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Flowers are valued as offerings throughout Asia. From Thailand to Bali to India, bouquets or even single flowers are an offering to the gods: a gift of life, given in thanks, to the Source of Life. And around the world, flowers have been offered at funerals as gifts to the spirits of the dead.

But in Japan, what were once devotional offerings have grown over the centuries into one of Japan’s quintessential art forms, one that has spread all over the world, and continues to develop to the present day: Ikebana, the art of flower arranging.

Although the earliest origins of flower arranging are lost to history, the tradition of ikebana has been consciously and deliberately developing for nearly six centuries, since a monk at Kyoto’s Rokkakudo temple, Ikenobo Senkei, became the first known master of flower arranging, in 1462. His followers continued his work, spreading his ideas from the priestly caste into the samurai class, where it became a sign of refinement.

A somewhat later priestly ikebana master, Ikenobo Senno, wrote in the mid-16th century compilation of ikebana teachings, Senno Kuden, “Not only beautiful flowers but also buds and withered flowers have life, and each has its own beauty. By arranging flowers with reverence, one refines oneself.”

This idea is familiar to anyone who understands the reverent Japanese relationship with nature, and the deep Buddhist understanding of the impermanence of all things, as summed up in the elegant notion of wabi-sabi. Ikebana is an enduring expression of that ideal.

During the past six centuries, ikebana’s place in Japan has waxed and waned in popularity, and shifted from the province of monks and samurai to that of housewives and artists. But its formal standards have continued to evolve in surprising, and always artful, ways. As the practice of the art has moved from Japan into dozens of countries around the world, it has absorbed international flavors but remains one of Japan’s quintessential art forms.

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The roots of flower arranging

Ikebana as we know it began in the Muromachi/Ashikaga period, during the late 14th to mid-16th centuries, a chaotic period in which warlords battled for supremacy before the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, later known as the Edo period. This was the period in which many of Japan’s quintessential art forms blossomed. In addition to ikebana, the tea ceremony was refined during this period, as were theories of garden design and the structure of noh plays.

As Japan moved on from the Muromachi period, ikebana became the province of the emerging merchant culture, and the original style of Tatebana, developed for tea rooms evolved into the new, more decorative Rikka (“standing flowers”) style, which in turn became the more austere, symbolic Seika (or Shoka) style. The symbolism was expressed through a triangular structure that aimed to evoke heaven-earth-mankind through various arrangements.

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Attention to form

Whatever the form of the era, the structure of ikebana (literally, “flowers kept alive”) has always been its essential element. Ikebana masters teach based on sophisticated diagrams that show the precise angles of the branches, flowers and other elements, as seen from eye level and even from above. An ikebana arrangement aims to look almost natural – the upright nageire style literally means “thrown in” – but it is in fact a stylized, deeply proscribed form that takes many years to master.

Two keys to ikebana are the use of asymmetry and an allowance for space in the arrangements. Ikebana arrangements do not burst with flowers as they might in other cultures; instead, each branch, each stem, each bud, is placed deliberately, and balanced with every other element.

The Moribana style is still the basis for ikebana, in both its basic “upright” and more complex “slanting” forms. Each individual element has a name (the shin, soe and hikae) and the relative lengths of each piece are determined by complex formulae.

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Ikebana’s place in society

During the crucial 19th century Meiji Restoration, during which time Japan opened to the West and began its process of modernization, the government began allowing women to study ikebana as part of the necessary movement to educate them for the modern world. In barely a generation, at the dawn of the 20th century, ikebana went from being an art form meant for the refinement of men to one used for the education of women. Today there are more than 3,000 ikebana schools in Japan, and it is estimated that as many as 15 million Japanese, most of them women, practice ikebana.

The spread of ikebana worldwide means that many new elements of the art form have been introduced, all with the creative passion and deep respect for a form that is now more than 550 years old. But one of the most important modern schools began in Japan, when Ohara Unshin broke with the Ikenobo school and began using Western plants, creating the Ohara School.

Visitors to Kyoto are especially lucky because the development of ikebana began right here, at the Rokkakudo temple. Ikenobo, the oldest school of ikebana, continues to thrive here under the 45th head of the school, Sen’ei Ikenobo. In 1977, Sen’ei began developing yet another new form of ikebana, shoka shimputai, a modern, three-part form that has dazzled the ikebana community and continues to carry the ikebana tradition into the future.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON