Zen and The Art of Flower Arranging

Posted on

Oct 18, 2021

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In fall, a gardeners thoughts tend to turn toward winding things down. That goes for Florida gardeners as well as northern ones! In fall we do things such as planting cool weather annuals, tending fruit trees,anda heck of a lot oftrimming.

The changing of seasons is also a perfect time to reflect on the Zen principle that everything in the universe is in a constant state of transformation. To a Zen Buddhist, impermanence is taken for granted, and nowhere is impermanence more evident than in a garden. Flowers grow, bloom, and die back. Fruits ripen, then fall to the ground and rot. During a summer of steady rains, the perennial shrubs grow so fast, they needconstantpruning!

Impermanenceis one of the important concepts on display in theelegantJapanese art form of ikebana. Other concepts covered in this meditative practice areimperfectionandminimalism. Ikebana is a contemplative practice on a par with the ritual of the tea ceremony. It can be both relaxing and expressive,spiritualand secular. Along with calligraphy, ikebana and the tea ceremony are often practiced by Zen Buddhists because these activities are calming and require a certain degree of meditative concentration, according to Tricycle.org.

Ikebana probably first appeared in Japan around the 7th century, imported from Chinaas an outgrowth of the regular practice ofoffering flowersto theBuddha. It wasnt until the 15th century, however, that ikebana began developing into a more ritualized art form. About this time, the 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (14361490), who was a patron of the artsparticularly flower arrangingcontributed greatly to the art form by practicing it himself, thus increasing its popularity among the upper classes. In fact, many of Japans generals through the ages have been practitioners of ikebana as a method of relaxation. Yoshimasa and his contemporaries even influenced the first codification of basic rules for ikebana.

Although there have been many schools of ikebana through the ages, all have shared a common goal of honoring nature and respecting the spirit. Each floral arrangement forms a roughly triangular shape which is pleasing to the eye aesthetically, but also has deeper significance: The tallest branch represents heaven, the next highest represents humans, and a small bundle of flowers at the base represents earth. Creative ikebana practitionerscanuse seasonal and locally sourced materials to create new arrangements within these basic parameters.


HayatoNishiyama, who lives in Kyoto, went to artschooland joined an ikebana club. Eventually hegrew tolovebotanyso much that he gave up art and became a gardener instead. The constant change of seasons inspires his work, as shown in an arrangement featuring autumn-red rowan branches (a gift from a northern friend) set against late-summer purple asters. Another work,showing three small flowers planted in mossone in bud, one flowering, and onefadingseems to comment on past, present, and future as well as the cyclical nature of time and life.

Ikebana practitioners seem to prefer to usethe flowersand othermaterials that are native to wherever they live. Emily Thompson, a self-taught floral artist working in Manhattan, often usessuch unusual materials as weeds, hairy seed pods, and exotics. She is attempting to build worlds made of the infinite wealth of nature,she toldThe New York Times. One of her arrangements features a twisted, lichen-covered apple-tree branch with decaying leaves and one withered apple, paired with snowy Serena roses. Besides illustrating the contrast and impermanence,the arrangement sparks contemplation about how far that apple branch traveled to get to her hands.


Ikebana courses may be found at many local schools, and through national and international organizations. You dont need elaborate materials: a sharp pair of pruners, akenzan(the pin-covered object we call a frog) to hold your materials firmly in place, and a small container. Some ikebana practitioners believe thattheir artshould be practiced in silence; others dont believe thats so important.But you might find yourself sinking into a meditative state as youthink about what materials to use, gather them from your garden or yard, andwork on your arrangement, contemplating the theories that your instructor explains to you. When you are finished with your first ikebana arrangement, you should feel a sense of wholeness as the three points of the triangle of heaven, human, and earth find their balance.

According to Natalie Cenci, writing for Artsy: In Japan today, the wordkado, meaning way of flowers, is the preferred term for ikebana, as its believed to more accurately capture the spirit of the art as a lifelong path of learning. The impermanence built into this art, beginning with its dependence on natures seasons, lends itself to never-ending exploration and experimentation.
Explore the many seasons of ikebana foryourself, andsee your garden with new eyes!

Written by Patricia Rockwood, Instructor and Staff Writer, Adult & Community Enrichment (ACE)atSuncoast Technical College.

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