“Some artists in the ikebana world say, ‘When I arrange ikebana, my heart is empty.’”
Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, literally translates to “way of the flower.” Over the centuries, this simple practice has evolved into an art form, way of life, and spiritual platform.
From his quiet flower shop in Kyoto, Hayato Nishiyama spends most of his days in quiet, empty practice, selecting flowers, trimming them, and placing them. Today, he enjoys designs with just a single flower, “to help people concentrate,” he says. “To help them focus on seeing the beauty of an individual.”
Concentration bordering on a meditative state seems to underpin ikebana, but not a strained effort like the concentration needed to take a test or read or a contract. The rules of the art are loose, and the process of creating the arrangements is one of connecting with the nature of the flowers.
The magic of touch
Nishiyama believes the power of art is something other than visual. “I think it is not about looking at the flower, it’s about touching the flower.”
Nishiyama encourages people everywhere to hug trees—literally—to put your arms around the trunk and squeeze. Perhaps you won’t feel what Nishiyama feels, but even a novice can conjure a sense of gratitude. Don’t stop with trees though, according to Nishiyama. “For me, an equally important thing to do is to touch nature through the flowers nearby—even though they may not seem like something special.”
Wandering around in nature and touching plants with an empty and open mind seems to be the key to Nishiyama’s enlightenment along the ikebana path. This master’s plant sense is so acute he can share the occasional secret from their mysterious world. “I can see and feel that the life of plants is more vigorous in this year. I feel, however, not many people actually realize it. The plants are pouring all their energy and working hard to survive.”
The practice of ikebana
Characterized by discipline and minimalism, ikebana is a contemplative art. The innate beauty of the natural world is the ikebana practitioner’s muse. Go too far in stripping the details of the natural piece, and the arrangement loses its vitality. But if the artist is inhibited, the arrangement’s energy is obscured.
The practice of ikebana began soon after Buddhism found its way to Japan. Devotees combined ancient Shinto ritual with their reverence for the Buddha, and voilà—a peaceful path of life and flowers for the altar. Much like the Tibetan monks who draw with sand for weeks then stand up and sweep their mandalas away like so much dirt on the floor, an ikebana master might take hours for an arrangement that will wither and die after a few days. Ethereal beauty as a reflection of the human condition is an essential meditation for both.
But the life of an ikebana master turns out to require more than just slowly snipping flower stems. Nishiyama is a professional florist with anxious customers awaiting his prized arrangements. Most days, he treks into the mountains near his home to harvest nature’s bounty before returning to his workshop in town. Decades of training and practice come forth as he designs each arrangement with the confidence of a man who has found his path in life.
While it can take a lifetime to master, ikebana can be easy to start and even easier to appreciate. A craftsy person just needs to find a little inspiration and sit down with some flowers, a thoughtful vase, and a few tools. Simplicity is sacred in this art. Keep it simple.
A great entry into the artform is to do it like the ancients. Ikebana arrangements were originally composed of three main lines of differing height to create a three-dimensional form—the tallest representing heaven, the lowest, earth, and man in the middle. It also represents time as past, present, and future.
When asked about his process, Nishiyama said, “Some artists in the ikebana world say, ‘When I arrange ikebana, my heart is empty.’ For me, sometimes when I see beautiful flowers I feel that emptiness. [However], thinking sometimes interferes with my heart, and I lose my balance.” When his mind is restless, Nishiyama’s arrangements reflect it. He calls these melancholy stains upon his craft, “minded ikebana.”
Connected to Heaven and Earth
In Nishiyama’s process, the way of the flower helps him refine his own mind. Whenever the flowers reflect the ripples in his meditation, the master may refine his thoughts and raise his consciousness. As his consciousness expands, the master can recall the lessons of being.
“A plant’s life and death looks like it is connected with heaven and earth. For us, it may be very important to know and understand a plant’s incredible life,” Nishiyama says.
Indeed, the cycle of life and beauty is represented so perfectly by the flowers—brought inside to connect us with the healing beauty of nature.