A lot of people wonder about the meaning behind the bonsai tree. Well, let’s start with the meaning of the word itself. Bonsai, first of all, is a Japanese word and could be translated as ‘a tree in a pot’. The art of bonsai growing, however, did not originate in Japan but in China. It started over a thousand years ago and at that time the trees were called ‘pun-sai’. The art of pun-sai growing was called penjing.
It is believed that in those days, people were trying to create the trees that look like dragons, serpents, birds and other animals. All of these forms are deeply rooted in Chinese myths and legends. (Photo courtesy of Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons)
Buddhist Monks and Bonsai Trees
Later on, when the Japanese learned of this new art form, the meaning changed as well. The Buddhist monks that brought bonsai growing to Japan viewed these trees as a symbol for harmony between nature, man and soul. With that, the form of the trees also changed. Gone were the bizarre and grotesque shapes of twisting serpents and fierce dragons. From then on the bonsai were all about harmony, peace and balance. They started to represent all that was good.
Buddhist monks had a great influence on the art and practice of bonsai growing that has never quite disappeared. Even these days a lot of books that are dedicated to bonsai gardening and are published in the western world talk about meditation and zen. They will describe how growing a bonsai requires a meditative state and how all the pruning and cutting should be approached with a zen-like state of mind.
That being said, most of the bonsai tree meaning was lost to the general public in the last couple of decades. Most westerners now look on these trees as merely a decoration; a little touch of Asia to put in our homes. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not.
Working With Bonsai Trees
However, if you do become a bonsai artist and start growing your own trees, instead of just observing them or buying trees that someone else has made for you, you will find that taking care of bonsai still possesses a spiritual note. You will have to connect to the tree, understand it, see where it wants to grow and then gently direct it into the desired direction. You will have to find balance between what you want and what a tree is willing to give you. You will have to find patience inside of you and allow a tree to dictate how fast it wants to develop. And throughout all this process, you might discover something new inside of you. You might discover that indescribable thing that has captivated so many. With that, you just might find your own meaning of bonsai trees.