The secret philosophy of growing a bonsai
In the 1383 Nopestyle game potted trees by Japanese poet Zaemi Motokiyo, a poor samurai offers to throw his last three bonsai trees on the fire to warm a traveling monk. That this small act struck contemporary audiences as profoundly noble is testament to how popular the art of bonsai cultivation – which Japan had adapted from Chinese Zen Buddhists only 70 years ago – was beginning to gain in the country. .
Even then, bonsai trees were considered works of art. They were so valuable that people refused to part with them, even in times of financial crisis. Not only do bonsai trees serve as direct manifestations of the trends influencing Japanese aesthetics, but they also function as a way to put into practice principles unique to Eastern thought. In other words, bonsai trees are as visually appealing as they are intellectually stimulating.
For reasons that will be explained in a moment, the term “bonsai” eventually spread beyond East Asia and entrenched itself in the vocabularies of Western societies. But while nearly every American is able to recognize a bonsai tree the moment they see one, few know the traditions and ideas that continue to influence how these iconic little plants are meant to be planted, grown, potted. and exhibited.
More than carving trees
Simply put, bonsai is the art of manipulating the growth and appearance of small and young trees to make them look like older, larger trees. When Chinese Buddhists began teaching their traditions in Japanese monasteries, bonsai cultivation was a small but crucial component of a larger program: miniature gardening. Over time, Japanese students transformed this demanding practice into a distinct discipline, one that emphasized perseverance and quiet contemplation.
Although species like junipers and pines are easier to work with due to their flexible nature, almost any type of plant can be made into bonsai as long as they receive the proper care. Growers work with saplings or plant their own seeds so they can closely monitor the growth of their trees. They analyze the unique characteristics of each bonsai, then choose to present it on a side that accentuates its strengths and hides its imperfections.
In order to give their bonsai trees a more aged look, growers carefully trim the foliage to bring out the shape of the hidden trunk below. Unnecessary or uninteresting branches are amputated, preferably with tools like a concave cutter to minimize scarring. Some may remove parts of the bark, bleaching the exposed sapwood with lime sulfur solutions. This gives the bonsai a weathered appearance, suggesting previous encounters with high winds and bright thunderstorms.
Wabi and sabi
While notions of what bonsai trees should look like vary from age to age, some preferences have remained relatively constant. In addition to having a deceptive appearance of maturity, a good bonsai should show no trace of human intervention; scar tissue must appear natural rather than man-made, while aluminum wires used to bend trunks or reposition branches must be removed or covered before the tree can be exposed.
Unlike Western art movements, symmetry should be avoided at all costs when growing a bonsai tree. Perfectly straight trunks should be bent or countered by cascading foliage in another direction. Branches with abnormally sharp angles should be cut or removed entirely. The most striking bonsai trees have always been asymmetrical in their design, but the arrangement of the branches still manages to impart an undeniable sense of harmony.
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The rules that bonsai growers try to follow are not arbitrary but informed by the wisdom of two ancient worldviews. Chief among these influences were Zen Buddhism – a movement based on overcoming the meaninglessness inherent in existence through patience and self-control – and wabi-sabian elusive Japanese concept equally interested in accepting life’s many imperfections through silence, solitude and an unwavering appreciation of how the decaying hand of time affects the world around us.
Recall rather than represent
By growing a bonsai tree, you are essentially acting on ideas formulated by these intertwined branches of Eastern thought. Trees, unlike statues, are not inanimate organisms but living and breathing. A canvas may hold Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s brushstrokes for hundreds of years, but bonsai trees are always on the move. They develop leaves in certain seasons and lose them in others. Their branches and roots keep twisting and turning, constantly undoing the work of its cultivator.
Saburo Kato, a bonsai master who formed one of the first international communities of growers in the 1980s, compared bonsai cultivation to raising children. This is basically a different way of saying that the art of bonsai is not about creating a flawless masterpiece. Rather, it is an endless and painstaking battle with the forces of nature. To win, practitioners must acquire the kind of perseverance and unconditional kindness normally reserved for devout monks.
Kyozo Murata, another bonsai master, perhaps put it best when he said that the purpose of bonsai trees is not necessarily to represent a thought but to remind us of a feeling: “Bonsai”, a- he said, “not only has a special plant’s natural beauty, but the appearance reminds people of something other than the plant itself. A person awakened to the essential mutability of life does not fear the decline or loneliness; on the contrary, he or she accepts these facts with quiet resignation and even finds in them a source of pleasure.
This article was originally published on Big Think in September 2021. It was updated in September 2022.