Monday, December 23, 2013

Memories of Japan: The Tea Ceremony: Chabana

Chabana arrangements are
typically small, especially when
the ceremony is held in a very
small room..
Today is Monday, December 23, 2013.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, the whole aesthetic behind the tea ceremony is wabi-sabi, which includes two main ideas. The wa of wabi has to do with peace, tranquility, harmony, and balance.  The original word wabi meant sad, desolate, or lonely, but it has come to mean simple, non-materialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature.   Sabi means "the bloom of time," and refers to the natural progression of life.  Sabi also had an original meaning "to be desolate," but the meaning has gradually changed, so it now means "to grow old."   Wabi-sabi, then, is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and acknowledging the natural cycles of growth, decay and death.  To illustrate the idea, here are a few contrasts: wabi-sabi is a unique purchase from a flea market rather than bulk-buying at a warehouse store, aged wood rather than laminate wood, rice paper window shades rather than clear glass windows.  It is an appreciation of cracks and other imperfections that result from the normal wear and tear of daily use or the weathering of the seasons.  Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are transient beings, here on earth for a relatively short span of time. Life is to be appreciated in the present moment, since it cannot be frozen in time and relived later.  Using the concept of wabi-sabi, we can learn to appreciate all aspects of life, including frayed edges on our clothing, rust on our tools, and liver spots on our hands.

The flowers in the tokonoma at a tea ceremony may look like a regular ikebana arrangement, to you and me, but they are a type of arrangement that is completely separate, called chabana.  You already know that cha means tea and some of you may know that bana is a variant of the word hana, which means flower.  Chabana, then, are flowers for tea.  They are meant to represent the wabi-sabi idea that beauty is ephemeral and impermanent. 

There are fewer rules for chabana arrangements than for regular ikebana, but I suppose it wouldn't be very Japanese to have no rules at all.  The most important thing is for the flowers to be fresh, seasonal, and natural.  Just because a flower is blooming right now doesn't mean it's "in season."  These days, thanks to hothouses, you can get just about any flower anytime, and we Americans have lost our sense of what flowers (and foods!) are truly in season.  

Woven basket arrangement
For me, one of the most eye-opening experiences of living in Japan was the seasonality.  I remember each season vividly, and I can always recall what season it was when I recall an event.  For example, do you remember what season it was when you ate your first hamburger?  Probably not.  But I know that it was autumn when I first ate persimmons.  It was winter when I was introduced to mizutaki and mikan.  It was summer when I ate cold sōmen noodles.  It was spring when I had vegetables steeped in dashi sauce.  I have retained seasonal associations with flowers, as well.  Irises and cherry blossoms bloom in the spring.  Lotuses, wisteria and hydrangea are early summer flowers, while chrysanthemums are fall flowers.  Plum blossoms bloom in early spring in Asia, while it's still winter here in North America.  I also appreciate winterberry and pine branches more in the wintertime.

This type of arrangement is for an evening tea ceremony, since flowers don't normally bloom at night.
Flowers for tea are supposed to represent the concept ichigo ichie, which means "a unique encounter in this lifetime."  Flowers in partial bloom are preferred over ones that are in full bloom, the better to represent potentials and the idea of the process of growth. Seasonless flowers, or ones that are not definitively associated with a particular season are out, as they negate the idea of the progression of the seasons.  Flowers with a strong scent are not allowed in arrangements for the tearoom, as they tend to overpower a tiny space.  As well, hardy flowers that bloom for a long time are not used, because they are contrary to the idea of illustrating impermanence.  Flowers from plants that are poison, flowers that have sharp thorns, whether hidden or visible, and flowers that have inauspicious names (such as kohone, "river bones") are avoided in the tearoom because of their unpleasant associations. Mass-blooming flowers or flowers that are too commonly seen are also avoided because they are contrary to the idea of uniqueness and the fleeting nature of life. 

Memorial arrangements in hanging baskets
Although the flowers must look natural, you can thin them for the arrangement by cutting off crowded buds, berries or leaves for a "spare" look.  In regular ikebana arrangements, flower and branch stems are bent and pruned, and sometimes wired together.  In order to get the flowers to stay in a particular position, little cross branches are sometimes added to the bottom of flower stems with rubber bands.  None of these tricks is to be used with chabana, but you are still supposed to get the flowers to stay in one place without flipping over.  Quite a trick!  Ideally, the flowers are supposed to bend a bit toward the viewer, and the arrangement should be asymmetrical.  A single blossom is preferred, or perhaps two or  three, but definitely not four, as the number four, pronounced shi, is also the way to pronounce the word for "death."  Yellow and white blossoms used together are avoided, also, except in "memorial arrangements"  Also, color combinations that are too close together, such as flowers with different shades of pink, are avoided.

The vases used for chabana arrangements tend to be the tall type, much like vases that we use in the West. Vases can be made of metal, glazed and unglazed ceramics, bamboo, glass, or other materials.  Regular ikebana has a nage-ire style with tall vases, too, but there are a lot of rules that apply to the proportions of the branches and flowers, and how they are arranged in the vase.  By contrast, flower arrangements for a tea ceremony are supposed to look like they were just thrown into the vase, but artfully, of course.  :-)

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