EKAN ZEN STUDY CENTER

Inspiring the Discovery of a Wiser World

Art in the Service of Wisdom

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

A complete expression in this moment, 
one that is spontaneous and unique,  
while fully embracing all things.

The enso is used in Japanese Zen Buddhism to illustrate all things complete and harmonious in each moment. It is also a demonstration of the simplicity and harmony of the teaching of Zen, a tradition that views words and concepts as somewhat inadequate in their ability to express the true nature of reality.

Thus, the art of painting came to be used in the service of wisdom.

Drawing circles in the air and on the ground had long been a form of teaching in Chan Buddhism. We hear of it in the form of koan stories. For example, in "Book of Serenity" case 77 entitled "Yangshan's Enough," we read:

The monk drew a circle [in the air] and held it up with his hands, like a titan holding the sun and the moon, and said ‘What character is this?’ Yangshan then drew a circle around the character for infinity.
— Translation by Thomas Cleary

The monk is demonstrating that all things are embraced in the enso. Carrying it like Atlas, he is also demonstrating that each of us fully encompasses the whole world. This is because we are inseparable from it, through the function of emptiness that pervades our experience of the six senses. Yangshan agrees. In his verse comments, Tiantong, says this about it:

The void of the circle of the Way is never filled. The letters on the seal of emptiness are still unformed.

In great appreciation for the circle of the Way, both literal and figurative, Zenkei Shibayama Roshi published, in 1969, a large-format book containing reproductions of three centuries of enso, and the accompanying calligraphy and art. Some enso are painted in a clockwise direction, others in a counter-clockwise direction. They begin the stroke at various points on the circle. Each one reveals a bit about the individual who painted it. No two enso are identical. It reminds us that an enso blossoms from a particular moment in time, and thus its variation is great. 

And so it is with our lives. No matter in which direction you go, you are still in the midst of the activity of great Buddhadharma. All the while, you are a unique instance of causes and conditions, and thus the variation in what you experience is great. Never forget this and you are assured of great harmony.