The ink drawing above by Gibbon Sengai (1750-1837), is often referred to in English as ‘The Universe’ despite having no inscription other than his signature. It is also the most famous of all of Sengai’s painting, and has become a historic image in Zen Buddhism ever since.

Sengai was a Japanese monk of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, he was initiated as a monk at 11 years of age and after 30 years of practice under various masters across Japan, became the 123rd abbot of Shofukuji temple, the first Zen temple to be established in Japan. At 61 he retired and spent his last 27 years painting.

Immediately what struck me about this painting was it’s bold composition and the way in which it seems to capture something profound despite being made up of just 3 simple shapes placed together and barely overlapping. My knowledge of the title contributed to this sense but the questions arose, ‘what is the universe?’, and as the word ‘universe’ is commonly associated with the external ‘objective’ world of physics (which seemed at odds with the subjectivity of the image) I thought, ‘is the universe referenced one of physics or the one of the mind?’

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