Sohan Gempo spent twenty-three years in Empuku-ji temple outside of Kyoto where he started his formal training in 1880. Until 1908 when he was appointed abbot of Daitoku-ji temple he left on a short term for Tokyo to practice under the watchful eyes of Nantembo (1839-1925) at Dorin-ji and was adopted as his spiritual heir (dharma transmission, inka). Soon after returning to Empuku-ji his training came to an end. Upon completing his Zen training in 1893 Sohan Gempo went (or was sent) to a remote temple on Kyushu Island, the Kensho-ji in Kumamoto. Kumamoto was described by Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Kumamoto from 1891 to 1894 as "the most uninteresting city in Japan". Gempo stayed there until 1898 when he was called back to Empukuji temple. After that he took the name Shoun, by which is best known.
Renderings of contemplating Daruma in one stroke (ippitsu daruma) have been popular among Zen artists since the 18th century and represent an interesting sub-group of representations of Daruma. Masters such as Daishin Gito (1656-1730), Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), and Torei Enji (1721-1792) created simplified representations of the patriarch. And also Sohan Gempo’s teacher Nantembo painted one-stroke Darumas. There are two common features of the traditional image: The figure is depicted from the back and this with a single outline. In contrast to this Sohan Gempo’s Daruma is shown from the side and the brush stroke circles around into the figure’s interior. It might seem somewhat confusing that the poem is referring to Daruma seen from behind:
a figure form behind.
A flower in spring
面壁の Menpeki no
後ろ姿や ushiro sugata ya
春の花 haru no hana
Sohan Gempo (1848-1922)
Ink on paper
117.5 x 29.4 cm (46 ¼ x 11 ½ in.)
192.5 x 31.4 cm (75 ¾ x 12 ¼ in.)