Ikebana is the art of flower arranging that originates in ancient Japan. It is practiced as an art where flowers and other natural elements are placed in such a way as to embody harmony, peace, and beauty. Ikebana, also known as kado in Japanese, is considered to be the top 3 major forms of cultural arts along with Tea ceremony and calligraphy.
During the Heian period, the priests who took care of altar arrangements were called ikebono and they are the first known masters who developed the best way of arranging flowers. Ikebana has simple rules influenced by simplicity and minimalism in Buddhism. There are usually 3 types of main flowers: primary flower in the middle, the secondary flower right next to it and an ornamental flower down below. There are also 2 main types of vases: the wide and low vase called moribana and the tall thin vase called nageire.
Ikebana, Japanese Culture and Zen Philosophy
Ikebana was born in Buddhist temples and has a close relationship to the philosophy of Zen. The ten connections between zen and ikebana are explained below
- Zen is about harmony, balance and minimalism, ikebana is also about harmony, balance and minimalism
- Zen is about being natural and preserving the nature of things, ikebana makes the flowers how they look in nature; different from the popular flower bouquets in the West. Zen is also about being connected with nature as we develop a sense of closeness to flowers thus mother nature.
- Zen is about mindfulness, and realizing the passing of times. Zen is understanding and enjoying the transience of life. ikebana uses seasonal flowers to help us appreciate the changes of times and seasons.
- Zen is about seeing beauty in a routine, ikebana helps us create art forms from simple flowers.
- Zen helps us appreciate ma (the beauty of empty space and emptiness) and ikebana helps us realize and enjoy ma or the unfilled spaces in a bowl.
- Zen is about no discrimination, with the help of ikebana anyone, regardless of any social class, can create art with any flowers.
- Zen is about selfless mind, ikebana helps us forget the flow of time while arranging the flowers.
- Zen is about getting rid of negative and materialistic thoughts, the world of flowers moves us away from harmful thoughts
- Zen and shinto are about being close to the divine spirit, the flowers have symbolic meanings related to the earth and heavens
- Zen is about a peaceful and graceful mind, the art form we create represents our true nature which is naturally peaceful.
Simple Rules of Ikebana
The most simple rule of ikebana is the rule of three also known as the most basic moribana style.
- In the middle there is the longest stem, shin. This stem represents heaven. The stem is 1.5 taller than any other flowers or branches. The stem is set leaning 10 degrees left side from the base.
- Left side of the shin there is soe which represents earth. This part is tilted 40 degrees to the left side of the base and has the 3 quarters length of the longest stem.
- On the right side there is the shortest stem called tai. This stem is tilted 70 degrees to the right side and has the length 3 quarters of the second longest stem.
Japanese Symbolism in Ikebana
Ikebana has many rules and principles similar to other culture based crafts influenced by the zen philosophy. First timers are surprised to find out that each flower also has a meaning in Japan such as pines represent longevity, chrysanthemums represent the imperial family, lotus flowers imply purity of mind and body and many seasonal flowers like peonies and wisteria represent grace and beauty. Some people also think the middle branch in ikebana refers to Buddha but this depends on the affiliation of the practitioner.
Iki: A Japanese aesthetic element that translates to ‘refined uniqueness’.
Moribana: A popular style of flower arrangement that translates to ‘piled up’. The flowers and other elements are placed in low, shallow containers.
Nageire: Another popular style of flower arrangement that translates to ‘thrown in’. The natural items are organized in tall vases.
Rikka: A traditional style of flower arrangements that translates to ‘standing flowers’. This style uses seven branches to represent natural scenes.
Shoka: A type of flower arrangement that embodies the spiritual world.
Shin: A branch that represents heaven and is an important element in shoka flower arrangements.
Soe: A branch that represents man and is an important element in shoka flower arrangements.
Tai: A branch that represents earth and is an important element in shoka flower arrangements.
Ikebana is vastly different from other types of flower arrangements in Western countries. Flower arrangement in the West consists of arranging flowers and other plant elements symmetrically in a vessel. Ikebana is fundamentally different due to its higher pursuit to develop a closeness with nature during the creation process. Here are the design elements Ikebana takes into consideration:
• Minimalism: Buddhist ideals of minimalism are at the core of ikebana. The natural elements put into the arrangements are like sculptures and should each have a purpose. For example, leaves should be chosen by how they complement one another and with the style of the finished display as a whole.
• Shape and Line: This element also has ties to Buddhism as all shapes and lines should be placed in a natural-looking position. For example, upright arrangements often made with branches that offer stiff, straight lines. This embodies a tree’s strength and rigidity. A slanting style of arrangement is made with softer elements by incorporating flowers and grasses that grow slanting down. This also gives a sense of movement and grace.
• Structure: Many traditional Japanese flower arrangements are based on a scalene triangle. The points of the triangle are usually made with twigs or branches. A popular style called shoka takes this one step further, as this style’s arrangements represent the spiritual world with its use of structure. The longest branch or flower in the arrangement is called shin, and this represents heaven. The medium branch or flowers, soe, represents man, and the shortest branch or flowers, tai, represents earth.
• Form: The final design of the flowers and other plant elements should be ‘found’ during the arrangement, rather than being planned and forced. It is said that you should find what is ‘already there’ in the flowers, branches, and leaves you have chosen. A typical ikebana arrangement emphasizes asymmetry and imperfection through the use of free space, uneven numbers, and a minimal number of blooms.
• Aesthetics: The overall feel of the arrangement should embody traditional Japanese values. A way to describe it is iki or ‘refined uniqueness’. A style that explains this is rikka or the ‘standing flowers’ style. This style uses seven branches to make or represent the beauty of natural landscapes such as hills, waterfalls, and valleys in their arrangements.
• Humanity and silence: Ikebana is said to also be an embodiment of the arrangement’s creator. It reflects the creator’s mood and personal journey with nature. A style I think embodies this is one with a moribana arrangement which utilizes the shallow bowl it is arranged in as a reflective pool. Finally, while taking part in ikebana you shouldn’t speak. This process should be a meditative activity where you are only focused on the natural elements taking shape in front of you.
Fun Facts about Ikebana
- Just like Karate the ikebana schools also have the “dan” or the ranking system. Even though you don’t get a black belt, you can get a high ranking “kyu” if you practice ikebana for a very long time.
- There are thousands of ikebana schools in Japan alone, with the most well known being the Ikenobo School, which started in the Choho-ji temple in Kyoto. It has since spread chapters all over the world and recently has grown to incorporate over 60,000 teachers in many different countries. Ikebana is still very popular in its home country as it is practiced by roughly 15 million people annually, many of whom are young women.
- While many women practice ikebana, it is also a cultural activity that was historically practiced by men as well. In fact, samurai warriors would need to be taught flower arranging, as well as other important cultural activities, before being recognized as a true warrior. Currently, there are more leading male Ikebana masters than females.
- Modern styles and techniques are changing how ikebana arrangements are put together. One such master who has embraced new styles is Techigahara Sofu who used plaster, plastic, and even steel in his flower arrangements. He founded the Sogetsu School so his ideals of experimentation are practiced by new students as well.
- In addition to the Ikenobo School, two other well-known schools are the Sogetsu School and the Ohara School. These two schools are more modern, each being around for roughly a century. The Sogetsu School and Ohara School were founded by ikebana masters who wanted to incorporate more popular Western elements.
- If you do attend an ikebana arrangement class, some of the classes you would need to take are using scissors to trim different plants correctly, bending branches so they don’t break or look unnatural, selecting flowers to symbolize traditional elements, identifying the appropriate vase or bowl for your arrangement and learning how to keep your natural elements as fresh as possible.
- There are ikebana arrangement displays where you can see experts showcase their abilities and techniques. Many of these exhibitions are about ‘friendship through flowers’ rather than competition and are known in Japan as well as other countries. There are also annual arranging competitions in Japan where masters compete. In these competitions, the masters have the same equipment, flowers, and plants but should use their personal taste and experience in making different arrangements.
- Ikebana is available for students through after school classes and clubs for those wanting to learn. Ikebana is also regularly shown through ‘how-to’ videos and on Japanese TV shows. One such show is Seikei Bijin or Artificial Beauty, a drama TV series which has an ikebana master as a male character and love interest.
- While not ikebana, a related cultural activity from Japan is called kodo. This is the traditional art of fragrance and using incense. This practice is generally learned if a Japanese woman wishes to be considered to be refined, alongside ikebana and the traditional Tea ceremony. This has another tie to ikebana as some of the flowers used in the arrangements are also popular incense scents.
- Another Japanese cultural activity that has ties to flowers is bonsai growing. This is the art of growing small trees in particular shapes in order to showcase their beauty and natural grace. Many aesthetics found in the ikebana flower arrangements are also important in bonsai growing.
- A good online resource if you wish to continue on your own ikebana journey is found at. This website has a step by step tutorial to help with the skills and techniques you need to make your own flower arrangement. Because there are also ikebana teachers around the world, you may find a qualified instructor near you if you search online.
History of Heika Style Ikebana
The word Ikebana itself means ‘alive arranged flowers’ or ‘giving life to flowers’ in English. This cultural activity has origins in Buddhist temples as flowers were used for offerings as far back as the seventh century. Adding leaves and other natural elements into flower arrangements is referenced as an idea from another Japanese religion, Shinto. Shintoism believed all-natural elements as beautiful and spiritual, not just flowers. Ikebana became an art style in its own right during the fifteenth century as Buddhist monks began teaching others the rules of their flower arranging in order for others to create arrangements themselves.
As a result, Ikebana schools were formed, each having their own distinctive flair and style. The flower arrangements became a symbol of fine art in the homes of the aristocratic. It was during this time that styles like the nageire were associated with other exclusive cultural pursuits like the tea ceremony and haiku poetry. In modern times, other arts and design styles and techniques have influenced ikebana, but the fundamental principals have remained the same. The most important of these is that ikebana is still seen as a spiritual pursuit in helping merge the indoors and outdoors.
Start by looking at ikebanahq.org. Finally, there are many Youtube videos and web pages to assist you if you want to practice this art at home.
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