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.Buddhists
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.Shinto
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"