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The ultimate symbol of Zen art is the enso, where an ink circle is brushed with just one stroke. As with portraits of Daruma. enso are often accompanied by inscriptions giving us a Zen hint or question to ponder. From the beginning of Buddhism, enlightenment has been compared to the ‘bright full moon’ and a ‘great round mirror’. This enso particularly resembles the rising moon as it appears

at the top of a long vertical composition. One popular inscription for enso was a line from a poem by the Zen

eccentric Kanzan ‘My heart is like the autumn moon.’

The inscription here also associates the moon with enlightenment as it echoes the Zen painter Sengai, who

wrote ‘Enlightenment is coming towards us. Who is bold enough to step forward to attain it?’


While the Zen circle enso represents fullness, it is also empty. The realisation as an individual of being

completely empty but perfectly aware is the Zen experience of enlightenment. It is said that the 1st century patriarch Nagarjuna, often considered a ‘second Buddha’, was transformed into a luminous circle whenever he taught in public to reveal, according to his biography, ‘the true form of Buddha-nature, that is neither large or small,neither wide nor narrow, neither good nor bad, neither transient nor eternal’.

The Zen monk Nantenbo was one of the tradition’s most prolific painters and the most important Zen artist

of the 20th century. He produced most of his works in his 70s and 80s including many enso.

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Taken on August 25, 2007