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Japanese stamps, lettering and painted black circle

Enso: Impressing the Wholeness of Being in a Single Stroke


Enso is a calligraphic discipline intimately related to the practice of Zen. Within a circle drawn in ink, a monk can fully represent a determined spiritual moment.

“A circle as a vast space, which does not lack anything, nor does it have too much.” These are the words used in the Shin Jin Mei, a text dating back to the 6th century, to describe the great path of Zen. This Japanese discipline, derived from Mahayana Buddhism, was founded by Monk Bodhidharma, who imported the Buddhist Dhyana (meditation) practice to China. Some say that Bodhidharma sat facing a wall in a Shaolin cave for nine years, meditating, until he reached true understanding. According to legend, his shadow was impressed upon the rock, leaving the indelible proof of a serene figure in a meditating pose.

Just like that image, projected by the insistent presence of Master Bodhidharma’s shadow, Enso embodies the act of imprinting the artist’s essence through a single stunning circular stroke.

The interior of Enso (which literally means: circle), as described in the Shin Jin Mei’s verse, is a space that symbolizes, in addition to vacuity, the inexistence of the mind as proposed by Bodhidharma, the essential void that reality is comprised of.  The Zen monk, after meditating with extreme discipline in zazen, holds the paintbrush firmly, drenches it in ink, and promptly exhales a perfect circle that represents his fundamental character over the fine texture of the rice paper. However, “perfect” does not mean beautiful in the sense that we usually think of it, instead, this circle must be the profound essence of the practitioner. It is as if in this gesture ––stripped of intention and thus of thought–– language was abolished in pursuit of a definite form. Enso expresses the mutual interdependence of form and void like a visual Koan: its practice can lead to the awakening of the monk.

The path of Enso, as that of Chinese calligraphy, can be traced throughout Western art. Jackson Pollock’s nervous lines ––a result of an almost hypnotic action on canvas–– remind us of the Zen monk’s devotion when executing an Enso. Regardless of the plausible differences, we find the same attitude of a rational relinquishing, a similar search to embody the immediateness of the stroke as the seal of an ineffable inner life. Both, abstract expressionism and the entire tradition of gestural abstractions, are clearly indebted to practices such as Enso and calligraphy.

Perhaps the practice of Enso is closer to our lives than we think. Who knows if maybe the strokes we draw on scraps of paper while we talk on the phone or wait for someone, and which we so easily part with, are the expression of something other than pure boredom. A simple signature, drawn lazily over a bureaucratic document, can say more about us than our best attempts to express ourselves through spoken language. Just as a seismographer, the line of simple pencil can project the condition of our inner states, freeing us from ourselves, and helping us reach a state of transitional calmness.

The Zen monk can practice Enso every day as a form of spiritual exercise. The Enso will become more harmonic each day, or it will reflect the spontaneous perturbations in the soul of the monk. Be it as it may, its practice leads to the fixing of our fundamental attention, to that liberating feeling of seeing our inner voice expressed in the trajectory of a circle on paper, our essential being. With ink, a brush and a meager piece of paper, we could dare to discover ourselves a little better every day.

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