• Athena Center Leuenberg

Integrating the Japanese concept of “Mottainai” in our Quest for Sustainability

We all have fallen prey to the digital fangs of tempting sale prices online. For some of us, shopping is a coping mechanism often resulting in a mercurial high, empty boxes splattered on the floor, and hours or days later, a buyer’s remorse from the wasteful purchases of things we are not even sure we needed. The exclamation “Mottainai!” perfectly encapsulates this emotion—directly translating to “what a waste!”, it expresses a sense of remorse over waste often used by the elderly and environmentalists alike to promote recycling and environmental protection.


The Japanese concept of Mottainai captures the meaningful relationship between an item and its owner that can be traced back to Buddhist culture. It is rooted in the belief that every object has an essence, meaning they have a purpose and deserve to be kept with respect.

Our consumerist attitude today--that was even exacerbated by the pandemic--has highlighted our increasing disconnect to the environment. We no longer acquire objects to form a meaningful relationship with them—we acquire them simply because it has been programmed to us, because it is the ‘trend’, or even because of greed. Mass production also contributed to this disconnect, with it making us subconsciously think we can always acquire more of the same thing without considering its effects to our forests and oceans.


“Mottai'' is derived from the Buddhist word that means “the essence of things''. Adding -nai to this, which is a negation, is an expression of regret over the severing of the link between the living and nonliving. When people thoughtlessly throw away their items, Buddhists believe that the link, or the relationship, between these two entities, is broken. This is known to be a regretful event because everything in the physical world is not isolated, but supposedly connected.


Introducing sustainability into our daily lives is not easy, but the reward can be felt long-term. When we choose to only acquire items that we feel connected to, we not only save money and space—the environment also benefits from this. Nations and economies around the world can also learn a thing or two from this Ancient Buddhist belief, which has already been applied in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo where they used renewable energy, utilized transport systems, and used recycled materials for the podiums and medals carefully extracted from electronic gadgets. When we see the value of every item on our disposal, we respect it by continually finding ways to repurpose it for the good of humanity and the environment.


Sustainable living looks different for every individual since we all live under different circumstances. For some, it can simply be about being mindful about what they purchase, never hoarding or over-buying for the sake of it. For others, it can be only buying from small businesses that use sustainable materials. Some people from developing countries who cannot afford not to consume items with plastic choose to recycle them. Students also stimulate their creativity by reusing colorful paper and stationery to cover their notebooks or create stickers for their laptops. These small actions, when collated together and with the support of leaders around the world, can have a huge impact on our world. The bottom line of sustainability is recognizing the connection of every item with the environment, alongside its relationship to us.

Ancient wisdom, culture, and technology will be the pillars that will determine our survival within the next few decades. Our resources struggle to keep up with the rising global population, and most businesses still aim for profit over sustainability. Revisiting the relationship between people, objects, and the environment have never been more important, and fixing these links have never been more imperative.


Athena Wisdom Institute is one with the United Nations with their Sustainable Development Goals that aim to protect the planet from degradation by continually promoting sustainable consumption and production. We incorporate Ancient Wisdom and Business frameworks that will raise leaders who operate with wisdom, consciousness, and foresight. Sign up at athena-courses.com to join us in creating a more livable world for all.