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Philosophy

What is an Ensō?

What is an Ensō?

I’ve been thinking about Taoism and Zen much more lately.  Usually it’s just something that I come back to when I feel… unbalanced.  Work-life becomes stressful or I’m so focused on some new project that I let things slip–like oversleeping or neglecting friends– and then I thumb through my old copy of the Tao Te Ching or The Tao of Pooh.  Now it’s the end of the school year, and I’m doing well keeping the stress levels down, but still I felt like digging deeper into the spirit.

My father was a teacher for 28 years.  He always liked to have some physically demanding project lined up for when school ended.  One year we put a new roof on the house.  Another we dug trenches for a French drain.  There was always something hands-on.  So this year I’ve got my various projects lined up–replace the porch decking, repaint the exterior of the house–but I’m still mindful of keeping things in balance.  Don’t take on too much, ask for help, don’t overwork yourself, take time to take time.

The title of this post comes from a Zen idea and symbol.  The ensō is sometimes called the “Zen circle.”  I stumbled upon it recently in my voracious reading.

The text accompanying this Ensō reads: 是什麽 ‘What is this?’ It is a koan (Zen saying/case) which refers to the story of the ninth-century Chinese Zen master Yunmen Wenyan (862/4-949 CE), who asked one of his disciples every day this same question. The disciple never had an answer. It took eighteen years before he suddenly, one day, said: ‘I understand’.

The text accompanying this Ensō reads: 是什麽 ‘What is this?’ It is a koan (Zen saying) which refers to the story of the ninth-century Chinese Zen master Yunmen Wenyan (862/4-949 CE), who asked one of his disciples every day this same question. The disciple never had an answer. It took eighteen years before he suddenly, one day, said: ‘I understand’.

It doesn’t look like much.  A loosely painted circle.  However, as is true with Taoism and Zen… its simplicity belies its depth.  The practice of drawing or painting ensō is a kind of meditation.  It is said only someone that is fully in the moment–that is, absent of emotion and thought and existing in a zen moment–can create a true ensō.  I must admit that having looked at several dozen of them that I can’t tell the good and true ensō from the lackluster.  Regardless, some artists/calligraphers practice creating them daily as way of reminding them of the various lessons and messages connected with it.

The symbol was originally used back in the Tang Dynasy(618-907 C.E.) as a symbol of perfection.  For some ensō was a symbol of the goal: enlightenment.  For others the symbol was a connection to the “original spirit,” a bit of philosophical nostalgia.  I think every age in some ways looks backward with a longing eye.  Why can’t we have this or that like they did?  In the sixth century a text named the Shinhinmei refers to the way of Zen as a circle of vast space, lacking nothing and holding nothing in excess.

An "incomplete" style ensō

An “incomplete” style ensō

Later some created ensō which were “incomplete,” that is, the circle is not closed.  This opened up a number of further symbolic connections.  The lack of perfection in life.  We strive and seek, but we often fail.  Other interpretations include the opening in the ensō and suggest that this illustrates how we are not isolated from our world.  To close the circle is to become isolated, cut off.

I found that ensō serve a simple purpose.  They act as a reminder to be mindful.  What we are to be mindful of is up to us.  That we should be “in the moment” more, embrace and seek balance, to not mistake doctrinal rules for enlightenment, to embrace simplicity, and so on…

It reminds me of looking at clouds.  As a child I would look up and see fanciful animal shapes and dragons and the like.  We see what we want to see.  Perhaps the ensō helps us remind ourselves of what we need to see.

Ensō also resembles the condensation ring left behind by a cold beer on a hot day...

Ensō also resembles the condensation ring left behind by a cold beer on a hot day…  that too is zen.

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About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...

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