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Zenga and Shunga

May 17, 2013

Zenga and shunga (erotic art)* would seem to be on different ends of the artistic spectrum. Zenga are created with a minimum of brush strokes in mostly black and white, while hand painted shunga are drawn in minute detail with the most intense colors. Zenga are about enlightenment, shunga focus on sex. However, the battle cry of Zen is kensho jobutsu: “See into your nature to become Buddha.” The character for nature, sei, can also mean “sexual passion.” In other words, kensho jobutsu can be interpreted as “See into the nature of sex to become Buddha.” Another key Zen phrase is kakunen musho: “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” As with Zenga, in shunga there is nothing holy. Everything, including gods and Buddhas, are mercilessly satirized and parodied. Like Zenga, shunga reveal many profound truths about human nature in all its manifestations.


The greatest of Zenga artists, Hakuin and Sengai, actually created Zen shunga. Hakuin’s zenga of Fukurokuju, a phallic deity to begin with, have enormously elongated heads, clearly shaped like a giant penis. On one such painting, Hakuin wrote, “Keep it long and hard like this, and you will have a long life.” Sengai in fact, did a Zen shunga of a couple in sexual embrace with this inscription:


This is the original form of cosmic integration,

A Buddhist practice to harmonize two roots;

Naked, travel to the opposite peak or valley

To achieve nondual union.


Hakuin and Sengai had a number of courtesan disciples from the pleasure quarters. That was only natural. If a samurai, whose job is to kill people, can be a disciple, why not a courtesan, whose job is to give people pleasure? In the Zen Art Gallery, we have one Zen Shunga, #2129. The inscription is based on traditional Buddhist morality—“watch out!”—but the Zen beauty is not condemned. Indeed, she may be an incarnation of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, offering sex as vehicle of transformation.


*See “Spring is in the Air: Japanese Erotic Art,” an exhibition at


Fukurokuju by Hakuin.

Zen Beauty (#2129) by Shogetsu Chuho So-u

This post was posted in Zen Art