Nansen Draws a Circle


Shunsō Joshū (春叢紹珠, 1751-1839)
K449 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 126.4 cm × 52.8 cm.

This is a Zenga of Case 69 of the Hekiganroku: Nansen, Kiso, and Mayoku were on their way to pay their respects to the National Teacher Chū. Halfway there, Nansen stopped, drew an circle on the ground, and said, “If you can tell me what this is, we will go on.” (In response, Kiso sat in the circle; Mayoku curtsied. Nansen said, “Then let’s not go.”)

The National Teacher Chū was a direct disciple of the illustrious Sixth Patriarch of Zen Enō (Hui-Neng). Chū was said to have used 97 types of ensō in his teaching, a transmission he received from his teacher. Ensō drawn on the ground, in the air, or on paper—have been an important vehicle for imparting Zen teaching from from the very beginning of that school of Buddhism. In a similar story regarding Nansen—he was the notorious Zen Master who dispatched the cat—Nansen went to visit Master Basō. Basō drew a circle on the ground and said, “If you enter it, I will hit you with my staff; if you don’t enter, I will strike you!” Nansen immediately stepped into the circle. and Basō struck him hard. Nansen said, “You missed me by a mile.” Basō smiled. The outstanding feature of this Zenga is Nansen’s gaze at the viewer. Here the artist Shunsō is challenging the viewer to come up with an answer to the question, “Tell me what this is.” This is one of Shunsō’s most expressive Zenga, brushed on a full sheet of paper, and with much Zen humor..