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#42: SO: THIS ZEN MASTER WALKS INTO A BAR…. Humor in Buddhism is usually chalked up to its contact in China with the Taoist writers, Chuang-tse especially, which led to Ch’an, or Zen; and perhaps Zen, like Hasidism, owes its humor in part to its being iconoclastic in origin—a revolt against over-elaboration and sterile scholasticism. The tradition culminates in Japan with Sengai (1750-1837) the extraordinary ink painter, calligrapher, poet and Zen master. Zen by that time had abandoned classical Chinese for the Japanese vernacular, and been influenced by Shinran and the Jodoshinshu school, wherein Buddhism jumped the monastery walls and settled among the Japanese folk. Sengai expressed the tradition in the wildest, splashiest, funniest corner of East Asian painting. His drawings, with the thick scrawl of his calligraphy, remind you of the loosest and boldest drawings of Rembrandt, when he sets aside the precision of the etchings and lets fly. Sengai similarly is a relief from the delicate perfection of so much Chinese and Japanese ink painting—he’s all over the place. In his version of “The Laughers of Tiger Valley,” a traditional story, the characters are in a paroxysm of hilarity; the wobbling background and calligraphy only adds to the commotion. The two figures in “An Old Piece of Rope” have just been told the funniest joke they’ve ever heard. All his paintings are, in a line from one of his poems, a cup of Great Happiness Tea—Sengai may be the most cheerfully caffeinated painter in history. And in the quieter drawings he achieves the simplicity of spirit we love in Medieval illumination, mixed with the gentlest humanity of the Japanese tradition. This master nonpareil has had two splendid books done about him: Sengai: The Zen of Ink and Paper, by D.T. Suzuki (Shambhala, 1999), the last of Suzuki’s published works, and Sengai: Master Zen Painter, by Shokin Furuta (Kodansha, 2000), with excellent texts and reproductions.

P.S. 2018: One of the most delightful books on zenga--Zen-school ink sketches--is the catalogue of a 2001 exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Zen: Painting and Calligraphy 17th-20th Centuries. The whole Zen gang is here: Daruma (a.k.a. Bodhidharma), the bug-eyed staring Indian saint; Kannon, the bodhisattva of intercession; Kanzan and Jittoku, the hermit poets; Hotei, with his enormous cloth bag and belly to match; the empty circle, sign of enlightenment; and some spiffing calligraphy, right down to Torei Enji’s massive, black, inscribed “Mu.” Sengai is plentifully represented, as is the extraordinary eighteenth-century master Hakuin Ekaku. Gourds, gibbons, pine trees, Nakahara Nantenbo’s delightful parade of monks going and coming, Jiun Onko’s calligraphy of “I am always on the Vulture Peak”: the book is one wild and splendid thing after another.


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