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Enku's singular vision of the Buddha

Shaka (Shakyamuni Buddha)

Enku’s singular vision of the Buddha

The Buddhist priest known as Enku (円空) was an anomaly in world sculpture. Born too late for the great age of Japanese Buddhist Art, he arose without precedent and disappeared without imitators. And yet his influence and his tendencies are everywhere to be seen in contemporary Japanese culture. Indeed Enku’s manner is so closely aligned to what might be called a contemporary aesthetic that it is hard to imagine him at work in the 17th Century, at the height of the Tokugawa era. At some point in his life it is said that he vowed to create 120,000 images of the Buddha. Whether he reached his goal is not clear, but about 5000 of his sculptures are known, making him the most prolific Japanese sculptor by far. This vow, coupled with Enku’s role as a priest of the common people, had a profound influence on his aesthetic and way of working.

This essay will fall into two sections. The first will look at Enku’s life, what little is known of it, and the second his work. In the second section the case will be made to consider Enku and his work as that of a contemporary artist. That is, we will examine in what ways his manner of working aligns as much if not more with post-modern attitudes to artistic production and meaning than it did to artistic traditions of his own time.


Enku was born in modern-day Gifu prefecture, it is believed, in 1632. As a young man he entered Takada-ji, a small temple affiliated with the Tendai sect of esoteric Buddhism. Upon becoming a priest he set off on the first of many journeys.

The earliest written account of Enku’s life occurs in a volume entitled “Lives of Eccentrics of Recent Times (Kinsei Kinjin Den)” published in 1788. It says that:

At an early age he became a priest and lived in a certain temple, but when he was twenty-three he ran away. He lived in seclusion on Mt Fuji, then Mt Hakusan in Kaga, where one night a vision of the god of Hakusan appeared to him. (Dotzenko, 1976)

Enku was a Buddhist priest who was considered a yamabushi or mountain ascetic. He travels took him throughout a great deal of eastern Japan, but mainly to country areas, small towns and villages, and the deep silence of the mountains themselves.

It is said that early in his life his mother was drowned when the Nagara River flooded, and that his first journey was to raise funds for a shrine in her honour. Whether this story is true, Enku’s sculpture never lost the focus on bringing solace and hope to people in need. Whether it was a figure of Jizo, the Bodhisattva of lost children and childbirth, or Zennyo Ryuo, a Buddhist rain deity, Enku’s figures were made for an immediate spiritual purpose. They were not just given to temples but also directly to the people who needed them.

There is a tradition in Japan of Buddhist priests carving simple figures of devotion for families who were too isolated to reach the nearest temple. These “country Buddhas” are usually classified as mingei (民芸) or folk art. There is evidence to suggest that the Tokugawa regime, in its vehement attempts to subdue the spread of Christianity, encouraged this kind of “spiritual outreach”. While freedom of movement around Japan at this time was severely restricted, priests such as Enku, who were known as shugenja (practitioners of the faith) were allowed to travel freely. It has also been suggested that demand for Buddhist images and statuary was high at this time due to the populace wanting them as proof of their Buddhism. A small statue might end up protecting you from the authorities as much as from misfortune. Punishments if found guilty of being a Christian included crucifixion. (Dotzenko, 1976).

Throughout his life Enku embarked on pilgrimages to many of Eastern Japan’s sacred mountains, travelling as far north as Aomori and even crossing the sea to Hokkaido. He also visited the ancient capital of Nara, before returning to his native province in what is now Gifu Prefecture.

Tendai Buddhism is an esoteric sect with its historical roots leading back to Indian Tantrism. In this sense it was not a great step for Enku from his Buddhist practice to other forms of asceticism that included the animism and nature-worship of esoteric Shinto. Even today, the Japanese are remarkably good at syncretism: blending beliefs from multiple spiritual traditions without conflict. And so it was in Enku’s day. His figures include the Shinto fox-deity Inari, made famous by inari-zushi, the sweet brown tofu pocket filled with rice that is popular around the world. Other “down-to-earth” deities sculpted by Enku include Kojin god of the hearth, Daikoku the god of wealth and Kanki-ten, the god of the marital bed.

The manner of Enku’s death on 15 July 1695 points to a return to his early training. It is said he chose the ritual of mira or voluntary mummification, which is unique to the Tendai sect. Enku would have fasted for many days and then, weak but still alive, been buried with a bamboo tube for air. He would have then spent his last hours reciting the sutras, choosing the moment he crossed the line between life and death.


Japanese Buddhist sculpture has a long tradition of creating works in wood. Due to the abundance of Japanese cypress or hinoki, Japanese sculptors have traditionally chosen to use this light and durable medium in all but the most monumental of tasks. Initially the main technique was to carve from a single block of wood, known as ichiboku zukuri. This method was limited however by the grain structure of the timber which meant long limbs were structurally fragile. Other techniques evolved such as yosegi zukuri, where a statue was constructed of different timbers chosen for their grain direction and size, hollowed out and joined. Japanese sculptors used this technique for statues greater than life size. The hollowing process was particularly important when paint, lacquer or gold leaf were to be applied, as was most often the case, since this would cause the wood to dry unevenly and would eventually crack a solid statue.

large grouping of Buddhas and protective deities including Fudo-Myoo (centre)

Enku eschewed all these techniques. His method never evolved beyond ichiboku zukuri, and all his sculptures remained unpainted and un-gilt. There were precedents in his style of working, most notably the nata-bori or hatchet-carved method, which Enku would have seen during his early travels throughout northern Japan. (Jenkins, 1976) For the most part however, natabori sculptures are more highly ‘finished’ than Enku’s work. They retain small chisel marks and lack painting but are otherwise highly finished in terms of their overall form and level of anatomical detail. Enku’s figures on the other hand often look as if he stopped after the first stage of blocking out the figure.

Enku’s working method resembles that of a marble sculptor. With ichiboku zukuri the form can only be created by taking away materials. Michelangelo’s famous observation that sculpture is the process of releasing the figure from the prison of the stone is clearly evident when looking at Enku’s work. However unlike Michelangelo, Enku would not return over and over to refine the figure. Many of his exploratory first cuts would still be visible in the final sculpture.

Energy, confidence, mindfulness, sensitivity — all are clear in the autographic marks of Enku’s tools, which included the Japanese nata or hatchet, but also smaller tools as well. Enku’s every decision at this early point of the process is evident. The viewer can see the handwriting of the artist in every plane. Indeed the extra-ordinary thing about them is that he has stopped at precisely the point where the line is crossed from medium to figure. At that point where the block is just slightly more Buddha than hinoki, Enku is finished.

We can see what the timber would have looked like before Enku started work but now it is forever something else. A hand has transformed dead matter into a state of almost sentience. It speaks to us and seems to have feelings of its own, but its reality as wood is not denied. It remains what it was at the same time as we see what it has become. We are left with a remarkable tension where we can see all of the process: what it was, what it is and even what it could become. But this process of transformation is all the more powerful for it being incomplete. It appeals to us more than perfection because we can see our own transformation from base matter into human being is not that dissimilar. Those who have eyes can see we too are not far from our constituent parts.

The speed with which he worked is known from inscriptions on the back of some of his works. The Enku scholar Tsuneyoshi Tsuchiya tells of finding an ‘unknown’ sculpture in a small village in modern day Shiga Prefecture:

Part way up Mt Ibuki, in a village of only about 10 houses, I discovered in the village community hall, a large (1.8 metres high) Enku statue of the Eleven-headed Kannon[1], carved in the round and bearing an unusual inscription on the back. The inscription included a poem in Chinese, a poem in Japanese, and, at the end, a statement saying, “Cut the wood on the fourth; held a purifying ritual on the fifth; made statue on the sixth; held the ceremony for opening its eyes on the seventh. The novice Enku. Seventh day of the third month, 1689.” In short, he had carved this large and impressive statue in only one day! (quoted in Dotzenko, 1976)

a collection of Koppa Butsu

Koppa Butsu

Koppa Butsu or “chip buddhas” are an innovation of Enku’s. These are tiny figures made from the chips of wood carved from a larger sculpture. Each one is little more than a head and shoulders, leaving the natural shape of the shaving to dictate the figure’s body and they seem to lend support to the legend of Enku’s “vow”. How better to up one’s “body count” in the race to 120,000 than by inventing a high-speed method of carving. Only a few inches high and probably finished in a matter of minutes, these koppa butsu exist in their thousands, even today. They may have been made as votive offerings at temples, or even given to children as gifts. One aspect of Enku’s sculpture that hasn’t been touched on yet is their humanity. Many of his figures have smiles and beaming expressions. It is easy to imagine him sitting and carving for hours while a queue of small children wait patiently for him to finish their very own Buddha to take home to the family. The simplicity and directness of these little Buddhas makes the viewer smile and can be surprisingly moving. There may even been an aspect of portraiture to their visages. They certainly have the strong, broad features reminiscent of country people.

The work of a Contemporary Artist

There are a number of ways Enku’s work could be considered ‘contemporary’:

1. Works to an overarching program or project

Enku’s aims are finely balanced between creating art and enabling religious practice. There is a strong sense from his highly developed and individual working style of a momentous drive to express, to create and also to serve his parishioners. His goal of producing 120,000 statues in his lifetime is reminiscent of the kind of deliberate travail that many contemporary artists undertake, especially performance artists. In the contemporary context, this ‘ordeal-oriented’ manner of working has a three-fold purpose: a) it highlights process over product, b) it enables the contemporary audience to use non-aesthetic systems for measuring the quality of an artistic project, and c) it creates links between otherwise visually or conceptually disparate art objects or practices.

2. Repetition

Rarely outside the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have we seen an artist create a field of figures as a single art-work. Anthony Gormley’s ceramic miniatures created in the 1990s are almost a direct mimesis of Enku’s Koppa Butsu. The idea of the decentralised field as opposed to the centralised object was a development of certain Minimalist Artists of the 1960s and 70s and has remained a viable modus operandi for contemporary artists since.

3. recycling, reuse of materials

Enku’s Koppa Butsu show a desire to make the most of materials that chimes well with contemporary concerns to do with use of resources and environmental sustainability. He used timber that would have been rejected by other sculptors due to its inherent flaws, which he then makes the basis of his work. This environmental consciousness is obviously not the result of the same kind pressures that today’s artists are under, but the working methodology — respect for the raw material, a desire to reclaim, and frugality — are ultimately the same.

4. use of non-specialist, “poor” and local materials

This is closely tied to the previous point, but also hints at Enku’s adaptability, his itinerant nature and also his semi-‘outsider’ status. Not only his materials were “poor” but his tools also: simple hand-tools he could wield, and importantly transport, himself. His working method also did not require large resources, no furnaces or foundries, no quarrying and shipping of marble or granite; just wood, found near to where the sculpture itself would reside.

In the context of Western art history, the use of “poor” materials arose in the post-War period as a reaction to the perceived nexus of capitalism and materialism that became known as “consumerism”. Artists such as Boetti and Merz in Italy, Kounellis in Greece and Beuys in Germany eschewed all appearance of wealth and ‘finish’ and in some cases, even confounded the ability of their art to be considered a status object by their use of natural, cheap, recycled, fragile or degradable materials. In Italy in particular this manner of working became a movement in itself known as Arte Povera.

5. immediacy rather than longevity

It is common for contemporary artists to test the boundaries of longevity when it comes to sculpture. Unstable or perishable materials such as milk, grass and smoke are used to foreground the creative act rather than the creative object, to measure time, or to examine entropy. Whatever longevity is built into Enku’s sculptures it is native to the qualities of the timber and not due to any conservatory techniques used by the sculptor himself. Enku never sized, painted or gilded his sculptures. (Dotzenko, 1976) Nevertheless it is common to see Enku figures riddled with borer holes or split and checked by the drying process. These blemishes serve to underline the urgency by which the artist made the piece and moved on. They also add to the patina or wabi of the work, something the Japanese prize especially. Those of his sculptures that have stood outside are clearly more degraded than those housed in temples.

It is entirely appropriate for a Buddhist artist to embrace the concepts of change and decay. What is unusual however, is for decay itself to be so warmly invited by the artist to contribute to the evolution of the artwork, by virtue of the artwork remaining so deliberately unprotected.

6. incorporation of ‘accidents’ into process

Enku’s way of working must have incorporated accidents. There are sculptures that look as if they came about because the timber he was working on unexpectedly sheared in two. The speed at which he worked combined by the not-entirely-predictable nature of wood would mean that ‘disasters’ must have been common. Yet it is hard to see the artist who created Koppa Butsu being fazed by breaks, cracks or splits in the timber.

Kannon (Bodhissatva Avalokitshvara)


Enku is a contemporary artist in all but the historical sense. His working method, and even his working philosophy have more in common with artists of the post-modern era than his own contemporaries. If there are any similarities to others working at a similar time then it is not with any other sculptor but with the manga of Hokusai, whose sketches of everyday life were drawn quickly and transferred to woodblock for wide distribution.

Hokusai’s work, however, is well-known internationally and has had a lasting influence on Western[2] as well as Japanese art of the last 150 years. Enku on the other hand was largely unknown in art-historical circles until the 1960s. Although his work has since then been exhibited around the world, he is yet to receive the recognition deserving of such an singular artist.

Enku did not just create repetition for the sake of it. There is something highly individual about each of his sculptures. He could vary expression and intention in his subjects with great facility: his Kannon (Bodhissatvas of Mercy) are serene and beautiful, his Fudo Myo-o are fierce and uncompromising, his Jizo are humble and resemble real people. Throughout his oeuvre it is plain to see that here is an artist who is constantly challenging himself formally, using a basic formula but then subverting it, simplifying it, perfecting it. The deeper he went into examining a particular manner of representation for a particular purpose —that of popularising the Buddhist pantheon— the more his work opened out into a kind of universal language of sculpture that speaks to any audience. Enku’s very existence puts paid to the widespread chauvinism of the West that true artistic innovation and individuality were absent in the Arts of Asia.

Inari (fox deity)


Dotzenko, G. (1976) Enku: Master Carver. Kodansha International Ltd: Tokyo

Mami, H. (ed) (2007) The Smile in Japanese Art: From the Jomon Period to the Early Twentieth Century. Mori Art Museum: Tokyo

Nishikawa, K. & Sano, E. (1983) The Great Age of Japanese Buddhist Sculpture AD600 1300. Kimball Art Museum/Japan Society: Fort Worth

Jenkins, D. (1976) Masterworks in Wood: China and Japan. Portland Art Museum; Portland

[1] Bodhisattva of Compassion, known to the Chinese as Kwan Yin and in Sanskrit as Avalokitesvara. [2] Japonisme

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