Japanese philosophy initiates a feeling of calmness inside the self; a sensation of appreciation of specific things in nature and their cycle of life. It is a form of culture, and definitions of beauty have focused on the beauty of nature for hundreds of years.
This particular philosophy revolves around the appreciation and sensitivity of nature, which transforms this philosophy into spiritualism.
Even today, you will find that modernity has not affected this ancient aesthetic, as it is still apparent in most of Japan’s urban areas. For example, the Kyoto Station is a central feature of Kyoto’s cityscape; the hub of Kyoto’s downtown area, and its modern architecture displays features that characterise urban Japan. While Kyoto Station exhibits modern innovation in its synthetic grandeur, it still embraces elements of simplicity and continuity with nature in its design. Urban development has extended its reach to the base of the Kyoto mountainsides, but the numerous temples and gardens scattered amidst its municipal areas still epitomize Japanese consciousness in terms of maintaining a relationship with nature.
Things that come to mind when we think of Japan is the magical view of a sakura, or a flowering cherry blossom in spring, the slow-motion movement of a tea sip and the sensation of peace that comes from within.
The journey of this philosophy started when the forces of the war were diffused into the native Japanese worldview along with the proper mix of Confucianism, Buddhism, neo-Confucianism and Western philosophy. This is probably what makes is so flexible to fit into every soul.
What makes this philosophy stand out is the term known as Mono no aware. Mono means ‘thing’ or ‘things’; aware means ‘feeling’ or ‘sentiment’; and ‘no’ indicates something an object possesses. It signifies the powerful emotions that a body holds, its pathos, that powerful emotion that can move us. However, the term pathos in Japanese philosophy is not associated with motion or movement, but with a beautiful sadness of a material changing through time.
Mono no aware refers to the acknowledgement of the transitory nature of all things and finding beauty in them. It encourages the observer to focus on the temporary beauty of things. The mono no aware concept cannot be put into frames or molds because it is not merely a view, but an experience of emotions.
Japanese art and literature have revolved around this focal point, always aiming at the relation between time and nature, like the blossom of cherry flowers, the unobstructed view of the moon or the absence and presence of anything or everyone.
Mono no aware became a prominent aesthetic characteristic and included “the ability to discern and bring out the unique inner charm of every existing phenomenon or thing, to identify oneself with the object being contemplated, to empathise with its mysterious beauty.”
This concept was used during the Heian period of Japan (794-1185) to express a feeling that could not be matched with simple worlds; to approach it with wonder or surprise; to exclaim or sigh “ahh”. Since then mono no aware has been translated for the rest of the world as ‘the ahh-ness of things”. It is the power a thing beholds in their essence that involuntarily triggers an emotion that cannot be caught by the process of thought. It gives us the sensation of a beauty that we cannot hold to forever.
Japanese culture has drawn its experience on this dominant line of thinking, mono no aware. Experiencing a world free of burdens and voluntarily surrendering to time. Mono no aware is strongly linked to Japanese Buddhism, whose central principle is to have the will to let go of that which we are attached to in order to transit into the self.
Zeami Motokiyo (c.1363-c.1443), the major theoretician, actor and writer of the Noh drama, wrote that ‘the flower is marvellous because it blooms, and singular because it falls’.
According to Andrijausakas, mono no aware is “the charm unfolding in the harmony of feeling and reason in which the emotional attitude (aware) of the subject fuses with the object (mono) being contemplated.”
Mono no aware is not only a feeling of appreciation, but goes beyond and transforms into a form of direct knowledge of things: The knowledge to recognise the distinctive qualities that characterise each unique phenomenon, so it can be understood both by the heart and mind; a duality which the western world continues to battle with.
Mono no aware isn’t just a philosophy, but also a form of spiritual consciousness, which has become intertwined with the Japanese lifestyle. What the Japanese did is they evolved a distinct sense of aesthetics, including wabi-sabi and ma, to guide their feelings regarding nature and its influence on their art and culture. Wabi-sabi represents rustic and desolate beauty, and ma, an empty or formless beauty.
It is intriguing that an inanimate object contains a spiritual or emotional quality. Without this awareness of the emotion inhabited by an object, a person in the Heian era could not completely take part in the true spiritual essence of the time. Without a solid understanding of this Heian ideal, one was thought of as uncultured or simply lacking spiritual consciousness. Possessing or describing the emotions associated with mono no aware, however, can be difficult, as the emotion associated with the object changes according to the situation.
The most frequent experience of mono no aware in contemporary Japan is the traditional love for the sakura, or cherry blossom, manifested in the crowds that flock out each year to gaze at the sakuras and have a picnic under them. The sakuras best represent this ideal baecause one of their central characteristics is the fact that they fall a week after blossoming, which is why they are valued for their transitory nature. It is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the feeling of melancholy and joy of mono no aware in the observer.
For many of us this might be a goal on our bucket list, yet even when we focus more on the concept and begin to realise the importance that it has towards the path of happiness, we shall all understand that our life is composed of a million sakuras throughout every lifetime. We have to wait and enjoy the sadness of winter only to feel the joy of summer while being present in every season and every moment, so when our time comes to an end, we will know we have lived and not simply breathed.
Wabi-Sabi, Mono no Aware, and Ma: Tracing Traditional Japanese Aesthetics Through Japanese History Lauren Prusinski Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana,Series IV, Volume 2, No. 1, March 2012
Andrijauskas, “Specific Features,” 206.