Japan art and Buddhism: Sengai Gibon (1750-1837)

Japan art and Buddhism: Sengai Gibon (1750-1837)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) was a holy Rinzai Buddhist monk from Japan. His art was based on the Buddhist ideals he held and was a way of reaching out to ordinary people. Hence, his thinking – and artistic ways – had no constraints because absolute dogma had no meaning to him.

The artist world of sumi-e enabled Sengai to spread the message of Buddhism – and to reach out to people in non-traditional ways. Thus Buddhism was the theme that guided him throughout his life – and art, in a sense, was a mere minor extension to overcome the structural hierarchy.

He famously said, “My play with brush and ink is not calligraphy nor painting; yet unknowing people mistakenly think: this is calligraphy, this is painting.”

Sengai also said, “He who comes knows only his coming, He who goes knows only his end. To be saved from the chasm, Why cling to the cliff? Clouds floating low never know where the breezes will blow them.“

In a past article, I comment, “Interestingly, the academic circles – and art schools of the day – did not warrant too much importance to Sengai. After all, the central theme for Sengai was Buddhism, the search for enlightenment, the acknowledgment of his fleeting time on this earth, to reach out to all irrespective of status – and find all the unfathomable answers concerning free will and extreme inquisitiveness.”

Sengai leaves a rich legacy related to his teachings and the art he left behind – not because of the art itself, but because of the meaning behind the art. 

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