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?’

Upon further investigation I found the book ‘Sengai: The Zen of Ink and Paper’, in which D.T. Suzuki writes:

The circle represents the infinite, and the infinite is at the basis of all beings. But the infinite in itself is formless. We humans endowed with senses and intellect demand tangible forms. Hence a triangle. The triangle is the beginning of all forms. Out of it first comes the square. A square is the triangle doubled. This doubling process goes on infinitely and we have the multitudinosity of things, which the Chinese philosopher calls ‘the ten thousand things’, that is, the universe.

These 3 human-made shapes are perhaps inescapably subjective and whether or not Sengai is trying to express the universe of physics or the universe of the mind, the painting is in fact expressive of the human mind’s interpretation or reaction to the universe, which forms the only universe we know. Part of the way that we interpret phenomena is through language, which forms the basis of thought but helps form a veil of symbols through which we perceive and experience the world. The image is almost like a signpost way back in an abstract history, marking the point when human’s started to develop the level of consciousness required to use language in a dynamic way, an ability that helps to define what exactly it means to be human, but also a pivotal moment in our becoming more and more separated from the experience of reality. For in a way these shapes, with their innocence and simplicity, highlight the subjectivity or illusory nature of our experience of reality, posing that the universe as we experience it is merely made up of symbols, language, or thought, not reality itself.

Equally, the symbols represent a moment to moment base psychological process detailing the way in which the mind reacts to phenomena, for rather than experiencing reality directly (as represented by the infinite circle) we discriminate things from one another in our minds, resulting in a dualistic perception of reality which leads to mental conflict.

Sengai’s painting expresses so succinctly the limits of our world view through an image which captures the very foundations of the way in which human’s see the world, and like a true Zen master, in exposing this to the viewer they also perceive its illusory nature, and in this realization experience some sense of Satori or awakening to reality. It is Buddhism in action through Art.

I was instantly reminded of ‘The Snail’ by Matisse when I first saw Sengai’s painting. This is one of the largest works from Matisse’s final series of works known as the cutouts. Confined to bed because of his illness, he had his assistants paint bits of paper in gouache which he then cut. Once remarking on this series he said ‘I have attained a form filtered to its essentials’.

‘The Universe’ and ‘The Snail’ have similarly bold and pared down compositions, but there are obvious differences between the two. The use of colour in the Snail instantly makes the work more beautiful and pleasing to the eye, more joyful and playful (this is the painting of an artist not a Zen monk) though the shapes and use of primary colours also demonstrate that simplicity is key and lends itself to the idea of expressing some basic primary truth about nature or reality.

The composition, inspired by the spiral shape on the back of a snail, expresses a transcendental theme, posing that truth can be found through recognizing the fundamental beauty in everything, big and small, for on the back of the humble snail is beauty of an infinite magnitude and scale, expressed by the great blocks of colour and boldness of shape and composition. In other words, somehow in the tiny snail the truth of the whole of existence is expressed, and the nature of the whole of existence can be perceived in the humble snail.

Matisse as an artist dedicated his life to the expression of beauty, and this art work suggests that truth and fulfillment can be found in the realization and moment to moment experience of the beauty in everything. Sengai’s work, although undeniably beautiful, is stripped down and simple in a traditional Zen style, it is more like the Zen garden or the Koan; tools designed to make the practitioner experience some sense of Satori or awakening beyond the intellect. ‘The Snail’ also has an external subject and ‘The Universe’ an internal, but both works beckon one to cross over from their habitual dualistic ways of consciousness (the idea of phenomena), to pure experience and reality. And for this reason I argue that there is little or no conflict between Art and Buddhism. In fact both can help to interpret and appreciate the other. Through Art and beauty we transcend the self (thoughts, language etc.) and perceive reality in pure experience just as one transcends the self through Buddhist meditation and practice. Both Buddhism and Art are like fingers pointing to the moon (that is, vehicles by which one is guided towards enlightenment), lets recognize that they can be, if we allow them, of immeasurable importance in guiding us to a more fulfilling life at least, and pure enlightenment at best.