Bonsai, My Philosophy and Aims


Susumu Nakamura


There are many ways to grow Bonsai - it depends on the person. Even in Japan, 15 years ago I found an article in a mjor newspaper on "Watermelon Bonsai...". Bonsai has only recently become more well known throughout the world. Ten years ago, I took several Bonsai containers with me when I visited the United States. A female customs officer at the airport asked me "What are these?" I answered "They are Bonsai containers." "Huh, what is Bonsai?" she asked me. I tried to explain to her about Bonsai using my limited vocabulary, "It is a tree that is dwarfed and shaped artistically. These containers are used to plant the Bonsai trees in." Unfortunately, she had trouble understanding about it because she had never heard about or seen a Bonsai tree before.


Nowadays however, Bonsai has become more popular. I talked to an Italian gentleman on the airplane from Rome to Torino not long ago. He told me, "My wife gave me a small Bonsai for my birthday and after a couple of months it died! I can't understand why?" I asked him to explain what he had done with it and found out the reason - he had left it in a dark room for a long time. He didn't understand that it is a real tree that needs to be grown outside like any other tree. We can bring it in to appreciate it for a day or two but it needs to be outside to grow and be healthy. Regardless of whether people understand Bonsai correctly or not, it's popularity as a potted tree has spread around the world remarkably in the last ten years.


Let me try and explain what I believe Bonsai to be. Bonsai is a plant that has been grown in a container for appreciation and purposefully kept small or dwarfed using various kinds of techniques over a long period of time. There is a definite aim and plan to determine it's final shape. In China, there are many schools of Bonsai which they call "Pen-jing." Each school has a different way to express their plants. After coming to Japan, Bonsai went through various transitions and ultimately came to express the essence of nature. By viewing Bonsai, one can enjoy and feel the serenity of nature.


In Japan, it has been traditional to describe Bonsai using the words "Wabi" and "Sabi." Wabi has the feeling of being quiet, calm, humble and even lonely. Sabi has the feeling of being simple, poor, declining, and very old. This concept of Wabi and Sabi came from the Tea Ceremony or "Wabi-Cha" which was developed by Sen-no Rikyu over 400 years ago.


As for myself, I do not think that Wabi and Sabi are enough to cover all of Bonsai. I believe that they are important but I also think that "Ga" is needed. What is "Ga"? the concept actually comes from China. In China, they have the word "Rikugi" which means "to make a poem". Rikugi has six requirements as follows: FE Ga, ShE Fu, Hi ans Kyo. Each is a different aspect needed to make a Rikugi poem. The second concept is the one I am referring to in Bonsai, "Ga." It has the sense of elegance, grace, serenity and modesty. Never loud, showy, or course. When we call someone a "Ga-jin", we mean that person is refined and has a noble spirit. He is never vulgar or low in word or deed. Therefore, in my opinion, even if a Bonsai is powerful, dazzling or intricate, if it doesn't have "Ga" then I can't say it is a good Bonsai.


Bonsai is a living thing that is always growing and changing. It is a different art from paintings which also express through shape and color but are static and never change. Thus, we can not keep and enhance Bonsai for a long time unless we have a good plan based on a sense of beauty and use good techniques. If we don't do these things, the Bonsai will be destroyed by haphazard prunning, shaping, and cultivation. Then, we can no longer call the plant a Bonsai but a "Sakuochi" which means that's health and beauty have declined. Therefore, it is extremely important to have an aim based on a sense of beauty, technique and experience.


When we Japanese study something, we have been taught to follow three principles. The first thing is "Shu" which means to be consistent by practicing the instructions of the teacher or the fundamentals faithfully. The second thing is "Ha" which means to break down or tear something apart in this case change or reject the teaching of the instructor. Of course, we must have "Shu" before we can have "Ha" in Bonsai. The third and final principle is "Ri" which means to leave, go away, or be independent. Consequently, at the last stage of learning from our teacher we should advance on the basis of knowledge we have accumulated, with our own ideas, talent, and creativity. Often, however, at this time we feel that we must assert our own views completely while ignoring the knowledge and techniques we have learned. We call this in Japanes "Namaiki" or "Namabyoho". It is difficult to attain greatness with such an attitude. Aside from these three principles, I feel that it is very important to develop the best characteristics of one's material or future Bonsai by observing it with a free and open mind. Observe each new plant with a fresh view toward using the plant's natural characteristics.


To summarize, I feel that the concept of "Ga" (elegance, grace) is the spiritual backbone of Bonsai with "Wabi" (calm, quiet) and "Sabi" (simple, old) as the building blocks for growing Bonsai. We must forever renew our knowledge and keep a beginner's interest and mind.


I hope to have a happy life with Bonsai as my lifelong friend.