The Philosophy of Bonsai

When I first started studying the art of bonsai, I was awed with the complexities, and at the same time, the simplicity of it all. It’s like the tree was a Yin and Yang thing, simple but complicated, technically difficult but yet simple in its execution. It was almost mind boggling. As a beginner, it took me a while to really understand the philosophy behind the art. So, in the spirit of making this art more approachable, I will explain the philosophy of bonsai.   

The philosophy behind the art of bonsai goes all the way back to its origins. Bonsai, originating from ancient China, more specifically Chinese Zen Buddhists who pursue a balance between themselves and the natural world. The art of bonsai is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism in many ways. But don’t worry. You do not need to learn everything there is to learn about Zen Buddhism to understand Bonsai. We will bring everything down to its essence.

To really understand these things we have to first acknowledge that a bonsai tree is never perfect. Art is a subjective thing. What works visually to one person, may clash and lose its meaning to another. It is important to know that the basic design principles of bonsai remain the same throughout the art.

Wabi Sabi

The story goes like this: There was once a Daimyo who was expecting a samurai as a guest at his home. The Daimyo told his servant to sweep all the Sakura (Cherry tree) flowers from the courtyard. Once the servant managed to pick up all the thousands of little flower petals, the servant told the Daimyo “it is done, it is perfect”, the daimyo stepped outside into the courtyard and saw that every single petal was picked up. He then stepped under the Sakura tree. He held a branch and shook it, shaking off some flowers randomly onto the floor. He then said “now it’s perfect”.

Did the Daimyo just spoil the work of his servant? Was his servants work done in vain? What did the Daimyo mean when he declared it then to be perfect? It all boils down to the philosophy of Wabi Sabi. This philosophy expresses that absolute perfection is boring and monotonous. Wabi Sabi describes perfection as having subtle imperfection. For example, and I only say this because its relatable to people, when people get dentures or dental implants, their new teeth are usually very straight and usually very white. To a dentist (“the dental artist”) the teeth are perfect. I mean the teeth all line up, they make a straight line, and they are white, who wouldn’t want that right? In reality, the dentures or implants stand out more because of their perfection. Most people do not have super straight nor super white teeth. It is the slight imperfections such as a slightly shifted tooth that make a smile appear normal to people.

When applied to a bonsai tree, Wabi Sabi can look like a misplaced branch, or a pad that is slightly misshapen, or even a branch that’s just a little too long. In the art of bonsai something that is slightly imperfect is more beautiful than something perfect.

Shibui

The term Shibui also plays a role in the aesthetics of the art of bonsai. Shibui refers to the simple subtle details of the subject. Shibui can simply be the apparent simple texture that balances simplicity and complexity. A true Bonsai inherently shows what shibui means. It’s the apparently simple forms that reveal the complexities of the technique. When I was new to Bonsai, it was amazing to me to really appreciate a Bonsai tree. At first glance, the trees form is simple with simple shapes and angles, but Shibui also applies to the relationships between the primary branches and secondary branches, and even to the choice of pottery used for the tree. The pot is an important part of making the tree “simple but complex”. If you consider a bonsai tree like if it was a painting, you could then see that a bonsai pot would be our frame. It is important that the frame doesn’t outshine the painting, it should complement it. Pots come in all shapes, sizes and textures. Textures are important. Textures can be anything from an unglazed pot to a heavily pitted pot. Some glazes also have texture. The texture of a pot is usually referencing the texture of the trees trunk. So to expertly express Shibui in bonsai: a pot must show some texture complementing the trunk texture but should not outshine the tree. In other words, we should stay away from overstated textures and colors. Let me put an example. If you look at a pine tree, you’ll see that pine bark is heavily textured. It has many flaky layers that lift and separate from the trunk. Many pot makers try to mimic this texture. However, sometimes trying to match the pot to the trunk can clash. Remember sometimes less is more. Understated pots may look better than pots that are as textured as the tree trunk. Paintings in a museum are not known for there frames, they are known for the painting. Same thing goes for the Bonsai composition.

Yin and yang

Eventhough this is originally a chinese concept of balance, it is very applicable to Bonsai. The art of bonsai is all about balance. By applying the concepts of Wabi Sabi, and Shibui, Yin and Yang is achieved. When I refer to balance, I don’t mean symmetry. In design, no matter the media, symmetry is boring. In Bonsai, balance is achieved in a few ways. Taper in the trees trunk will help get to a balanced look by not having a top-heavy tree. Balance is also achieved by applying visual weights. Lets take a slanting style bonsai as an example.  Sometimes the branches that go with the slant may be too thick and may have grown way too far out. This creates an unbalanced tree. Why? Well, all the visual weight is to one side. The way to balance the tree is to taper the trunk and taper the branches. The branches must be thickest near the trunk and thin out at the tips. Also, the bottom branches should be thicker than the top branches.

Eventhough, art is subjective, these concepts I’ve explained here are very important to achieve a good looking, proper Bonsai.

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