Ikebana Meditation

     I was from the “stuff-as-many-flowers-into-a-Mason-jar-as-possible” school of flower arranging; the more plant material I could cram into the mouth of a wide mouthed canning jar, the better. Ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arranging, with its attention to detail and sparseness of plant material, was a real mystery to me. I viewed Ikebana much like I viewed opera. If I could only understand it, I was sure I could appreciate it.

     Traditional western flower arranging was easy to understand. We appreciate its symmetry, colorful flower mixtures and over-abundance of plant material.  Western floral arrangements are decoration. What we want out of our arrangement is the finished product; even better if it matches a tablecloth, makes a splash in an entrance hall or goes with a bedspread. The Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana, is much more complex and is appreciated for entirely different reasons.

     Instead of beauty in the “eye of the beholder”, the beauty of Japanese Ikebana lies in the eye of the creator, much like the beauty in the abstract art of Jackson Pollock lies in the “way” he created, as much as his finished creations.  The art of Japanese flower arranging is a meditation, a state of mind. It’s the serenity of yoga without the mat.  The beauty is in the process and it is very personal. 

      Thirteen centuries ago Ikebana was closely tied to the Buddhist religion. With the passage of time (about 400 years), religious aspects of Ikebana gave way to an art form steeped in symbolism. Today the creation of Ikebana relies on those same ancient symbols: Heaven, Earth and Man.

     In Japanese arranging, Heaven, Earth and Man are represented by carefully placed stems. These three symbolic stems form the lines upon which the whole structure of Ikebana is built.

     The line of the first stem is the most important. It symbolizes Heaven. This forms the central line and is the strongest stem. The second stem, symbolic of Man, is placed sideways and forward from the center line. The third stem, Earth, is the shortest and is placed to the front or slightly to the opposite side of the roots of the first two. All three appear to grow from the same spot. Additional flowers are added but it’s the placement of the stems that are the most important. The stems develop the lines that recreate the landscape.  The landscape represents the passage of time: past, present and future.

     Past, present and future are represented by carefully chosen plant material. Full blown blossoms, pods or dried leaves symbolize yesterday. Half open blossoms or perfect leaves symbolize here and now. Buds suggest future growth and symbolize tomorrow. The idea of continual growth is important. Choosing plant material in the garden at the time of making the arrangement adds to the experience and completes the overall idea and ideals of Ikebana. Japanese arranging is all about the appreciation and contemplation of nature with some serious geometry thrown into the mix.

     Once the fundamentals of Ikebana are understood, the real education begins.  Plant material is worked and shaped; pruned and placed. Since pruning is an art in itself it becomes an important lesson when practicing Ikebana. Just think of all of the beautiful Japanese gardens with their high maintenance perfection. Ikebana is a scaled down version… a landscape in miniature.

       Today there are more than 3000 Ikebana schools in Japan representing many styles, each school with its own set of rules.   Traditionally, the headmaster-ship of these schools passes from one generation to another, keeping the integrity of the school intact.  For example, one of the oldest schools in Japan is Asakusa Enshu Itto Ryu. The founder, Honshosai Ittoku, was the most famous Ikebana teacher of his time. He taught until the age of 103. There are more than fifty Enshu schools in Japan today all originating with its first priest-headmaster.  The Enshu schools teach Moribana (freestyle), Classical Style and Seiku Style Ikebana.

     “Moribana”,  (free-style), teaches beginning students techniques in bending stems and using the knife in cutting branches for classical arrangements.

     “Classical” style begins with three formulated plant material groups of different lengths, arranged in an imaginary circular space, partitioned in air to create asymmetrical balance in elaborate designs.

     “Seika” style is characterized by its bending techniques creating beautiful curves in space in asymmetrical balance and harmony.

     Ikebana is a solitary journey for its creators culminating in an art piece that we can all enjoy.

      I attended an Ikebana class in Lakewood to expand my somewhat limited flower arranging horizons. The class was 2 hours long and began with a room full of students hauling in branches, stems, leaves and flowers of all sizes, shapes and colors.  They were animated, friendly and social, i.e., they talked a lot. Then, after about 30 minutes, as if on cue, the room got very quiet. Ikebana is about tradition, serenity and the appreciation of nature.

     Reprinted with permission Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine, Tacoma, WA