The Way of Rings
In the Wandering Rocks episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the minor characters makes an observation about the hero of the book, Leopold Bloom. After first making light of him, he reconsiders during an interval of silence, and then says, “There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.”
Which brings us to dolphins and, after marveling at the creativity revealed in their behavior, a reconsideration leads me to suggest that there’s a touch of the artist about some dolphins.
By carefully controlling and crafting the flow of air from their blowholes, during an exhalation, dolphins can create circles in the water that are called bubble rings. Below is a picture of a dolphin who has just created such a ring.
Dolphins not only create bubble rings but also play with them: swimming through them, flipping them 90 or 180 degrees, creating a second ring that merges with the first to form a bigger ring, and sometimes twisting one ring into the symbol of infinity: ∞. Enjoying, with the dolphins, the spirit of play, I will give this dolphin art form a Taoist twist and call it —
The Way of Rings
This is apparently not an innate ability that all dolphins are born with and express instinctually, but is learned behavior. Dolphins new to the game learn how to blow bubble rings by watching another dolphin who has mastered the game. This means that, at some point in dolphin history, there must have been a dolphin who made a creative leap when he was playing with bubbles and somehow imagined and then blew the very first bubble ring. Surely this astonished and delighted any fellow dolphins who saw this amazing feat of creativity. Like Zen monks they must have gathered around the Zen master to learn this enlightened behavior.
The Zen Circle
When I first saw dolphins making and playing with rings, in an online video, and was reflecting on what I had just seen, the bubbles rings reminded me of one of the central symbols of Zen Buddhism: the enso, or Zen circle (Jap. 円相).1
The enso is a symbol of enlightenment, of the ultimate, the One, and also of the mind of the one who makes it, meaning that it is not only a symbol but also an expression of enlightenment. Flowing from mind, and reflecting mind,2 the curved line of the enso is made with one continuous stroke of the writing brush. To make a Zen pun, the origination of the enso is dependent on the mind of the one who makes it.3
The practice of drawing Zen circles, and using them for teaching and as objects of meditation, seems to have started with Nanyang Huizhong (675-775), who holds the honor of being known as National Teacher. Since that time, countless variations on the enso theme have been drawn by artists, Zen masters, and monks and nuns in the Zen tradition.
Not only is the enso one of the enduring themes of Zen art, it also embodies many of the qualities valued in Japanese esthetics, such as Fukinsei (不均整) asymmetry or irregularity.4 Consisting of one line completed in one movement and one moment in time, it is the most minimal of minimalist art.
Further illustrating its importance, the enso is the central image of many Zen enlightenment stories, or what are called koans. The following example, “Nansen Draws a Circle,” is Case 69 of the famous koan collection known as The Blue Cliff Record:
Nansen, Kisu, and Mayoku were on their way together to pay their respects to Chu Kokushi. When they were halfway there, Nansen drew a circle on the ground and said, "If you can say a word, I will go on with you." Kisu sat down in the middle of the circle. Mayoku, seeing this, made a bow just as a woman does. Nansen said, "Then I will not go." Kisu said, "What an attitude of mind!"
Notice that the space enclosed by the enso is empty and thus symbolic of one of the primary doctrines of Buddhism: sunyata or emptiness. The enso presents, in visual form, the wisdom of the pivotal words of the Heart Sutra:
Form itself is emptiness;
Emptiness itself is form.
Some of the enso drawings have inscriptions,5 written in Chinese characters, and here is a sampling of translations:
A circle becomes like the Universe.
All the wise ones of the ten directions have entered this.
Bring forth the mind that abides nowhere.
Since the shape of the enso mirrors the shape of the moon, some inscriptions reflect lunar imagery:
Who can say my heart is like the autumn moon?
The inscription most frequently used asks a simple question:
What is this?
(What is this?)
If the enso, or Zen circle, is an expression of the enlightened mind, what can we say of those dolphins who practice the Way of Rings? Are they, too, enlightened?
Watching dolphins as they play with the bubbly circles that they themselves have made invites such speculation.6
This has been a HyC adventure.
1. In Chinese texts, the expression is 圓相 (円 is the Japanese version of 圓).
The wording most often used in Zen stores is 畫一圓相, meaning “to draw a circle.”
2. One clever enso even has the Chinese character for “mind” inscribed inside the enso:
Does this remind you of a Smiley? The Chinese character for “mind” is —
3. This play on the two words, “dependent” and “origination,” refers to the core doctrine of Buddhism. What the Buddha realized, as he sat under the Bodhi tree, was so revolutionary that he had to coin new words—a new technical vocabulary—to express his insights. The key term was pratitya samutpada, variously translated as dependent origination, dependent co-arising, conditioned genesis, conditioned co-production, interdependent arising, and mutual interdependence.
Whereas the French philosopher Descartes, with his substance-biased view of reality, held that an individual thing “requires nothing but itself in order to exist,” Siddhartha would reply, first, that there is no such thing as substance, or a thing, and, second, that the momentary events that do exist—they arise, and almost as quickly cease, within an extensive web of mutual relationships. Therefore, since events both arise and cease, the idea of dependent origination requires, for its balanced expression, the complementary idea of dependent cessation.
The importance of this concept is clearly expressed in the following quote:
Dependent arising (pratitya samutpada) is the central principle of the Buddha’s teaching, constituting both the objective content of its liberating insight and the germinative source for its vast network of doctrines and disciplines. As the frame behind the four noble truths, the key to the perspective of the middle way, and the conduit to the realization of selflessness, it is the unifying theme running through the teaching’s multifarious expressions, binding them together as diversified formulations of a single coherent vision. The earliest sutras equate dependent arising with the unique discovery of the Buddha’s enlightenment, so profound and difficult to grasp that he at first hesitated to announce it to the world. A simple exposition of the principle sparks off the liberating wisdom in the minds of his foremost disciples, while skill in explaining its workings is made a qualification of an adroit expounder of the Dharma. So crucial is this principle to the body of the Buddha’s doctrine that an insight into dependent arising is held to be sufficient to yield an understanding of the entire teaching. In the words of the Buddha: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma; he who sees the Dharma sees dependent arising.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi, Transcendental Dependent Arising: A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta, 6-7.
4. The Zen of Esthetics: Seven Principles —
Kanso (簡素) Simplicity or elimination of clutter.
Fukinsei (不均整) Asymmetry or irregularity.
Shibui (渋味) Beautiful by being understated.
Shizen (自然) Naturalness.
Yugen (幽玄) Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation.
Datsuzoku (脱俗) Freedom from habit or formula.
Seijaku (静寂)Tranquility or an energized calm, stillness, solitude.
5. An example of an enso, by the Japanese artist Hirata Seiko, with an inscription:
The inscription reads:
It’s up to you!
6. The circle is so pervasive a symbol that variations on this theme include the Wheel of Life, the halo, mandalas, mystic spirals, Stonehenge, the Ouroboros (the serpent that swallows its own tail), the Yin-Yang symbol . . .
To see dolphins in action, and at play, watch the amazing video on this web site: