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What is Ikebana?

Ikebana is a long practiced Japanese art. This is my experience practicing it.

Ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement, is one of the arts that women historically learned prior to marriage. The oldest school of ikebana is ikenobo, and the top three schools are Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu.

My name is Brandon Yoshio Paris and I’m a fourth generation (Yonsei) Japanese American on my mom’s side, and my other half is Black. I identify as both, as I have strong ties to both cultures and both sides of my family; however, I’ve only visited and lived in Japan and have not visited or lived in the African countries related to my ancestry.

I started ikebana in 2011, which was about three years after I came back from the JET Program, through which I taught English at several high schools in Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan. I regretted not taking classes in Japan, and an opportunity to take a class became available at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension.

The thing that motivated me to start taking classes was my mom was visiting the Nokotsudo (niche) where my great grandparents' ashes were interred at Nishi Hongwanji, a Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo in LA. She doesn’t like driving in downtown LA, so I would often take her. Neither of us was good at arranging the flowers we would bring as an offering, so I thought this class would be beneficial to bring better-looking flower arrangements.

In our first lesson, I learned about the history of ikebana and was told that the class I was joining followed the curriculum of the most modern school, Sogetsu. My teacher, Kyoko Kassarjian, is petite, as well as expressive and bold, the same as her flower arrangements. She has the top-level teaching certification, Riji, that is awarded in Sogetsu. and from day one, she and one of her assistants pulled me aside and told me that I needed to continue and get my teaching certificate to carry on the tradition.

I was really moved by their strong encouragement, but really had no confidence in my ability. I would take pictures of the arrangements I made, and we were told to take them apart and do them over and over in class and have Sensei (teacher) check it. At the end of class, we received a critique from sensei, and it was so stressful, but also so enlightening. She demonstrated technique each class and gave tips along the way; but the critique is when we would learn even more pearls of ikebana wisdom. She always highlights the fundamentals of the Ikebana elements being lines, mass, and space. There is also color of the materials, color of the vase, non-conventional (non- plant) materials, etc.

Unfortunately, the first few lessons did not help with my flower arranging at the temple, as the arrangements are usually “Western” style and are often round shaped. In Sogetsu Ikebana, my teacher often says, “Unbalance makes balance,” and it's true. When you have a long branch on one side of the arrangement, you want to have a large mass of flowers or greenery on the other side of the arrangement that doesn’t stick out and is lower in the arrangement. This grounds the arrangement and really does balance it out. After a few years of study, I felt a little more confident in the arrangements I would bring to the temple with my mom.

I have continued studying ikebana with my Sensei and have recently earned the 4th Diploma Teaching Certificate, which is the first teaching certificate one receives in the Sogetsu School. In many ikebana schools, students are given a “flower name” when they reach the teacher level. I’ve received the flower name Keichi (Kei=Osmanthus, chi=Wisdom). The Kei comes from my Sensei’s flower name, Shunkei (Shun=Spring, Kei=Osmanthus). You take second character from your teacher’s name, and you are assigned a character by your teacher based on a trait and often, the teacher asks you for suggestions and she approves or denies them. I recently ordained in the Koyasan Shingon Buddhist Tradition and received the Buddhist/Monk name of Chikyo (Chi=wisdom, kyo=teach). I didn’t want to have to think of a whole new name, so I borrowed the first character that I received from my Master that conducted my ordination ceremony.

I continue to practice Sogetsu Ikebana and became very involved in my branch and have been the Recording Secretary for a few years now. It is very meditative practice and I no longer get anxious when creating my arrangements. Also, sitting and enjoying the arrangements is another meditation for me and my Sensei always says, “Please show your mother and your temple community. I’m sure they will enjoy and that these flowers will touch their heart.”

I hope more people become interested in the art and have the opportunity to experience it for themselves, either by viewing arrangements or trying to arrange one for themselves.

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March 2022
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