“In one circle, become the Buddha!” By Philip Horan

enso of in one breath.become the Buddha!

Figure 1: “In one breath, become the Buddha!”

Ensō or Zen circles of enlightenment appear frequently on album covers and books about shakuhachi. They can have an uncanny resemblance to the shakuhachi root. Just as the shakuhachi player aims to achieve enlightenment in a single tone, the Zen calligrapher can do so through a single circle. The ensō has been interpreted to mean many things; infinity, the universe, enlightenment, etc. It can represent many concepts in Zen such as the endless circle of birth, death and rebirth (reincarnation) or form and emptiness, The ensō sometimes represents the moon which is a Zen symbol of enlightenment. Ensō usually consist of four parts: the circle, an inscription, signature and hanko (name stamp). Type ensō into Google images and you will find many examples.

They can start from any point of the circle (most start at the lower left) and can be drawn clockwise or anti-clockwise. Ensō are imperfect like the people who drawn them. They can be drawn in one stroke or several. The darkness or colour of the ink can vary or fade as the circle is completed. The paint or material to be painted on can be any colour or combination of colours. Ensō are sometimes not even circles! A famous triangular ensō by Fukushima Keido (1933-) comes with the inscription ‘Even this is a circle’. Ensō represent the state of mind at the moment of creation. They can be calm or contain great energy. No two ensō are the same, just like no two tones in shakuhachi.

The transcription is usually placed to the side but can be anywhere including inside the ensō. It can be in Japanese characters or any language. Traditionally the inscription was a quotation from a Buddhist text or comment. Some Zen calligraphers depict an everyday item like a doughnut with an inscription like ‘Yummy’ or have a humorous inscription like ‘What is this?‘ This reminds one not to over-conceptualise but to enjoy the moment. The character of the inscription should echo the sentiment of the circle. There is also a tradition of drawing a picture within the ensō such as a scene from the ten ox-herding parables (the eight parable is depicted as an ensō) or bamboo. Calligraphers also put their hanko or name stamp in the picture. If you do not have a Japanese one you can invent your own like in the example below.

An Irish enso in green ink

Figure 2: An Irish ensō!

Have a try! It may take time to settle the mind or just launch straight in! You might want to draw one or many. Each catches a moment in time and will be different. It is addictive. Listen to your breath. Sit upright and see the ensō in your mind’s eye before committing brush to paper. Do not stop after drawing the circle but complete all elements of the ensō at the same time. Sometimes imperfections or mistakes make the best ensō. Coordinate the start with the exhalation. Pause when placing the brush on paper and gracefully lift the brush when leaving. The brush is held in an upright position. Ensō are traditionally drawn with sumi or charcoal ink and calligraphy brushes. However, if you don’t have these, any type of paint or brush will work. Calligraphers take time to prepare the ink using an ink stick and stone which help calm the mind. Play your shakuhachi after your foray into Zen ensō or vice versa. How does one inform the other? Can you become your ensō in one tone or one breath? Can you improvise your own honkyoku based on a series of ensō?

enso inspired by the shakuhachi piece using an uneven brush stroke to represent the uneven breath

Figure 3: “Shingetsu”

Ensō bibliography

Ensō: Zen circles of Enlightenment by Audrey Yoshiko Seo (Weatherhill 2007 ISBN 978-0-8348-0575-0)