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The Zen of Bonsai

Engelmann spruce bonsai detail-- illustrates the "oneness" of disparate elements (artist Adam Johnson).

Author: Tom Anglewicz

RMBS Past President

For some time I have been intrigued by the relationship between Zen teachings and the practice of bonsai. While I personally practice zazen (sitting meditation) daily, I have no extensive knowledge of the subject, and these observations are based on intuition, not on scholarly research.

In my younger years I remember reading Alan Watts’s seminal book, The Way of Zen, in which he attempts to explain Zen thought and philosophy to the Western mind. I was fascinated with two key ideas that it presented: the notion of “being in the present,” and the idea of “being at one” with whatever you are engaged with. In a way these two concepts are complementary.

Being in the present is the notion that we are totally focused on who we are and what we are doing at a given point in time. Not thinking about what happened yesterday, where we need to go later in the day, or trying to answer questions or solve problems of the future. Just being totally present in the moment.

Being at one with an activity means that I am mindfully and unselfconsciously connected with what I am doing in the here and now. This concept can apply to any activity: cooking, exercise, meditation, walking the dog, washing the dishes, playing baseball, etc. In fact, there are some activities, especially sports related, where “thinking about” what you are doing actually screws up your ability to do it. For example, hitting a fastball or making a difficult golf shot. So “being at one” with an endeavor is essentially intuitive and absent self-reflection. In my opinion it can also involve a certain level of expertise that has been so thoroughly absorbed that it becomes “second nature” and does not interfere with the creative process or performance.

RMBS member and bonsai professional Todd Schlafer performs foliage management on a large-sized juniper bonsai. The Zen concept of "no-mind" in full effect.--Image courtesy Bonsai Mirai.

As we achieve a level of technical proficiency and self-confidence in bonsai, it seems to me that its practice becomes more Zen-like. We face the subject of our work, whether it be a raw piece of yamadori or a tree that we have nurtured for twenty years, and we effectively become one with it. We try to understand what the tree is telling us, to understand the most appropriate design direction, or, in Ryan Neil’s terms, to understand “what the tree gives us.”

We begin to work with the tree perhaps having a general idea of where we are going but realizing that the process of the work will reveal opportunities and challenges that we did not foresee. It is a process of discovery and evolution. And this applies, I believe, whether we are repotting a tree, cleaning the foliage, wiring or rewiring, or pruning. It applies to trees under development and those in refinement.

The tools of bonsai Zen.

As we work in this fashion, we become one with the tree. We achieve a symbiotic connection with it. We begin to understand its potential, now and over time. At the same time, we are totally in the moment. We can work for four, five hours and hardly be aware that time has gone by, until we realize that we are tired and it’s time to take a break.

In our hectic and chaotic world it is very difficult to achieve this Zen state of mind, not just for bonsai but for all aspects of our existence. I find that it helps to slow down. If I am rushing around and juggling many tasks it is extremely difficult to focus on the here and now. Multi-tasking is extremely overrated and possibly unhealthy, in my opinion. Maybe one positive aspect of our current pandemic is that, at least for some of us, it places us in relative isolation and forces us to slow down and take one thing at a time. In that way it can enable us to be more in the moment, whatever we are doing.

Potting bonsai, becoming one

Like many others, I find bonsai to be a very introspective and contemplative activity. It is an art form, but it is an art in which we must interact with a living, growing entity. Trees are never “finished” because they are constantly changing and growing. Lose a branch? We need to study and reevaluate the design to compensate for that loss and to determine how best to respond. Lose a tree? That is a very frustrating experience, especially when we don’t know the reason; but it also is potentially part of the learning experience.

In one of my many conversations with Ryan and other students at Mirai, I referred to a late book by the famous Swiss/French architect LeCorbusier, published in 1960. It’s title is Creation is a Patient Search. As we contemplate the design process, the mindset and the state of consciousness that we bring to the practice of bonsai, perhaps that idea is relevant to our efforts. Enjoy the search!

--Tom Anglewicz, December 2020

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