Tuesday, April 9, 2013

At the Movies: Identifying with Impermanence

After I heard film critic Roger Ebert passed away, I made sure we had plenty of copies of the temple’s March bulletin out on the free literature counter. The front page article of that issue was written by our head minister Rev. Ashikaga and was titled, “Mono no Aware” (moh-noh noh ah-wah-reh) about the phrase he heard Roger Ebert use during his lecture on the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Rev. Ashikaga was fortunate to see and hear Mr. Ebert in person but I can only claim a couple degrees of separation. (One of my friends took a film class from Mr. Ebert and told me he kept hitting on her – they were both single at the time.)

While writing his article, Rev. Ashikaga asked me how “mono no aware” is translated in English, so I pulled up some information from the internet. In his article, Rev. Ashikaga wrote, “The phrase is derived from the word a-wa-re meaning sensitivity or sadness, and the word mo-no meaning things. The phrase describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things and gentle sadness at their passing.”


(1982 photo from Chicago Tribune)

One of my Facebook friends posted the essay that Roger Ebert wrote explaining his outlook on death of which I’m sure most of you have seen excerpts. What struck me is not any “sensitivity or sadness” about his own impermanence, but a hearty acceptance of the transiency of life. It made me think those translations I Googled for Rev. Ashikaga were a little off-base. Instead of “sadness,” the word a-wa-re could mean a poignant identification with impermanence.

In an article in the March 2013 issue of the Higashi Honganji magazine Dobo, Shin Buddhist scholar Rev. Shuho Minowa and novelist Kenzaburo Oe discuss the difference between kanashii (sadness) and a-wa-re in light of the second anniversary of the northeastern Japan earthquake-tsunami disaster. Kanashii was the sadness they felt for all those who perished in the disaster – nothing could be done for them now. But they agreed a-wa-re had a more dynamic nuance – it meant becoming aware of a sad situation in which we can take action. For example, Mr. Oe had become an activist in the anti-nuclear power movement, to lessen the chances of another Fukushima power plant radiation release in the future. Rev. Minowa could see that temples are helping the people cope with the loss of family members and livelihoods in the disaster.

Roger Ebert had that kind of mono no aware – in his living with illness and disability and the quickening inevitability of death, he took dynamic action in connecting with others, in joining in the flow of life and lives, joyfully exploring the kaleidoscope world of art and popular entertainment. Some people might think a charity worker such as Mother Theresa is the epitome of compassion, but I think Mr. Ebert showed us there is great com – passion (“with fellow feeling”) in appreciating the expressiveness of people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

There’s something about watching movies that heightens our sense of time and changes. I’ve often recommended the Japanese movie “After Life” to people, particularly those who are facing a serious illness (see   http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/after-life-1999). On the morning of what would be my sister’s last day alive, she said to me, “What am I going to do about my life?” and I was at a loss of what to say. Then I found myself talking to her about that movie (and also the last scene in the “Flags of Our Fathers” movie) and told her to think of a memory she’d like to preserve for eternity. When my brother arrived and offered to set up a DVD player at her bedside, she chose the movie “Inception” to watch. It would be the last movie she would ever see. Later on when I got around to watching her DVD, I thought maybe my sister passed away hearing that Edith Piaf song “Je Ne Regrette Rien” (“I regret nothing”) and feeling herself moving into one of those special-effects constructed dream-worlds.

Thank you Mr. Ebert for showing us it’s okay to love and learn from the movies.

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