The Enso Circle: The Ultimate Zen Guide

The Enso Circle is more than just a symbol:

In Zen Buddhism, it represents freedom, concentration and attention to the present moment. In fact, some Zen masters state that it can’t be explained: Instead, it has to be experienced… But in this guide, we’ll do our best to teach you everything you need to know about it. So here goes…


What Is An Enso Circle?

An enso circle or ensō (円相) is a minimalist Japanese symbol that features a simple, circular shape that is not filled in, drawn to leave out the outline.

This ring is a common symbol of Buddhist enlightenment and Japanese calligraphy. Some may call an enso the Infinity Circle, Zen Circle, Japanese Circle, the Lost Symbol of Reiki, or the Circle of Enlightenment.


The Symbol

This symbol is often drawn in a black ink wash called sumi onto thin, white paper or washi, just like traditional Japanese calligraphy. One may also draw an ensō in the air or in the dirt. Regardless of where in the universe it is made, the Zen art symbol must be drawn in just one complete ink stroke without stopping.  

enso circle symbol

Enso Art

It’s said that once you create a Zen circle, you can’t alter it. Although it may seem incredibly simple to draw and share an ensō, it takes time and requires one to continue to practice to draw a proper stroke or circle.

Enso Circle Art

There are not many Zen artists known for their “perfect” enso creations. However, any artist that is known for his express art is considered to have mastered Zen; a movement, an idea or a practice worth continuing to share.


What Does The Enso Mean?

The word, enso, means “circle” or “circular form” and often translates to “Zen circle” in English. This drawn symbol commonly comes to represent enlightenment, limitless strength, the universe, or mu (the void or no-thing). When drawing the symbol, the stroke is personal to the artist.


Open Vs Closed Ensō Circles

Some enso rings are slightly open while others are completely closed. Whether they are open or closed can mean different things that may personally relate to the artist.

If the circle is incomplete, this allows movement for development or represents wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection. The idea behind the completely one is perfection, totality, or wholeness, but not infinity.


Why Is It A Circle?

You may wonder, “Why is an enso a circular ring and not something else?” The simplicity of a Zen circle is perfect in the representation of Japanese culture. The shape of an ensō is symbolic of the beginning and end of all things.

The circular shape also symbolizes connectedness, togetherness, closed body, emptiness, or fullness. Rings “hold” things in. In Japanese culture, a full enso holds nothing in excess but lacks nothing.


The Ensō Circle & Zen Buddhism

Some people enjoy painting the art daily in correspondence with Zen Buddhism. It is a type of Buddhism that is mainly fueled by character rather than scripture or set rules. 

Zen enso circle

One common practice of a Zen Buddhist is Zen meditation or zazen where Zen master sit upright as they emphasize presence, focusing on breathing. The special rings in existence relate a lot to the practice of Zen Buddhism.


How Enso Rings Correlate To Zen Buddhism

In both Zen Buddhism and with the creation of Japanese circles, the way Zen Buddhists practice is very much freestyle and generally a personal experience.  While there are essentially guidelines for both Zen rings and spiritual Zen master doctrine, you have the freedom to search for and use guide for both practices. For instance, in Zen meditation, the position you should sit in and how you breathe is typically customary.

However, everyone has different meditation styles in terms of what they choose to do with their eyes (i.e., open or keep them closed, etc.) and how long they will continue in each meditation session. During art creation, there are guidelines in existence you must follow to create it with just a single stroke.


Personal Power & Choices

However, like Zen meditation, you have personal power over how you search and accomplish an enso that is asymmetry. A character can make it quickly or slowly, small or large, thin or thick, and faint or dark. Another character can use a large or small brush, and a small or large sheet of paper.


Concentration

Zen Buddhist doctrine and the creation of circles also have commonalities in terms of both requiring concentration that should not be interrupted.

Instead, you must continue the session from start to finish without stopping. You should focus on finishing rather than quality. Both require conscious efforts that symbolize presence, concentration, and mindful breathing in this century. 


Enso Zen Circles Of Enlightenment

As mentioned before, ensō rings represent enlightenment. Enlightenment can be defined as an awakening or understanding of something. With it, your goal is to be enlightened about the beauty of your inner self and emptiness. 

Although being enlightened is a mental process, drawing the special circle is a visual and aesthetic way to express enlightenment in Buddhism.


The Present Moment

If you want to achieve enlightenment, you have to open-minded and and accepting within the present moment. With both meditating and creating an enso, open-mindedness and acceptance are two important characteristics the individual must hold.  The enlightenment or understanding that come from both requires practice using tools and repetition over time to fully grasp.


More Than Aesthetics

For more information on enso circles and their relation to Zen culture, Enso Zen Circles of Enlightenment is an intriguing book, whose author is Audrey Yoshiko Seo and John Daido Loori, you may be interested in.

By providing a collection of different examples of this Zen art and an analysis of each, the intent of the author is to provide insight into the variation and fluidity of this type of Zen art. Ultimately, Seo and Loori explain in this book how the Zen arts are not designed to merely be aesthetic.


The History Of The Enso

Enso art has existed for around a century now. Although we don’t know how long it has been around, we do know that it has origins in Japan. One of the earliest and best examples of the art that has been found in Japanese culture is credited to Ranzan Shoryu (1718-1797).


Who Created Ensō?

Enso art isn’t traditionally created by professionals. Instead, it’s usually created by Zen monks and nuns who were dedicated to achieving enlightenment. The monks and Buddha that participated in this type of Zen art didn’t follow a specific doctrine. 


Hakuin

While many a person today might paint an enso circlefor fun, creating this symbol with void or emptiness wasn’t a one-time thing (or a day) for the Japanese. In fact, in 1707, a monk by the name of Hakuin was intrigued by the special art when he saw the work of a Zen master. 

Hakuin, in turn, created his own designs, which appeared seemingly flawless.  While beautiful on page, his work did not resemble his inner self. Burning his brushes, giving Zen art a break for decades, he finally worked on it again.

The latter example in history brings to light that painting Zen circles isn’t just about painting an art on a piece of paper; tools are needed.


How To Paint An Enso Circle

So how can you create your own Enso Circle?

Materials

You’ll need these materials to get started:

  • Washi (thin Japanese paper), white paper, or canvas
  • fude (paintbrush) of the size of your choice
  • Sumi ink or black paint

How To Draw An Ensō In 5 Steps

  1. When dipping your brush into your ink or paint, make sure to wholly saturate the entire tip of the brush.
  2. Then, hold your paintbrush loosely in your hand, horizontally to your piece of paper or canvas. Your fingers should be on top while your thumb should be on the bottom. The direction of the tip of the brush doesn’t matter.
  3. With your free hand hold your paper or canvas down to keep it stable. You may also use heavy rocks or weights as an alternative.
  4. Place your brush one corner of your paper or canvas. You can start from the top right, top left, bottom right, or bottom left, depending on your preferences.
  5. With your brush’s bristles absolutely flat on the paper or canvas, take a deep breath in and release. As you drag your brush to create your Zen ring (clockwise or counterclockwise), let your brush trace the pattern of your exhale. Don’t lift your brush; just complete it with a single brushstroke.

Tips For Drawing An Enso Circle

When painting an enso circle, don’t worry about making it artistically attractive. Every one looks unique from one another depending on the artist’s style and capabilities.

You might end up with a ring that is clean and symmetrical. However, another artist’s circle might look a little more asymmetrical. The closing of Ensō rings must be in wholeness, or it will have slight opening. There isn’t a right or wrong style; that’s the beauty in it!

The special rings are traditionally black on white. And once they’ve been made, its nature can’t be altered in wholeness. Artist Kazuaki Tanahashi is known for his colorful, modern versions of the rings. Feel free to experiment with colors, styles, and materials.


Don’t Rush It

In order to obtain the Zen component of the creation, however, one must learn not rely on design or drawings, but rather, their nature of breathing and self-realization.

If you’re creating an Enso circle, don’t rush it. Learn this through patience, discipline, and practice. Whilst creating yours, look at the center of the ring rather than the brushstroke you’re creating.


Ensō Tattoos

The special art makes for a popular tattoo design, needless to be a Buddha or Japanese to get one. But Japanese culture frowns upon tattoos. And having a Japanese symbol tattooed on your body can leave you looking offensive.


History Of Enso Tattoos

Tattoos have been a part of Japanese history since approximately 300 A.D., that is, until somewhere between 300 A.D. and 600 A.D. Nevertheless, it’s clear that getting an ensō tattoo is a more modern trend. Some common places for a Zen tattoo include:

  • Upper forearm
  • Wrist
  • Upper left or upper right chest
  • Centre of the upper back
  • Shoulder.

Many brushed up artists like to keep their special tattoo fairly traditional.


Yin-Yang Tattoo

A different enso tattoo many people consider features a Yin and Yang-style design. The complete tattoo won’t be created by one breath or brushstroke like on paper. But they still look incredibly realistic, not brushed.

Although a body of tattoo artists can draw the tattoo, you should specifically look for an artist who specializes in brushstroke tattoos. You can email and hire a tattoo artist that specialises in trash polka or watercolor style, design or concept.

yin yang

How To Say Enso Circle

When it comes to cultural or spiritual terms or phrases, one fears to pronounce it wrong, and offend the associated group or culture.

Thus, the need to know the correct pronunciation. In English and Japanese, ‘ensō circle’ is pronounced like en-zoh sir-cul or en-soh sir-cul. However, the ‘s’ in ‘enso’ in Japanese is phonetically a cross between an ‘s’ and a ‘z’ or a soft ‘z.’

In English, though, it may be pronounced with a stronger ‘z’ sound or even a soft ‘s.’  Additionally, the Japanese refer to an enso circle as just ‘ensō’ as this word alone refers to ‘circle.’