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Western culture considers the universe separate from man, so life is perceived as a “war” between opposites (light against darkness, life against death, good against evil, beautiful against ugly, etc.); this vision implies a sort of idealism to cultivate the former, considered positive for our culture, and get rid of its opposite, considered negative.
For TAOISM this is not understandable because it would be like wanting the electric current from the positive pole without having the negative pole, i.e. the polarities are different aspects of the same system and the disappearance of one polarity implies the disappearance of the other.
- – According to Tao “the only constant of reality is change, mutation” and he conceives the universe formed by KI energy ( see art. 50°), which is neither substance nor spirit but a “vital breath” that gives life and form to every kind of reality, both physical and spiritual. The Taoism accepts the laws of Nature for which there is always an alternation between the two polarities: day follows night, cold follows heat, death follows life, everything is created, then destroys itself and then regenerates itself.
- Taoism explains the structure of the universe and the physical and moral constitution of the individual with the interaction of two opposing but complementary forces which it calls YANG and YIN (yō and in, in Japanese), governing the creation and the transformation of the cosmos.
The yang ideogram indicates the sunny side of the hill, the yin ideogram indicates the side in the shade.
Being yang or yin is not an intrinsic quality but expresses the relationship between two entities: in this case the two sides of the hill.
- Consequently, the following pairs are classified:
- yang light hot dry rigid resistant strong heavy male positive
- yin cold shadow wet soft compliant weak light female negative
- The adjectives mentioned above are/were often used in ikebana and are equivalent to each other: for example, to define a strong or heavy, male, positive branch compared to a flower is to say that the branch is yang compared to the yin flower.
These adjectives are used to define some relative characteristics such as:
the side of the plant that grows in the sun is said to be positive while the one that grows in shade is said to be negative.
- Consequently, the following pairs are classified:
As far as the leaves are concerned:
Positive side is Yang, dark, facing the sun.
Negative side is Yin, pale, grows in shade towards the ground.
In leaves the yang side is darker than the yin side
About the branches:
- As far as the leaves are concerned:
the positive side or Yang, grows towards the sun and is frequently the concave part and darker in colour while the side grown in the shade, called negative or Yin, is convex and paler. If the branch has leaves and/or flowers, it is easier to tell which side is Yang/sun facing simply looking carefully at them.
the flower when in bud is considered weak-Yin-female, the open strong-Yang-male, while the very open, older, flower is again considered weak-Yin-female
Western ladies, when they read this weak-female-negative association, full of negative connotations compared to strong-masculine-positive, might think that Taoism is chauvinist. This is not so because the terms do not have the same value that Westerners give them and Taoism considers yin-feminine weaker more important than yang-masculine strong because the former allows change, an indispensable factor for the continuity of life. Remember that for Taoism “the only constant is change”.
If we consider a branch with leaves and/or flowers, the wood is Yang compared to the leaves/flowers; they are both considered Yin compared to wood: in general, to obtain a balance between Yang and Yin, the ikebanist must prune it so that the wood/Yang is clearly visible. This is necessary because in nature generally it is covered by too many Yin leaves/flowers.
- The hongatte/right-hand composition is considered strong-yang compared to the gyakugatte/ left-hand composition which is considered weak-yin. see art. 16°
Above two Soka with the three main elements indicated, for simplicity, with the names used by the Ohara school.
Before westernisation imposed its own botanical categorisation, the classification of plants was based on the yang-yin system:
1-material KI-MONO (KI = tree, MONO = thing) which is yang and includes branches of trees and shrubs, i.e. everything that is wood.
2-material KUSA-MONO (Kusa = grass) which is yin and includes flowers, herbs, leaves.
3-material TSUYO-MONO (TSUYO = common to…) which can be yin or yang depending on its role and on the plant to which it is associated. For example bamboo, wisteria, peony, spirea, hydrangea can be yang if used in the shu-fuku group associated with flowers in the kyaku group but can became yin if utilized in the kyaku group associated with Ki plants in the shu-fuku group.
The yang/yin theory is symbolized by Tai-ji, a circle representing “the whole” divided into two equivalent parts, the yang part on the heaven/sunny side and the yin part on the earth/shady side.
In the drawing the two parts are divided by two imaginary black lines: a darker one divides the yang part of the circle from the yin part, the other is perpendicular to the first and joins the maximum-yang point, ideal point of maximum light and ideal position of the sun, with the maximum-yin, point of maximum darkness.
see art. 15th on the symbolic origin of ikebana in which the construction of Tai-ji is explained.
The yang part of the circle is not all white but the semicircle, above the imaginary black line, on the side of the sun and includes the “head” of the white part plus the “tail” of the black part while the yin part is the semicircle on the earth side, below the imaginary black line, including the “head” of the black part and the “tail” of the white part. The imaginary line separating the yang part from the yin is inclined 45° from the horizontal. see art. 15°
Tai-ji symbol highlights:
1- although opposites, the yang and yin forces are complementary
2- nothing is completely yang or yin: the yang side contains a black seed of yin and the yin side contains a white seed of yang.
3- yang changes into yin and vice versa.
The styles of ikebana born before the westernization, represent the Tai-ji with the vegetal material i.e. the composition is constituted by yang plants (wood) in the part on our left of the composition (if this is hongatte) and by yin plants (herb-flower-leaves) in the part on our right.
see art. 15: on the construction of Tai-ji
- This subdivision is visible in Rikka and Shōka/Seika and has also survived in the styles (kata, KUN reading, kei, ON reading) of the Ohara school where the shu-fuku group is yang, wood material, while the kyaku group is yin, flower material, as in the above figure of a Moribana Chokuritsu style.
- Generally speaking, the material used in the shu-fuku group must be “stronger”/yang than the material used in the kyaku group, which is composed of “weak”/yin plants compared to the plants utilized in the shu-fuku group.
- During the Edo period, abandoning only in very special cases the Taoist symbology described above, Rikka and Shōka/Seika also began to be composed with only one species of plants, for example pine, maple, or with some specific flowers such as irises, lotus, chrysanthemums and narcissus. see art.70°
From the end of the 1800s onwards, ikebana also began to be composed with any type of herbaceous flower, no longer applying the rules of yin/yang which showed the balance of the universe in ikebana through the presence of yang/branches and yin/flowers.
- After the 1930s, as the influence of Western culture increased, many schools partially abandoned this symbolism in their new ikebana creations. The Ohara School has kept it in styles like Chokuritsu-kei, Keisha-kei, Kansui-kei and Kasui-kei while this symbolism has been abandoned (but occasionally reappears) in the Forms of ikebana created after the 1930s and codified after the Curriculum revision which took place in 2000 and 2020. see art. 67°
If the ikebanist wants to be coherent with the rules of the past, when using only herbaceous flowers he will remember that the shu-fuku group must be yang/”stronger” than the kyaku group and he will express this knowledge of the history/culture of ikebana using “strong”/yang colours or shapes in the flowers of the shu-fuku group compared to the “weak”/yin flowers of the kyaku group.
Interesting this composition of the Ohara school in which the concept “strong”/yang and “weak”/yin is not expressed according to the traditional rules using yang/wood for the main element and yin/flower for the secondary element. Here instead appears the use of an herbaceous/yin plant, but with leaves that are very large and dark green, which appears “strong” in comparison to the small, light green leaves of the maple branch/yang that appears “weak”, considering the volumes and colours.
- It is important for the ikebanist to keep in mind which is the yang/positive part of each individual plant because in all styles of the Ohara school there is the rule that “all plants look – show their positive side/yang- primarily towards the sun (positioned roughly above the head of the ikebanist who os arranging ) and secondly towards the main shu element”.
Plants, in their whole and in their single parts, grow in nature in a harmonious way with respect to the plants that surround them. Once they have been picked and detached “from the natural harmony” in which they have grown and are arranged in a container, it is only through the compositional rules of ikebana that harmony between the plants is restored.
This happens because these rules derive from religion-philosophies (Shintoism, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) in which Man and Nature are part of the same entity (unlike Christianity which sees them separated) and therefore “governed” by the same principles; moreover, these rules (as in all Japanese Traditional Arts) have been “distilled” passing from one generation of Ikebanist masters to the other from the 15th century to the present day.
As happen with the grammatical rules, for those who learn a foreign language, which must be learned and “pedantically” applied by the beginner and then forgotten by those who speak the language fluently because they have acquired them, the rules of ikebana are not an end in themselves but serve to understand the guiding principles governing the relationships between the individual plants, the container, the place where the composition is placed.
THE DISPOSITION OF VEGETABLE ELEMENTS IN IKEBANA HAS ALWAYS REPRESENTED SYMBOLICALLY THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF ITS CREATORS AND ITS CUSTOMERS, THEIR RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL BELIEFS. AND EVEN THOUGH THESE SYMBOLS HAVE LOST THEIR MEANING OVE TIME, THE BASIC STRUCTURE OF THE IKEBANA BASED ON THESE SYMBOLS HAS STAYED PRACTICALLY UNCHANGED TO THIS DAY.
The compositions since the 15th century (the period in which ikebana appeared) until the beginning of the Edo period were symbolic constructions that used plants to represent philosophical-religious concepts. These compositions expressed the harmony of the universe by referring not only to Shintoist and Buddhist symbolism but also to the concept of yin/yang. see art. 2
° of the leaves, branches and flowers is considered:
– Yang the side that grows towards the sun (hi-omote) and
– Yin the side, that grows towards the ground (hi-ura)
ura= opposite, below
° of the whole composition one side was considered yang (containing yang plants: ki-mono, ki=wood) and the other one was considered the yin side (containing yin plants: kusa-mono, kusa=grass) see art. 15°: Ikebana’s symbolic origins
° the composition was composed by an odd number of elements (odd numbers are preferred because they are considered yang) with the only exception of number two which, although yin, like all even numbers, is used because it is considered the sum of yang + yin. see art. 62°
It was only during the Edo period (1603-1868 ), that both the cosmic and mystical vision of life and the sacred perception of nature, characteristic of previous eras, began to decline. At the same time a process of secularization of the arts in general, including Ikebana, takes place: the symbology on which the creation of the compositional rules of ikebana was based is considered outdated and, little by little, is partially forgotten: most of these compositional rules based on religious-philosophical symbols continue to be applied without knowing their symbolic origin.
The arrangements are now perceived in a different way and, consequently, they are identified with a new reading of the kanji. While at the beginning of the Edo period, they were read in On-reading shō-ka/sei-ka now they are read, in Kun-reading, ike-bana, highlighting the verb ikeru=giving life, i.e. plants are no longer seen for their symbolism but express themselves as living beings. see art. 50°, about On-reading and Kun-reading and 54°, kanji reading and the evolution of ikebana
Despite this change in the overall view of compositions, the basic rules of composition remain those of the Rikka, even if simplified.
Still at the beginning of 1800 in the text “Enshū sōka ikō kadenshō” (oral transmission of the ikebana of the Enshū school), anonymous dated 1801, is peremptorily asserted:
-if in a composition you don’t find the principles of yin/yang, this is not an ikebana.
In Japan, religious and philosophical syncretism has always been practised, i.e. there has never been the need to choose one religion or philosophy while rejecting the others; from every religion or philosophy, people have always chosen what seemed most suitable or useful depending on the circumstances, be it in private or public life or for rites of passage such as birth, marriage, funeral.
Also ikebana reflects this syncretism because in its construction the symbols of different religions and philosophies are easily recognizable: the choice of plants and their association, their ideal position in the composition and their direction, the measures, all are based on the symbols of Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, neo-Confucianism and on magical-religious practices such as feng-shui.
references at the bottom of the page
The aim of this website is to arouse the curiosity of ikebanists by giving them a vision of Ikebana where its form is not separated from its meaning and to encourage the reader to go deeper into the themes presented here. Nowadays there is a general tendency in Western art to appreciate the form for itself. The different compositions of ikebana are admired for the beauty of the plants used, forgetting that their position and direction, their choice and association, their size and their orientation, their thinning, all have a meaning because they are based on compositional rules that symbolize Shintoism, Taoism, classical and Zen Buddhism, feng-shui and neo-Confucianism.
Since the concept of divinity in Shintoism is found in natural elements, this allowed it to coexist with other value systems that have penetrated Japan from abroad: in the 7th century, Prince Shotoku Taishi, regent and nephew of Empress Suiko, said: “Shintoism is the trunk, Buddhism is the branches and Confucianism the leaves”.
Japanese culture has always shown a sort of syncretism by accepting the beneficial elements of different, and at times contrasting, religious value systems, making only the most convenient aspects of what was im The religious syncretism, is a characteristic feature of Japanese culture, we find it in ikebana because its compositional rules are based on symbols of various religions.
Only by knowing the history (and how it has influenced in the shaping of collective ways of thinking and in making some values something absolute) can we grasp the meanings of traditional Japanese arts in general and of ikebana in particular.
Otherwise knowledge will be shallow and limited to its exterior appearance.
Considering that most blogs or websites deal with the technique but not with the culture that underlies the understanding of an ikebana, the idea behind this blog is to give explanations that allow a deeper look at the many forms of ikebana, that is, an understanding of its structures and meanings. See art. 25°.
This site has been created to be consulted every time the ikebanist encounters a new theme that is little known to him/her or wants to deepen a theme that is known to him/her; by inserting words to be searched for in the white box at the top left, you can find all the essays concerning the theme searched for.
The author has no commercial interest in this blog. Texts and images are personal or extracted from Internet; if their publication violates the copyright, the owner can communicate this by email and they will be immediately deleted.
Articles and seminar notes.
L’ikebana, filosofia, religione e teoria dei fiori
Ikebana pratico, together with Masanobu Kudō
Ikebana fiori viventi
Ikebana, quando i fiori diventano arte
Ikebana, l’arte meravigliosa di disporre i fiori
Corso di Ikebana, l’arte di disporre i fiori
By Jenny Banti-Pereira
Flower Arrangement, Art of Japan
By Mary Cokely Wood
The Mastery of Japanese Flower Arrangement
By Koshu Tsujii
The Masters`Book of Ikebana
By Sen`ei Ikenobo, Houn Ohara, Sofu Teshigahara
The Art of Japanese Flower Arrangement
The Way of Japanese Flower Arrangement
By A. Koehn
The Art of Flower Arrangement in Japan
By A. L. Sadler
The Theory of Japanese Flower Arrangements
The Flower of Japan and The Art of Floral Arrangement
By J. Conder
The Flower Art of Japan
Japanese Flower Arrangement
By Mary Averill
Japanese Floral Art: Symbolism, Cult and Practice
By Rachel Carr
Flower Arrangement: The Ikebana Way
By Minobu Ohi, Senei Ikenobō, Houn Ohara, Sofu Teshigahara
Paysage: un art, une école, un espace
By Martine Clément
The Joy of Ikenobo Ikebana 2011
Ikenobo Ikebana Basic Guide
Estetica del vuoto
Dieci lezioni sul buddhismo
By Pasqualotto Giangiorgio
L’ideale della Via, Samurai, monaci e poeti nel Giappone medioevale
La cultura del Tè in Giappone
By Aldo Tollini
Il pensiero giapponese classico
By Massimo Raveri
Sources of Japanese Tradition, volume 1 and 2
By Theodore de Bary, D. Keene, George Tanabe, Paul Varley
Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art
By Ernest F. Fenollosa
Yin and Yang, l’armonia taoista degli opposti
By J. C. Cooper
Il Tao: la via dell’acqua che scorre
By Alan W. Watts
The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto
By Mary E. Berry
The World turned upside down
By Pierre F. Souyri
The Ideals of the East
By Akuzo Okakura
Samurai, i guerrieri dell’assoluto
By B. Marillier
Lo stile eroico, l’eroismo in Giappone
By Junyu Kitayama
La maschera del samurai
By Aude Fieschi
Zen and the fine Arts
By Shin’ichi Hisamatsu
Lo zen e l’arte di tirare di spada
By R. Kammer
The Japanese Arts and Self-cultivation
By Robert Carter
Bushido, l’anima del Giappone
By Inazō Nitobe
The Samurai and the sacred
By Sthephen Turnbull
KO-GI-KI, libro base dello shintoismo giapponese
By Mario Marega
Lo spirito delle arti marziali
By Dave Lowry
Lo Zen e la via della spada
By Winston L. King
By Kenji Tokitsu
La via del tiro con l’arco
By Paolo Villa
The Zen Arts
By Rupert Cox
Japanese Tea Culture, art, history and practice
Handmade Culture, Raku Potters, Patrons, and Tea Practitioners in Japan
By Morgan Pitelka
Rediscovering Rikyu and the Beginnings of the japaneseTea Ceremony
By Herbert Plutschow
An introduction to japanese tea ritual
By Jennifer L. Anderson
Tea culture of japan
By Sadako Ohki
Zen in the Art of Tea Ceremony
By Horst Hammitzsch
Lo spirito del Giappone
By Leonardo Vittorio Arena
Gli insegnamenti della pittura del giardino grande come un granello di senape
Edited by Mai-Mai Sze
About Japanese aesthetics
By Donald Richie
La tradizione estetica giapponese
Dalla città ideale alla città virtuale Estetica dello spazio urbano in Giappone e in Cina
By Laura Ricca
L’estetica giapponese moderna
By Marcello Ghilardi
Giappone, la strategia dell’invisibile
By Michel Random
I fiori del vuoto
By Giuseppe Jisō Forzani
The Origin of Japan’s Medioeval Word
Cultural Life of the Warrior Elite in the Fourteenth Century (Chapter 9)
edited by J.P. Mass
Japan in the Muromachi Age
- by J.W. Hall and Toyoda Takeshi Ashikaga
Yoshimitsu and the World of Kytayama (Chapter 12) By H. Paul Varley
Emperor and Aritocracy in Japan 1467-1680
By Lee Butler
The Japanese Way of the Flower: Ikebana as Moving Meditation
By H. E. Davey
Dizionari delle religioni: Taoismo
By Ester Bianchi
La mente giapponese
By Roger J. Davies e Osamu Ikeno
Themes in the History of Japanese Garden Art
By Shirahata Yozaburo
Book of Tea
By Kakuzo Okakura
TEA OF THE SAGES: The Art of Sencha
By Patricia J. Graham
San Sen Sou Moku, il giardino giapponese nella tradizione
By Sachimine Masui, Beatrice Testini
L’universo nel recinto, I fondamenti dell’arte dei giardini e dell’estetica tradizionale giapponese, І e 2
By Paola Di Felice
The Shogun’s City, a History of Tokyo
By Noël Nouët
Kaempfer’s Japan, Tokugawa Culture Observed edited, translated by B. M.
The Origin of Japan’s Medioeval World
Courtiers, Clerics, Warriors and Peasants in the Fourteenth Century
Edited by Jeffry P. Mass
By Ernest Eitel
Modern Reader on the Chinese Classics of FLOWER ARRANGEMENT
By Zhang Qiande and Yuan Hongdao
Compiled by Li Xia
Cultivating Femininity Women and tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan
By Rebecca Corbett
STORIA DEI SAMURAI E DEL BUJUTSU, nascita ed evoluzione dei bushi e delle loro arti nel Giappone feudale
By Roberto Granati
Storia del Giappone
By Kenneth Henshall
Senno (Ikenobō), on the Art of Flower Arrangement ( Chapter 5 ) in
Literary and Art Theories in Japan
By Makoto Ueda
The I Ching in Tokugawa Thought and Culture
By Wai-ming Ng
KAZARI Decoration and Display in Japan 15th-19th Centuries, 2002
edited by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere
KAZARI L’arte di esporre il BONSAI e il SUISEKI, 2016
By Edoardo Rossi
Warlords, Artists and Commoners,
Japan in the XVI Century
edited by George Elison, Bardwell L. Smith
The politics of reclusion, painting and power in Momoyama Japan
By KENDALL H. BROWN
Kire: il bello in giappone
By RYOSUKE OHASHI