By plucking her petals,
you do not gather the beauty of the flower.
The art of ikebana began in the sixth century as flower offerings to the Buddha. The arrangements, created in the contemplative environment of the temple compound, expressed reverence for nature, a peaceful heart, and religious devotion. Only monks practiced this sacred art; often under their vow of ‘do no harm,’ they would collect branches that had fallen from trees rather than pick living material. The monks’ daily meditation practice brought a humble feeling into their flower arrangements and enhanced their contemplation of impermanence as they observed the seasonal changes, the continuous cycles of birth and death.
Today at Daikaku-ji, ikebana practitioners still study within the hallowed atmosphere of a Buddhist temple compound and attend 5.00 am chanting services with monks; they are still encouraged to contemplate Buddhist sutras before arranging flowers, as evidenced by classes of fifty to eighty students reciting the Heart Sutra before beginning the day’s ikebana lesson. A monk from the temple welcomes the students and imparts a short Dharma talk before turning the classroom over to the ikebana professor.
Where I live we do not have authentic Japanese temples. Ikebana studies take place in teachers’ homes or shared spaces that offer low rent. Our connection with Buddhism comes in the form of making offerings on shrines – most often in converted Christian churches – or creating a display at the Asian Art Museum where, once a week, members of Ikebana International place an arrangement amid collections of ancient Buddhist iconography from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. For ikebana artists in the area, this treasure house of gilded Buddhas, mandalas, guardian deities, and ritual implements becomes not only the showcase for our weekly flower arrangements, but at least one place where we can reflect on the connection between ikebana and Buddhism.