Jul 272012

Excerpt from the chapter, Commitment, about “Chisan,” a Zen teacher intimately connected with the establishment of Enso House:

Priscilla Storandt (later “Chisan”) developed an interest in meditation at a young age. One day she was sitting very still in her room at home when her mother came in and said, “Priscilla! Stop that at once! You’re weirding me out!”

Despite her mother’s misgivings, Priscilla continued to explore the practice of meditation into her adult years. At the age of nineteen, she read a book about Zen and was intrigued by the connection between Zen and pottery in Japan. The connection felt like a mystery: how was meditation practice related to the stunningly beautiful Japanese tea bowls she had seen?

While in her mid-twenties, a plan began to take shape. She would go to Japan and learn all about oriental art and pottery—how to make vases, tea bowls, and tea ceremony water jars. Maybe she could also find a Zen master who would explain the connection between Zen and pottery. She figured it would take about two months, and then she would return to the States.

On her way to Japan, she stopped in Seattle, where a friend told her, “Go to Takayama. It was my favorite place in Japan.” It hadn’t occurred to her to establish some contacts in Japan before leaving. On her way to Takayama, she arrived in Kyoto, not knowing a single person and not speaking a word of Japanese.

At a bank in Kyoto, she tried to change some dollars into yen. Standing next to her was a Frenchman who spoke some Japanese and offered to help her. She knew more words in French than Japanese, and from their conversation, he figured that she must be a potter. He lit up when he learned that she was going to Takayama and said that he was on his way there too. In fact, he knew a potter there he could introduce her to.

The potter in Takayama had pottery students, and he also made teacups to sell to tourists. He thought he could use an assistant over the summer to help him make his production of one thousand teacups a week. He assumed that Priscilla was an experienced potter, so to confirm she had the skills he needed, he asked her to please make a teacup.

Undaunted, she fashioned something that looked more like a toilet bowl than something you would drink out of. Then he asked her to make a smaller teacup, and she produced a smaller toilet bowl. He must have been thinking, “Oh my god! There is no polite way out of this!” So he deferred to his father. His father studied Priscilla’s hands closely and grunted affirmatively.

Chisan remembers,

“That was the end of that. So for the rest of my time in Takayama, I was a pottery apprentice to this potter. He did teach me—bless his heart. I went through the winter and summer with no Japanese, and he spoke no English. I received ten thousand yen from him and a place to live. So it all worked out fine.”

Priscilla also sought out Zen in the town where she had landed. She found that there was a family temple there and a priest who sat zazen every morning. She started to go there and join the priest for meditation. But she wasn’t accustomed to the Japanese value of strict punctuality, so she would sometimes start work at 8:30, sometimes 9:00 or 9:30. When the priest learned of this, he gave Priscilla some fatherly advice.

“He said to me, ‘You can’t do two things at once. You either have to do pottery or zazen. Make your choice.’ But I was pretty sure I had to do two things at once. Doing zazen was more and more important to me. I really felt a deep conflict. I felt that in order to do pottery, I would have to do zazen. They were not separate. Pottery to me was my original meditation in action.”

Finally the priest suggested that she meet another Zen priest who spoke some English. She could meet him in Hokkaido, where he was going to open a new hondo, a Japanese hall of worship, at a Zen temple there. Priscilla would need to take leave from her apprentice job to attend the ceremony. Her pottery teacher assented and wished her the best.

She arrived at the temple in Hokkaido. In the hondo, there were long rows of Zen priests sitting on either side in dark robes. True to form, Priscilla was wearing a long skirt, a colorful bandana, and pigtails. The staid quality of a Japanese Zen temple met the bold energy of a young, exuberant American woman. Suddenly someone came up to her and said, “Take off your bandana.” They handed her a slip of paper and said, “Write your name on the paper and put it on the tray.”

At the far end of the hall, she saw a tiny man with a white beard perched on a huge cushion. He would have a major influence on her life. Before the ceremony started, Priscilla got the opportunity to ask her question about Zen and pottery. Even though the roshi was able to speak some English, he didn’t understand a word of what she was saying. So another person helped translate and explained how she had come to Japan to do pottery, but in order to do pottery, she wanted to do Zen. She felt that pottery was an expression of her Zen. Could he help her understand the connection?

He thought for a moment and then said, “Pottery—Zen: one path.”

At the dedication ceremony, Priscilla was in tears. She remembers,

“My life had just changed in every direction, and I couldn’t breathe. I had discovered what I had come to Japan for, but I didn’t know it would actually happen.”

After the ceremony she was introduced to the roshi: Yamada Mumon, head of the Myoshinji temple, the center of Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Japan, and president of Hanazono University.