Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ikebana and Martial Arts - a shared philosophy

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. Ikebana means arranged flower but is also known as Kado - the Way of flowers. Ikebana is a very ancient Japanese art that has its roots in Zen Buddhism.

It started around the 6th century in Japan as a religious offering at Buddhist temples and then slowly increased in popularity among the aristocracy and the samurai class. To reach a state of peace of mind and a state of concentration before going to battle, the samurai would perform both Ikebana and Chado Tea ceremony to 'purify the heart and mind'. (1)

The blogger
Nadia (Cylamen)(2) describes the performance of an Ikebana practitioner doing a demonstration:

“A very slight young man but with a lot of force in his dramatic movements
during his ikebana performance which can be compared to an exercise in sword
fighting. I can imagine young samurais after battle trying to relax by
bending flowering branches of cherry blossoms. One slightly slashing a
branch closing his eyes and raising the branch above his eyes close to his
forehead and with a determine gesture bends a branch. This is what I was
actually seeing, but the samurai was a modern young man with a diamond stud
in one ear and a fashionable belt with his sharp ikebana scissors in lieu of
a samurai sword.”

Like many of the traditional Japanese arts, Ikebana is a system of aesthetics, philosophy and practice with a focus on personal development as well as artistic achievement. In this respect it has much in common with traditional martial arts.
The goal of Ikebana is not just the creation of beautiful arrangements; the journey is as important as the result. This idea of spiritual enlightenment through concentration and practice is central to the Zen Buddhist philosophy. For many of its practitioners, Ikebana is a lifelong lesson, a way to achieve a little inner stillness in which to work towards a richer spiritual understanding of the world (3). Again, the traditional martial artist will recognise the similarities between their philosophies.

Ikebana differs from Western styles of flower arranging in which the emphasis is often on displaying a colourful array of flowers. Ikebana, on the other hand, includes working with all areas of the plant, and draws emphasis towards shape, line and form. It often employs minimalistic principles, using only a minimal number of blooms interspersed among stalk and leaves.Though Ikebana is a creative expression, it has certain rules governing its form. One rule is that all the elements used in construction must be organic, be they branches, leaves, grasses, or flowers. The artist's intention behind each arrangement is shown through a piece's colour combinations, natural shapes, graceful lines, and the usually implied meaning of the arrangement.

The structure of a Japanese flower arrangement is based on a scalene triangle delineated by three main points, usually twigs, considered in some schools to symbolize heaven, earth and man and in others sun, moon, love & earth. The container is also a key element of the composition, and various styles of pottery may be used in their construction (4).

The spiritual aspect of Ikebana is considered very important to its practitioners. Silence is a must during practices of Ikebana. It is a time to appreciate things in nature that people often overlook because of their busy lives. The idea is that one becomes more patient and tolerant of differences, not only in nature, but also in general.

In the classic Ikebana text, Rikka-Imayo-Sugata (1688), it lists ten virtues of the Ikebana master. Several of these virtues may also be considered the virtues of the traditional martial arts master (3):

  • No discrimination.
    'Nature does not discriminate; neither should the Ikebana practitioner. Through contemplating the capacity of nature to just exist, we learn to interact with all people and all things equally.'

  • Selfless mind.
    'When we face flowers, we are free from any concerns and we can clear our minds.' This is similar to the concept of mushin - empty mind

  • Making friends without words.
    'Facing flowers, we feel a joy beyond words. When we share this joy with other people, we can form a bond that transcends language. Through our arrangements we can communicate on a deeper level with people no matter what language they speak'. Martial arts is a language in itself - understood and appreciated around the world, bringing people together with a common purpose.
  • Gain respect.
    'Through meditation, no discrimination and working towards the selfless mind, Ikebana helps us develop our best character. As a result, many people respect Ikebana artists. If you visit Japan, you will find how well respected Ikebana teachers are in their communities'. The martial artist strives to achieve the same aims.

  • Peaceful mind.
    ''As we acquire peaceful mind through Ikebana, we can nourish ourselves and live longer.' 'Obviously the author of this text in the 17th century was intending to promote Ikebana and he knew how to sell his product: this makes you live longer! In actual fact, statistics show that even today Ikebana teachers are one of the occupation groups that live longest in Japan, a country with some of the oldest people in the world''. In Japan martial artists have also been one of the longest lived groups of people.
The practice of Ikebana is still very important in many traditional dojos, particularly in Japan but also in many Western dojos that stay very close to their Japanese roots. In Dave Lowry's book Traditions, he recounts how it was often his job to do the flower arrangement for his dojo. These arrangements were displayed in the tokonoma (alcove) at the front of the training hall and served as both a memorial to the founder of the budo being studied and a reminder for the martial artist of the fragility of life (5).






5. Traditions - moving towards stillness. Dave Lowry.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting article, it's true Ikebana and other traditional arts have much in common with the practice and mindset of bujutsu-budo due to the underpinning of Zen that is so central and all-important in Japanese thought and culture. Even the terminology is largely the same: experts in ikebana or calligraphy are called sensei just like experts in the fighting arts. I'm told you can even get a black belt in said cultural arts or at least titles similar to those awareded in Ma (menkyo, kaiden). To call Zen a philosophy is a contradiction in terms however since Zen isn't about coherent rational Weltanschauung, ethics or metaphysics. Zen is about experiencing the here and the now with an open, non-discrimating and non-rational mind thus ultimately gaining enlightenment about the true nature of reality (clearly through non-rational means: rationality is about dividing reality in categories and concepts, Zen is about the whole and direct, intuitive experience).


Sue C said...

I take your point about Zen not being based on logic or rational thought. However I was using the definition of philosophy that means
"a particular system of principles for the conduct of life" (Webster's dictionary). I was taking these principles to be the 'virtues' identified from the
classic Ikebana text, Rikka-Imayo-Sugata (1688),and then comparing them to similar principles that some martial artists seek through their training.

However your comparison between rationality and Zen is very interesting and clear - thanks

Littlefair said...

It seems that this article follows on from your previous one about application and beauty.


Littlefair said...

PS...How did your grading go?
Fun? Stressful? Passed?

Sue C said...

Hi Chris, thanks for your nice comments - I just posted about my gradings!

Matt said...

ikibana has always intrigued me. Perhaps one day I will find the opportunity to pursue it!

Sue C said...

Hi Matt - if only there was time to pursue everything we wanted to do!

Cialis said...

It takes someone truly artistic to arrange flowers in such a manner!

Sue C said...

It certainly does Cialis, thanks for commenting.


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