Hope & Healing Through Photography and Poetic Expression

Mono No Aware

“Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all.”
~

Mono no aware–
Meaning literally “a sensitivity to things,” mono no aware is a concept describing the essence of Japanese culture, invented by the Japanese literary and linguistic scholar scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century, and remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word *aware*, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, of life, and love.

Mono no aware gave name to an aesthetic that already existed in Japanese art, music and poetry, the source of which can be traced directly to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, a spiritual philosophy and practise which profoundly influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, but especially art and religion. The fleeting nature of beauty described by mono no aware derives from the three states of existence in Buddhist philosophy: unsatisfactoriness, impersonality, and most importantly in this context, impermanence.

get-attachment-7.aspxAccording to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard; the moon partially clouded more appealing than full. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies beauty as a transient experience.

Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork–most commonly nature or the depiction of–in a pristine, untouched state.

An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism’s philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal–the source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in *Zenrin Kushū* (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of an unseen that exists behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.”

With its roots in Zen Buddhism, *mono no aware* is bears some relation to the non-dualism of Indian philosophy, as related in the following story about Swami Vivekananda by Sri Chinmoy:

*”Beauty,” says [Vivekananda], “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.'” Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated.*

The founder of *mono no aware*, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), was the pre-eminent scholar of the Kokugakushu movement, a nationalist movement which sought to remove all outside influences from Japanese culture. Kokugakushu was enormously influential in art, poetry, music and philosophy, and responsible for the revival during the Tokugawa period of the Shinto religion. Contradictorily, the influence of Buddhist ideas and practises upon art and even Shintoism itself was so great that, although Buddhism is technically an outside influence, it was by this point unable to be extricated.

Meaning literally “a sensitivity to things,” mono no aware is a concept describing the essence of Japanese culture, invented by the Japanese literary and linguistic scholar scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century, and remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word aware, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, of life, and love.

Mono no aware gave name to an aesthetic that already existed in Japanese art, music and poetry, the source of which can be traced directly to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, a spiritual philosophy and practise which profoundly influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, but especially art and religion. The fleeting nature of beauty described by mono no aware derives from the three states of existence in Buddhist philosophy: unsatisfactoriness, impersonality, and most importantly in this context, impermanence.

According to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard; the moon partially clouded more appealing than full. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies beauty as a transient experience.

Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork–most commonly nature or the depiction of–in a pristine, untouched state.

An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism’s philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal–the source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in Zenrin Kushū (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of an unseen that exists behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.”

With its roots in Zen Buddhism, mono no aware is bears some relation to the non-dualism of Indian philosophy, as related in the following story about Swami Vivekananda by Sri Chinmoy:

“Beauty,” says [Vivekananda], “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.'” Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated.

The founder of mono no aware, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), was the pre-eminent scholar of the Kokugakushu movement, a nationalist movement which sought to remove all outside influences from Japanese culture. Kokugakushu was enormously influential in art, poetry, music and philosophy, and responsible for the revival during the Tokugawa period of the Shinto religion. Contradictorily, the influence of Buddhist ideas and practises upon art and even Shintoism itself was so great that, although Buddhism is technically an outside influence, it was by this point unable to be extricated.

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8 responses

  1. a lovely piece to read. thank you for sharing your thoughts. i am not a Zen practitioner tho Tibetan Buddhism, of which i do practice, and Zen Buddhism share much in basic philosophy. Tibetan Buddhism was, in the beginning, around 4000BC, called Bonpo. It was a shamanic, warrior philosophy with much magic, much devotion. Buddhism, when introduced in the 8th c. was originally met with extreme skepticism to outright hatred and resistance. however the king had spoken and the new religion quickly spread with the funding of the ruling classes. What wayward ways we weave, no? even today the two live side by side, each sharing with the other much of what is true of each separately. to me it’s always been fascinating that great belief systems have shared similarities down thru time tho greatly separated by space. and time… makes one think. are any of us so different?

    Anyway this photo of the cherry blossoms all on the ground made me catch my breath, i found it so beautiful. i, as i am sure do you, find the impermanence of all things to be appealing because pain too, is only transitory if seen from the perspective that nothing remains in reality but awareness. i find my path to often be my greatest teacher. not to say i don’t fight her tooth and nail sometimes but if i stay with my practice, i do seem to be able to find some tolerance of this body in which i dwell and cultivate a little more compassion for she who lives within. and without.

    xox to you, dear one.

    May 23, 2013 at 1:45 AM

  2. Linda thank you so much for sharing this very wise and wonderful insight regarding Tibetan Buddhism and your own practice. I also agree it is amazing how much conflict exists amongst so many belief systems that do share so much in common and let differences divide. It is a shame as there can be so much gained from peace and sharing. I am so glad you could feel the essence of the poem, and photo with regard to mono no aware — the transcendence and impermanence… and yes – I so much try to remember this as I cope with the pain each moment of each day. Our path and faith, and awareness must be the key to managing the challenges… I will keep trying, and you too my friend — Appreciation – and So much Love and Compassion to you always, Robyn

    May 26, 2013 at 12:13 AM

  3. I am of a different belief…but what you write is soothing and comforting. Keep at it! 🙂

    May 27, 2013 at 11:48 PM

  4. Thank you Jonathan. I mostly subscribe to believing in love and appreciation for the gifts each moment offers us here on earth. Sometimes we get so distracted in our day to day lives, that we miss out on that which is Divine and miraculous, and right in front of us… like the one week life of a cherry blossom tree in spring. 🙂 Much Love and Gratitude, Robyn

    May 27, 2013 at 11:54 PM

  5. There is beauty in all things. As a christian, I find I appreciate even the lesser things of beauty because I am aware that God created all things. You have a lovely way of expressing yourself.

    June 5, 2013 at 11:52 PM

    • I agree Barbara, when we have the awareness you speak of we find beauty all around us. It’s quite wonderful. Thank you for your warm words. I am so happy you enjoyed! ~ Love and Blessings, Robyn

      June 6, 2013 at 12:13 AM

      • I look forward to learning much from you.

        June 6, 2013 at 1:04 AM

    • Thank you Barbara. I do try to let everyone and everything become my teacher in some way… even my pain.
      So much Love, and Blessings to you and yours,
      Robyn

      June 6, 2013 at 10:17 PM

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