All over the world people have been growing and collecting bonsai trees as a hobby and a form of artwork. These tiny trees have long been cultivated in decorative containers, thus giving them their name; bonsai literally means tree in a pot. While many think of bonsai trees as Japanese, the art of bonsai originated in China as part of a spiritual practice linked first to Taoism, and later to Buddhism.
Bonsai was part of the ancient Chinese art of “penjing,” also know as “pun-sai,” which means the practice of creating a miniature landscape in a container. Chinese artists used plants, rocks, and other natural materials to craft tiny landscapes, often resembling sacred mountains, brooks, and other natural scenes, as well as dragons and serpents, all arranged on trays or in pots.
This practice of creating miniature landscapes and trees can be linked to China’s philosophical tradition of Taoism. Taoism proposed that thinking and living in a natural way and letting go of rigid, conventional beliefs would help one’s mind better tune in to the rhythm of nature. Being one with nature, going with the flow, and understanding how everything in life is interrelated are an integral part of Taoist teachings. The idea of yin and yang provide one example. Taoism also holds that even if something in nature is small, it will contain both power and strength if its age is advanced (and if it is confined to a small space). Bonsai trees become more valuable with age.
Monks from India brought a new influence to the Chinese Taoist tradition that became known as Chan Buddhism. Chan Buddhists began to include seedling trees in their miniature mountain landscapes. While working with natural materials, pruning and clipping the dwarf trees was part of the creative process, and Buddhist monks found themselves absorbed in a form of meditation.
Buddhism then advanced to Korea, and finally it made its way to Japan where it became known as Zen Buddhism. Diplomats traveling to China and Korea brought back Chinese art and culture to Japan, and the making of miniature landscapes, with its ties to Buddhist symbolism, was quickly adopted.
At first, it was only Japanese Buddhist monks and scholars that cultivated bonsai trees and tiny landscapes. The core of the Zen philosophy was refined to represent beauty in austerity, with all but the essentials removed to reveal the true nature of something. Ancient Japanese scrolls reveal that bonsai represented a fusion of traditional beliefs blended with other Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul, and the natural world.
By the fourteenth century bonsai was revered as an art form in Japan, and it is much represented in poetry and painting. At this point, bonsai trees were displayed indoors by the Japanese aristocracy, and the practice of creating bonsai became less associated with religion. A few centuries later, bonsai trees became commonplace amongst the general Japanese population as they are today.