What is Ikebana?
The expression ikebana is derived from ike (life) and bana (from Japanese hana, meaning flower). Its craft originated in China before being adopted and perfected in Japan in the 1400s. Initially, the creation of ikebana was only for religious purposes and followed Buddhist teachings. Nowadays, ikebana is mainly linked to Japan since the art flourished there.
Many Westerners mistakenly assume that ikebana's primary focus is displaying and appreciating blooming flowers. This couldn't be further from the truth: not only because the emphasis in ikebana is placed on the leaves, stems, and the space between them. This simplistic approach also dismisses the ancient layers of philosophical meaning that show the craft's true purpose.
The rules and rituals behind ikebana arrangements convey many principles of Buddhism, such as minimalism, contemplation, simplicity, and emptiness. Furthermore, as certain styles of ikebana developed alongside the art of tea making, they've also started to express philosophical ideas complementary to the chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony): contemplation on the passage of time and being present in the moment
Origins of Ikebana art
It is believed that the art of flower arrangements dates back to the Six Dynasties Period in China (220-589) and was further developed during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties. The Chinese named this art kado, which literally translates to "the way of flowers." In the 1400s, the art was introduced to Japan, where it became known as ikebana.
In China, kado was used to explore both nature and humanity. This notion of likeness between flowers and humans is at the core of the philosophy behind kado and ikebana. After all, each flower lives, withers, and dies as we all do. Therefore, as one works with natural materials while creating a flower arrangement, one also examines themselves.
Chabana, another form of flower arrangement, is believed to have originated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), specifically between 1488-1595. Choosing beautiful and antique receptacles for the tea ceremony became popular during this time. Soon, tea enthusiasts started to use antique vases for their flower arrangements and appreciate their historic beauty while enjoying tea.
Today, many Japanese view the art of flower arrangement as a type of meditation on the transition of the seasons and the passing of time. After all, the center of chabana and ikebana is the Buddhist contemplation of the fleeting nature of all things, such as flowers, stems, and foliage, which ultimately perish.
The concept of Chabana (tea flowers) stems from the simplistic tea ceremony of Wabi Cha, invented by Sen no Rikyu. Its origins were based on the teachings of wabi-sabi and the idea of minimalism – that the flowers should be simple and, above all, not take away from the tea itself.
In its simplest form, Chabana arranges seasonal blossoms and leaves in a container, using few items and no "filler" materials. In contrast to ikebana, where broad and shallow dishes are often used, in chabana, tall and narrow vases are more common. In addition, they are made from natural materials, such as bamboo, ceramic, or metal – rarely glass.
Since simplicity lies at the core of chabana, often no more than a simple blossom is used in arrangements, which always leans towards the guests. Furthermore, as the arrangement in this particular style of ikebana is meant to represent life, with its seasonality and changes, it is encouraged that the materials are presented as they would be seen in nature – unadorned and "perfectly imperfect."
This arrangement complements the philosophy behind the tea ceremony: to simplify the experience of the present moment and bring the mind's focus to its richness and fullness. It aligns perfectly with Cha Dao (the way of tea) and its notion of living in harmony with nature, respecting the order of things. It encourages us to step into the moment when sipping tea, using its warmth to calm our senses and meditate.
Rules of ikebana for tea ceremonies
Chabana's roots in simplicity differentiate it from the typical intricate ikebana arrangements, but that doesn't make it completely free of structure. General rules guide this practice, rooted in the notion of wabi-sabi, the "perfect imperfection." Here are some of the generally accepted guidelines:
- The blossoms should always face the guests if there will be any.
- Flowers with unpleasant names, strong odors, no clear seasonality, or long-lasting blooms should not be used for tea ceremonies.
- In honor of simplicity, flower arrangements for tea ceremonies should be minimalistic and not feature too many flowers or blooming branches. If you were to add more flowers, keep the total an odd number.
- The biggest blossoms should be placed at the edge of the vase, while narrower or taller stems can originate from the heart.
- For chabana, we use juxtaposition, such as contrasting lengths and forms, to create character and interest in our arrangements.
- There are six primary containers used in floral arrangements: vase, woven basket, jar, dish, bowl, and bamboo tube.
Ikebana in Gong Fu and Chanoyu
While a form of ikebana is always present during chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), in Chinese gongfu, it is up to the tea master whether or not he sees it fit to use flower arrangements during the event.
In China, if the master chooses to feature an arrangement, it will usually be quite simple so as not to get in the way of the ceremony. That's because, for gongfu, it is common for the guests and the master to share one big table – the cha ban – which holds all the utensils needed for the ritual, including the kado.
At the beginning of a Japanese tea ceremony, the tea master will usually introduce the floral arrangement to the attendees. Furthermore, the materials themselves often come from the tea master's garden or have been picked by him during a walk.
Chabana, during these events, should aim not to overpower the atmosphere of the tea room with color or aroma – ideally, they should have no scent unless their faint fragrance complements the tea. The form of the floral arrangement should also match the ceremony's formality (or informality).
Japanese tea rooms have a dedicated area, the tokonoma, to display the setting of the tea ceremony. It is usually decorated using the ikebana and kakemono - hanging scrolls with thematic painting or writing.