Sengai was born as son of a tenant farmer, who was given to a local temple Seitai-ji at the age of eleven. There he received the tonsure and his monk name Gibon. He studied under Gessen Zenne (1702-1781) at Tōki-an in today's Yokohama and spend some years after the death of his master in 1781 possibly wandering around the country, before he settled on Kyūshū at the age of 39. He became abbot of Shōkoku-ji in Hakata, Fukuoka, which was build 1195 by Myōan Eisai (1141-1215) as first official Zen temple in Japan, but pretty run-down at the time Sengai arrived there.
Sengai did not only rebuild the temple compound but managed to restore the old location as on the flourishing centers of Zen Buddhism in Edo Japan. Due to his compassion and understanding for the common people and their simple life as well as his large portion of humor, he captured the heart of the local community. Sengai also gained large recognition within the Zen circle, which peaked in the official grant of the purple robe by the Rinzai main temple Myōshin-ji by decree of emperor Kōkaku (1771-1840), which Sengai refuses. Later, Sengai wrote in a poem: "Worldly fame and saintly titles/ Every one of them is a vain voice" (Furuta 1985, 19).
During his later lifetime, Sengai spend more and more time to create his lighthearted ink paintings for which he was well known for. His paintings and calligraphies are always humorous and look like comic-like sketches, however, they always have deeper implications drawn from his tremendous inner Zen experience. For instance, he did not shy away from using symbols of the folkloric beliefs. Like in this example, he painted one of Japan's seven lucky gods (shichi fukujin), known as Daikoku. Painted in Sengai's simple and fluid brush stroke, Daikoku is carrying his large sack of treasures on his back and a wish-granting mallet in his right hand and standing on two rice bags - following the basic iconography. However, in Sengai's version he is facing the viewer with an unusual big, open smile. On the upper right he inscribed the title Daikoku and and sealed the work on the lower right sight.
The painting comes with a fitted and inscribed wooden box: Sengai Oshō Daikoku-zu (Daikoku painting by priest Sengai), signed Bundō Aichō. The painting was sold at the Shōeisha auction gallery, Kyōto. Comes with the
original auction label, saying that this painting was bought by a certain Nakagawa. The Shōeisha auctions were presented by the Kyōto Fine Art Club between 1949 and
Metropolitan Museum, Fukuoka Art Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Tokyo National Museum, Idemitsu Museum of Art and many more.
Suzuki, Daisetz T.: Sengai. The Zen Master, Greenwich 1971.
Furuta, Shōkin: Sengai. Master Zen Painter, übersetzt. v. Tsukimura Reiko, Tokyo/New York/London 2000.
Yuji Yamashita, Zenga-The Return from America: Zenga from the Gitter-Yelen Collection, Asano Laboratories, Inc., 2000, pp. 117-124