Philosophy of the Enso

The circle symbol or Enso is popular in Zen Buddhism’s religion, but what does it signify or mean? It’s both intriguing and yet confusing, just like Zen Buddhism.


When we look at an Enso, we think of a circle, but we often forget it is an empty circle. Emptiness or 虚無 Kyomu in Japanese is an essential part of Buddhist thought.


All things are empty of intrinsic existence is what Buddhism teaches (Shunyata). There is no fixed reality of anything, all changes.

Like word, the Enso points to Emptiness but is it not Emptiness itself. Like a finger that points to the moon, but it’s not the moon itself. It’s the same as the Kanziwa illusion; the pac-man shapes give rise to a triangle, but they are not the triangle you see.

The same is with the circle; the hole in the centre is not drawn, but it is there, but we forget is there. The circle is like the map the circumscribes an empty territory. 


It’s the use of empty space, in Japanese called 間 or Ma, to show meaning. The paradox of the Enso is like a question mark; it draws attention by its ambiguity. 

It is a circle; a circle is a form; it has a name, a label. What matters is the formlessness inside. 

So to highlight the Emptiness, the formlessness, we need a form.


What we see in the Enos is a duality, that also a unity. Just as an artist who uses contrast to bring attention. Using a black background to make an object seem brighter. Here form is used to bring attention to the Emptiness.

There’s a polarity here, each dependant on the other, like two sides of a coin. You can’t have form without formlessness, and vice versa, Nirvana without Samsara.

Emptiness and form always go together.

You need shallow to have deep. You need deep to have shallow. You need a Subconscious to have a Consciousness.

Think of an empty picture frame on a wall. The Emptiness is noticed because of the frame. The Enso is like a frame.

 RECONNECTING A Vision of Unity by Kengo Kito | Exhibition | JAPAN HOUSE (Los Angeles) ( The installation is a room filled with empty tubes, the hoops enclose Emptiness, so the room is full of Emptiness. 

Would you notice the Emptiness if the circles, the hoops, or a frame was not there? 


They’re also the simplicity of the circle. It reminds me of a bubble floating in the air.

The bubble is self-organising. That is: it shapes itself into the sphere. In a bubble, the surface tension is equal all over, just like a drop of water. So there is stability, uniformity. 

The bubble signifies another important Buddhist notion, finding that equanimity and equilibrium in life.

It also suggests a balance between form and formlessness, one complementing each other. Over attachment to one leads to an imbalance.


Speaking as an artist, there’s a simplicity in the Enso; at its most basic, it is just black ink in a single stroke. Yet what it conveys is complex and challenging.

Using just what is necessary to convey the intent is a minimalistic approach characteristic of Zen and Japanese culture.

It’s not about having nothing, but having enough, so what you do have matters more.


To do and Enso well in one stroke diligence and practice, which requires discipline. I’ve heard some monks use the Enso as a practice to achieve the one stroke effortlessly, spontaneously requiring a lot of practice and discipline.

In training a craft, there has to be a discipline to advance skill towards mastery.

But discipline also involves its opposite: freedom. One leads to the other. With building skills, you become more confident and more willing to experiment. Liberated from constraint and convention, another paradox.

Boundaries create freedom. Discipline creates freedom.


As I said above, the practice aims to make the work effortless, to unify the art and the artist. So the Enso is then made of a single brushstroke.

According to the sōsho (草書) style of Japanese calligraphy, the brushstroke is incredibly swift but decisive. Once drawn, one does not change it.

It shows the character and temperament of its creator and the context of its creation in a brief, continuous period.

The separate thing we take when we think of ourselves, objects like art, other people things etc. The boundary of the subject-object disappears, showing it as an illusion and the separate self illusory.


The Enso is connected to the larger philosophy of Wabi-Sabi of Japan aesthetics. An attitude towards life and living that involves simplicity and naturalness that i want to get into in others posts.