Zen Enso - The Way of the Brush

The Buddhist Channel, 29 May 2023

Kyoto, Japan -- From afar, the brush stroked circle looks like a big round zero plonked right in the middle of a plain, white canvas. For a Japanese "Zenist" however, that stark zero signified the moment when the mind was free to let the body create.

So called "Enso" (formally spelled as ensō - 円相, "circular form") or the Zen Circle, it holds ancient significance in Japanese calligraphy and serves as a sacred symbol of Zen Buddhism. It was developed within the Zen Buddhist tradition as a visual representation of enlightenment, which words alone could not convey.

The earliest known painting of an Enso dates back to its creator, the Chinese Zen Master Kyozan (814-890). While the exact date remains unknown, it signifies that the first Zen Enso emerged during Kyozan's lifetime.

Enso paintings have become a prominent tool for teaching in East Asian Buddhism, particularly in Japan. Nearly every Zen master since the time of Hakuin has produced Enso paintings as aids for meditation for their students and patrons, alongside portraits of Bodhidharma.

Each Zen master imparts their own style and individuality onto their Ensos. The diversity is evident in the brushwork, with some circles exhibiting perfect symmetry while others appear entirely asymmetrical. The creation process varies as well, ranging from bold single strokes to compositions of two half circles. The circles may differ in thickness, with some being robust and massive, while others are delicate and thin. Most commonly, the circles begin in the left-hand corner of the paper, though variations exist where they start at the top or bottom.

As Enso gained recognition as a standard form in Japanese Zen art, each Zen master infused their brushwork with their own unique Zen experience, teachings, and state of mind. Consequently, the seemingly simple circle shape becomes a captivating expression of individuality, showcasing variations in ink tones, brushstroke thickness, circle shape, and even the starting and ending points of the circle.

The Way of the Brush

Zen emphasizes direct experience and meditation as a means to realize enlightenment. Our Buddha nature suggests that we, and all beings, have the potential to attain this enlightenment. Buddhism encompasses the practice and path leading to this realization, awakening one to the true nature of reality. Creating a Zen Enso mirrors this philosophy and practice.

An Enso is drawn in a single continuous brushstroke, leaving no room for correction. There is no opportunity to backtrack and perfect it. The process demands concentration and certainty, which can only be achieved through mindfulness, of clearing the mind and being fully present in the moment.

At the same time, drawing an Enso requires fluidity. There is no conscious pause between brushstrokes to aim for a flawless outcome. It calls for the practice of no-mindfulness, which is a state of mind in which there is no fixation on any particular thought or object of attention. It is in this state of no-mindfulness that one lets the brushwork flow unconsciously, unburdened by concerns about skill, effort, or result.

These acts of mindfulness and no-mindfulness aligns with the principles of Zen Buddhism, which aim is to transcend the dualistic nature of thought and experience a direct, intuitive understanding of reality. By letting go of conceptual thinking, practitioners can enter a state of pure awareness, unencumbered by judgment, analysis, or interpretation. In this state, there is no separation between the observer and the observed, and there is a sense of unity and interconnectedness with all things. This is where the creation of the Enso circle is often referred to as the "Zen way of the brush", and this self-realization is known as hitsuzendo.

The way of Imperfect Beauty (Wabi-Sabi)

There is a Japanese aesthetic concept that values the beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and simplicity. It is called Wabi-Sabi. It can be likened to the feeling evoked when observing a chipped, ragged old vase or experiencing awe in the presence of a panaromic, rugged countryside.

Wabi-sabi embodies this simplicity by valuing naturalness, modesty, and a rustic aesthetic. It finds beauty in the humble, the unpretentious, and the ordinary.

The reality of life dictates that nothing endures, nothing attains completeness, and nothing is perfect. As drawing an Enso involves a single, non-repetitive, and incomplete brushstroke, it does not rely on perfection. Yet, within this imperfection, the artist's true nature is immediately and fully expressed.

Within Buddhism, Wabi-Sabi refers to the three characteristics of life, which is Impermanence,     Suffering and Non-self. In an Enso circle, form (the brushstroke) embodies void (the center of the circle) and vice versa.

Enso exemplifies various aspects of the wabi-sabi perspective and aesthetic, such as fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), kanso (simplicity), koko (basic; weathered), shizen (without pretense; natural), yugen (subtly profound grace), datsuzoku (freedom), and seijaku (tranquility).

Whenever a calligrapher begins a new Enso, the previous one is left behind, illustrating the impermanence of everything. Drawing an Enso can be seen as an exercise in expressing the imperfect (suffering, emptiness) beauty (life, awareness, freedom) of the present moment, letting it go, and starting anew.

The way of Hakuin

Here is an advice before you start work on your own Enso. Attempting to learn how to draw a "good" Zen symbol contradicts its purpose. Skill is inconsequential in this art form.

The story of Hakuin, a young Zen monk, offers insight into this notion. Hakuin had mastered the techniques of symbol painting, and his strokes were polished to perfection. One day, he encountered the work of an elderly Zen Master whom he greatly admired. To Hakuin's surprise, the Master's strokes were rustic and unrefined.

Upon reflection, Hakuin realized that his work lacked the expression of self-realization; it stemmed from mere learning. Understanding that Zen art evolves from years of discipline and the pursuit of enlightenment, Hakuin burned his brushes and abstained from art for forty years of Zen practice.

The moral of this story emphasizes that Zen art is an external manifestation of the inner state. Drawing an Enso takes as long as it takes to awaken. For most individuals, it is a lifelong endeavor.

The beauty lies in the imperfection of beginners, for even in their flaws, they capture the essence of the present moment. The present moment is perfect, complete — it is a circle.

The way of Painting a Zen Circle

Traditionally, an Enso circle is rendered on thin Japanese rice paper, known as washi, using a circular brush. However, it can also be drawn in dirt or written in the air. Historically, it falls within the practice of Japanese calligraphy and ink painting, referred to as sumi-e.

The Zen master typically engages in silent meditation for an extended period in front of the paper and brush. Then, in one sweeping motion, the master completes the Enso circle, expressing and reflecting their state of being.

Once the Zen circle is finished, it remains unchanged. This further reinforces the notion that the Enso symbolizes a singular moment of creation in the artist's life. As mentioned earlier, painting an Enso is a spiritual practice that can be performed daily.

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to draw an Enso:

Materials you will need:

1. Ink or a fine-tipped marker
2. Paper
3. Circular object (optional, for guidance)

Step 1: Prepare your materials
Gather your paper, ink or marker, and any other tools you plan to use. Find a quiet and comfortable place to work.

Step 2: Set your intention
Before you begin, take a moment to establish your intention for the drawing. The Enso represents a moment of clarity and mindfulness, so consider the qualities or emotions you wish to infuse into your artwork.

Step 3: Draw the circle

Commence by drawing a simple, closed circle on your paper. If desired, you can use a circular object like a cup or compass to guide your hand. The circle can be perfect or slightly imperfect, depending on your preference. Take your time and create the circle with fluid and deliberate movements.

Step 4: Add the brushstroke
The Enso is typically formed in one continuous brushstroke. Start at the bottom of the circle, near the 6 o'clock position. Move your brush or marker slowly and steadily around the circle in a clockwise (or counterclockwise) direction. Maintain consistent pressure and strive for smooth, flowing brushwork.

Step 5: Embrace imperfections
The Enso is often appreciated for its imperfections, which symbolize the beauty of impermanence and the inherent flaws in all things. If your brushstroke wavers or deviates slightly from the perfect circle, embrace it as part of the process. These imperfections make your Enso unique and reflective of your personal journey.

Step 6: Reflect and observe

Once you have completed your Enso, take a moment to reflect on your drawing. Observe its shape, the qualities of the brushstroke, and the overall impression it conveys. Notice any emotions or thoughts that arise as you gaze upon it.

Step 7: Optional variations

If you feel inspired, you can experiment with different variations of the Enso. For example, you can create thicker or thinner strokes, incorporate openings within the circle, or integrate additional elements or designs. Allow your creativity to guide you and explore new possibilities.

Remember, the Enso is a personal expression of the present moment. Each Enso you create will be unique, reflecting your state of mind and artistic interpretation. Enjoy the process and fully engage in the meditative experience of drawing the Enso.

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