A Craftsman's Philosophy

Projekt CHARME
This past summer I had the singular opportunity of taking a working sabbatical in Germany. For ten weeks I participated in an historic masonry reconstruction on the grounds of Schloss Hundisburg, a largely Baroque era castle situated in the countryside of Saxony-Anhalt.  Learning building traditions alongside local German craftsmen was both instructive and deeply rewarding. I've found there is nothing quite like participation in traditional craft to help inform you about a people and their place, a far more profound experience than that of being a tourist.

There was ample time in peaceful isolation to pour myself into voracious reading in the evenings and soaking up as much surrounding German culture as was possible on the weekends. In Wittenburg I enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection at the entrance door of All Saint's cathedral where reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses almost 500 years ago. On a subsequent trip I listened transfixed at a concert and choir performance of Johannes Sebastian Bach at St. Nicholas Church where he taught, composed and performed as cantor for the city of Leipzig in the 18th century. Repeated visits were made to beautiful Weimar, home of Classical German humanism as was so eloquently expressed by friends, poets, playwrights, philosophers Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

So that was my trip. My days spent experiencing the world directly, viscerally, physically. My nights and weekends contemplating the nature of existence, the limits of human knowledge and what constitutes a meaningful life. An epiphany occurred to me one evening that summer: This pattern didn't commence with my time in Germany. The vacillation between the experiential and the intellectual had typified my entire life. For the first time though, I was beginning to reflect on it formally.

However, please permit me to digress for a moment with a few personal observations on nomenclature, as its power to influence (and perhaps limit) how we think of ourselves as a species has suppressed the very opportunity to explore a philosophy based on craft.

Homo Sapien
Systema Naturae - 1758

Sometime back in the 18th century an awful mistake was made that continues to haunt humanity, especially Western civilization. During the so-called "Age of Discovery" wealthy European aristocrats were busy scouring the globe, seeking in good Aristotelian fashion, to categorize everything they could lay their hands on. Finally one of them, Sweden's Carl Linnaeus, had the audacity and poor sense to classify human beings. At first he unceremoniously grouped us together with apes and monkeys. Unsurprisingly, this got Linnaeus into hot water with the church. In his defense, he claimed he couldn't tell the difference. Personally, I'm sympathetic to his perspective but the religious authorities of the time would have none of it. So, in a subsequent edition of Systema Naturae he clearly overcompensated in making his correction by applying a name that was to stick: Homo Sapiens, the "wise people" or alternatively "the judicious, discreet, discerning people." Good heavens, that obviously was laying it on a bit thick even for the Enlightenment! Was Carl being spiteful and ironic? I guess we're left only to speculate.

Homo Faber

To be fair, it's not as if humans are incapable of wisdom or discretion. It's just that as the defining characteristics of the species that might be pushing it. Well then, are there any other good contenders for an expression that might better capture the essence of what makes us human? Actually, one stands out to me and so happens to have a much older pedigree: Homo Faber, the "people who make" or alternatively, the "people as craftsmen"

Via Appia
The original use of the expression Homo Faber can be attributed within the context of a statement by the retired Roman censor and consul Appius Claudius of the 3rd century B.C.E. At that time, Rome was at the dawn of its glory, expanding its territory by subjugating its neighbors. This soon brought Rome into conflict with the preeminent power of the Mediterranean, Greece. A costly war broke out between Greece and Rome. After a particularly savage battle Greece sent an envoy to Rome asking the Senate for their capitulation while offering favorable terms of peace. The elder statesman Appius, now old and blind, roused himself to make an impassioned plea to reject Greece's terms famously stating, "homo faber est suae quisque fortunae" or "every man is the craftsman of his destiny".

Appius Claudius knew of what he spoke. Upon his appointment as censor a generation previously, he immediately began massive building projects: the Aqua Appia, Rome's first aqueduct and the initial phase of the Appian Way, superhighway of the ancient world. He understood Rome's destiny as a people lay as much with their skill in making, their ability as craftspeople, as with any military prowess. His appeal was persuasive. The Romans never looked back, building a culture both literally and figuratively, that in many respects endures to this day over two millennia later.

The Future of Philosophy

The possibility for a reconciling dialogue working towards a greater synthesis of experiential, empirical and intellectual knowledge is possible and well underway. Comparing what a craftsman experiences in his art with some of the more profound insights of history's greatest philosophers might yield an entertaining and enlightening beginning. The canon of philosophical thought is hardly complete. There is ample opportunity for us to expand human knowledge particularly in the domain of experiential learning. The contribution of the craftsman might yet prove surprisingly beneficial in this regard. With great enthusiasm therefore, I'll attempt to establish the contemporary basis for man as maker to reengage fully with the intellectual life, to realize his full potential as the thoughtful craftsman!

The Metaphysical Craftsman

The School of Athens by Rafael
In my second essay of the craftsman's philosophy series we leap headlong into the world of metaphysics, the study of the very nature of existence. A broad and deep branch of philosophy with many correlations to craft that we will revisit time and again. The ambitions of this essay are modest, an opening inquiry into matter, form and change; however, I would assert quite relevant to the craftsman working in applying designs and transforming materials.

Mom and Pop as Agents of Substantial Change

Sexuality is an inescapable fact of life and human existence. Well, who's looking to escape it anyway? Most if not all ancient peoples extrapolated the observations of reproduction and growth inherent in human, animal and plant sexuality to grander explanations of birth, change and death and rebirth of all things. There were underlying forces, masculine and feminine divinities in most cases attributed for everything that we sense as constituting the natural world, living or inanimate.

Greek philosophers, as early as the 5th century B.C.E., began to construct and codify explanations that continued to draw from natural observation but largely eliminated what we might call superstitious elements or appeals to the divine. Notable amongst these philosophers was Aristotle. He asserted that sensible objects consisted of form applied to matter.  Departing from his mentor Plato, he denied that form could have a distinct existence as a purely ideal concept, rather he claimed that form by necessity was embodied in and inseparable from matter, physical reality.

Aristotle established a school in the pre-existing Lyceum of Athens that was quite successful, open on and off for over 200 years before the Roman general Sulla sacked the city.  Fortunately, the Romans preserved most of Aristotle's work and the aforementioned philosophy was to take root in Roman intellectual culture. Interestingly, our English words for father and mother come directly from the Latin words pater and mater respectively. We likewise have inherited the words pattern (form) and matter from the same Latin root words. Substance, so it was purported, results from the masculine pattern imposed upon the feminine matter. This was said to occur at a primary (might I suggest quantum?) level. Most of what is identified as objects would be agglomerations or compounds of  elemental substances.

A snowflake,
hexagonal form imposed upon ice
From this imposition of pattern upon matter there arises the Latin natura, something born, the obvious analogy being of a father and mother begetting children. However, how does one account for change with this viewpoint? It almost appears as if something arises from nothing which sounds absurd. Aristotle proposed that while matter is in fact static and permanent, form has intrinsic dynamism. At the same that time form or pattern has an actuality that defines matter, there exists an inherent potentiality, the possibility of transformation.

Causation as Creation

Although the aforementioned explanation of form teases what is apparent from our senses, that change is possible, it doesn't explicitly reveal how or why it occurs. Aristotle thought that having the answers to these questions was directly tied to real, causal knowledge. In his view we can't truly know an object simply from superficial observation alone. Real knowledge comes from a deeper understanding of what causes the object of interest to be as it is. He was trying to frame all of nature, including human activities into a teleological model, that is to say having an intended end goal. So, Aristotle went on to address such inquiries through his description of the four causes of which I'll adopt and personalise his example of substantial change as illustrated by craft, in the specific case of carving an Ionic capital out of stone.

Material Cause

The material cause, as you might expect, is one of fundamental composition, meant to satisfy the question, "What is it made of?" It is the object of material permanence that foreshadows a formal change. In our craft example, you can see me at right outside of Austin inspecting an exposed bed of Texas limestone.

Formal Cause

Here we must be careful. There is a temptation to allow desires and intentions to cloud the meaning of formal cause. However, we must remember that Aristotle intends a universal system that explains natural change as well, where such intentionality is thought to be absent. Here we answer the question of "What kind of thing is it to be?" This often refers to a change in an objects spatial arrangement or shape as in our example. For the craftsman this occurs in the process of design, originally initiated as an archetypal example in his mind even if influenced by a treatise or example. Physically the formality will be often illustrated in drawings such as the layout of one of the volutes pictured here.

Traditional Stone Carver
Nathan Hunt
Efficient Cause

"By what means does the transformation occur?" At this point we engage with technique, the steps required to apply form to matter, resulting in formal not material change. Technique is a specifically applied knowledge, it is where practise departs from theory. In our particular case it is the applied knowledge of mallet and chisel as exerted upon the "matter" of limestone to impose the "form" of a volute.

Final Cause

There is certainly considered to be by Aristotle a primacy among causes. The final causes answers, "What is the raison d'être? Essentially, what is the purpose?" For the purposes of nature his arguments are interesting. Some of his examples of final causation of nature can be definitively shown to be false and ill conceived, yet others are quite compelling. I'll leave those aside for the moment and consider the craftsman's condition.

Courtesy of Hunt Studios

Certainly, the "end product", in our case the Ionic capital, is an external manifestation of human expression or intention which Aristotle does not preclude. In fact, the desire for final outcomes in art, craft and architecture is acknowledged as generative in the development of formal and efficient causes. With purposes in mind beforehand, humans will create new forms and new techniques to realise them.

Craftsmen of the Tao

Chuang Tzu
In my opening essay in the series, "A Craftsman's Philosophy",  I controversially contested the Enlightenment classification Homo Sapien, "the wise man" and proposed an ancient point of view, Homo Faber or "man as maker" as being more representative of human beings. In truth, in my zeal to make a point I was being a tad insincere, attempting to persuade you, the reader of a conviction I do not myself hold. For example, it could be argued that our ability to cultivate, to nurture life and growth, is equally characteristic of human beings and just as critical to the rise and continuance of civilisation. By promoting one classification over another, do we not in many respects diminish the totality of who we are?

Over two millennia ago a method seeking escape from this seemingly intractable morass of nomenclature began to coalesce. The Tao () purports to be a path of liberation from the artificial world of convention, a deliverance into the visceral experience of reality. As I will subsequently consider, this change of perspective has many implications for the craftsman.

A Spontaneous Nature

"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." - Lao Tzu

Blacksmith Robert Thomas
The Chinese word for nature, ziran (自然), literally translates something like "of itself so". The sentiment of expressing it thus is of nature conceived as an unhurried phenomenon, entirely spontaneous. Closely allied with nature is the concept of wu-wei (無爲), the "not doing" or "not making", yet implying growth as an internally generative cultivation. This is not a concept of nature as separate and outside of ourselves as humans, since we too quite literally grow ourselves. In reality, our capacity for reason depends wholly on the self-generated brain and body, our relatively limited capacity for conscious thought is but a staked tent resting upon the mountain of our unconscious, or perhaps better stated "super-conscious" mind, a highly complex system that grows and maintains the myriad of working functions and sense perceptions that we too easily take for granted.

I find that traditional craftsmen are almost universally interested in making "good time". However, the emphasis shifts from "time", that is to say efficiency, towards the "good" or quality of both the experience and of the work itself. Thus, neither excessively planned nor chaotic, the efficacy of craft adheres to the organic process of nature generally. For the craftsman the dynamism of the crafted object is in fact an extension of their own, its life existing vicariously in the moment of generation.


The formal, global implementation of theoretical standards for material and methods has significantly undermined traditional craft. Even in the presence of a tremendous inventory of safe, durable, beautiful hand crafted architectural heritage, the prevailing practise is that if a construction material or method can not be classified, labeled, numbered or otherwise be made to strictly adhere to scientific convention then it is deemed uncontrollable, potentially dangerous and bureaucratically illegal. Under this hyper-rational mindset, that a traditional material or method does work is deemed irrelevant if it can not be explained how it works within the abstracted limitations of convention.

The Tao offers freedom from the unyielding controls of convention:

“Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” - Lao Tzu

Instead the Tao urges the cultivation of Te (), commonly translated virtue but with the sense of an inner potency implying mastery. Interestingly, masters in this sense are really guides. They help the student to find the path for themselves. The path is really nothing special, just allowing oneself to be an authentic human being. The path has been followed by craftsmen all over the world since time immemorial. A master craftsman can not express in words enough to teach an apprentice much. Little can be learned by thinking, almost everything by doing. True mastery comes from direct experience admittedly benefited by guided instruction.

The path transcends in a very comprehensible way even space and time. It makes possible means of communication far more direct than those available through conventions, even language itself. For example, you could drop a traditional master mason from our English speaking world in a remote Tibetan village today to work alongside a team of local traditional masons in building, say a monastery. Without being to convey as much as hello they would be up and running in no time through sketching and demonstration. Furthermore, the same holds true if you were able to deposit our English mason back in time 2,000 years ago. As dear as we hold language, it and other conventions tend to ensnare us within their limitations, preventing us from the full richness of human experience.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

As any craftsman eventually learns, spontaneity and mastery can not be forced. One has to abandon self-consciousness. But the irony is that this can not be done consciously! Attempting to be spontaneous on purpose, thinking and willing yourself to do so, only amplifies the difficulty. How to escape this mental bind? As ancient philosopher of the Tao, Chuang Tzu said, "A path is made by walking on it."

The Pragmatism of Craft

Catedral de Santa María de Teruel
Craftsmen have an inherent affinity for the pragmatic and a brief consideration of the etymology of the term illuminates why this tends to be so. English inherits the word 'Pragmatism' more or less directly From the Greek pragmatikós (πραγματικός), meaning "active", derived in turn from prássein (πράσσειν) the Greek verb "to do", interpreted as "practice". Acting, doing, practicing...Pragmatism could be said to be a philosophy of action and results. The love of knowledge but of a particular kind, one acquired thru experience that is in turn enriched by observation and contemplation, an experiential knowledge that enables the craftsman to impose reason upon the concrete and material. The pragmatic outlook assures the craftsman full participation in life as an experiential philosopher yielding practical results in the world.

Architecture: from a Practical Craft to a Theoretical Profession

Image Courtesy of Jack Duncan III
Since the dawn of human civilization and continuing for thousands of years, the art of building otherwise known as architecture had been a very practical affair. Once again, we are indebted to the Ancient Greeks for the very notion of the architect; the arkhitéktōn (ἀρχιτέκτων) was a master technician, literally the "chief craftsman", typically either a carpenter or mason.  Highly skilled craftsmen continued to furnish Western civilization with its built environment throughout the Roman Empire, continuing during the Medieval period and well into the Renaissance. Andrea Palladio furnishes a Late Renaissance, 16th century example of the master craftsman as architect. Apprenticed as a stone carver, he had gained practical skills through hands on experience, mastering the tectonics of masonry. Palladio aggregated upon this foundation of experiential craft knowledge empirical observation that included measured drawings of Roman antiquities. Furthermore his famous architectural treatise, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, clearly demonstrated his clear intellectual grasp of abstracted systems of geometry, harmony and proportion as exemplified by the Classical Orders.

from Architectural Shades and Shadows
Although treatises featuring rationalized measured drawings such as contained in the Quatto Libri were still quite unique in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the 18th century drawing had become the primary method of teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where initial steps were underway to organize the study of architecture as an academic discipline. Several significant distinctions should be noted between the then modern, alternative study at the École in contrast with traditional paths to becoming an architect. The development of descriptive geometry was utilized for technically precise drawings that separated the act of design by the architect from that of building by the craftsman, increasingly regarded as little more than a technician. In short order, the rationalized approach to design subsumed the meaning of architecture itself; a drawing on paper could now be considered architecture. In the course of 19th century the Beaux-Arts methodology became adopted and its curriculum incorporated into universities throughout Europe and eventually America. Accepted architectural instruction relentlessly collapsed into a closed system of highly rationalized refinement whilst measures were undertaken by prominent academically indoctrinated architects to impose obligatory examination and licensing standards, separating architecture as a theoretical and therefore ostensibly superior profession distinguished from craft and building. The model of the craftsman architect would slowly diminish, eventually being fully discredited in the early 20th century.

The Empirical versus the Rational

There has been an open tension in the world of philosophy, a longstanding yet uneasy commingling of what might be called the rational versus the empirical temperament. Whereas the rationalist tends to favor thinking in terms of ideas, principles and eternal truths his empiricist colleague prefers to reply upon statistical data and observable fact. Of course, in practical terms humans rely both on ideas and observation to get by. Our modern world, for example, is largely a scientific one, as fact driven and empirical in its temperament as it ever has been. That being said the disconnect between raw scientific data received and potential meaning depends for resolution upon interpretation, correlation and generation of new theories, distinctly rational activities that direct subsequent empirical observation.

However, this oscillation, commingling, interdependence between empirical and rational modes of thought is largely absent from the contemporary field of architecture as a profession. Instead, architecture has become the largely abstracted, formal and expressive contribution to what I might otherwise give the name of 'shelter', be it intended for biological or mechanical use. In so restricting itself to the theoretical, architecture grows ever more separate from the recently formed professional specializations of engineering and building construction that attend to the material, labor resources and mechanical execution of shelter. As with science there forms a disconnect. Unlike science, the feedback loops between the professions are not sufficient to achieve resolution and provide our built environment with coherence and substantial meaning.
Proposed Main Museum, LA courtesy of Archinect

There are prominently two opinions of this account of the state of architecture. The first I would classify as complete denial; the unfounded belief that everything is fine if not getting better all the time (see pictured example above). Secondly, and perhaps more commonly, there is an admission of a serious crisis in architecture, yet clinging to the vain hope that urgently needed reform can set the ship right again (see pictured example above). I would contend that the contemporary model generating our built environment is fundamentally flawed, lacks an adequate philosophy, is of a temperament that does not align with people's needs and will inevitably necessitate complete replacement (yes, see pictured example above).

The Experiential as a Pragmatic Mean

For the traditional hand craftsman the feedback loops between his senses of sight, touch, sound, even smell and taste applied to the material objects he's working with and his own internal conception of pattern and design that he imposes upon the materials are introduced through experience and strengthened through repetition. Anyone who has witnessed a master potter at a wheel or a master carver at the bench will remark at the uncanny mastery humans can achieve at direct manipulation of material. Nevertheless, what has been apportioned out as separate and distinct modes in philosophical thought, influencing professional practice remain in fact completely integrated in traditional craft practice. I would like to briefly consider one example of how pragmatic, that is to say experiential thinking can serve as a mean, a negotiating point of view between the seemingly intractable philosophical modes of empiricism and rationalism.

Empiricism                         Rationalism                         Pragmatism
facts                                   principles                             behavior

Beautification, beauty as an human activity
Courtesy of Hunt Studios
By the above, what I'm really introducing are the concepts of truth and Truth. By facts, what the empiricist is claiming is observation or discovery of bits of truth, raw data as it were that comes from the sensory perceptions of objects that exist in reality. For the empiricist this is the only truth we can possibly know and it's admittedly unreliable. By contrast the rationalist thinks of Truth in terms of eternal principles that take a certain form and possess transcendent meaning. In this sense even abstract ideas such as beauty or justice are seen as possessing a True immutable form, an intrinsic meaning as mental or spiritual objects, more true in fact than the shadows of reality we perceive through our senses as interpreted by our consciousness. Pragmatism doesn't regard truth as an object to be discovered at all, rather truth for the pragmatist refers to distinctly human behavior. When we speak of verification we're talking about "making truth", this is the literal meaning veri (truth), fication (making or doing), Latin (veritas and facere) by way of French. Traditional hand craft is one example of truth-making (or truth-doing, a likewise valid and interesting interpretation) as an human behavior, activity, process. This logic can likewise apply to beautification and justification as human activities rather than objects of the physical or psychological world.

Is some of this sounds familiar, well that's to be expected. Philosopher William James described pragmatism as, "a new name for some old ways of thinking." Experience and common sense wisdom have guided much of human activity and has contributed mightily to our ability to grow and thrive. That we have neglected this practical approach to life has only been to our detriment. Below are a few other comparisons, each set meriting further contemplation for the architect, craftsman and layman alike:

Empiricism                         Rationalism                         Pragmatism
entropy                               progress                              change
past                                    future                                   present
observation                        abstraction                           experience
mechanistic                        static                                    relational
actual                                 imaginary                             possible
vulgar                                 classical                               traditional
sensational                         intellectual                           holistic
object                                 idea                                      process
skeptical                            dogmatic                               practical
nominal                              formal                                   instrumental
nihilistic                              eternal                                  continuity
material                              spiritual                                human
pessimistic                         optimistic                              engaged
chaos                                 unity                                     particularity


Courtesy of The World of Chinese
What is Zen? By its own premises, as we will subsequently consider, words are an inadequate means
of description. Yet, the following brief may start us along the path: an awakening from the dream state of convention, a liberation into direct experience.

Humankind's capacity for convention is one of the marvels of our genetic endowment. The primary manifestation of convention making ability is spoken language. We categorize or group together subjects, objects and actions with verbal utterances serving as symbols. This of course extends to the written word as well as other manifestations of symbol such as mathematical, musical and chemical notation. Our ability to express ourselves thru various forms of convention and be understood by others is more than remarkable, it's undeniably powerful, often intoxicating and potentially perilous. How so?

Western intellectual society since the so-called Enlightenment has sought, with a great deal of success I might add, to restrict the totality of human knowledge within a virtual straight jacket of convention. Laws, standards, codes combine to dictate human behavior more invasively than anytime in human history. We have conflated an artificial system of abstract, generalizing symbols with our infinitely particular reality. For example, it remains obvious that neither the conventional word "water" nor the chemical notation "H2O" will quench your thirst any more than the musical symbol "" will ring in your ears. This level of commitment to abstraction by society at large requires years of investment in undermining the individual capacity for direct experience. I'll commence with a few comments on the all too familiar: Western society's modern philosophical commitment to a rational education, or perhaps more appropriately expressed as an hyper-rational indoctrination. This will serve as a prelude to contrast with what is the wholly natural and human yet now seemingly remote concept of Zen.

Indoctrination vs Education

Common Core K-Prep
Words are such funny creatures. In any thesaurus you'll find that 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' are synonyms. Yet, we instinctively know better don't we? The "heart" of their long displaced origins still throbs. How about you, would you prefer indoctrination to education?

The English word 'indoctrination' comes from the Latin root 'doctrine', meaning 'teaching'. Similarly the original sense of 'doctor' simply referred to a 'teacher', notably one who had undergone some recognized academic training to thus qualify for said title. We have the legacy of this meaning in the 'doctorate' awarded to someone who is recognized for achieving the highest level of instruction, e.g. a 'Doctor' of Philosophy. The prefix 'in-' maintains the same meaning, to put into or inside. Indoctrination thus means to put 'teaching inside of'. It starts with a premise: that the student is ignorant, knows nothing, is an empty vessel to be filled. From this foundation the typical child in Western society is subjected to a minimum of13 years in the public school system and up to 20+ years of unrelenting indoctrination if they go on to pursue university studies. Indoctrination is the shaping, molding, construction of the individual.
Courtesy of Kelly Anne Photography
'Education' likewise finds its etymological roots in Latin. It originates from 'ducare' meaning 'to lead' not in the sense of 'lording over', rather 'to draw' or 'to pull'. The prefix 'ex-' meaning 'out' combines to give 'educate' the sense of 'drawing out'. The flavor of the words 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' could not be more different. 'Educate' begins from the premise that the student is wise, knows everything. The role of the teacher is akin to that of a spirit guide who simply 'draws out', brings to the students awareness the knowledge that already exists inside of them. This tradition of 'education' marked the pre-Enlightenment liberal arts of the West that focused on critical thinking, liberating the student to later pursue their own interests, a process that was typically achieved in 4 or 5 years. Education is the cultivation of conditions that encourage personal growth. An Eastern Zen master therefore is somewhat akin to our own traditional Western educator from this point of view.


Courtesy of Steve Shriver
The word 'Zen' arrives to the West from Japan that was in turn received from Buddhist China with ultimate origins in India where the Sanskrit word Dhyāna ( ध्यान ) carries the meaning of 'absorption', most often translated as 'meditation' in English. Particularly with its development in China, a certain Taoist flavor was adopted so that certain schools came to develop Za-Zen, a 'seated' form of meditation that implies stillness, quiet contemplation. However, it has been acknowledged that a number of human activities might qualify so long as one approaches a state of complete fixation and absorption. Particularly, in the former sense of requiring complete attentiveness, Zen practice lends itself to traditional craft such as carving, playing music, weaving and cooking to name a handful. Zen practice might also extend to what are thought of as leisure activities. Personally, I find surfing a calming medium to cultivate this attentive state. To be able to ride an ocean wave, one has to literally attune completely with its frequency and amplitude. As waves of one kind of another (visible light, sound, infrared, etc.) are our window into all sensory experience, the opportunity to interface with a wave in a 1:1 ratio with your body, harmonizes one to the very fabric of reality itself. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Visceral Experience

Brick making as Zen experience
I've had the experience of being called a lecturer or professor, ostensibly teaching traditional plastering, technical draughtsmanship and other subjects. One of the first things I confess to the shock and dismay of potential students is that I don't expect to teach them anything; furthermore, I conceive it an impossibility. After all I don't know how I plaster. It is largely not something to be explained anymore than how I might explain how I digest a peach. I simply do plaster. Plastering like traditional handcrafts generally are experiential arts, one learns by doing. Yes, I might demonstrate while others observe, perhaps offering a comment here or there. However, these exhortations are only helpful as occasional guidance to students who are actively teaching themselves. In Zen this visceral experience is captured in the Sanskrit term Upaya ( उपाय ), which has been interpreted as direct pointing. In this way traditional handcrafts lie at the frontier of self-awareness which permits us to tap into our profound unconscious intelligence that circulates our blood, grows our brain or manages any number of other bodily functions from that sliver of conscious mind that may follow a particular interest.


It is purported that the practice of Zen ultimately leads to Satori ( 悟り), the Buddha nature, enlightenment, an awakening. What then might Zencraft awaken us to? Liberation from the dream of separation, division and isolation, an awareness of the deep interconnection of all things.

In the dream state one believes he or she is individual, separate and distinct, not just from others, but from everything. Yet, everyday crafts deny this as a fantasy. For example, we imagine the craft of carving is our exercising our intellectual prowess upon unorganized raw material, a type of chaos typical of nature, be it stone, wood or clay. Yet is it not the nature of the material that determines how we carve? Would we even conceive of carving if these materials did not exist? Does the human create the carving out of stone or is it the stone that generates the human that carves? Wake up! The tendency to identify with this abstraction, this ego if you will, is a grasping for abstraction because abstractions are simplifications. Are you and the universe two? Hold your breath!

Human perfection is not the perfection of the equilateral triangle, neither is it to be found in the Ionic order or any other form of contrived convention. Rather it is the perfection and order of the cloud with its dynamism, spontaneity and undifferentiated borders. Zencraft is therefore not a mere symbol, a representation of nature as some 'other', rather it is the full expression of her. Seen in this way Satori, the Zen awakening is nothing exotic, just the realization of being completely human and living it.

The Existential Craftsman

From time immemorial people have contemplated the nature of being and likewise the concept of origins or the coming into existence. Such contemplations have often coalesced into the core structure of religious systems of belief and correspondingly within the branch of philosophy known as ontology or "the study of essence". Existentialism is a relatively recent focus within ontology that centers around the human individual's concept of being and becoming. Prevalent themes are authenticity and individual creation of meaning, themes that find resonance with traditional craftsmanship. Craftsmen are typically concerned with the authenticity of their creations, whether or not the crafted objects truly retain the expression of their will, as an artifact of their touch. Similarly, there exists a trepidation that their work might be viewed as inauthentic or worse still, meaningless. I would like to consider if there is any potential for intrinsic meaning in craft, how craftsmen use symbolic meaning, and a particularly modern dilemma threatening craft, the absurd.

Intrinsic Meaning

Let's begin by an illustration of a flower. What does it mean? "Well, it doesn't mean anything, it just is!", one might reasonably reply. A flower certainly doesn't mean something else, it doesn't refer to anything. However, I wouldn't hastily conclude that a flower is meaningless. Perhaps we could consider whether a flower has inherent meaning or stated another way, the flower is its own meaning. As humans we're well adapted to this qualitative, inherent meaning of the natural world. A flower will elicit sensual responses of sight, smell, feel and sometimes even taste (with or without further hallucinogenic effect). In this way flowers are intuitively sensible to human beings, even by very young children. Contrast this naïve, direct, visceral sensibility with the literal meaning of a flower as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: "The reproductive structure of angiosperms, characteristically having either specialized male or female organs or both male and female organs, such as stamens and a pistil, enclosed in an outer envelope of petals and sepals."

So the "literal" meaning of flower becomes quite complicated and contingent on other literal meanings whilst our direct experience of a flower remains simple and accessible. Would a botanical that is to say scientific analysis of a flower reveal further or perhaps deeper meaning? We've been at the classification of flowers in general and particular for some centuries now with infinitely greater means of dissection from the cellular, to the DNA, to the now subatomic level with promising theories to take us even further. So it is that a single flower is now classified amongst the most complex things in the universe composed of levels of complexity ad infinitum. We lament the  complexity of the material world losing sight of that fact that we're the ones who keep cutting it to pieces. Flowers are simple yet rich in meaning. However, ascribing meaning to them in artificial, closed, conventional systems of literal and scientific terms has made them unintelligible to the point of absurdity. How does one ever feel at home in a world like that?

Last summer I had opportunity to work on a project of traditional masonry in the small village of Hundisburg, Germany. What do traditional, handcrafted villages like this and others mean? They don't refer to anything outside of themselves yet you just feel that the village itself is rich in meaning, it's authentic. What is physically embodied in my Hundisburg example is successive generations of human intention and attention, humans being humane. The oaks of the timber framing from adjacent fields cleared for cultivation. The stone from the local quarry now the summer swimming hole. The bricks and terra cotta tiles from a clay deposit up on the hill. Crafting a community with our neighbors from materials readily available around us is an eminently human activity, nothing absurd about it.


Symbolic Meaning

There is of course meaning that refers to something outside of itself. In fact, that this is how the term "meaning" is most often used and understood. One way for a craftsman to express symbolic meaning is with ornament, alternatively called enrichment. There are a number of methods for achieving this: carving, scratching, moulding, painting to name a few.

We appreciate that artistic representation is only a symbol, a reference of something else. Ornament's power lies in human sympathy. The craftsman draws upon the fractal attributes of say, a flower to select a handful of attributes, the essence of the thing to convey in the selected medium. And so when you or I look upon the ornament we "get it", otherwise stated we sympathize with the process. If we have familiarity with the medium we might even begin to imagine ourselves doing the carving, painting or what have you. Likely it heightens our appreciation for the craftsman's imagination and skill. Yet just having fulfilled human beings as embodied in the example of the craftsman are of tremendous benefit to a community. Furthermore, when these investments in intrinsic and symbolic meaning are made in the shared public realm (church, high street, piazza, etc.) as they customarily were, than an inheritance is established for everyone, an enriched community that loves itself, that feels at home.

The Absurd

The kind of life that established traditional villages around the world, many of which still remain for our enjoyment, seem like an impossibility today, a eutopian fantasy. What is the absurd? How has meaning been undermined by civilized society?


In its most virulent forms we find enslavement and serfdom. Great works of beauty like the Parthenon celebrate idealized human perfection, overlooking a city that was the birthplace of democracy. And yet much of this was built on a foundation of war, misery and exploitation. There is an unresolved tension between the rich symbolic meaning of many such cities and monuments of antiquity and the inhumane treatment, the destruction of the intrinsic meaning and worth of the individual. The skilled craftsman reduced to a tool himself to express the will of monsters.


Nothing corrupts meaning like a lie. The McMansion puts its dishonesty on display like a proud peacock. It pretends to use local, traditional materials; all materials are industrial from a factory far away. It pretends to be finely crafted; it extracts the cheapest labor from the most vulnerable in society. It promises you health and status; it delivers toxicity, debt and mediocrity.


A very visible manifestation of subversion is irony, typical of  so-called Postmodernism. Often a form is taken an exemplar of tradition and hand crafted refinement. The proportions are changed,  the function inverted, traditional materials and methods are replaced with the latest in construction tech. To its credit Postmodernism doesn't lie. Rather, it ridicules intrinsic meaning as an impossible joke.

Existentialism has been interpreted by some as an individualistic philosophy, described as isolating or inward looking. However, I would contend that being an individual has no meaning independent of others any more than individuality is possible without the air you breathe. It is modern civilization that is isolating with its increasing manifestations of coercion, dishonesty and subversion: the absurd. Two main tenets of existentialism that I did not develop here were that the individual is free and is responsible. This is very empowering. We can choose to reject absurdity, instead embracing lives of intrinsic and symbolic meaning. Perhaps it is in this time of crisis for humanity that our living a life of individual meaning can have the greatest impact on intrinsic meaning for human society at large.

The Hero's Path

Why can't we build things the way we used to?

This is a question that has been put to me often. I find it notable that the word "can" is most often used. Of course, we "can" conceivably build a certain way in the sense of possibility. Nevertheless, I believe that by using "can't" instead of "won't" or "don't", a deep frustration is betrayed, a profound sense of loss and more poignantly a feeling of disempowerment and insurmountable obstruction to regaining that which connected us to something greater than ourselves. In summary, we have become a people in existential crisis. Traditional craftsmen are not immune. We find ourselves almost as lost as society at large, holding on by a frayed tether to our corroded traditions which are under relentless attack.

So how did we arrive at this state of disorientation, where we quite literally don't know what to do? Likewise, is there a way back or maybe just out? I believe there is. From the Zen perspective there have been recognised two paths to enlightenment: the common path under the general condition of normalcy or the special path born of crisis.

Easy Does It

The path available to most people throughout history has been igyo-do (易行道) the "Easy Way". This is also known as the way of tariki (他力) or "Grace". This path is available in a culturally stable society where it is possible to simply abandon the self to the "other power" as manifest in ritual and tradition as a means of practise leading to salvation. A practise can be ostensibly religious but need not be. Almost all craftsmen of previous times and cultures followed the Way of Grace: intuition and custom guided their daily ritual of work. Since this is not the state craft finds itself in today, it may be helpful to point out a few key characteristics of this Way of Grace.

The hand-crafted art of ordinary people or mingei for short (民衆的な工芸) is an expression representative of our history wherein many people engaged in providing useful, durable, inexpensive items or homes for many other people. Many for many, at it's heart a very communal, social activity. Whereas modern education focuses almost exclusively on literacy and the arithmetic component of numeracy for reasoning on abstract concepts, former societies instead prioritised raising children with efficacy, practical skills for doing and making.

In traditional handcrafts much emphasis is placed on repetition. For good reason. With repetition there is muge (無礙) or "no obstruction" between oneself and material. Unobstructed hand craft is thus an unfiltered experience of direct seeing, hearing, touching. There develops a mindlessness mushin (無心), one could even say free or participatory mastery between craftsman and his material not unlike a dance. The dance takes a life of its own; it is in fact what we call tradition. Generations come and go yet the tradition endures; it transcends individual experience and the beat goes on.

Yet what happens when the music comes to a screeching halt? Just as individuals can fall from grace so too can entire societies. In a period of cultural drought and broken tradition there may be no easy way.

Show Me a Hero and I'll Write You a Tragedy
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just as a seed can grow in the tiniest bit of soil with a mere drop of water, so too can handcraft germinate from shear inner strength of will even with reduced opportunity for experience under the most unfavourable conditions. Or as traditional potter Bernard Leach so eloquently put it, "Even in bad periods art does emerge, even as the lotus blossoms in the mud."

As the aforementioned illustration would suggest this is a very isolated, individual path known in Zen as jiriki-do (自力道), the "Way of Self-Reliance" or alternatively as the Way of "Hardship", nangyo (難行). When there is no master, there is no ritual, there is no tradition, what then? For the lone craftsman here below a representative sliver of what must be self-instructed:
  • sense of beauty
  • technical methods
  • scientific understanding
  • virtuoso creativity
What does it take to accomplish this? Genius, incredible discipline and a lifetime of effort. And what kind of person devotes his life to healing society with his accomplishments? A Hero.

Of course, such full manifestations of genius are exceedingly rare. Perhaps a handful of occurrences in a generation. How much more infrequently are individual genius and personal salvation coupled with generosity and self sacrifice? The hero's rise is therefore not an egotistical endeavour. In point of fact he is likely to be unaware, as it is not the hero that creates the role as such, rather circumstances. For a virtuous society, there is no need for a hero and no reason for the individual to stand out. The calling of the hero therefore arises thus from society itself, born of a state of deep dissatisfaction within.

For our hero craftsman the Way of Hardship may be an understatement. The flame of mingei "many for many", was snuffed out in Western society a century ago and is little more than a flicker elsewhere. The Way of Grace has been aggressively and violently supplanted by the Way of Industry, "Few with capital and mechanical means for Many". Industry is not a participant in life, it is an extractor of life which it feeds upon as a means to an end, the accumulation of an accursed share of abstract profit. Like a mechanical monster, it is not truly alive, cannot be nurtured by experience, but instead must consume people and burn resources to keep its dreadful gears crushing ahead. Where traditional craft provided us with a deep sense of connection, industry substitutes the minimal level of manufactured "experiences" and utilitarian functions frigid with insensibility. Freedom from obstruction is replaced by demands of consumption, the needs of the many by the avarice of the few.

Simply put our craftsman hero is here confronted with his Kraken, his trial to overcome: the material world and human society placed under intellectual control. Sensible quality is reduced to quantitative analysis. Human beings, life and the bounty of the earth is cut to a million pieces and measured against money, a mere concept. Yet upon the slightest examination industry is revealed to be far more feeble whilst less advanced than it claims. Is drywall superior to plaster? Does stick frame outperform timber framing? Is a CMU wall better than stone masonry? Are asphalt shingles more desirable than a thatched roof? Do any to the products of industry provide deep, enduring satisfaction? We have been sold, and cheaply. The meaningful traditions that provided direct experience of life have been ripped from our rightful possession and we've been handed in turn a plate of sawdust and poison. Oh no, it's not a gift either; Industry will take your check when you're ready.

The Hero's Path

Image modified for NDA Compliance
The hero sees clearly. He does not bend his knee before false idols. His clear vision is his gift to the many. However, if there is no longer mingei what is his path? The only refuge available that remains for practise: the artist's path, the Few for the Few, a difficult path unsuitable for his temperament. The artist's path as old as civilisation itself is patronage, commissions from the few to create unique and costly works of exquisite refinement or ostentation. The most social, communal of these are monumental and sacred spaces that are bequeathed to the many and so contribute to the civic life. Almost exclusively today they take the form of private commissions of works having little utility, rather serving as symbols of status rather than for any direct enjoyment. Increasingly, craftsmen are obligated to work under NDA's (non-disclosure agreements), forced to acknowledge that the work of their hands is the intellectual property of the one who bought them.

There is another path of the Few for the Few, the independent artist. His works are characterised by uniqueness, novelty and impossibility of replication. They are unlike the drawing from tradition or developing a method of use to be shared. They are signature works bound and forever associated to the individual severed from society. In place of direct seeing there is the interposition of intellect. Exchanged for the inherent meaning that points to something outside of itself typical of traditional craft, a work of fine art is the personal expression of the artist, loaded with self-contained explicit meaning, begging for interpretation. So as not to be considered a fool, saying the same thing over and over, the artist is pushed to perpetual novelty and creation, bound hand and foot by his willful pursuit of freedom. The path of genius is exhausting but for the hero there is no igyo-do, there is no easy way.

The way of the hero craftsman then is not at all tariki-do, the Way of Grace. Rather his path is nangyo-do, the Way of Hardship, self-reliance and suffering.  In the West we have come to associate pleasure with the good and suffering with the evil, carrying a sense of opposition between the two. The hero does not succumb to such intellectual dualism. This frees him to directly experience and thus learn from suffering, an able teacher. The lifelong burden of the hero craftsman is to prepare the Way of Grace for others. He does this not by example; as we have considered his example is fraught with difficulty. Rather he lays out a return path by direct pointing: by writing, speaking, demonstrating, teaching. A culture in balance does not need to be told, shown or taught what to do. It already knows and in fact knows nothing else. So it is that the appearance and life of sage, prophet, healer, the hero is not the path itself, rather an incarnate manifestation of the society's desire to return to a balanced condition.

Courtesy of Patrick Webb

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