Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Short History Of Bonsai

Kokan Shiren (虎関師錬), (1278–1347)
Rhymeprose on a Miniature Landscape Garden

     What I liked to do for fun when I was a child was to gather up sacks of stones and pile them on a table near the window high and free. When I reached middle age, I felt ashamed of doing this and so I stopped, becoming like any other ordinary person, obtuse like a brick. Finally, I have reached decrepit old age, and I particularly dislike the sound of children’s games in the summer. So I had the children gather up stones in the corner of the wall. I brushed them off and washed them, preparing a green celadon tray with white sand on the bottom. The result was poetry that would lighten your heart. The landscape lent a coolness to the air and dispelled the heart. 

     A visitor saw it and exclaimed, “Okay, okay, but it seems a little bald, doesn’t it?”

   I responded, “You see a pile of stones and fail to see the mountains. The marvelous thing about miniature landscape gardens is that they are imitations of mountains and streams. The base is made to look flowing waves and the cliffs are made to seem covered with vegetation. Sometimes you can see miniature gnarled pine or knobby plum. You might see unusual blossoms or strange new shoots from their trimmed branches. Of course you will discover the utter vexation of your creations withering and wilting due to carelessness of slow watering and tending. If you fail to exert yourself, then you will simply fail to fashion a magnificent mountain and a smaller world among the smaller mounds and hills.

     “Years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji. The climb took three days. For two days I passed through areas of great trees and forests, but on the third morning there wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen! At that point there were only great boulder-like cliffs and purplish-red stones. I was like this for a number of miles until I reached the peak itself. Of course Mt. Fuji is not unique in this respect as all peaks are without vegetation. People who climb mountains do not dislike the so-called baldness; rather, they love the sense of height.

     “These stones then, just a number of inches tall, and this tray roughly a foot across, they are nothing short of a mountainous island rising from the sea! Jade-green peaks penetrate the clouds and are encircled by them. A blue-green barrier, immersed in water, is standing straight up. There are caves as if carved in the cliff sides to hide saints and immortals. Jetties and spits flat enough and long enough for fishermen. The paths and roads are narrow and confined, yet woodcutters can pass along them. There are lagoons deep and dark enough to hide dragons.

     “So is it not fitting that I guard against weeds, carefully watching and laboring over the thing, taking delight in its total subtlety? Do you dislike the baldness of the small mounds and hills? Am I oblivious to the bareness of just the peak? I sometimes pick a flowering branch and place it in a peak or in a ravine. The alternations of plant life, their blooming in the morning and fading in the evening, are the splendor of the four seasons with their countless transformations and myriad changes! So therefore I say that it doesn’t have to be bare, and it does not have to be lush.

     “Another thing, do you think this miniature landscape is big? Do you think it is small? I will blow on the water and raise up billows from the four seas. I will water the peak and send down a torrent from the ninth heaven! The person who waters the stones sets the cosmos in order. The one who changes the water turns the whole sea upside down. Those are the changes in nature which attain a oneness in my mind. Anyway, the relative size of things is an uncertain business. Why, there is a vast plain on a fly’s eyelash and whole nations in a snail’s horn, a Chinese philosopher has told us. Well what do you think?”

    My visitor got up from his seat and made his excuses. He saw that these stones purified my senses and purified my intellect. He realized that events are really not what they seemed and yet they enriched me. I told him that he only understood what he perceived with his own eyes and did not understand my point of view at all. I asked if he wouldn’t like to sit for a while longer and study the matter afresh. He said he would, but there were no waves for him. 


     He said nothing more and I was silent. After a while my visitor left without another word.

Saihokushu, ch. 1, pp. 1–2.


  1. Thank you for this. I needed something to calm me down. Years ago, I purchased a fairly generic, yet beautiful, bonsai tree at the North Carolina State Fair. Unfortunately, I must not have given it the correct care, because it did not thrive. Perhaps I'll try again.

  2. You're welcome. I needed something to calm me down also. In my life, bonsai have been slightly less impossible to deal with than goldfish. But I'm ready for another try. At Longwood Gardens, near where we live, the bonsai collection is inspiring, as is Kokan Shiren's "rhymeprose," which seems to occupy a place (I guess there are a number of them) where Eastern and Western spiritual outlooks can meet and enjoy each other's company. The "world's largest bonsai" in fifth position is really something. Bonsai doesn't need to be miniature. It just needs to be in a pot or tray. Time to begin anew. Start by watching The Karate Kid. It's still be best of the post-Rocky Rocky movies. Curtis

  3. Lovely.

    Woke up at 3 this a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep. Sat in my son's empty room and looked out at the dark lake. Realized that the world is awake while I am sleeping. For some reason I think these tiny trees help one not to sleep through life.

  4. I agree with that. If you're ever up again at that hour, just call. You'll find me looking out my office window also. Curtis