(n.) lit. “the pathos of things”; the awareness of the impermanence or transience of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing.
“A perfect blossom is a rare thing” – says Katsumoto to Nathan in The Last Samurai. This recognition of the impermanence and transience of life is a central tenet of the Buddhism. It holds that life is marked by three key principles. The first two are impermanence and insubstantially, clinging to phenomena that are intrinsically subject to change, causing the third mark of existence, the suffering or dissatisfaction.
When the acceptance of impermanence and insubstantiality is elevated into an aesthetic sensibility, a state of mind is created where the person can appreciate ephemerality. That doesn’t mean impermanence is welcomed or celebrated. There is still sadness present in mono no aware, a sorrow of transiency, of the loss of things. However, this melancholy is covered with a quiet rejoicing by the possibility to witness the beauty of life, even if momentarily.
Mono no aware recognizes that this transience is somehow integral to beauty. The cherry blossom – sakura -, whose fragile efflorescence captivates our attention so briefly during the first bloom of spring is the epitome of the mono no aware conception of beauty. That beauty is a subjective rather than objective understanding, a state of existence ultimately internal rather than external, being an experience of the heart and soul. However, the cherry blossom shows that sensory intensity is inversely proportional to the duration. Therefore, the ultimate beauty is only reached when petals begin to fall. Also, it’s the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the feeling of melancholy and joy of mono no aware, being at this moment that we can measure the aesthetic discharge of the spark of life. That is, fatefully our appreciation of its beauty is heightened by our awareness of its brevity, in a way that would be missing if these delicate blossoms were a permanent feature of our landscape.
For the Japanese, beauty as mono no aware is this gentle appreciation for the sadness and wistfulness towards the idea that nothing will endure.
To understand the concept of the mono no aware (物 の 哀 れ), we must start from its translation and its etymology. The aware (consciousness) 哀 れ refers to the pain felt by a nostalgic emotion and the mono 物 to the object and inanimate things – the sadness or pathos of things. Thus, the expression mono no aware would refer to the bittersweet feeling of seeing things change.
One of the basic fundaments that until today has been governing the Japanese society, mono no aware is also a way to encourage contemplation of life and accept that all things are transitory and susceptible to change.
BONUS: The mono no aware concept is also present in many forms of art. Such as cinema, with Yasujiro Ozu. Tokyo Monogatari and its memorable cinematographic techniques is a most renowned reference to the aesthetic behind mono no aware. More recently, Ryuichi Sakamoto has released async, a humble record of how to appreciate the little things in life.
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