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Zen and Bonsai

Zen and Bonsai

by Gunter Lind

Zen (Ch'an) came to China from India in the 6th century. Since the 13th century one can speak of a Zen school in Japan. While Zen was just one of several Buddhist schools in China, and its influence outside the monasteries was never big, it became a broad movement among laypeople in Japan from the 13th to the 17th century. It was adopted enthusiastically in particular by the new upper class of the Samurai who had disempowered the old nobility during the Kamakura period. The samurai, coming from being mercenaries, adhered to their military self-image, which was in line with the Zen ideals of self-restraint, discipline and austerity. It also allowed for a pseudo-religious glorification of war rituals, transforming sword fight and archery into meditation practices of a kind. Zen had not been able to attract many followers among the Chinese upper class of scholar officials - it just didn't fit their intellectual climate. During the Edo period the influence of Zen waned along with the political influence of the Samurai. The upcoming bourgeoisie deliberately dissociated itself from the elitist Samurai culture, which also suffered from having become formalized and stagnant. It was not until the 20th century that Zen was rediscovered as an antidote to the Westernization of Japanese culture.

The most salient characteristic of Zen when compared to other Buddhist schools is its anti-intellectualism. Zen is opposed to intellectual knowledge and instead promotes direct, intuitive experience of transcendental truths. It doesn't have holy scriptures, dogmas or myths. Lao-Tse is reported to have said: Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know. Knowledge or sudden revelation happens in experiencing things, it is bound to situations and cannot be planned. You can only prepare for it, and this preparation is not intellectual or moral, but aesthetic. You surround yourself with things that emanate this certain feeling of deep loneliness and emptiness which is the precursor to enlightenment.


Image 1  Tani Buncho: Fisherman, ink painting in the Zen style

Image 2  Sesshu: Haboku landscape

The preferred art forms of the Chinese Zen monks were calligraphy and painting, just as with the literati. And there are several parallels to literati paintings. But Zen painting is wilder, faster and more spontaneous. The drawing is jotted down in one session, with no exact drawing of objects and almost no elaborate compositions. You often see thick, wild lines which make the details vanish. In China this art culminated in the 13th century. An example from Japan is the autumn landscape by Ishi Bunshu (1608-1648), a Zen monk from a dynasty of Samurais: A pagoda on a mountain ridge covered with trees, with a swarm of wild geese and distant mountains in the background. Bunshu was an excellent painter. His works show the character of Zen art without the somewhat raw features that it can have in the hands of lesser accomplished artists.


Image 3  Ishi Bunshu (1608-1648): Autumn landscape

A characteristic of Zen in Japan is the addition of several art forms which didn't exist in China: Noh drama, haiku poetry, the tea ceremony, the cult of the sword, and Zen gardens. Here Zen is becoming a way of life which transforms all facets of life into a total work of art. Bonsai however wasn't one of these preferred art forms. While there's a specific school of Ikebana following the principles of Zen (Chabana), there is nothing comparable for bonsai. Bonsai are also rarely depicted in Zen paintings (which however is also true for ink paintings in general). Image 4 shows one of the rare examples, a small Ume with one blossom and four buds, very simple - it is a lovely meditation picture, but the tree would hardly have a chance at a bonsai exhibition.

Image 4  Unknown artist (1854): Back cover of a book with Zen paintings

Hoseki Shinichi Hisamatsu (in Zen and the Fine Arts, translation by Gishin Tokiwa, Tokyo 1971) has tried to characterize Zen art using seven properties. His characterization is still regarded as the most adequate one. He however points out that an analytic separation of these properties would not be in accordance with the Zen spirint and that they should rather be regarded as an inseparable whole. In order to qualify as Zen, a work of art should have all of these properties, and the same would of course hold for a bonsai.

  1. Asymmetry. For a Buddhist a perfect form is impossible. So it shouldn't be striven for in the first place. Everything is  somewhat irregular, not balanced, informal. This should be reflected in the work of art.
  2. Simplicity, plainness, avoidance of complexity. A bonsai should not contain more than necessary.
  3. Austere sublimity. Zen art is not youthful, sensual or opulent. It fits better with advanced age and shows a certain rigour and austerity. Removing all external splendour is supposed to lead into the heart of the message. The weathered branches of an old pine, lanky and emaciated by storm and snow, show this sublimity.
  4. Naturalness. This is a concept that needs interpretation. What is meant is not a pine which might occur as well in nature, but a pine that shows the essence of a pine, the prototypical pine. It should not look artificial or even artistic, but effortless and informal, as if it always had been that way and could not be different, as if it hadn't been styled by man.
  5. Subtle profoundness. The work of art should express more than the shown subject. The pine is not only a pine. It can symbolize dignity, perseverance, the season of winter, closeness to death or virility. It is desirable to have a richness of implications, associations, deepness of thought, innuendos that leave room for interpretation, that also have some vagueness. The tree should not be easy to see through. Its essence might be hidden first and only reveal itself step by step.
  6. Freedom from attachments to mundane things, to habits, conventions, customs, or rules. Zen does not accept constraints of thinking or acting. The transgression of conventional ways of thinking is an essential feature of Zen. A pine that obviously has been designed according to the classical rules of a formal upright tree doesn't satisfy the requirements of the Zen aesthetic. This doesn't mean that the rules wouldn't have any value though. They might be useful for a beginner. But if it enhances the Zen character of a bonsai, the rules should be broken. Rules should enable, not restrict.
  7. Tranquility, loneliness, peace of mind. This is the feeling that a tree should convey. Zen art is directed inwards. Everything that disrupts this peace needs to be eliminated.

Of course such a conceptual characterization should be regarded with certain reservations, because according to the philosophy of Zen, its aesthetic principles evade conceptual characterization as much as knowledge in general does. I think however that Hisamatsu's characterization is very close to the spirit of Zen, even if there might be an additional quality when it comes to aesthetic experience.

Zen painting can be seen as a special case of literati painting, and since some of the ideas about depicting a tree that come from literati painting have been taken up by the so-called literati bonsai style, a bonsai that is designed according to Hisamatsu's criteria should also exhibit features of the literati style. Quingquan Zhao has described the aesthetic ideals of the literati style with four criteria which have a striking similarity to Hisamatsu's characterization:

  1. Aloofness - the overall appearance of a tree should convey an impression of detachment from the world and of loneliness.
  2. Sparseness in the design elements.
  3. Refined elegance - the tree should be elegant and graceful, by means of simple, natural lines of the composition.
  4. Plainness - the tree should convey a clear message behind which the external form should take a subordinate place: More essence than appearance.

Besides the obvious similarities there's a characteristic shift in bias: The literati style strives for an elegant, tasteful tree, but also for individuality and uniqueness. For the Zen tree, this is less important. Instead, there's a stress on austere sublimity which is dismissive of any external beauty. This difference can be traced back to a difference in lifestyle between the Chinese scholar officials and the Japanese Zen monks.


Image 5  Picea abies, height 50 cm, by Walter Pall, first styling by Werner Trachsel

The spruce by Werner Trachsel and Walter Pall (Image 5) is an excellent example for a tree in the literati style. The restraint in design elements, the simple, austere beauty, which is devoid of all outwardness, are  exemplary. The tree also has the typical features of the literati style: A trunk with multiple bends, sparse foliage, and a small round pot. All this is however quite irrelevant for the Zen character of a bonsai. According to Hisamatsu's sixth criterion, all canonicalization of styles should be avoided. Furthermore, the literati style cannot be considered the only realization of the principles of literati paintings. These can be characterized along the lines of Zhao, but they can be fulfilled by more than one style. Therefore we'd like to show another example of a tree which fits the principles of Hisamatsu, but is not designed in the literati style. Instead, the following pine by Walter Pall is designed in a more naturalistic style (Image 6).


Image 6  Pinus mugo, Mountain pine, height 75 cm, styled by Walter Pall

The fact that the Zen lifestyle was mainly limited to monks and Samurai is of course also due to the fact that it was much more difficult for a merchant or craftsman to live up to the strict principles of Zen in everyday life. There have been several attempts to make Zen more attractive to a broader public; the most successful one is probably the "Way of Tea" introduced by Sen no Rikyu (1521-1591). Here, the tea ceremony constitutes an oasis of Zen in the daily grind. They path through the tea garden towards the tea hut should make people forget their everyday life. They should leave behind all passions and calm down. The tea ceremony is made a meditative Zen exercise.

To make this possible, all things in the garden and the hut should be designed in accordance with the aesthetic principles of Zen. Rikyo introduced the striking concept of Wabi-Sabi for this. Without foraying into the original meaning of these words and the shift they took in the context of Zen aesthetics, let us just look at the modern concept of Wabi-Sabi, which can be characterized as a complex concept meaning appreciation of pristine simplicity, the beauty of imperfection, of the unfinished, of the unrefined and unpretentious. This is a specific reading of Zen aesthetics, and one which has the advantage that it can be appreciated and practiced without the religious background of Zen. Rikyu takes the life in rural simplicity as a model for his way of tea, which is a projection of the primordial state of humanity in which nature and culture were allegedly still a unity. The farmer's cabin is the model for a tea hut, with its walls made of raw clay and its thatched roof. The models for tea dishes are ceramics for everyday life, made by anonymous craftsmen. Such an idealization and aestheticisation of simple life is not unique to the East. One might dismiss the aesthetic rules adopted by society and counter them with an ideal of modesty. One might prefer small and hidden things, things that give you a feeling of security, to grand and splendid things. One might find the dignity of age in the traces of use, in notches, scars and rust. Even if you dissociate Wabi-Sabi from the religious background of Zen, you will not be able to eliminate Zen's basic attitude to life: A feeling of loneliness and a mild sorrow which results from the knowledge about the fundamental impermanence and imperfection of things and the reflection on one's own mortality.

The dissociation of Zen aesthetics from Zen art in a narrow sense which was exemplified here in the concept of Wabi-Sabi has become very important for Japanese art, so important that one is likely to associate a certain aesthetic minimalism with Japanese art in general. This is however only one aspect of it, and often one can find both aspects in the work of a single artist. The following sheet by Ando Hiroshige (Image 7) shows the essential features from Hisamatsu's list, even if the realization is perhaps a bit too sensuous. Hiroshige's fame however is based on quite another facet of Japanese art, the colourful and cosmopolitan woodblock prints which are obsessed with detail. Apparently he thought nothing of exercising both styles. It is quite common in Asian art that an artist's command of several different styles is rated higher than the development of an individual style. You will however find Hiroshige using this Zen aesthetic only in private sketches, not in paintings for sale. Zen art was already declining in popularity back then - and that hasn't changed much today.


Image 7  Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858): Cherry blossoms on a river bank, water colour

I guess the same is true for bonsai. But maybe bonsai exhibitions and demonstrations are not the right place to practise Zen aesthetics anyway. This might even open up an opportunity: The artistic experience of Zen is basically open to all. Not only does it not require you to be a professional, it is intrinsically non-professional. Could this be the chance for bonsai hobbyists to design aesthetically appealing trees without having to compete with Kimura?

Prof. Dr. Gunter Lind



On the 9th of April 2007, Prof. Dr. Lind died after a severe illness. After his retirement, he had dedicated most of his time to the exploration of bonsai history. It took a very competent bonsai and art connoisseur to disclose a field of knowledge that is so completely unknown in the west.

Many of his articles were published by the magazine BONSAI ART and in the German BONSAI FACHFORUM internet forum. Unfortunately many unfinished articles will be lost for us.

It is a great honor for the “” website to have the permission to publish this article.

Special thanks to Mrs Lind and to Walter Pall for the kind permission to use his photographs.


Text and images:

Image 1: Tani Buncho: Fisherman, Ink drawing in the style of Zen painting

Image 2: Sesshu: Haboku landscape

Image 3: Ishi Bunshu: Autumn landscape. Ink drawing. From Kurt Brasch: Zenga, Tokyo and Hamburg 1961

Image 4: Unknown artist (1854): Back cover of a book with Zen paintings (Buddhist saints and horses)

Images 5 and 6: Walter Pall

Image 7: Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858): Cherry blossoms on a river bank. Water colour. From John R. Hillier: Japanische Zeichnungen vom 17. bis 19. Jahrh. (Japanese Paintings from the 17th to the 19th century), Hamburg 1966


Copyright: Gerlind Lind



Quingquan Zhao: Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment, Athens, GA: Venus Communications, 1997

Shinitchi Hisamatsu, trans. Gishin Tokiwa: Zen and the Fine Arts, Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1971


Translation: Stefan Ulrich

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