And you thought they were just blossoms

Seattle PI
March 27, 2003


For many people in Japan, the cherry blossoms (“sakura”) that bloom in spring are cause for an annual pilgrimage to parks, historic castles, sacred grounds and other public spaces where young and old gather to experience something that cannot be fully described in words.

Hanami,” which roughly translates to “the viewing of cherry blossoms,” is an annual obsession there. Dozens of festivals usher in the colorful rites of spring. Television news programs provide daily status reports about precisely where in the country the trees are blooming. The explosion of small pinkish-white flowers begins in the southernmost part of Japan in late March and moves north like an irrepressible wave of awakening beauty.

But that beauty is fragile, brief and fleeting. While celebrating and enjoying hanami, sometimes in a state of considerable inebriation, many viewers experience a peculiar contradiction of emotions, especially when the wind blows and a flutter of delicate petals momentarily take flight. They are said to feel complete happiness and complete sadness at the exact same moment: happiness because the scene is resplendent in a gentle sort of way; sadness because these same blossoms will soon fall to the ground and wither away, existing only as a memory as they are trampled underfoot.

The aesthetic philosophy of “wabi sabi’ has been used to describe this complex fusion of seemingly opposite emotions. To try to define this abstraction in Western terms is to court misrepresentation, but here goes: Wabi sabi involves an ethos of perceiving and embracing beauty that is transient, imperfect, nuanced, simple and yet not completely describable. Behind the awe of cherry blossoms in full and radiant bloom is the realization, even at a subconscious level, that death is just around the corner. The force of beauty meets – head on – the force of mortality, and it quite frequently can strike one speechless.

This is the powerful symbolism of cherry blossoms: They transport the viewer from a literal plane to a symbolic one. The message is clear: Savor every morsel. Don't squander your life. Don't give up on your dreams. Don't take anyone or anything for granted, especially time. Appreciate physical beauty but realize it is superficial and fades; symbolic beauty persists in the mind, in the heart (“kokoro”), and through time, as sure as spring will follow winter.

For only a couple of weeks in the spring, the cherry trees on the University of Washington's main campus transform the landscape in the Quad – an expanse of green open space and walkways surrounded by Gothic brick buildings housing classrooms, offices and computer labs – into a spot of peace and tranquility.

For more than 35 years, about 30 Japanese Yoshino cherry trees have stood guard around the Quad perimeter. For most of the year they look like ordinary trees, providing nice shade during the occasional sunny day. In late March and early April, these trees make the Quad anything but ordinary. Pinkish petals begin to peek out from pregnant buds; soon the entire perimeter is awash with this gentle but breathtaking color. Spring has come. Many who walk through the Quad stop in their tracks and stare. Call it depth perception, or seeing through to something real.

These trees are even older than their many years in the Quad may suggest. They were not planted there as saplings but were replanted as adults from another location. In human years they would be considered senior citizens. Trees, like people, do not live forever. It is not clear how many more springs they will continue to bloom. Happily, younger ones are slated to take their place so that future generations can enjoy hanami in Seattle.

The Quad’s cherry blossoms provide an ideal setting to contemplate life – and death – or to just read a book or sit with friends. These quiet pursuits are a refuge for those who seek inner peace despite the outer turmoil of an increasingly unstable world. It is also ironic and reassuring that these trees are related to a country that was at one time an archenemy to the United States and is now an ally.

The blossoms’ physical beauty may be fleeting but the pleasant feelings they conjure remain much longer in the soul. In this sense, wabi sabi is not really a fusion of opposite emotions but rather of complementary ones: The happiness completes the sadness and vice-versa. Contemplate that.