A figure in scholar’s robe stands to the left, listening patiently to a monk who gestures with his fan while laughing. A pine to the right extends upward and then reenters the picture on the left so as to frame the two protagonists. Verbal debates between representatives of different religions go back to the T’ang era in China, and at least by the Sung period there were pictorial renditions of the theme (fig. 1). The Chinese version is more detailed than the present painting but the relationship between the figures is the same as is the use of a pine as a compositional device. Shabaku could well have seen this or another version of the subject brought back to Japan during the late Sung-Yuan era, reducing the size to suit the fan format and using the more casual brushwork that he felt was appropriate to the subject.
Little is known about the priest-painter Shabaku save that his go was Gessen, as appears on the seal here, and that he studied the art of Shubun (ca. 1414-63) and was also influenced by the style of Soami (1485?-1525). Some decades ago the scholar Yamatomo Hideo of the Kyoto National Museum theorized that Shabaku was actually Oguri Sokei (late 15th c.), the son of Oguri Sotan (1413-1481).
Fig. 1. Ma Kung-hsien, att.: ‘Debate between Yao-shan and Li Ao,’ after Sogen no kaiga, Kyoto, 1962, pl. 41.