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A Short Introduction to Japanese Bonsai philosophy and Wabi Sabi

A beautiful bonsai with balanced shape in its pot, clear beige background

For an instant, picture yourself standing at a corner of Ryoanji's stone garden in Kyoto in the evening, in late autumn in a misty rain. You are viewing the garden,- the next moment you close your eyes and are deep in thought. Actually there is nothing in your mind. It is empty, and yet your mind or heart is fulfilled with certain contentment. That feeling is Wabi. . . . This is the ultimate goal of the art of bonsai

Kyozo Murata - 1902-1991  I  Japanese Imperial Household Bonsai Caretaker 

In traditional Japanese philosophy, wabi-sabi (侘び寂び) is a worldview that embraces the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection. It appreciates beauty that is inherently "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature.

Wabi-sabi is a blend of two interconnected aesthetic principles: wabi () and sabi (). Wabi can be translated as "subdued, austere beauty," while sabi refers to a "rustic patina.”

Characteristics of wabi-sabi and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and an appreciation for both natural objects and the forces of nature. But what about bonsai ?

In Japan, bonsai has a rich and storied history. Highly esteemed and widely appreciated, bonsai is regarded as a source of enlightenment and peace. These miniature Japanese trees symbolize the wild beauty of nature contained within a small frame, creating a microcosm of the natural world.

Doing bonsai, one can appreciate the beauty of nature and plant trees in small containers. Bonsai helps learning from nature and a certain philosophy of life. But even someone who does not know bonsai can appreciate and be moved by its beauty. Bonsai is powerful in that it portrays the utmost beauty of nature.

A bonsai on a square rock, the little tree seems to follow a flow bringing it to the ground. IT is like a tree on a cliff or an ascending mountain

Here are some pillars to consider :

First, consider the roots. When observing an old tree, its base provides strength and stability. This is both impressive and inspiring. The sturdy base of a large tree protects smaller trees during floods or storms, offering a sense of security. This principle should also hold true for bonsai. Since bonsai is about balance, the energy within the base should be evenly distributed. As above, so below.

Second, consider the trunk and its formation. For a solitary tree, it is particularly important how the trunk emerges from the roots and the shape it develops as it rises. Over the years, aged characteristics and bark appear, adding unique character and personality to each tree.

Third, consider the branches. They reach towards the sky, requiring balance and sunlight to flourish. Healthy branches and leaves enable the tree to produce beautiful leaves, needles, and in some cases flowers. However, even with vigorous growth and blooming flowers, it is crucial not to become complacent. Diligent care is essential for the well-being of your plants.

An old bonzai with jin and shari work

While bonsai art bloomed in Japan, each part of the world has the potential to inspire you and help you create your own bonsai style. Since bonsai symbolizes nature, the possibilities are diverse and abundant. While traditional Japanese species such as Juniper, Black Pine, and Maple are popular choices for bonsai, you can also adapt native species from your own country. Additionally, some species, like Ficus, are widespread and make excellent choices for bonsai cultivation.

Each of them have strengths and weaknesses. Learning from a bonsai is a beautiful journey of patience and attentiveness. By tending to it each day, you'll start to understand its subtle messages. When you reach that stage, you will have developed a close bond. Whether it needs more water, or fertilizer. (Bonsai fertilizer guide). Bonsai is a living thing from roots to leaves. 

Life becomes more meaningful when we care for these small plants. Through bonsai, we learn the essence and dignity of life. Since the lifespan of a bonsai often exceeds our own, it is crucial to pass them on to the next generation, preserving their life in the tray.

Those aspiring to nurture bonsai must embrace diligence and inherit the responsibility of upholding the tradition. Bonsai never stop growing, and we never stop learning from them. 

Bonsai isn't about perfection; it's about finding balance, reflecting the essence of Wabi Sabi.


And you, what is your vision of bonsai ? Leave a comment and let us know !


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