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Wang Wei

Wang Wei (701-61) may be China's most immediately appealing poet, and historically he was no less revered as a painter. Rather than rendering a realistic image of a landscape, Wang is traditionally spoken of as the first to paint the inner spirit of landscape; and since this became the essence of Chinese landscape painting as it blossomed in the following centuries, he must be counted as one of landscape painting's great originators. This ability to capture a kind of inexpressible inner spirit is also the essence of Wang's poetry. He developed a tranquil landscape poem that dramatically extends Meng Hao-jan's poetics of enigma, wherein the poem goes far beyond the words on the page. As with Meng Hao-jan, this poetics can be traced to Wang Wei's assiduous practice of Ch'an Buddhism. The sense that deep understanding is enigmatic and beyond words is central to Ch'an. And it is the silent emptiness of meditation, Ch'an's way of fathoming that wordless enigma, that gives Wang's poems their resounding tranquillity.

Wang Wei's poetry is especially celebrated for the way he could make himself disappear into a landscape, and so dwell as belonging utterly to China's wilderness cosmology. In Ch'an practice, the self and its constructions of the world dissolve away until nothing remains but empty mind or "no-mind." Beginning with Hsieh Ling-yün, the Ch'an tradition spoke of this empty mind as mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. Wang Wei's brief poems resound with the selfless clarity of no-mind, and in them the simplest image resonates with the whole cosmology of tzu-jan. It is an egoless poetry, one that renders the ten thousand things in such a way that they empty the self as they shimmer with the clarity of their own self-sufficient identity.

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