Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Buddhist Perspective of Japanese “Mono No Aware” (物の哀れ)

The more I come in contact with Japanese culture and nature, the more I seem to like them. It does not, of course, mean that Japan is a paradise on earth and that Japanese people are like celestial beings. I am well aware that saṃsāric existence is a deficient existence. Japan is a piece of saṃsāra. It is, in fact, an epitome of saṃsāra. I have come across wonderful colleagues, students, friends, food, shopping centers, winter, mountains, onsens, temples, rivers, trees, bamboos, earthquakes, kilns, Sake factory, Whisky distillery, winery, and above all a foretaste of full-blown cherry blossoms. This time I have either been too early for the full-blown cherry blossoms or full-blown cherry blossoms have been a bit too late. By the way, Fujisan refused to reveal her full glory to me. Not in Yatsugatake, not in Tsukuba. But I did climb Mount Tsukuba. Not a great accomplishment, but nonetheless an accomplishment. I think I understand slightly how mountaineers feel when they arrive at the peak. At any rate, I had been very busy but nonetheless had a good time in Japan. As I pack my things to fly back to Germany, I realize that I feel a tinge of inexplicable sadness. It is not that I wish to stay in Japan or that I do not wish to get back to Germany. Germany is my second adoptive home. In fact, I am looking forward to get back to Germany. Yet, what is this pang? Just recently in Yatsugatake, some Japanese friends mentioned a Japanese expression mono no aware (物の哀れ). I asked them to explain it to me and they fumbled for precise words. So I tried to look up for it and it is supposed to mean “the pathos of things,” and also translated as “an empathy toward things,” or “a sensitivity to ephemera.” It is said to be ‘“an awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.” The term is said to have been coined in the eighteenth century by the Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga and became central to his philosophy of literature and eventually to Japanese cultural tradition. “The phrase is derived from the Japanese word mono (), which means ‘thing,’ and aware (哀れ), which was a Heian period expression of measured surprise (similar to ‘ah’ or ‘oh’), translating roughly as ‘pathos,’ ‘poignancy,’ ‘deep feeling,’ ‘sensitivity,’ or ‘awareness.’ Thus, mono no aware has frequently been translated as “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things,’ life, and love. Awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty, and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing” (Wikipedia, s.v.). I believe that the feeling or emotion that I feel is mono no aware. I also feel that it is somewhat related to the Buddhist idea of saṃskāraduḥkhatā (’du byed kyi sdug bsngal). My German professor has once translated it as “ultimate unsatisfactoriness.” We should not be misled by the component duḥkha and think that it implies “suffering” whereas the idea of mono no aware also includes a sense of empathy and appreciation for the fleeting beautiful things while being aware of their transiency. In fact, saṃskāraduḥkhatā seems to be always related to a feeling or emotion that is related with what we consider pleasant, desirable, and enjoyable (and thus with beautify, enjoyment, and happiness) and accompanied with an awareness (and followed by an emotion of sadness or unsatisfactoriness) that happiness (i.e. subjective) and enjoyable and desirable things or beauty (i.e. objective) will not endure. The realization of the intrinsic transiency of happiness and beauty makes one sad and discontent. In this aspect, saṃskāraduḥkhatā seems to be very comparable with mono no aware. The difference maybe that the element of appreciation and admiration is not accentuated by the concept of saṃskāraduḥkhatā. If I were to try to translate mono no aware into Tibetan, I would propose dngos po’i e ma dang kye ma nyid (lit. “the marvel and pathos of things”). The component e ma should be understood as in the context of e ma ho (an expression of marvel or wonder) and kye ma (in the sense of ‘Alas!’). Interestingly, being sad is not necessarily bad. The Ratnagotravibhāga seems to suggest that sentient beings would not be sad if they had no buddha element. This idea needs to be explored.


  1. Ohhh, dear Dorji! I feel very touched! I simply offer a short additional, perhaps a little bit provocative stimulus – I hope it will not be misapprehended and makes some sense for others as well.
    Yes, that´s great – “the pathos of things”, “an empathy toward things” or “a sensitivity to ephemera.” The japanese culture has something very special about this – at least as far I´m able to symphatize with, I´m a discreet admirer of their ways of living, values and “sensed pathos of truth”!

    What a feeling - the fine, delicious moments of pleasure in union with somehow precious sadness propelled with daring determination contrasted with the recurring melanchoy and conceptual yearning for the “definitive knowability, recognizability and explainability of this bodhi”. Ahhh – I´m sure we will just as well lose it again!

    Can we recover it? Oh my dear, when I think on all the incredible hardships, severe self-restrictions and many other ridiculous nonsenses undertaken only to get a glimmer of this “doomed bodhi”, it seems to be impossible to raise again and again all this dogged persistence and “pointless” rummaging towards “bodhi-striving”. Phuhhh, I cannot imagine to find it again – how would I regain the driving energy for this crazy motivation itself, this lunatico-philosophical self-indulgence? All this intellectual, emotional and physical fuss about “bodhi”, the pseudo-revolution of awakening (āśrayaparivṛtti). Others will surely come and do it better!
    Ahhh, now appears the subtle cognitive trap or collapse in the “pratyeka-thinking”? And yet why I´m so irrestible attracted to the Dharma! Why I´m so devotionally inclined towards such dharmic things, like compassion, altruism, sharing wisdom? I don´t even remember anything so why should I in the future? Again unknowingly to experience all the ups and downs? Torn between all the odd heres and theres? The infinite, ridiculous circle of “saṃsāra”? And then again the incorruptible quest? Of what? Ahhh, isn´t it amazing? We know, we are convinced, we should live in the here and now?! Ha, ha, ha, really? Don´t grasp, let go! Be cool! Just go ahead and do it! Oh dear friend, what a companionable, gentle advice! But who can follow it authentically? Yet I deeply, sympathetically trust! After all, what else should one do? Whatever will come, I will take it! Certainly, “Māra” will be here (ultimately not so bad in facing reality as it really is…) – but don´t worry!, dare it!, take the plunge!, the Buddha will be near!

  2. continuation:

    Well, so much wild cognitive torture to surmount and yet simultaneously what an extraordinary exuberant mood in the natural mind – yes, the restless paradox of euphoria in being. To be sure, the invasive sensation of cognitive hilarity about “anuttarā samyak-saṃbodhi” assures some believed personal gratification and yet timidly, I´m ridden with guilt! Why is this so?
    The felt madness about reality? I feel ashamed endlessly about “to see the seeing itself (tathātā)”. Don´t want to see it - but then what happens? The whirling presentiment of dramatic happenings owing to the consequential cognitive minority and mental immaturity!?
    Ahhh, I look around, I deplore the cognitive pain of so many sentient beings and nevertheless how much brave, innocently whistling (the instinctive, cognitive “bona fides”, the “good cognitive trust”, faith, leaning-on” ), boisterous fun they have in their “blind yet easygoing following of cognitions”!
    Yes, I must confess, I like them, I admire the cheeky, nervy, jumpy, bustling, laughing, playful “pṛthagjana”, I cannot do otherwise. I´m in the midst of them and try to give my best to be like them, so terrific uncareful, “just unpack the idea, switch it on and quickly, easily get started” and “the wish becomes deluded reality” - but can I really do this? Am I making a fool of myself?
    Ahhh, my heart´s burning, who of them already was not my mother, my brother, my sister, my friend, my…..? I painfully watch them in the street, I dolefully feel their despairing, yet audacious struggle. Again it makes me deeply depressed to be without the definite power to help them adequately, to make them understand what´s happening.
    Ahhh, without fail I must find again Buddha´s precious Dharma! Will I manage that? – I must! I must train to be of authentic support for them, all those illogically, stout-hearted striving “pṛthagjanas”, for being really capable to go with them (kalyāṇamitra), however far they want to go – oh my dear “pṛthagjanas”! I never want to be seperated from you, all you marvelous, irrational, even scandalous “pṛthagjanas”.
    But what if some of those “pṛthagjanas” is going too far with infiltrating maniac behaviour, what then? Then we have to decide “compassionately right”. However, this is going to be difficult enough, hardly bearable and will break the heart again but sometimes we cannot avoid the “unavoidable adequate decision” and must accept the undesirable consequences!
    Never forget, only and fully accept “bodhi” inasmuch as thereby we don´t lose the clandestine nature of “pṛthagjana”. Ahhh, to be like the others, I never want to be without you – you so fantastically creating, fabricating, fashioning “pṛthagjanas”! Ahhh, fortunately, I´m still like you. Dear friends stay tuned! Sincerely, mikael.