Awakawa Yasuichi, Zen Painting (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1970), no. 117.
Nichibo shuppansha, ed., Sengai no zenga: Satori no bi (Zen paintings of Sengai: Beauty of enlightment) (Tokyo: Nichibo shuppansha, 1984), pl. 23.
Nanquan, a celebrated Zen monk in Tang China, is said to have cut a kitten in half in order to illustrate the essence of Zen to his disciples, who were arguing whether or not a cat has the Buddha nature. The story is recorded in the Zen koan collection Hekiganroku.
Sengai's work demonstrates perfectly the essential unity of calligraphy and painting, or word and image, in Asian art. The fluid, unevenly inked brushstrokes used to write the inscription are identical to the cursive, spontaneous strokes that describe the image.
Sengai was a Rinzai-sect Zen monk who had much in common with Hakuin: both lived in relative seclusion in country temples training students, and both reached out to the people through their painting and calligraphy. In 1788 Sengai moved from his home province of Mino (Gifu Prefecture) to Kyushu to become abbot of Shofukuji, one of Japan's oldest Zen establishments. In 1811 he retired to a small residence of his own, no more than a country hut, on the temple grounds. There he spent his final twenty-six years producing Zen paintings and calligraphy as a means of teaching the laymen and monks who came to him for instruction. He was besieged with requests for his work, which was immensely popular.
Sengai worked in the manner of earlier amateur monk-artists. His work is deliberately genial and cartoon-like in order to make it accessible to the general public.