After a long, harsh and adamant winter, the hope and light of spring is here. The former is still lurking around the corner, waiting to jump back when it can. But for now, it’s hiding. Pink and white clouds of blossom hover a few feet above the ground.
For centuries cherry-blossom or sakura has lived in the hearts of and ignited the spirit of the Japanese people. They wait for this time of year as the blossom signifies beauty and celebration. Its delicate pinkness stands for innocence and fragility. Families get together ceremoniously to marvel at this spring-time bloom. This occasion of watching and admiring of the blossom is called Hanami.
These feathery pink flowers have inspired much of Japanese painting, poetry, film, music, food, textile design, ceramics and other art forms. In addition to being exquisite to look at, they carry a deep philosophical meaning. They are a timeless metaphor for human life. While this blooming season is intoxicatingly brilliant, it is tragically short. It reminds us of the splendour and brevity of our own lives. It encourages us to appreciate our time on earth with the same joy and passion as we do the blossoms. It awakens our senses and forces us to pay attention – notice the present moment, welcome what’s to come, honour what has passed, acknowledge the transient nature of everything and hold ourselves in a stance of grace and gratitude.
The samurai embodied this combination of beauty and mortality. They appreciated the inevitability of death without fearing it. A fallen petal or blossom is said to symbolise the end of their short lives.
Sakura also indicates renewal. In Japan, this is the month in which the school, calendar and fiscal year start. Aside from deep historical, religious and cultural significance, it also has connotations of agricultural optimism.
In ancient Japan it was believed that God lived in the evergreens. That is why they used it as the tallest and the main component of their flower arrangements. God was the invisible line that passes vertically through the centre of the arrangements. So said a senior faculty of Ikebana, Prof. Kurata at his lecture/demonstration this morning.
Three hours of his talk equalled a year’s worth of learning. He went on to show how nature outdoors is depicted through flowers, leaves and stems indoors. This bamboo vase represents a cliff side and the alcove within it denotes a cave from where plants are emerging towards light, the spectator. Pictures don’t do any justice to the space and the movement created by the study.
He spoke of beauty. When hidden, it carries intrigue. When hidden, it allows for imagination to flow. When hidden, it can be the most beautiful thing in the world. This is an example.
The shape of the container and the simplicity of the materials combine to create elegance.
Rikka is a form that captures a landscape. Each part of it signifies something, like receiving, flowing, supporting and carrying. It has mountains and rivers within it. Find them if you can.
Clever use of angular shapes and bright contrasting colours to create an uplifting happy slanting mood.
I swear diagonally, Bro.
The world is sort of round and so is this. Rounds within rounds. Wheels within wheels. Keeping to the theme. Cheerful asymmetry.
Must be Spring
This last one was for the youngest member of the audience, a 3 year old girl. Playful bobbles and wires hanging out happily with an orchid in a blue bottle of gel balls.
Wonderful to see a true genius at work! It’s calming working with flowers, stems, branches, leaves, berries and grasses. Being with nature. Breathing. Learning. Smelling in the subtleness. Letting the imagination flow. Allowing the Self to heal. Letting go. Dissolving.
The custom of placing flowers on an alter is an ancient one. In the sixth century, Ikebana was founded in Kyoto as an offering to the Goddess of Mercy. Flower arranging contests were held at the imperial court where aristocrats and monks competed with each other at festivals.
In the early 16th century people tried to give a deeper meaning to the thoughts accompanying flower arranging. They wished to arrange rather than casually placing them in a vase. An earlier attitude of passive appreciation developed into a more deeply considered approach.
Rikka is the oldest style of Ikebana. Trees symbolise mountains while grasses and flowers suggest water. A natural landscape is expressed in a single vase. Indeed, all things in nature are reflected. In Rikka it is important to know the laws of nature through harmony of trees and plants.
It is my good fortune that I have the opportunity to be very intimate with Mother Nature in this concrete jungle of London. I have a teacher who is dedicated to passing this ancient tradition on to future generations. Her school has generated a number of teachers who inspire many people like me. Arranging flowers is like meditation in motion. The right brain can express itself to the fullest. The intuitive decision making, the textures, smells and colours of materials, the elegant shapes, the spatial organisation and the movement within bring peace and satisfaction. It is creative within a set of rules. It is aesthetically appealing to the subtle sensibilities. It is a gentle experience of being one with nature.
Sweetest memories come from mundane everyday activities.
When Saagar and I went for our weekly shopping, he loved to take full charge of steering the trolley around. He wouldn’t want me to touch it. Sometimes I would mistakenly place a hand on it and get a glare from him. Other times I would deliberately touch the trolley with the tip of my little pinky, just to get a reaction from him. I was never disappointed. He obliged. We also had a ritual of rewarding ourselves with a chocolate éclair each, on our way home.
Soon after Day 0, I couldn’t manage to go to that supermarket without a major heart-break. I would stand in front of the bakery section and cry like a school kid with sobs and tissues and both my fists covering my eyes. It didn’t matter who was around. It didn’t matter that I made a spectacle of myself. It just happened.
Today, it didn’t happen. We went there and finished our shopping. We went to the bakery section. Si stood beside me and put his hand on my shoulder as we got our chocolate eclairs. We went to the car-park, stood in the sun and enjoyed our sweet rewards. It felt like Saagar was there. He was there in our hearts and minds.
The Japanese have a word, kaizen. Kai means change and zen means good. Kaizen is based on the philosophical belief of continuous, incremental improvement. It believes that everything can be changed for the better. Nothing is ever seen as a status quo – there are continuous efforts to improve which result in small, often imperceptible, changes over time. These small changes add up to big changes over the longer term.
This forgotten book-mark in a book being revisited after two years is an origami crane – a symbol of healing in Japan. A school kid had given it to me at Hiroshima as a token of gratitude for helping him practise his spoken English.
Paper folding started in China in the first century and reached Japan in the 6th century. Here it was cultivated as an art of understatement. Origami suggests. It implies without announcing outright. It intimates without brashness. In Japanese folklore, a crane is fabled to live for a thousand years and is held in high esteem. It is believed that folding 1000 paper cranes brings the folder’s wishes come true.
A young girl called Sadako Sasaki survived the Hiroshima bomb when she was only two years old. Less than 10 years later she was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. The disease progressed rapidly and the prognosis was not good. She set out to make a thousand paper cranes. She could complete 644 before she died on Oct. 25, 1955, less than a year after being diagnosed. Her classmates, family and friends made more to bring them up to 1000 and buried them with Sadako.
Her story captured the imagination of the country and the world. Today, we recognize the crane as a symbol of peace and hope.
“She let out both the pain of our parents and her own suffering with each crane.”
“Her death gave us a big goal. Small peace is so important with compassion and delicacy it will become big like a ripple effect. She showed us how to do it. It is my, and the Sasaki family’s responsibility to tell her story to the world. I believe if you don’t create a small peace, you can’t create a bigger peace. I like to gather those good wishes and good will and spread to the world,” said Masahiro, her brother.
They have a specific term for it in Japan – ‘Karoshi’.
It means death from overwork. One fifth of the workforce in Japan is at risk of it. 2000 people die of work related stress every year and many others due to heart attacks, strokes, suicides and other serious health problems, giving rise to resignations, law suits and calls to tackle the problem. Japanese salarymen work significantly longer hours than their counterparts in other modern economies.
Ichiro Oshima, a 24-year-old Dentsu (an advertising firm with a notorious reputation) employee, killed himself in 1991 in Japan’s first recognised case of karoshi-related suicide. Oshima had not had a day off for 17 months and was sleeping for less than two hours a night before his death.
The number of suicides and attempted suicides in the City of London (the financial district) has doubled in the first 8 months of this year, particularly from bridges. Could that have something to do with the brutally competitive atmosphere in the Square Mile? Officers are making more use of Section 136 of the Mental Health Act to take people to a place of safety, usually a hospital. Ambulances are often unavailable so officers resort to using police vans, almost criminalising people by transporting them thus. Invariably when patients are assessed they are not deemed to meet the threshold of admission to a mental hospital and released. Police are asking NHS Trusts to provide details of patients so they know if they have been released so that they can be put a plan in place to safeguard them.
City police have also set up a Bridges Working Group including officials from NHS mental health trusts, the Samaritans, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) and the Coastguard.
Only a small percentage of employers in the UK have family-friendly policies or personal support services in place so as to achieve a good work-life balance. Although it is improving, we still have a long way to go.