Esprit Bonsai International – August 2019

(Nancy Kaufman) #1
#101 EspritBonsaiInternational - 7

The spirit
of Bonsaï

A superb example of chokkan, created entirely through Japanese
cultural techniques, where each element occupies the position
that is appropriate for it within the overall harmony.
Pinus penthylla – Showa Kinen, Saitama, Japan.

Knowledge and action

Author: Gilbert Labrid

The art of bonsai developed

under the influence of powerful

men, who ensured the Harmony

between weakness and strength

by eliminating egotistical

elements. The same applies today.


ithout any knowledge, there
is no right action; and without
action, there is no proof of the
validity of knowledge. As we all
know, to govern is to plan ahead. If these
principles are applied to bonsai, organising
a plant’s masses into a harmonious form is
close to the art of good government.
The people who perpetuated bonsai
through the ages were mostly men who
possessed some sort of power: spiritual
(monks, literati); political (aristocrats, war-
riors); or material (bankers, merchants).
Today, the democratisation of society and
the globalisation of knowledge have altered
the historical and social data. Every indivi-
dual is free to access any activity that might
interest him or her, whatever his or her deep
underlying motivation.

Pruning is sacrifice
What difference is there between our era
and earlier times? The appreciation of form
has changed, knowledge is mostly technical
and the philosophical basis has been diluted
by personal satisfaction. However, when we
come face to face with a plant that is to be
styled as a bonsai, the questions that arise
are still the same: What choices to make?
With what aim? And by what means?
The tools have evolved, although scis-
sors and pliers remain essential; and culti-
vation techniques have improved. Shapes
have become more dynamic, elaborate and
sometimes more complex, the main aim
being to make a big aesthetic impact.
Whatever the reasons for pursuing a
particular form, pruning means weakening
and above all “sacrificing”, losing volunta-

rily, giving up on the idea of keeping eve-
rything. The reason this action is a sacri-
fice (= making something sacred) is that
the obvious loss is brought about with a
higher aim: that of obtaining a Harmony that
reconciles knowledge and power.

Selfish branches
Two of the classic styles are tricky to
create and above all to maintain in a state
of perfection, and are hardly ever seen any
more in exhibitions, even in Japan. Forests
and formal uprights (chokkan) are no lon-
ger popular among bonsai lovers. In the
West, almost all conifer bonsai are collec-
ted from nature. Work carried out on wild
trees is limited by their growing conditions.
They have no low branches; everything is
constructed from half or two-thirds of the
way up. Uprights are not collected because
they have no movement and the hierarchy
of branches is so distorted by their unchec-
ked existence that it is impossible to give
them any dynamism.
This hierarchy is paramount. The notion
of harmony relates not to the beauty of
a detail, but to the overall balance. This
balance is maintained by repeated pru-
ning on the strong, young parts – the crown
and the branch tips. Letting either of these
run free equates to ruining the whole. The

Japanese have a name for branches that
capture all the energy for their own bene-
fit and grow faster than the trunk: oyafuko
eda – “disrespectful” or “selfish branches”.
If they are not immediately brought to
book, the crown will thicken and the lower
branches will die, or the crown will wither
as its energy is sucked away by an interme-
diate branch. But on a chokkan, an alterna-
tion between strong and weak branches is
Likewise in a forest, which has the
appearance of being easy to create, you
cannot use a group of identical trees. You
need large ones, medium-sized ones, small
ones and slender ones to give depth and
produce a varied, poetic, balanced space.
The constant worry is how to preserve the
weakest, most fragile parts, as they are
essential to the style’s coherence. The art
resides in maintaining this balance.

Overall harmony
Recent events have confirmed the theo-
ry which stipulates that bonsai culture is the
prerogative of Japanese society. Those in
power in that country do not hesitate to
cut off selfish branches that divert society’s
energy for their own benefit, without taking
into account the balance needed for the
Harmony of all. �
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