Ensō: The Zen Circle of Enlightenment

The ensō circle is a sacred symbol of the Japanese Zen school of thought. It can be traced back to the 6th century where it was first depicted as an out-of-shape circle with no pretense to perfection. The circle is usually drawn in one fluid expressive brush stroke, and may be open or closed, with different meanings in each case – a complete circle embodying the idea that there is fullness without beginning and end, while an open circle is usually associated with the concept of wabi-sabi, which is the view that things are impermanent and imperfect. In either case, once drawn, one does not change the circle, no matter how imperfect it looks because what has been drawn is imbued with the character and energy of the creator in that brief moment. Like the imperfections of nature, imperfection in art is not merely tolerated; it is celebrated as beauty in its own right.

More Examples of The Enso in Japanese Art

Torei Enji (1721-1792), Enso, ink on paper, 18th century.

Tōrei Enji was an eminent Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, painter and calligrapher. He was the chief disciple and Dharma heir of the famed Japanese Rinzai master Hakuin Ekaku and a major figure in the revival of the Rinzai Zen school of Buddhism in eighteenth century Japan.

A Edo period paper kakemono (hanging scroll) painted in ink with an open ensō (circle) by Mugaku Sōen (1720-1791). Dimensions: Scroll: 110cm x 53cm; painting: 27cm x 45cm. Presented by Gregg Baker Asian Art, Brussels.

Painted fresh water jar with enso circle design

This depiction of ensō on a wood-fired pearly white jar signifies purity, enlightenment, and the freedom of the mind to envision and to create. Though the work is modern, the techniques used to produce such works stretch back over 500 years and were only recently revived in the first half of the 20th century by a dedicated group of artists. The potter who created this piece (Kato Kozo) was born in 1935 in Gifu prefecture and is one of the most recognized and celebrated traditional Japanese potters alive today. In 2010, Kato was honoured with with the title of Living National Treasure.

Leave a Reply