This article that I wrote was published in the International Journal of Ikebana Studies, Volume 3, 2015.
Is it a paradox to teach ikebana in the West and not being Japanese? I ask myself sometimes if I measure up to my Japanese fellow teachers. Although I teach using Sogetsu textbooks, am I able to pass on the very essence of Ikebana to my students? Have I touched on its unique and elusive spirit myself? Is everyone destined to find it in their own way? Although Ikebana has evolved in Japan from flower offerings in Buddhist temples and flourished to contemporary installations of Sogetsu school, is it still Japanese or has it transcended its borders? Many questions but a few answers.
It’s very challenging to teach Ikebana in the West. The major barrier is the Japanese language, or lack of it in my case. I discovered Ikebana, like many of us later in life, and it’s definitely too late to study Japanese, become fluent and read The Chronicles of Japan. There is no professional Ikebana literature in English- just picture books, and some with 1-2-3 steps. School publications and magazines are mainly in Japanese with a small percentage of articles translated into English.
Masters’ visits are rare and their command of English is not strong enough to talk about concepts, philosophy, or current direction of the school. I remember my first trip to Japan. I was astonished by Japanese aesthetics, the attention to detail, fascination with nature and the urge for beauty. I’ll never forget my first Ikebana lesson in Sogetsu Headquarters. By the time I decided on flowers and picked the vase from huge variety on the shelves, half of the lesson had gone. Then I struggled with an instructor’s help to secure too heavy brunches in a totally unsuitable vase, quick embarrassment of critique, and the lesson was over.
My second challenge has been the mysterious Japanese culture. We tour through Buddhist temples, stroll picture- like Japanese gardens, even clap at Shinto shrines, but we get just a glimpse. We try to grasp intellectually, while Japanese people just live it. By the end of two weeks I had caught myself bowing, buying precious Ikebana vase, saying “Arigato” and leaving with a yearning to come back. Over the years I came back again and again to absorb drop by drop Japanese duality, aesthetics and spiritual practises – the origin of Ikebana.
It’s easy for Japanese Ikebana artists. They have Buddha and Shinto, Kadensho, Chado and grandma’s old nageiri vase. I do not have these.
But what do I have? I have my busy western mind, my language of flowers, centuries old wealth of art, literature, theatre and architecture. Botticelli and Kandinsky, Shakespeare and Kafka, Bernhard and Chaplin, Brunelleschi and Ingels, Versailles and The Garden of Cosmic Speculation. May be we have too much? May be that’s the reason we’re not so good at “Less is More” concept, but rather “The More the Merrier”?
I have taken Ikebana philosophy and concepts to my best abilities, developed dexterity and enriched it with my own cultural background. Ikebana has become Spanish and American, Portuguese and Australian. We’ve made a spiritual connection from Japan through Ikebana to more than one hundred and sixty countries. We opened Japanese borders. We made Ikebana a global phenomenon. I feel we do measure up. Well done!