shījiā sānmèi 诗家三昧
The Key to Poetic Creation
Sanmei (三昧) originates from the Sanskrit word samādhi, meaning “the mental state of being firmly fixed on a single object” or “meditative absorption.” Samadhi used to be Buddhism’s important way to engage in self-cultivation. Later, it took on the meaning of “the gist or true essence of things.” This Sinicized phrase thus made its way into the fields of poetry, painting, and calligraphy and began to be used in the sense of a “knack,” a “trick” or a “secret.” The whole term, “the key to poetic creation,” was first put forward by the Southern Song poet Lu You (1125-1210) in his poem “Poetic Lines Scribbled Down on the Night of the First Day of the Ninth Lunar Month.” Over time, it became used to refer to a burst of inspiration, with words pouring forth like the flow of a spring, in poetic creation. In that poem, Lu You describes how his initial effort to learn to write poetry failed in his youth and how life in the army at Nanzheng, hectic, vibrant, and exciting as it was, thoroughly changed his poetic style and brought forth great ideas. The way Lu You wrote poetry shows that poetry has its origins in life. The inspiration of poetic creation can be drawn solely from the creative activity of reflecting and portraying life through poetry.
Huaisu, a Buddhist monk in Changsha, loved the cursive style of calligraphy. He said that he had fortunately captured the key to the calligraphic work of cursivestyle master Zhang Xu. (Li Zhao: A Supplement to Liu Su’s Dynastic History)
I suddenly captured the key to poetry writing. The secret of success of the poems of Qu Yuan and Jia Yi clearly presents itself before my eyes. Swift inspiration endowed by heaven and truly beautiful writing depend on an author’s flexible use of such a knack. The choice of material and structuring of an article should not subject themselves to arbitrary measurement with a ruler or cutting with a pair of scissors. (Lu You: Poetic Lines Scribbled Down on the Night of the First Day of the Ninth Lunar Month)
I came to see the key to poetic creation through Jing Hao’s commentaries on landscape painting. He said: “He who depicts a distant human figure should not try to draw his eyes; he who depicts a distant river should not draw its ripples; he who depicts distant hills, not their folds.” (Wang Shizhen: Notes Written in the Orchid Studio)