To the untrained eye, ikebana may seem like just a few flowers in a bowl. The translation of the name doesn’t shed much light, with ike meaning “arrange” or “alive” and bana meaning “flower (1).” Ikebana is also sometimes referred to in relation to kado or “the way of the flower (2).” But this etymology doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what ikebana is, why it is so popular, or where it came from.
So to paint the picture, let’s consider the following scene:
Image that the year is 1403 and you are in Kyoto, Japan. You are approaching a Zen Buddhist temple, which is perched on the edge of a tranquil lake. Everywhere you look, you see twisting pines and thick green foliage. Pink and white cherry blossoms seem to be falling delicately from the sky. This is a sacred place, and as such it is quiet and calm.
The square building in front of you is three stories tall, each level separated by an ornate, sweeping roof and wrap-around walkway. The siding is yellowish-gold color which sets the temple in stark contrast with the soft greenery surrounding it. As you walk closer, you notice there is a doorway on the side of the temple facing the water, and you enter with bated breath.
Inside, simplicity governs the space. Natural light filters through panes of thin-paper windows and the wood flooring is bright and open. The room is free of all furniture, except for an altar at the center, directly in front of you.
The mantle is arranged on three tiers: at the top is an ornate carving of the Buddha in black stone. The two lower levels house four different floral arrangements, each seeming to defy gravity with their sprawling stems and drooping flowers.
You are surprised by the array of colors: deep violet tulips are placed with bright red buds and wide pink water lilies. Interspersed with the flowers are precariously arranged leafless sticks and pine tree branches, which reach up and lean gracefully over to the side or curl around the outside of the arrangement as if holding everything in.
Each ikebana is its own world of balance, playfulness, and tranquility. You could look at each one for hours, focusing on each individual blade of grass, stem, stick, or flower petal, and never tire of its design. Incredibly, each ikebana also adds to the balance of the altar as a whole. The effect is a kind of visual relaxation that is at once satisfying and mystifying.
You realize, as you continue to appreciate the earthly beauty in front of you, that you are unconsciously practicing a fundamental Zen Buddhist tradition: the practice of mindfulness, of allowing the mind to exist in the present moment, and to bask in the calmness and serenity of the body (3).
Put simply, ikebana is not just a few flowers in a bowl. It is an art form. A spiritual journey. An integral piece of Japanese tradition.
Even to the untrained eye, this is something sacred and special.
And now, it is open to individuals all over the world. Classes range from beginner’s design to advanced floral arrangement. Classbento’s Setsuko Yanagisawa leads an exciting introductory course which covers the basics of ikebana like layering flowers and building up an arrangement from the base. You will even learn the different types of Japanese flora and fauna in order to make a beautiful and authentic work of art.
As with any creative pursuit, ikebana also offers a range of mental health benefits as well. The most, obvious benefit, probably is the meditative element of Japanese flower arrangement.
The benefits of meditation are well-documented (4), and have been shown to have a positive impact on people dealing with anxiety, depression and even physical pain. Ikebana can invite you to meditate by focusing your awareness on the technical and creative task at hand. You’ll find yourself so immersed in the beauty of your work, that you may not even realize that you’re meditating until you leave the session relaxed and serene.
Another advantage of practicing ikebana: self-expression. According to the Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission (6), self-expression is a key factor in improving mental health and wellbeing. Luckily, ikebana is fundamentally a practice of self-expression, in which each arrangement speaks to the emotions and visual aesthetic of the individual creator. Furthermore, it can lead to a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, and because there are more than 3,000 schools of ikebana today(5), you will never run out of ways to express your creativity.
If you’re interested in incorporating your newfound skills in Japanese flower arrangements into your home, here’s some more great news for you. Ikebana can greatly improve your everyday mood by changing the ambiance of your living space. At its core, ikebana is about simplicity, balance, and an appreciation for the imperfect beauty of the natural world. These elements create a calm and relaxing atmosphere, which will naturally lower stress and rejuvenate you.
In addition to tranquility, the emphasis on appreciation offers its own set of advantages for those looking to take care of their mental wellbeing. According to prominent voices in the field of gratitude like Hugh van Cuylenburg (7), research clearly indicates that showing gratitude, for something as small as a glass of water to something as meaningful as a loving family, can greatly increase feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Ikebana teaches this practice of gratitude powerfully by asking its students to appreciate and be thankful for everything from the beautiful glazed vase to the fragile stems to the striking blooms of color and fragrance.
Overall, ikebana is not simply the act of arranging flowers. It goes far beyond its vague etymology into the realm of art, spirituality, and mental wellbeing. By signing up for a beginner’s class in ikebana, you are embarking on a meaningful and beautiful cultural journey.