What Is an Enso?

The enso ("circle") is the emblem of Zen Buddhism. A simple circle drawn with a single, broad brushstroke, it is a symbol of infinity, and represents the infinite void, the "no-thing", the perfect meditative state, and Satori (enlightenment.) 

Enso circle

Each Zen master has his or her own style, and that individuality is clearly expressed in the ensos they brush. Some Zen circles are perfectly symmetrical; others are completely lopsided. Some are done in one bold stroke; others are composed with two half circles. Some are thick and massive; others are thin and delicate. Most begin in the left-hand corner of the paper, but others start at the top or bottom.

Enso masters and works.

Nakagawa Soen (1907-1984), one of the fathers of Zen in the West, loved to brush enso. My favorite Soen Zen circle is a "sun enso," shown here, as opposed to the much more orthodox “moon enso,” inscribed with one of his haiku: "In broad daylight/ everything comes together in a circle/ and bears fruit." Enso inscriptions can always be interpreted on several levels and have different shades of meaning. Perhaps Nakagawa Soen means "The brilliance of the truth reveals all, nothing can be hidden, and one’s fruit-good and bad actions-will be known." Or from a more Zen perspective, maybe he is saying, "This sun enso symbolizes the perfect clarity and all-embracing nature of enlightenment that results in awakened acts."

enso circle


Enso And Meditation

The drawing of an enso embodies a key aspect of Zen Buddhism that is the "no-mind" concept. The no-mind concept is a state where you are free of thoughts and emotions and are completely present in the here and now.

That concept is central to meditation, letting go of everything in the back of your mind, not letting the mind wander, and being completely present in the moment. People use meditation to subdue the mind and transcend material desires; feel direct communication with the original motivation. Simple practice of meditation can help people say goodbye to negative emotions and regain control of their lives.

Enso Symbolism

The circle can be open or closed, that is, complete or incomplete. If the circle is open or incomplete, it can represent perfect beauty, and when the circle is complete, it can represent perfection.

The drawing of an enso also has symbolism with life, in that there is a beginning to life and an end (from the brush touching then finally leaving the paper), but the beginning and end continue in an enso. Thereby it also symbolizes the complete circle of life: birth, death and rebirth.

The Enso And Japanese Ink Painting

Japanese Ink Painting is a special form of the enso art. The tradition of ink painting or ink wash painting in general, is not just Japanese, and is common throughout South East Asia, originally emerging in the Tang dynasty in China (years 618-907). Some common features in this type of painting are a preference over different shades of black, rather than different colours. The key with this type of paining and with painting an ensō, is that there is an emphasis on brushwork and the perceived “spirit” or “essence” of a subject over direct imitation of what you’re trying to paint.

Enso circle

These forms of enso are maybe not the common ways to illustrate the meaning of it, but it is the most popular way for people to understand. So why not have a look and think about it?

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