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Kenninji Temple feat. Squid Game?: The world of Sengai’s Zen paintings

Kenninji Temple feat. Squid Game?

There is a garden in Kenninji Temple in Kyoto called “○△□ Garden” that made me wonder if it was a collaboration with Netflix’s “Squid Game,” but its reference turned out to be something completely different.
The ○△□ Garden in Kenninji Temple is actually an allusion to the four key concepts of Zen Buddhism (earth, water, fire, and wind).
The square well (□) in the back of the garden represents “earth,” the round patch of moss (○) in the center represents “water,” and the pile of white gravel in the shape of a triangle (△) symbolizes “fire.”

Despite having a title that is reminiscent of Squid Game, “○△□” is in fact a piece of calligraphy by Sengai Gibon (1750-1837), a Zen monk and painter from the Kogetsu school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism during the Edo period. This piece of calligraphy is currently part of the Idemitsu collection at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts.

This piece of calligraphy has a simple composition made up of only the shapes “○,” “△,” and “□.” There is a signature on the left that indicates that the calligraphy was produced by Sengai of Shofukuji Temple, also regarded as the “Fuso Saisho Zenkutsu (the oldest Zen temple in Japan).” However, there is no textual information in the work that offers any clue to its interpretation, making this piece of calligraphy possibly the most enigmatic work among all of Sengai’s Zen paintings.

Some have said that the work depicts the arduous journey of ascetic cultivation before one can attain the perfect state of enlightenment represented by the full moon symbolized by “○.” Others have suggested that the work condenses all the entities that exist in the world into these three symbols and serves as a microcosm of our epic universe on a small piece of canvas.

On the other hand, the meaning of “○□△” depicted on the calling cards and staff masks in Squid Game is derived from the game of tag played in the show.
The symbol on the mask of a staff member represents their rank.
Masks with ○
Staff members wearing masks with ○ are the lowest rank. Their job is to verify the identity of contestants who are sleeping and carry off those who have dropped out.
Masks with △
Staff members wearing masks with △ are the middle rank, and they are responsible for overseeing the game and executing those who have dropped out.
Masks with □
Staff members wearing masks with □ are the highest rank and have authority over the ○ and △ staff members.

It’s wonderful to enjoy Kyoto in the fall after learning about the mysterious symbols that have cropped up in its history!🦑