The Japanese term Mono No Aware urges us to realize and appreciate the impermanent nature of things and cherish the beauty of transience.
What is mono no aware?
Rich with meaning and subtlety, the soul of Mono-no aware is often difficult to successfully describe in words. However, the almost untranslatable term refers to the melancholic realization that everything is temporary. It is the awareness of the fleeting nature of things. Whether it’s the changing of seasons, the fading of youth or the impermanence of love, all things should be cherished for their transitory nature instead of being mourned. When we learn to do that, we learn to appreciate the true beauty of everything.
Mono No Aware can be best explained as “the ephemeral nature of beauty – the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last. It’s basically about being both saddened and appreciative of transience – and also about the relationship between life and death.”
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Understanding mono no aware
Although it loses some of its true essence in translation, the literal translation of the term is “the pathos or sadness of things.” According to Japanese culture, the term ‘Mono’ refers to ‘things’, ‘aware’ refers to sentiment or feeling, and ‘no’ suggests the essence that something possesses. Hence, mono no aware signifies the profound emotions certain things can evoke in us. The School of Life explains “It is often associated with a poignant feeling of transience, a beautiful sadness in the passing of lives and objects, like the glorious colour of autumn leaves as they are about to fall.”
Mono-no aware can also be translated as “a sensitivity to ephemera” or “an empathy toward things.” It is an awareness of impermanence and a feeling of wistfulness about the reality of life. Often referred to as “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things,” it is a gentle sadness that engulfs us as we realize the evanescence of love and life. When we become aware of the impermanent nature of things and life, we gain a greater appreciation for their beauty while feeling a deeper sadness at their fading away from our lives.
Tim Lomas, a researcher in positive psychology at the University of East London, explains “The term was coined by Motoori Norinaga, the eighteenth-century literary scholar, by combining aware, which means sensitivity or sadness, and mono, which means ‘things.’ Norinaga saw this mood as being at the very center of Japanese culture, encapsulating the pathos derived from an awareness of the fleeting, impermanent nature of life.”
Origins of the term
The term mono no aware originated during the Heian Period (794-1185) in Japan and was heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophies. The word, which denotes the fleetingness of material and carnal life, was widely utilized in Japanese literature during that period.
According to an article in The School of Life, “The word ‘aware’ was first used, in the Heian period of Japan, as an exclamatory particle to express a spontaneous and inarticulate feeling – as with the particles that we use like ‘ah’ or ‘oh’ or ‘wow’.” The article adds “It is the way in which something affects us immediately and involuntarily before we are able to put that feeling into words.”
However, the term was not widely used until the 18th century when Motoori Norinaga, a Japanese cultural scholar in the Edo period utilized the term in his literary criticism of The Tale of Genji. Eventually, the term became widely popular and became a key phrase in Japanese culture and tradition. Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) wrote “To know mono no aware is to discern the power and essence, not just of the moon and the cherry blossoms, but of every single thing existing in this world, and to be stirred by each of them.”
The love for cherry blossom
Perhaps the best way to understand the concept of mono no aware is to understand the love of Japanese people for the beauty of sakura or the cherry blossom. The flower blooms for 2 weeks in the entire year, dies eventually and falls to the ground covering the streets in what seems like pink snow. Like the cherry blossom, reality is most beautiful when observed in the moment between beginning and end, life and death.
Although cherry blossoms exist for a short period of time, that is exactly where the beauty lies. The blooming and falling of the cherry blossoms only makes us appreciate it even more in a melancholic way. This is the reason why the Japanese celebrate this seasonal flower, which indicates the arrival of spring. Traditionally, crowds gather each year to picnic in gardens covered by the soft pink petals of Sakuras.