The Heart Sutra, one of the most famous texts in Buddhism, states that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. This seeming paradox is a core philosophy of Japanese design and culture, where absence can be as important as presence. This principle can be summed up in the concept of “ma”, which roughly translates to “negative space”, but evokes a deeper sense of a “gap” or “pause” that gives new shape and meaning to the whole.
The character for “ma” (間) combines the characters for “gate” above with “sun” below - an image of light beaming through the empty space of a doorway. So it is fitting that “ma” can be observed most directly in traditions of architecture and interior design, from homes to ceremonial or religious structures. In the archetypical Japanese home, the minimalist tatami room prioritizes smooth lines and clean surfaces, with belongings neatly tucked away, and a few carefully chosen objects centered in such a way that emphasizes the empty space around them. However, it’s not just about “minimalism” or “tidiness”. The massive popularity of Marie Kondo in the West seems to focus on only one part of the equation - decluttering - when instead, Kondo’s method can be connected to the history of “ma” - making emptiness into a substance itself. A “toko-no-ma” is a literal empty space that is built into traditional Japanese sitting rooms - a display alcove typically filled with a scroll, bonsai tree, or other art object.
In ancient art forms like bonsai-pruning and ikebana flower arrangement, the contours of the vacant space between components is as important as each stem, each branch, each blossom. But “ma” is thoroughly modern as well. It can be seen in the work of Japanese artists and architects, like Tadao Ando, whose famed Church of Light makes the cut-out in a concrete wall into an illuminated "cross" by the light filtering through, or the black and white photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose instantly recognizable images of the horizon line where ocean meets sky play with our own perception as viewers. Even though we know it's the dark sea below and lighter sky above, sometimes the air takes on a mass and weight of its own, and seems like the more "solid" presence.
Perhaps most importantly, “ma” goes beyond the visual or spatial. It can be sonic, as in the silence between musical notes that shapes a composition. It can be social, whether conscious or subconscious, like the deliberate pause at the end of a bow before rising, or the instinctive silences in a conversation that allow each party to feel comfortable speaking. It can be temporal, the interval between events, like an intermission in a performance or a much-needed tea-break in the midst of a worker’s busy day.
Compared with minimalist interior design, these more ephemeral forms of “ma” have proven the most challenging to maintain in a contemporary, hyper-capitalist era. In strained economic times when some large corporations have lost employees to “karoshi” (“death from overwork”), it might seem “ma” is in short supply. It may also be the hardest aspect to export to cultures beyond Japan, like the United States, where gaps, pauses, silences, and emptiness have often been viewed as flaws, not features. But for anyone who is concerned about the pressures of an always-on, digital lifestyle, “ma” seems increasingly crucial. The rise of “digital detox” retreats or the trend of keeping one’s phone outside the bedroom while sleeping indicates a growing desire for “space” away from our devices. Perhaps this could be considered a new form of “digital ma” - an awareness of what is gained when the wifi is shut off.
Once you start noticing “ma”, it’s everywhere, as in the optical illusion of two faces that reveal a vase shape from the negative space between them. In fact, “ma” is something present in all facets of our lives, whether it’s consciously nurtured or not. We all can find inspiration in this ancient principle, to create more space for the things that matter, for something surprising or sublime that can be found in the gaps. As the Japanese author and cultural critic Junichiro Tanizaki put it back in 1933: “we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”