Born the son of a tenant farmer, Sengai was given to a local temple, Seitai-ji, at the age of eleven. There he was tonsured and received the monk's name Gibon. He studied under Gessen Zenne
(1702-1781) at Tōki-an in present-day Yokohama and, after his master's death in 1781, may have spent a few years wandering around the country before settling in Kyūshū at the age of 39. He became
abbot of Shōkoku-ji in Hakata, Fukuoka, which had been built in 1195 by Myōan Eisai (1141-1215) as the first official Zen temple in Japan, but by the time of Sengai's arrival had fallen into
Sengai not only rebuilt the temple grounds, but also succeeded in restoring the old site to the flourishing centers of Zen Buddhism in Edo Japan. He won the hearts of the local community with his compassion and understanding for the common people and their simple lives, as well as his great sense of humor. Sengai also gained great recognition within the Zen community, culminating in the official granting of the purple robe by the main Rinzai temple, Myōshin-ji, by decree of Emperor Kōkaku (1771-1840), which Sengai refused. Later, Sengai wrote in a poem: "Worldly fame and holy titles/ Each of them is a vain voice" (Furuta 1985, 19).
Later in life, Sengai spent more and more time creating the light-hearted ink paintings for which he was known. His paintings and calligraphies are always humorous and look like comic-like
sketches, but they always have deeper implications drawn from his tremendous inner Zen experience. For example, he was not afraid to use symbols of folk beliefs. As in this example, he painted
one of Japan's seven lucky gods (shichi fukujin), known as Daikoku. Painted with Sengai's simple and fluid brushstrokes, Daikoku carries his large sack of treasures on his back, a wish-granting
hammer in his right hand, and stands on two sacks of rice - following the basic iconography. In Sengai's version, however, he faces the viewer with an unusually wide, open smile. He inscribed the
title Daikoku on the upper right and sealed the work on the lower right.
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, which states that this painting was purchased by a certain Nakagawa. The Shōeisha auctions were held by the Kyōto Fine Art Club between 1949 and 1956.
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