Enso Symbol – What Does It Really Mean?

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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

Enso symbol design

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 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.

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 centre. 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 symbolise 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

Spiritual Wall Art with black and gold Enso circle. 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.

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.


Nina Jay

Nina Jay

Nina Jay 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.