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, the reality is most beautiful when observed at 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 make 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.
Even though the sakura blossoms may not be more beautiful than any other flower, it is the transient nature that makes them highly appreciated and valued. This is a prime example of the joy and sadness of mono no aware.
Researcher Tim Lomas writes “In Zen, the pre-eminent symbol of mono no aware is the cherry blossom, whose fragile efflorescence captivates our attention so briefly during the first bloom of spring. Crucially, our appreciation of its beauty is heightened by our awareness of its transiency, in a way that would be missing if its delicate blossoms were a permanent feature of our landscape.”
Buddhism and impermanence
“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us!” – Buddhist priest Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283-c.1350)
Mono no aware is closely linked to the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. In Buddhism, impermanence or Anicca is one of the basic characteristics of existence. As the human body changes from childhood to old age, similarly, everything else comes into existence and then dissolves.
Recognizing the truth of impermanence is a crucial step towards spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism.
The notion of mujō or impermanence is widely reflected in the sayings and writings of Dōgen, a 13th-century Zen master & philosopher. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Japanese Buddhist traditions indicate that awareness of the reality of existence should not be a reason for “nihilistic despair”, instead it should inspire us to be more mindful and appreciate the present moment and be grateful for the next moment that will be gifted to us.
Mono no aware and Buddhism
The School of Life explains that “Mono-no aware is in deep sympathy with Japanese Buddhism, which stresses the impermanence of life and states that we should willingly and gracefully let go of our attachments to transient things.”
However, the idea of mono no aware is also based on Shintoism, a religion originating from Japan, according to Berkley Center, Georgetown University. It states “The concept of mono-no-aware originated from traditional Japanese religion and has its roots embedded in Shinto beliefs, yet it was also influenced by Buddhist principles.”
As Buddhism was introduced in Japan, the focus came on the transient nature of existence. An article from the Berkley Center explains “The overall impact of the aesthetic principle is to recognize the impermanence of everything that exists and create a deeper connection with it because of its fleeting nature.”
Tim Lomas, lecturer and researcher at the University of East London, writes “Recognition of the impermanence and transience of life is a central tenet of Buddhism, and indeed of most Eastern philosophies.” Although most of us desperately cling to people and things that are destined to change or dissolve, Buddhism liberates us from such bindings and enables us to gain a profound understanding of the true nature of reality and its unconditional acceptance.