View Full Version : The Potter and the Magic Clay

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R.A. Robertson
06-13-2008, 02:24 PM
Once there was a potter of great renown. His works were celebrated and treasured by kings and commoners alike. This potter had the ability to create figurines of people, animals, plants, and fanciful combinations of these. Each one looked perfectly natural and almost lifelike, while at the same time, appeared to reflect the thoughtful work of a divine architect.

The potter also made useful items. Goblets, plates, and bowls; sconces and candelabra and lamps for illumination; and other household items were crafted with tremendous detail and care. Unlike the figurines, however, these items did not in any way show the mind or hand of their creator. Rather, each one looked as if it had grown from nature itself. Every platter or vessel looked as if it had been picked from a vine, plucked from a tree, or plundered from a beach strewn with shells, driftwood, and coral.

The potter's handiwork was beloved by everyone, but the potter himself was not liked at all. He abused his customers verbally, he was completely inflexible about his prices, and insulted anyone who tried to praise him. Even the nobles of the court could not deal with him, and sent their poor, frightened messengers to trade with him instead.

One day, his few apprentices returned from their work digging clay, and placed the lumps of wet earth on a bench for his inspection. As usual, he found every reason to be dissatisfied with the finds, and yelled and swung his fists or kicked at the students, who cringed and cowered and dodged as best as they could.

On this day, however, the potter stopped and stared at a very unusual lump of clay. "Who found this?!!!" he demanded, but none of the students would admit to being the one for fear that he would beat them. The clay was not like any he had ever seen before. It appeared perfectly clean without having been washed. It was smooth to the eye and lustrous, inviting touch.

Reaching out, the potter dragged a finger slowly, gently, across the surface. The clay yielded completely to the potter's hand, resisting only as much as was needed to be felt. The impression was like touching warm butter... sensual, satisfying, and soothing. Indeed, the surface opened like a flower to the sun, and a strange fragrance suffused the room. A little like honey, like moss, like jasmine and sandalwood, and yet not like any of these things.

Forgetting the apprentices (who one by one had sneaked out of the room) the potter fell to working immediately with the clay right where it sat. Or perhaps, it would be better to say "play," for the clay so effortlessly allowed itself to be shaped into any form or fashion, that there was no work to it at all. And wherever the potter's hand directed the substance of the clay, it stayed. No matter how he pushed, pulled, twisted, or bent, the clay would move perfectly with him and stay right where he put it. If he beat and hammered it, it allowed itself to be forged like metal. If he soothed, smoothed, and caressed it, it could be made to look and feel like silk, satin, feather, and fur.

The potter worked and played, teased and tenderly combed the wonderful clay late into the night. Although he had no intention of creating any particular thing, by the time he was done, a stunning work of art surpassing all his previous efforts sat before him. Overcome with a sense of awe and a happiness like he had never felt, he gently slid a platter underneath his creation, and placed it gently on the mantel above the fire where it could be seen from anywhere in the room. The potter then curled up on his bed and slept late into the next morning.

Upon awakening, the potter yawned and stretched, smiling because he had slept so well. He felt at once alive and excited, yet relaxed and serene. His usually achy muscles had all given up their tension, and he marvelled at how wonderful it felt to breathe, to move or to sit still. Even the light in the room and the sounds outside touched him as if there were tiny fairy hands and wings happily massaging the insides of his eyes and ears.

Soon the potter turned his gaze toward the mantel shelf where he had left his masterpiece the night before. But the feelings of wonder and gladness left him immediately, as his beatiful work of art was not there. In its place was the lump of clay exactly as it had been brought to him. Smooth, almost perfectly round, almost glowing in the morning light, it was still a strange and marvelous spectacle -- but it was not his beloved creation.

Tears sprang out of the poor potter's eyes and he yelled in anguish. He jumped up and grabbed the clay and slammed it back down on the work table, and savagely began tearing it, kneading it, and pounding it. As always, the clay obeyed his every gesture, no matter how rough. All of the potter's rage exploded into this small piece of earth, until at last his emotions were spent, and he sat feeling the still, calm, passive object beneath his hands. He sighed a big sigh, and started all over again to make a new thing, but not believing for a minute that even he, with all his skill, could twice create something as magnificent as what he had experienced the night before.

Little by little, however, he fell into a rhythm and forgot all about his frustrations. His shoulders relaxed, and his whole body began to move his hands and fingers. If anyone in the village had had the temerity to peek through his window, they would have thought they would have seen him dancing, and indeed, he began to whistle and hum as he shaped the docile clay.

He worked throughout the day, growing happier with each hour. He worked again late into the night, having taken many diversions just to see what the clay would do if he tried this or that. He used his hands, he used his sculpting tools, and he even began to shape it with various other things strewn about the room, just to see what effect it would have.

After a long night, he had once again produced something that was unlike anything he thought could ever be possible. He was overcome with an indescribable joy, and started to place this new masterpiece on the fireplace mantel, but remembering the night before, a jolt of fear seized him, and he nearly dropped the sculpted clay to the floor. Tired and sleepy though he was, he knew he could not rest lest he repeat his error from the previous evening.

Cursing the fact that none of his apprentices were around (he'd forgotten all about them), he set about gathering kindling and stoked up his large kiln which he used to fire all of his ceramic creations. Before it became too hot, he placed the earthenware into the oven, and closed the door.

Now satisfied that the hot fire would harden the clay into a permanent form, the potter collapsed on his bed in utter fatigue. He felt a tiny bit sad that his amazing clay would be no more, instead having become a rigid thing like rock or glass, he nevertheless felt much of the same satisfaction and contentment he had the night before. Besides, he had very little time to think of such things, for he was soon fast asleep.

In the morning he bounded out of bed with great joy to see the result of the kiln's hot fire. Opening the oven door, he nearly fell over backward in shock and horror. There, inside the furnace, was the lump of clay looking just as it did the first time he ever saw it.

So cool and unperturbed did it look, that the potter reached in to take it out of the oven, and burned his hands. Dashing his hands under cool water, the potter put some bandages on and searched around for his tongs to retrieve the clay from the kiln.

He put it again on the workbench and waited for it to cool. He sat for hours just staring at it in a confusion of grief, bewilderment, and frustration.

In the weeks that followed, the potter quite forgot all about his other responsibilities. He ignored requests for new commissions, he neglected his apprentices, and he barely remembered to feed himself. He tried every thing he new in order to learn how to turn this rare and singular piece of clay into a final masterpiece which, he was sure, would be superior to any other and which would make him famous forever.

Eventually, however, he gave up with the sad realization that however easy this clay was to shape, it was impossibly stubborn about returning to its natural, basic form. Or, rather say, it's original state of formlessness.

Perhaps most other potters would have thrown the clay out the window, cursing it and despising its memory. And indeed this potter was tempted many time to do this when he saw it sitting in the corner. He had returned to working with ordinary clay, and began to produce new pieces again and slowly started to fill all his backorders.

He hardly even noticed when his customers began to praise him and his work, for they all said that these new pieces were better than ever. They all believed he had taken a vacation, and though they resented the delay in receiving their merchandise, they were eager to forgive him because it was of such unusual quality, even from a master such as he.

Over time, the potter settled into a routine and had re-hired those of his old apprentices who would return to work for him, and replaced those who would not. He continued to do masterful work, but he had become more subdued. He rarely yelled at anyone, and he never beat his servants anymore, but his whole house and workshop was filled with his melancholy.

His thoughts kept returning over and over again to the memory of the magic clay. Finally, one day while he was waiting for some pieces to finish cooling from the kiln, he picked up the lump of clay where it had lain in the corner for the past several months. No dust appeared to have collected on its surface, but the potter didn't notice. He sat in a chair, closed his eyes, and let his hands run all over the clay, probed deep inside its cool depths, and stroked its smooth surface as if he were petting a cat.

Knowing he could not make anything permanent with this clay, he nevertheless found working with it and playing with it so satisfying that it began not to matter to him that he would never become rich or famous from it. Playing with the clay became part of his daily routine, and he used it to warm up in the morning to his other activities.

In fact, he soon realized he could use the clay to work out some of his more adventurous and fanciful ideas first, and then apply them later to the more ordinary clay. To be sure, he was never able to make the other clay do what this clay could, but even so, his work continued to improve. People came from distant kingdoms and marvelled at his creativity and the range of his imagination. Every piece or every set of pieces that he made was absolutely unique, though each was also unmistakably the work of this master potter and no other.

The potter found that working with the clay calmed his mind, and this gave him a greater clarity to envision shapes that no one else had seen, or else had seen but forgotten, or else had seen, but overlooked. People who were lucky enough to buy one of his pieces, or be given one as a gift, sometimes commented that looking at them gave them a new way of looking at the world.

The potter too had begun to change. People actually began to relax around him, and eventually even came to enjoy his company. For his part, he found that working with people was more fun, easier, and more profitable if he stayed flexible and easy-going.

If someone wanted to argue with him about price, he didn't mind. He would listen patiently and agree with them that their idea seemed fair. He would smile at them and begin to tell them stories about his work, about how the piece was made. He told them about the digging of the clay, how every bit of earth was different, how the apprentices feel when collecting in the rain, and the many repairs that must be made to the shop. Instead of complaining, he made all of these things sound as if an epic journey was being made from the dark ground to the light of day, through the heat of fire, and finally, into the customers' own hands. In this way, the buyer realized that they were not simply purchasing a piece of art or a tool or a household item... they were participating in Creation itself.

When his helpers seemed lazy, the potter (who once would have spent enough energy and fury for an army of assistants) decided to be lazy with them. He would give them more freedom and more responsibilities, so they could make their own art and craft, and sell their own work for a profit. In this manner, they learned not only the skills to work with clay and turn it into pottery, but of necessity they learned the trade. By learning the trade, they learned that no money would come if they themselves did not help earn it.

Once, when an apprentice let the fire get out of hand, the building where the potter lived and worked burned down. But by now the potter and his workers knew how to build things, how to shape materials into forms that are both useful and lovely, and so all of them together saw the fire as an opportunity to make a new home and place of work and play, better than the one they had before.

Every day the potter worked with his beloved and mystically humble lump of clay before turning to his actual work. Each day brought him a little more happiness as he danced and sang and whistled while discovering new shapes and possibilities in the formless little piece of the earth. He realized that a master potter shapes not only clay, but also the lives of those around him. He could see now that his relationship with his helpers and customers could be artfully molded in a way that was satisfying to him as an artist, but also in a way that brought out the best in the people around him. These people in turn would improve the way they raised their families, tend to their animals, and run the kingdom. All the world the potter could see now appeared to him as clay, and a master potter could bring life to what before was only lowly dirt.

The one thing the potter could not change, could not make hold a permanent shape, was his magical lump of clay. What he never realized (and it's just as well) was that by doing nothing, by being perfectly compliant, by being obedient to the potter's will, it was the clay that had shaped the potter, and through the potter, the whole world.

The potter grew old after a long and happy life. As all living things do, he died one day. It was his desire that he not be buried in a coffin, but instead be laid to rest directly in the soil by the banks of the little river where his lump of clay had originally been found. After many years, the sleepy earth slowly transformed his body into the earth itself.

Someday, it may come to pass that a child will be playing by a lazy old river shaded by willows and festooned with the flights of kingfishers. We do not know if the child will be a boy or girl (or maybe it will be one of each?). But while digging for buried treasure, when raising up a fortress to defend against dragons, or making mud pies to serve at the King and Queen's Mischievous Masquerade, such a child would uncover a very, very, special kind of clay.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

www.stillpointaikido.com (http://www.stillpointaikido.com/)Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.

Joe McParland
06-16-2008, 01:13 PM
It might be an interesting to revisit your last article in light of this one, remembering though that the perfect clay is the essence of all the clay---or alternatively that every lump of clay is perfect. :)

Thank you for the post!

R.A. Robertson
06-27-2008, 12:57 PM
It might be an interesting to revisit your last article in light of this one, remembering though that the perfect clay is the essence of all the clay---or alternatively that every lump of clay is perfect. :)

Thank you for the post!

Hey Joe,

Can you connect the dots for me? I have some ideas about what you might mean regarding the two articles taken together, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for the comments!


06-27-2008, 02:56 PM
at first i thought to my self "how the heck harry potter has to do with aikido." than i was like, "ohh, potter" hehehe

Joe McParland
06-27-2008, 05:07 PM
Hi, Ross-

It's part of the magic of parables that the reader is tempted to pin his own experiences to the various symbols and to see how the story applies in his own life. Since there's no guarantee that my interpretation matches your presentation, I'll start with the disclaimer that what you meant to say is not necessarily what I heard.

While it may have been preferable for me to approach the article with a clear mind, it's an odd coincidence that I had just read your previous article, "The 2nd Scout Law" (http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?t=14416). This discourse presented much honest insight into a teacher's point of view surrounding the departure of a senior student, an incident which fragments a dojo.

I was preparing a complex response to the earlier article when I spotted the later and wrote the simpler and more concise response to that one instead. The earlier response would have come with my own baggage as a reluctant ronin instructor who has dealt with the other perspective personally. http://inexhaustiblethings.blogspot.com/[/url], whose earliest entries were written to help me reason through those feelings and events. Maybe they'll benefit someone else someday.]

The hot issues for me that put a response in motion included the notions of the teacher's investment in the student and the disappointment in a teacher's expectations being dashed. Additionally, I felt a strong sense of irony: Notions of honor, tradition, responsibility, and so forth, were raised, yet, if your dojo's website is accurate, you find yourself in a lineage of what some might call ronin if not rogues. [That is not meant negatively, by the way. My first contact with Aikido was in a West Virginia outpost of Toyoda Sensei's Aikido Association of America, a break-away from Tohei's organization if I understand the history correctly.]

When I read [I]this article, though, I saw what is potentially a different---possibly enlightened---perspective.

On my reading, that formless clay is the essence of all things, though it is rarely experienced directly and consciously. Though certainly this clay may have meant anything in your parable, to include the practice of Aikido itself, consider what it might mean if that clay was the essence of everything and every student as well, including the recalcitrant one.

Every action, interaction, and non-action, shapes who we are. Just as my reading your articles are shaping me, my response likely shape you---if in no other way than you spent this time reading and considering it rather than doing something else.

Organizations, dojos, lineage, rules and regulations, rituals, the student-teacher relationships in various forms, the business aspects including dojo competition and cash flow, and so forth, are the traces of this primordial clay---but they are ultimately not it, nor are they separate from it. Placing expectations upon these things, including the ultimate behavior of a student, is akin to the potter going to sleep happy with his creation in working with the primordial clay... What are the feelings the next morning?

It's the working of the clay, not the creation, that is ultimately important, that is ultimately transformative.

And if teaching is your role this moment, then your teaching is what is important, the universe's expression through you. That is your working the clay. Do that well and do not worry about the rest.

Working the clay is your investment in the universe; it transcends your investment in a student, your lineage, or anything else.

Thank you again, Ross.

R.A. Robertson
07-11-2008, 03:48 PM

Of the many fine replies I've gotten to my articles over the years, this has to be one of my favorites. I especially like the line

"Every action, interaction, and non-action, shapes who we are. Just as my reading your articles are shaping me, my response likely shape you---if in no other way than you spent this time reading and considering it rather than doing something else."

These words echo thoughts I have put front and center on my own dojo's main page.

You raise many points. It's true that I come from a lineage of innovators. Each of my main teachers has found it necessary to find and establish a new way of doing things. This "tradition" traces back to O-Sensei. By one line of reasoning, we cannot truly follow O-Sensei's example unless each of us discovers, creates, and invents aikido anew. This is quite a different thing to my mind than what people mean when they refer to a ronin. I don't believe O-Sensei was ronin, and by the same logic, I don't think K. Tohei, R. Kobayashi, or the others are rightly characterized as ronin.

(As a side note, I spent some time as a regular assistant instructor in Toyoda Sensei's local Austin affiliate dojo.)

As for my little allegory, I'll comment on a few things that come to mind that are meaningful to me. My voice on the matter is necessarily author-itative, but as you say, it's better if each reader is able to make of it what is most meaningful to them... rather like magic clay.

The Potter in my story is deliberately represented as a Master, even at the beginning of the story. People don't like him, he's not very gracious or kind, but he is gifted and he has worked hard to achieve an unparalleled level of attainment. Working with the magic clay makes him more masterful, not only in his Art, but it profoundly affects his whole way of living. Still, a lesser potter would not have been so transformed.

The clay itself is indeed an empty vessel, or, a floating variable. We can interpret it as life, as aikido, as art, as teacher, as student, or as the relationship between these. The clay is Formlessness. The Potter was the master of form, but it was not until he had truly wrestled with and come to terms with the formless, could his own mastery become more complete.

The allegory is therefore about the the relationship between form and formlessness. Each informs the other, and neither is superior. We see that the Potter does not retire from the world of form -- far from it, his encounter with the formless allows him to become better at establishing form.

It's true that once we have found our own particular Magic Clay, then everything has the potential to enlighten us. All encounters are opportunities to make of them what we will, but only by submitting to a discipline of flexibility, adaptability, and impermanence.

But this is only half the truth. The more enlightened potter becomes better able to mold all of his surroundings because he himself has learned what it means to be molded. Having experienced this "enlightenment," he does not retire. Instead he continues to choose this clay over that, this apprentice over another, this form of creation instead of infinite other choices. In each moment, he establishes only one form, and annihilates all other possibility. The Creator cannot be passive like the clay, for there is no Creation without form. In the world of Form, there is relative value, choices continue to be made, and more is rejected than is accepted.

It's this balance, this interplay, this intercourse if you will, between the solid and the empty that is the underlying theme of all my articles. There is an apparent tension as we try to establish for ourselves which is the right way to be, or if we try to reconcile the opposites. This is just the frisson of lovers who eternally come together while never being other than one. Sometimes I write Izanagi, sometimes it's Izanami. Always I'm aiming for that zone where they intersect in joyous union and play. An attempt at reconciliation is a necessary part of the dance, but really it's the swirl of movement and the changing patterns that matter.

Sincere thanks for your input.


R.A. Robertson
05-15-2009, 12:31 PM
at first i thought to my self "how the heck harry potter has to do with aikido." than i was like, "ohh, potter" hehehe

So, you mean... capitalization might actually have a useful function in written language?