In the painting proper the patriarch Mazu Daoyi (709-788) of the Nanyue School of Chan Buddhism looks up at the moon while conversing with the monks Baizhang and Xitang; the fourth monk, Nanchuan turns his back on the other three and leaves. The painting thus captures the spirit of individualism that characterized Buddhism during the Tang dynasty, a time when fierce debates on the role to be played by scriptures, images, and ceremonial practices divided believers into various sects and branches. Mazu held that books and outward ritual were useless and to be discarded, arguing for the abstraction of the mind from all phenomena perceived through the senses, and even from its own thoughts.
The painter Gumei was one of the circle of artists who gathered around Kaiho Yusho (1533-1615) and he worked with Yusho on various commissions, especially those calling for oshiebari screens in which each panel was decorated by a different artist. The figures painted by Yusho are sometimes termed fukuro or “bag” figures in reference to their strong volumetric character, and Gumei’s figures in the present painting share that same distinguishing characteristic as well as a similar use of ink wash combined with strong accents in darker and dryer ink.