A painting by Zen master painter Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) with a depiction of one of the Seven Lucky Gods (shichi fukujin) called Jurōjin.
Jurōjin is a figure being venerated in China and Japan as a symbol for wisdom, eruditeness and long life. Usually
depicted as dignified old men, draped by long, noble robes, standing in a calm position, he is here painted in Sengais fluent brushstroke as a happy, lively old man, enjoying himself by riding
around on his fellow animal, a deer.
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 painting. However, instead of aiming to generate a simple veneration by the viewer, he painted the lucky god as a good example, not to rely in believing to someones mercy, but to work on our own inner determination.
Metropolitan Museum, Fukuoka Art Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Tokyo National Museum, Idemitsu Museum of Art.
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.