Enso, Symbol Supreme of Zen

The symbol supreme of Zen is the enso (円相), the timeless circle. From the beginning of Buddhism, enlightenment has been symbolized as a “bright full moon,” or a “great round mirror.” Illustrious Buddhist masters were said to have appeared not in their human form when they proclaimed the Dharma but as luminous circles. The Shinjinmei, a sixth century Chinese Zen text, describes the Great Way as a “circle like space, lacking nothing, nothing in excess.”

The earliest record of an enso, the first Zen painting, is from 9th century China:

A monk asked Master Wei-shan for something written down to inspire and instruct him. The master refused saying, “Buddha-nature is right in front of your face so why should I express it with brush and ink?” The monk then went to visit Master Yang-shan with a plea for something concrete. Yang-shan drew a circle on a piece of paper and added this inscription: “Thinking about this and understanding it is second best; not thinking about it and understanding it third best.” [The Zen riddle to be solved being, “What is first best?”] (Transmission of the Lamp.)

An enso can be brushed from the bottom, from the top, clockwise, counter clockwise, or in separate half-circles; the shape of an enso can range from perfectly symmetrical to completely lopsided, and in various degrees of thickness, from thin and delicate to fat and solid. The enso can be placed anywhere on the paper: to one side, in the middle, on the top, or on the bottom.

On occasion, enso carry only the signature of the artist but typically the enso painting is accompanied by an inscription (san賛). Inscriptions serve as a “hint” to the meaning and significance of that particular enso. The enso itself is brushed first and then the inscription is added. The inscriptions, too, have many variations. They can be puzzling, profound, witty, whimsical, humorous—sometimes all at the same time!

The enso can be interpreted as symbolizing: everything, nothing, infinity, eternity, perfection, enlightenment, the bright moon, mind, heart, center, a cookie, a fist, a frying pan, the top of a bucket, a bald head. An enso, in short, is perfectly abstract and minimalist, endlessly subjective and—this is the nice part—instructive, inspiring, and enlightening, regardless if it was brushed a thousand years ago or yesterday.

In each case the purpose of the enso painting is to present Zen teaching. It is up to each viewer to make his or her own observations regarding an enso painting. The fundamental question is, “What does this enso mean to you?”