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In Zen culture that developed in Japan the use of the Enso in art and calligraphy is pervasive. The Enso Circle is the most popular of calligraphies.  The historical roots go back to India, where the initial concept of zero was represented by the bindu or dot, the intrinsic seed within all reality. This later evolved into the circle or Sunya and then to the Buddhist idea of Emptiness or Sunyata – the ‘empty’ (sunya) that is completely ‘full’ (ta).  The prajna paramita heart sutra describes the paradoxical view:

Form is emptiness (sunyata), emptiness is form;
Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;
That which is form is emptiness, and that which is emptiness is form.
The same is true for all the skandas: feeling ,thought ,volition ,discernment

Later, in the Hsin Hsin Ming authored by the 3rd Ch’an Patriarch Seng ts’an in the 6th century, would use the image in speaking of the ultimate completion of great space:

Round and perfect like great space.
Nothing lacking, nothing in excess

In the West, the 15th century philosopher and mystic, the Nicholas de Cusa writes of “…the likening of an infinite circle to oneness.” And that “God is an infinite circle…an infinite sphere.” (On Learned Ignorance ch. 21) Later, the
French 17th century Philosopher Blaise Pascal would intuitively echo the Buddhist idea in his rationalistic theology:

“God is that circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere”.

Then, in the late nineteenth century, theosophic mystic, Helena Blavatsky, bridging the ideological separation of East and West and anticipating 21st century physics, would initiate the idea of a ‘Zero point’ or boundless circle,
a fulcrum point intrinsic to the universe itself. (The Secret Doctrine v.I p.601)

The Zen monk/artist of the late 18th century, Sengai, fills his Enso drawing with both wisdom and humor. He draws an Enso and writes next to it:

“Eat this and have a cup of tea !”

So, the reality is placed in front of us ….. and the invitation is offered for us to ‘eat this’ very moment, the Enso, the ultimate Zero of shunyata (emptiness).


‘Enso Zen’ could also be termed ‘Wabi sabi Zen’ or the ‘Zen of the Natural World’.  A Zen monk is called an ‘Unsui’, literally ‘Cloud-Water’, someone whose activity is unified with nature, to float like a cloud and flow like water.
Succinctly expressed:

Flowing water
Does not
With itself
-Tashiro Roshi

So, this ‘flowing water’ as an image gives us pause to engage, then to see and BE the non-dual state.

In Zen philosophy, the Enso symbolizes the unity of subject and object, space and time. As Sasaki Roshi says:

“Not only self, but everything, exists with space as body and time as its content. In the case of self, the body is space and the mind is time. It is impossible for either body or mind to exist independently. Self means the action
of oneness of body and mind. This world, too, is the action of oneness of space and time. Therefore, it is said in Buddhism, that this world is the action of the interdependence of the two things.”

So, from this viewpoint, Enso is simultaneously the container and contained, in the process of containing.

Sasaki Roshi also speaks of Buddha as ‘the center of gravity’. Yet it could also be said that ‘Buddha is NO center of gravity’ or ‘Zero is NO zero’ …the Enso that is NO Enso.

The following poetic Zen saying expresses the simultaneous paradoxical oneness of the relative and unified VEIW in the following image:

“One moon shows in every pool; in every pool the one moon.”

Wabi Sabi Zen is purely natural  Zen. It is exemplified in the life of  the Zen hermit Ryokan. (1758-1831)  Ryokan’s  utter simplicity and directness point us to a Zen practice that is unaffected by exterior forms and disciplines, into a
natural world of direct experience:  (quoted from ‘One Robe, One Bowl’ translation  by John Stevens)

Standing alone beneath a solitary pine;
Quickly the time passes.
Overhead the endless sky-
Who can I call to join me on this path?

Fresh morning snow in front of the shrine.
The trees ! Are they white with peach blossoms
Or white with snow ?
The children and I joyfully throw snowballs !

In my bowl
violets and dandelions are mixed
Together with the Buddhas of the three worlds.

Oh that my priests robes were wide enough
To gather up all the suffering people
In this floating world,

In our modern world of hyper vigilance and demanding effort, Ryokan points to an effortlessness and direct simplicity that embraces the wonderment of the present moment and within this present moment is wabi sabi…..the Enso that is NO Enso….

so what is ‘wabi sabi’ ?

‘Wabi’ means a languishing forlornness liberated from the material world, combined with the word ‘sabi’ which is a equivalent of the Buddhist concept of ‘mujo’ or ‘anitya’, the impermanence and transience of all life and things.
‘Wabi Sabi’ holds a paradoxical view of life that deeply draws in the combined elements of both yearning for a deeply awakened reality, yet simultaneously facing the presence and beauty of the actual transient world within and around
one. Japanese art has expressed this deep non-dual feeling throughout its history in ceramics, calligraphy, Zen gardens, flower arranging, as well as poetry, the ritual of the tea ceremony etc.

Zen life itself in the Japanese monastic setting is a form created to give expression to the wabi sabi  of human life. The spare minimalism of its form is designed to leave no space for the self filled ‘I’ to remain. In the West, however, the cultural bias of imitation often enough falls into fabricating a contrived Zen disguise. It is, as if, shaving ones head or wearing black robes, sitting for long periods in a certain posture or poring over the lines of Buddhist sutras or chanting them are in themselves something ‘Zen’.  This condition at times also arises in other Buddhist traditions as they attempt to grow in new Western soil lacking their original deeper  cultural support and inner breath. Chanting mantras, bowing repeatedly, counting breaths, scanning the body, are all potential methods for awakening and ‘mindfulness’, yet easily lead one astray when perceived and attached to as other than skillful means. Thus becoming added obstacles and constructs, instead of new avenues through which to know and go beyond oneself.

Shoji Hamada in his book “The Unknown Craftsman” describes clearly:

“What, then, is enlightenment ? It is the state of being free from all duality. Sometimes the term ‘Oneness’ is used, but ‘Non-dual Entirety’ (funi) is a more satisfactory term because Oneness is likely to be construed as the opposite of
duality and hence understood in relative terms. Buddha is the name applied to a person who has achieved this Non-duality ….. The Undifferentiated, the Non-dual, is assumed to be the inherent nature of man; all Buddhist discipline, therefore, has as its goal the achievement of this Non-dual Entirety.” ( TUC p. 128)

Another way of speaking of this Non-duality is as the ‘suchness’ or ‘thusness’, (Sanskri: tathatha, Japanese: shinnyo)) of wabi sabi:

To be alone
It is of a color that
Cannot be named:
This mountain where cedars rise
Into the autumn dusk
-Jakuren 12th century

So, Enso Zen or Wabi Sabi Zen, is a Zen of pure natural wonderment embracing the world ‘as it is’ with complete abandonment of ‘self’. As the Zen master Takuan says:

“first one must seek to control the mind, but ultimately of the mind it is only
to be let go….”

This ‘mind that is let go’ is the Enso Mind, the mind of pure wonderment and thusness. To embrace and be embraced by this presencing, moment after moment, is the practice of Enso Zen,

Categories Uncategorized | Tags: | Posted on March 11, 2011

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