Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bonsai and Zen

Marcel Proust was intrigued by it.  Nikos Kazantzakis was appalled.  The bonsai is a contentious bit of horticulture.

One way to understand its merits is with the help of the Japanese philosophy of Zen Buddhism.  I'm not an expert on bonsai or Zen, but I do find the relationship fascinating.

Introduced to Japan in the ninth century, Zen ascended alongside the warrior classes in the thirteenth century. While other schools of Buddhism were quite scholastic, and often cloistered, much of Zen was practical, unpretentious and ultimately suspicious of abstractions (even if these formed part of everyday teaching).

As with all forms of Buddhism, it taught that life is transient and illusory, and we suffer when we vainly grope at it. Of course there is more to the ancient creed than this – but this is the kernel of it: the goal of the enlightened man is to avoid attachment to this insubstantial pageant, and realise the true nature of things.

Zen Buddhism departs from its sister philosophies in the simplicity of its message, the frequently unorthodox methods of its teaching, and its non-verbal, unscholastic visions of enlightenment. If all is flux, and groping is futile, then reaching for salvation is equally doomed. The truths of scriptures and prayers are also dubious, and likely to trap us with false certainties.

For this reason, Zen teachers stress very ordinary, non-formal lessons: peeling potatoes, digging, sweeping the floor – these are the tangible, unselfconscious experiences upon which enlightenment is founded. Alongside this, meditation and all kinds of rote learning, Zen students are often given impossible questions, or disciplined with violence. All in all, the goal of Zen is to shock (or exhaust) the pupil out of physical and mental routines, and perceive things with freshness and calm.

The apex of Zen, then, is not facts or logical analysis (as important as these are), but a kind of revived, rejuvenated sight. If Zen were just an idea, it would be, in Daisetz Suzuki’s words ‘woefully inane and miserably unsatisfactory.’ But the hallmark of Zen is a state of mind, and a way of life, characterised by the perception of ordinary beauty and preciousness, and the ability to enjoy it without fetishising or coveting it. It is also a kind of selflessness – not simply altruism, but the quieting of the mind’s ceaseless desires and demands. It is an encounter with nothing: the void, the suchness; a world without permanence, and a mind free of calculation and craving. And this is achieved, not in scholarly seclusion, but cooking, cleaning – and in the garden.

The bonsai is perhaps the pre-eminent Zen plant. It came from China in the era of Zen’s rise, and was cultivated and appreciated in the spirit of Zen philosophy. This was not the only way the Japanese enjoyed their potted trees – the land of the rising sun was never a theocracy.  And it is not the only way to enjoy bonsai today.  Nonetheless, if Japan does have a native, unique aesthetic it is no orientophile’s exaggeration to give it the title of ‘Zen’. ‘Much of what is considered most typical in Japanese aesthetics,’ writes the eminent scholar Donald Keene, ‘coincides with Zen.’

In his classic Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Keene lists the typical virtues of Japanese art – virtues exemplified in the bonsai: suggestion, irregularity, simplicity and perishability. And each of these offers something to the Zen mind (or lack of it). Suggestion gives the impression that there is something more; that our perception does not capture the whole. Simplicity affords focus and intensity – it neither overloads nor underwhelms the curious psyche. Irregularity offers something other than abstract perfections: a glimpse of life in its transience and unbalanced motion. And perishability intensifies this, affirming the decay and death of all things, and the vanity of seeking anchorage in what must fade or crumble.

The finest bonsai have many, if not all, of these virtues. Instead of trying to represent every tree in a forest in their intricacy and detail, they suggest the landscape: the vital, ideal form, with a little moss, a single rock. Instead of being perfectly symmetrical, the best bonsai are balanced, but irregular: a harmony of differing angles, masses, shapes. They are not allowed to become overgrown or messy – they require constant pruning and training to acquire their evocative simplicity. And, while they’re kept alive, they give the impression of age: trees subject to the wearying flow of the decades, and to the cycle of the seasons.

The bonsai can be a craft, an artwork, and a meditation aid. It offers a brief chance to let go of anguish, false hope, and all the leaden accoutrements of the psyche. And it fits on the porch.

(Photo: Ragesoss)


Gondal-girl said...

great post Damon - I have had two bonsai experiences. One when I was a teen, a friends father gave me one for my 18th, however a year later, when I hadn't pruned it sufficiently he reclaimed it...The second I bought for the Better half, it lived for a few years then died a mysterious death -

It is a very hard thing to prune something so much that it doesn't grow like other plants... said...

Great article (as usual) Damon. I am a fan of bonsai, for some of the reasons you included.
I find it interesting that some Feng Shui principles oppose bonsai as it represents 'stunted growth', just as they oppose cacti as it represents 'prickly relationships'.

Damon Young said...

GG: Yes, my mum's was sixty years old. It met its Great Pruner a couple of years ago. The summers are not kind to fussy trees.

JP: Interesting. I know Kazantzakis felt the bonsai was an ignoble, stunted thing - the chihuahua-in-a-handbag of trees. I think the Feng Shui folks are wrong on cacti though. Some of my best mates are...