Jeani Mustain holds a leafless snowberry branch that has a few berries still clinging to it. Mustain stands silently for a moment, then places it in the container in front of her.
A retired elementary-school teacher who manages the local farmers’ market, Mustain is creating an arrangement at the St. Margaret’s Bay Shambhala Centre, just outside Halifax, following the principles of ikebana—the Japanese art of flower arrangement. Like many Shambhala centres, this one greets visitors with flowers placed in an alcove near the entrance.
Ikebana has its roots in Japanese Buddhism. During the samurai era, homeowners began to include a tokonoma (or alcove) to display flowers and calligraphy. Although there are hundreds of different schools of ikebana, all share an aesthetic that uses the natural lines of plants and flowers, and the space around them. Many arrangements have a core of three branches, representing heaven, earth, and humanity.
“[Ikebana] emphasizes space as well as form,” says Mustain, who has studied the practice for about six years. “It’s almost sculptural. You’re trying to create a dynamic movement in the flowers, in the arrangement, that reflects the dynamic movement of nature. It’s very much a reflection of how things naturally grow.”
Miyako Ballesteros started practicing ikebana as a teenager in Japan (she reluctantly attended her first class when a senior co-worker invited her). In 2007, she and her husband Ferdinand moved from Tokyo to Halifax, where they now run The Ikebana Shop. Ballesteros offers flower-arranging workshops in her studio above the store.
Drinking tea in her studio, Ballesteros explains that one of the keys to ikebana is removing unnecessary twigs or leaves, things that hinder showcasing the essential beauty of a flower or branch. “What is not essential on this branch? Start from there and do lots of cutting. Without cutting, you can’t emphasize what you want people to feel. Every small element—twigs, petals—should be meaningful.”
Ikebana celebrates asymmetrical beauty. Ballesteros points to an arrangement that includes branches from her backyard. “In most Western arrangements, when you have a vase, you try to fill the space,” she points to an area where branches arch gracefully over the water, past the edges of the container. “They might put another plant here, but we don’t. We appreciate the reflection in the water, and we appreciate the beauty of the space along with the plants.”
Back at the Shambhala Centre, Mustain removes the branch and clips off a few twigs. It’s an action she’ll repeat several times over the next hour. Once satisfied with the placement of the tall branch, representing heaven, she tries different spots for the earth branch, trimming, changing angles, and standing back to look at the arrangement.
Ikebana practitioners describe it as an art that requires lifelong learning. “I’ve been studying almost 20 years and still practice with my teacher in Tokyo twice a month on Skype,” Ballesteros says. “When I go back to Tokyo, I visit her studio and take lessons. I am a teacher, but I also need to keep brushing up my skills.”
In Atlantic Canada, close proximity to the natural world provides access to a variety of plants you can use in arrangements. “Nova Scotia is very rich in flora,” says Mustain. “When you have water, you have lots of different kinds of plants and habitats, so it’s very rich in variety and it’s not hard to get to. Even if you live in Halifax, there are so many things growing on empty lots.”
Ballesteros agrees. While she buys flowers from florists, she makes use of a variety of branches from her garden and elsewhere, including alder branches. “People call this a weed, but it is very useful. And in summer, they have nice leaves. I really appreciate this plant.”
Because ikebana is a contemplative art, much like calligraphy or the Japanese tea ceremony, deciding which branches to use and the best way to use them “requires mindfulness and attention to detail,” Mustain says. “You’re training yourself how to see.”
The contemplative side of ikebana is what first drew Muriel Chaput to the practice. A French teacher at the University of New Brunswick, Chaput moved to Fredericton from Paris 12 years ago. Like Mustain, she is also a member of the Shambhala Buddhist community, and frequently creates arrangements for her local centre.
“The main focus when we do ikebana in Shambhala is the meditative aspect,” she says. “It’s a way to bring mindfulness and meditation into your everyday life. When you put a branch or a flower in a vase, it’s not so much the form or shape of it, but the shape around it that you work with.”
When Ballesteros creates arrangements, minor changes in the angle of branches and flowers make a huge difference. “Then, after all that concentration and looking at the materials…you feel, ah, this is it. But until that moment, you have to be patient,” she says.
Mustain makes a few final adjustments, then removes the traditional Japanese clippers, towel, and water jug from the shelf. She walks around, looking at the arrangement from different angles, takes a sip of green tea, puts down her cup, and says, “Yeah, I think I’m done.”
A visitor arrives at centre, pauses inside the door, and looks at the arrangement silently for a moment. “Did you just make that?” she asks Mustain. “It’s beautiful.”