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Insight into Ikebana — The Art of Japanese Flower Arrangement

By George Piggott

My introduction and consequent involvement into the wonderful art of Ikebana began in the late 1970’s. It happened whilst attending the general week of the Buddhist Society Summer School at High Leigh, Hoddesdon, Herts. This was an annual event, attracting one hundred people or more, “seekers” with enquiring minds into Buddhism and philosophical questions and answers of a spiritual nature. All the teachings were spread over a period of two weeks during the month of August. The weather was usually ideal with an abundance of warm sunshine. This gave everyone a golden opportunity to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings which stretched over several acres. It included lawns, gardens, lakes and a well established area containing many fine species of trees. A perfect place to find shade on the very hot days!

It was during the general week, where for a number of people it was their first experience of High Leigh, that periods were allocated daily for those interested and willing to participate in either Tai Ch’i Chuan or Ikebana, or both providing one had the energy! This was accepted as giving harmony and balance to the more serious side of the various studies on the agenda. All the items were optional, allowing each individual to proceed at a pace suitable to their needs. The study week was considered more appropriate for those already committed to the various Buddhist teachings, and as such, much less free time was available.

Ikebana under the direction of the late Stella Coe (the only recognised Sogetsu Master outside Japan) had been part of the Buddhist Summer School curriculum over many years. We were all privileged, not only for her tuition and guidance, but for the use of her equipment, which she brought along each year. In the late 1920’s, Stella lived in Japan for about twelve years and was attracted by the Ikebana arrangements that were all part of Japanese life. It was during this period that she was able to begin her studies with qualified teachers, eventually becoming a Master in her own right. In later years, in response to a request, she founded the first British Chapter in London. From then on, it went from strength to strength.

Stella Coe was the author of several books on the subject, travelling all over the world to give lectures and demonstrations. Alas, time and space do not allow the writer to give full credit to all this gracious lady accomplished during a period spanning over fifty years.

But most important it must be realized that Stella loved her work and was devoted to sharing all her skills and knowledge with those who were prepared to listen and participate. She was the essence of Ikebana and all it portrays, a selfless teacher, a unique Master, loved by all her pupils and friends.

As enthusiastic students, we all set about collecting our own material from nature’s reserves — the local hedgerows which were in abundance only a short trek into the wide open spaces adjacent to the grounds of High Leigh. Needless to say, there was much laughter and banter going on between us, as we set about our task. I remember there were plenty of scratches and spots of blood, as the thorns took their toll on our vulnerable fingers! We quickly realized that it is all part of the learning process! We were also careful to cut and take away only enough material to complete our arrangements, mindful of the fact that fresh foliage was available every morning if required. With all the good food consumed, we needed the exercise!

Summer School provided an opportunity for a novice like myself to enjoy being part of a group and learn the basic skills of Ikebana. It also proved productive and useful during the week, as the completed arrangements were ideal to be dotted about the various lecture rooms, hallways and dining area, to give everyone tranquil moments of pleasure as they made their way to and fro, many of them in a serious mood with minds deep in contemplation, as thoughts wrestled incessantly for answers to questions that only required observation! ”Then let go!”

Each arrangement was changed on a daily basis, which gave us pupils plenty of scope for practice, variation and imagination, but, most important of all, the chance to concentrate on the practice of Mindfulness — essential as part of this absorbing art.

There are many schools of Ikebana, worldwide now with an international following. The variations and styles are a formidable challenge! Stella in her infinite wisdom taught us the comparatively simple style of moribana, as practised in the Sogetsu School. The term moribana covers all arrangements done in low shallow containers, which for beginners is a fairly easy and ideal introduction.

One can only give a brief account of experience in this article, as Ikebana as a subject requires countless hours of study and practice over a number of years for a student to become fully proficient in the art.

As in life, most forms of art demand a reasonable degree of discipline and order. This also applies to this form. There is a general set of rules to be adhered to, but these are considered to be flexible, not rigid, so that adjustments can be made. This includes the container, which will require at least 8 cms. of water to cover the pinholder securing the plant material, keeping the arrangement alive. The three main placements, usually branches of some description, are referred to as Shin, the longest, Soe, three quarters the length of Shin, and Hikae, three quarters the length of Soe. Bear in mind of course that these are only guidelines. A kenzan, or pinholder as it is sometimes referred to, is small but quite heavy with rows of vertical brass pins, needle sharp. These will hold the material when placed in the required position. So to start with very little is needed, apart from a pair of sharp secateurs, or hasami (Japanese scissors).

As mentioned, the purchase of just a few items will allow a person to take up and practise the art of Ikebana. It offers a chance to retreat from a hectic, noisy environment, a pleasure that can be enjoyed during each season of the year. There is usually a wide range of flowers and foliage on hand to inspire and keep enthusiasm at peak level. The good news is the small outlay involved that will allow you to make arrangements that will last at least a week. After arrangements have been completed, it is essential to be kind and change the water in the container occasionally, this will ensure the material remains alive and fresh.

Another opportunity to practise Mindfulness!

It is worth a comment at this stage regarding the options available to learn this noble art. The best option, if possible, is to be taught the basic principles by a qualified tutor. Watching a demonstration is a direct and interesting experience, with the added bonus of being able to ask questions at the end — so helpful for beginners and those unsure. To share the learning skills in a friendly atmosphere and be part of a group is the “icing on the cake!”

Although Ikebana classes are now numerous, they are spread out over a large area of the U.K. This makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to participate, what with the time and journey involved. So the other alternative could be a teach-yourself method. There are a number of good books on the subject, some giving step-by-step guidance. A browse in the local library allows an opportunity to study each book before purchase.

Now what is it about an Ikebana arrangement that holds many observers spellbound?

What struck me at first sight was the utter simplicity — an indescribable innocence, that triggered an insight of a profound nature many months later. Another important feature was the deliberate cutting away of all surplus material, done of course with due care and consideration, in an effort to express a natural look of harmony, balance, simplicity, but with an asymmetrical appearance, as would be observed in nature’s garden, bearing in mind of course that all this had to be accomplished within the framework and the flexible rules of Ikebana, as previously pointed out.

Attentiveness is a key factor, one must observe and pay attention to every detail as the arrangement takes shape. Right attitude is also important, the respect for and love of nature, by seeing the unity of all. An attitude of “them” and “us” is not conducive to the right frame of mind. The very idea of a grading process, with human beings at the top of the list, right the way down through the species, to an ant at the lower end, is utterly pointless!

This will be reflected in the arrangement and the immense joy of working with living material. Seeing the wonder of nature in its totality is an overwhelming revelation! It leaves the onlooker in a state of awe, saturated in a sense of humility, in the moment of realising how blessed are we, that we are able to view and appreciate this indescribable phenomenon surrounding us.

Stella Coe used a simple verse which appealed to me as conveying the right approach to Ikebana. It went as follows:

Heaven and earth knowing all — man knows not.
Follow the way and seek to learn — but though finding not,
Be happy in the striving!

When this is firmly realised there is a total change, everything is brought to one basic level. Without “this and that”, there is no conflict, one is at peace, relaxed and in the right frame of mind to create and express in any form of art what one observes and feels. One is in tune with “What is.” It is surprising, when we really focus our attention on something without interruption or distraction, the amount of interesting information that becomes apparent. For example, we can take a stroll through a forest, glancing here and there. We see trees, branches, leaves, ivy vines, perhaps ferns and masses of bluebells, if it is springtime; but generally we walk about half asleep, we only scan the surface of our surroundings.

When we look with concentration and intent, a whole new world comes into perspective. Try looking at a daisy, or a buttercup, tree trunks and the different types of leaf. You will be amazed at the marvellous and intricate patterns. The shapes and forms, texture, colour and variety are staggering. Butterflies, dragonflies, even ants will remain in the memory chambers to activate thoughts, as well as bringing a fresh sense of deep satisfaction, such is the beauty and wonder of it all.

Perhaps on this note, it would be the right moment to bring this article to a close. With the key word “Insight” in the title, I feel it appropriate to add a special phrase that Stella was so fond of quoting:

Friendship Through Flowers

After all, it was through her friendship that this article was made possible. She became a light of inspiration. My best way of appreciation and gratitude is to try and follow her example — a task of great magnitude!

Comments

Your words are a true joy to read. I am very happy to study something about Stella Coe Sensei, after many many years of knowing her name and knowing something about her from the great Shambhala teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He too was one of her students; and all he learned flowed naturally into his style of teaching. So in this way she is the secret teacher of thousands like me who studied with Rinpoche. For example, he always used flowers and flower arrangement as a metaphor as upaya.

Jack Convery SoKo, 15th June 2010

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