It’s spring and flowers are blooming everywhere. While I have always enjoyed being in the midst of nature, I had never been a keen observer of nature itself, appreciating rather the mood set by trees, shrubs and the sounds of birds. Last year though, during a trip to Assam I was mesmerized by the raging red flowers of the Silk Cotton tree blooming everywhere we went. My fellow traveler and friend is a tree-enthusiast who has spent hours walking the streets of Ahmedabad observing trees. She explained to me that the silk cotton tree, known as semal in Hindi, is very common in India and in all likelihood exists on the campus of IITB as well. And so, after the trip I began morning walks around the campus of IITB in an attempt to find it. What I found in addition surprised me – a dozen varieties of trees with leaves and flowers just as glorious and alluring, that I had missed noticing for the five years I had been residing in this campus.
I began observing trees and shrubs, their leaves and flowers, and photographed them all spring long, especially enamoured by the copper pod, ashoka, bougainvillea, rain tree and gulmohar. The trees on our campus don’t bear copious flowers the way one might see in the “showcase” pictures of these trees and the blossoms demand a keen eye to notice them amidst the rich green leaves. The copper pod and the rain trees are tall and the blossoms grow high up, almost missed until they fall on the road. Still they continue to grow, surrounding us with their beauty, strength and grace all year through.
As the Monsoon came I began staying largely indoors, away from nature and caught up in my thesis. Until this spring came and pictures of flowers from all over the world started flooding my social media accounts. I was especially moved by pictures of cherry blossoms in the University of Washington campus in Seattle sent by a friend. Dozens of people crowding under the trees looking at the flowers. I felt a twinge of guilt and sorrow for my campus trees – old, yet resilient and generous, that give our home lovely colours while being largely ignored. How often do I stand under a flowering copper pod trees and stare at its blossoms? And yet, when I travel I take the time to do exactly that – stand and stare at beauty because, well, that is a “special case”, telling myself to soak it in because I won’t get to see it again. Why do I take my home blossoms for granted? Why do I not have the vision to realize that those too will die at any time and so I should appreciate and enjoy them as well?
Reading up about cherry blossoms I discovered the Japanese tradition called hanami where people gather under the cherry blossom trees to enjoy the transient beauty of the blossoms. How lovely I thought to take time to enjoy the beauty of the blossoms which have returned after a hard and cold winter. The philosophy underlying this practice is mono no aware, which literally means the “pathos of things”, a melancholic appreciation of the transiency of existence. Mono no aware refers to the recognition of the impermanence of things and the gentle, yet deep sadness that characterizes their passing. The idea of hanami then is to recognize that the blossoms are transitory and so appreciate their delicate and fragile beauty which last only about a week. A training to experience and let go, perhaps.
Mono no aware finds its roots in Buddhism, which stresses the impermanence of life and a letting go of all attachments to transient things. The poet in me appreciates the concept of mono no aware because pathos is a fertile subject for art and poetry. The practical side of me finds it, at first glance, defeatist. I am not well read in Buddhist philosophy, so I am going to attempt to articulate my reflections on the subject in my own words. By romanticizing the notion of loss, it appears to give human beings an “excuse” to pursue transience. Why plan, because everything is going to end anyway? Perhaps that’s why we keep jumping from one experience to another, from one place to another, one job to another, one person to another? What we may fail to recognize is that there are different scales of impermanence. Some things are inherently more permanent than others. Cherry blossoms last a week, but the cherry tree lasts years. The argument that everything is transient must not become a reason for us to ignore longer time scales. Acknowledgement of transience should not be taken as a suggestion that one is not responsible for one’s actions because after all everything will end. Perhaps. But not soon enough. And before it ends there are consequences to our actions that we must acknowledge and accept. We cannot ignore them, we must live with them.
Attachment is not necessarily undesirable. An attachment or love of things, causes, people and the world brings a sense of awareness of our inextricable connection to them. What is bad, as vedic philosophy suggests, is attachment to the outcomes of our actions or expectations from these things, people or the world in general. For instance, to experience the fleeting beauty of the blossoms one must plant a tree and ensure it is nourished enough to bear blossoms year after year. But we must not expect that the tree will indeed bear blossoms for us. The lack of a rounded understanding of attachment would suggest that one should not love either the blossoms or the tree; why bother with the trees when the blossoms will die within a week? How would the world grow with such an attitude? The real learning from the notion of attachment is that one must must love fully all things, causes and people and work towards their development, but one must not expect anything from the object of one’s love. That is true detachment – detachment from the fruits (or in this case flowers) of one’s endeavours. To not love because something is going to end anyway is cowardice.
A third minor point in mono no aware that bothers me is the emphasis on the beauty of the blossoms because of their attractiveness, fragility and transience. Why must only transient things be beautiful? Transient things are easily noticed by our senses which are tuned to detecting changes in the environment. But this notion of beauty must not diminish the beauty of the rest of the tree, which while not attractive in the way blossoms are, are nevertheless beautiful in their strength and depth. Why do we not celebrate this strength and depth, remembering that that too is transitory? Why do we not love that which nurtures and helps grow the blossoms that we so admire and mourn? Why do we not have the vision to love something because we see potential in it, rather than only that which stares us right in the eye?
Many questions, very few answers. This is a meditation that will not end.
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