Review of Kenneth R. Beittel's book:
Zen and the Art of Pottery
In the introduction, the author writes "this is a book about Zen and the art of pottery." The anonymous cover-ware says it is "a celebration of pottery and a hands-on guide to its methods." This celebration goes on in a poetic vein about pots and tradition within a community and Zen in the first four chapters. Then the middle section of the book starts with a jarring switch to the authors class notes for beginning pottery students. However, this material and the following advanced lessons and chapters on kilns and decoration contain a lot of practical advice. For example, near the end of a discussion about making large spheres (p. 77), the author notes:
"The bottom is carefully paddled until a concave form occurs. This procedure seems to compact the clay and, coupled with the inner dome effect, allows the bottom to shrink without cracking."
I think the advice is sound, but see the Note at the end of this review for what I believe to be a clearer explanation. The final two chapters are mostly poetic again. They contain observations on living with pottery and pictures of selected pieces in Beittels personal collection.
Whats Zen Got To Do With It?
The author worked with a potter in Japan in the 1960s and was attracted by the unifying influence of Zen Buddhism on traditional Japanese arts. Zen, however, is a subject that is extremely easy to misunderstand, as Christian Humpreys remarked . Furthermore, according to the Lankavatara Sutra, which was favored by the founder of Zen :
" it is like a potter who manufactures various vessels out of a clay of one sort by his own manual skill and labour combined with a rod, water and thread "
I think this means that all Buddhism, including Zen, issues from the same fundamental principle which, by means of a teachers skill and labor, can be manifested in a variety of ways. Beittels claim that his book is about Zen raises the question whether he has really grasped the principle himself. It is evidently a binary question, but it is hard to settle conclusively for technical reasons. In this review, I will try to form a tentative conclusion by examining selected passages of the text in light of the established literature on the subject.
In Chapter 4, Beittell expounds a concept of "Body-Mind," which he sees as healing an artificial split that Western civilization is especially prone to fall into. I have not encountered this term in Zen literature that has been translated into English. Beittel actually doesnt give any Zen references for it, but he claims instead that Eastern civilization never assumed body and mind are separated to begin with. The founder of the Zen sect, however, seems to have held a different view  when he wrote:
"Their minds abide serenely in the uncreated, while the body moves about in accordance with the laws of causation."
Whatever this "uncreated" is, it seems to be disjoint from the physical world, and its hard to imagine how the separation could be any greater.
Inner or Subtle Self?
In his exposition of Body-Mind, Beittel also mentions various Eastern disciplines in support of his thesis that enlightenment is a unification of body and mind. One of them is archery and its relation to Zen as described by Eugen Herrigel . Herrigels teacher demanded that he "wait without purpose in the state of highest tension" until "it shoots." Beittel may be referring to this "it" that shoots when he says:
"It as though there is an external and an internal or subtle self. The trick seems to be to have the outer self command the inner self to take over."
However, in the Diamond Sutra we find the passage :
"If a Bodhisattva retains the thought of an ego, a person, a being, or a soul, he is no more a Boddhisattva."
I think this bodes ill for an internal self, however subtle. Herrigels teacher also told him the goal is to become "truly egoless."
Even Zen is Parochial?
Beittel challenges both Eastern and Western approaches in several places. For example, on p. 9 he says:
" the West is high on liberation but low on tradition. But we could as well say of much traditional art in the East: Tradition only; no expression. Both traditions seem to be lacking."
I guess Beittel means that artists do have an ego or soul that is expressed in Western art but is suppressed in the East. He expands this critique of both East and West beyond esthetics on p. 37, where he concludes:
"The West overstresses being, the East nothingness."
This could give the impression that Beittel has a vantage point from which he can see shortcomings in both Eastern and Western world views. It seems incredible to me, but Beittel confirms this impression on p. 26, where he adds:
"So, as a Western practitioner seeking to be East and West of the Great Tradition, I intuit that even Zen is parochial."
The technical difficulty mentioned above for proving that Beittel has fully grasped Zen is that, to demonstrate it, the reviewer and the reader would also have to be enlightened. However small the probability of that may be, I believe the chances that Beittel is on firm ground even higher up have to be that much smaller still.
If Beittel is not enlightened, he must be a normal (suffering) human being. In fact, his text does provide some evidence of a wavering mind. For example, on p. 26, he appears to be alluding to Dogens idea  that practice and enlightenment are the same and then goes on to say:
"One pots no differently after enlightenment (if we are even permitted to know what and when that is.)"
In this fascinating sentence, Beittel implies that he is enlightened and then takes it back parenthetically, admitting that he really doesnt know what he is talking about. On page 31, Beittel relates that once, when an advanced pottery class of his built a kiln,
"A genuine community spirit as pure as I have known arose " in which "There was no mention of grades, and there were no work factions or leadership crises."
There evidently were grades, though. If the students seemed oblivious to them, they may have been just playing along. On p. 109, we get a different perspective on Beittels attitude towards a firing where he says:
"A natural hierarchy of command arises, for, though aided by all, someone must assume the lead, and take responsibility for a total vision of the event."
It appears that Beittels communistic fantasy applies only to others and he reserves aristocratic privileges for himself. In another passage (on p. 24), Beittel claims that in the age of the Tao:
"The body-mind thought as one and was integrated with belief and action. and one laughed or became angry without vacillation or guilt."
In Buddhism, anger is one of the worldly passions that is responsible for suffering . Beittels clever attempt to validate anger is therefore quite revealing.
I believe that the notorious S-shaped crack arises in a 3-step process. The wall of the pot dries first. As it shrinks, the wall compresses the bottom, which is still plastic. I suppose the bottom thickens slightly to relieve the compressive stress, and it seems unlikely that much compressive stress is locked into the bottom from this step or from the paddling that was done while the whole pot was damp. In the second phase, the bottom starts to dry, and it goes into tension because its diameter is fixed by the hardened wall. Finally, the bottom relieves the tension by cracking. I believe that doming the bottom frees it to move up and down to remain in contact with the wall at different states of dryness with much less residual stress.
(last updated August 4, 2002)
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Copyright 2003, Terence J. Nelson