Ensō, Zen, and Me

Sep 7, 2021 | All Entries

I did not publish Ensō on a whim, and I reflected on the impacts of publishing it long before I wrote a single line of code. I’d like to share why I ultimately decided to go ahead with creating it (and publishing it), but before I do, I’d like to express my sincere apologies if the Ensō project caused you any amount of grief. Please let me also express my sadness and sympathies to anyone that has felt exploited, exotified, or victimized in any way by cultural appropriation. I wish that we as people grow more respectful and sensitive to the rich history and cultures of others. I am a Caucasian who grew up in the United States of America, and as such it’s unlikely I’ll truly be able to understand the pain that cultural appropriation causes others. I try to live true to the path of the Bodhisattva – a life dedicated to compassion towards others – and I try very hard to show this compassion, every day.

To understand where I’m coming from, it’s important to understand where ensō, the symbol, comes from. My connection to the practice of drawing ensō goes back decades, but the symbol itself goes back a millenia. The earliest known record of an ensō being painted was over 1000 years ago, in China. The Japanese Zen Buddhist philosophy has roots in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism and Chinese Taoist philosophy, and while Taoism is inherently Chinese, Ch’an Buddhist philosophy has roots in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. This legacy is important, as is the understanding of how Zen has spread in the West – particularly to me where I grew up in the farmland south of Rochester, just north of Springwater, New York.

In 1884, Henry David Thoreau introduced a portion of the Lotus Sutra, which is core to all Buddhism, in The Dial magazine, published by the New England Transcendentalist Club. In 1893, the World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, and Buddhist countries such as China, Japan, and Thailand sent delegates to represent and share their religions. Additionally, in the late 19th century, many Japanese teachers came to America to cater to Japanese immigrants. These were the first introductions of Buddhism at scale to Americans, but it wasn’t until after World War II that interest by non-Asian Americans increased substantially. Certainly one reason for this, and one that has personal relevance, is that some servicemen who had been stationed in Japan returned to America with a greater appreciation for Asian culture and philosophies.

My father was stationed in Okinawa for a time during the Viet-Nam war, and while he was there, he studied Shorin Ryu and earned an advanced degree. He brought back his martial arts experience, but also a quiet peace that I didn’t recognize until later as a touch of Zen. Coincidentally, we lived near Rochester NY, where Roshi Philip Kapleau – one of the “founding fathers of American Zen” – established the Rochester Zen Center. He studied under three Zen teachers in Japan, was ordained by Hakuun Yasutani-roshi in 1965, and published what is arguably the first book to explain the Zen practice to Westerners in 1966: The Three Pillars of Zen.

It turned out that some students had broken off from the Rochester Zen Center and had established a Zen community in Springwater NY, in the neighboring town to where I grew up, just a few minutes to the south of my childhood home. Zen wasn’t a formal part of my upbringing, but its presence and impacts were all around me. I took some karate classes as a boy at a local college, and my father taught me some martial arts techniques as well. As soon as I was able to access libraries and the internet, I began investigating Buddhism and Asian artistic aesthetics. A Buddhist art teacher in high school noticed me, and I was taken under their wing as I explored art and life in a way that many of the other students didn’t understand.

I started to make art with Asian aesthetics, and I read about Eastern spiritual practices. In college, I explored various martial arts until I discovered the beauty and deep connection I found in traditional Kung Fu. The school I joined was created and led by the son of a famous Chinese general. Our school’s founder, Grandmaster Alan Lee, emigrated to the United States with the whole-hearted belief that Kung Fu was not just for Chinese people, but for anyone who dedicated themselves to the art. He happened to also be a Taoist priest, and the curriculum he designed to be taught in his school included both Buddhism and Taoism.

Through my study, I began to experience Ch’an and Taoist teachings on a deeper level. Aspects and elements that were separate but present for me my whole life began to connect, and I knew that I had found my path. I can’t recall when I drew my first ensō, but I know that my practice of drawing ensōs started then, around the year 2000.

From 2000 to 2008, I studied Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Buddhism, Taoism, and Eastern philosophy in Rochester while also studying art, art history, engineering, and Western philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. During that time, I earned a BS, an MFA, and an advanced degree in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. In addition to the lower-level art classes I taught, I also taught Kung Fu and Ch’an Buddhist essentials to hundreds of students. I learned a lot, shared a lot, and I also drew a lot of ensōs.

Many years later, I’ve done much to share my Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, including publishing over a thousand haiku and spiritual poems for free for the world to experience. Ultimately, however, when considering the impact of publishing the Ensō project, reflecting on what ensōs were, and were not, guided me to my decision.

An ensō is a symbol of Zen and Ch’an Buddhism. Drawing an ensō is also a common activity for a student studying these disciplines as a way to practice presence and freedom of mind. But, why practice this? More importantly, why practice Buddhism? The ultimate aim of Buddhism is to end all suffering, for all beings. Not just some. If there was any exclusion to whom Buddhism was allowed to benefit, then it would be a sham, and by its own definition it would then, not be Buddhism. Buddhism is meant for everyone.

Japanese Zen Buddhism has roots that go all the way back to Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, and it has branches that lead all the way to me. I am not Asian, nor did I grow up in Asian surroundings, but I am a student of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism. Ensō, the symbol, is a part of who I am as a Buddhist. As an artist, sharing art that is true to my human experience is who I am, as well.

It would not be very Zen of me to say that Ensō was good (or bad). But I follow the eightfold path as best as I can, and I believe that Ensō and my efforts will have a significant positive impact on the world. That, I can say, would be good.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.