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 Post subject: Why Do We Seek Age In Bonsai?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 02, 2008 5:21 pm 

Joined: Fri Mar 04, 2005 6:16 am
Posts: 89
Why Do We Seek Age In Bonsai?
by Morten Albek


Age is a very important element in the art of bonsai. But why is it so important, and how has this evolved?

Part of the answer might be found in the history of Japanese monks. But the fascination of old trees in the west might as well be founded deep in our own cultural heritage, and a part may also be influenced by our own religions.


The religion of the Japanese Buddhists preaches, that age and time is part of the way to reach enlightenment. It was these Japanese monks that developed the kind of bonsai grown today in Japan, and which has now been adopted in the west.

Originally it was though the Chinese monks, who, more than 2000 years ago, were cultivating tress in pots, created with deep roots in Taoism.

With the principles of Taoism followed a religious belief, which told believers that phenomena's of nature possessed a magic force. These phenomena could be in everything from nature, like trees, rocks or even mountains.

The miniatures of nature they collected, included trees planted in pots, which were believed to contain these magic forces in a concentrated form.

Crumbled trees were meant to represent the aged body of immortal people in the belief of the Taoists. In this way bonsai is founded in the believing of magic forces from nature, and age is therefore historically a major part of this.

Age in modern times

The growers of today's bonsai art mostly have a very different background than the monks have had. Especially those of us who are not founded in Asian culture, but has a western culture in the backpack.

Of course we are also affected by the culture of bonsai in itself because bonsai is based on an old look. But the fascination is mostly bounded in former experiences, and the influence of our own culture.

The sight of a young tree is usually not fascinating for us. But why is it then so?

Man and nature

In Asia bonsai is thought as a melting or blending of man and nature. In our western world we are mostly seeing nature with our minds on a distance.

Many of us are neither half nor full Buddhists, nor part of the Japanese Shinto religion. The Shinto religion is also a nationalistic founded belief, which one can't convert to because it is a deep part of being Japanese.

We then have to search for the answers of the meaning of age in bonsai, looking in other directions. Because many of us, including non bonsai interested people, are amazed and influenced of the power of majestic old crumbled and windblown trees in nature.

When we see this in a bonsai as well, we gets a feeling of humbleness and respect for the tree. It is simply playing with our feelings, influenced by our memories of nature, and our heritage.

The mirror

Nearly all trees in myths, and religious stories, are told to be old strong powerful trees. The tree of life is not drawn like a young newcomer, but like a majestic big one with power. In these stories it is likely that some of the explanation may be seated.

And also the human need for survival must be a part of the explanation. Humans have always fought to survive. Like the tree standing on the edge of a hillside, man also clings to life as long as possible. In the trees, we recognize this and feel a partnership.

All the trees that are seen in both old, and newer drawings or paintings are old, solid and proud.

Maybe it is because we as humans have to obey something that is far more powerful than ourselves. Humbly we have to kneel and face our weakness.

Trees outlive us many times, especially in the case of bonsai, in which the trees will live for many generations of human lives, if they are treated correctly and with respect.


The religious symbol of life

Trees have always been a symbol of life. As in the descriptions from the Old Testament, the tree of life was standing in the Garden of Eden.

But this is not just a symbol for one religion. Also many other beliefs are founded in the trees. In the center of the Islamic Paradise a tree is also an important factor.

In the old Egypt the Palm tree was of significant importance, and in Jerusalem the leaves was used for making a roof of triumph over the heads of heroes and Kings. In ancient Greece the gods were living in trees and when the leaves of an Oak was moving in the wind, it was said that it was the God Zeus who was nearby.

Another tree of importance will be well known to the readers of the `Tolkien` history. Here the mighty myth full Ash tree in Yggdrasil is the tree of life. The end of the branches is bearing Midgaard, which is the earth. The crown is supporting the heaven and the roots are growing in the darkness of the underworld.

In the myth it is told: "When the tree dies, the world dies."

The Sambucus nigra, common elder, has from the early days been surrounded by myths in Denmark. Long before Christ the common elder was sacred for the goddess of earth, who helped people, and protected animals and plants.

The common elder was seen as being a home place for the good spirits on the farms. Therefore it was often planted in front of the main entrance, to keep the good spirits close.

The gods and the Pines

The Japanese Shinto religion that, like Taoism, is bound to nature, tells that the gods lived in Pine trees. This explains some of the religious myths that are attached too these wonderful trees.

In the world of bonsai, a special form used for some Pines is called The Hand of Buddha. The story is, that the clouds of needles on the pine are formed like a hand that one can step up on, as the stairs to Nirvana (heaven or paradise).

It is a general belief, that the clouds on the Pines express the steps to Nirvana, so the Pine tree is not only a wonderful tree used for bonsai, but also a tree closely attached with feelings and religion.

Age in the western and Asian world

In the western culture, age is not a positive part of life. We degenerate, and in the end we die. Basic fact, and at the same time a rough schedule of how we approach life.

In the eastern world age is believed to be far more worthy because it also is part of the way to Nirvana, and thereby enlightenment is reached with it.

In the eastern world, there is much respect for elderly people, because they have gained wisdom and experience, through a long life way towards enlightenment. This is contrary to the western way of thinking.

Cultural and maybe especially religious differences are parting the west from the east, in the way of seeing our lives. This should not make us look at old trees the same way, but it does. Because we are under influence of other forces, that bring us together.

In spite of the differences between west and east, bonsai and old trees fascinate us all. Why is it that these differences are not parting us, but to the contrary, are putting us closer together?

We get almost the same feeling in our body and mind, when we see an extraordinary beautiful old tree.

Regardless of if the tree is standing in a field or is a bonsai on a table, we all are fascinated by the power it. The fascination comes with tree that has withstood frosts and winter storms, and maybe even witnessed a war. The gnarled old branches, the power of cracked old bark, and the will to survive when new leafs are sprouting from old wood, all testify to it's power.

Nature and human

Whatever nature would choose to be a Buddhist or a Taoist, nature itself is sacred and must be seen as a gift. And for most people the tree is coming forward as something very special, with or without religious aspects, and cultural differences involved.

With all this in mind, and as a part of the explanation, is the age of the trees of major importance in the art of bonsai.


According to Shinto, the Japanese people's religion that was founded about 500 years before Christ, all nature is sacred.

The central issue in "Shin" is the thought of the godly spirit, which is both forceful and inspiring at the same time.

In Shinto nature is based on Kami that is a higher force, and can be everything from a stone to the sun. The Kami is base for everything in Japan, and this includes even Japanese people themselves.

A non-Japanese is not part of the Kami. They are instead set to be in second row, and be a part of animals.

Maybe this is the explanation for the signs still to be seen in Narita Airport in Tokyo, where it is told foreign visitors that "Aliens" have to go in this or that direction.

Shinto is very much connected to the Japanese relationship with nature, and Shinto tells furthermore that the gods are living in the Pine trees. And loads of Pines are needed, because there are more than eight million Shinto gods.

There is a close link between the Japanese people, the gods and nature. The basic idea with Shinto is simply to make a harmonically symbiosis between nature, gods and humans.

The link between the gods and Pines makes them to be more than just trees. The relationship fills the tree with both feelings and religious aspects. The Pine brings together beauty, power and history. This is a part of the glory that shines on this magnificent tree, called Matsu in Japanese, and makes it one of the most used trees for bonsai in Japan.

Up the same road

Different side roads may reach the same impact, the old trees fills us with respect. Whichever way we are traveling, we all end up on the same road that brings us together, east and west, respectfully loving bonsai.

For futher reading on this subject see "Age Discrimination"

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Apr 10, 2008 7:53 pm 

Joined: Mon Feb 28, 2005 9:40 pm
Posts: 383
To put it simply from the way I look at it, while at the same time complimenting the research and coherent assembly of facts in this article, when I started doing bonsai many of the things discussed here were not much mentioned or understood. The idea was a miniature tree. Sometimes we forget this. If I had a miniature cow or horse both living and healthy I think the idea would hit home. We are developing the illusion of a miniature tree like a two-hundred foot tall two-hundred year old Fir or Pine tree living happily in a tiny pot. Without the aspects of age the illusion of this image is not complete, the bark, the dead wood, the twisted and contorted branching, all associated with large ancient trees growing on the mountain side. It is not so important that a bonsai actually be old but that it appears to be old.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Apr 10, 2008 11:09 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Why is age important?

Are we enslaved to only presenting an illusion of an ancient tree or can we not also create the illusion of a grove of middle aged trees, or the raw freshness and energy of a young tree. Can not a story be told beautifully and in a soul wrenching way about the fight for survival of seedlings or saplings racing for the light and hence, survival? Does not renewal, the rebirth of a forest or even a tree after disaster claimed the ancients, present a facet of nature as well? Can we not find beauty in the young, in the birth, or in the making of these ancients and present it in a artistically feasible manner?


 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri Apr 11, 2008 8:03 pm 

Joined: Mon Feb 28, 2005 9:40 pm
Posts: 383
I don't find anything wrong with your approach either Will, you have brought up some good and viable points. But to some extant or another some sort of indication of age has to be presented or you wind up with a stick or sticks in a pot. If the idea is to present a young forrest the trees must put forth the illusion that they are more than seedlings in a line.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 9:00 am 

Joined: Mon Feb 28, 2005 9:40 pm
Posts: 383
From the view point of aesthetics age in anything tends to draw our attention to it. This can be carried to almost anything we put our hands on our turn our attention to. Where this issue becomes clouded is in our own opinions and points of view. It is said that one man's junk is another man's treasure. I remember a sign that used to be in the window of an antique shop I used to go to with my mother when I was a boy; it said: We buy old junk and sell antiques.

Much of the same applies to trees. In general when we see a tree that demands our attention it is usually because of its character in shape and form. There is something unique about this tree but usually it is old and worn by centuries of struggle with nature. Seldom is our attention drawn to a young tree sitting in the middle of the neighbor's yard. You can assemble all of the esoteric, philosophical, and even religious concepts that Morten has amassed to explain the deeper meanings of bonsai, excellent research I might add, but you are still left with the same choice in the end; is it junk or treasure?

As far as bonsai is concerned in the eyes of Westerners it is age for age's sake that draws our attention. We learn of what Morten has provided us as we gain experience and our interest deepens. In the beginning it was the illusion of age being captured in a small container, a living tree ancient in years and tiny in size magically shrunken down to be held in the hand. Without a tree's appearance of age this mystique is missing.

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