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.

8 Aesthetic Principles for achieving the Japanese Aesthetic of Wabi Sabi

Ryoanji Garden
Contemporary Wabi Sabi Tea Bowl
Tea Bowl with Wabi Sabi elements

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic focused on beauty in simple and imperfect things.

Reflecting on Buddhist principles, it reminds us of the impermanent nature of things. Hence, the beauty of Wabi-Sabi is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete. Further going into the Buddhist principles, it derives from the sanbouin, the three indications of existence: impermanence, suffering and emptiness.

Ryoanji Garden
Zen Garden with Wabi Sabi elements

The imperfection is achieved through lack of symmetry, simple nature, economical materials, an extent of roughness, admiration of natural beauty of things and humble appearances.

 Zen Philosophy lists the following 7 principles to achieve this aesthetic
  • Fukinsei (不均整): Asymmetry, irregularity;
  • Kanso (簡素): simplicity;
  • Kouko (考古): rustic, weathered;
  • Shizen (自然): natural, absence of pretense;
  • Yugen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious;
  • Datsuzoku (脱俗): unrestricted by convention, free;
  • Seijaku (静寂): tranquility.

Another associated element along with these 7 principles is Shibumi (渋味)

Fukinsei (不均整) – Asymmetry

Fukinsei brings our attention to the symmetry, or lack of it, in nature. Its impact is that the observer uses their imagination to complete the symmetry and becomes a participant in the art. The concept of controlling balance with asymmetry and evenness is commony seen in Zen aesthetics. We find nature to be filled with asymmetrical patterns which are still balanced somehow. Fukinsei strives to recreate the same sense of balance through human endeavor. For instance, the calligraphic enso are often incomplete, but they represent enlightenment or perfection.

Kanso (簡素) – Simplicity

Kanso tells us that beauty need not be exaggerated or whimsical, same goes for utility.
Things are communicated in a simple and rustic way. They remind us to not think in terms of detail and decorative additions but focus on lucidity that might be accomplished through oversight or avoidance of what is not important. The general impact is clean, plain, and rustic.

Kouko (考古) – Rustic

Kouko is concerned with restrains, a sense of clarity and a spare appearance at the same time. It is often viewed in analogy with, or the same as Shibui/Shibumi.

Shizen (自然) – Natural

Shizen literally means Nature. As a concept, it is focused on lack of artificiality. The creation must not look forced but rather in tune with nature. The design principles of Japanese Gardens often focus on looking and functioning naturally. Despite the natural appeal, the overall design does not look happenstance and suggests that nature itself has a motive behind its existence.

Yugen (幽玄) – Subtleness and Mystery

Yugen is about vagueness or hints instead of revelations. Yugen suggests an element of mystery, it intrigues curiosity for the unknown and the undiscovered while maintaining the lack of clarity. Implications become as important as what is clear. It is concerned with the Zen concept of being in tune with nature, in the view that accuracy and definiteness goes against the mystery of nature. Only enough information is given so as to invoke curiosity and leave it unsatisfied, leaving the final decision on what to do with it upon the observer.

Datsuzoku (脱俗) – Freedom from set conventions

As the title suggests, Datsuzoku is about breaking away from the routine. Something extraordinary or unusual. This concept invokes a sense of awe in the observer. It can be witnessed in several Japanese arts, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. The main effect is to surprise the viewer and to surpass expectations.

Seijaku (静寂) – Tranquility

Seijaku refers to a sense of solitude. It contrasts with noise. Seijaku is characterised by a sense of stillness and a calm nature which instills feelings of solitude (as opposed to just loneliness). In essence, deliberately doing something need not be better than not doing anything. Sometimes things are better left unmeddled and calm.

Shibumi (渋味) – Astrigency

Shibui literally meanst astrigency or bitter taste. It may also be translated as Elegance in Simplicity. It is based on beauty in lack of explainations or understatements. The way of Shibui is not flashy, it is focused on being direct and simple. In the modern era, it is sometimes used to talk about minimalistic design or art.