The “four sleepers” depicted here are drawn from Chinese lore: the Chan (Zen) master Bukan (Chinese: Fenggan) and his pet tiger, along with Kanzan (Chinese: Hanshan), a recluse poet of the ninth century, and his constant companion, Jittoku (Chinese: Shide), a former monk. Together they symbolize peaceful coexistence with nature and the enlightened mind. The subject was first popularized in Japan through paintings imported from China, and interpretations of the theme were produced in Japan from as early as the fourteenth century.
Bukan is said to have met Jittoku when he was still a child. He raised him at his temple on Mount Tiantai, where the boy worked in the kitchen. Kanzan is said to have written the anthology Poems of Cold Mountain—the title based on the literal meaning of the poet’s name—and was reputed to regularly visit the monastery to collect food from his friend Jittoku. The tiger, normally Bukan’s means of transportation, serves for the moment as the trio’s pillow.
This painting has a round seal reading “I’nen,” which was used first by Sōtatsu and then by painters in his circle. A number of other paintings bearing this seal are known to have originally been mounted on folding screens and later remounted as hanging scrolls. Thus, this work may also have appeared on a screen, perhaps with additional paintings of other legendary Zen figures.