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Religion Library: Zen

Symbolism

Written by: Julia Hardy

Zen shares many symbols with other forms of Buddhism, but there are a few that are unique to Zen. (In this section, for simplicity's sake, the term Zen often includes Chan). The enso, for example, is a symbol that is often used to represent Zen. The enso is a circle drawn in a single brush stroke. It may be large, painted with a broad vigorous stoke, or it may be narrow and refined. It may be a perfect circle, or it may be imperfect in some way. An enso might seem simple to draw but only a few painters are known for their excellent enso, which are said to represent their mastery of Zen.

The enso carries a variety of meanings. It can symbolize emptiness or fullness, presence or absence. All things might be contained within, or, conversely, excluded by its boundaries. It can symbolize enlightenment, or it can symbolize the moon, which is itself a symbol of enlightenment—as in the Zen saying, "Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself." (In other words, do not mistake doctrines, teachings, or explanations, which are intended to guide one toward enlightenment, for enlightenment itself.)

Painting itself can be an expression of Zen principles in a visual medium. The 18th-century Rinzai Zen master Hakuin was among many well-known Zen painters. Like painting, poetry was also believed to display an awareness of Zen realization. There are a number of famous Zen poets—including Ryokan, Ikkyu, and Basho—whose poetry utilized Zen imagery, particularly references to nature, as well as allusions to historic Zen figures and places. These poems often included references to esoteric Buddhist and Taoist practices as well.

There is also, however, Buddhist poetry in this style written by monks who were not members of Zen sects, notably Saigyo and Ippen in Japan. The famous Chinese painter and poet Wang Wei, while often associated with Chan, was not a Buddhist monk at all, but a government official. Often studies and popular accounts of "Zen poetry" reflect a general Buddhist influence, rather than a Zen influence in particular. Other art forms, such as landscape gardening, martial arts, and tea ceremonies have likewise often been associated especially with Zen, though none of these forms is exclusive to Zen.

A type of garden that is often associated with Zen today is the rock garden. Small white pebbles are swept with a wooden rake into circular patterns. Sometimes a few large rocks are arranged among the many tiny pebbles. The rock garden symbolizes simplicity, tranquility, precision, and order. The act of creating the patterns, which must be repeated daily, is itself an act of meditation. The most famous Zen rock garden is at Ryoanji in Kyoto.

Some scholars argue that the fame of this garden and the concept of the rock garden as a Zen symbol are relatively recent notions, products of post-Meiji Japanese nationalism. Others argue that, whether authentically Zen or not, these art forms can still inspire an interest in the tradition.

 

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