Ensōs and Autumn Leaves


Stuff—insights included—comes along just in time. Chance, as they say, favors the prepared mind. I've learned that lesson a thousand times, but still manage to find surprise whenever it surfaces again.

I've been working on ensōs for a few weeks, beginning with their roundness as symbolic/metaphorical, finding their importance in Zen iconography and practice, and messing with secular parallels found all around us. Ensō is a representation of the mental state at the core of what Daido Loori et al. are on about, and so their ubiquity is of direct personal relevance for Week 3. There's a lovely book that collects 50 or so examples of Zen calligraphers' ensōs, Audrey Yoshiko Seo's Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment.

And then along comes the George DeWolfe portfolio (pdf is $3.95, and worth every penny), at just the right moment to spark a Realization. It's Fall in New England: leaves everywhere, the change of season to dormancy and decay. The season has its own severe beauty, though November is a difficult month as Winter draws in and colors are muted in the landscape.

The world of George DeWolfe's decaying leaves is all around us here in Maine. There is a profound Simplicity in the vast variety of leaves, something Goethe would have understood: organs of plants, collectors and transducers of solar energy, oxygen producers. Every species has its distinct morphology, unique coloration, habit of decay. They crunch and squish underfoot, and shelter all manner of small living things. They eventually decay to humus, and so ultimately feed living vegetation. And it's OK to photograph leaves. They are inexhaustible, and the same is true of other natural-world materials—waterfalls, spider webs, rocks, etc.—approached as Objects of Contemplation. For me this comes as a powerful realization, satori of a sort.

Another example, from yesterday's photographic adventure in our yard:

pond enso

Most of the year this little pond is full of water, the joy of legions of frogs in the spring, and drinking place for our corps of deer. Yesterday I found it almost empty, after months of little rain, and I slid down the steep banks to a depth of about 10 feet, finding it choked with pond weed and spangled with newly-fallen leaves. Plenty there to contemplate.

A haiku came to me (as they sometimes do) just as I was drifting off to sleep, so I got up and wrote it down:

all ensōs are alike
no two maple leaves the same
draw and photograph