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The Spirit of Bonsai

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by Mike Smith

Many serious bonsai enthusiasts often comment about their desire to explore the philosophical, cultural and spiritual aspects associated with bonsai. Probably because the attitude we adopt during the application of a technique will be reflected in the quality of the tree. Indeed, developing the right mind for bonsai work is equally important as the end result; just consider the occasions you have rushed a piece of work.

Sadly we have come to a point in our society that any mention of spiritual matters is likely to be looked upon with suspicion, cynicism and prejudice. This outlook has, quite unfairly, arisen mostly through indolence and misconception. Now woe betides anyone who raises the topic for fear of becoming the focus of ridicule and stigma. So we must face our creative pursuits empty of an important facet that could otherwise enrich its practice and enliven its appreciation. As the author and scholar Kakuzo Okakura 'Tenshin'(1862 – 1913) so eloquently stated,

'Engrossed in his technique the modern rarely rises above himself.'

Undeterred by social pressures the current caretakers of our art have a duty to cultivate an awareness of bonsai's heritage if the practice is not to become superficial and spiritually bankrupt. The concepts expressed here have been passed down by far wiser men and you may judge for yourself whether these things remain relevant to modern bonsai.

The major influences on bonsai have been both natural and cultural. Consider the impacts on the inhabitants of an island group that are subjected to the effects of subtle seasonal changes as well as the volatility of maritime weather systems, hurricanes, earth quakes and with a broad range of topographical landscapes. It is no wonder that the Japanese have grown to revere natural influences to such a degree.

No more is this communion with nature demonstrated than in the construction of traditional Japanese homes, which were built to welcome in nature with open walls, and included gardens designed to be walked through along precarious stepping-stones and winding paths that directs the attention into the present.

The Spirit of Bonsai

Movable screens ready to welcome nature in

In his recent talk to FoBBS, Nobuyuki Kajiwara suggested this might be a reason for the contrasts between the eastern and western relationships with nature and thus explains the difference in approaches to bonsai. Nobu said, "Seasons are important because they symbolise rebirth and the continual cycles within nature. They remind us of our own impermanence. In an artistic display we try to emulate this concept when bonsai are presented in association with a natural theme. These displays then help to engage the intellect in order to counter the present day distractions arising from industrialisation and modernism." Tenshin further believed:

A spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message.

The path to cultivate this mind was provided by the most acclaimed tea master, Rikyu, with the tenets Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku (Harmony, Respect, Purity, Tranquility). But before exploring these further it is important to know their heritage.

Of all plants it is the tea plant Camelia sinensis that symbolises the eastern culture, not only as a popular beverage, but also as the ceremony and ritual that has evolved around its consumption. As early as the 17th and 18th century there was an emphasis on sharing tea in Japan and of course there were already perceived medicinal benefits too. As the tea ceremony developed, it became art in action where participants were encouraged to be completely immersed in the experience. It became a cleansing act, a focus on living the moment, steeped in the recognition of nature. Teahouses were built to exclude external distractions and included simple floral displays enhanced with examples of the Zen masters calligraphy. Taking tea in this way became somewhat enigmatic partly because of the refusal to intellectualise Zen Buddhism and the enormous influence this subsequently had on the tea masters, in particular the most influential of these Rikyu (1522 –1591). In some respects it is because of the tea ceremony and its association with Zen that the term Wabi-Sabi emerged and why requests for an explanation of the expression will draw puzzlement.

The Spirit of Bonsai

Wood grain evocative of a golden sunset

Wabi-Sabi is not simply applied to the physical characteristics of the artefacts but it is also an experience; a co-existence of ethics and nature. It is the sensation that the image of a single flower can evoke. If arranged correctly the viewer can imagine the melancholy of a seasonal change and achieve a momentary communion with nature. These displays are not simply an arrangement of inanimate objects- they will also portray a moment in time and suggest a physical movement. A famous quoted example is a display of a camellia flower with the fallen petals strewn around the base of the vase, as if previously touched by a gentle breeze. Why is the Tea ceremony so important to bonsai?

The tea ceremony is a manifestation of living art and so the connection to bonsai is apparent.

The Spirit of Bonsai

Hidden images can be found anywhere

The virtues that the tea masters have delivered as a guide to ones life are equally applicable to our own individual approach to creative work. However, to be aware of your unique consciousness is a deeply personal experience and this is why so many feel uncomfortable debating spiritual matters. You may be embittered by life's disappointments or uplifted by the challenge of inevitable change either way these tenets offer the possibility for growth. So while the Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku tenets may strike a chord with the majority there may be some that touch you more personally.

It is said that knowledge is of greatest value when it can be put to practical use, and so it is to embrace these virtues, which takes effort and concentration if they are to become habitual in your dealings with others and the way you approach bonsai practice. If exercised well, as during a tea ceremony, they will heighten your senses and develop a deeper appreciation of bonsai art.

Wa – Harmony: Is described as the gentleness of the spirit, an emission of humbleness in accord with ones circumstances. In his opinion, the Zen master Rinzai, believed that the true aristocrat is one who is free from anxiety. To develop this harmonious spirit during bonsai work requires the application of bonsai techniques with a refined attention to detail while simultaneously making nature your teacher. A thought from a more recent tea master, Genshitsu sen may help. "Genuine harmony cannot be attained through the self conscious endeavour of a participant but must arise free of their intentions. That is, it comes about when it is based on mutual respect and on the selflessness achieved through long discipline and practice. Attain a grasp of the ways and a sense of harmony will arise spontaneously. In life simply avoid wrong acts, perform good."

Kei – Respect: To cultivate this, the tea masters encourage us to have no designs on others, be free of the calculations to impress or compete. As a reflection on modern society, consider the utilitarian approach that bonsai wire is sometimes applied with little heed to its cosmetic appeal. Quite often this approach draws comments to its untidiness and since it stimulates this response, it is clear that it can offend the eye. If you truly respect your audience, your craftsmanship, and the subject on which you work then be sure each object is prepared thoroughly so that it is presented in its best form and in as close a condition as it was manufactured. When you offer your work for scrutiny the Zen masters remind us that a meeting occurs but once in a lifetime.

The Spirit of Bonsai

A display of fine craftsmanship for all to admire

Sei – Purity: This is most evident when one visits a Shinto shrine where cleansing with water is commonplace. It is symbolic of the purification of the heart and mind and is conducted to help develop the clarity of thought in readiness for even the most mundane tasks. As an example, consider the focus displayed by the Buddhist monk who, engrossed in his task of raking gravel furrows for a dry landscape garden, escapes the clutter of his world.

The Spirit of Bonsai

A trickle of clear water to refresh and prepare guests

In European bonsai display, it is this purity that can be the most challenging to achieve. Particularly in an exhibition environment it is nigh impossible to present a display against the background of so many distractions. As a result, it is difficult to encourage an audience to concentrate sufficiently to allow their imagination to complete the incomplete in order to reveal the artist's message. The overall experience is then often lost within the vibrations of external activity.

In contrast, it is a little easier to focus within your own bonsai workshop where techniques can be applied without distraction. As a result, a meditative effect can be developed and, similar to the monk, allow a momentary escape from life's attachments.

Jaku – Tranquility: It is a serene spirit of action that permits the presence of mind to acknowledge that beauty is everywhere, even if disguised in poverty. Tranquility is not a transient state in which to escape nor is it casting off worldly responsibilities. Rather it is achieving the foundation of an interior state of mind that allows us to recognize the false images of ourselves. Neither is this quality the reserve of the privileged or upper class, and to quote Okakura sen,

"Before a great work of art there is no distinction between prince and commoner."

The Spirit of Bonsai

Juniper sp. displayed at Shunka-en Bonsai Museum

So in bonsai work, provide a suitable setting and then have the discipline to collect yourself.


There are some who yearn for a spiritual life in order to escape the mundane distractions of modern living, but spiritual freedom comes at its own price. Besides a life of austerity it is also possible to become isolated from those close to you who have little option but to busy themselves with the necessities of daily existence. The ancient monk Ryokan captured the loneliness and anguish that could arise in his chosen path.

Sometimes I sit quietly

Listening to the sound of leaves falling How peaceful the life of a monk is Detached from all worldly matters So why do I shed these tears? The Spirit of Bonsai

The virility of life, as in art, lies in their possibilities for growth. (Tenshin, 1906)

In Practice

  • Preparation - Have all materials close at hand. Have a clear objective for that session whether it is wiring, pruning for maintenance or design, root work, branch selection, pine needle adjustment.
  • Create the right atmosphere -consider cleanliness, temperature, good light, suitable music, Aromatherapy if it appeals. Have a warm drink.
  • Mood -Take a period of quiet reflection before work commences. Reflect for a moment on the 4 tenets; Harmony, Respect, Purity, and Tranquility
  • Engage in some initial mundane activity like cleaning tools, close examination of the subject, remove dead leaves, weeds or clean pots. This has a calming and concentrating effect.
  • Practice -While performing techniques stay focused. Do not rush. Apply techniques with the best skill you are capable.
  • Review your work; you are your best critic.

KAKUZO OKAKURA, (2005). The Book of Tea. 1st Ed. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI, (1991). In Praise of Shadows. 1st Ed. London: Vintage Books.
ANDREW JUNIPER, (2003). Wabi-Sabi: the Japanese art of impermanence. 1st Ed. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
LEONARD KOREN, (1994). Wabi-Sabi: for artists, designers, poets & philosophers. 1st Ed. Berkeley Stone Bridge Press,
NOBUJUKI KAJIWARA & NATSUO KOBAYASHI, (3 Oct 2007). Lectures on bonsai heritage and display. London: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation
** Photographs by by Mike Smith

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