Ikebana – Japanese Flower Arrangements



Ikebana stands for bringing together different elements and creating a unified composition. The art of flower arrangements has deep roots in Japanese philosophy, providing the proof that in simplicity lies beauty and clarity. It takes just a glance into Japanese culture for someone to understand that it’s governed by the concept of minimalism, striving for a connection with its surroundings, for a connection with nature itself. The Japanese apply the principles of Zen philosophy in order to intertwine aesthetics with function, creating harmony in all that surrounds them. It’s about emphasizing clear lines, shapes and textures. It’s about creating equilibrium.

This is the Japanese aesthetic principle of “Ma”, enhancing the usefulness of empty space. It’s a minimalist approach that allows one to acknowledge and better appreciate the qualities of an object, as it stands alone. Through its simplicity, it will embrace the surrounding space and harmonize with it. It won’t demand attention of the observer, but gently attracts it. “Ma” is tranquility and equilibrium, and it’s applied in Japanese culture, from architecture to Ikebana.

What is Ikebana?

The word “ikebana” is derived from “ikeru”, meaning “to keep alive”, and the word “hana”, meaning flower. It represents the Japanese art of flower arrangement, the way of Toko Bunga Serpong 24 Jam.

“Ikebana is born from the encounter of nature and humans… a clear example of perfect harmony between man and nature… Just as musicians express themselves through the language of music, Ikebana artists must use the language of flowers” – Sofu Teshigahara, The book of flowers.

Ikebana is not merely a flower arrangement, it goes beyond that. It’s an exploration. In Japanese culture, flowers have their own spoken language, carrying a deeper meaning than just their presented beauty. One must search to understand the object of this art, its symbolism, its shapes and colors, its patterns and rhythm, and the relationship between them. Only then can the principles of composition be employed.

Exploring the history of Ikebana

The art of Ikebana has been practiced for over 6 centuries and its long history began with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan. It developed from the Buddhist ritual of laying flowers on the altar, in order to honor Buddha.

One of Buddha’s teachings says: “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change”. Ikenobo Senkei, a Buddhist priest, has not only seen the miracle of one flower, but the possibilities of combining more. Ikenobo is the creator of Rikka. Rikka, meaning “standing flower”, was a flower arrangement consisting of seven branches that depicted elements of nature, such as valleys, mountains and waterfalls. In addition to creating the Rikka, Ikenobo also brought his contribution to the development of the flower arrangement art, by founding the first school of Ikebana.

A more modern version of Ikebana art was created by the genius of Sofu Teshigahara. In his “Book of flowers”, he states that “Ikebana will fail if its ultimate goal is imitation of nature… One takes a piece of nature and adds something that was not there”. Sofu founded the avant-garde Sogetsu School, that revolutionized the traditional style. In order to stand the test of time, Teshigahara believed that Ikebana had to be ”always fresh, vital and dynamic.”

History and Forms

Ikebana goes back over 500 years and finds its origins in Buddhism. Buddhist monks used to arrange flowers to decorate the altars and temples. That’s how the first form of Ikebana – Kuge – started. Kuge is a simple form that consists of just a couple of flower stems and some green branches.

Rikka is the next form and is still practiced today. Rikka means “standing flowers” and was a way for Buddhists to express the beauty of nature. The key to this style are seven branches that each represent an element of nature like hills, waterfalls and valleys.

When the tea ceremonies started to become popular in the 16th century, a new form of Ikebana emerged: Chabana. The word itself literally means “tea flower” and focuses on rustic simplicity to complement the tea ceremony. One of the most visible styles to emerge from Chabana was Nageire – a non-structured and classic style typically consisting of a tight bundle of stems that form a triangle.

Seika or Shoka evolved from Nageire and is a lot simpler, it typically consists of 3 branches representing earth, heaven and human. It emphasizes the uniqueness and beauty of the plant in its own natural form. Vases are typically symmetrical.

Contemporary Ikebana

The most recent from of Ikebana is Jiyuka or simply Freestyle. Freestyle focusses on the creativity of the creator. There is no restrictions on the type of flowers or the materials being used. The most important school practicing this form is Sogetsu. They put a lot of focus on creative expression and experimentation and most creations use either a tall, narrow vase or a flat open dish.

Like contemporary art, freestyle Ikebana closely resembles abstract art. There is a strong focus on the lines formed by all the elements of the arrangement. The modern Ikebana creator is still driven by the desire to work in harmony with nature, but will often include other non-natural elements into their creation with the goal of emphasizing the beauty of all things.

General Principles of Composition

Ikebana molds perfectly to the saying of Issac Newton: “Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things”. The Japanese love for minimalism came from Buddhist monks as well. They rejected material possessions in favor of the strict necessity.

Minimalism is one of the most important traits when composing a flower ornament. One has to choose plants that will enhance each other’s properties. Also, colors, patterns and shapes that will complement each other must be chosen. A delicate flower will work wonders combined with a plant that possesses an intricate foliage. The contrast between simple and complicated creates a balanced composition. It’s the duality that attracts, same as the Ying-Yang symbol.

Implement the aesthetic principle of “Ma”. The empty space in a composition is as important as the used space. “We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”- Lao-Tzu

Asymmetry should dominate the Ikebana. An asymmetrical composition is dynamic. It will engage the eye and invite for closer exploration.

Today’s Practice

There are plenty of schools and organizations that work to keep the tradition alive. Ikebana is as popular today as it was 600 years ago, and it won’t lose that popularity any time soon. It signifies Japanese culture and tradition, being a pure expression of art. It provides relaxation and awareness. Silence is an important spiritual aspect when practicing Ikebana. Silence makes the mind focus and engage on the beauty of the living art. Ikebana is happiness, according to a Japanese proverb that states “Happiness is to hold flowers in both hands.”

We live in the era of speed and technology, totally disconnected from the beauty surrounding us. Practicing the art of Japanese flower arrangement induces a state of meditation. The oasis of peace it provides is beneficial for both body and mind, connecting us with nature, and reconnecting us with yourselves. It is the escape we need, in such troubled times.


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