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Contemplative Ikebana

Contemplative Ikebana

         by Marcia Wang Shibata

"Ikebana" is an ancient contemplative meditation practice that has its roots in China. The Chinese called it "Kado", The Way of Flowers.

5th century China used flower arrangements as offerings to the Buddhist shrines and these arrangements illustrated understanding of how the Universe works. About 100 years later, flower arranging started to develop into domestic art forms celebrating imperial and noble houses.

In this same period, Japan was sending envoys to the Chinese Court. Japan considered the Chinese to be "superior" historically, as the Chinese had already developed a "complete culture". This included writing, and all it's tools - ink, brush, paper, as well as the skill and art of silk production, city planning, warfare strategy, government systems, court forms, trading skills, coined money, and the arts. These last included not only flower arranging, but tea ceremony, painting, poetry, music, and dance.

China had already assimilated Buddhism, which came via the Silk Route. The Buddhist teachings were compatible and at home with Taoism and the teachings of Confucius, both indigenous traditions to China.

5th Century Japan by comparison, was a farming and fishing economy, without a writing system, the commoner still using straw sandals for footwear. Japan's universal view was Shinto, with it's a deep reverence for nature. Many believe Shinto had a profound influence in the development of Ikebana in Japan.

Japan took the next 1000 years to come to what is call the "beginning" of Ikebana. This beginning is claimed by the oldest school of flower arranging with the name Ikenobo, which translates as "monk by the pond".

As in China, the flower arranging tradition began as offerings to Buddhist shrines. Quickly, as happened in Chinese history, it became an art form and pass-time, especially for more well to do, non-warring, Samurai.

Within the classical forms of Ikebana practiced today, there still remain teachings about the workings of the universe according to the Buddhist and Taoist view.

For the dedicated student of Ikebana willing to mix these profound views with their personal experience, it is possible to go beyond a mere intellectual understanding of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. This is certainly true if one can practice flower arranging with a teacher who understands the deeper views as well as the forms.

There are three main differences between western flower arranging and the forms that come from the east:

  1. Eastern flower arranging is a contemplative practice,
  2. The classical forms are based on how the natural world works,
  3. These classical forms acknowledge the presence of space, not as a void, but as a living eternal entity.

A few suggestions on identifying an Ikebana instructor who may understand more than form:

  • Request to first observe a class before committing to a course of study. Watch how the instructor handles the materials, see if you can determine if the instructor is just focusing on completing form, or is present in every movement, in every moment.

  • If you conclude the instructor is only or mostly skilled in form, remember an instructor can only teach what they have been taught, exposed to, and understood.

  • Ultimately, it is up to the student to find the truth of nature in the old classical forms. Much of this understanding and cultivation will come through the student's own effort.

As your practice of Ikebana matures, you will find that the practice is its own teacher – encouraging you to appreciate the forms and the meanings within and beyond them.

Editor's Note:
Our Ikebana section includes kenzan and clippers imported from Japan, porcelain suiban, dishes in traditional and non-traditional styles, and instruction books.