Ikebana: Contemplative Flower Arranging

featured this week on Over the Moon

image credit: Yuliya Yafimik/shutterstock via Over the Moon

image credit: Yuliya Yafimik/shutterstock via Over the Moon

As I tumbled off the bus with a heavy bag, I took a deep breath in of the brisk spring air in upstate New York. Before me was a rustic, ten room country house on a beautiful lake—a Buddhist retreat center called Shambhala Skylake Lodge.

As I pushed the large, wooden door open, I was softly greeted by the Tokonoma, or entry alcove, which is a visual focal point when first entering a Japanese home. This alcove contained a scroll with calligraphy and a soft, baby powdery pink ranunculus bloom.

And so began my Spring Kado retreat. Kado means “the way of flowers” and is a contemplative practice of flower arranging using classical ikebana forms. Ikebana is the Asian art of flower arranging. Yes, I was at a week long Buddhist retreat to meditate and arrange flowers! But Ikebana and Kado are not just flower arranging—they are a contemplative practice; meditation in action.

In our first arrangement, we were given Hosta leaves. This plant has full, soft and moist, green leaves with delicate stems. I tried for several minutes to arrange my leaf exactly where I wanted it. I had this vision in my mind and I really wanted the Hosta leaf to stay in this “perfect” spot.

While sitting there frustrated with my Hosta, I heard my neighbor grumble. When I peered in his direction, I couldn’t help but giggle. His Hosta leaf also had a mind of its own.

Although it’s not a flower, this Hosta leaf taught me to not expect something from it which it cannot give.

We can receive teachings from any everyday experience.

Do not expect from a flower (or leaf, or your partner, etc.) that which it cannot give.

I don’t know about you, but this immediately reminded me of many of my relationships and how I believed things would look or be better if it only matched what I had in my mind. If only my husband saw how important it is to put the dishes away in the dishwasher just how I like them. Why does my mother insist on worrying about me even though I tell her everything is great?

But forcing it is like poking the leaf over and over until the stem starts to break down. If the stem snaps, sometimes we can mend it; create a crutch of sorts. And even after all that, the leaf just might end up where it wants to go anyways. Maybe it’s not exactly where I pictured it but hey, it doesn’t look so bad over there. Maybe it looks better than where I wanted it to go.

Whether we are arranging flowers and plants at a Buddhist retreat center or just looking at things in your everyday life, we can receive deep teachings if we pay attention. Ikebana isn’t just arranging flowers, it’s a traditional and contemplative practice that teaches us how to live in harmony and balance with ourselves and the spaces we inhabit. 

by Anjie Cho