Monday, June 18, 2007
Ikebana and Butoh
Ikebana and Butoh
Japan is an island culture, and like any isolated, homogenous people, the art and religions that emerged are very stylized and unique. When searched for deeply, one may find hidden within the city folds traces of a powerful shamanic tradition, the secret, esoteric side of Shinto, with earth powers, pagan gods, and nature worship. One may also find, on occasion, a very profound understanding of Buddhist philosophy and transformative practices. Japan is, after all, Shinto and Buddhist, but with the majority of people practicing neither, it can be difficult uncovering the wealth and richness residing in the dark recesses of Japan’s modern heart. Both religions (and their arts) mostly exist only as a kind of background old-culture atmosphere that most people really know next to nothing about (like Christianity in America). And in fact, Japanese people seem to almost pride themselves on being a non-religious, rational, and peaceful culture. Which is all good, and a step forward in many important ways. But they threw the baby out with the bathwater, and the profound transformative arts have almost been completely lost.
I have recently come into contact with two art forms that stunned me into reverence for the depth and beauty in this land, and I will share a few of the insights transmitted to me by those artists now.
Japanese art can be seen as a breathtaking reflection of various Buddhist and Shinto themes. From pre-modern to post-modern times, Japanese art has been expressing the changing soul of this island culture, one that is overall very shy and reserved, but at times can be wild and ecstatic. The art is quiet, profound, stunning, and also bizarre, mad, and erotic. I have a lot to say about this, but the large topic is too big for a blog entry. However, much of this blog, as many of you know, has indeed been devoted to interpreting my experiences with the art of Japan, and to continue that tradition, lets look at two forms of Japanese art I recently, intimately encountered: Ikebana and Butoh.
Within both of these art forms one can find the earth-embracing shamanic Shinto impulse, as well as the intellectually stimulating exploration of impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and death found in Buddhism. (Within Japanese art in general we can find a very quiet, sensible atmosphere, as in Tea Ceremony, Calligraphy, Noh, and Ikebana, and also the crazy madness, like in Martial Arts, Kabuki, Samurai, Kendo, and the “crazy dance” of Butoh.)
I’ll being with Ikebana.
Ikebana is Japanese flower arranging. “Ike” means to arrange, but also means “to live.” “Bana” means flowers. It is also known as Kado, or “the way of flowers.” “Do,” is the same “do” in aikido and kendo and bushido,and in chinese it is none other than the great “tao”. It means path or way, and can also mean yoga. You will find men and women practicing this “flower yoga” all over Japan; It is a highly respected art form, completely unlike flower arranging the in the west. It is treated with the same reverence and respect as tea ceremony and calligraphy, as well as the martial arts. At museums you will find whole Ikebana exhibits.
A few weeks ago my friend took me to meet an Ikebana teacher who lives near the mountains and who, for twenty years, has wanted to meet a foreigner to teach them about Ikebana. Lucky me I got to fulfill that dream. (I have great karma!)
She teaches a kind of Shingon Buddhism Ikebana called Saga Goryu, and she said that traditionally before arranging flowers, the arranger calms him/herself by reciting the heart sutra (“Emptiness is none other than form, Form is none other than emptiness.”) Interestingly, one of the school's mottos in practicing Ikebana is "to unite flowers and religion."
Ikebana is “a ceremony of floral tribute to Buddha,” and according to
http://www.ikebanahq.org/saga.html this involves honoring and integrating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful through the art. (These are of course versions of “The Big Three”: I, We, and It; Buddha, Sangha, and Dharma; Dharmakaya, Nirmanakaya, and Sambhogakaya; Art, Morals, and Science; which are also variations of the Four Quadrants, for all you Wilber fans out there. It’s extraordinary how everything fits together.
Like I said, the Ikebana teacher was a Shingon Buddhist. You should know that Shingon (which literally means “Truth Words” or “Mantra,” is one of the major types of Buddhism in Japan, and Kukai, its founder, was born on Shikoku, near where I live. The famous 88 temple pilgrimage around Shikoku visits Shingon temples in honor of Kukai’s enlightenment (Kukai literally means “Ocean of Sky/Emptiness”). Shingon, known for its secret rituals, arts, dances, chants, and visualizations, is the most “tantric” sect of Buddhism in Japan. It traces its roots to the yogas and tantras of India, and it most resembles the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet. You can even find sculptures of the Hindu Elephant-God Genesh hanging out at Shingon temples, as well as paintings of mandalas, sculptures of vajras, and Sanskrit. Kukai felt that Sanskrit was the best way to convey the teachings of the Buddha, so they still use it today.
Ok, so, about Ikebana. I was shocked to discover that the flower arrangements held secret, esoteric meanings, just like the mandalas and deity paintings and sculptures. It turns out that the flower arrangements, just like the mandalas, are meant to communicate spiritual truths while also acting as aesthetic supports for meditation (with a special tilt toward impermanence, being rapidly dying flowers and all…very “Andy Goldsworthian” in that sense, or like the Tibetan sand mandalas). The teacher taught me three major styles of flower arrangements. She took me around her tatami room, dressed in an immaculate kimono, pointing out to me all the different elements in each arrangement. Then we wached a video of a 104-year-old zen monk (!) walk (!) out onto a stage and tell everyone the importance of meditation in health and healing.
Here are the notes I took from the lesson:
“This arrangement style is called Moribana. This part represents the Self and Ultimate Reality you can never see. Just like how your eye can’t see itself, ultimate Self is always invisible. This next element represents the self and reality that you CAN see, like your personality and body. And this part represents that self’s actions which you can see. They form a harmonious whole, and are also meant to mimic the shape of a mountain, forest and lake, reminding us that the natural world is a reflection of the spiritual world.”
What!? Yeah, she actually said all that. Listen to this one:
“In this flower arrangement, this part represents earth. This represents wind. This represents fire and this the sky. In the middle is a clump of flowers representing consciousness. See how everything is coming out of that clump of bright flowers? This arrangement symbolizes the teaching that everything is made of consciousness, or that consciousness is at the base of everything.”
And here is the last one:
“This is the most classic Ikebana arrangement. The bottom is the earth, the middle is the human, and the top is the sky or heaven. See how they are all connected? Man stands in between them both, acting as a bridge. See how they are all balanced in a triangle. And notice how the triangle also makes a circle, which represents emptiness, as well as harmony.”
We talked about mediation and how at the beginning people think they can “ride the meditation like a wave to the enlightened mind.” But this is not true. “In actuality,” she said, “you cannot reach the enlightened mind because it is always there as the origin of this very moment.” She explained that with time, however, the meditator slowly discovers that mediation is actually used to perfect sight and action, not to “attain enlightenment,” because the enlightenment mind is something that is not constructed. “Everything that is constructed will fall apart, after all. And the Buddha mind is Emptiness, not any constructed form.”
This Ikebana teacher/mystical sage spoke in English and Japanese and I took notes and this is really what she said.
We even talked about the bodhisattva path. “It’s important to see this world as beautiful because only then we can love it and return to it.”
Katou Sensei reminded me so much of Dianne Daugherty, my High School Japanese teacher and mentor. Katou’s humor and grace and beauty mirrored Dianne’s glowing style of enthusiastic teaching.
“I study Shokubutsugo (Plant-language)” she said. “The trees and weeds and flowers have so much to tell us about life, death, beauty, change, and harmony. And I listen to them, and then translate the message. I’m not a teacher; I’m a translator.”
We talked about flower therapy and the healing powers of giving flowers, growing flowers, and arranging flowers, and watching them die. We talked about what the heart is made of, and my friend with whom I went said: “Inside the heart is Empty Sky, so I’m happy.”
She mentioned that we need to clean up out minds in order to experience and manifest the enlightened mind, and when I asked her “what about the fact that the Enlightened mind is already occurring in every moment?” She replied:
“True, the Pure, heavenly world and this world are ultimate One, but you cannot SEE that truth until you have a clear mirror-mind. Both worlds always reflect each other, but you can’t see that fact until you have purified your mind though meditation.”
“Focus on this moment and discover the happiness that doesn't depend on your environment.”
“Before meditation and after meditation is action. Action is much more important that meditation. But right action is achieved only though right seeing, which is impossible without a clear, stable mind. So meditation is also important. But you can’t just meditate and experience quiet, clear mind. You must live and act.”
“Change the action in the body and move up to right mediation like a spiral staircase. If you don’t change your actions, your mind can’t change. If you don't change your mind, your actions can’t change. They are so connected.”
“Clean up your mind by discovering its depths.”
Now, carrying that mood into another Japanese Art form, I’d like to discuss Butoh, a type of modern Japanese dance.
It is hard to define Butoh, since it has no specific style, but from what I have seen it resembles Bunraku (puppet theater) as well as Noh, both traditional and both using common Buddhist themes of suffering, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. While performing, the Butoh dancer often visualizes their own birth, life, struggles, and death. One purpose is to express as honestly as possible the feelings that arise, giving the audience a chance to also experience (through empathy and mirror neurons) extreme states of being, often repressed or forgotten. The dance is erotic, scary, often difficult to look at, but always powerful and stunning. If you have seen the movie Baraka, there are a few Butoh dancers in there. Traditionally, Butoh dancers are naked and paint their bodies white.
I had the pleasure and good karma to see one of the greatest Butoh dancers in Japan a few weeks ago. Here is the report of that experience.
Some friends and I went up to Nagoya to see Rick off and also to see the Butoh dancer Konno Yasuchika, from Tokyo. I now believe that this dancer is the greatest dancer I have ever seen in my life. And I have seen many great dancers.
His style was a mixture between free-flowing movements, like a leaf blown in the wind, and the hauntingly still movements of traditional Butoh—quiet, subtle gestures and impeccable control of the body. The dance opened with all the lights out and silence. Then suddenly a single light turned on and his body came swirling into the small space. His large strides, flowing arms, and fast gestures filled the room and grabbed all of our attention.
He had everyone in that room breathless. His fast, spontaneous movements and creative postures didn't let any of our minds wonder even for a second. Nobody could take their eyes off of him (and Of course his chiseled muscles and beautiful features played a part in that I'm sure).
My self was gone. His expression stoll my entire mind, leaving nothing but the chilling movements of his body in its place. I didn't have time to remember who I was and rebuild my story. All I could do is stare at the dancer.
His eyes were often looking up as if in a trance. Shamanic drumming and pulsing electronic sounds penetrated the dark space around him. I felt like this was ancient magic.
When it finished I didn't want to speak. It was too intense. Everyone in the room was shocked out of words. It reminded me of the atmosphere in the movie theater after Requiem for a Dream, American Beauty, and Dancer in the Dark. Everyone was stunned and speechless.
After a few other dancers performed there was a party. I met Konno and asked him many questions. He was kind and friendly. We exchanged business cards and have been emailing back and forth (in Japanese) ever since. And what is great is that we are talking about deep stuff, like the purpose of art and where it comes from, in Japanese. I’m learning great words.
And, lucky me, he said he would come to Niihama and perform at my exhibition this October. at the top is the poster i made.
Posted by David at 4:50 AM
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