Lessons of the Bonsai

Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.

The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.

By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.

Lessons of the Bonsai

(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)

As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.

Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.

I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.

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