The current form of ikebana (Japanese traditional flower arrangement) cemented its foundation in the 15th century, when Ikenobo Senkei, a prominent Zen priest elevated the traditional style as an established form of art. Ever since, ikebana continued evolving primarily as the Ikenobo school, supported by the social elites such as military leaders and aristocrats who decorated their mansions and events with “rikka (立花)” style ikabana. 

As the time went on, shoka (“生花”) style became popular during the late Edo ~ Meiji era (19th ~ eary 20th century). Shoka was compact, light and suitable for individual homes compared to the traditional complex and large rikka, which was often used to celebrate people in power. Shoka effectively represents the aesthetics of subtraction.

As its name suggests, shoka expresses the power of plants that are coming into life, and celebrates their beauty in the natural environment. Basic shoka ikebana format is a scalene triangle. The longest side (“真” – shin) represents the sky, the bottom one (“副”- soe) represents the earth, and the middle one (“体” –tai) represents us humans. The sky, the earth and the humans are the three metaphysical fundamental elements that comprise everything in the universe according to the ancient Chinese philosophy.

Ikebana rectangle

Because these three elements represent the entire world, nothing else needs to be added.  And since the balance is very important in Ikebana, nothing excessive is allowed. This is the ultimate essential.

Not only does ikebana subtract the number of flowers or colors, it also reduces the physical presence to the minimum. The triangle created by the three elements, which is visible and tangible, is not everything ikebana has to offer. It implicitly forms a whole circle by assuming an invisible triangle next to the visible one. Based on the philosophy of “陰陽” (yin and yang, or pronounced in-yo in Japanese), ikebana assumes that there is a bright side and a dark side in everything on Earth. You have to have both to express the full beauty/truth of nature.  Invisible triangle complements the visible one to form a full circle.

Ikebana fully embraces the ying-yang philosophy. For example, it finds yin and yang even in each leaf. The leaf’s surface faces the Sun, receiving the sunlight needed to grow (yin). The back does not face the Sun, but it is still is an essential part for the leaf (yang). When you choose each stem for ikebana, you’d have to take a thorough look at it to understand how the opposing elements, yin and yang, reside in it in harmony, based on which you’ll decide the the angle, the tilt, the bend or the linings of flowers and leaves. While each stem has to represent yin-yang on its own, it also has to be part of the larger yin-yang equilibrium embraced by the entire triangle.

In a triangle, “shin” stands straight toward the sky, or where the energy comes from. But it is slightly tilted. It represents living organisms’ yarn towards “yin,” but also their strength to grow straight. “Soe,” which represents “yin,” is directly affected by and counterbalance “shin.” It could take various forms. “Tai” grows from “soe” to represent “yang,” demonstrating living organisms’ energy to come to life.

When you apply subtraction in ikebana, each action has meanings. It is a process to dig deep in the truth of nature and to recreate its essence in a concentrated way by removing any potential contaminants. The more you subtract, the deeper truth you are revealing.

It is a painstaking process both philosophically and aesthetically. Even a small mistake or carelessness can make the outcome plain, boring, sad or miserable.  It’s not a coincidence that the foundation of ikebana was cemented by one of the dedicated Zen priests. Zen priests persevered relentless training and meditation which often occurred at the heart of mountains or by the falls. Dissolving deep into the wilderness, they kept stripping off layers of superfluous or non-essential elements until they became “empty” to reach “kuu.” At the end of such endeavors emerged boundless beauty from minimum essential elements. Ikebana is one of the major Zen arts that expresses the beauty of emptiness.

Subtraction, through sincere interaction with nature, elevate and intensify the significance of aesthetic elements. It is so powerful. And it is also true to haiku, world’s shortest poem.