K021 What is this? Ensō by Tokuō Ryōkō, 徳翁良高

What is this?
Brushed by Ryōkō

* This character is more usually written 什
Tokuō Ryōkō (徳翁良高, 1649-1709)
K021 hanging scroll, 168 cm × 35 cm, sumi on paper 76.9 cm × 25.4 cm.

“What is this?” is the most frequent inscription on Zen circle paintings. A number of koans use this phrase. In case 17 of the Hekiganroku, Ummon asked his attendant monk every day for 18 years “What is this?” until one day the attendant said, “Oh, yes I understand.” In case 51, entitled “What is this?” Two monks visited Seppō in his hermitage, and when the master saw them coming, he pushed open the gate, came forward, and asked, “What is this?” The monks replied, “What is this?” Seppō bowed, and went back in side. “Totsu!” is a penetrating Zen shout, designed to awaken a student from his or her stupor. It is very similar to the more commonly known expression “Katsu!” Used as an inscription on an ensō, “What is this?” is a visual koan—”Is this circle your (buddha-) mind, the universe, the moon of enlightenment, or just a rice cake, or the bottom of a bucket?” Tokuō demands further, “Don’t think, Don’t think!”

The brushstrokes in this piece are especially rich and luminous, and it is one of the purest and finest examples of a zen circle ever created.