What is an Enso Circle? – The Japanese Zen Symbol Explained

The enso (formally spelled ensō) is a Japanese symbol sometimes referred to as the ‘circle of enlightenment’. But what does enso actually mean, and what is the symbolism of an enso?

Ensō circle meaning?

The word ensō is Japanese and means ‘circle’. The word refers to a hand brushed circle that has been created using one single brushstroke and in one single breath.

An ensō is also sometimes referred to as the ensō Zen circle, an ensō ring, or the imperfect circle.

Enso meaning is intimately related to the practice of Zen, and in the process of drawing an ensō, a buddhist monk can fully represent a spiritual moment.

Zen masters will brush the ensō when doing calligraphy to express the complexities of Buddhism and express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.

The ensō is usually painted in black ink with a brush onto white paper, and Zen Buddhists believe that only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a ‘true’ ensō.

Ensō Symbolism

When describing the path of Zen, the words from the ancient 6th century text Shin Jin Mei, state that ‘A circle is a vast space, which does not lack anything, nor does it have too much.’

The ensō circle may be open or closed, i.e. complete or incomplete. If the circle is open/incomplete it can represent the beauty of imperfection, whereas when completed, can represent perfection.

However, with the ensō being an emblem of Zen Buddhism there are different ways to interpret an ensō.

The ensō can represent a desire for perfection and allowing the universe to be the way it is, also the material world that continues endlessly.

The drawing of an ensō 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 ensō. Thereby also symbolising the complete circle of life: birth, death and rebirth.

Ensō Circle Art

This spiritual practice of drawing ensō for self-realisation is called ‘hitsuzendo’ translated to ‘way of the brush’, and an ensō is thought to imprint an artist’s essence through a singular stroke.

Although simple in appearance, ensō’s can be difficult to draw due to the natural difficulty of drawing perfect circle shapes and often artists will need to practice drawing an ensō.

The below video is a good example and tutorial how to draw an ensō.

Ensō circle art exemplifies various aspects of Japanese perspectives and aesthetics, and an ensō should present different characteristics including: simplicity (kanso), asymmetry (fukinsei), being natural (shizen), and drawn with freedom (datsuzoku).

If you like enso art, there are actually options to buy enso prints, such as the below enso which is available to purchase from amazon. You can check the price and availability here.

The ensō and Japanese ink painting

The tools and mechanics of drawing the ensō are often the same as those used in traditional Japanese calligraphy. This means using one brush to apply ink to a thin Japanese paper.

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 and meditation

The drawing of an ensō 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.

To draw a ‘true’ enso, according to Zen Buddhists’ beliefs, you need to be completely mentally and spiritually complete, and meditation is a central way to achieve this.

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, then we’ve also reviewed some of the best meditation books, with options for beginners and more experienced practitioners.

Ensō outside of Buddhism

Due to the ensō’s beauty and symbolism, it has been used by different brands in their marketing efforts, as well as for its visual beauty in art and tattoos.

There is even a successful jewelery company that sells silicone rings called enso, with clear influences from the traditional ensō:

Ensō circle tattoos

Not only due to their symbolism, but also due to their simplicity and beauty, it has become popular for people around the world to get an ensō circle tattoo.

Often these tattoos aren’t just the traditional ensō alone, but can incorporate other aspects or modifications, as evident from this gallery of ensō tattoo designs.

These don’t exactly follow on with the traditional ensō, but how popular the ensō has become demonstrates it’s perceived beauty around the world.

Further reading about ensō

If you’re looking to study the ensō further there are different options where you can learn more, and also see more examples of ensō art.

Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment

Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment, is an excellent collection of ensō art from the 17th century to now, as well as focusing on the meaning of ensō art and its historical context. The author gives an analysis of the ensō circles in the book and the technique and biographies of the articles, who are in a lot of cases Japanese Zen teachers. If you’re looking for an excellent book on ensō circles that gives plenty of images and examples, then this is a great choice.

Enso: The Timeless Circle

Enso: The Timeless Circle, is a book featuring 62 enso reproduced in color, alongside translations and commentary by the author. The enso paintings featured in this book date from the 13th century (the oldest enso painting known currently), up to the present. The author presents not only insightful insight into the enso here, but also teaches how to interpret an enso.

Enso Morning: Daily Meditation Gifts

Rather than being specifically about enso, Enso Morning: Daily Meditation Gifts, provides 160 morning blessing letters, which can be used to stimulate and deepen meditation and spiritual practice. Each letter has seven brief paragraphs that offer a welcome to the day, a silent meditation, affirmations of body, heart and soul, a blessing and a gift for each day. Therefore if you’re looking to experience and learn more about spirituality and meditation, this is a different and interesting offering.

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