Enso – the symbol of perfection and emptiness

Ensō ( or En-sou, 円相 : Circle + Mutual, meaning something like a Mutual Circle or a Circle of Mutuality) is a very deep concept in Zen Buddhism. It is a sacred symbol which can represent a lot of things, or nothing at all. It is a common subject of Japanese calligraphy, regardless of it being a symbol and not a Kanji. It is a symbol which encompasses all the basic attributes of Wabi-Sabi aesthetic.

Ensō is drawn in one fluid, swift, uninhibited stroke. Once drawn, it is not changed. It is said to express the character of its creator along with the context of the instant. Drawing Ensō is often practiced in the art of Sumi-e, Japanese ink painting, however, the practice of drawing ensō is more than just art, it extends to being a spiritual practice or a waking meditation. The mind sets the body free to create, each Ensō is a representation of the personality of the creator themselves.

Enso with calligraphy.

The equipment and method of drawing an Ensō is the same as the one used for traditional Japanese calligraphy. A Brush is used to apply ink on a paper suitable for the purpose.

Enso by Kanjuro Shibata

The Ensō is symbolic of enlightenment, perfection, emptiness, elegance, fortitude along with the beauty of imperfection. It may be drawn closed or open. When it is closed, it represents perfection. When open, it represent the beauty of impermanence and irregularity in nature.

Zazen room
A Zazen room with Enso in the Background

The practice of calligraphy is called Hitsudō (筆道, “way of the brush”) and the practice of calligraphy for spiritual cultivation is called hitsuzendō (筆禅道 “way of the zen brush”). It is a belief in Japan that the spiritual achievements of the monk or nun are expressed through their paintings, calligraphy and in particular, the drawing of Ensō.

Ensō are almost perfect in their rhythm, balance and give a sense of completeness. However, they are most often irregular in execution, making them the most simple and yet the most complex shape. They don’t give much room for variation because of the lack of design, even so, each Ensō is in itself, an expression of its creator. The variations are endless, yet have the same basic attributes.