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Bonsai & Philosophy

punica granatum bonsai

Bonsai is a contemplative art that attracts many people through its purity of form, connection to nature, and the simple, intuitive exchange that can take place between bonsai trees and those care for them.

The revered bonsai master Saburo Kato offered eloquent guidelines for observing and caring for bonsai that we can also apply to our own lives as we develop and seek personal growth.

In his famous address and essay “Bonsai No Kokoro” ( The Spirit and Philosophy of Bonsai), Saburo Kato instructs the bonsai gardener to consider the duty of care, and the potential for communion between human and the plants they care for, as well as the brotherhood that exists between those who love bonsai.

This art form rooted in Zen Buddhism focuses on principles rooted in Japanese tradition: balance, simplicity and harmony.

It is not only interesting, but deeply satisfying to begin the mindful journey of designing a bonsai tree, keeping those principles in mind not only for the plant, but as goals to strive for in your personal life.

Keeping that in mind, and using concepts from “The Spirit and Philosophy of Bonsai”, I wanted to consider a few ways to observe bonsai as an inspiration for personal growth.

Bonsai as a reflection of self

Certainly, your interest in bonsai says a lot about you, not the least of which is your desire to grow, your gift of time in guardianship of the plant, and your willingness to learn the many tangible skills, as well as the esoteric lessons offered in the practice.

The lessons of the bonsai are largely symbolic in nature and have to do with the appearance and positioning and development of the plant. From patterns in the bark to the position of the branches, the look of a bonsai and its features provide focal points for meditation that take on personal meaning as you become open to them. Allowing nature to teach you is a key principle in the “Spirit and Philosophy of Bonsai”.

If I look to bonsai as a reflection of myself, what do I see? Saburo Kato laid out clear points to consider as you observe the plant and its environment, and in this order – roots, trunk, branches. Think about what those components of the plant symbolize according to the essay. Roots are foundations. The trunk represents emergence and character. Branches are symbolic of one’s relationship with the outer world and are the outgrowth of the nutrients being offered. Notice the characteristics of your bonsai at
each of those levels and think about how they apply to you, as well.

If I look to bonsai as a reflection of myself, what characteristics do I perceive that I can also then emulate? In doing so, my tree and I create a mirror effect. Part of the art of bonsai is the idea of copying nature, so it’s a fitting exercise. Saburo Kato admonishes us, though, not to just copy anything in nature – but the very best. What qualities and characteristics can we display that represent the best in ourselves?

Bonsai as a reflection of Dedication

The Philosophy of Bonsai is inspiring in the way it calls those of us who love bonsai to duty to keep the tradition alive. He speaks of duty again in the essay’s closing phrases, saying that it is “the responsibility of those who grow bonsai to be diligent and their duty to continue to carry on”.

When you’re dedicated to something, you’re willing to take on duty and responsibility, and to put in time and energy in service to something. In this case, to bonsai. If I look to bonsai as a reflection of dedication, what do I see?

It’s really a joy to be able to notice even the slightest changes and signs of growth in a bonsai tree. It represents the progress that you make as you build the relationship with your bonsai tree.

As I work with my bonsai, like anyone else, I am learning a real-life lesson that the process of making living art is gradual. I know that realizing the effect of my efforts means continuing to care for the bonsai and continuing to appreciate and enjoy the process.

Bonsai as a reflection of Caring

Saburo Kato likens the tree-to-caregiver relationship to that of parent and child. Part of caring for children includes the process of learning about them so that you can interact with them and help them grow. You have to be attentive to their needs, and be able to discern them without spoken language.

The analogy really helped me appreciate the relationship aspect of bonsai gardening. Relationships requires learning, attention and communication in order to thrive.

As an ongoing process, if I look at bonsai as a reflection of caring, what does it show me? If I look at bonsai as a reflection of caring, how can I continue to do so? One thing I can do is to continue to learn more about the art.
Keep spending time with bonsai, looking at pictures, visiting botanical sites and talking to others when you can. Bonsai trees will reflect back the caring attention that you give to them.

Bonsai as a reflection of Destiny

If I look at bonsai as a reflection of destiny, what do I see? Bonsai is perhaps the perfect symbol for the idea that we can shape our own destinies. It takes
time and energy. It requires endurance and perseverance, for sure.

But the Spirit and Philosophy also alludes to a view of destiny on a wider scale. Saburo Kato speaks of bonsai as a “torch of peace burning throughout the world”. His words are optimistic and challenging. If people like us who are really into bonsai continue to take those words to heart, we’ll be taking our part in fulfilling that optimistic destiny.