In a single – yet perfect – stroke of the calligrapher’s brush, the Zen Circle symbolizes the entire universe. In the Zen school of Buddhism, the Zen Circle is a sacred symbol.
Although it is indeed a circle, a true Zen Circle has an obvious beginning and an end – where the artist’s brush first touched paper, and then when it lifted off. This small break represents the transition from life to death. But, still, the graphic is circular, suggesting that things keep going around, a wheel suggesting life-death-rebirth. And what about the space it contains? It appears as emptiness, which, to the mystic or the existential scientist, will be potent with the void. And therein lies the essence of Zen – dissolving into the void for an understanding of the nature of reality. This is nothing less than the reason we meditate.
A Zen Circle tattoo must by it’s very nature be a replica, since no tattooist can perform with the spontaneity so important to the Zen artist. A Zen Circle allows for no modification afterwards. The tattoo artist must copy an original work of art, meticulously reproducing the circle, which, to have been done right in the first place was accomplished by an artist in a single unthinking movement. It sounds like such a simple act, but to master the perfection of roundness takes great practice. Try it yourself. With pen and paper, attempt to draw a circle in a single perfect stroke. Some Japanese artists practice it daily.
The Japanese have a word for the Zen concept of ‘circle’. Enso. This isn’t to be mistaken for a kanji-like character, because it’s purely a symbol used to represent not only the universe, but enlightenment, the void, strength, and elegance. In Zen Buddhist art, it is seen as an ‘expression of the moment’ when the mind gets out of the way so that the body and spirit can co-create. It is used by some Zen masters as a kind of signature for their spiritual art.
Some enso are purposely asymmetrical, even lopsided, and may be formed with two brushstrokes. Many of them come accompanied with captions or written hints suggesting their meaning. The most popular inscription is ‘What is this?’ meant to advise the observer not to let others bamboozle you with theories about Zen. ‘Discover the meaning for yourself!’
Some aficionados of the Zen Circle point to the similarity of white space inside and outside of the circle. The circle has created a duality of inside/outside that doesn’t exist in reality. What is inside is outside, and what is outside is inside. As within, so without. A real Zen master would erase the line and meditate upon the blank page. This is zazen. Just sitting in full awareness, contemplating nothing.
Wearing a Zen Circle tattoo is to declare that you have the courage to approach your spiritual life through the most minimalist and ancient practices. You’re concerned about your personal development, and it starts with the circle, a sign that you view your life in its totality. You recognize that a change to one aspect of your life will lead to further changes, so taking responsibility for your life goes without saying.