Sengai Gibon (仙厓義梵, 1750-1837) was a Zen painter and calligrapher whose ink drawings are characterised by a warm, satiric and often self-critical humour.
He was born into a family of poor farmers in Mino (modern-day Gifu Prefecture) and became a monk of the Rinzai School of Buddhism at the age of eleven. He studied at Seitaiji (清泰寺) under Kūin Enkyo (空印円虚, 1704-1787) and received the priest name of Gibon. In 1768, he set out on his first pilgrimage and arrived at Tōki-an (東輝庵) temple near present-day Yokohama where he took up his studies under the guidance of Gessen Zenne (月船禪慧, 1702-1781). After Gessen's death, Sengai embarked on his second pilgrimage which lasted for seven years, until he arrived at Shōfukuji (聖福寺) in Hakata (nowadays Fukuoka City), Kyūshū, in 1788. At the age of 39, he became the 123rd abbot of Shōfukuji (聖福寺), the oldest Zen temple in Japan, founded by the priest Eisai and completed in 1195.
In 1812, at the age of 62 and after serving 23 years as abbot, he retired from his position and settled in the Genjū-an (幻住庵), a subtemple of Shōfukuji. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching, painting and calligraphy. While he always maintained that his works should not be considered serious art, his brushwork was very popular; he received never-ending streams of visitors requesting his paintings. It is said that he willingly painted for all who asked.
Sengai was renowned for his simple lifestyle and his disregard for rank and status; his modesty is epitomised by his repeated refusal to accept the "purple robe", a ceremony in which the Rinzai head temple Myōshinji (妙心寺) in Kyōto officially acknowledged his status as an abbot. In fact, he even spent some money domain authorities had allocated for his journey on the renovation of the temple instead of travelling to Kyōto.
The motives of his works embrace traditional Buddhist topics, such as figures of Daruma (達磨 Bodhidharma) and Kannon (観音Avalokiteśvara), landscapes, animals as well as flowers and plants. Many of his paintings include ingenuous calligraphy and inscriptions containing puns and jokes. One of his most famous works is Circle, Triangle and Square, a simple painting in different tones of ink and overlapping forms Sengai left without a title.
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 multitudinously of things, which the Chinese philosopher calls 'the ten thousand things', that is, the universe.Source
Like many other Zen masters, Sengai could not translate the ultimate meaning of Zen into words and resorted to the brush to make the religion more accessible to common folks. The largest collection of his art is on display at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts (出光美術館 Idemitsu Bijutsukan) in Tokyo.
- Aviman, Galit, Zen Paintings in Edo Japan (1600-1868): Playfulness and Freedom in the Artwork of Hakuin Ekaku and Sengai Gibon; Routledge 2014