Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism



I need initially acknowledge, as the author himself does, that the publishers (ie Axiom) have here produced a book of impressive physical beauty. Its design and structure is such that a casual reader can be confident of refreshment no matter where in its pages he/she might dip. Good quality paper allows the text to be complemented with fine photography and suggestively sparing line drawings of ceramic forms. The photographs show persons, places and artworks of relevant significance. However, most importantly, they illustrate Milton Moon's words with wonderful images of his own celebrated ceramics.

And it is the fact that the author here is first and foremost 'The Potter', and a very distinguished and sage elder potter at that, that is of greatest significance. As Moon rightly states, pottery is a fundamental indicator of human culture. This elemental craft of hand, earth and fire was answering practical needs and giving creative expression to our humanity long before the arts of writing appeared amongst us. Elsewhere in the modern world pottery now tends to be depreciated as a poor cousin of purportedly finer arts, but within the exquisite cultural traditions of Japan the eminence of ceramic craft singularly endures.

'The Zen Master, The Potter & The Poet' is the very personal story of an Australian potter's potent connections with, and deep immersion in, those exquisite cultural traditions of Japan that are so sympathetic and supportive of his craft. There is moreover a satisfying aptness to the sense that Milton Moon's long practice of his craft also quite naturally shapes the telling of that story, in the process expressing the well-rounded, wabi vessel of a humble human life lived in good faith with its deepest nature.

Moon says of his work 'As a book it is a bit of a jumble, just as my own life has been.' But his writing has the distinct rhythm of a potter's wheel, turning as pliable clay the thought and experience of a life richly recollected. Passages that are anecdotal and/or instructive in nature regularly alternate with italicized passages that lead the reader into Moon's deeper reflections. The most sensitive words and phrases are repeatedly touched upon, e.g -

- 'when the student is ready the teacher appears'
- 'a finger-tip taste is useless'
- 'within us, and all about us'
- 'Trust'
- 'One'
- 'Namu-amida-butsu'.

These then constitute recurrent points of contact with which Moon also invites his reader to join him in feeling more and more deeply for the stirring material at hand.

Material is introduced, and integrated, from several different, though intimately interrelated directions. There is narrative of extensive travels in Japan visiting people and places of great cultural and creative significance. Master potters are well-met. The history and pertinent firing techniques of Japanese ceramics are examined. Especial attention is paid to chado, the Way of Tea, and its elusive wabi aesthetic as a crucial formative influence upon traditional pottery. Also discussed is the great modern stimulus of Soetsu Yanagi's Mingei, or 'Folk-craft' movement, which gave renewed impetus and creative meaning to the traditional Buddhist distinction between the action of jiriki (ie self-power) and tariki (ie Other Power).

But the title The Zen Master. The Potter & The Poet is well chosen. 'The Zen Master' is Roshi Kobori Nanrei, Abbot of the Daitokuji's Ryokoin sub-temple in Kyoto. Moon's Zen education with Kobori Roshi, and his intense experiences of meditation at Daitokuji, provide the predominant source of material for the first two thirds of his book. The Pure Land Buddhist practice of nembutsu becomes known to a surprised Moon through the highly sympathetic Roshi, and spontaneously during meditation. (NB I have been told that the Daitokuji and Honganji have enjoyed close relations since the days of the firm friendship between Abbot Ikkyu and Rennyo Shonin in the 15th century, so perhaps the strong nembutsu sympathies of Kobori Roshi are completely consistent with this long tradition.)

'The Poet' is Harold Stewart, the highly accomplished Australian poet, long-term resident of Kyoto, and devoted Pure Land Buddhist of the Shin school. The final third of Moon's book is dominated by reflections upon highly erudite correspondence received from Stewart in which is offered an incisive interpretation of the Pure Land Buddhist teachings and their seminal importance within the Japanese cultural milieu. Stewart confirms for Moon that there is no contradiction of Zen teachings in nembutsu, leading Moon to the final poignant appreciation of nembutsu 'as a link to a realisation not yet understood.'

So the title of Milton Moon's book accurately places him flanked by his two most valued teachers. And if these two teachers are supposed to respectively represent opposing jiriki and tariki ends of the dharma spectrum, then by the end of his book Moon can clearly share the vision that they are in fact 'merging in the colour of Buddhism itself', 'that "elusive beauty the colour of truth"' keenly sought in all arts and crafts of Japan as the luminous evidence of 'where human will and submission were of themselves in perfect balance.'

Moon traces a beauteous wholeness within the veritable continuum that is the traditional Japanese aesthetic and spiritual domain. He refuses then to break faith with this shining circle, ultimately declining to choose between Zen or Shin, jiriki or tariki. 'The Potter' does not breach the round openness of his cup. At this both his Zen and Shin teachers would doubtless express approval, and the unique 'potter's Buddha' figure which in living stone graces Moon's studio must smile more radiantly still.

Milton Moon says of that vitally important but finally inscrutable quality of wabi that it 'cannot be made', is free of 'the stain of the human flaw of calculation', and in artless honesty 'is an expression of life.'A subtle taste of wabicha, the wabi Way of Tea, pervades what Moon writes in this book. A naturalness and fluent integrity is there which a Man of Tea might well find very fit and wholesome. I am reminded that Kakuzo Okakura in his classic 'Book of Tea' wrote of 'The Cup of Humanity'. Similarly, Kobori Roshi as a perceptive Man of Tea accepted a tea bowl from Milton Moon on the basis that it was 'more human'. I wonder if at his ripe old age Milton San might not have created with 'The Zen Master, The Potter & The Poet' a metaphorical tea bowl more engagingly human yet. The great Shin Buddhist poet Yataro Kobayashi playfully called himself by the haiku-name 'Issa', literally meaning 'Cup of Tea'. Perhaps 'Cuppa Sensei' could be an Australian variant happily suiting 'The Potter'.

- Gregg Heathcote February 2007

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