Ikebana International Sacramento Chapter #26 will host a special ikebana demonstration, perhaps even a first of its kind, this month. Ikebana is the Japanese art of arranging flowers and is sometimes called kadō.
Susan Kasa, Full Master of Ikebana Saga Go-ryū, will demonstrate Saga Go-ryū on September 16, 2019, 12:30 P.M., at McKinley Park’s Shepard Garden and Arts Center. The demonstration will kickoff the chapter’s 2019-2020 program.
“While Saga Goryu school of ikebana is well known in Japan, not so much here. In fact, I have never seen this school demonstrated,” commented the chapter’s Co-President Bonnie Lopez, herself a 35-year practitioner of ikebana and a Sanyo level teacher of the Ikebana Sogetsu-ryū school.
Rare indeed. A quick internet search reveals few names of teachers who have been demonstrating Ikebana Saga Go-ryū in the United States.
The aim at Saga Go-ryū is to be traditional but vital, and to introduce visual and spiritual pleasure into daily life.—Ikebana International website
Ikebana Saga Go-ryū, pronounced Go-ryuu, not Gor-yu, is one of many schools of ikebana. It’s also important to note that each school of ikebana has its own approach and philosophy.
Ms. Kasa “studied under the Tokyo Saga Goryu Chapter, and received her Seikyoju (professor) degree in 1991. Since 2016, she has made annual trips to the Saga Goryu headquarters in Kyoto for lessons under head instructor, Mika Tsujii, and other prominent instructors,” notes the Ikebana International Sacramento Chapter’s newsletter, dated September/October 2019.
Starting in 2017, Ms. Kasa began participating in the Annual Fall and Spring Exhibitions of the Ikebana Saga Goryu-North America Branch, in Portland, Oregon, the newsletter adds.
So, having Full Master Susan Kasa demonstrate Ikebana Saga Go-ryū is a special event indeed. If you see this in time, go, watch, and admire the Ikebana Saga Go-ryū approach that dates back more than 1200 years. You won’t be disappointed.
Best of all, Emperor Saga, the founder of Saga Go-ryū, has a fascinating story. He was born in 786 and passed in 842 C.E. He ruled from 809-823 C.E. Growing up, all his buddies just called him by his personal name, Kamino. But that all changed pretty quickly, because he became the crowned prince at age 21, and later emperor.
He was the proud owner of Saga Rikyū, a gorgeous imperial villa nestled in Kyoto. At the villa, he built an artificial pond, “Ōsawaike,” that is, Ōsawa Pond, perfect for o-tsukimi, or moon-viewing. Emperor Saga also cultivated an impressive—and great for parties—garden at the villa. The garden was designed to be best viewed—you guessed it—from a boat on Ōsawa Pond.
Of Ōsawa Pond’s two islands (yes, two!), Kiku-ga-shima, literally, “Chrysanthemum Island,” was the smaller one, loaded full of gorgeous “mums,” a shortened form of the flower’s name.
Tradition holds that Emperor Saga, using Chrysanthemum Islands’s mums, made an arrangement of the popular flowers for presentation to Emperor Heizei (ruled 806-809 C.E.), an older brother, at the imperial court. No doubt his arrangement of mums was a crowd pleaser. Interestingly, later, a single chrysanthemum became the crest and official seal of Japan’s emperor, whose monarchy is often referred to as the “Chrysanthemum Throne.”
Emperor Saga had been deeply “moved by the three powers of Heaven, Earth, and Man” (Saga Go-ryū website, in Japanese) and had imbued his chrysanthemum arrangement with those feelings. And so, tradition holds that this was the beginning of the Ikebana Saga Go-ryū school.
Basically, he founded the ‘Saga School of Ikebana,’ adding to his list of accolades and accomplishments: he was also a talented calligrapher, his parties were, wait for it… legendary (how could they not have been?), he was the first emperor to drink tea (also according to legend), he encouraged the drinking and cultivation of tea (for real), he was crown prince at 21, and he was a champion of both Buddhism and the arts. Oh, and his villa later became one of Japan’s great Buddhist temples, Kyu Saga Gosho Daikaku-ji Monzeki (the Old Saga Imperial Palace Daikaku-ji Temple), or Daikakuji, for short.
But don’t confuse Emperor Saga’s founding of Ikebana Saga Go-ryū as his having initiated ikebana in Japan.
Ikebana, to put it succinctly, is a variation of Ikenobo, the first philosophy of flower arranging that developed in Japan around the time of the founding of the Buddhist temple Rokkaku-dō in Kyoto in 587 C.E. Japanese Buddhist scholars of that period had visited China and brought home the custom of placing flowers at the altar before Buddha. And of course, nature is an integral part of Japan’s Shinto religion. So it was a perfect fit.
Ikenobo, therefore, is said to be the “Origin of Ikebana,” according to the Ikenobo Headquarters’ website. “Like a poem or painting made with flowers, Ikenobo’s ikebana expresses both the beauty of flowers and the beauty of longing in our own hearts,” it adds.
That statement is an important one, because ikebana practiced in its truest form runs deeper than merely arranging flowers to look good. An ikebana arrangement exists as the intensified impressions of ’sensing a plant’s unspoken words and silent movements.’ And the Ikenobo school teaches that “by arranging flowers with reverence, one refines oneself.”
From there—from Ikenobo’s ikebana—other approaches to ikebana developed, including the Ikebana Saga Go-ryū philosophy. “The aim at Saga Go-ryū is to be traditional but vital, and to introduce visual and spiritual pleasure into daily life,” says the Ikebana International website.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. In October 2018, Kyoto and all of Japan celebrated the 1200th anniversary of the Ikebana Saga Go-ryū school and imperial-villa-cum-temple, Daikaku-ji.
That begs the question: What happened one thousand two hundred years before 2018, in the year 818 C.E.? A terrible plague broke out in Japan in 818 C.E. A seemingly unending plague.
Emperor Saga’s friend, the Buddhist monk Kūkai, who founded Shingon Buddhism, suggested to him that he could perhaps appeal to the gods by writing a copy of the Hannya Shingyō, the Heart Sutra. So, Emperor Saga wrote it by his own hand.
“It is believed that as he wrote, he prostrated himself three times after writing each Chinese character of the sutra,” says Kido Inoue in his book, Record of Traces and Dreams: the Heart Sutra.
And then the plague ended.
Today, that hand-written copy of the Heart Sutra is considered one of Japan’s national treasures and is kept at the once-upon-a-time villa, now Buddhist temple, in the Heart Sutra Hall. Every 60 years, it is displayed for public viewing. That year came due in 2018, one thousand two hundred years after Emperor Saga wrote out the sutra in 818 C.E.
Finally, in 876 C.E., years after Emperor Saga’s death, his daughter, Empress Consort Masako, established the imperial villa as a temple, called Daikaku-ji. Interestingly, having first been a villa, the temple’s layout stands out as unique among Japan’s Buddhist temples. More importantly, the Daikaku-ji temple is home to the Ikebana Saga Go-ryu school.
So, the next time you admire a Ikebana Saga Go-ryū arrangement, perhaps Emperor Saga’s fascinating history will come to mind, and in contemplating it, maybe you’ll divine its deeper meaning or be inspired in a way entirely unexpected by its creator.
I hope to eventually discover whether or not Ikebana Saga Go-ryū has been demonstrated in Sacramento prior to Susan Kasa’s demonstration this year, and if so, by whom. So, if you have any information related to that, please reach out.
If you’d like to read the first-hand account of someone who was on site for the 1200th anniversary celebration, you’ll enjoy this post: “Heaven and Earth Really Are Flowers – Ikebana in Japan for World Peace.” It’s chock-full of gorgeous photos.
For a quick peek into some of the concepts and mechanics of ikebana, scroll through the informative photos on “Potter John” Lawson’s blog. Potter John has been a professional potter for more than 20 years and achieved, at least, the fourth certificate level of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society.
Finally, may I offer you a brief “digestif,” if you will? It will help you place Emperor Saga’s storyline and the founding of his approach to ikebana in to the context of world events of the same period, the first quarter of the 800s, also known as the ninth century. Ready?
Here you go: It’s the time of Emperor Charlemagne of the Roman Empire, of extensive Vikings raids on Europe, of completion of the Leshan Giant Buddha in China, and of the defeat of Mercia by Wessex at the hands of King Ecgbert.