Down the Rabbit Hole with Alice

or How Flower Arranging Taught Me To Paint the Landscape  

Alice Tarkeshi is the ikebana master at San Francisco Shambhala Center and she has been the greatest teacher of landscape painting to me. But she did not use brush and paint to teach, rather she used flowers in space.

I met Alice Tarkeshi almost three years ago. I had just started meditating. She gave a talk at the weekly Dharma night program at Shambhala. I can’t remember the contents of the talk, but I remember being captivated and enlightened by the way she weaved her words and concepts together. It was unlike anything I had heard before.


Alice and Me, photo by William Rekshan

Most people seem to know where they’re going, and take your hand and walk you on a straight path there. In contrast, Alice Tarkeshi explores alongside of you. She is willing to stop alongside the path and look at something beautiful. From that new vantage point, more detours arise, and she takes you there. This happens in her speaking and happens when you walk with her down the street. You end up jaywalking to look at the folds of some detritus lined up against a building and then to examine the shadow a telephone pole casts.


Phenomenal Beauty of Our Everyday World, photo by Alice Tarkeshi

This is her path and the path she leads her students on. A path of discovery and joy in this phenomenal world. So when she spoke at Dharma night, we explored with her different concepts, different experiences — at first unrelated, as if we were looking at what was haphazardly placed on the path of discourse, going from one to another. But in addition to inspiring joy in the here and now, she has the incredible capability to weave these at-first disparate threads into a tapestry of understanding. When I left that first Dharma talk, I knew in my heart I had been somewhere and learned something very profound, but still I could not say even what or how we progress along that path of learning.

At the end of that session, she invited us to participate in an ikebana workshop. Four hours of learning the principles of ikebana, which is the art of flower arrangement. Ikebana is a contemplative art. The history began with a simple offering of a flower to the Buddha, and developed in Japan to be a very formal art. Her tradition of ikebana comes from the Sogetsu school.  Its most captivating aspect is its tenet: ikebana occurs or can occur with anything, anywhere, anytime with a sense of play.


Traditional Ikebana Arrangement, photo by

And so while Sogetsu arrangements frequently are congruent to the formality of the Japanese aesthetic, it can also involve materials that are completely non-natural. You may not see branches or flowers in them. Perhaps tires, scraps of metal, or old doors arranged together to enliven space in a very playful way. When one takes this tenet of anything, anywhere, anytime to its logical extreme, one’s life begins to look like an ikebana arrangement.


Sofu Teshigahara, founder of Sogetsu School

What art is
I say that Alice Tarkeshi has been the greatest teacher of landscape painting to me, not because she taught me how to paint. In fact, we’ve never dealt with paint together. Although we’ve often used mud to color tree parts for use in ikebana arrangements. I say she is the greatest teacher of landscape painting for me because she taught me what art is.

At first, she taught me through ikebana and, later, through meditation. Her teachings present a sort of worldview in which everyday activity is an art. And art is not something separate from everyday life. Remember the Sogetsu maxim: anything, anywhere, anytime. It becomes clear that you can start to look at the phenomenal world as you would look at flowers, and your own activity as an arrangement to enliven space, to wake the mind up to the beauty and honor of being a human being in space.

Two Principles
Anyone who has spent time with Alice will attest to this: that her presence is artistic. And I’d like to focus on two principles she has shared with me. First is a formula from her contemplative arts practice. Second could be summed up by the syllogism: art is play, art is life, therefore life is play.  These come together to form an artistic life.

First is the contemplative art formula: heaven, earth and man. Many of these teachings are based in the Shambhala Buddhist Dharma Art practice, outlined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and later, in theDharma Art curriculum of Shambhala Buddhism, of which we are practitioners. The formula heaven, earth and man, is a sort of pattern to look at creative work. And I will use ikebana and landscape painting to illustrate this formula.

At a very literal level, the main branches and flower of the arrangement are called heaven, earth and human. The heaven branch is the largest, longest. It is the first gesture in space. It sets the foundation for the subsequent sculpture. Second branch is earth — proportionately shorter than heaven, it supports and creates a space between heaven and earth, in which human, the flower, the focal piece, can thrive.


Diagram of Ikebana Formula

Her understanding extends beyond the literal level, however. The heaven principle may be seen as the initial vision, the erotic desire one has for the materials. And it truly is like falling in love with one gesture. A branch. Oftentimes in the flower market, Alice will call me over and say, “Isn’t this beautiful,” making the gesture with her body, expressive from year’s of dancing to the honor of space. She will say, “I have just fallen in love with this branch here.”

The heaven principle arises from the heart. Frequently there will be a vision of how to display this beautiful gesture in space. It’s like the vision one imagines an artist to hold before he approaches the canvas.

The second principle, earth, recognizes that we live on earth, surrounded by natural materials that have their own motion and tendencies of behavior. Frequently, the gesture you falls in love with cannot be displayed according to your vision; it will fall over, it will topple down, it weighs too much to stand in the vase. This is the earth principle, the recognition and working with materials that do not conform to an intellectual vision. It is accepting of the reality around us on its own terms.

The beauty of ikebana arises with the human principle. It revels in the fact that we are humans, manipulators, visionaries that can act in this world. The human principle brings heaven to earth. And so in ikebana it might include an ingenious arrangement of materials that supports the vision and respects the natural reality of the materials at hand.

Heaven-earth-human in painting
With this clear framework and process, my landscape paintings achieved a naturalness, a fluidity, which many people comment on with their first impressions. I see its application similarly in a literal fashion and more symbolic fashion. In landscape, the heaven principle is obvious: the sky. The earth principle, again, is obvious: the land. The human principle is the focal point of the landscape. It’s the composition. It’s what draws the eye in. I see this formula iterated in the process of landscape painting. The first gesture, the horizon, perhaps a composition roughly sketched by a single line. The erotic desire of falling in love with the landscape, this is the heaven principle.

Second, the earth principle is laying down the colors with big brushes. Blue for the sky, green for the earth. Using simple modulations of color to signify shadow and aerial perspective. This is the foundation. And finally, the process of landscape painting, in the addition of details or Final brushwork. Adding in, perhaps, a silhouette, a tree, a cow, a human, a barn. And these final steps unify the vast disparity between blue and green, the chasm of the horizon line.


Principles in Painting

I learned to do this intuitively, but learned to think about it through my interactions with Alice in ikebana. I learned to acknowledge this natural formula in landscape painting, thereby giving me the power to execute a painting in any situation I find myself drawn. She has given me freedom from the fear that the artistic process is trapped by subconscious behaviors.

The second maxim, or guiding principle of its work. Simultaneously this work is extremely serious, because it is very real. It takes us from the unreality of our projections and brings us and brings us in relationship with space itself. But at its core, it is playful, connected with the natural joy and creativity of the human heart. Alice focused on recreation and play when she studied psychology. She has spent much of her professional life facilitating play at facilities for people such as AIDS victims, offering play to them.

Playing with Alice in her teaching series “ikebana eyes” has brought me from a state of self-consciousness into confidence in my own playful activities. She has taken the Sogetsu maxim to heart by inviting our bodies and imaginations to shape an arrangement, which in formal Ikebana would be the branches and flowers.


Alice Inviting Play with Ikebana Eyes

One never thinks, “Am I doing this right or wrong?” In play, it is a discovery of what arises from the heart. During an ikebana workshop, Alice may say, “Let’s just play with it and see how these two beautiful branches relate to one another. Are they mother or daughter? Perhaps they are lover? Now they are turned away, they’ve had a feud. Oh, let’s reconcile them again” almost as a young girl would play with her dolls. She takes the materials at hand, both in the physical world in the form of flowers and in her heart in the form of imaginations, and offers the union of the two to space.


Playing with an Arrangment

In Dharma Art, as outlined by Trunpga Rinpoche in True Perception, this sense of play brings us out of aggression with ourselves and the world. Every artist knows the frustration of a bad painting. You try again and again to make the painting look like the beautiful vision in mind, but everything fails. You’re being aggressive to yourself, maybe you want to paint another picture or do something else entirely. You’re looking to make a final product and overlook the joy of process.

As Alice has shown me, play brings us out of aggression and into relationship with our hearts and world. It values the process as much as the product, as poignantly demonstrated by the quick decay of an Ikebana arrangement. Weaving the threads of her teachings together, you can see that the purpose of art is play and that the purpose of play is life. You don’t have to agree or disagree with this formula like a concept, her teachings are an invitation to true experience, which is simply the playful exploration of your own beauty.

Thank You Alice
I am immensely grateful for her influence on my life and art. She is the single greatest influence on my creative activities today, and she has been the greatest teacher of landscape painting to me. Alice’s creativity is boundless. It is not limited to ikebana. She teaches the Dharma in a creative fashion, has an astrology practice, writes poems, makes drawings, sculptures, explores abstract photography, dances, and most of all, lives in an artistic way. You can interface with her creativity through programs she offers, a series of ongoing ikebana classes at the Shambhala Buddhist Center in San Francisco, meditation instruction at the Laughing Lotus, or an astrology reading at he home.


Woe, poem by Alice, filmed by William Rekshan.  Click to see

(This post is reprinted with permission from Daniel Rekshan’s blog.)

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