Zen Master Sengai 1750–1837

Zen Master Sengai 1750–1837

Wisdom and subtle humor of Sengai Gibon, zen monk and painter.

Out of print in bookshops; remaining copies available from the publisher.



Title Information

Edited by Katharina Epprecht. Essays by Katharina Epprecht, Taizô Kuroda, Michel Mohr, and Hirokazu Yatsunami

1st edition

, 2014


96 pages, 43 color illustrations

24 x 30 cm

ISBN 978-3-85881-749-5

In cooperation with Museum Rietberg Zürich


Japanese monk Sengai Gibon (1750–1837) was of the Rinzai School, one of the three main schools of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Known for his controversial teachings and writings, Sengai tried to make the difficult lessons of the Renzai sect accessible to the public. He was also an artist, creating ink paintings that have kept their modern, humorous character even though they were created two hundred years ago. Sengai’s work represents Zen Buddhist wisdom, with motifs completed by calligraphic inscriptions—his most famous work, often called “The Universe,” shows only a circle, square, and triangle. But despite Sengai’s almost graphic novel–like style that would appeal to people today, the paintings’ extreme sensitivity to light exposure makes them difficult to display and prevents them from being known to the wider public.

Offering a rare glimpse into the work of this fascinating artist, Zen Master Sengai 1750–1837 presents in full color forty of the best works from the collection of Sengai’s art in Tokyo’s Idemitsu Museum of Art. As Sengai’s aphorisms are the key to understanding the motifs and wisdom they illustrate, the calligraphic inscriptions are translated into English. Essays by eminent scholars Katharina Epprecht, Taizô Kuroda, Michel Mohr, and Hirokazu Yatsunami look at selected works, telling the story of Sengai’s career transformation from Buddhist monk to painter and contextualizing his work from historical and religious perspectives.

The book is published to coincide with the exhibition Zen Master Sengai 1750–1837 at Museum Rietberg Zürich (May 18 to August 10, 2014).


Deutsche Ausgabe

Authors & Editors

Katharina Epprecht

, born 1961, studied art history and archaeology at the University of Zürich. She is curator of Japanese art at Museum Rietberg Zürich since 1998 and the museum's deputy director since 2009.

Taizô Kuroda

 is Senior Chief Curator at Idemitsu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Michel Mohr

 is Chair of  the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Institute of Religion. His research work focuses on Japanese religion since the 18th century.

Hirokazu Yatsunami

 is Chief Curator at IDemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo.