There are as many paths with bonsai as there are people doing it, which should be a relief. I won’t tell you what it is or what it isn’t. But I’ll share here a few thoughts about what bonsai has meant to people I’ve talked to, a couple of stories of my own, and a lesson from my teacher.
Several ideas which I find link to the practice of bonsai, though certainly not exhaustive, include:
- Tool Choice
- Our Relationship to Time
- Our View of Nature
- Our Notion of Success
This is one we often don’t think about. Perhaps we used to write with a fountain pen, and now our letters, quite overnight, have become emails and texts. The former method of working with bonsai using hand tools is being supplanted by power tools, because speed is so on our minds these days, and the switch is natural, and also a bit unthinking.
What I find, being a writer, is that fountain pens and computers really don’t make the same result, and neither do chisels and flex-shaft Foredoms. When I sit down with a computer the there is a distance between me and the words, a screen and a barrier. With a fountain pen not only am I more linked to what I’m doing, but there’s fewer fluff words, less chaff. I write slower, and because of that there is time for contemplation, and the floor softens beneath the work and seems to add meaning. With a power tool we tend to introduce those same errata and unnecessary walls and and extraneous pieces of ‘chaff-information’, for lack of a better descriptor. They literally need to be removed later, if that’s even possible and often it seems it isn’t, for the work to look natural. But one has already lost the connection to the tree. And the work is so fast that it’s as if we’re simply trying to get the next tree.
A chisel is an extension of one’s bone. A power tool, though often useful and sometimes even necessary for some work, is yet a barrier. It’s just something to notice and think about, because I do believe tool choice determines product. There is rarely a need to use an electric sander as opposed to a hand sander. Unless time is really that important. Which segues into the next topic.
Doing bonsai can easily place one in the same universe as building a fire in a wood stove, meditation, or writing a letter with a fountain pen. It can be a time-out activity that is a counter to the insistent pull of needing to be places, and to do things, on time. And this problem with time isn’t new. It isn’t even an old problem, it’s an ancient problem. We have notes from the Roman writer Plautus, who in 200 BC complained:
The Gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish the hours—confound him, too
Who in this place set up a sundial
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small pieces!
Good thing Plautus never lived to see a smartphone. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, written in 1726, the Lilliputions, on seeing how often Gulliver checked his watch, concluded that it must be his god. No, the problem isn’t new.
And yet working with bonsai we are immediately beset with the indignity of being on a leash to the seasons—a much broader span of time than a watch or phone offers. Instead of rushing, we often have to wait. This is a puff of temporal relativity that most of us—except perhaps remotely living monks—can use. With bonsai we begin to work with time rather than be its tool.
Being unhinged to time is one gift of bonsai. Another is nature itself. The Victorian wingnut Oscar Wilde, being a city person, had some particular wry comments about nature. My favorite of his is that nature is ’the place where birds fly around uncooked.’ And, truly, nature can seem so darn remote, especially for those that live in big cities. I have a friend who lives essentially in an eyrie on top of a building in Chicago, and his rooftop deck full of bonsai looks out over skyscrapers. The view is spectacular. It is also almost completely devoid of anything green, except for the bonsai by one’s knees, and yet it seems to offer the promise of everything we need. And so one cannot completely fault Wilde commenting on those wild birds. Is there anything wild that might benefit us?
But, yes, there is. And one can find that in the way our ideas of nature and our relationship to it continues to change. There is some fascinating research, such as the Forestry Service’s Geoffrey Donovan, whose studies suggest that growing up in a house surrounded by trees beneficially affects the health of infants born there. Current research into hospitals strongly correlates greenspace viewed through a window to swifter healing. And studies of a person seated in a car going though a concrete-saturated urban space with body sensors attached is anxious; that same person driving down a street with even 50% green cover is a totally different person, calmer, happier even. In such environments, bonsai can also serve as that green space balm, and indeed health, therapy, and greenspace may well be part of your connection to bonsai.
The fourth thing that bonsai confronts us with is our notion of success. What is the end goal of a bonsai? Where do we claim our victory, plant our flag? Our feelings of fulfillment and success are oddly tied to how well we belly up to the expectations of our culture—that fast-driving, forward-ho, take-no-prisoners accent that so many of us share as a career trajectory. And yet bonsai, curiously, often teaches that those expectations are a false friend. That success can come as a surprise.
My own story of meeting success sideways came the year I spaced my sister’s 50th birthday. (She was pretty clear about pointing that out.) Partly as a reaction to this and needing to slow down, and partly also wanting to make do with less, in 2017 I built a micro home to live in, and relinquished my larger suburban home to my apprentices (I wrote a blog post about that year-long adventure). Like everyone (most everyone) I fell into working and living as if I were a bird, flocking with our group expectations of more being better. And yet over-stuffed, busy lives and grandiose environs do not make us grander in our interiors, as any few lines of Thoreau suggest and current happiness research proves. As Shaun Achor states in his hilarious and thought-provoking TED talk, we are very good at putting happiness over the cognitive horizon, so that we never attain it: “If we get good grades we need better grades, if we hit the sales target, we need to change the sales target. Every time we have a success, we just change the goalpost of what success looks like.”
All of which was a humbling revelation, of course, having admired for years the small trees on the mountaintops that seemed to make do with so much less. And did so with such grace. My ideas of personal success, and how that relates to bonsai, have shifted following these experiences. For to create and maintain bonsai is to engage in a win-less act, where to compete isn’t the point, where more things and bigger things aren’t better things. Success is ongoing. It grows. It changes. It isn’t what you thought it was. It’s better.
‘Spirit’ is a pretty big word, but another way to say this is that it relates to anything bigger than oneself. Or as 12 Step programs might say, ‘anything larger than your ego’. Which might include bonsai. Or the community that supports it and each other.
Why we do bonsai is intensely personal. And no one should tell you why you’re doing it. Tradition, if you wanted it to, would give you an answer for that, but you might not connect with the answer it gave. Vanishingly few Westerners truly connect with the quiet wabi-sabi aesthetic philosophy of the Japanese arts. And although there’s a lot of beauty there, it might not be for you.
Many of us Westerners need something edgier in bonsai, something to jump around and bite things with, as Barbara Kingsolver says is the purpose of an electric guitar. Although the middle road of mixing the gift of your nationality—whatever that might be—with the gift of tradition might be the strongest and most authentic route, no one can guide you here. Two interesting things that tradition insists on, however, are technique, and the insistence that bonsai mean something beyond the act of bending a branch. Which as Westerners we may wish to pay attention to. The English potter Bernard Leach said, ‘extremes touch’, and I think this insight has great relevance to bonsai and how it is transforming and finding new expressions across the globe. For we also have much to share with Japan.
My teacher, Mr. Shinji Suzuki, used to say bonsai was about peace, and not to be shy about talking about that. For years I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t understand what he meant. But I didn’t forget what he said, either, and in 2017 I went to Taiwan to teach at a multi-convention event. On the first day there was a huge welcoming ceremony with tons of food and a fair number of local politicians who took turns thanking us for being there (and enhancing the local economy). I made a new friend from Poland, a man seated to my right. Above us there was a display of the national flags of the participants: 57 countries were represented there. For any who think bonsai is simply about bending branches and puffing out the artist’s chest, this was an arresting sight. And I began to think Mr. Suzuki’s philosophy of bonsai was pretty good. For if there is one overarching meaning in bonsai that applies to what we do—and not the personal one that we must find for ourselves—it is that bonsai is about peace. Bonsai both offers it and is created by it. And perishes in its absence.