Meditative Arts: The Practice of Ensō

‘As a symbol, the circle expresses our totality of being. Whether in sun worship ceremonies, in mythological stories, or in religious art, the circle points to the most vital aspect of our existence—its ultimate wholeness.’ ~ John Daido Loori


A Very Brief History of Ensō

Ensō (円相) literally means circle in Japanese. In Zen Buddhist philosophy, it is a hand-drawn circle in as few brushstrokes as possible, usually only one or two. The defining feature of Ensō (円相) is that the brushstroke is uninhibited, free-flowing and expresses a movement when the mind is free to allow the body to create. The circle looks fluid, like the natural movement of water. This meditative art requires in its practitioner a free and open mind that has entered a meditative flow state. Rigidity and control in the mind are exposed as soon as the brush and ink touch the paper. Drawing Ensō (円相) is a disciplined-creative practice of East Asian ink-wash painting and calligraphy (Shuǐmòhuà, 水墨畫, in Chinese; Sumi-e, 墨絵, in Japanese, ‘way of the brush’). Drawing Ensō (円相) is a disciplined that one might practice as often as once per day.

The drawing of Ensō (円相) was heavily influenced by Zen (禅), which was introduced to Japan from China (where it is known as Chán, 禪) from the fourteenth century onwards when Japan saw the development of the cultural movement Higashiyama Bunka (東山文化). Ensō (円相) emerged as a spiritual practice, like many others, from artistic cultural practices. For example, in addition to ink-wash painting and calligraphy, the practice of tea ceremony (Chanoyu, 茶の湯, also known as Sado or Chado, 茶道, ‘way of tea’), the art of flower arranging (Ikebana, 生け花, also known as Kado, 華道, ‘way of flowers’), all evolved and flourished as meditative arts onwards in Japan from this time. Drawing Ensō (円相) is a development of East Asian ink-wash painting and calligraphy, although it differs in that is a spiritual practice for self-realisation called Hitsuzendō (筆禅道, ‘way of Zen through the brush’), whereas Sumi-e, 墨絵, in Japanese, Shuǐmòhuà, 水墨畫, in Chinese) refers only to ‘way of the brush’).

The roots of Ensō (円相) might well be traced right back to ancient Indian philosophy, and then to Theravada Buddhism and then to the form of Mahayana Buddhism that evolved after the Bodhidharma brought Buddhism to ancient China (Chán, 禪), which later evolved as Zen (禅) in Japan. The Zen philosophy and imagery itself evolved to have a life of its own, more of a poetry in motion—wordless and minimal—but not unlike early Taoist symbolism in ancient China. There is little known about the exact evolution of the practice of Ensō (円相), because symbolically, the circle is present in one form or another as ‘oneness’, ‘universality’ or ‘wholeness’ in all spiritual, religious and philosophical traditions. Essentially, however, the Zen aesthetic unwittingly permitted certain meditative arts to evolve and flourish in a particularly unique way. The Zen aesthetic of Ensō (円相) is carried through poetry and parable, such as Ten Oxherding Pictures (Shìniú, 十牛, in Chinese), which has endured as an artistic teaching of Zen philosophy to this day.

The Philosophy of Ensō

Symbolically similar to the artistic images of circles embedded within ancient Indian philosophy and imagery, the circle—Ensō (円相)—symbolises a number of things that are continually subject to interpretation and adaptation. The Ensō (円相) can symbolise enlightenment, or satori (悟り) in Japanese, as well as elegance, grace, the infinite, the absolute, totality of being, universal consciousness and mu (無, literally meaning ‘void’ in Japanese).

Ensō (円相), just like Kintsugi (金継ぎ), pertains to the Zen philosophical ideals of Wabi Sabi (侘寂).  Wabi Sabi (侘寂) cherishes what is simple, unpretentious and aged—particularly if it has a weathered quality—as it represents the transience and imperfection of all living things. The ideals of Wabi Sabi (侘寂) include: ‘asymmetry’ or ‘irregularity’ (Fukinsei), simplicity (Kanso), ‘weatheredness’ (Koko), ‘unpretentiousness’ (Shizen), ‘graciousness’ (Yugen), ‘freedom’ (Datsuzoku) and  ‘tranquillity’ (Yeijaku). In a time that worships youth, perfection and the new, both the art of Kintsugi (金継ぎ) and Ensō(円相) retains a particular kind of wisdom.

The Techniques of Ensō

East Asian ink-wash painting and calligraphy, of which Ensō (円相) is characterised by a Zen and Japanese minimalism. There is little to this technique—bearing similarity to watercolour techniques—less is more. The tools and techniques of drawing the Ensō (円相) are the same as those used in traditional Chinese and Japanese ink-wash painting and calligraphy. The practitioner uses the bare essentials: one brush (Fude, 筆) to apply the ink-wash and a one thin sheet of paper (Washi, 和紙). Finally, it is finished with a signature of the practitioner, which is stamped with the classic red ink.

The techniques are minimal, built on form and movement. In terms of form, the circle may be open or closed. In the case of the open circle, the incomplete circle allows for movement and development as well as the imperfection of all things. In the case of the closed circle, it represents perfection. In terms of movement, a person usually draws the Ensō (円相) in one fluid, expressive stroke. Once the Ensō (円相) is drawn, one must leave it be, without further intervention or manipulation. It evidences the character of its creator and the context of its creation in a brief, continuous period of time.

The Practice of Ensō  

Workshops, courses and books for learning the East Asian art of ink-wash painting and calligraphy, outside of China and Japan, are by now very common. Recommendations here can only be based on our own personal training and experience in both Japan and China. One of the best books to learn more that I have come across is Ensō: Zen Circles of Enlightenment by Audrey Yoshiko Seo. One requires very little to begin the disciplined meditative art of Ensō (円相), it is an inexpensive practice. The patience and meditative presence that is required is the real endeavour. Visit Oh the Light Gets In to buy original pieces of Ensō that have been lovingly ink-painted for spiritual spaces.

See also: Art Work; What is Integration?