Zenga: Living Zen

Not One Thing - ZenArtExperience

Not One Thing – Soen


Master Nakagawa Soen

Enso. A circle reveals its own meaning…
Perfection, completeness, a roundness of form.
It also delineates inside from outside, and binds space
within its boundaries, where opposites can play
…and life can find a meaning.

In infinity, the boundless consciousness prior to form, there is no space for meaning,
Draw a closed line and you have the board game of life,
where the waves of polarity roar—
beginning and end, black and white ….… gain and loss.

Lost in this world, trying to achieve permanent victory,
one is  pained by constant loss and the dawning awareness of  inevitable defeat,
The Master cries:  “Not one thing!”
…aah….obvious, obvious!

In this world, where we strive to justify our being,
Master Hui Neng writes his poem and attains the high seat:

“Originally, there was not one thing,
Where can dust gather?”


6th Century China

The story goes that Hui Neng, the only son of an impoverished widow, heard the chanting of the Diamond Sutra in the market place while selling wood. A chill of recognition arose within him, and he inquired of the reciting monk how he could gain the diamond wisdom. That same day he entered the temple, no hesitation.

For some time he helped cook in the kitchen, till the day came when his master was ready to choose a successor. A contest was devised: Whoever wrote the best poem on the temple walls — the one which conveyed the highest truth — would become the next patriarch.

The monk favored to succeed wrote:

“The body is a mirror stand ,
the mind a mirror,
we must polish it everyday,
so that no dust will gather.”

Seeing this poem admired by others, the illiterate Hui Neng asked another monk: “What does it mean?” Hearing it read, Hui Neng proclaimed: “I can do better than that.”  As Hui Neng dictated, his friend wrote this poem upon the blank wall:

“There is no body,
nor is there a mirror stand,
Originally there was not one thing,
Where can dust gather?”

With this understanding Hui Neng attained the high seat.


Nakagawa Soen’s Painting

What drew me to this Zenga was not the beauty of its characters or form, but the very intentional, didactic nature of Soen Roshi’s strokes — not one thing! I read it every night last thing before going to bed.

One feels very strongly that Master was teaching, not “art”-ing. The most important thing here is that the student gets the teaching.

What a wonderful teaching: Not one thing. To think that at the end of one’s life, all one’s action will be dissolved back to formlessness. Or … at the end of each day, one can let go and allow everything to drop back into formlessness. And, in the midst of action, to realize … formlessness pervades all. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Freed of the illusion that anything will ultimately last, one can step out of the circle of  meaning, into the eternal space of “not one thing.” Here, there is boundless freedom, and life becomes art.

Thank you, Nakagawa Soen.