7 Koans, 30 unknown artists


I came across a post on a collection of pottery from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where they had a very minimal description in the presentation. It all looked very Zen like to me and most of the pots were from unknown artists, ( mainly because they were pieces from antiquity ).  As an act of zenspiraion I decided to add 7 Zen koans with the images.


Chün ware lidded jar – 11th – 15th century Zulu Beer Pot

Zulu Beer Pot


Terracotta vessel – Tikar, Cameroon, West Africa



No Work, No Food


Hyakujo, the Chinese Zen master, used to labor with his pupils even at the age of eighty, trimming the gardens, cleaning the grounds, and pruning the trees. The pupils felt sorry to see the old teacher working so hard, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop, so they hid away his tools. That day the master did not eat. The next day he did not eat, nor the next. “He may be angry because we have hidden his tools,” the pupils surmised. “We had better put them back.” The day they did, the teacher worked and ate the same as before. In the evening he instructed them: “No work, no food.”


Huang-t’ao kiln stoneware vessel – Tang Dynasty


Vessel Acoma Pueblo.jpg

Vessel- Acoma Pueblo, North America, United States, Southwest region, New Mexico


Unglazed terracotta jar-  Africa, Burkina Faso



Returning to the Ordinary World


A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enligthtened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

104451 Ancient Puebloan (Anasazi-1oth-12thcentury

Ancient Puebloan vessel (Anasazi-1oth-12th century)


Caddoan Jar12th-13th-century

Caddoan Jar   – 12th-13th century


The Gates of Paradise


A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?” “Who are you?” inquired Hakuin. “I am a samurai,” the warrior replied. “You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.” Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword ! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.” As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: ” Here open the gates of hell ! ” At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed. ” Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Vessel from Chi chou kilns at Yung-ho,

Ceramic vessel from Chi chou kilns at Yung-ho

 !8th century Chinese Vase


CRackled Ceedon Chinese Vase-618-799

Crackled Celedon Chinese Vase –   618-799 AD



Accurate Proportion


Sen No Rikyu, a tea-master, wished to hang a flower basket on a column. He asked a carpenter to help him, directing the man to place it a little higher or lower, to the right or left, until he had found exactly the right spot. ” That’s the place,” said Sen No Rikyu finally. But so accurate was the tea-master’s sense of proportion that it was not until the carpenter reached the identical spot again that its location was approved.


Lei (Ritual Wine Vessel)


Lifan amphora

Lifan amphora

Lobi-storageJar with Lid

Lobi ( Africa ) storage jar with lid


Mokusen’s Hand


Mokusen Hiki was living in a temple in the province of Tamba. One of his adherents complained of the stinginess of his wife. Mokusen visited the adherent’s wife and showed her his clenched fist before her face. “What do you mean by that?” asked the surprised woman. “Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it?” he asked. “Deformed,” replied the woman. Then he opened his hand flat in her face and asked: “Suppose it were always like that. What then?” “Another kind of deformity,” said the wife. “If you understand that much,” finished Mokusen, “you are a good wife.” Then he left. After his visit, this wife helped her husband to distribute as well as to save.


Mei Ping bottle used for storing wine, vinegar, soy sauce and other liquids during the Sung (960-1279) and Yuan (1280-1368) dynasty.


Water vessel – National Palace Museum in Taipei


Tzu Chou bottle –   960 – 1600 AD


Soldiers of Humanity


Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple. Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.” This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?” Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”


Quingpai Ewer with Cover

Socorro Jar

Socorro Jar


Storage Jar


Tall, slender, mei-ping shape vase displaying a well-cut floral design.


A modern koan


Kobun Chino was a renowned master of kyūdō, Zen archery. He was once invited to give a demonstration of his skills at Esalen, the famed retreat centre near Big Sur. Kobun placed his feet in the traditional, grounded ashibumistance, straighted his spine, drew the bow, and let loose his arrow — which not only missed the target completely, but soared over the fence behind it, plummeting into the Pacific below. The spectators were aghast  until they looked up at Kobun, who gleefully shouted, “Bullseye!”

this jar is ornamented in the scraffito manner with an olive-brown overslip carved through to a white slip

This jar is ornamented in the scraffito manner with an olive-brown overslip carved through to a white slip

Tripod Bowl with Parrot Feet

Tripod Bowl with Parrot Feet

Jiajing bottle met museum

Jia Jing bottle – Met, NY


Tzu Chou jug

Vase-Democratic Republic of Congo

African GlobularVase – Democratic Republic of Congo

Qing-Emperor-Qianlong bowl

Porcelain bowl – Qing – Emperor Qianlong –  National Palace Museum in Taipei


3 pieces not from the Minneapolis Institiute of Arts


Vase – Linthorpe Pottery Factory


Zsolnay vase with bulbous shape

(  Treadway Galleries )

Elizabeth Strasser


Koan background  :


Koan  is a Japanese word derived from the Chinese Gongan, which defined a practice dating back to the Tang Dynasty where dialogues between Chan Masters and their disciples were recorded.  Later during the Song Dynasty ( 960-1279 ) the Gongan use was extended into ” observing the phrase “,  where it became an object of contemplation and meditation. My first exposure to the concept of the koan was in a book I read ages ago called Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Breaking down the koan intellectually and looking for  hidden insights didn’t really deliver any alteration of consciousness or magical moment of instant enlightenment. These simple koan stories just seemed to be  an interesting insight into the disciplines and philosophy of Zen. However at a later time I just flipped open a page and read a poem written by a  Zen master and immediately felt a deep inner peace. I suppose the difference this time was I wasn’t really looking for any revelations.


Jakuchu Ito – Mandarin Ducks

Sources cited –  Minneapolis Institute of Art




  1. Nicolas Morris
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    OMG in all my searches this is the finest grouping of what my father and I would have called “exquisite” work in years
    Thanks bookmark for sure Nicolas Morris in memory of David Morris 1911-1999

  2. Natasha Lee
    Posted April 24, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    These are all such beautiful pieces. Zenspiration post is just lovely. I especially loved the Quingpai Ewer

  3. Serum realash
    Posted May 10, 2015 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

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  4. Posted December 17, 2023 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    I would post a few amazing Asian ceramics in my collection that need a koan, but this will not allow it 😢
    Perhaps, a koan, never written is the true koan! 🤔
    If you would like to see them send me a a link to my gmail, and I will send you photos!
    Thank you for your time! My you live long, and prosper! 🥰🤗🖖

  5. Posted December 17, 2023 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    I have many a few Asian ceramics that need a Koan. I can not post photos here. If you would like to see them send a link to my gmail.
    Perhaps a kian never written, is the true koan🤔

  6. Robbie Hood
    Posted December 18, 2023 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    You can send your images to [email protected]
    cheers Robbie

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