For Zen Buddhism, any human activity, especially manual activity, can be used as a “path”, a Way that leads to “awakening”/satori or enlightenment.

The purpose of the specific activity chosen as the Way is not the goal but the “process” that leads to it.

This means doing something not for the result but to commit ourselves because doing the specific acts of that activity helps to change ourselves in the ways indicated by Buddhism in general and Zen in particular.

If any manual activity can potentially be used as a medium to pursue this Way, even more

a discipline (artistic or ‘sporting’) can be used for this purpose.

Since the time of the first shogunate of Kamakura (1185-1333) a group of traditional arts have been influenced by Zen Buddhism and, in the Edo period, used by seculars as a Way ( Dō ) to enlightenment; these disciplines are recognizable by the suffix -dō (= Tao = way):


Martial arts:

Kyu-dō (way of the bow), Ken-dō (way of the sword), Karate-dō (way of the bare hand),

Ju-dō (way of yielding), Iai-dō (way of drawing the sword)


Performing arts:

Cha-dō (tea ceremony), Sho-dō (way of writing), Ka-dō (way of flowers or ikebana), Kō-dō (the way of scents)


Other artistic expressions, even if they do not have the suffix -dō, have also been influenced by Zen, such as: Nō theatre, Bonsai, Suiseki (stone collection), traditional Japanese architecture, Kaiseki cuisine, Kare sansui (“dry” gardens ), Raku pottery, Haiku poetry, Suiboku-ga (diluted ink painting).


How can the manual execution of an Ikebana be used as Ka-dō, that is, as a character-forming discipline, as a way of personal fulfilment, as a way of liberation?


To explain this to those who do not know Zen Buddhism, one can say that this is possible because the rules of ikebana composition are a “manual application” of the ideas that Zen promotes. By applying these rules consciously and repetitively while composing, they are assimilated and made their own by the ikebanist and become his or her ethical characteristics.


For example, the repetition of the manual exercise of “removing the unnecessary leaving only the essential of the branch” (for Zen, the concept “less is more” applies), if done with consciousness, is transformed into a spiritual exercise whereby one learns to “remove the superfluous leaving only the essential” also in other situations in one’s life.


The “making a space around the composition, around the plants and in the plants themselves”, leaving only what is necessary (always the concept of “less is more”), trains the ikebanist to “make a space” in his mind, that is, to let thoughts pass through, without being influenced, considering them only thoughts and nothing more.

The practice of considering relationships of “strength”, of measures, of volumes, by constructing an ikebana exercises the conscious ikebanist to give greater value to the relationships with people, animals, nature, objects, the environment, etc.

Attempting to create an Ikebana that is ‘shibui’ (austere, elegant, sober, refined, quiet) and ‘wabi-sabi’ ( refusing the ostentation, poverty as voluntary relinquishment), two qualities favored by Zen, exercises the ikebanist in ‘shibui’ and ‘wabi-sabi’ behaviour in everyday life. Pursuing this form of ikebana leads to actions that are poor in appearance but rich in meaning, simple but important, sober but effective, and this means that a formal refinement in the material execution of the composition (practicing the art of ikebana ) leads the ikebanist to an ethical improvement.



A poem by Constantinos KAVAFIS (1863-1933) expresses very well the Zen concept that ‘the goal is the path we take’. :




As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon- don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon- you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

the sensual perfume of every kind-

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her, you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/ Phillip Sherrard


The poem is from



The birth of Zen, in tradition, is linked to a flower:


Buddha was once asked to give a sermon; he picked a flower (of a fig, according to Dōgen, as written in the Shōbōgenzō, but usually it is a lotus) and, in silence, slowly with his arm outstretched, showed it to his followers. Only one, the wisest (Mahakasyapa = Kasiyapa the great) sensed the “silent” message of the Master and smiled with understanding: thus was born the silent teaching of Zen. Mahakasyapa was the first of a series of patriarchs who brought Zen from India to Japan, where the shogunal nobility, already in the Kamakura period, preferred it to the other Buddhist currents practiced by the imperial nobility, because it was more in keeping with the warrior mentality.


Zen gave Ikebana the same characteristics given to the ideal lifestyle of the shogunale nobility. These characteristics were applied in all manifestations of daily life: from the way of building houses, to martial arts and other arts such as the tea ceremony, Nō theatre, calligraphy, Haiku poetry, dry gardens, Kaiseki cooking, Raku pottery and more.


These characteristics can be summarised in the following concepts, expressed by the Zen monk Shin’ichi Hisamatsu in his book “ZEN and the fine ARTS”:


General characteristics that apply to all arts                             Specific characteristics for ikebana


                         Simplicity                                                   In the choice of the vase and materials


                                                                                             All the redundant parts of the vegetals

                         Austerity                                                 are removed, leaving only the essential parts


                         Asymmetry                                                  In numbers, positions and inclinations


                                                                                                   Avoiding any signs of artificiality:

                       Naturalness                                                   the composition must give the idea that

                                                                                                      human did not intervene


                                                                                              The composition must radiate a sense

                      Subtle depth                                           strength and a remarkable power of suggestion

                       (Yugen)                                                         that suggests some hidden quality



                     Peace of mind                                               The composition must suggest a sense

                                                                                                               of deep  calm

The origin of ikebana according to tradition was written in the second half of the 1700s by the Ikenobō, and relates the birth of ikebana with historical figures who really lived but whose involvement with ikebana is historically impossible.

In the Azuka period (552-710 A.D.) Empress Suiko was elected. She was the first woman-tennō of the eight empresses who reigned in Japan and she ruled from 593 to 628 A.D. see article no. 111


She appointed as Regent her nephew Prince Umayado (born 574 and died 622), known by the posthumous name of Shotoku Taishi = shining prince.

He was the second son of Emperor Yōmei, (in the two drawings together with two dignitaries drawn smaller than he to highlight his importance was).

He was an important figure who supported the introduction of Buddhism at the imperial court and, according to tradition, wrote the first Japanese Constitution of 17 articles. He also introduced the use of the Chinese calendar used in Japan, with a few adaptations, until 1873 when the Gregorian calendar was introduced.










Looking at the garments and hairstyles, the Chinese influence on the Japanese Imperial Court at that time is evident.







Tradition has it that Shotoku Taishi, an ardent Buddhist, always carried a statuette of the goddess of compassion, Kannon.

During one of his journeys, being very hot, he stopped to cool off by a pond but when he wanted to put his clothes on and leave, the statue had become very heavy. He therefore spent the night close to the pond and dreamt that Kannon wished a temple to be built there in her honour. Taishi had it built and, being hexagonal in shape, over the years it was called Rokkakudō = hexagonal temple.



According to the legend, the Rokkakudō was built in an area that was to be chosen for the new capital, the construction of which began around 794 and became the seat of the imperial court. The new capital was called Heian-kyō, today’s Kyoto.

Historians agree that the Rokkakudō was actually built in the capital more than 170 years after Taishi’s death -which occurred in 622-, when the new capital already existed

The Rokkakudō is the historical seat of the Ikenobō School.




Japanese banknotes showing both Shotoku Taishi and the Rokkakudō






At the head of two embassies to China in 607 and 608 was ONO NO IMOKO, nephew of the emperor Bidatsu (538-585) and cousin of Taishi. His return from the second embassy is historically documented but this is the last historical information about him: from his return from China onwards, he is no longer mentioned in any source









The Japanese imperial message, brought by Imoko to the Chinese Emperor Yang in the first embassy, started with:

“the son of Heaven where the sun rises (i.e. Japan) to the son of Heaven where the sun sets (i.e. China)………”

This message probably annoyed the latter because it equate the two emperors, while the Chinese imperial court considered the Japanese to be an insignificant and barbaric people.

When Ono no Imoko returned from the second embassy, Taishi was dead and at this point tradition states: Ono no Imoko took his vows and retired to Rokkakudō, becoming its abbot and taking the name of the Buddhist monk SENMU.

It is said that he began to create flower offerings to the altar of Buddha the way he had learned to do in China.Tradition states that he lived in a hut adjacent to the Rokkakudō located by the pond where Shotoku Taishi had cooled off. Hence the origin of the name Ike no bō (=hut by the pond).






Rokkakudō, Kyoto







According to tradition, the abbots who followed him at the head of the Rokkakudō continued to occupy themselves and develop this art, which in the Edo period was called ikebana.


From the second abbot onwards, as monks, they assumed names that all began with SEN, a custom that has survived to this day.

Historically, the name (Senkei or Senei) Ikenobō first appears in a diary of the Kyoto Buddhist monk, Hekizan Nichiroku, dated 25 February 1462, in which it is said that many people saw compositions in a golden vase performed by the monk Senei Ikenobō.

From the 608, the historical date on which Ono no Imoko returned from the second embassy (and retired, according to legend, to Rokkakudō, taking the name Senmu) until 1462, the year when the name ikenobō first appeared in the diaries, this name has never been mentioned in any other historical source that has come down to us.


With the aim of increasing or strengthening the prestige and legitimacy of the school, the Ikenobō, as well as associating the birth of their name with Shotoku Taishi, associated Senkei Ikenobō with the Ashikaga shoguns saying that he was in the service of Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun, and that in 1479 the latter named him: “Dai Nippon Kado no Iemoto” (he who originated ikebana).

Thus demonstrating Yoshimasa’s alleged preference for the Tatebana created by Senkei over those created by the dōbōshū of the Ji sect.

The dōbōshu were secular-monks in his employ, who first created the Tatebana; the association of Senkei Ikenobo with the shogun Yoshimasa is considered by historians to be untrue.


Although texts written on Tatebana appear as early as the 14th century (e.g. Sasaki Dōyo 1306-1373) and in various journals there is mention of “arranging/putting upright” (TATERU ) flowers, as for example in a record dated 20 April 1476.  In this it is said that Yoshimasa, on the occasion of his visit to the Imperial Palace, asked his dōbōshū Ryūami to ” put up rights” (TATERU) of peonies. The same action is also described on other pages with other flowers.


Tradition links the birth of Ikebana only to the Ikenobō School, but this tradition was written by the Ikenobō themselves in the Edo period at the request of the Tokugawa shoguns.

The dōbōshū see article 33 , the first “creators” and codifiers of the rules of the Tatebana, disappeared with the fall of the Ashikaga and the Ikenobō, now the only ones dealing with this art, began the hegemony in the field of ikebana that would last until the middle of the Edo period, when the other schools were born, all derived from the Ikenobō school.


Written by Mauro posted online on March 8, Women’s Day

 The Japanese monarchy is the oldest institution of the globe. It is perpetuated almost in its totality by male hereditary line with the exception of a few cases in which became Tenno some daughters or wives of emperors or women relatives of the Imperial Family, and always only with the aim of preserving the throne in the family, never by free choice. The Imperial Family has no surname and all the Tenno are known only by their posthumous Buddhist name, given to them after their death.

The first 42 Emperors of which tradition tells us resided in as many seats about the size of a village; since Shintoism considers impure both blood and death, at the Emperor’s death the village, having become impure, was abandoned.

There were 8 female Tenno:




ASUKA 552-710.  Five Empresses: 1) SUIKO 2) KOGYOKU / SAIMEI 3) JITO 4) GEMMEI

NARA 710-794. Three Empresses: 5) GENSHO 6) KOKEN / SHOTOKU

HEIAN 794-1185

KAMAKURA 1185-1392

MUROMACHI 1392-1568

MOMOYAMA 1568-1600

EDO 1600-1868. Two Empresses: 7) MEISHO 8) GOSAKURAMAKI

Of the 125 TENNO in official history, eight were women and two of them were two times with different names; therefore, official Japan had Empresses ten times.

In Japanese mythology, there are mentions of queen-shamans who held power.

For example it was JINGO who led the first invasion of Korea, she was pregnant and to allow her son (future emperor OJIN) to be born in Japan, the pregnancy lasted 14 months and it is said that he “led” his mother from the womb in the battles, for this reason, at his death, OJIN was identified with HACHIMAN, god of war.



Figurine representing Jingo

Temple of Hachiman in Nara



The term TENNO ( 天皇 TEN=sky, 0=sovereign ) was first used by Shotoku Taishi in the missive for the Chinese Emperor brought by Ono no Imoko (to whom tradition associates the birth of ikebana through the presumed beginning of the Ikenobo dynasty see art. 12th) in reference to the 1st Empress Suiko (33rd Tenno of the official list, who reigned from 593 to 628), under whose reign began the diplomatic relations with China.

In the political Chinese concept, the Emperor was a Heavenly Mandate, meaning that his task was to ensure harmony between celestial forces, natural forces and human forces; he could carry out these functions only if endowed with virtues.

The Imperial Mandate was entrusted by Heaven and could be withdrawn from Heaven (and pass to another dynasty) if it proved not to possess these virtues. To avoid a change of the Imperial Family (as happened in China) the Japanese nobles claimed that the emperor was not by heavenly mandate but because he was a direct descendant of the kami Amaterasu, Goddess of the sun.


 ASUKA  Period  552-710


1st Tenno woman: in 592 UMAKO, head of the SOGA clan, had Emperor SUJIN assassinated and appointed his niece SUIKO, Sujin’s widow, to the throne; Another of his nephews, SHOTOKU TAISHI (= Holy Prince), was appointed Regent. He was a cultured and far-sighted man who favoured the introduction of Buddhism at Court and whom tradition associates with the birth of ikebana because, again according to tradition, Taishi built the Rokkakudo, the temple to which Ono no Imoko retired as the first Ikenobo abbot.

The tradition associates the “birth of ikebana” with these true historical figures, but their role in the making of ikebana has been supported by tales created by the Ikenobo almost a thousand years later in order to reconstruct an important past and give themselves legitimacy, when they became famous with Senkei Ikenobo, the first Ikenobo name that was mentioned for the first time in 1462 as the creator of a Tatebana in a gold vase. (See art. 13, the birth of ikebana according to historical sources)

2nd Tenno woman:  on the death of SUIKO, Emperor JOMEI ascended the throne, but on his death in 641, again due to political problems, his wife Princess TAKARA ascended the throne as the 35th TENNO under the name of KOGYOKU; she abdicated after three years in favour of her son Prince NAKA who, in order to be able to really rule behind the scenes, preferred to refuse the title in favour of KOTOKU, Kogyoku’s brother, who became the 36th Emperor in the official list.

The latter died nine years later and, for the second time, Kogyoku was raised as the 37th Tenno and took the name of SAIMEI, remaining Tenno until her death in 661.

3rd Tenno woman: in 690, after the death of Emperor TEMMU, became the 41st Tenno his wife with the name JITO. She was also known as a poetess, with her waka included in Manyoshu. She retired in 697 to allow her son MOMMU to assume the throne until 707 when he died. Being his son only 6 years old, his wife became Tenno with the name of GEMMEI.



GEMMEI  was the 4th Tenno woman and the 43rd Tenno. During her reign,  that lasted 8 years, the capital was moved to NARA and the KOGIKI (= history of ancient things), the first book on Shinto mythology and on the history ( mythicized) of the aristocracy of the Yamato, was completed. She abdicated in 715 in favour of her daughter Princess HIDAKA who became:

 The 5th Tenno woman, with the name of  GENSHO. She was the  44th Tenno on the official list  and reigned from 715 to 724. During her reign was written the NIHON SHOKI (= chronicles of Japan) which, like the KOGIKI, repeats (with variations) and extends the ( mythicized) chronology of the Yamato bloodline.

 KOKEN was the 6th Tenno woman, 46th in the official list, from 749 to 758 . She abdicated in favour of one of her sons when she became seriously ill; during her illness she was treated by a Buddhist monk – Dokyo – who healed her; she fell in love with the monk and engaged him as a counsellor.

Healed, she succeeded in ascending to the throne a second time in 764, taking the name SHOTOKU, 48th Tenno, and installed her lover-monk (who acted as if he were the Emperor) in the Palace, appointing him Head of Ministers. Fortunately for the Court she died in 770 and Dokyo was immediately removed. Because of the behaviour of the latter female Tenno, no other female Tenno was appointed for over 800 years. In fact, in the Heian, Kamakura, Muromachi and Momoyama periods there were no Empresses.  


EDO PERIOD 1600-1868

In 1629, the 7th Tenno woman was appointed, a little girl, who took the name MEISHO, 109th on the official list.

The second Shogun Tokugawa HIDETADA had given his daughter Kazuko in marriage to Emperor Gomizu-noo as a gesture of reconciliation between the increasingly powerful Shogunate and the decadent (penniless and maintained by the shoguns) Imperial institutions.

The Emperor, in order to collect some money, used to sell some privileges to the monks such as the permission to wear clothes of certain colours reserved to the nobility. The Shogun forbade this practice to the Emperor and he abdicated in favour of his daughter (and niece of the Shogun) Princess Okiko, only 6 years old, to put him in an embarrassing situation.  The Shogun, consequently, ended up having to submit (only in theory, but appearances were very important) to a child Empress and, moreover, his niece.  She was Tenno (under the regency of a Fujiwara) for 14 years, then abdicated in favour of her half-brother and became a nun.

The 8th and last Tenno woman, 117th on the official list, was GO-SAKURAMACHI. She ascended the throne at the age of 22 and held this position from 1762 to 1771.

She was the sister of Emperor Momozono who died at the age of 22 leaving behind a son of only four years. She held the throne until her nephew turned twelve and was appointed Tenno. Little is known about her, only that she was an excellent calligrapher.

Since then there have been no more Tenno women and in the 19th century the Imperial Household established that in the Imperial Family only the eldest male child could assume the role of Tenno.


Please note: among the many homophone kanji pronounced KA one is:

KA ( ON reading ), hana ( KUN reading) = “flower

KA ( ON reading )  and  uta ( KUN reading) = poetry

therefore Ka-dō, written in rōmaji and out of context, can mean -the way of “flowers” – or -the way of poet


When the ikebanist has learned the basic rules of ikebana and is no longer worried about “making mistakes” while composing.

By doing a conscious choice he can use this art as a “way of emancipation” and consider what he does – composing an ikebana – from the point of view of Ka-dō, whose ideal aim is the attainment of a particular state of mind, of control of one’s body, of a discipline of behavior. All these characteristics, exercised and developed by practicing ikebana as Ka-dō, will enter into one’s daily life and will be put into practice also in other situations of our life.



In everyday life, we wear several masks and armours.


In learning to create an ikebana, various facets of our character emerge while performing the composition: shyness, aggressiveness, anxiety about not succeeding, fear of making mistakes, belief in having “good taste”, difficulty in accepting the teacher’s corrections, comparison with the works created by other pupils, eagerness to finish, disorder around the composition, etc.


Being aware of these aspects of our character is the first step on the way to change, to the Buddhist enlightenment (satori).


For a western-minded ikebanist, practicing ikebana in the spirit of Ka-dō is an attempt to achieve inner calm and learn to concentrate.

 As well as improving one’s personal ethics, so that even without achieving “enlightenment” one can improve one’s quality of life.



The “ideal” mental and physical attitude of the ikebanist who follows Ka-dō is the following:

– Put yourself in a state of inner peace; calm the turmoil by concentrating on what you are doing.

Staying focused and considering the time and the place in which you perform an arrangement, at school as well as at home, not to “competitively produce a beautiful ikebana” but to dedicate some pleasurable time to yourself.

To connect with the plants we use, considering them not as an object of possess, to be exploited, or as a tool to show off our “composing skills”, but as living plants that deserve all our respect.


– Consider all the single plants and elements, which must be in harmony with each other.

For example, do not be attracted by a single branch that we consider “beautiful” and try forcefully to adapt the rest of the composition to that branch, despite technical difficulties, but know how to sacrifice the exclusivity of a branch by replacing it with another in favour of the outcome of the entire composition.


Those who follow the Way live in harmony with the rest of the world and do not pretend to be the center to which everything and everyone must adapt.


– One of the first steps to take along the Ka-dō is to free oneself from constraints such as “I like this” or “I don’t like that”, occasionally overheard among those who follow the first ikebana lessons, both in relation to the plants used and to the compositions of the other students.


-Focus on what you are doing, forgetting to think about past or future daily problems. Important is the –here and now-.

 Important is what I do here, in this place and not what I have done or will do in other places, at home, at work, at the dentist’s, in the kitchen, in the car.

Important is the now, this moment and not what I did last time – for example a composition that did not satisfy me and the dissatisfaction, linked to its technical difficulties, that I bring with me – or what I will do next time – a wonderful composition that everyone will admire. Keeping the mind at the -here and now- is one of the steps of the Way.


– Those who do not follow the Way are focused only on the composition and forget to treat plants, objects and people, as they would like to be treated.





We usually give a great deal of consideration to the plants, or part of them, that are included in the composition compared to those we discard, considered bulky, troublesome, to be thrown away as soon as possible; in our eyes those used in the composition will be the reason for the praises we will receive while those discarded do not contribute to highlight our skills as ikebanists.


Who is following the Way consider both the plants that become part of the composition and those that do not in the same way.

He gives the same attention and care in not letting them fall down at random, in not stepping on them, in picking them up if they have fallen on the ground using broom and dustpan.


The plants in the composition will also end up being thrown away, but those were used to strengthen our Ego while the discarded ones were not used for this purpose and therefore are unfairly considered “useless” and treated accordingly.





The things we use deserve the same treatment as the plants, so those who follow the Way will be careful in the use of the various tools, taking care not to make noise by putting the scissors on the table – in Japan they use a cloth to put the scissors on so as to attenuate the noise -.

The table must remain clean around the composition as well as the floor, if their use is necessary, the broom and the dustpan must be used consciously.




Some novice ikebanists have a tendency to critically evaluate the compositions of their colleagues or, when the teacher is correcting the composition, they list their good motives for why that plant, which the teacher has corrected, was put that way. Explaining the good reasons on the student’s part does not change the reasons for the correction.


Gusty Herrigel in her book – Zen and the Art of Arranging Flowers – in her second lesson after the Master has removed the flowers from the vase and remade her composition, writes: “Why, I wondered, can’t the Master take into account the psychology of the European, who does not admit a priori that he or she is incapable of succeeding?”


Those who follow the Way are more merciful with the other students, refrain from making comments and do not perceive the correction as a “personal critique” but as a help offered to improve their technique and their understanding of ikebana.

He listens in silence to the teacher’s correction and explanation and will make good use of it in the future.



The teachings of Zen, and consequently those of Ka-dō, are transmitted through demonstration and very little through words.



Remember the “silent flower sermon”, considered the beginning of the Zen practice that Buddha gave on Vulture Peak: when asked by the followers to give a sermon, Buddha responded with a silent act, showing only a flower.


In Japan, the correction was performed without the Master giving explanations: it was sufficient to do the correction without either Master or student needing to speak.


Patience, humility, peacefulness, respect, and harmony are characteristics of those who follow the Way.


– Although it is difficult to maintain silence during the lessons, those who follow the Way try to do so; silence allows their own concentration and that of the people around us. Silence shows respect for oneself, for the teacher and for the other people present, and helps to emphasize the ” sacrality ” of what one is doing.


– Those who follow the Way are aware of how they use their bodies: they economize their gestures by leaving out the superfluous. The acts we perform in choosing the vegetables, measuring the appropriate length and inclination, manipulating them, taking and placing the scissors without noise, removing the superfluous, inserting them in the container must be precise. These movements are comparable to the katas performed in Martial Arts: consciously practicing to continuously repeat the specific movements makes them spontaneous and automatically executed.


These gestures, with the ideal characteristics described, are the result of a long careful observation of the plant, of an instinct educated to harmony but above all of the inner strength freed from the Ego.


If we are concentrated on what we are, doing nothing should fall on the ground; if this happens, for the ikebanist who follows the Way, cleaning has the same importance as the creative act of composing ikebana.


– The “dismantling” of the finished composition is an action equivalent to the destruction of a Mandala that reminds the ikebanist of the impermanence and transience of things and people: it is important to learn to “let go” without regrets what in any way cannot be held back.

It should be emphasized that this character-forming discipline, this path to personal fulfillment and liberation based on the practice of Zen, has nothing to do with religion as understood by a person of Christian faith.

Ka-dō can be followed regardless of the religion professed by the ikebanist, since the values it promulgates – concentration, economy of gestures, silence, harmony, respect, serenity, patience, humility, consideration of others – although shared by religions, are not religious in themselves.

see also Art. 17


Feng-shui (wind-water) – hōgaku (direction-angle)

deals with the correct interaction of the human being with his natural environment and is the art of identifying and interpreting the action of Ki cosmic energies (electromagnetic, thermal and gravitational) that circulate in the human being and in his environment mainly through air (breath in man, wind in nature) and water (blood in man, rivers in nature).


In ancient China and Japan, nature was regarded as a living, breathing organism.



This kanji represents the vital energy that flows in the universe and enlivens every form of existence on the earth – including stones and rocks – and is written Ki (Hepburn transliteration system) or Ch`i (Wades-Giles system) or Qi (PinYin system).

See article 50 on the transliteration of the Japanese language.


Ki can be “good” or “bad”, stored, dispersed, channelled, and is responsible for all the changes in the universe and is expressed through the two principles Yin and Yang that control the universe, not arbitrarily or randomly but through unchangeable and humanly unfathomable laws.


This view of the universe may appear irrational and unscientific, but it has greatly influenced both Chinese and Japanese everyday life and culture.

For example, the vital force Ki has always been used to define an artist, since the Roppo (six cànons of HSIEH HO) places as the first and most important rule the fact that the artist expresses his Ki and that of his work. See article 7


One of the purposes of feng-shui is to locate the ‘dragon lines’ that carry the earth’s energy, i.e. to identify the earth’s energy lines that are comparable to the meridians of the human body considered by acupuncture. This helped to capture the beneficial energy of the chosen location and  to banish the malefic energy. Was used for example for indicating the correct location where and how to build a tomb, a house or a city.orretta posizione di una tomba o una casa o una città.

Chinese feng-shui masters searching for dragon lines (4th figure from right consulting a compass on a small table) late Chìng period (late 19th century)





The ancient capitals of Nara, Nagaoka and Heian-kyo – today’s Kyoto – were built according to the rules of Feng-Shui, as well as the Tokugawa castle around which today’s Tokyo was built, haphazardly and without following feng-shui.

Buildings such as the Imperial Palaces, the residences of the aristocracy and even all the elements that make up their gardens, from stones to paths to ponds to streams to waterfalls and trees, have been laid out according to these rules since ancient times.


The theory of Feng-Shui is very complex and is based on the Yang-Yin Theory, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the 5 elements (fire, wood, earth, water and metal) and the 64 hexagrams of the I-Ching.


The importance of Feng-Shui was such that, for example, it was thought that even if just one of the large stones in the garden was misplaced it would fail to protect the house from evil energies and this failure could cause illness or even the death of the owner.

Like everything produced by Japanese culture, ikebana has also developed in accordance with the rules of Feng-Shui, particularly those relating to the four protective Cardinal Deities and the avoidance of straight lines.





In ancient China, and consequently in ancient Japan, the stars of the firmament were grouped, according to the four seasons, into four major constellations: the tortoise, tiger, phoenix and dragon.



In the picture below the constellation of the Turtle with the Little Dipper and the Polar Star visible in the lower right-hand corner




The same animals, positioned in symbolic concordance (according to Tai-ji) with the orientations and colours, North black tortoise, West white tiger, South red phoenix and East blue dragon.

They have the task of “protecting” the person, the tomb, the house from evil forces.


Contrary to the West, which places the south at the bottom and the north at the top, in ancient times in the East the position of the two cardinal directions was reversed, so on maps and in Taoist symbolism the black turtle protecting the north is placed at the bottom and the red phoenix, protecting the south, at the top. (see article 15th )





            Western concept                                                                                                    Sino-Japanese concept



In China and Japan, south – corresponding to the sun – was considered the most important direction and therefore considered yang while north, its opposite and less important, was considered yin

For this reason in the ancient compasses used in the Far East, the magnetic needle (red tip in the picture) pointed south.





East is also considered yang because the sun, which is born in the east, rises in the firmament and radiates more heat. Rising and rising are yang characteristics. Its opposite west is believed to be yin, direction in which the sun decreases in heat and descends, decrease and descent are yin connotations.


In reality, the -person, house, tomb- must be facing south geographically surrounded by the four animal-symbols that protect it; both the type of animal and its position are consistent with Tai-ji.

There are two flying animals on the Yang/sky side (east and south) dragon and phoenix and two land animals on the Yin/earth side (north and west) tortoise and tiger.


Above is an example of the layout of a tomb protected to the north by the tortoise (high mountains), to the west by the tiger (hills), to the east by the dragon (medium height mountains) and to the south by the phoenix (empty space and water).












Sketch of a Chinese emperor’s sarcophagus with the four protective animals engraved on its walls.





In order for a building to be in a protected situation, it must ‘look’ to the south and there must be an empty space in front of it (the Red Phoenix), behind it to the north is a very tall building (the Black Turtle), to its right side to the west is a low building (the White Tiger) and to its left side to the east is a slightly taller building (the Blue Dragon).







Applied to a person, this person, in order to be protected, must have a high object to his left (symbolized by the Dragon) and a low object to his right (symbolized by the Tiger) free space in front (Phoenix) and a wall behind (Tortoise).






The ancient capitals Fujiwara (694-710), Nara (710-784), Nagaoka (unfinished and abandoned after 10 years) and Heian-kyo (794-1868) -the present Kyoto, map above- as well as the first shogunal capital of Kamakura (1192-1333) were built following the rules of Feng-Shui ( see Art. 17°) whereas present-day Tokyo was built haphazardly and without following the feng-shui rules.






Above is a map of ancient Edo (present-day Tokyo) with an apparently free space in the centre marked with the Tokugawa coat of arms (three leaves of Althea) where their residence stood, with the main daimyo dwellings – arranged on a north/south axis – to the south, one next to the other.

All this is surrounded by the rest of the city, which has grown haphazardly because Edo was not born as a capital city.





The two protective animals dragon and tiger were frequently painted on screens as can be seen in the painting below by Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539 – 1610)









or in sliding doors like the ones by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799) below









Two six-panelled screens:













Triptych by Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713):











In the Edo Period it was fashionable to give a triptych with a drawing of famous people in the center, on its left side -yang side- the dragon -yang animal- and on its right side -yin side- the tiger -yin animal- protecting it.













Screens by Eitoku Kanō ( 1543 – 1590)









Or screens with the dragon and the tiger.


Since drawings on paper, on screens and sliding doors are “read” from right to left, the yang/ most important dragon is placed first on our right and the tiger/ yin -less important- is placed second, on our left.


A leopard was painted next to the tiger: in Japan, as only the skins of these felines arrived from abroad, the leopard was believed to be the female of the tiger-male.

Consequently :Tiger-male/yang, most important, drawn first in the view from right to left, leopard (wrongly believed to be the female/yin of the tiger), drawn second:

In the  double screen the dragon, being yang compared to the tiger, it is placed to the right of the screen with tiger and leopard, and is the first to be “read”.











Sliding doors by Kano Tan`yu 1630 circa




















In this depiction of Buddha’s death, at the bottom right-hand corner, among all the pairs of animals that have come to pay their respects, you can see the tiger/leopard pair.

See the detail below:














Above a Kimono of the late Edo-early Shōwa  period with the two protective animals yang, phoenix and dragon













Furoshiki cloth, Meiji period, with two protective animals in the centre, from the south -phoenix- and from the north -turtle-.








Hanakago: bamboo ikebana Basket dated 1926 with tiger and phoenix.












It is interesting to note that in this manga by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) taken from the book -Hokusai, le vieux fou d’architecture-representing an ancient Torii (nowadays composed of a single arch but in the past composed of four) the inscriptions at numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 indicate that it was spatially arranged in accordance with the four protective deities: 2 vermilion bird, 3 white tiger, 4 black tortoise, 5 blue dragon, with the main entrance facing south.





When the rules of ikebana composition were created during the 15th century, the feng-shui scheme already in use in everyday life was taken as a reference, so the measurements and positions of the plants were designed to be in accordance with its symbolism and in harmony with the positions of the four cardinal deities:


In the Rikka the main element (Shu for the Ohara school) corresponds to the person – house – tomb to be protected and is protected  by the  Fuku in the position of the Dragon on the east side and by a Kyaku in the position of the Tiger on the west side.

The composition is seen “from behind”, that is from the north (position of the Turtle), as it is customary in Ikenobo rikka and shoka (concept that will be explained in the following paragraphs).


At the beginning, when the first compositional rules of ikebana were formed, the Rikka was always in the style that the Ohara school calls “Vertical” i.e. with the Shu in the centre and vertical: the composition, “looking” to the south (the sun at its apex is ideally placed on the side of the yang culmination between the Dragon and the Phoenix ) and seen from the north (Turtle), is congruent with the rules of Feng-Shui: shu is protected on its left side by a relatively high fuku (Dragon) and on its right side by a relatively low kyaku (Tiger).




In the Edo period new types of ikebana appeared (see Art 15) deriving from a simplification of the Rikka and called shōka in the school Ikenobo and seika in the other schools: only three main elements are used but the respect of the laws of feng shui has remained unchanged, maintaining the protective scheme of shu with a fuku/Dragon high in the east and a kyaku/Tiger low in the west.


Also in the shōka, the sun is located at the point-maximum yang in the drawing.


From Rikka and shōka, that was the only structured style from the birth of ikebana until the first part of the Edo period, the Oblique and Cascade styles derive; in these styles the shu has changed position and the reference to the 4 Protectors no longer exists.


Shu è “protetto” da fuku/drago e da kyaku/tigre







The styles of the Ohara school derive from seika and the only style in which the influence of feng shui is still perceptible is the Alto style while it is no longer perceptible in the other styles as the position of shu and fuku have changed.









The rules about positions and heights in ikebana are also coherent with the four cardinal deities where shu (circle) corresponds to the person to be protected, fuku (square) corresponds to the dragon and kyaku (triangle) corresponds to the tiger.

The composition is seen ‘from behind’, i.e. from the north (position of the turtle), as is customary in Ikenobo rikka and shoka (a concept that will be explained in the next articles).





Feng-Shui views straight lines negatively because they facilitate evil energy to flow, while it prefers curved lines because they deflect such forces.

For example, roads, streams, canals, rivers flowing in a straight line bring evil influences; on the contrary, roads and waters with winding and curved lines are an indication of the presence of beneficial forces. In general, any shape with straight lines, angles and edges is considered virtually dangerous.



Even in ikebana (with the exception of the early Rikka with the straight Shu) all the Schools of the past have always used curved lines, arriving, only in the Edo period, at excesses such as the example of the Seika of the Enshu School that used curves that may appear to our eyes “extreme, exaggerated, unnatural, baroque, artificial”, with S-shaped bends, very accentuated and complex.



Bearing in mind this dislike of straight lines in Feng-Shui, even the ikebanist of the Ohara School must avoid them, apart from specific rare exceptions.


Plants in their natural state in Japan appear more “suffered” because the forces of nature are much more powerful than in Europe and therefore “leave their mark” on the plants; as European plants are less “marked” by nature than Japanese ones, they must be moulded by the ikebanist. This is even more evident when using plants grown in greenhouses or nurseries or other protected places which, unlike plants grown in nature, do not show (with their straight lines) the effects of the forces of nature (wind, rain, sun, cold, snow, drought). They must therefore be “manipulated” by the ikebanist in order to remove the rigidity of the lines to make them more natural and less artificial.


The “amount” of manipulation will be less on a “young” element and more on an “old” element because the “young”, in theory, has been exposed to the elements for less time than the “old”.
















Examples of manipulation of plants to give them a curve.

surimono di Hokusai (1760-1849)

varie scuole, per curvare i rami diritti che si spezzano se piegati, dopo averli parzialmente incisi vi inseriscono dei cunei prelevati dallo stesso vegetale













Another example of obtaining very pronounced curves used in seika


A further reason for manipulation is that the composition must also show the Buddhist concept of interdependence and the right plant excludes any dependence on natural environmental factors.


A poem by the Italian poet Nico Orengo expresses well the forces of nature that shape the plant:


the wind shapes the pine tree

and sways it in sirocco and tramontana

dries it from the west and irritates it with mistral

and sweats it and bends it


All ancient cultures were based, in addition to religions, on a set of magical-religious practices, beliefs and superstitions which, even if they appear irrational and unscientific to our Cartesian eyes today, guided and permeated all aspects of daily life.



In Japan, as early as the Heian period (794-1185), such beliefs and superstitions were well established, as they were either part of the indigenous Shintoism or had been imported with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.


For example (see article 50th )  in Japanese language, the avoidance of using


shi  the number four

comes from a superstition since the kanji for the number 4 in the on (educated, Chinese) reading is read shi and one of its fifty or more homophone kanji

is shi, meaning death

 so the sound shi means both 4 and death and for this reason it was avoided. To say the number 4, the reading kun (popular Japanese reading) is preferred, which sounds like yon.



Here you can see some lift panels where the number 4 does not appear

A photo of a market stall where the 4 is missing but also the number 9 kyū, too similar to the sound ku = suffering, pain.


The “Office of Omens”, created at the Imperial Court in 675 A.D., dealt with the study of good and bad omens in order to help both individuals and the government in its politics: the decisions “that made history” were also taken on the basis of what the Masters of Yin-Yang said.

It is interesting to know that there were temporary directional taboos so that, for example, on certain ‘unfavourable days’ an army could not march in the direction believed to be unlucky: so either it stopped, even for up to a month until these expired, or it took an alternative route to the unlucky direction which was certainly longer and wasted precious time.


Some examples from ” The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan” by Ivan Morris:


The emperor or dignitaries would cancel a journey if the direction that day was inauspicious.

Certain activities were forbidden according to criteria such as the age and/or the sex of those involved: for example, at the age of 16 one was required to avoid travelling in the inauspicious direction of north-west.

Other taboos were linked to the personal cycle of 60 days – based on the combination of the 12 animals of the zodiac (mouse, buffalo, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, pig) plus the five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, earth). Therefore some activities were, on a given day or at a given time, unlucky and therefore “forbidden”, such as cutting one’s hair, clipping one’s fingernails, taking a bath, starting a love affair, starting a medical treatment, going on a journey.

One day out of every 60 – The Monkey Day – no sleep was allowed because of the danger of evil powers attacking during the night.

At regular intervals the imperial guards on duty at Court made the strings of their bows vibrate to ward off evil spirits and the whole day at Court was set, we would say “limited”, by these beliefs, superstitions for us.

The Masters of Yin-Yang were held in the highest esteem maintained until the Edo period and demonstrated by the fact that they were allowed to use sedan chairs for travel, a means reserved only for the imperial and Shogunal aristocracy or high-ranking priests. Until the end of the Edo period, their divinations were requested by members of the Imperial and Shogunal court as well as by the emerging class of wealthy merchants and craftsmen.


Besides astrological calculations, the study of favourable and unfavourable auspices, directional taboos and the interpretation of dreams, the Yin-Yang Masters also dealt with: Feng shui (water-wind).


Feng-shui has also influenced ikebana, as we shall see in Article 9.


The Chinese writer Hsieh Ho, at the beginning of 500 AD, wrote a treatise entitled:

 “Notes on the Classification of Ancient Paintings” in which he set out the principles of painting of his time in the form of six principles.


As time passed, its six rules were also used to judge the aesthetics of calligraphy and were later used in the judgment of all arts, i.e. these six rules formed the basis for aesthetic judgment of the artistic traditions of Chinese culture.


Imported in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) by Zen monks, the six rules were the basis of judgment for all traditional art forms (including ikebana).

The six rules are in descending order of importance, from the 1st (the one with the highest artistic value) to the 6th (the one beginners start with).



1st KI-IN-SEI-DO: state of mind, vital force, spiritual expression


The artist must sense the circulation of his own vital energy (Ki) and of the nature of the work, identifying himself with the work.


The concept of the artistic ideal is completely different from the Western one, since it states that if the work is not an expression of the spirit, it cannot be called a work of art.


2nd KOPPO-YOSHITZU: use of the brush “reduced to the bone”.


The artist must know how to capture the essential by highlighting the structural LINES, the bones, of the work, leaving out the unnecessary.

For the ikebanist it means thinning the plants, highlighting the lines and masses in a careful way.


The other four rules are mainly technical


3rd OHBUTSU-SHOKEI: give likeness in accordance with the object

The artist must draw the form in accordance with the nature of the work.

For the ikebanist it is the respect of the characteristics of the chosen plant, inserting it in the composition considering its natural growing position but also how this plant is represented in the Japanese imaginary and painting tradition.


4th ZUIRUI-FUSAI: use of color


The artist must apply colour in accordance with the nature of the work.

For the ikebanist it is the choice and color combination between the plants and between the plants and the container.



5th KEIEI-ICHI: spatial composition


The artist organizes the composition by placing the elements in the space available.

For the ikebanist it is the observance of the spaces of the Styles (which the Ohara school calls -kei, Kun reading of the kanji which is read kata in On reading) prescribed by the School and the balance between the masses and volumes of the various plants, the container, the place where the composition is set.


  1. DEN I-MOSHA: Transmission of the experience of the past by copying.


The beginner must start by copying the works of the masters trying to communicate the “essence of the brush” and the ways of the master, i.e. the copy must transmit the emotions and ideas of the master i.e. his Ki.

For the ikebanist it is the copying of the Styles (kata/kei) of the School.


Copying, in Western culture, is seen in a negative sense. For the ikebanist, copying the compositional schemes shown by teachers is important. This copying has several functions, both physical and psychological:

-it allows a gradual learning of the mastery of movements (use of scissors, anchoring techniques, modification and trimming of plants, etc.).-

The comparison with a model helps to diminish the expressive impetuosity of the pupil and, more generally, his presumptuousness.

-copying allows the pupil to incorporate the essential, the ‘vital breath’, the Ki of the original work.



In the Sung period (960-1279), still related to painting but applicable to all arts, the Six Canons were expressed by the:




1 The action of the Ki and the energetic work of the brush go hand in hand.

For the ikebanist, the use of the scissors goes hand in hand with the action of Ki.


2 The basic design must be faithful to tradition.

The ikebanist must be faithful to the kata, to the styles of his school (for the Ohara school these are the Chokuritsu-kei, Keisha-kei, Kansui-kei and Kasui-kei ).


3 Originality must not despise Li, the principle or essence of things.

For the ikebanist it is to respect the nature of the plant and its natural growth habit.


4 Color, when used, must be an enriching factor.

For the ikebanist, the compositional structure is more important but it can be enhanced by the plant colour of carefully chosen.


5 The brush must be held with spontaneity.

The scissors must be held with spontaneity.


6 Learn from masters but avoid their mistakes.


In painting, Ki is given by the “movement of the brush”, hippo in Japanese, in the hands of the artist.

In the Japanese tradition, a work of art was defined as such when one was able to distinguish the presence of the artist’s Ki in his work (in the composition in the case of the ikebanist).


On the other hand, if we think of the expressive form of Ukiyo-e – woodcuts from the Edo period that represent popular, theatrical and legendary life – we see that when it first appeared it was not considered a work of art by the cultured Japanese class. The reason for this lack of consideration was precisely the lack of recognition of the presence of Ki in this art form.

The educated class of the time believed that the artistic sensitivity of the brushstroke was lost in the carving of the wood of the mould.

Even if the carving was perfect, they saw only the shadow of the artist’s sensitivity and skill in the use of the brush in the matrix; therefore a work without a clear identification of Ki could not be considered a work of art. In addition, the themes dealt with by Ukiyo-e were considered too popular and therefore failed to meet the requirements of elegance and refinement demanded by noble taste.

Not being appreciated as an artistic form,  the Ukiyo-e woodcuts were used in the same way as we use old newspapers to package artefacts sent abroad: this fortuitous event led to the discovery of Ukiyo-e in the West.



Position on the right/hongatte and position on the left/gyakugatte.





Ikebana was born in the 15th century in and with the tokonoma, the “sacred” and empty space of the traditional Japanese home, and the composition was placed to the right or to the left of the kakemono representing Buddha, in the adjacent photo it is placed to the left of the kakemono. It was only from the 1930s onwards that ikebana began to be placed outside the tokonoma.


At that time, (see art. 13°) it was customary to arrange the plants exclusively with the main element in a vertical position and in the middle of the composition. This approach corresponds broadly to the current Chokuritsu-kei of the Ohara School. There were therefore two possibilities for the placement of the three elements that the Ohara School calls Shu-shi; Fuku-shi and Kyaku-shi.



For this reason, the two types of composition – characterized by the different relationship of the three main elements – were called right-handed, the one to the right of the kakemono representing Buddha, and left-handed, the one to its left.


It is important to emphasize that the right or left we are talking about is not the one referring to the person looking at the composition but the one referring to the most important element of the tokonoma, which is the kakemono.   See art. 17)

With the time going by, the kakemono – which originally only represented Buddha – was first replaced by other religious characters and then became extended to secular ones, landscapes or drawings of any subject or phrases said by famous people, but it maintained its “sacredness” and remained the most important element of the tokonoma.


The terms left and right were retained even when the composition was removed from the tokonoma as it indicates the internal position/relationship within the composition between its three main elements.


Based on this concept used since the birth of ikebana, the Ohara School defines “right-side” or “left-side” moribana because of the position of the kenzan placed along the bisecting line of the vase.

Imagining a Buddha in the center of the vase and in relation to this the composition is right if to the right of the Buddha or vice versa. In the heika, we rely on the point of spread to the right or left of the mouth of the vase. We have seen that the term right side and left side (also called hongatte and gyakugatte) refers to an exterior element (Buddha) with respect to which ikebana is placed either to its right or left. However, this denomination also expresses the relationship within the composition between its three main elements Shu-shi; Fuku-shi and Kyaku-shi y (Yaku-eda of the Ohara School) See art. 16 and 17.

The right-handed arrangement is the most frequently performed: in Japan, too, the majority of the population is right-handed and this makes it easier to perform the right-handed arrangement, while left-handed people, who are in the minority, find it easier to perform the left-handed arrangement. This is why the right side composition is called HON-GATTE which means “katte= gate=normal and hon= situation”, considered as such because it is “most frequently performed”, believing that what the majority of people do is “the normality”. The left-hand composition is called gyaku-gatte because it is the opposite of the situation that is most frequently performed (gyaku= opposite).

In the kenzan, the scalene triangle formed by the insertion points of the plants in a hongatte composition is “mirror-like” to the triangle formed by the insertions of the plants in a gyakugatte composition.


Insertion points of the main elements in the kenzan in the Chokuritsu- kei in the Ohara School.



Insubstantiality, along with impermanence, is one of the basic pillars of Buddhism, the symbols of which we find in the rules of ikebana composition.

In ikebana, this concept of being in harmonic concordance with one’s surroundings is “putting into practice” the Buddhist concept of insubstantiality (every entity is always and necessarily made up of relationships, both on a biological and ethical level).

The compositions of the Ohara school based on a style (kei On-reading or kata Kun-reading) placed outside the tokonoma will be positioned in this way following what would have been their position in the tokonoma in relation to the kakemono, resulting also in coherence with their name (right or left).

The compositions of the Ohara school based on a style (kei On-reading or kata Kun-reading) placed outside the tokonoma will be positioned in this way following what would have been their position in the tokonoma in relation to the kakemono, resulting also in coherence with their name (right or left).


A hongatte (right-handed) composition will be placed to the right of an element with which it must match (painting, window, chimney, etc.) while if it is placed to its left it will be a gyakugatte (left-handed) composition; here are some examples: 












Please note:

In keeping with the current trend to simplify the rules and teaching of ikebana, since 2015 the Ohara School only uses the expression hongatte and gyakugatte and no longer the equivalent terms of right-hand or left-hand (see articles 16 and 17), 

because these terms create some confusion in ikebanists of western culture who take as their reference point the right and left of the beholder, whereas in ancient Japan the right and left is not that of the beholder but that of a more important person (or object) on whose right or left side the element being considered is located. See Article 17


Buddhism, introduced to the Japanese imperial court around 552 A.D. as the salvific religion of the state, greatly influenced the compositional rules of ikebana also because these were created by Buddhist monks and moreover, in ancient Japan, every human manifestation had to be in accordance with the religions.

The first monks who created the first rules of ikebana were the dōbōshῡ (attendants) employed by the Ashikaga shoguns (most of them, at the beginning of the Ashikaga dominance, belonged to the Ji-shū Buddhist branch – founded in the 13th century by Ippen, a monk formed in the Tendai sect – who were later replaced at the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate by the Ikenobo, also belonging to the Tendai sect).


The compositional rules of ikebana reflect the Buddhist theory of interdependence (anatta), for which reality exists as a network of relations; these relations are manifest in ikebana both as in the relationship between the measure of the vase and that of the plants, both as a relationship of “forces” between plants and also in the relationship between the composition and the environment that surrounds it.

Let’s  analyze the relationship between plants.


By “optical weight” we mean the visual sensation of strength that a vegetable gives us and it is based on multiple factors such as colour, shape and volume.


Six-door screen. Pheasant and pine. Author Kano Koi (1569-1636)

Looking at this screen, three volumes (the pine tree, the water and the full moon) are immediately noticeable. They clearly have different strengths: the pine mass predominates, the water mass is less strong and the lunar mass is the weakest of the three.


The ikebanist, while constructing his composition, must refer to this concept so that the “optical force” (optical weight) of the three main elements ( that in the Ohara School are called shu, fuku and kyaku) must be well diversified and unmistakable: shu-shi must be rendered with an “optical force” greater than that of fuku-shi and in turn fuku-shi must be rendered with an “optical force” greater than that of kyaku-shi.

Even the chukan-shi  (Fillers) in the composition must have a lower optical weight than the vegetable of which they are auxiliaries: “the chukan-shi are subordinate to the vegetable of which they are auxiliaries”.




Another example to understand this concept is to see the first three awarded athletes on a podium: – the 1st (in the middle on the highest step) won because his “muscle strength” is greater than that of the 2nd (to the right of the first and on a lower step) which, in turn, has a “muscle strength” greater than the “muscle strength” of the 3rd (on the lowest step of the three).



In an ikebana arrangement the concept is similar: in the Chokuritsu-kei, hongatte composition, from which all the other styles originated, the three main elements are comparable, both in their position and in their “strength” to the three athletes on the winners’ podium. Using Ohara school terminology, shu-shi is in the middle and is comparable to the 1st athlete, fuku-shi, the 2nd athlete, is on his right while kyaku-shi, the 3rd athlete, is on his left; like the three athletes who have decreasing “muscle strength”, shu-shi, fuku-shi and kyaku-shi have decreasing “optical weight”.

Since all the other styles in Shikisai Moribana  and Heika all derive from the Chokuritsu-kei, even though the shu-shi position changes from the original Chokuritsu-kei, the difference of the “optical weight” of the elements used has not changed.


Also in bonsai the same concept is applied as in the design of the screen – pheasant and pine-. The construction and the optical weight of the three main canopies are based on the same concept of shu-shi, fuku-shi and kyaku-shi, both in terms of placement and optical weight. 


The bigger canopy in the centre, corresponds to the shu-shi in the Ohara School, the middle one on the right, corresponds to fuku-shi and the smaller one on the left, corresponds to kyaku-shi.




The ikebanist pupil is taught to measure branches and flowers according to the mass or shape of their corolla: the diagram below shows how plants, in order to maintain the same optical weight, are lengthened or shortened according to the shape of their corolla or inflorescence. 


In the concept of “optical weight”, measurements are only one of the components that determine it because many other factors such as colour, ” age” of the branches, ” youth” of the leaves, leaf/wood or leaf/stem ratio, the stage of development of the plants, and many others are taken into account.

Examples in which, despite being of equal size, element A is “optically heavier” than element B

To make B of “equal optical weight” with respect to A, this must be lengthened as in C

A and C now have equal “optical weight”.

ATTENTION: a vegetable can be weakened
– shortening or thinning it

– using scissors, but once cut or thinned it can no longer be reinforced; the only way to reinforce it is to add an auxiliary; therefore, before using the scissors, you need to think twice! If vegetable B has been cut, the only way to reinforce it and make it the same weight as A is to add one of its auxiliaries

now A and B have the same “optical weight”

Also important for the ikebanist is the rule that says:

what is “heavy” goes to the center of the composition, what is “light” to the periphery “.





The dark colors go to the center of the composition, the light ones to the periphery as, for example, in the traditional Moribana of Color with chrysanthemums in which the Color Band is composed of darker colors than the colors of the shu-fuku and kyaku group.









This concept is clearly visible in the famous drawing entitled -sei kaki-, attributed to the Chinese monk Mu Qi, late 13th century. in which the darker shades are in the center and the lighter ones in the periphery (see article 56 °: the six khaki of Mu Qi)




For the religions and philosophies that have influenced the history of ikebana the importance given to the EMPTINESS is great so we find it in ikebana compositions expressed at various levels.


In Western culture emptiness has a negative value, of deficiency (empty mind, empty stomach, empty life, sense of emptiness) but in Japan and China it has a positive value and to understand this value it can be useful to shift the attention from the concept of emptiness, which can leave us uncomfortable, to the one we are more familiar with of SILENCE (i.e. emptiness of sounds), which for us evokes a feeling of peace, quiet, serenity, without noise or disturbances:


The call of a bird,

the quietness of the mountain becomes deeper;

the rumble of an axe,

the peace and quiet of the mountain grows

Chinese Zen poetry by anonimous



We find the EMPTINESS in ikebana :










That was traditionally placed on the Tokonoma, empty by definition, or nowadays in a place in the house with a void around it, i.e. free from any object that might distract attention from the composition itself.













(C) Ohara School of Ikebana



That not only allows  to see the individual components but also enhances concepts, so important for Buddhism, such as asymmetry, harmony and rhythm.  For Buddhism each element of the composition does not have its own consistency and meaning, but only acquires them in relation to the other elements.

The relations existing between the measures of plants, both among them and in relation to the measures of the vase, highlight the inter-dependence: for Buddhism no being or phenomena exists on its own, but only in relation to other beings or phenomena: everything in the world is revealed in response to certain causes and conditions.

Even in the no longer used system of calling Heaven-Man-Earth the three main elements of the composition in Shoka and Seika highlighted these relationships.




example with a maple branch



Remove the redundant material, starting from the side branches to the surplus leaves and flowers. In branches leave an irregular alternation between empty spaces (remove all the leaves) and filled spaces; the latter must have different volumes. 



The method of removing the superfluous in Ikebana is inspired by the method used in  paintings: in this detail of Eikyu Matsuoka’s (1881-1938) painting entitled  “Ladies of the Court in spring dresses” both the pine branches and the flowering ones are painted not as they appear in nature. Here we  can see that the pine  has only the new apical tufts without the old needles and the flowering ones have been painted  like they were ideally  “thinned” like we do in ikebana so that both the branch and every single cluster and every single flower are clearly visible



or as in this example of Ogata Korin, in which the azalea is not painted as thick as in nature but idealised by painting only the essential, without the superfluous, and maintaining an optimal balance of “forces” between branches/yang and flower-leaf/yin.


 Another example with branches



scuola Ohara














In Rikka and Shoka all the compositions emerge from a single central point (which will become central or lateral in Seika), leaving the rest of the vase mouth EMPTY.

The first centimetres of the plants emerging from the water are completely stripped of leaves and side branches.

see Art. 58
















Heika Chokuritsu style seen from the front, where the void is hidden by plants,

and laterally in which the void is evident.

scuola Ohara


In the Ohara School the empty space at the mouth of the vase, although not visible because it is covered by vegetables, has been preserved in the tall vases in which the vegetables emerge only from ¼ of the mouth leaving the other ¾ empty and is evident in the lower vases, although the surface area varies according to the seasons, to the styles and to the type of plant used.



In brief, the EMPTYNESS around plants highlights both the characteristics of the single plants and the mutual relationships that are important for Buddhism.

 As G. Pasqualotto writes in the Aesthetics of Emptiness:

Reducing the quantity of the elements increases the possibility and the intensity of perceiving their value, i.e. EMPTY produces quantitative deprivation to produce qualitative wealth.


The minimization of the elements corresponds to a maximized expansion of their qualities and, consequently, the conditions for a maximum of perceptual intensity are produced.

Examples of emptiness in drawings



Watanabe Seitei (1851-1918)




 Two screens by Maruyama Ōkyo   (1733 – 1795)

Ice with cracks, 1780


Ducks on the beach