Lessons for life from the ancient Japanese art of ikebana
Beyond the fringe of urban farmland, where radish and rice fields meet pine-forested hills, stands an ancient temple in northwestern Kyoto called Daikaku-ji, or Big Enlightenment Temple. This site is also the headquarters of the Saga Goryu school of ikebana, which dates back to the ninth century and the reign of the emperor Saga. The story goes that Saga picked a handful of chrysanthemums growing on one of the two islands in the middle of Osawa Pond and arranged the flowers in a three-tiered manner depicting heaven, earth, and man. Thus the Saga Goryu school of ikebana was born.
Ikebana, commonly translated as "Japanese flower arranging," literally means "to preserve living flowers," or "to preserve the essence of nature in a vase." In Japan, pursuit of the spiritual through the art of flower arranging is the greater study of kado, the way of flowers. The ikebana practitioner—through learning a complex system of rules, artistic principles, and symbolic meaning, and by observing the beauty and quietude of nature—strives to incorporate Buddhist concepts of peace, harmony, and reverence into daily life. Many of the ikebana prohibitions for choosing and pruning plant material can be interpreted symbolically and act as a guide not only for flower arranging, but also for proper living:
o Don’t arrange flowers without knowing their names. This shows lack of respect for the plant.
o Don’t use entangled branches. This reminds us of rebellion against one’s parents and goes against the teachings of Confucius.
o Don’t use branches that point straight up toward heaven; don’t use branches that point toward earth, our mother; and don’t use flowers that point toward each other. Heaven, earth, and humans are sacred and to point at them is rude.
o Don’t use branches that are even, as they will be in conflict with each other. One path gives clarity, but two will create confusion.
o Don’t use branches that have two outgrowths going in opposite directions. This will create conflict, which goes against the principle of harmony.
o Don’t go against the plant’s natural growth. Be true to yourself.
o Don’t arrange flowers so that they cover each other. Each flower, like each person, should shine with individual uniqueness.
o Don’t make an arrangement that looks like an arrow. This suggests violence and goes against the principle of harmony.
o Don’t use stems having the same width; instead, think of them as strings of a samisen (a Japanese lute). Different widths produce a variety of tones, an aura of complexity.
o Flowers should not face the viewer like a mirror. This implies narcissism and lack of humility.
o Don’t have two leaves directly opposite each other. Prune one or the other. Avoid competition, as it can turn into a battle.
o Don’t place flowers as if they are holding each other. Stand on your own, strong and independent.
Adapted from Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Fall 2000). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 2077, Marion, OH 43306.
Learn about the variety of ikebana schools and find chapters worldwide.
The Japanese Way of the Flower: Ikebana as Moving Meditation by H.E. Davey and Ann Kameoka (Stonebridge, 2000)