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Ikebana ... A Contemplative Art Form

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

You’ve heard the phrases, “Stop and smell the roses”, “Less is more”, and “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey”. Ikebana, pronounced “eee kay bana” and roughly translated from Japanese as “the way of the flower”, is a practice in floral arrangement that encapsulates all three of these sentiments.

To fully understand the principles of ikebana would take a lifetime – similar to understanding the symbolism woven into Oriental rugs. This practice has been around since the sixth century and is steeped with history and culture. It began in Japan with the arrival of Buddhism by way of China. Japanese converts initiated the tradition of leaving floral offerings at Buddhist temples. It then grew into a defined and structured art form with the establishment of its first school, Ikebono, in Kyoto in the 15th century. Other schools, with variations of ideals and aesthetics, soon followed. Over time, ikebana evolved from a religious ritual to a pastime practiced by palace aristocrats and eventually by 19th century ladies of leisure.

Today, with the yearning of a de-stressed and simplified lifestyle, ikebana has become popular again. Let me go back to my three opening phrases. The point of ikebana is not having a beautiful floral arrangement in the end, but is the way in which one spends time creating it. It’s a time of reflection and meditation. It’s a time to balance the yin and yang of everyday life and to contemplate the visible and invisible powers within and beyond ourselves. It’s a time to reflect on the meaning of life and death, joy and sorry, luxury and simplicity. It’s not a time of conflict and opposition but rather of complements and compatibility.

This duality is embodied in the two Japanese styles: Tatehana, which translates as “standing flowers” and nageire, meaning “thrown in”. Tatehana evolved from those sacred offerings left at Buddhist shrines and refer to the standing flowers or other upright elements in an arrangement. They represent grandeur and formality. Nageire evolved as a response to tatehana and is more individualistic and free-flowing. While long-lasting pine branches, bamboo, tall grasses, and vertically-stemmed flowers would be considered tatehana, fleeting, delicate and wispy flowers would be considered nageire.

Ikebana searches for the balance between these two styles. While doing so, the artist, the floral sculptor if you will, becomes reflective. He or she slows down and transcends into a more meditative state of mind. Ikebana offers a way to shut out the world and listen to oneself. If you really think about that last sentence, you’ll realize that this is more difficult than it sounds. Even if you found a quiet space to take a break from the world, would your mind still be active? Would you still be talking to yourself, making mental to-do lists, and hoping for this and that?

Over the centuries, different ikebana schools have evolved with different practices and emphases, but all share a few principles: silence, minimalism, shape, form, humanity, aesthetics, and structure. Silence offers us time to observe nature in a way that we may otherwise ignore. We can use our five senses to appreciate the inherent qualities in the materials we’ve chosen to create our arrangement. Silence brings peace to our minds. We become more patient, deliberate and wise.

Minimalism follows the ideals of Buddhism and is reflected in the shapes and quantity of elements used in an arrangement. Shapes create simple, natural, and graceful lines. The form of an arrangement is found rather than planned – which translates into a deeper meaning. That is, during this time of reflection, we find what is within ourselves, what is already there.

The humanity aspect of ikebana is a matter of expressing one’s feelings or thoughts. They are reflected through the materials and composition of the arrangement. The arrangement is also based on Japanese aesthetics which include a sense of imperfection, elegance, subtlety, originality, mystery, ethics, discipline, uniqueness, and empty space.

Ikebana also calls for a basic structure in the form of a scalene triangle (one with three unequal sides) delineated by three main points. The triangle is called “tai-yo-fuki” and represents the sky (the tallest point), the earth (the lowest point), and mankind (the point in between which tries to negotiate itself between the other two). Often times, the triangle is formed with twigs or other stable elements. Each element, and the way it is placed, symbolizes a thought or a purpose.

Many natural materials can be used to compose an ikebana arrangement. In addition to cut flowers, twigs and branches, elements like seashells, rocks, fruit and berries can also be incorporated. Remember, the final composition is not as significant as the way in which it was created.

Ikebana arrangements are easy to identify by their deliberate simplicity, sparsity, asymmetrical form, and aura of serenity. They effortlessly emit an ethereal and mystical quality and a quiet strength. It’s as if time stands still. They speak to us, and in our time of reflection and silence, we hear what they have to say.

It can be challenging to turn off the chatter. It can be challenging to be still and just listen to glorious silence. It can be even more challenging to hear what comes through the silence. But such time is crucial to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. For those who feel they must always be doing instead of just being, ikebana may be a good exercise for you. If practiced in true form, you will accomplish both and also have a floral representation of your efforts.

Photo: Catherine Flora Catanese, LaVOGA

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