post by Donna Nicolino, MRO
photos by Simone Couto
From June 15th to the 19th, participants in this year’s Being the Bowl retreat came together with Hojin Osho and Yosha Scott-Childress to spend several sunny, warm days shaping clay with our hands, experimenting with glazes, “juicing rocks,” painting, and expanding our ideas about what a bowl can be.
We arrived on a Wednesday and after zazen, we returned to the Buddha Hall, where we’d previously met for an orientation to the retreat. What could this be about? I wondered. That first evening, we worked in the dark…
The next day, we shaped clay in a clearing outside of Cabin 10. We experimented with texture, pressing our creations into tree bark, or pressing in leaves, flowers or twigs. Some etched designs into their bowls, some worked slowly and meticulously, while others worked spontaneously. Hojin and Yosha taught us how to coil a small amount of clay to apply a “foot” to our bowls for stability and also encouraged us to not overwork the bowls, which tends to make them weaken more easily. Don’t mutcher it!, one of the participants said, using a Yiddish word that means “to bother or annoy.”
I took one of mine and intentionally dropped it on the ground, then dropped it again. The resulting shape was folded on one end and open on the other, like a torn pouch spilling its contents. I chose to include that bowl in the sawdust firing, the most simple and “primitive” of the techniques we used, where bowls go unglazed into a metal trashcan filled with sawdust and come out in colors of black, white, grey and sometimes pink. That bowl is now part of the insect house in the sunniest spot in my garden, holding an offering of crumpled dry leaves, a cozy home for whatever little creature chooses it.
While the bowls were drying prior to being able to fire them, we spent the morning at the art studio in the Sangha House. We applied thick white paint to tar paper and explored scratching into it—words, patterns, designs—in order to get a sense of what it feels like to apply glaze and create a design. Hojin encouraged us to be inspired by what was around us, to just look up and notice the image of a tree branch, or a leaf or a blade of grass. Because of this, the clothesline near the Sangha House became a popular image, with people sketching its geometric lines into their tar paper. At least one of the bowls ended up being painted with this design.
That afternoon, we went down to the river, bringing our watercolor paper and wooden boards. On the way down, Hojin pointed out how pigments always exist in nature, no need to go to an art supply store to find them. Using leaves, soil and flower petals we created color and texture on our paper.
Down at the river, she showed us how to take the rocks, wet them and rub them against larger rocks to produce a pigment for painting, resulting in rich tones of rust, yellow, brown and grey. I enjoyed exploring these colors so much that after a while I gave up on painting and just waded in the river, picking up interestingly colored stones and scratching them on other rocks just to see what colors they would yield.
The next morning we worked with glazes, dipping our bowls fully into the glaze, or painting glaze directly on them. “Wipe your bottoms!” we were told, meaning wipe the glaze off the bowl bottoms lest the glaze stick to the kiln floor during firing. Hojin showed us how to apply melted wax to the bowl to create an area that would resist the glaze. As the bowl was fired the wax would melt off, leaving a black mark where the wax had been.
One of my favorite parts of the retreat was getting to help pull the freshly-fired bowls from the outside kiln. This was part of a process called Raku firing, where a kiln is set to a moderate temperature (compared to a “long fire” kiln which will be heated upwards of 2,000 degrees). The bowls are then moved from the kiln to a metal trashcan filled with combustible materials, then into water. Each batch of bowls would take a bit less than a half hour to fire once the kiln reached its correct heat.
It took two people to remove the heavy kiln lid, their hands and arms protected by very thick oven mitt-type gloves that came up to the elbow. I loved the moment when the lid was removed, because the pots revealed had been utterly transformed from the earthy clay we had shaped into glowing orange, red and white jewels in the intense heat.
Then we removed the still extremely hot bowls and placed them carefully into the can of combustible straw and shredded paper, which immediately burst into flame. I was thrilled to be able to help with this part of the process. Wearing the big oven mitt-type gloves and using long tongs, I carefully gripped a bowl and carried it over to the combustibles. The bowl went in and—whoosh!—flames shot up.
Retreat participants carefully added more combustibles, and then added more very hot bowls to that. This continued until the can was full, then the cap was put on. Hojin explained that this was to deprive the fire of oxygen, so that it would look for it wherever it could find it: in the bowl’s glaze. This helped bring it towards its final color. When the fire in the can was out, we opened the tops and brought the pots to large buckets of water and submerged them. This cooled them and also created a temperature shock, finalizing the color of the glaze.
There was a great deal of excitement as the pots were taken from the water and gently scrubbed to get the remaining carbon off and reveal their colors and we got to witness the results of our work. Whose is that? It’s beautiful! I love those colors! How did you get that? What glaze did you use? That one’s mine? It looks completely different than I thought it would. Hmmm, I guess it’s okay.
So much was unpredictable, and it was a great lesson in non-attachment for retreat participants to see that their bowl often did not look anything like they had intended it. Sometimes we were pleasantly surprised at the unexpected results, and sometimes disappointed. Hojin explained that with this process, it is impossible to predict exactly what a glaze will look like. Indeed, I used the exact same glaze for two bowls: one came out mostly turquoise green with a patch of shiny copper, and the other is a soft red-brown with hints of silver. But one thing that stood out for all of us is how very unique all the bowls were: so many shapes and sizes, so many different hints of the creator’s personality in the bowls they made, so many colors, textures, patterns, perfect imperfections.
We entered into the process with our full selves: our curiosity, our desires to create something “nice” or “pretty,” our stories about ourselves—our abilities or lack thereof, our judgments, our insecurities, our enthusiasm, our energy, our willingness to engage. Hojin and Yosha and the bowls themselves were our teachers: work with the movements your body wants to make, put in your best effort but don’t get attached to a particular result, be inspired by the world around you, don’t be afraid to experiment and improvise, try to let go of your notions of what’s beautiful or not. And of course, don’t forget to wipe your bottom!