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Enso Symbol – What Does It Really Mean?

The Enso, a popular symbol of Buddhism and Japanese calligraphy, is made with a single brushstroke that creates an unclosed circle. It’s also called the Infinity Circle, Japanese Circle, Zen Circle or the Circle of Enlightenment. How did this simple symbol come to represent the idea of eternity and what other interpretations does it have? Here’s a closer look at the Enso symbol.

What is the Enso Symbol? – A Perfectly Imperfect Circle

The Enso symbol is considered a sacred symbol in the Zen school of thought. It’s typically created with one uninterrupted stroke of the brush, although sometimes it can be painted with two strokes. The circle can be either open or closed, with both styles representing different things (discussed below). Drawing an Enso is a precise art that has to be done in one fluid stroke. Once drawn, the symbol can’t be altered in anyway. 

The Enso symbol can be traced back to the 6th century where it was first depicted as an out of shape circle. It was believed to represent the idea of immense space that has no need of anything and contains nothing that it needs. It is an indication of satisfaction with what one has. It’s empty and yet full, with no beginning or end.

The Enso expresses the complex ideas of Buddhism, in a simple, minimalist stroke.

Meaning of the Enso Symbol

Enso symbol design

Enso is written in the Japanese kanji as 円相 and consists of two words:

  • 円 – means circle
  • 相 – this kanji has several meanings including inter-, mutual, together, aspect or phase

Put together, the words mean circular form. Another interpretation suggests that Enso can mean a Circle of Togetherness. The more traditional interpretation of the symbol is that of the circle of life, as a symbol of the start and end of all things.

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The type of circle, whether open or closed, represents different meanings.

  • The white space within the circle can indicate emptiness or it can take on the idea that it contains all it needs within its center. Also, depending on the interpreter, the middle of the circle can represent presence or absence – similar to a glass half full or half empty scenario.
  • On a social level, the Enso circle can be seen to symbolize harmonious cooperation between one another, acceptance of oneself or the pursuit for personal development and self-improvement.
  • As a reflection of life and nature, the Zen circle can reflect the idea of how one perceives their life and whether it’s full or void and empty. It shows the mindset of the individual and their satisfaction with where they are at in their life’s journey.
  • The symbol can also illustrate the cyclic nature of life: birth, death and rebirth. Nature, throughout the year, goes through this cyclic process of birth, death and rebirth as a result of the seasons. Also, the Sun perpetually rises and sinks in a circular fashion, bringing light and life.
  • Additionally, the Enso can symbolise the harmonious relationship and balance between all things.
  • Spiritually the Enso circle is considered a mirror of the moon and therefore an emblem suggesting Enlightenment. In Buddhism, the moon is a symbol for the doctrines and teachings that lead one along the path to enlightenment, which is why you will sometimes find the Enso referred to as the Circle of Enlightenment.
  • In meditation, the Enso indicates the perfect meditative state in which your mind is detached from all and in connection with the infinite. It provides a sense of calm, concentration and rejuvenation.
Symbolism of the enso symbol
  • Yet other interpretations of the Enso see it as a symbol of strength, the cosmos (which is complete and whole) and a duality of dependence and independence. It can be taken to represent single-mindedness as the person who paints the Enso does so with focus and determination while accepting the final result as it is.
  • An open circle can be usually taken as an indication of the concept of wabi-sabi, which is the view that things are impermanent, imperfect and partial.

Enso Symbol In Modern Use

Beautiful Enso circle wall art by Bennu Metal Wall Art. See it here.

The Enso circle has been adopted by a range of companies such as Apple, who’s Apple 2 campus seems to be laid out in a circular Enso type fashion, which could reflect Steve Jobs’ Buddhist beliefs.

The telecommunications company, Lucent Technologies, uses a red symbol that looks strikingly like the Enso to reflect the idea of creativity.

AMD used the Enso as a way to market its Zen microchips, as the company claimed that the Enso reflected the creative human spirit.

Enso in Jewelry and Fashion

Enso golden wall art. See it here.

The Enso is often featured in minimalist jewelry, especially in rings, pendants and earrings. The symbol makes for an ideal gift to someone due to its many symbolic interpretations and universal applicability. Some excellent occasions for gifting the Enso include:

  • Graduation – as a symbol of strength, wisdom and taking control of one’s destiny
  • Saying goodbye to a loved one – the Enso becomes a symbol of luck and hope for the future.
  • An anniversary – the Enso symbolizes strength in togetherness, harmony and balance.
  • To someone going through a difficult time in their life – the Enso signifies limitless strength and control of their destiny, reminding the person that they have the choice to decide how they view and live their life. It’s also a reminder to look inwards and find inner peace.
  • To a traveler – the Enso is a symbol of keeping their peace, strength and feeling of balance regardless of where they go.

The Enso symbol is also popular as a tattoo design and is also often featured on clothing and other retail items.

How to Paint an Enso Symbol

Drawing an Enso is a symbolic gesture that provides a sense of calm and relaxation. It’s satisfying to create an Enso and it tends to rejuvenate one’s mind. While it looks easy, it can also be quite complex to paint. The two things to remember when brushing an Enso are:

  1. The symbol should be painted in one single stroke, and once brushed, should not be altered.
  2. You should draw the Enso in one breath – take a breath before you start, and while inhaling, brush your Enso.

FAQs

What is the Enso symbol, and what does it represent?

The Enso symbol, also known as the Japanese circle, Infinity circle, or Zen circle, is a symbol of Japanese calligraphy as well as Buddhism. It refers to a single brushstroke that produces a circle (usually unclosed). In Buddhism, the symbol represents harmony and simplicity. Also, it refers to the idea of eternity, perfection, unlimited strength, enlightenment, and internal balance.

Should the Enso circle be opened or closed?

The Enso circle can be opened or closed, but they signify different meanings. An open Enso signifies an incomplete circle that is part of a greater good, the imperfection of human lives, and the circle of emptiness where the self flows in and out while it stays centered. On the other hand, the circle is described as a whole when it is completed and closed. It signifies perfection and points to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

How is the Enso symbol used?

Drawing the Enso circle is a meditative exercise. It does not require learning or special skills; rather, it is drawn spontaneously to depict the state of mind of the creator and its context. It can also be used as a form of therapy since it captures the vulnerability of the creator and allows him to appreciate his errors and the beauty of imperfections. In recent times, the Enso has also been featured in minimalist jewelry such as pendants, earrings, and rings.

Is the Enso symbol spiritual?

While the Enso symbol is a representation of Buddhism, it is not spiritual but only reveals the individual’s mindset. Drawing it is a meditative and therapeutic process.

How important is the Enso symbol in Buddhism?

The Enso symbol is used to depict certain concepts in Buddhism. For example, it is essential to the explanation of the idea of human existence, imperfections, and eternity. The Enso is also referred to as the circle of enlightenment.
When Buddhism started, enlightenment was compared to a round mirror and a moon. It was said that Prajnaparamita master Nagarjuna (one of the great teachers in Buddhism history) appeared as a clear circle to depict the true form of buddha nature. As a result, many other ancient teachers used many circles for their lessons.

Where did the Enso symbol originate from?

According to a poem titled Shin Jin Mei, the Enso symbol originates from China in the 28th century B.C. From here, it made its way to Japan in the 5th century A.D. In Buddhism, the first Enso was drawn to depict the concept of enlightenment since the master could not explain it in words.

Is the Enso sign the same as the Ouroboros?

The Ouroboros refers to a snake that bites its tail. When it does this, it forms a circle, and the Enso can be used to represent such. However, it doesn’t mean they are the same. The Enso sign can make different representations.

What is the relationship between the Enso symbol and internal balance?

The Enso sign is drawn from a particular state of mind; therefore, it mirrors it. You can find peace as well as the drive to continue drawing an Enso circle. Zen Buddhists believe the body frees the mind when one attempts the Enso circle.

How does the Enso symbol represent the idea of eternity?

The Enso symbol can depict the cyclic process of conception, birth, death, and rebirth that occurs around the year. It may also symbolize the beginning and end of everything.

Where can I see the Enso?

The symbol can be adapted for use in architecture, as Steve Jobs did for Apple Campus 2. In addition, the symbol can be tattooed on the body or made into minimalist jewelry pieces such as necklaces and earrings.

Who can paint the Enso symbol?

It is easier to pick up a brush and paint a stroke. However, Zen Buddhists believe only a spiritually and mentally capable person can draw a real Enso. In fact, masters paint Enso for their students to interpret. Therefore, anyone who wishes to draw the Enso must evoke his inner mind and accept his imperfections.

Wrapping Up

The Enso was first seen to represent the ideas of infinity and the duality of emptiness and fulness. Since the 6th century, it has gained diverse interpretations which are unique and personal to the individual who paints it. Whether a complete or incomplete circle, both reflect beauty and meaning.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.