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?”

K006 My Universe Ensō by Daikō Sōgen, 大綱宗彦 - (signed) The 82-year-old fellow Daikō (kaō)   八   十   二   翁 大 綱 (花押) Daikō Sōgen (大綱宗彦, 1772–1860) K006 hanging scroll 123 cm × 33 cm, sumi on paper 27.1 cm × 29.8 cm. By placing his name within the ensō, Daikō implies that the universe revolves around himself. Indeed, all of us have our own […]
K021 What is this? Ensō by Tokuō Ryōkō, 徳翁良高 - What is this? TOTSU!! Brushed by Ryōkō 良高筆 咄 是甚麼 * * This character is more usually written 什 Tokuō Ryōkō (徳翁良高, 1649-1709) K021 hanging scroll, 168 cm × 35 cm, sumi on paper 76.9 cm × 25.4 cm. “What is this?” is the most frequent inscription on Zen circle paintings. A number of koans […]
K067 Ensō by Matsuzaka Kian 松坂帰庵 - KI AN 帰庵       Matsuzaka Kian (松坂帰庵, 1893-1959) K067 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 105.8 cm × 24.5 cm. This is a classic Zen circle, hanging in space, and symbolizing all manner of Buddhist truth—eternal flow, the moon-mind of enlightenment, the emptiness of being. Kian has signed his name (帰庵) at the bottom as if […]
K226 Universe Ensō by Fuyō Rōran 父幼老卵 - Nothing lacking, Nothing extra. Brushed by Rōran * 老卵書 無欠無余 Fuyō Rōran (父幼老卵, 1724-1805) K226 hanging scroll 142 cm × 70 cm, sumi on paper 47.6 cm × 56.2 cm.   *His name means “Old Egg.” The inscription is a verse from the Shinjin Mei (信心銘 “Believing in Mind”), a short Zen text by the […]
K232 Rice Cake Ensō by Tankai Genshō 潭海玄昌 - Is it a rice cake, a dumpling or actually a hoop of a tub? Brushed by Hakujū Dōnin * 柏樹道人書 ぬ希し 桶能輪可 餅可団子可ただしハ Tankai Genshō (潭海玄昌, 1811-1898) K232 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 103.3 cm × 31.0 cm.   * Tankai’s pen name. This is a playful ensō—some times an ensō is just a circle. On […]
K238 Enso by Sokuchūsai Sōsa 即中斎宗左 - KA Ō * 花押 Sokuchūsai Sōsa (即中斎宗左, 1901-1979) K238 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 72.1 cm × 25.0 cm   This is an unadorned Zen circle, brushed in one perfectly controlled brushstroke. The ink tone is rich, deep and full; although the painting is actually not large it projects great power and expansiveness; Sokuchūsai’s trademark […]
K544 Grasshopper Enso by Asano Shun’ō - koe hazuredomo sugata wa mienuzu wa kusakiri no kirigirisu You can hear the chirps but you can’t see the grasshoppers in the grass (signed) Shun’ō 春翁 切のきす々り へぬ主は草 ども姿は見 声はすれ Asano Shun’ō (朝野春翁, d. 1980) K544 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 38.2 cm × 21.0 cm. The inscription is a line from a popular folk […]
Nansen Draws a Circle - Shun sō 春 叢 Shunsō Joshū (春叢紹珠, 1751-1839) K449 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 126.4 cm × 52.8 cm. This is a Zenga of Case 69 of the Hekiganroku: Nansen, Kiso, and Mayoku were on their way to pay their respects to the National Teacher Chū. Halfway there, Nansen stopped, drew an circle on the […]