Mono No Aware

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Mono No Aware

At the waning of the Japanese Heian period (794—1185), Murasaki Shikibu, a poet and lady-in-waiting, crafted what is often described today as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. It recounts the political intrigues and complex and numerous love affairs of an emperor’s illegitimate son, giving an insight into life at the imperial court. The book is infused with a quiet feeling for life’s transience, the way all living and even inanimate things fade and disappear, which produces a feeling called mono no aware (pronounced moh-noh noh ah-wah-ray).

Mono no aware is literally translated as the pathos (aware) of things (mono) and is often described as a kind of sigh for the impermanence of life. This is a feeling awash with many shades: the sorrow and serenity that come with recognizing the inevitability of change; the anticipatory grief of losses to come; and the piquancy added to pleasures by the knowledge that they must end. Rooted in the Zen Buddhist concept of mujo, or impermanence, mono no aware is also linked to an aesthetic sensibility: wabi-sabi. The principle of wabi-sabi, though complex and much debated, evokes a special beauty found only in unfinished or imperfect things, beautiful not least of all because their imperfections are signs of decay and transience. So wabi-sabi is a sensitivity to the beauty of the crack in a porcelain vase, for example, or the wilted edges of a fallen maple leaf.

The Tale of Genji’s tenth chapter “The Sacred Tree,” captures the wistful feeling evoked by transient beauty. Dressed in rare and expensive silks, Genji picks his way across a gloriously decaying reed plain to visit his lover the Rokujo Lady before they must part ways forever, he to marry another, she to the seclusion of the Ise shrine. “The autumn flowers were gone and insects hummed in the wintry tangles. A wind whistling through the pines brought snatches of music,” and the following morning, Genji departs with “his sleeves wet with dew and tears.”