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  • Sunday Sanctuary

What Is Ukiyo?

In the West, ukiyo is understood as a word linked with Zen culture and the idea of living mindfully; in the moment. But the history behind ukiyo is much more complex, so we've explored the nuanced past of a word that's rising in the ranks of western mindfulness practice.

Ukiyo: Buddhism

The Buddhist term ukiyo referenced 'a world of sorrow and grief'; almost entirely different to the modern western understanding of a term that is suggestive of contentment, pleasure, and gratitude for the present moment. Ross Bender, a scholar from Philadelphia with a PHD in pre-modern Japanese history notes:

It most certainly was a Buddhist term signifying the suffering inherent in a transient world... I first encountered it in the medieval Noh plays — "geni geni me no mae no ukiyo ka na" (roughly "indeed, indeed before our eyes is a transient world, full of sorrow").

As one of the earliest mentions of ukiyo, it can be traced to some of the core principles of Buddhism; life is suffering, and nothing is permanent. Whilst this may seem a bleak outlook, the importance is placed on freeing yourself from the material world and accepting the transient nature of life without trying to exert control over it.

What's important to note about the evolution of ukiyo is the time period in which the word is mentioned; from being referenced in a time of poverty, to it's rebirth during a time of plenty, which leads to the next translation...

Ukiyo-e: The Floating World

The Floating World inverted the original connotations of ukiyo entirely, from 'a world of worry and grief' to 'a world of diversion and pleasure'. As with its predecessor, the new meaning reflected the period, this time of the lower classes who were celebrating the hedonistic spirit of the era. In Asai Ryôi's novel Tales of the Floating World he describes: only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.

From this excerpt you can understand the seeds of the modern understanding of ukiyo; whilst it is no longer associated with hedonism, the tenets of savouring the smaller pleasures in life, a sense of detachment from past or future concerns, and an ability to distance yourself from anxiety form the basis of an ukiyo mindset.

Ukiyo: Modern Western Understanding

Once again the term ukiyo has evolved to reflect a change in society, and what currently drives human motivation. With the rise of wellbeing in the west and an interest in Zen philosophy, it is no surprise that a term such as ukiyo has once again been adapted to capture the essence of what is important in today's world; living in the moment, and finding space to detach oneself from the bothers of daily life.

Final Note

Do you have any thoughts or additional comments on the origins or current meaning of ukiyo? We love to learn, so please share your thoughts with us at


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