The beautiful and inspiring cherry blossoms or sakura (桜) are now in full bloom in our part of Japan. Japanese culture has a very strong connection to nature and many elements in nature have deep symbolism attached to them here in Japan. For example, the pine tree is venerable and deeply rooted. The bamboo is strong yet flexible. The blossom of the plum tree is elegant yet hardy. The mountain stream makes its own path while gently overcoming any obstacles. As Morihei Ueshiba (O-sensei) would say, nature is speaking to us all the time— it is up to us to see and to hear the lessons.
The ephemeral nature of things
Cherry blossoms have a particular significance to the Japanese that dates back centuries, and the sakura have been an important subject for artists in both times long ago and today. Sakura appear for only a very short time in early spring and thus symbolize the transient and ephemeral nature of life. Like the sakura, life itself can be beautiful and remarkable and yet it's delicate, impermanent, and short. This is simply the nature of things. The sakura is associated with the idea of mono no aware (物の哀れ) which is related to deep feelings or a particular sensitivity (perhaps even a kind of sadness) regarding the transience of things. It's a deeply personal emotion or an aesthetic that is difficult to describe but can be felt when remarkable beauty raises our awareness of the ephemerality of all things. The sakura reminds us, then, how beautiful life can be, and it also reminds us to appreciate what we have, including each moment that we experience. For some people sakura are just a beautiful and short-lived gift from nature, for others they are a reminder each spring that life is precious and short and must not be wasted. The beautiful display is a reminder to focus on what is important and to worry not about the superfluous and the non-essential.
iPhone pic taken during a run near our house in Nara (click for larger size).
Sakura is also a symbol of new beginnings and a fresh start. The blossoms are a wonder to see, and even though they will quickly disappear while still in their peak, as they gently flutter down in the breeze to the ground below the branches which gave them birth, their passing signifies the beginning of spring, warmer days ahead, and a new start. The school year begins in April and many other activities begin in the spring such as the starting day for new employees. Most new college graduates begin their new careers at this time of year. Therefore, for many people the sakura are also a symbol of starting a new chapter in life or of starting over with a renewed sense of hope and optimism.
Spring, birth, and the circle of of life
During the cherry blossom season of 2010 our first child was born in Japan, making last spring the best ever. And yet, last spring was also the time my mother passed away back in the States while I was by her bedside. And although many tears were shed at that moment, the close proximity in time of my daughter's birth and my mother's death, was a direct expression of the circle of life itself, both the miracle of birth and the ephemerality of life as we know it here on earth. The joy of birth is indescribable, yet the sorrow of losing the one who was closest to me for my entire life until that moment of departure was somehow softly tempered by the awareness that this too was apart of we we call life. I was reminded then too of the old adage "Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened."
Click for larger version of slide.
This year is a very tough one indeed for many of our friends in the Tohoku area of Japan which was hit by the terrible earthquake and tsunami. The sakura are not yet blooming in Tohoku but will be very soon. We can only hope that the small contribution of natural beauty expressed in this year's sakura can be of at least a tiny bit of inspiration for those who are struggling to rebuild their lives. Perhaps the humble but remarkable beauty of the noble sakura will help those in dark times find a glimmer of hope and the will to remain positive and resilient as they move forward, picking up the pieces to rebuild. The sakura remind us that the circle of life continues no matter what. The blossoms this year remind us as well to keep the people directly affected by this year's natural disaster in our thoughts and in our prayers daily, long after the sakura of 2011 have gone.
• How to help those affected in Japan.