Draw an Enso

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While I was doing a practice session as a guest at Green Gulch Farm, I drew an enso.

Green Gulch Farm

Several people from my zendo went out to Green Gulch Farm in early June of 2019. If you are not familiar with Green Gulch Farm, it is a Buddhist practice center and temple associated with the San Francisco Zen Center lineage (that of Shunryu Suzuki). Since my zendo is one of the "Branching Streams" of people in that lineage, we were able to come for four days and pactice with the monks. We only did morning practice with them, and they were on their non-pactice period schedule with less meditation. So we would sit with them for 40 minutes in the morning, and then do three hours of work practice with them. I spent my work practice time in the kitchen.

The afternoon was free, but as a group we did several Zen activities together. One of those was a workshop on Zen calligraphy, especially ensos.


If you are not familiar with ensos they are just circles. They are drawn in one, maybe two, brushstrokes. The idea is to paint it in one fluid stroke, totally in the moment, expressing the moment rather than some ideal of a circle.

First Try

The first, small ensos I drew.
So we did the enso part of the practice in three stages. The first part was to draw lots of very small ensos, to get used to the motions and the ideas. I don't know if the one on the top right counts as one stroke or two strokes. I was trying to do two strokes, but the brush left the page through part of the stroke.

The sort of center one (the second one in the second column) is I think my favorite of all the ensos I did that day. It's got a nice weight to it. The inconsistency of the ink really shows the brush stroke well. And while it's a little bit off from a true circle, it clearly contains a true circle. I'm going to try to make that the one that is the current icon of my web site.

Second Try

The second, larger set of ensos I drew.
The second set of ensos was done bigger, I guess to explore the form more. No, I don't have the best memory of the workshop. I don't have the best memory of anything, to be honest. I try to take notes, but it doesn't seem very Zen.

I don't like any of these. They're way to sloppy, they are way off from being a circle, and while they are clearly brush strokes, I don't think they express that very well. Or maybe they express poor brush strokes very well. However, I don't think that makes them any less valid as ensos than my favorite one from the first set. They express the moment. I didn't want a sloppy, poorly formed moment. But the moment doesn't care what I wanted. There is nothing in that moment that could be called sloppiness or poor performance. If I think the moment was sloppy and poorly performed, that's my problem.

Third Try

The final enso I drew at Green Gulch.
Finally, our teacher had us just draw one enso on a bigger section of the paper. I really took my time with this one. I waited with the brush above the paper until I felt a readiness to draw the enso. Then I did it slow and smooth, putting my whole arm into it. I've been getting back into drawing with pen and ink lately. I'm trying to take a more formal approach than just drawing random things like I did in my youth. It's really brought home how doing something big requires the whole arm, not just the wrist and fingers.

I like this one okay. It's got a good form, I thing very much as a consequence of using my whole arm. The brush stroke is not as expressive. I chalk that up to my inexperience with brushes and ink. I don't know how much ink to have on a brush to get the expressiveness I am looking for. The expressiveness of the one I really like happened by chance, not based on any understanding of the technique on my part. I don't think it has enough weight to it, either. But I was just trying to fill the space. I do like how the start at the top right looks a little like a reptilian head. It gives the enso a bit of an Ouroboros feel.

One thing I discovered actually doing ensos is that I see the direction of them backwards. All of the ensos I did started at the right of the top and went clockwise around the page. But the way I've always see the motion of ensos, they look like they're going counter-clockwise.

Other Caligraphy

My caligraphy of the Rakotzbrücke
The enso is not the only Zen art using caligraphy. Triangles and squares are also common (I would note these are also typical shapes when teaching drawing in European cultures). Bridges and staffs are real life objects that are often done. So I tried my hand a bridge. I decided to try to do the [1], a bridge whose underside is a semi-cirlce. That makes it's reflection in the water a full circle. So in my image the straight line is the water, the circle is the bridge and its reflection, and the curve over top is meant to be the top side of the bridge. (I misremembered the bridge, the top side is not nearly so high). This piece was, by far, my favorite piece of caligraphy I did that day.

Programming Ensos

An enso drawn by a program I wrote in Python.
Before I'd gone to Green Gulch, I had been thinking about ensos, and the way it comes out as one line made of many lines because of the brush as a medium. I thought of a way to simulate that using Turtle Graphics. Turtle graphics are a very simple, relative way to do computer graphics. It was part of the Logo programming language, which I learned at a summer camp at U.Va. when I was a kid. They are also part of the Python programming language, which is my weapon of choice these days. One afternoon I whipped up a program and fiddled with it a little bit. What you see here is one example of it's work.