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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