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Ikebana: The Spiritual Art of Living Flowers

The words forming Ikebana, comes from the Japanese words “Ikeru”(to live) and “Hana” (flowers).  As a result, the word ikebana carries the meaning of “giving life to flowers”.  Beautifully named, the art of Ikebana is not merely the art of flower arrangement, but as its name suggests, Ikebana has a deeper spiritual, moral, and social significance.  It is as much an aesthetic pursuit as a spiritual one, where one learns to slow down to take in a deeper appreciation of the beauty in nature.  Seen in this light, Ikebana is not simply an art form that is a vehicle for free expression, but it is also one of graceful and elegant discipline.  When practicing Ikebana, like so many traditional art forms, one is both given the free reign to create and express, as well as limited by the formula and guideline that stems from a long historical tradition.  These rules and limitations both inform and enrich the efforts of modern day practitioners of Ikebana.

Origin and History
The origin of Ikebana is closely related to the spread of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth and seventh century.  Buddhism reached Japan from Mainland China around 538 A.D.  It quickly became adopted and adapted into all areas of Japanese life, from belief system to lifestyle, to culture and the arts.

The origin of Ikebana came from the practice of offering flowers at a Buddhist altar.  In the thirteenth and fourteenth century, when Buddhism became wide spread among the common people of Japan, it was common to have an architectural alcove in homes.  Known as tokonoma, these alcoves were originally used to hang Buddhist scrolls and for the placing of offertory flowers.

Overtime, however, tokonoma became less associated with religion and more identified as a decorative fixture.  Instead of Buddhist scrolls, paintings and calligraphic scrolls replaced the Buddhist scrolls.  Antiques and decorative items began to occupy the tokonoma.  Eventually, these alcoves lost its originally religious association.  As a result, even the flower arrangements in these alcoves developed into an art form and were no longer linked to religion.  Tokonoma then became associated as a place to display works of art and began to be considered as the “center of the house”.  The seasonal appeal of the flower arrangement in Tokonoma began to take on significance and the goal of the flower arrangements ultimately became one in which the pleasure of guests were taken into consideration.

Practicing Ikebana
The art of Ikebana, unlike the Western art of flower arrangement, does not focus on the collection and arrangement of colorful blossoms, instead, it focuses on other less utilized plant parts such as the stems and leaves.  Ikebana emphasizes the overall shape, line and form of the arrangement.

A minimalistic aesthetic is also often employed in an Ikebana arrangement where a minimal number of blooms are used to create simple, yet elegant designs.  Following the geometric shape of a triangle, Ikebana arrangement usually features three main points, usually symbolizing:  heavens, earth, and man, or: sun, moon, and earth.
Because the practice of Ikebana includes a spiritual aspect, the practitioners of Ikebana are required to observe silence during the Ikebana arrangement, as it is meant to be a way for one to become more aware of the beauties in nature that is often overlooked in our busy lives. 

Through Ikebana, one also feels closer to nature and learns to become more patient and tolerant of differences.  It is also said that Ikebana provides relaxation for the mind, body and soul.

Schools and Styles of Ikebana
Today, there are over 20 schools in Ikebana, each of them teaches their students the art of Ikebana with their own emphasis and employs a variety of different Ikebana styles.  It is believed that the oldest school of Ikebana is the school of Ikenobo, which dates back more than 500 years. 

The origin of the Ikenobo school of Ikebana started with a priest from the Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto, Japan.  He was said to be so skilled in flower arrangement that priests would travel from far and wide to receive instructions from him.  Because he lived by a lake, the name “Ikeno bo” which is the Japanese name for “lake” became associated with this priest.

Throughout the history of Ikebana, styles of arrangement also became to develop and evolve.  In the following section, you will find out more about a few of the prominent Ikebana styles.

Established in the Muromachi period in the 15th century, the Rikka style is considered the foundation of Ikebana, from which other styles developed.  It is one of the oldest styles and is generally thought of as the most formal of the Ikebana styles.

Classical Rikka Ikebana arrangements follow strict rules which determine the overall form of the arrangement.  Using special techniques such as wiring, rikka arrangement usually has nine main stems.  They are known as yakueda.

In the Rikka style, the vases used are commonly 20 to 30cm in height and each yakueda has a specific function and point of departure from an imagined line that runs through the center of the arrangement.

The length, position and length of each yakueda responds to and supports other yukedas to create an overall harmonious arrangement. 
In an ideal Rikka arrangement, the stems should achieve the visual effect of a single clean vertical lines rising from the center of the kenzan (the pin holder which holds stems and arrangement in place).  This effect is known as Mizugiwa, which translates into the “water’s edge”. 

Shoka style Ikebana arrangements are said to look the simplest, but are in actual fact, the most difficult of all Ikebana styles.  The shoka style emphasizes the life energy of plants and celebrates the beauty of natural materials. 

In order to master a shoka arrangement, the arranger should have a good understanding of the way the plants they choose to use grow in nature, such as their environment and characteristics.

In the shoka style, one looks at what is known in Japanese as “shussho”, or the particular characteristics of a plant species to determine the arrangement.

In this style, the vase is more than a mere container for the arrangement, it symbolizes the source of life.  Generally, vases are symmetrical in shape and opens at the top.  Leaner and narrower vases are favored in this style.

The most recently developed style, freestyle stresses individual expression and creativity and hence is the least restrictive of the various Ikebana styles.  Freestyle Ikebana arrangements leave it up to the arranger’s imagination to determine the materials to be used in the arrangement.  The possibility in freestyle Ikebana is so wide that arrangers may even choose to use a wide range of materials, even non-plant materials in their arrangements.

Other commonly used materials in freestyle Ikebana arrangements include paper crafts and dried plant parts. 

A variety of techniques are employed in creating freestyle Ikebana designs, from wiring, to modifying leaves by cutting and trimming.  Although freestyle stresses individual expression and creativity, careful consideration for the material’s form, texture, surface area, focal point and desired mass is still required.

The simplest style of Ikebana, moribana is best suited for beginners.  Moribana literally means “piling up flowers” is a style that creates voluminous arrangements that can be viewed and appreciated from three sides. 

Containers used for the moribana style is usually wide mouthed and shallower than those used for other styles.
The three yakuedas in moribana style are known as: Shin, Soe and Tai, representing heaven, earth, human. 

Arrangers can choose to create their moribana style using sub-styles of: upright, slanting or cascading, each of which creates a unique effect, and utilizes different forms for interesting aesthetics.

A style very similar to moribana which emphasizes natural beauty, nageire Ikebana arrangements are usually long stems that are placed in tall and narrow vases without using kenzan (the pinholder).  
Creating lean graceful forms, nageire arrangements are also formed by three main yakuedas—Shin, Soe and Tai.  Each stem follows a set formula for measurement.  The basic nageire arrangement uses the leaning style, but more advance practitioners also employ the sub-styles of upright, slanting, cascading in ways similar to the moribana styles.

Ikebana All Year Round
With spring in the air and beautiful blossoms abound, it is the perfect time to try your hand at this delicate craft of Ikebana.  Take a stroll at your local farmers’ and flower market and hunt for unique and charming specimens to create your very own Ikebana arrangement.  Bring a piece of nature’s beauty into your own home and use the traditional art of Ikebana to add an elegant and graceful touch to the spaces in live and work in.


Ikebana:  The Spiritual Art of Living Flowers

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