The Clear Mind Challenge and Hot Pots at the Zen Tea House

Hot Pots

The Zen Teahouse in Louisville, Ky will be presenting Hot Pots, Cold Cups from April 18th - May 6th. I'm glad to participate with the white teapot that is pictured above.

The mission of the Zen Tea House is fantastic. (click here to visit their site) They provide tea, light meals, and meditation in the heart of Louisville. Their aren't many commercial establishments in the west that offer tea as a meditative discipline. Many cities could benefit from this mix of spiritual and physical nourishment. I appreciate this quote from their site.

"Essentially, during tea meditation, one looks inwardly to see one’s mind as it is, without any effort to interpret or judge.  Whether our mind is pure or polluted, clear or confused, we only need to witness it.  Once free from making judgment and blame, we will be spiritually open, understand ourselves deeper, and become more receptive to embrace others and their points of view."

The Challenge

Next time your in the studio look inwardly without any effort to interpret or judge. Work with a clear mind and save the judgement until after the piece is fired. How could that change your studio practice? 

This reminds me of my favorite sutra, The Faith Mind. One particular line hit me hard the first time I read it. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. My initial thought was "This is bull shit. How can I not have opinions. I am an artist. I need to be able to judge what works and what doesn't." (Most times when I have this strong of a reaction I need to pay attention because something big is happening.) The righteousness of opinions is something I was taught to cherish. If I give up these opinions won't I be direction-less floating in a creative wasteland? As it turns out, I won't.

The way I look at this challenge is to separate the evaluating mind from the creating mind. They aren't exactly opposites but they are at odds with each other. Constant evaluating shuts down my creativity in a heart beat. My best studio discoveries come from allowing myself the freedom to fail, succeed, or plainly experience the newness of an idea. There will be plenty of time for judgement after a piece is completed.

I remember a studio meeting I had with Matt Towers. (Click here to check out his thrown porcelain sculptures.) We were talking about the throwing process and how to make "fresh pots". He stopped me at one point and said "Don't analyze when your throwing. Make ten pots. Then stop and look at them." This was great advice that I still follow today. When I am working I start with a clear form in my mind and make it with uncompromising focus. If a thought like "thats a little dumpy", or "why did I do that again", or "damn this is the best pot of the week" comes into my mind I bring my attention back to the clay. If I focus on the way it feels in my hands I usually get out of my mind (judgement) and back into my body (creativity).

The goal is not to eliminate the evaluating mind. We need this. As humans we have evolved into this type of problem solving as a means of survival. The goal is to use the evaluating mind to its best benefit without detracting from other mental processes. My evaluating mind is best expressed through sketching, writing, and Photoshop work. This allows me to work through multiple scenarios before I sit down with the clay. I find this segregation to be much more productive than intermixing my creative and judgmental mind.

So again, Work with a clear mind and save the judgement until after the piece is fired. Test this out in your studio and let me know what happens.

The Faith Mind Sutra

Hsin Hsin Ming
by Sengstan
Third Zen Ancestor

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood
the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we no not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things
and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity
your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other
you will never know Oneness.

Those who do not live in the single Way
fail in both activity and passivity,
assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things
is to miss their reality;
to assert the emptiness of things
is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
the further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
and there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
but to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment
there is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
we call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth;
only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state
avoid such pursuits carefully.
If there is even a trace
of this and that, right and wrong,
the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.

Although all dualities come from the One,
do not be attached even to this One.
When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
nothing in the world can offend,
and when a thing can no longer offend,
it ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thoughts arise,
the old mind ceases to exist.
When thought objects vanish,
the thinking-subject vanishes,
as when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the mind;
the mind is such because of things.
Understand the relativity of these two
and the basic reality: the unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable
and each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine
you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.

To live in the Great Way
is neither easy nor difficult,
but those with limited views
are fearful and irresolute:
the faster they hurry, the slower they go,
and clinging cannot be limited;
even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment
is to go astray.
Just let things be in their own way
and there will be neither coming nor going.

Obey the nature of things, your own nature,
and you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
for everything is murky and unclear,
and the burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived
from distinctions and separations ?

If you wish to move in the One Way
do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully
is identical with true Enlightenment.
The wise man strives to no goals
but the foolish man fetters himself.
There is one Dharma, not many;
distinctions arise
from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the discriminating mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.

Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
with enlightenment there is no liking and disliking.
All dualities come from ignorant inference.
They are like dreams of flowers in air:
foolish to try to grasp them.
Gain and loss, right and wrong:
such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.

If the eye never sleeps,
all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
the ten thousand things
are as they are, of single essence.
To understand the mystery of this One-essence
is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally
the timeless Self-essence is reached.
No comparisons or analogies are possible
in this causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationery
and the stationery in motion,
both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist
Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality
no law or description applies.

For the unified mind in accord with the Way
all self-centered striving ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish
and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
with no exertion of the mind's power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination
are of no value.
In this world of Suchness
there is neither self nor other-than-self.

To come directly into harmony with this reality
just simply say when doubt arises, 'Not two.'
In this 'not two' nothing is separate,
nothing is excluded.
No matter when or where,
enlightenment means entering this truth.
And this truth is beyond extension or
diminution in time or space;
in it a single thought is ten thousand years.

Emptiness here, Emptiness there,
but the infinite universe stands
always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small;
no difference, for definitions have vanished
and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don't waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.

One thing, all things:
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.
To live in this faith is the road to non-duality.
Because the non-dual is one with the trusting mind.

words !
The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is
no yesterday
no tomorrow
no today.


  1. Wow! This may be my favorite pottery blog post ever! Great job Ben!

    I say pretty much the same thing to my students when they get slowed down demanding perfection from each little lump of clay while it is still on the wheel. I do as much as I can to get them out of this negative mental space, telling them to work quicker so their heads don't have time to catch up to their hands, delaying judgment til the pots are off the wheel, and telling them to just do something, anything, get it off the wheel and then decide in the calm moments afterward whether it worked or not.

    They don't always believe me that this is in their best interest. So many folks in our culture were raised on the idea that you have to learn to get it right first and only then can you experiment. They feel that the only way to improve is to learn in an environment where judgment is part of the making process itself. "Learn how to do it right first, and then learn how to break the rules." They hold people like Picasso up as the example of someone knowing how to paint realistically (correctly...) who then can do it a different way because the foundation of 'correct knowledge' is already there.

    In my own work I strive to keep the judgment out by working in series, not measuring the clay out beforehand, and letting the process show me results rather than using the process to get specific results. I make stuff with the intention that I will often be surprised by how things turn out. I don't want to know in advance that I will get exactly this shape with this surface. I want to leave room for accident and I want to learn from the clay with each lump everyday. I want to have an open mind and not already be convinced there is only one right way to do things. I want to stay a student so that my cup will always be ready to have more poured into it.

    Starting to ramble now, but I really am inspired by your thoughts here. I am going to share this on my blog and with my student. Thanks so much for putting these great thoughts out there!

  2. Your very welcome Carter. Thanks for the comment. I have been thinking all weekend about this post.

    There are so many examples in my life where I have amazing results when I suspend judgement until after the process is finished. Sports have always proved this idea to be true. When I was playing soccer I would clear my mind before the game. If I was thinking about the individual passes I made I would miss the next play.Even looking at an individual half was too much. I had to play based on intuition and evaluate after the game. The same goes for teaching. I use a lesson plan but I have to be flexible so I can address the students actual needs instead of what I think their needs should be. In making and teaching direct experience/feedback is a better compass than preplanned ideas.

    On the subject of right ideas it has been great to teach in China. Every time I demonstrate here students tell me that they didnt learn it "that" way. I was not expecting the Chinese style of throwing to be so different. We are working towards the same goals but the hand movements are very different. It puts the idea of a "right way" to rest. As a teacher I love it when I get a rebellious student who challenges my methods and invents their own. This spunk and grit has led to some great work.

    Thanks again. Happy Potting.

  3. That is such a coincidence about how we also experience this in our teaching and in sports. Or maybe we are on to something? I grew up playing soccer too, and when I discovered pottery I quickly realized that it had the same mental space for creativity: an openness to intuitive understanding. I think it has always been important for me that I learned pottery in this way. I had to forget myself to play soccer, drop the ego and merge with the flow of the game, and this is how I look at my time on the wheel as well. I think we two may have had this great experience that others just don't have in their background necessarily. Teaching them to find it through different paths is the challenge.

    Great talking to you, as always! Take care!