I have never been good at dealing with change.

It first hit me in the summer of 1994, when my time in primary school came to an end. That evening, our class gathered one last time in a park near our school. While my classmates all seemed excited about the next chapter of our lives that we were about to enter, I felt a deep sense of loss come over me. 

One farewell was particularly difficult.

For the past year, I had secretly had a crush on a charming, outgoing girl that seemed far out of reach for a shy and awkward boy like me. As she reached for my cheek to say goodbye, I was hit with a jolt of sadness. I knew this first, innocent kiss was also going to be the last.

Every day that summer, I would wake up feeling lethargic and listness. Sometimes I couldn’t even get myself out of bed. And it wasn’t just because my silly, ill-fated infatuation was now relegated to a bittersweet memory. I was silently mourning the loss of a time that would never come back. Without my daily routine of walking to school, I felt bereft of purpose. I missed playing football with my classmates during lunch hour, and how we would dream of scoring the winning goal in the world cup some day.

I simply couldn’t imagine that there was another world out there. With new classmates. With new dreams. And with girls like her. 

For the first time in my life, I was staring depression in the eyes. 

It would not be the last time. Over the years my depression would resurface once every few years, and it would always be triggered by experiences of loss and change. Graduating from college. Breaking up with a girlfriend. To me, the end of something always felt like the end of the world.

You’ve probably had to deal with your fair share of loss in your own life as well. A broken relationship, a lost friend, a family member that passed away.

It’s often only when something valuable slips through our hands, or when a person we hold dearly vanishes from our life, that it fully dawns on us how strongly we had grown attached to them.

Invariably, we will ask ourselves: how do I let go and move on?

As I travelled through South Korea this month, I was reminded that there may be a lesson or two we can learn from the East.

"It’s only when something valuable slips through our hands, that it fully dawns on us how strongly we had grown attached to it."

A sensitivity to the ephemeral

It’s impossible to think of East Asia in springtime without the iconic imagery of cherry trees in bloom, bursting with pink and white flowers. This April, in the streets of Incheon and Seoul, I witnessed everyone from school children to business people revere the delicate blossoms, or sakura, which only last one to two weeks before their petals are carried away by the wind.

As I started reading more about the origins of this tradition, I became fascinated with its deeper meaning – particularly in Japan, where sakura has been central to the country’s culture and identity for centuries. (Japan introduced the worship of cherry blossoms during its imperial rule over Korea.)

The symbolic value of sakura is tied to the concept of mono no aware, which is heavily influenced by Buddhist principles. The term is hard to translate literally, but can be roughly understood as an awareness of impermanence – one of the marks of existence in Buddhism.

Mono no aware is tinged with a gentle sadness about the fact that all things come to an end. But it’s more than mere melancholy. The awareness of impermanence also heightens the appreciation of its beauty. It’s precisely because the cherry blossoms are so short-lived that people in East Asia cherish them so much. In the words of writer Zeami Motokiyo, “the flower is marvellous because it blooms, and singular because it falls”.

Knowing that all good things in life are delicate and fragile, we are inclined to cling to them, fearing loss and change more than anything else. This, according to Buddhist philosophy, is what causes suffering and pain.

Instead, mono no aware invites us to see the beauty in change. It encourages us to gracefully let go of our attachments to transient things.

"In East Asian cultures, a stronger awareness of the transience of things heightens the appreciation of every fleeting moment. "

Practicing detachment

In western depictions of Buddhism, its philosophy of “letting go” is often misinterpreted as a detachment from all wordly things – the stereotypical image of a monk who lives as a recluse in the mountains.

This misses the point, however.

In fact, you may be surprised to hear that when I told a Buddhist monk about my love for photography during a temple stay in South Korea, the first thing he asked me was whether we could connect on Instagram!

What the Buddhist notion of letting go really is about, is embracing the world as it changes from one moment to the next, without clinging to a troubled past or dwelling on an uncertain future.

Friends may fade in and out of our lives, relationships grow and develop or wither away. To free ourselves from suffering, we need to give up any illusion of permanence. We only have the present moment. And it won’t last very long. But that’s ok. It can still be a beautiful moment – even more so.

Letting go also means relinquising a fixed or idealized image of ourselves. For we are in a state of constant flux as well. We are not the person we were yesterday, nor will we be the same person tomorrow as we are today. And that’s ok, too.

"To free ourselves from suffering, we need to give up any illusion of permanence."

The circle of life

As I’m writing this, I wonder what has become of the girl I fancied in primary school. I never saw her again since we parted on that July evening in 1994. I have no idea whether she got married, whether she has kids, and what her outlook on life in the modern world is.

All I know is that when I moved on to high school after a dark and joyless summer, my depression lifted. I developed new interests. I met new friends. Life hadn’t ended after all.

In Japan and South Korea, the new school year starts much earlier during the year. You’ve guessed it: during sakura season. Because the delicate blossoms are not merely a reminder of the transience of life. They also signal renewal and optimism – a fresh start.

As you’re reading this, the last petals of blossom have fallen across most of East Asia. But you can be sure of one thing: next year, when the spring sun has gained enough strength to drive the winter away, the cherry trees will bloom again, and their flowers will look and smell just as gorgeous.


To receive similar articles in your mailbox, subscribe here. Photos: Incheon/Seoul, South Korea, April 2019