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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. September's Theme: "Relationships"
Volume 4 Issue 6 ISSN# 1708-3265
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by Jacqueline Kramer


In Buddhist tradition we place a flower arrangement on our altar as a gesture of offering. We are offering the flower arrangement as a symbol of nature, beauty and impermanence. In some Buddhist ceremonies fruit, water and food is also offered. We can use the flower arrangement to sit in for all these gifts of the Earth.  

Nature is an entryway into the feeling of awe. We look at a sunset, the ocean, a gentle quiet green glen or bubbling brook and our hearts lift in elation. This is the awe we want to remember as we build our home shrine. We want our shrine to bring us to a place of heightened awareness. The flower arrangement is designed to do just that.  

The Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana, began as a form of Buddhist worship. In 538 AD the ruler of the Paekche kingdom in Korea sent a bronze statue of the Buddha gilded with gold along with Buddhist teaching manuals and a number of priests to the Japanese emperor. This Buddha image was placed at the centre of an altar and flowers, or flower petals, were placed in a shallow bronze bowl in front of the Buddha. As Buddhism became more popular in Japan and the figures of the Buddha became larger the flower arrangements became larger as well.  Flowers with stems and leaves were placed in a tall-necked vase which was placed on a stand to increase the height of this offering so all could see it. The Buddhist monks were responsible for refilling the vase with fresh flowers every day. Some of these Buddhist monks, with a talent for flower arranging, started to arrange flowers outside the temples. They were hired by men with the means and desire to make a display of their power. The monks became art directors selecting the proper paintings and decorations and then creating large flower arrangements to enhance the visual effect.  

Flower arrangements are impermanent. Each day the monks replaced the dying flowers and leaves. Even the most glorious arrangements would someday end up in the compost. No matter how carefully we preserve the flowers they will die in a rather short period of time. In the West we crave permanence. Plato offered us the ideal of honouring the moment of perfect ripeness, capturing the soon to be fleeting beauty of an ideal stage. We honour paintings which will last ages and ages and sculptures made of marble and steel. We do not have a history of considering flower arrangements a viable art form because of their impermanent nature. The difference in the Eastern and Western view of impermanence has created two very different ways of approaching nature and life.  

The Japanese flower arrangements went from a single blossom on a bronze plate to a combination of blossoms. One such arrangement included a tight bud, a half-opened bud and a fully opened flower. The Buddhist monks used this arrangement to teach about impermanence by explaining to the people that the tight bud represented the future, the half-opened bud represented the present and the fully opened bud represented the past. They taught that just as the flower is young and healthy at the beginning it would eventually become old and die as will all things in nature including us. The monks were teaching basic Buddhist principles through their flower arrangements.  

The core Buddhist principle of impermanence is of practical value. It is of great benefit to us if we can learn to become comfortable with impermanence. When we accept the fact of impermanence we let go of needless struggle. We will all age, everyone we know will die, a beautiful sunny day will be over within 24 hours, our children will grow up and often leave us, our beauty will fade, our parents will die and everything we know and love will change. On the other side of the coin wars will end, the pain we feel today will fade and, if we hang in there long enough, a difficult stage our child is going through will pass. This is nature, the face of Kali. This is impermanence. When we accept that everything will change we loosen our white-knuckle grip on life and allow it to flow with grace and ease. This doesn't mean we won't feel grief. Grief is a natural human emotion which needs to be fully experienced. The difference is that when we have insight into impermanence we feel the grief and then move on. The grief does not rob us of our lives rendering us unable to feel openness and happiness. The deeper we go in our practice the more insight into impermanence we gain.  

Both flowers and impermanence have an important role in all Buddhist traditions. In Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries you can purchase beautifully woven garlands of fragrant jasmine at many of the shrines. In the Dhammapada it is written, "A man born to this world should do many good deeds, as a garland maker makes garlands from a heap of flowers." The refined, disciplined and elegant Japanese culture has taken the practice of flower arrangement to a high art form. Flower arranging in Japan is laid out in clear patterns using ancient traditions. In Ikebana there are several styles of flower arrangements such as Rikka, Heika-Nageire, Seika and Moribana. Each has its rules of approach with very clear artistic sensibilities. They are designed to bring the beauty and wonder of the natural world indoors by using twigs and bits and pieces of plants at different heights in a natural fashion. The Japanese love of flower arrangement echoes its love of nature.  

In the West we are rather wild and experimental. Our genius lies in our creativity and our artforms reflect our love of freedom. We too are expressing a love of nature when we arrange flowers for our home and altar. This may not be expressed as formally as in Ikebana but can have a similar impact. We are making Western Buddhism. So we can begin with a sort of "anything goes" entrepreneurial attitude. Anything can become a vase; an old cup, a pie tin, a piece of broken ceramics, a flowerpot, a tea set, anything. Anything in nature can be used in the arrangement; fruit, flowers, twigs, rocks, water, dead flowers, weeds… anything. Our arrangements can be large or small, flat or long, dense or sparse. We can use our flower arrangements to speak about recycling, the habitat of our neighbourhood or anything else in our life and culture.  

In early spring my granddaughter Nia'a Rose and I took a walk. I brought my plant clippers with me. We went through some wild areas where I pruned a few branches off the trees. We stopped to talk to a neighbour I'd never met. I told them I was looking for things to put in my flower arrangement. They invited me to prune a bush which had bright red orange berries on it and some bamboo they wanted to get rid of. I came home with the most interesting shapes and colours for the arrangement, had a beautiful walk in nature with my grandbaby, met some neighbours and felt revitalized by the exercise and fresh air. This walk made me feel closer to the land and the season. The arrangement depicted the state of becoming which my area of the country goes through in early February. Some long grey branches with bits of green shoots coming off them, a touch of intense red winter berries and a couple sprigs of fragrant rosemary with tiny blue-purple flowers on the tips.  

When we take a walk with our children we have the opportunity to share the beauty of nature with them. Children in our culture spend so much time in front of some form of electronics. They're at danger of missing the lessons nature teaches. If we take a walk with the conscious intent of looking around us for gifts from the land our time with our children becomes even richer. There are so many lessons to learn and teach when we approach our time together this way. We get to know our neighbourhood and the plants, which are native to our area, and we put ourselves in touch with the seasons and their unique beauty. We get to know the people in our neighbourhood, as Mr. Rodgers puts it! Nature and life become both our classroom and our teacher. Learning becomes what it is meant to be, a joy. Just as the conscious consumer buys produce that is local, seasonal and organic the flower arranger can do so as well. Even if you live in the city you can try and find what is growing in your neighbourhood. The weed, which comes up through the cement and survives against all odds has a lot to teach us. Yet, buying flowers at the market can also be fun and teach about distant lands. Hothouse roses have lessons for us as well.  

In spring we may have cherry blossom branches and tulips and in the winter grey branches with tight little buds snugly sleeping till spring. They are all beautiful; infancy, the teen years, adulthood and old age. Each season has its unique gifts and lessons. The more we can celebrate the changes and flow with them the easier life becomes. When we draw from these lessons and share them with our children a world of creativity and everyday happiness opens up to us.

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Jacqueline's fifth lesson from her online Buddhism Class. Please visit: Hearth Foundation for more information.

Jacqueline Kramer is the director of the Hearth Foundation. She has been studying and practicing Theravadin Buddhism for 30 years, is a Religious Science Practitioner and student of the world's wisdom traditions. Her root teacher was Annagarika Dhamma Dinna who taught in the Sri Lankan tradition. She also studied with Ven. Ananda Maitreya, Achan Sobin Namto, Ven. Punnaji Mahathera and Ayya Khema. Her work with mothering and homemaking came out of an insight she had one afternoon while out in her back yard. As she looked into the eyes of the neighbour's cow she had an experience of unity and love for the planet and the desire to help protect the planet for her newborn daughter and all other beings. She realized this was her life's purpose.  Jacqueline writes a weekly newsletter, books on mothering as a spiritual practice and has created online lay Buddhist practice classes which she offers, as is the Buddhist tradition, at no cost. She is a mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and friend.

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