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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 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

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.

      • 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:


      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.


      Please note:

      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 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


in fact:





° 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


Front/Yang/Positive        Back/Yin/Negative




° 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.

Some references:


 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


Ikebana-related themes


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  

  1. 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

Wybe Kuitert


Daimyo Gardens

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.

By Bordart-Bailey

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



Kire: il bello in giappone