When I first saw this Ensō, I was very drawn to it.

Bankei Yōtaku (1622-1693), Sakyamuni and Maitreya, ink on paper

First, what is enso?

Zen teachers like to draw circles. Sometimes they draw them around from right to left, sometimes around from left to right. These circles can represent emptiness, fullness, or the moon. Or they can represent the practice. The circle that goes around from right to left — against the path of the sun on the sundial — represents the hard way of practice before any glimmer of understanding appears. When it goes around from left to right, following the path of the sun, it represents the easier way of practice after a glimmer opens the Way. But both before and after the glimmer, the practice requires investment and conscientious diligence.

— American Zen master Robert Aitken

That’s a lot for a brush-made circle. Let’s find some context.

Zen Master Bankei’s enso is completely his own. So graceful and strong. Usually the enso is one circular stroke, perfectly imperfect, expressing the wholeness of existence, which is peace. Emptiness is encircled by action. Although enso is beyond words, the Zen poet often includes a verse as commentary. In this case Bankei writes: “Sakyamuni and Maitreya are both servants.”

In The Art of Zen Stephen Addiss writes about this particular enso: His concern was with the truth as an immediate experience, not with a systematic approach to a distant goal.

Bankei, ever the individualist, used two strokes, each strongly and quickly articulated. The effect is to give an entirely new meaning to the form; the strokes enclose each other like an embrace yet still suggest both emptiness and completeness.

— Alan Senauke

Some more context: Bankei, the maker of the enso, was a Japanese Rinzai Zen master. Casting aside the traditional style of his contemporaries, he offered his teachings in the common language of the people.

Sakyamuni is the historical Buddha, the prince who was born Siddhartha Gautama.

Maitreya is in the Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha, presently a bodhisattva residing in the Tushita heaven, who will descend to earth to preach anew the dharma (“law”) when the teachings of Gautama Buddha have completely decayed. [Encyclopaedia Britannica]

All of this context isn’t so there’s intellectual understanding or mere information. Simply gaze at the enso. Let it speak to you.

Then consider the general truths enso represents. Apply these to your life and understanding of life. Draw your own conclusions from the quotes here.

I find the enso freeing because it makes no demands. Simplicity itself, it gives the mind and heart space. The breath frees up and weight lifts off.

Also, it’s an art form. The ink and brushwork, paper or other medium selected, the artistry of being able to express all that’s written about it with essentially only one or two strokes of the maker’s hand. Pretty remarkable.

Most broadly, enso represent the vast qualities of the universe, conjuring up its grandness, limitless power, and natural phenomena. But enso can just as easily represent the void, the fundamental state in which all distinctions and dualities are removed: ‘Outside — empty, inside — empty, inside and outside — empty.’ Very often enso depict the moon, symbolizing enlightenment, but can also represent the moon’s reflection in water, symbolizing the futility of searching for enlightenment outside oneself.

— Audrey Yoshiko Seo

Related:

Embracing Your Spirituality and Gifts

The Journey Itself is Home


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Enso the Zen Circle