Dr Shimbo interprets the classic ten virtues of Ikebana from the Zen point of view and considers their aim to achieve inner stillness through meditation.
What is Ikebana? That is the question I have been asked again and again since I started teaching it in Australia 15 years ago. In short, Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. However, when Australian people try to categorise it in their own terms, I have found it hard to give the right answer.
Is it contemporary art? –No
It is at least floral art? –Not really
Ikebana is also known as Kado, the way of flower. Kado is best described as a system of aesthetics, philosophy and practice with a focus on personal development as well as artistic achievement. The goal of Ikebana is not just the creation of beautiful arrangements; the internal journey is as important as the external result.
How can I promote such a foreign system in Australia? Maybe I can learn from history. Historically many Ikebana artists in Japan have been trying to convince people of the worth of Ikebana. The teaching of the ten virtues of Ikebana is a typical example. One of its original forms can be found in a text called Rikka Imayoo Sugata, written in 1688 (the Edo period). The text is also known for the first use of the term, Kado.
In principle they just list ten items and don’t give any details. I have tried to interpret them from the Zen point of view, considering their similarities in aiming for inner stillness through meditation (see articles in LivingNow from September to December, 2007). I would like now to revisit the ten virtues of Ikebana in a wider context and hope to propose the new virtues of Ikebana.
They almost always mention that practising Ikebana helps people to get in touch with their spiritual selves, but they don’t explain how. Probably they did not need to, although we cannot convince anyone today without telling how, which I am going to do here. Unlike us, the Japanese people in those days, especially in the Edo period (1603 to 1867) seemed to instantly get that message and be convinced to take up Ikebana to cultivate their spirituality.
Sounds strange? Indeed, it is hard to imagine how people lived in those days. At least we know that the Edo period was a special period in the history of Japan. First of all, it was the most peaceful period in Japanese history. There was no major war for over 260 years. It was certainly a rare record in overall human history.
I also found interesting statistics on the internet about the city of Edo (former Tokyo). It had the largest population in the world with over one million people (London 860 thousand, Paris 670 thousand in around 1800). Its water works enabled people to use water 24 hours a day constantly, which was internationally rare at that time. It also had the highest percentage of school attendance with 85% in 1850. It was 20% in England in 1837 and 1.4% in France in 1793. Edo was also known as the cleanest city. Unlike some European cities where excretion caused serious problems, excretion was a commercial product used for agriculture. Prior to the direct contact with the Great Powers and the subsequent rapid modernisation in the late 19th century, Japan had cultivated a unique culture.
It was in the Edo period that Ikebana or Kado became very popular among the Japanese people. Ikebana was first developed in 15th century. It was highly complicated and popular only among the upper classes in the society. When it was simplified in the Edo period, it became phenomenally popular and it was at this time that the ten virtues were proposed to backup the popularity.
In looking at the ten virtues listed in the Edo period from contemporary points of view, we may gain some insights into their spiritual life.
- Do not discriminate
- Develop a peaceful mind
- Develop a selfless mind
- Develop a graceful mind
- Make friends without words
- Seek a closeness to the Divine
- Learn about plants
- Gain respect
- Be aware of scents all the time
- Dismiss any harmful thoughts
I hope I have convinced you of the worth of living with flowers.
About the main photo: This is one of the four works I prepared for a book, International Floral Art 2014-2015. This was not selected for the publication, but I prefer this to the one selected. To express dynamic energy in the arrival of Spring, the overall design is simple with a slight irregularity in balance. All materials with different features were carefully selected and harmoniously arranged. The container by a ceramic master, Mitsuo Shoji, was a challenging but ideal choice. It took almost all day to install this work at the Leslie Kehoe Galleries, Melbourne. It was like a full day meditation talking with so many beautiful blossom branches at their best, which are available only for a short period in a year. I felt very privileged. I appreciate all the support I received from the gallery staff, my students and a master photographer, Bronek Kozka from RMIT University.
Shoso Shimbo, Ph.D., is a sculptor and Ikebana artist. He is a director of the International Society of Ikebana Studies and teaches Japanese aesthetics short courses at RMIT University.
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