Mono no aware

Sei Shonagon’s writings are filled with what the Japanese call “aware,” a poignant nostalgia for the past. It’s a melancholy, sweet ache that is almost beautiful. I feel it strongly in the late summer with the appearance of the crickets and cicadas in my garden. Summer is fading and soon we will be entering the long dark evenings and short cold days of winter.

I went away in the midst of this summer for three weeks. I knew the garden would grow unruly without my daily care but I didn’t think it would be too much, so I wasn’t worried. Before leaving, I cleaned the house and then went out to the Tea House. In the summer, if it’s humid, the tatami mats get moldy – green slimy mold on them, so I set the ceiling fan on low and removed the scroll that was hanging in the tokonoma alcove. I rolled it up and brought it inside my house where it was sure to be safe. The Tea House was bare and empty.

When I returned from vacation, the garden had grown more wild than I ever expected. It had rained constantly throughout July, something it hadn’t done in years. Weeds were three feet high, the grass had to be weed-whacked before it could be mowed. In Switzerland, where we had gone hiking near the Eiger Mountain in the Bernese Alps, I saw an old woman with long gray hair scything her small field. That was me back home with my weed whacker.

The hot, rainy month of July has ended and now in an unusual cooling with the full moon the crickets have started their mating with sounds like waves of chirping in the long deep slide from late evening into darkness.

I went out to the Tea House and opened all the windows and turned off the fan. The space felt empty and I realized that what makes it vibrant and alive besides the incense and people sitting together is the scroll, the calligraphy in black ink drawn by my teacher and other Zen masters. I’m lonely without them.

I look for a scroll. Which words do I choose to convey this sentimental melancholy that I’m feeling?  Who do I turn to? I miss my teacher who died five years ago. I pick a scroll that he had mounted for me. I hang it in the Tokonoma and sit down.

It reads, “Holding up a flower. Subtle smile.”

The space returns to its vibrancy, its depth of purpose. This is no ordinary space, it is a place that confirms and supports truth. The gold thread sewn into the cloth mounting around the white paper of the calligraphy shimmers in the shadows of the early evening.

I weep for the intensity of my training practice. My life. Now more ordinary without my teacher.

But when I hang this calligraphy of his, his spirit comes alive as he was, and it says, this is the way and I offer it to you, ordinary yet beyond time and place.