My study of metalwork in Japan began with the words, “First you will make a ring.” The teacher ceremoniously handed me a sheet of silver, a saw and a few files. I waited for an explanation but none was forthcoming. How was I to proceed? What about the technical stuff: how to use the saw, how to measure, how to turn fat into round, how to join? Where to begin, and where to stop?
I pondered these questions as I gazed at the locked mysteries of silver, saw and files. This was unknown territory, and here I was without a guide. A kind of metalwork Outward Bound, Japanese-style.
Study any craft in Japan and you encounter the mysteries of Zen; both the way of teaching and what is actually taught are informed by Zen Buddhism and the more ancient Shinto that has fed into it. Study craft and you become an acolyte.
Throw out your Western expectations, your need for texts, systems, logic, your insistence on the idea, the intellect, the ego, your drive for individual, privately owned creative expression. These things are useless here; they will only get in the way. If you can put these things aside (you can get them back later), what you will experience is a rather pleasant frustrating journey back to yourself.
You will learn that your true teachers are your tools and materials, and what you learn from them is personal. You will learn that asking too many verbal questions obscures direct learning. You will learn to seek your answers from the materials and the work process, if necessary, asking the same question hundreds of times; the answers you get are yours and yours alone. You will learn that it is the experience of the essential mystery of things that is regarded with the highest awe, and not individual creativity. You will discover that your creative ideas are viewed suspiciously, as aberrations.
Or, painfully, you will discover that the ideas you generate enter the public domain, to be taken over and used freely by any member of the group, students and teacher alike. You will learn that conceptual thinking is not appreciated; intellectual activity interferes with the ego-less “flow” experience. You will see that faithful repetition of known forms is preferred to searching experimentation. And finally, what you gather as you move along this path may not follow any rational pattern nor fit any curriculum. You will find that it has its own organic continuity: it is the unique path of expertise that you have forged.
In the metalworking class, there is very little talk. The teacher never teaches. Occasional requests for guidance result in hands-on demonstrations, always in silence, with the barest minimum of purely technical information regarding weights, measurements, the use of tools. You learn what you need to learn as you need it. You are expected to perform the simplest actions countless times, until you find mastery, one thing at a time.
After a year of study, I thought back, trying to remember what the teacher had taught me about the soldering torch. I could remember only two moments of instruction: the first, when I was shown how to ignite and regulate the fame, and the second, when I was told that everything I needed to know I would gradually “know by feeling.”
Often frustrated, I saw the teacher as a kind of jealous guardian of the secrets of metalwork; her function seemed to be more to veil than to reveal. I felt, for some time, that perhaps she really knew nothing, since she presented absurd vagueness concerning the most basic systems and formulas. How could something so scientific, so innately factual, be experienced as emotional, subjective, not-quite-knowing?
Gradually I understood: the use of words to explain, to catalog, to render logical, to reveal patterns, to clarify, to summarize, to teach is felt to be an inferior method of knowing. Words come between worker and process, removing understanding from its true source in the materials. It is, of course, accepted that all one learns is written down somewhere, but learning it by going to the text is shallow learning; it is having the knowledge and not being the knowledge through doing.
I must confess: I cheated. Alone among the students, I consulted some texts on metalwork when feeling particularly mystified, greedily devouring them with a thoroughly Western gourmandise for the logical explanation, the juicy, astounding fact. Also, I was not content to sacrifice my creative self, neither by relinquishing all desire for self-expression nor by gracefully handing over my every inspiration to the group.
At the heart of Japanese culture, closely related to the strength and ordered harmony of the group, there is a missing element – creativity. This is missing, of course, because it is dangerous to the status quo and to the solidarity of the group. Creativity is individuality. Those who do manage to break through and exercise creativity are either flung to the nether-margins of society, where, ostracized, they remain unseen and unheard, or they are furiously imitated, swallowed whole by the group, separated from their ideas and rendered powerless. Of course, if one’s pursuit of expertise in a craft is a spiritual undertaking, creativity need not be an issue. For in Zen, art is futile – being is all.
During the last class meeting of the year, before New Year’s, the traditional time for cleansing, making good endings to prepare for pure beginnings, each member of the group chooses a group of tools to thoroughly, ritually clean, oil, polish and repair. While doing this, we think thoughts of gratitude, respect and reverence; we thank the tools – in my case, a group of ancient, stubbornly rusty files and beaten-up old mandrels – for their hard work during the past year. As we attentively and lovingly renew them, we remind them to work well with us in the year to come. Every object in the studio, every machine, every burner, every tool and, finally, every inch of the workspace itself is tended in this way, in a festive and deeply felt act of group devotion. Mr. Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of the Japanese pearl industry, held requiem services for the oysters that gave him his pearls, thanking them gratefully for their generosity and service. In Japanese life, such ceremonial devotion honoring tools and materials serves to strengthen the bonds between man and the world of objects, between man and nature. The objects themselves seem to be imbued with a kind of accrued vitality, like talismans or ritual devices.
While the Westerner who studies craft in Japan may reject some aspects of the experience – most often, the heavy burdens of tradition, group conformity, self-sacrifice – many elements are easily embraced. It is lovely to thank one’s tools; it is bliss to work in “flow” and without intellect. It is good to feel that one’s knowing, one’s expertise, is all one’s own, an inner journey of one’s own making.
You will love and respect your tools as your teachers; you will know the metals and stones as divine natural “gods”; you will feel your workspace as sacred ritual space. You will know that the power you wield is not your possession, but the expression of a relationship between yourself, your tools and nature; you will rely on your intuitions and feelings as much as on your intellect; and you will know to work in flow. You will know that you are a participant with nature in the creation of your work, and that nature’s gifts of spontaneity and accident emerge with exquisite unpredictability when control is most disciplined, elegant and sure.
Michelle Dominique Leigh is a freelance writer and illustrator presently living in Sendai, in northern Japan, where she is writing a book and studying metalwork with Setsuko Tanezawa at the Atelier Setsu.