A couple of years ago, a Korean teamaster had brought back three pots that were almost identical. All three pots had an image of bamboo grass on the side. One of the three which had “Tea and Zen are not two but one” inscribed on the other side in classical Chinese calligraphy broke during use. One of the pots which had some famous Taoist saying inscribed on it is still in use by the teamaster. The last was gifted as one was about to depart from Korea, it is the pot pictured in this blog.
This pot is a real piece of Zen. It was produced a few years ago by a popular yixing company called “Gum Sa Do Yae”. In 2007 the company stopped production after two of its now-famous potters, Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup, left to open their own kilns. Since that time both of these artists have gained fame and notoriety for their marvelous yixing pots produced from their independent kilns. Their works are stunning in their simplicity and wondrous in their form. They often fetch prices in the thousands of dollar range.
Undoubtedly, these potters have skill. Some, such as the teamaster who gave one this pot, attributes their abilities to their indirect training in Zen.
When Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup were working for Gum Sa Do Yae they were hand-making hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of pots. These pots were virtually all the same and looked almost identical as the one pictured above. They were pumping out so many of the same pots day in and day out that they developed a sort of mindlessness, a true spontaneity about it. This repetitious, joyfully mindless state of work is said to embody the precepts of zen.
This is the way of tea, the way that Korean potters mindlessly toiled hundreds of years before in the mountain kilns- alone with the rhythms of nature and an abundance of repetitious work. As a result of such conditions, works that were detached from conceptual deliberate thought were produced- pieces of zen.
Often the pottery created in this state was finished in a flash of zen, a gye yal (Eng:brushmark, Jap: Hakeme) or spontaneous calligraphy quoting a famous Zen phrase or Taoist quote. When the Japanese first caught sight of the work of these Korean potters they attempted to re-create their style, but were unsuccessful because their actions were too deliberate and steeped in conceptual thought. As a result they kidnapped many of these Korean potters and forced them to produce such works in Japan.
Its size, like all of its identical siblings, is medium-largish for a yixing but can still fit in ones palm nicely. Although a touch large, it stands staunch and strong, as if in seating mediation.
The layout of its calligraphy attempts of minimize its enormity and harmonizes the piece. The calligraphy and engraving stretches the pot horizontally. The engraving of bamboo is centered more towards the spout. It looks as if it is blowing slowly in the wind and fills up as it moves more toward the short spout- creating a perfect balance with the handle on the opposite side. The placement of the calligraphy on the other side is placed closer to the handle side. It still manages to harmonize with the handle though by the use of vertical calligraphy near the spout side- absolutely brilliant. The placement of the engraving and calligraphy suggest that these pots should be placed with the spout at 10-11 o'clock. This is part of common tea etiquette as a spout pointed directly at the guest is seen as a rude act. Besides this, the natural placement of the pot at 10-11 o'clock reduces the length of this pot went viewed from directly in front or behind, adding even more balance.
The bamboo engraving is natural and beautiful. Bamboo often represents simplicity. Besides that, it is so common, it bears neither fruit not flower yet stands strong due to its empty form inside. In this way bamboo represents the zen mind- strong in its emptiness and simplicity.
The calligraphy on the other side is read right to left. The larger horizontal section translates to “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one”. Where “ten thousand” refers to an infinite number, “Dharmas” refer to all phenomena or all things, and “one” refers to the nature of all things.
The whole phrase is a famous Zen Koan from case 45 of the Blue Cliff Record . This record chronicles seemlying nonsensical dialogues and exchanges among famous Chan monks that often starled zen practitioners into achieving enlightenment- breaking thought their meditation and attaining “no-mind'.
The vertical calligraphy is the date this pot was made using the traditional Chinese astrological calendar. A statement on presence. A mark of spontaneity. (If anyone can translate the date, please let us know).
A pot of this size must be sturdy and solid. This is achieved by wonderful, thick clay that shines with the essence of tea in its pores. It is fairly sturdy when pouring and pours fast and strong.
Its flat lid, like the layout of the engraving, attempts of minimize its enormity. Lifting it off the top one can sense its sturdiness.
The chops on the underside of the pot, lid and handle also nicely balance this pot.
When steam rises from this pot one is at peace.
A novice monk asked Zen Master Zhao Zhou, “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one. What does one return to?”
Zhao Zhou immediately responds, “I was once in Qing Province and made a piece of clothing: a hemp jacket weighing seven pounds.”