The Zen Potter

- by Joel A. Wendt -

A young man, of modest yet adequate and independent means, became fascinated with the art of pottery.   Impatient to travel and seek his fortune, he determined to find out who was the best potter in the land, and go to him and become a student.

We could, as such tales are made to unfold, chronicle his travels in great detail, but this summary will suffice.  It took him only a few years to discover who was thought to be the best, and to assay for himself that this was so, through visiting those few places where a public display of the master's works was to be found.   Finding the master took a few more years, because of the master's well known modesty, disinterest in public affections and habits of work.

It was no longer a young man who arrived finally one day before the gate of the master's pottery works.  As is usual in these stories, he was refused admission and told to go away.  More years of waiting followed.

One day a dirty and decrepit old beggar knocked at the gate, and while he has being immediately admitted, the no longer young man still had enough agility to dash through the gate and seek thereby to confront once more the refusal to admit him.   This was not, as you should now assume, the first time he had dashed through the gate on the occasion of its being opened.

There was a difference, for this time the beggar was there and in the ensuing dialogs the beggar directed the master's students to admit the former young man.  While our hero was surprised at the authority of the beggar, he was too happy by his new position to consider any deeper the meaning of that act.

Again time passed.  Our hero did not immediately meet the master, but only saw him at a distance, and was instead instantly put to work carrying out the many laborious tasks upon which the pottery works depended.  The students made many objects of practical import, which were sold through the pottery store, and which kept the work place going.  Eventually our former young man became aware that the master potter himself did only one thing - the same thing - every week of the year.

This is what the master did.  He worked with porcelain only, which he fashioned by hand, and then fired by himself.  His students played no role in this, although they did provide the basic materials and kept the works and the kilns going.  Each week the master made a dozen porcelain  cups, without handles, of the small size used for tea ceremonies.  When they had cooled from their firing, the master inspected them very carefully and then methodically broke each one, throwing it away.

Once in a great while, a single one of these would satisfy him, and a customer who was on a kind of waiting list would be notified, and a purchase of the cup resulted with great sums of money changing hands.  The students handled the sale, and also the books and accounts.  The master just made his cups.

After a number of years of labor, and many seldom answered questions to the students about the way the master worked, the now middle-aged man still had no significant answers to his various questions.   He had, however, become a decent journeyman potter, and contributed to the work sold through the store in that way, but he was not yet permitted to have any conversation with the master himself.

One day the beggar returned, knocked at the gate and was immediately granted admission.  Our hero noticed something he had missed before, and that was that when the master came to greet the beggar, the master bowed with greatest respect, and gave to the beggar one of the cups that had survived the master's meticulous inspections.  As the beggar left the premises, our hero too walked out the gate on sudden impulse, and followed the beggar.

Again, as in these kinds of stories, a few years passed while the slowly aging once young man followed the beggar around pestering him with questions about the master and the other mysteries of the pottery works, including the existence and meaning of the beggar.

One day, for no apparent reason, the beggar relented, and explained what was going on.   This is what he said.

I am the teacher of your former master.  Each cup he makes, he strives to make most perfectly, and because of his great skill, this is almost always the result.  Each cup is perfect.  Rarely, one cup is imperfect, and these he saves and gives away to his students, or on occasion to me.  This is his way of paying us for what we do or have done for him.  He has discovered, as I did many years ago from my teacher, that perfection is an illusion, and only that which is flawed is real.  This is true as much as regards human beings as it is with any object human beings create.

Needless to say, the former young man eventually became himself an old beggar, and lived a long and happy life.