Whether they are ancient proverbs or modern-day idioms, these poignant brevities speak a timeless language. Guaranteed, you will have experienced at least one of the emotions elicited from their succinct guidance, so why not put a name to them?
Find the wisdom you seek from these 6 Japanese concepts about life, love and the universe.
1. “Kachou Fuugetsu” 花鳥風月 – “Experience the beauty of nature and, in doing so, learn about yourself.” (Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon)
Our mind is much like a garden, with the many thoughts that pass through acting as seeds, potentially able to blossom into either flowers or consign themselves to a life as weeds. Nature can help tend to those seeds and has the unique ability to help them grow into something beautiful (by helping you find peace, enabling you to think more clearly and, thus, feel more positive in your outlook of the world)
The concept of Kachou Fuugetsu (discovering yourself when experiencing nature) is rooted back in Ancient Japanese philosophy, stemming from Fuushi Kaden in the 15th-Century, and, in essence, describes the beauty of the seasons as a comparison to the beauty of the self.
Just like how the seasons all bring different elements (e.g. the “wind” in the spring is different to that of autumn) the idea is that they are all still beautiful in their own way, despite the changes. This same notion applies to our natural beauty. Because, just like in nature, we are bound to both “good and bad” elements, which is why this notion of self-acceptance is so important.
No matter the differences in us, they are all part of us, and those changes must be understood, for that is the only way to make them better.
2. Shikata ga nai 仕方がない or Shō ga naiしょうがない (Accept your fate/It cannot be helped)
Depending on what life throws at us, the thoughts in our mind are prone to both blossoming or wilting, as aforementioned above. So, when faced with adversity or injustice in our path, it is important to maintain a dignified approach. This is because not all situations are within our control, and the sooner we learn to accept that certain things are beyond our reach, the sooner we’ll establish emotional equilibrium.
Modern living, for example, with its surplus demands and endless possibilities, has the potential to help or hinder our mental welfare. For some, it can prove a rather overwhelming place to be and completely knock us off-balance. The ultimate aim of the Zen Buddhist philosophy, Shikata ga nai (or, Shō ga nai, as its also known) is to teach us that these difficult times are a natural part of life and that acceptance of them will fair us greater than avoidance.
Perhaps the connotations to this can be interpreted both positively and negatively. However, in order to gain inner peace, it is vital that this message is understood.
3. Nanakorobi Yaoki 七転び八起き“When life knocks you down, stand back up; What matters is not the bad that happened, but what one does after.” (Fall seven times and stand up eight)
Once the importance of acceptance has been recognised, the next life lesson to learn is to never give up.
When you have a goal, promise or wish in need of fulfilment, perseverance and resilience are two traits that need to be mastered. Dedication to those behaviours is what plays the rudimentary part in achieving ultimate success. Nevertheless, there is a chance that the many knocks in life will send your off course in your journey and you may even believe that you’ve reached the end of the road. This is where Nanakorobi yaoki comes in.
This popular Japanese proverb, which is often expressed through the medium of the historic Daruma Doll, reminds us that the pitfalls and bumps are a just small part of a very big road.
We must keep moving. There is no other motivation to succeed, except our own power of will.
4. Koi No Yokan 恋の予感 – “The feeling upon first meeting someone that you will inevitably fall in love with them“
Emotions are curious things. With no direct guidance on how to listen to our hearts, we can sometimes make mistakes. Over and over, we “think” we’re in love, only to watch it all fade away again. But, what if there was something out there that simply hit you, and, within milliseconds of staring into another soul’s eyes, you simply “knew” that there was something there.
Interestingly, this contemporary notion of romance, most often affiliated with origins in Shōjo Manga, has a particular resonance to both young and old alike. But, unlike Hitomebore (which translates as “Love at first sight”) Koi No Yokan highlights an emotion within the sphere of love that hasn’t yet been written in English.
The phrase as a whole regards love (koi) being something that can potentially be predicted (yokan) and whilst there are a few interpretations given for this “untranslatable” experience, the most agreeable aspect of it is that the premonition of love between two people reciprocally occurs upon first meeting.
But, how do you know the difference? Usually, a flurried heartbeat, undeniable excitement and the feeling of unexplained comfort within the other person’s presence are recognised as prerequisite indicators, before the potential of falling in love can follow. For some people, this experience can also be related to the indescribable feeling of “meeting before” – perhaps in another life? No one knows for certain. Whatever the universal truth behind the concept, knowing it exists is a pretty beautiful thing.
5. Ikigai 生き甲斐 – (Reason for being)
Because life and love are such complex matters, it seems only natural that we question our purpose behind it all – what is it that we get up for in the morning?
Simply put, humans want to be happy. But, in order to achieve that, we must understand and identify what it is we want from life and work out ways to realistically obtain it.
Composed of the words iki (meaning “life”) and gai (which describes value/worth) ikigai is a term with derivatives set in the Heian period (794 to 1185 – back when Buddhism, Taoism and other Chinese influences were at their height) In those days, kai (meaning “shell” – where the word gai originated) were deemed as highly valuable items. As time went on, the phrase “ikigai” was neologised and, inevitably so, went on to express the idea behind the “value in living”.
There are many modern-day literary pieces to explain this concept in detail. Some use diagrams to aid those who want to incorporate the ideas into their busy lifestyles, whereas others simply take the philosophy to mean achieving little goals day by day when their lives quieten down. However you approach your ikigai, know that there is no right or wrong way.
It’s all about perception. Life is ever-changing. You must learn to swim with its current. And being mindful of that will undoubtedly aid fulfilment in your journey.
6. Yūgen 幽玄 – (An awareness of the universe that triggers an emotional response too deep and powerful for words)
Nothingness is not a celestial chasm. Now is a transient state. There is no “perfect” construct. Life is, and ever will be, a place of potential, mutable and fallible aspects.
…and that’s what makes it so wholesomely charming.
According to many Japanese aesthetic ideals, the appreciation of nature is a fundamental one. All states are seen as beautiful (such as discussed in Kachou Fuugetsu with regard to the seasons) But to truly experience the awareness of the universe as a whole and in all its intricacies, a person must first be mindful of the ancient ideal known as wabi-sabi.
In Zen philosophy, there are seven aesthetic principles for achieving wabi-sabi (loosely translating as the beauty of things “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”) and these are Fukinsei (不均整): asymmetry, irregularity; Kanso (簡素): simplicity; Koko: basic, weathered; Shizen (自然): without pretense, natural; Yugen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious; Datsuzoku (脱俗): unbounded by convention, free; Seijaku (静寂): tranquillity, stillness.
For nature to be fully appreciated, one must first possess these inner-virtues. As these underpin the emotion and aid the cohesion of the experience. Thus, by understanding these concepts and engaging with them and the arts regularly, it is possible for this appreciation to develop into that deeply profound state of awareness.
Watch the sunrise, chase a rainbow, gaze up at the stars, listen to the water. See how it rises, peaks and softens, ignites and fades, sparkles and blackens. That is the universe.
Imperceptible, untouchable and unreachable. Everywhere and nowhere. When this powerful state of Yūgen is felt, words need not apply.
These are just a few of my favourite concepts and personal interpretations of them, but there’s always room for learning!
Enlighten me of any proverbs or ideals that have transformed your outlook. Or, feel free to expand/discuss any of the ones listed above. Perhaps you have even experienced one of them (such as Koi No Yokan) and wish to share the story behind it? If so, please leave a comment 🙂