [She] rests in the protecting hand of nature. The power of folkcraft is the kind that comes from dependence on Other Power. Natural material, natural process, and an accepting heart—these are the ingredients necessary at the birth of folkcraft.”

—The Unknown Craftsman, Sōetsu Yanagi

Each day is filled with the art of practice. In the moment that we believe we hold mastery, we are shown that, in fact, we are at the beginning. This is my experience each time I sit in zazen and each time I form a ball of clay. It is only in letting go of any preconceived notion of a final outcome that I am able to bring the clay into its form. The same is true in sitting— as I position myself and find the focus of my breath, I do not know what the nature of my sitting will be. I am a novice both in my Zen practice and in my work in clay.

Suzuki Roshi said, “ It is about returning to beginner’s mind again and again. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for something. In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

black micaceous cooking potIt is through the power of beginner’s mind that we cultivate the capacity for listening—and in listening we find the fertile ground of “I don’t know mind.”  Here in the not-knowing mind, where we open to listening, lies the opportunity to respond to our creative energy and to discover intimacy.

Clay, like any art form, asks for our willingness to be intimate. The path of Zen brings us into our most intimate relationship—the primary relationship we have with ourselves. Like Zen, clay brings me into relationship with myself. It is persistent in reflecting back to me what is most present in that moment.

My work is focused on a specific clay that is hand-harvested in the hills of New Mexico and the Colorado Plateau. This native, primary clay is processed in small batches according to ancient Native American tradition. We dig with a shovel and start at the beginning, with a pile of earth full of twigs, rocks, insect remains and the debris of life lived there. From this, we follow step by step, breath by breath, a specific, unchanging process to arrive at liberating the clay. Like zazen: breath by breath, sit by sit, we let go of the notions of our thinking and reside with the self within. We, too, are a ready clay waiting to emerge according to our potential.

micaceous clay potsThis discipline of being with breath and the cultivation of a present mind translates to my work with clay—it is what allows the vessel to shape and form. The very moment that distraction sets in, the clay responds like a cranky child. This is where my practice and my work with clay meet.

My focus with clay is shaping utilitarian vessels for cooking and drinking.  The vessels support the aesthetics of my practice as well as the nutritive aspects of healthy food preparation. Drinking from my water bowls, one touches upon the flavor and coolness of a pure spring. Soup from my cooking pot is transformed by the alkalinity of the clay and finishes with a rich wholesome quality. Both vessels grace the table with their beauty, each one alive in its process of interaction with the elements inside and reflecting this through its ever-changing patina. They are not just a bowl or a pot; they become a member of the family.

My intention is to create vessels that evoke the values inherent in a conscious life. My hope is that those who use them discover how they can become a part of their internal life within the most basic tasks of being human, to eat and to drink.

Donna D’Orio is a Zen practitioner, artist, mother, and grandmother. In each practice, she is at the beginning every day. Her micaceous clay cooking and drinking vessels may be viewed and purchased at etsy.com/shop/pineconealleystudio. For more information or to chat about a custom order, you may reach her at www.facebook.com/pineconealleystudio or dldmicasa@gmail.com.