The following is an excerpt from his recent book, The Art of Setting Stones.

The garden is a simple rectangle of coarse, white sand, now mellowed by the afternoon sun. . . Raked into the sand is a circle, small ridges making patterns of white on white, which in this waxing light are tinted russet on one side and light blue on the other, the hues of shadows on snowdrifts. The lines in the sand radiate outward, like ripples from a pebble thrown into a still pond, yet these go nowhere. Enjoying the mildly hallucinatory effect of watching them, I recall another circle, drawn just this morning in my studio far back down the mountain, in the center of Kyoto.

The sun had risen over the hills that border the city not long before, and a strong, clear light filled the room, palpably, like scented air. On one high, white wall I hung a large sheet of paper, set the point of a long bar-compass in the center, and drew a circle, slowly, carefully, watching the silver pen-tip as it moved across the blank page. Concentrating on the pale blue line flowing from the pen, I became detached from the action, as if just lying back on a grassy riverbank, watching contrail from a jet circling very high up in a cloudless sky, but with the colors in reverse.

As the line drew out, a story revealed itself; one that I now understand led me here, to this garden. It began at the top of the page, where the line, newly drawn and glistening wet, was no more than a dash—a mark enticing to the curiosity but without immediate or tangible meaning. As the line lengthened, however, drawing out across the page, it formed a small crescent, like a bent bow or the curve of a satellite dish. Line becoming object.

Arcing down to the bottom of the page, then rising again in a pendulum curve back toward the top, the line changed in quality again. Unlike the crescent (a thing more opened than closed) it began to define the edge of an object, an area becoming enfolded by slow degrees. What had seemed so wide-open was becoming partially shut, the uniform field of white beginning to have within it a separate space that had not been there before, divided ephemerally yet unmistakably from its surroundings, like that part of the ocean encircled by a fisherman’s net. Line becoming object becoming space.

When there were no more than two hand-widths of the line left to be drawn, I had a strange experience, an optical illusion I think, though it may have been real. I began to see the as-yet-undrawn line: an illusory line existing exactly where the blue line would be when I completed the circle. The apparition was not clear, or a shadow; it was more like the air had simply thickened along that route and was bending light. If I had tried, I could have completed the circle freehand, just following the path prescribed by the ghostly image.

I think this is the nature of things, if not always, at least at times; they exist even before they have form—are simply waiting to be filled in like the empty spaces in a coloring book.

A song exists, unwritten, unsung, hovering near a musician’s ear, and she suddenly finds herself composing with inexplicable fluidity; an athlete sees himself crossing a high-jump bar, feels his back curve, the weight of his head falling, a muscular jerk as his feet flip upward at exactly the right moment. He senses all this first, and then he jumps, simply filling in the image with the reality of his body, as if sliding through an opening in the air.

As the line neared completion, I was filled with the expectancy of a child who, having shuffled himself full of static on a carpet, nears his fingers to a metal doorknob incrementally and awaits the spark. When the line finally closed—one finely etched, shimmering, damp, blue line overlapping a dull, dry one—and as the space inside the circle became entire and complete, I heard a faint click and hum, like an electric current being switched on.

I read about a painting contest won by drawing a circle. The story was that all the contestants who had gathered for the day were given a set amount of time in which to produce their work, but even after the judges gave the signal to begin, one of them just sat before his easel looking at the empty canvas. As the allotted time was coming to a close, he reached out, took up his brush, and drew a perfect circle . . . freehand. Was it the perfection of the form, or the simplicity of the design, or maybe just the boldness of the idea that made the judges award him the day? Perhaps it was some potency inherent in circles that sparked their interest, as it has for Zen priests who paint circles called enso as symbols of enlightenment, the universal potential of the human mind. In mandalas, the circle represents wisdom, which together with reason, symbolized by the lotus blossom, are the dual aspects of the Buddha. Wisdom and reason: what nobler ambitions have we? ▼

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.