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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sengai – Monk and Artist in Tokyo Kill

In Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet the hero, Jim Brodie, is also an art dealer specializing in Japanese art. A part of the book involves a new ink painting coming on the international art market from the Japanese monk artist, Sengai. Where it had been for decades plays a role in the story.

What intrigued me was Lancet’s description of the painting:

The painting depicted a chubby Zen monk, maybe even Sengai himself, skipping through a graveyard, doing a jig, a bottle of sake in one hand, while three roughly sketched tombstones seemed to sway in the background. It was a joyful, smiling, silly frolic. Uninhibited and not afraid to look foolish. On the side was an inscription that read      

        Above the sorrow, dance.
                 In the lingering merriment
                Infinity’s echo

A humourous Zen painting was distant from the austere ink paintings I associate with Japanese art and sent me searching for information on Sengai.

Sengai Gibbon (1751 – 1847) is a fascinating man. Becoming a monk at the age of 11 he gained fame as a Zen scholar in his 20’s when he gained his certificate of enlightenment when as stated on the http://darumamuseumgallery.blogspot.ca/2007/10/sengai-gibon.html blog:

        … he answered the koan (a Zen riddle calculated to
        trigger insight) "Why did the Patriarch come from the
       West?" with the poem:
            Sakyamuni (Buddha) entered extinction 2,000 years 
            Maitraya (The Messiah-like Buddha) won't appear  
           for another billion years —
           Sentient beings find this hard to understand,
           But it's just like this —
           the nostrils are over the lips.

Subsequently, as an abbot he was noted for his modesty and his sense of humour.
"If by sitting in mediation,
one becomes Buddha..."
He refused to be limited in his artistic spirit:                        

        As an artist Sengai was not only an outsider to the
        established art schools and academies, but a free spirit,
        whose manifesto expounded that painting was not a
        subject that could be limited by rules. This philosophy
        is apparent at first sight in any of his paintings, which
        look sketchy, improvised and perhaps — to the Western
        eye — unfinished. careful studies of light or color
        impressions here; expression is all! And yet they each
        convey some profound Zen principle or aphorism in an
        easily understandable form, much like the pithy insight
        seen in parables, proverbs or political cartoons.

His personality shines through in his reaction to the equivalent of 19th Century Japanese tourists:
       In his old age he became more and more popular and was
       frequently deluged by visitors bringing sheets of  paper for him
       to inscribe. His amused response is expressed in another poem:

            To my dismay
            I wonder if my small hut

            is just a toilet
            since everyone who comes here
            seems to bring me more paper!

You cannot help but wish you could have met this profoundly thoughtful and exuberant monk.

I have known Benedictine monks since I was a teenager and have seen in several that combination of intellect and humour. I believe the discipline of their order lets them concentrate their thoughts and their faith filled lives makes them joyful.
In our era Sengai is noted for his work titled The Universe, a copy of which is below. I expect it has fascinated numerous contemporary artists as it appears to be a 20th Century rather than 19th Century work



  1. Bill - Thanks for sharing this. What an absolutely fascinating person Sengai must have been! As you say, that combination of wisdom and wit is intriguing. And his art and poetry could have me sitting and contemplating for a very long time.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Only the greatest of thinkers can convey a clear message that upon reflection has further subtler, possibly even more profound, messages.