Sengai Gibon



Daruma Pilgrims Gallery


Sengai Gibon (1751–1837)

He was a Japanese monk of the Rinzai sect (one of the ramifications of the Zen branch of Buddhism). He was known for his controversial teachings and writings, as well as for his lighthearted sumi-e paintings. After spending half of his life in Nagata near Yokohama, he secluded himself in Shōfukuji (located in Fukuoka), the first Zen Temple in Japan, where he spent the rest of his life.
© More in the WIKIPEDIA !


In Memory of the 170th Year after his Death"
Idemitsu Museum of Art

Zen direct to you

Perhaps the most celebrated of the late-Edo Period Zen artist-priests, Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) left a large number of ink paintings on Zen-related subjects, of which by far the largest collection is in the Idemitsu Museum opposite the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Born in present-day Gifu Prefecture, Sengai became a monk at the age of 11 and studied Zen first at Seitai-ji near his own village, and later at the Toki-An near Kamakura. A bit of an overachiever, while still in his 20s he answered the koan (a Zen riddle calculated to trigger insight) "Why did the Patriarch come from the West?" with the poem:

Sakyamuni (Buddha) entered extinction 2,000 years ago;
Maitraya (The Messiah-like Buddha) won't appear for another billion years —
Sentient beings find this hard to understand,
But it's just like this —
the nostrils are over the lips.

The answer was appropriately recognized by the famous priest, Gessen Zenne (1701-1781), his abbot superior, who granted Sengai his certificate of enlightenment.

Later, following the death of his master Gessen, and while still in his 30s, Sengai wandered around the country making pilgrimages to various religious sites. He ultimately became the head abbot of Shofuku-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Japan at Hakata in North Kyushu, where he was based for the rest of his life.

Despite his prestigious position, Sengai was famed for his modesty and simple lifestyle, choosing to wear the everyday black monk's robe rather than the purple silk of his rank, and preferring to eat out of the bowl he also used for begging.

He believed that the lofty ideals of Zen were not just for cloistered monks, but could be made accessible to farmers and ordinary folk. He was known for his warm compassion and kindness, as well as a lively sense of humor, and — in contrast to the monk-beating guidance of other abbots — even his admonishments were usually gentle.

One story is told of him proffering his back to be stepped on by a monk climbing over the temple wall after a night cavorting in the local entertainment district. No words were spoken, but the embarrassed young monk clearly got the message that monastic rules were to be broken no more.

In 1811, Sengai handed over his abbot's responsibilities to his follower, Tangen Toi, and retired to a subsidiary temple, Kohaku-In. For the rest of his life he pursued what sounds like an idyllic life of painting, traveling and enjoying the company of friends and visitors.

As an artist, Sengai was not only an outsider to the established art schools and academies, but a free spirit, whose manifesto expounded that painting was not a subject that could be limited by rules. This philosophy is apparent at first sight in any of his paintings, which look sketchy, improvised and perhaps — to the Western eye — unfinished. No careful studies of light or color impressions here; expression is all! And yet they each convey some profound Zen principle or aphorism in an easily understandable form, much like the pithy insight seen in parables, proverbs or political cartoons.

Despite the hastily sketched roughness of his paintings, Sengai was perfectly in command of brush and ink, an artistic discipline — unlike oil painting — where the result of ink contacting paper is final, leaving no chance for mistakes to be rectified. This mastery is apparent in his painting of bamboo that matches in skill the best efforts of the Nanga (Japanese literati) painters of his time, or his evening view of Hakozaki Beach, where a single broad brush stroke shades from black through gray to capture the volume of a sea embankment.

It takes some time to see Sengai's virtuosity with brush and ink — so artless his paintings appear — and it is by imagining oneself trying to wield similar strokes that his skill becomes apparent. By almost hiding his artistic ability, Sengai achieves his purpose of conveying a Zen message directly from himself to the viewer without the distractions of color, decoration or "clever" techniques.

In his old age he became more and more popular and was frequently deluged by visitors bringing sheets of paper for him to inscribe. His amused response is expressed in another poem:

To my dismay
I wonder if my small hut
is just a toilet
since everyone who comes here
seems to bring me more paper!

As always in this land of fads, fame led to Sengai's works changing hands for money, and even within his lifetime there were several fakers churning out similar works. One of them so impressed Sengai himself with his painting skills that the master loaned him his seals, making latter-day authentication even more of a minefield.

His repertoire of subjects is enormous, including pictures of flowers, trees and other scenery, animals (including a rare sea lion that washed up in North Kyushu and was celebrated a bit like that seal in Shinagawa's waterways during the summer of 2006), together with portrayals of Zen worthies and deities. Perhaps the most thought-provoking is his famous painting, entitled "The Universe," of a square, triangle and circle linked together that has fascinated all who see it — especially some members of the New York Abstract Expressionists. People look for meaning in these three basic forms just as they look for symbolism in the famous Ryoanji Temple rock garden.

But that is a shallow approach that defeats the true purpose of this painting. Far better that it is appreciated or understood more as a catalyst for the mind to reach an intuitive state where the senses are opened to higher truth.
© Japan Times, Michael Dunn

CLICK for more photos !

 © www.idemitsu.co.jp

Sengai Temple Shofuku-Ji in Hakata
source : toorop0803


The calligraphy on this sketch of the bullfrog reads

"If by sitting in mediation,
one becomes Buddha..."

CLICK for original LINK !
Frog in Zen Meditation

Through this rather comic artwork, one can sense the Buddhist doctrine that all animals have the Buddha-nature.

Sengai said about his art:
"There are rules to painting in this world, but for my own painting,
there are no rules!"
He painted humorously, in order to make the normal people understand what he was trying to tell them about the Buddhist doctrines.


a frog farting -
this too is the
voice of Buddha

a frog farting -
this too is the
voice of God

The second would be a Christian version of it.

Look at the Yamashina paintings which inspired my poem:
The Voice of Buddha and frogs and Kappa farting
 - - -  Gabi Greve, 2005 - - -

This is a paraphrasing of the Buddhist teachings (using the water goblin kappa, which is not a kigo) of tolerance and acceptance against things we consider unpleasant or unfamiliar or otherwise negative in our human judgement, since they are all part of the whole.

And indeed,
I have observed my local frogs fart and shit, right on my veranda chairs !

. kappa no he 河童の屁 the fart of a water goblin .


. Matsuo Basho 松尾芭蕉 - Archives of the WKD .

Sengai's tribute to Matsuo Basho 松尾芭蕉

frog under a banana tree

"Indeed, although the text replaces Basho with the frog from one of his most famous ... in the form of a banana tree (the poet's name and that of the plant are the same). ... "

The Other Face of the Moon
By Claude Lévi-Strauss
read more at google books
- source : books.google.co.jp -


Humor and Zen

Humor delivers something that one does not expect -- the comic surprise, so to speak.

Zen humor relies on this comic surprise not just to be funny, but also to allow the reader to experience certain truths. The humor helps break down dualities between the sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the ugly, the spiritual and the temporal.

For example, one story tells of how a monk asks Ummon, "What is Buddha?" and Ummon answers, "Dried dung." Conrad Hyers remarked that in Zen, we see a "spiritual democratisation of things", meaning that all great things are humbled, and all 'lowly' things are elevated onto a level playing field.

An emphasis in Zen is on the comic reversal, in which opposite terms are switched. For example, Sozan was once remarked to have said that the most prized thing in the world is a "dead cat" because "no one thinks of its value."

In this comic reversal, the world has been turned upside down, collapsing all relativity. Thus, Zen humor helps one realize the futility and the uselessness in the classification and judgment of the world.

In Opposites is Unity
Another function of Zen humor plays a similar role of the previously discussed function: it reveals how two things, thought to be opposite, are actually the same. The breaking down of boundaries thus reveals how one should not discriminate against, but move towards a doctrine of unification and nonduality.

Another story tells of a Chinese monk who wore a Buddhist robe, a Confucian hat, and Taoist sandals. This monk, by breaking out of religious stereotypes, reveals one of the main goals of Zen humor: to find a higher unity. Zen emphasizes the comic impulse, as opposed to the tragic, which aims to separate things out from each other, dividing the world into opposites.

Humor and Enlightenment
A significant nonfunctional aspect of Zen humor is that after it has collapsed categories and united opposites, it helps release tension. Thus, it can be seen as an expression of liberation, and is analogous to enlightenment. Just like how one suddenly gets a joke, even if it is days later, in the Rinzai school, the attainment of enlightenment is sudden.
(Note: In Dôgen's Sôtô school, enlightenment is much more of a gradual process through zazen, and so much of what will be discussed in this section is not applicable to Sôtô Zen. However, in Sôtô Zen, there are sometimes certain events that can lead one closer to the final goal of enlightenment.).

One of Buddha's disciples reveals his enlightenment through a 'wordless smile.' This smile was passed along until the Bodhidharma (Daruma san) brought it to China, where the smile was transformed into thundering laughter. In the real world, we see how one can spontaneously trigger laughter, and this reflects the Zen tradition of how the realization of enlightenment is also spontaneous.

Conrad Hyers, in his Zen and the Comic Spirit, writes that there is "often a kind of comic midwidfery in the Socratic sense of a technique for precipiating (or provoking) an inner realization of the truth." Humor, as shown before, is a vehicle for understanding the world, and helps one reach enlightenment and remove one's attachment from the world. Thus, in Zen art, we have proof of all of this with masters and monks drawn with big bellies and gaping mouths, bursting with laughter.

Read more here:
© Jason Anderson


Mount Fuji
at Smithsonian Institution


Sengai: The Zen of Ink and Paper
Daisetz T. Suzuki

Gibbon Sengai (1750–1837) was known for his humor and unorthodox teaching style. A Zen master of the Rinzai school, he was also one of the most illustrious artists Japan has ever produced, known throughout the world for his calligraphies and paintings. Sengai went through years of hard monastery training before being elected abbot of Shofukuji, Japan's oldest Zen temple. Calligraphy and drawing became his primary modes of teaching and expression. Here are one hundred twenty-eight black-and-white reproductions of his work, selected and explained by the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki.
The commentary explains each piece of art, its context, and the Zen teaching it exemplifies. First appearing posthumously in 1971 (New York Graphic Society edition), Sengai is Dr. Suzuki's last published book—and it is said that he considered it to be the culmination of his work.
- source : amazon.com/Sengai -


The Zen Art Book: The Art of Enlightenment
John Daido Loori and Stephen Addiss, 2009

When a Zen master puts brush to paper, the resulting image is an expression of the quality of his or her mind. It is thus a teaching, intended to compassionately stop us in our tracks and to compel us to consider ultimate truth. Here, forty masterpieces of painting and calligraphy by renowned masters such as Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) and Gibon Sengai (1750–1837) are reproduced along with commentary that illuminates both the art and its teaching. The authors’ essays provide an excellent introduction to both the aesthetic and didactic aspects of this art that can be profound, perplexing, serious, humorous, and breathtakingly beautiful—often all within the same simple piece.
- source : amazon.com/Zen-Art-Book -


Geoffrey Stewart in Shinbutsu-shūgō 神仏習合 - facebook

"Three basic shapes beloved of humans, no doubt for their simplicity, are the square, circle and triangle. “Man is symbolized by three elements, one on top of another: pyramid—square— circle,” said Zoroaster.

In his book Kami no Michi Yukitaka Yamamoto, the 96th hereditary priest of Tsubaki Shrine in Mie Prefecture, wrote:
“The Principle of ‘Sanmi–Sangen‘ explains the mystery of life. Sanmi–Sangen means the three elements that constitute the basis of all forms of existence. These basic symbols both explain the meaning of and guide the destiny of human life. We can see Sanmi–Sangen operate at many levels."

Interestingly, a garden in the Zen monastery of Kennin-ji claims to be based on the square, circle, triangle motif. An accompanying notice says it is based on work by Sengai Gibon (1750 – 1837). “One of his famous paintings,” says Wikipedia, “shows a circle, a square and a triangle. Sengai left the painting without a title or inscription (save for his signature), however the painting is often called “The Universe” when referred to in English.” "

"The circle-triangle-square is Sengai's picture of the universe.
The circle represents the infinite, and the infinite is at the basis of all beings. But the infinite in itself is formless. We humans endowed with senses and intellect demand tangible forms. Hence a triangle.
The triangle is the beginning of all forms. Out of it first comes the square.
A square is the triangle doubled. This doubling process goes on infinitely and we have the multitudinosity of things, which the Chinese philosopher calls 'the ten thousand things', that is, the universe. The trouble with us linguistically-minded beings is that we take language realistically and forget that language is of no significance whatsoever without time. In truth, language is time and time is language. We thus come to think that there is in the beginning of the world a something which is real and concrete, such as a world of galaxies which though formless and nebulous is yet real and tangible. This is the foundation of the universe on which we now have all kinds of things, infinitely formed and varied. It is thus that time itself begins to be thought of as something concrete and real.

A circle turns into a triangle, and then into a square, and finally into infinitely varied and varying figures. In the same way the Biblical account of creation has turned into historical truth in the minds of many. But Zen is very much against such fabrications. There is another and a more traditional interpretation that may be given to these three figures of forms. Sengai was familiar with Shingon, the mantra sect of Buddhism, as well as Zen. He liked Shingon because it taught the identity of the bodily existence (rupakaya) with ultimate reality (dharmakaya). The bodily existence is here represented by a triangle which symbolizes the human body in its triple aspect, physical, oral (or intellection), and mental (or spiritual). The quadrangle represents the objective world which is composed of the four great elements (mahabhuta), earth, water, fire and air.

The Dharmakaya, the ultimate reality, is the circle here, that is, the formless form. We generally hold a dichotomous view of existence, form (rupakaya) and formless (arupa), object and subject, matter and spirit, and think they contradict each other and are mutually exclusive. Both Shingon and Zen, however, oppose this view and hold that what is form is formless or empty (sunya), that is, they are identical.
In his little treatise on this subject called Tengan Yaku (Medicine for the Eye), written in a dialogue form, Sengai estimates Zen as being higher than Shingon, and states that Zen is more direct and immediate and to the point without indulging in verbalism. Zen in this respect is the most effective medicinal drop for the eye that is still wandering on the level of intellection. It replaces this kind of eye with the one possessed by Mahasvara (Great Lord). It is the divine eye which looks directly into the secrets of the ultimate reality. The opening or awakening to this order is abrupt and beyond verbal demonstrations of any sort, which is characteristically lacking in Shingon."


Zen Paintings in Edo Japan (1600-1868):
Playfulness and Freedom in the Artwork of Hakuin Ekaku and Sengai Gibon

Galit Aviman, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, The Hebrew University and Tel-Aviv University, Israel
In Zen Buddhism, the concept of freedom is of profound importance. And yet, until now there has been no in-depth study of the manifestation of this liberated attitude in the lives and artwork of Edo period Zen monk-painters. This book explores the playfulness and free-spirited attitude reflected in the artwork of two prominent Japanese Zen monk-painters: Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) and Sengai Gibon (1750-1837). The free attitude emanating from their paintings is one of the qualities which distinguish Edo period Zen paintings from those of earlier periods. These paintings are part of a Zen ink painting tradition that began following the importation of Zen Buddhism from China at the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

In this study, Aviman elaborates on the nature of this particular artistic expression and identifies its sources, focusing on the lives of the monk-painters and their artwork. The author applies a multifaceted approach, combining a holistic analysis of the paintings, i.e. as interrelated combination of text and image, with a contextualization of the works within the specific historical, art historical, cultural, social and political environments in which they were created.
Contents: Introduction: playing with words and images; Evolution towards Zen paintings in the Edo period; An independent artistic language; Liberation from rules; Letting go of common conceptions; Emancipation from social conventions; Humor as an expression of freedom; Conclusion: ultimate freedom; Bibliography; Index.
- source : ashgate.com -


Daruma Pilgrims in Japan



Unknown said...

Dear Gabi san,
thank you so much~~ for introducing Sengai haiga.
He is my greatest teacher in painting picture.


Anonymous said...

Hello and thank you for propagating more information on Gibon Sengai. I found in his Universe painting a straight forward and simplified geometrical metaphor for all that I have come to feel about life. However, to this day I haven't seen a single interpretation of the characters written to the left of the shapes. Does anyone have that interpretation?
Sincere thanks

Gabi Greve said...

仙厓と鍋島 ―美と向き合う、美を愉しむ―
Sengai and Nabeshima Exhibition at Hosomi Bijutsukan, Kyoto

October 2014


Gabi Greve said...

Sengai Gallery 仙がい和尚の作品まとめ