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 Ryoani 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.

“Sengai: In Memory of the 170th Year after his Death” shows till Oct. 28 at the Idemitsu Museum of Art, Teigeki Bldg. 9F, 3-1-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission ¥1,000; For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.idemitsu.co.jp

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