Art

A master of Zen wisdom and dad jokes

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

If you are an older chubby man with a receding hairline and facing nothing but a decline into old age and death, there’s always the work of Zen monk Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) to fall back on.

Entering the monastic life at the age of 10, according to scholar of Zen art Stephen Addiss, Sengai became the abbot of Shofukuji Temple, Japan’s oldest Zen monastery, in 1790. During the following 20-plus years of his appointment, as well as being a devoted servant of the temple, Sengai was prolific in creating sketches combined with pithy observations and poems. Of these works, he wrote, “this play of mine with brush and ink is neither calligraphy nor painting,” and, speaking from a strictly illustrative point of view, the charm of Sengai’s work does not come from refined techniques or careful composition, but more from an informality closer in spirit to doodling.

As a key symbol in Zen, the ensō circle crops up a few times in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts’ latest exhibition of its extensive Sengai collection. Charged with significance, the ensō is a single brushstroke that exemplifies the idea that the profound and universal can be found in simplicity. One depiction of a lopsided circle painted with one brush stroke has the caption “What is this? I ate it with one bite,” suggesting that the drawing is not an existential exploration into nothingness, but of a manjū cake.

The shape of a squatting frog with a cheeky smile, formed with just a few economically used lines, is paired with the scrawl, “If a man becomes a Buddha by practicing Zen meditation,’ making light of the practice to which his working life was devoted. Among Sengai’s many depictions of tubby old men enjoying themselves is one outlier titled “An Old Man’s Excuse,” which shows a crotchety grump saying, “If it comes time for you to die, then it’s good for you to die, but it’s even better if you don’t.” Sengai’s paintings are a great repository for dad jokes.

His work is also valuable for giving some historical background to Japan’s current kawaii culture, and the social value attached to innocence. His cartoonish human figures and animals, while they were a source of pleasure for Sengai and the many contemporary admirers of his work, also served the purpose of promoting Zen as a way of life.

The pictures he produced before he retired from his official position at Shofukuji tend to propose a philosophy of how to be in the universe. That being said, pictures from after 1811, when he embarked upon a second life of visiting local festivals, drinking tea and collecting antiques, are more descriptions of life being lived.

Given that Sengai was sequestered in an all-male environment for much of his life, it’s to be expected that among the many sketchily depicted ojisan (old men) there is only one character in the exhibition that is clearly identifiable as female. It’s not a depiction of a woman, per se, but of a statue of the Avalokitesvara, the Goddess of Compassion. Hers is the only face in the show that is painted with studied delicacy; the calm and repose of this picture contrasts powerfully with the light-heartedness and knock-about humor of other images in the collection.

The Idemistu Museum of Arts’ exhibition “Admiration for Sengai,” though properly acknowledging Sengai’s jollity, deep superficiality and irreverence, can’t help but show his work as precious archive material in a typically conservative and reverential setting. Not to disrespect the good people of the museum in question, and the importance of paradox in Zen notwithstanding, it seems unusual that the world’s largest collection of Sengai’s esoteric and playful work could not be presented in a more esoteric and playful way.

“Admiration for Sengai” at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts runs until Oct. 28; ¥1,000. For more information, visit idemitsu-museum.or.jp.