Sunday, June 26, 2011


The Zen circle becomes a commercial graphic for Norton and a ‘wait’ or ‘busy’ countdown timer for BCC videos and for Google searches. No doubt it is appearing in other guises also. Is our culture happy to take anything and use it for its own advantage, remote from – and perhaps not even recognising or knowing - any original source and intent? Does it matter? As a timer, it replicates only the sweep of the hands over the analogue clock face, paying scant awareness of or care for any more subtle ancient references.

Many years ago Walter Gropius wrote a critical letter to the Architectural Review magazine after it had published the work of a British architectural firm that had blatantly used the ancient Minoan bulls horn sculptural form at Knossos for a fibreglass skylight over a company restaurant area. It appeared to be a full-scale replica. The comment of this giant of modernism was that one should never use ancient symbolic forms merely as a different or ‘interesting’ shape for another totally unrelated, mundane function. More sensitivity and respect were needed in these matters than was being displayed in this skylight. No other person seemed to take any notice of, or possibly noticed this plagiarism; or maybe even cared – just an old man who had changed the world and architectural education. His learning model remains unchallenged even in the newest schools of architecture that, in spite of Gropius's obvious interest in and concern for things ancient, still brush these things aside as meaningless as they encourage the unique and different possibilities of the digital world as they beleive the Bauhaus might have. It is astonishing that no better educational model can be envisaged.

Perhaps the Gropius words need to be restated today in our era that concentrates so much on smart, different visual forms alone, rarely showing any interest in the meanings or sacred origins of anything. Religion is poo-hooed as an opiate of the masses, while other Marxist concepts seem to be pushed aside or mocked. It looks like a pick and choose mentality - whatever might be useful. Sadly, it appears that only ‘ME’ as self-expression is considered important – whatever this might be. Someone has to speak up because our professions seem to prefer silence to anything that might be critical of its shallow practices. Of course, here the critique is made of the graphic design profession, an industry that probably uses things ancient and meaningful most frequently and in the most rudely meaningless manner for the most crass and commercial of purposes. ‘For what should it profit a man . .’ comes to mind as everything becomes available for ‘ME’ to manipulate and to sell in order to prompt ever more sales.

For those feeling a little more modest and who might be concerned about this abuse, Wikipedia can help by telling us about Ensō, the Japanese word meaning "circle" - a concept strongly associated with Zen:

 Ensō is one of the most common subjects of Japanese calligraphy even though it is a symbol and not a character. It symbolizes the Absolute, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void; it can also symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. As an "expression of the moment" it is often considered a form of minimalist expressionist art.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. Zen Buddhists "believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise."

Some artists paint ensō with an opening in the circle, while others complete the circle. For the former, the opening may express various ideas, for example that the ensō is not separate, but is part of something greater, or that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence (see also the idea of broken symmetry). The principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity is an important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic: Fukinsei, the denial of perfection.

The ensō is also a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism, and is often used by Zen masters as a form of signature in their religious artwork. For more on the philosophy behind this see Hitsuzendo, the Way of the Brush or Zen Calligraph.


"Horns of Consecration" is an expression coined by Sir Arthur Evans to describe the symbol, ubiquitous in Minoan civilization, that represents the horns of the sacred bull: Sir Arthur Evans concluded, after noting numerous examples in Minoan and Mycenaean contexts, that the Horns of Consecration were "a more or less conventionalised article of ritual furniture derived from the actual horns of the sacrificial oxen" The much-photographed poros limestone horns of consecration on the East Propyleia at Knossos are restorations, but horns of consecration in stone or clay were placed on the roofs of buildings in Neopalatial Crete, or on tombs or shrines, probably as signs of sanctity of the structure. The symbol also appears on Minoan seals, often accompanied by double axes and bucrania, which are part of the iconography of Minoan bull sacrifice. Horns of consecration are among the cultic images painted on the Minoan coffins called larnakes, sometimes in isolation; they may have flowers between the horns, or the labrys.

(refer to Wikipedia listing for links)

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