Is there a Tao of Bonsai? The November 21, 2022, issue of the New Yorker featured an article entitled “The Beautiful Brutal World of Bonsai” by Robert Moor (1). Moor describes Ryan Neil’s bonsai journey from the time of his earliest interest in bonsai, through his apprenticeship in Japan with Kimura, to his life as a bonsai professional. Anyone interested in bonsai as recently practiced in Japan and America, as seen through the lens of Neil’s experience, should read this article. However, one early paragraph captured my attention for a different reason. Moor writes, “In the 1990 book “The World in Miniature,” the Sinologist Rolf Stein notes that a range of early Taoist practices focused on the magical power of tiny things. Taoist hermits, and also Buddhist monks, created miniature gardens as objects of contemplation, full of dwarfed plants, rock-size “mountains,” and “lakes” the depth of teacups…” (2). Many of us who are interested in bonsai are already aware that bonsai existed in a recognizable form (Penjing) in China, and may have even earlier roots in India, before appearing in Japan (2-4). However, I became interested in learning more about the relationship between Taoism and bonsai art.
A search for information on Taoist practices and miniature landscapes led me to the scholarly literature on gardens. Christopher Thacker in his History of Gardens writes that, “in China, the natural mountains and rocks erected in gardens have always been consciously associated, and their veneration has never been interrupted…” (5). Author Maggie Keswick, in her book on Chinese gardens, also noted that mountains had special significance for the Chinese, with the western mountains thought to be among the homes of the Chinese immortals (6). According to Charles Long, small landscapes were sometimes created to represent Horai-san, (Penglai in Chinese), the sacred Taoist Mountain of eternal youth (3). In What Gardens Mean, Stephanie Ross writes that, “Taoists believed that miniature representations gained magical potency and enhanced the creators’ likelihood of gaining immortality” (7). She quotes Keswick; “by recreating a mountain or a demon on a reduced scale, the [creator of the scene] could focus on its magical properties and gain access to them. The further the reproduction was in size from the original, the more magically potent it was likely to be…representations of potent sites in miniature were thus not aesthetic in origin but were pieces of practical magic.”
In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Zen buddhist monks used the term bonsan (bon = tray) when describing miniature landscapes created with rocks and small trees planted in shallow containers (8). There was also a term hokinawa, meaning a “box garden” which was created by combining trees and stones (8). According to Yoda Toru, Chief, Curators Division at the Toyoma Memorial Museum in Japan and author of Bonsai no tanjo (The Birth of Bonsai), bonsan were usually placed on designated shelves in the gardens or houses of nobility. Such miniature landscapes can be seen in paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries (Figs. 1,2).
Figure 1. Tray landscape planting. Image of a painting from the latter half of the 13th – mid 14th century (9).
Figure 2. Another painting showing a tray planting. Same era as Fig. 1 (9).
Toru and others think it is reasonable to view current bonsai rock plantings (ishitsuke) as “descending from” bonsan (7).
Taoist Principles and Bonsai
The Taoist belief in the magical power of miniature recreations of sacred landscapes led to the creation of tray plantings, which some believe were a precursor to today’s rock planting bonsai. But is that where the relationship of Taoist philosophy and bonsai ends? If one looks carefully, not only have Taoist principles contributed to art generally, but bonsai artists follow many of these principles in their daily practice.
In his book, The Tao of Art, author Ben Willis describes a connection between Tao, nature and art (10). Willis writes, “to the Taoist painters and aestheticians the visible forms and shapes of nature …expressed [an] individual quality which could be perceived and expressed by art”. He notes further that, “Both art and Taoism begin with nature, with the basic principles of reality. What the Chinese artist learned from Taosim was how…to augment his own natural creativity and artistry [using] a special method of working that was linked to Taoism and its meditative practices”. This method involved contemplation of the natural or spiritual essence of the subject. Kou Hsi, a painter who lived in the 12th century Sung dynasty, wrote that by concentrating on the essential nature of a subject, “the inner significance is …visually manifested” and the artwork becomes the concrete manifestation of an inner reality (11). Only after having fully appreciated the “quality of form” of the subject, could an artist produce the finest work. One goal of artists generally is to clarify the natural essence that is inherent in every form. In bonsai, one takes inspiration from the tree when envisioning its design and development. As bonsai practitioners we seek to express the inner nature and special qualities, even the life force of the tree.
“The Bonsai is not you working on the tree; you have to have the tree work on you” – John Naka (12)
“The word Tao (pronounced “Dao”) means literally “Way”, as in a path or road to follow, the way that one should take” (13). Taoists believe that “human action that is harmonious with Tao is spontaneous, effortless and inexhaustible” (10). They teach that being in harmony with nature is the way to fulfillment. So much of what we learn as we practice bonsai involves being in harmony with and not in rebellion against the fundamental laws of nature. We learn that if we perform a certain action, at a certain time, and the tree is ready for it, the tree will respond in the desired way. In bonsai, as in most things, human actions that are harmonious with nature and natural processes are most likely to succeed as intended. Bonsai artist Ryan Neil and others speak of “the balance of water and oxygen” in the container, for example. We seek balance and harmony with the application of nutrition, repotting, pest control, and in many other aspects of bonsai culture. As with Taoist philosophy, whenever possible bonsai practitioners should “avoid unnatural action” (11).
Man follows the earth,
Earth follows heaven,
Heaven follows the Tao,
Tao follows what is Natural
-Lao Tsu (14)
The Tao Te Ching describes the importance of “what is not there”. The following verse brings to mind so many aspects of bonsai art – the use of negative space in our designs, the need to remove branches and prune roots, the space inside the container, even the composition of bonsai soil and the importance of spaces between and within the soil particles to hold oxygen, water, and nutrients, and to lead to finer roots. But mainly it reminds us to see things differently; to open our eyes to all that is in front of us, including what is not there.
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
-Lao Tsu (15)
I am writing about the relationship of Taoism and bonsai not to try to bind bonsai more strongly to Asia than it currently is, because I do think that the future of bonsai belongs to practitioners and artists the world over. Rather, I am writing about the Tao and bonsai because I have come to realize how closely Taoist principles align with our current bonsai practices. To its proponents, Tao is a universal principle; indeed, it is the underlying spiritual force of the universe. Hopefully, we can allow ourselves to appreciate the tenets of Taoism and how they apply to the practice of bonsai regardless of our cultural background or geographic location.
- Moor, Robert. “The Beautiful, Brutal World of Bonsai”. New Yorker, Nov 21, 2022 issue. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/11/21/the-beautiful-brutal-world-of-bonsai
- Stein, Rolf. The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Thought (Stanford, 1990).
- Long, Charles. “An informal history of bonsai”. Arnoldia 31; 5:261-273, 1971.
- Toshiyuki, Okuma. “The Meaning of Bonsai: Tradition and the Japanese Aesthetic”. Japan Policy Forum, Culture, No. 2, Sept. 28, 2010. https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/culture/pt2010092816052974.html, accessed on 3/28/17.
- Thacker, Christopher. The History of Gardens (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 45.
- Keswick, Maggie. The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1978), 37-38.
- Ross, Stephanie. What Gardens Mean (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,1998), 119.
- Toru, Yoda. “Bonsai as Miniscule Garden”. Japan Policy Forum, No. 72, Culture, Sept 16, 2022. https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/culture/pt2022091614565812474.html, accessed on December 15, 2022.
- Marushima, Hideo. “History of Japanese Bonsai Appreciation” in Proceedings of the International Scholarly Symposium on Bonsai and Viewing Stones, May 2002. Published by the National Bonsai Foundation, Washington, D.C., May, 2005.
- Willis, Ben. The Tao of Art (New York: Random House, 1987), 5, 52-54.
- Ibid., 25.
- Naka, John. “John Naka Quotes”, Internet Search, Google. Accessed 12/12/2022.
- Pattee Kryder, Rowena. “A Modern Way of the Eternal Tao” in Feng, Gia-fu and English, Jane. Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching. (New York, Vintage Books, 1997), Preface
- Feng, Gia-fu and English, Jane. Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching (New York, Vintage Books, 1997), Chapter 11.
- Ibid., Chapter 25
Copyright, 2023 Walter J. Scott