Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Wonderful Legend: The Origin of the Bonzai Tree?

I think you will enjoy this ancient legend which may give insight to the origins of the Bonsai tree if not far more "magic" than meets the eye at first. Please enjoy this gem as I work on other posts of my own and from the great Masters of old.



Fei Jiang-fang [Fei Chang-fang or Pi Chang-fang] was a legendary magician during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 C.E. ). He was said to have had "the power of shrinking and collecting in an urn mountains and streams, birds and animals, people, pavilions, terraces, and buildings, boats and carriages, trees and rivers." 

A story from the Jin dynasty (265-420 C.E .) and then alluded to at the end of the fifth century tells of how Fei, as a marketplace provost, once discovered that an old man selling herbs there was actually an immortal punished for a mistake. The old man had hung a gourd-shaped hu vessel in front of his shop. Whenever the market closed, he jumped up and entered this vessel, without being seen by the people in the marketplace. Only Fei saw him, from the top of his lookout. Fei confronted the old man who told him to return the following day. Doing so, he was then taken into the old man's confidence and the two of them were allowed to enter inside the magical hu. There they feasted and drank from a wine vessel that did not empty. The old man insisted his punishment was now finished and invited Fei to follow him in search of the Dao.

Both of them entered into the depths of a mountain and, after several tests, Fei Jiang-fang became a magician famous for his power over demons and for curing sicknesses.

Seekers after medicinal herbs go into the heart of the mountains equipped with a staff to which they have attached a protective talisman, consisting of a picture of the sacred mountains, along with a little gourd intended to hold the fruits of their journey.
Now, in tales from the East, the market theme has been used as a meeting place for adepts and spirits. Other hu-kung ("Gourd Elders") besides Fei Jiang-fang are mentioned in Daoist alchemical lore through the centuries. Another version of this story from the late third century indicates that the old man magically appeared to Fei, coming from "far countries" inhabited by barbarians, monsters, demons, and spirit. Inside the hu vessel one only saw a world full of palaces of the immortals.

The banished immortal herb seller replaces his home Isles of the Blessed -- which have all the treasures of the mountain there contained -- with his gourd, which also includes these treasures in their entirety. The gourd is the container for drinks and herbs, concentrating in this little place the essential powers of a remote and isolated mountain. The narrowed opening or gate through which the adept passes with some difficulty opens into another world, closed off and completely sufficient to itself. This paradisiacal, perfect, happy place is far from this vulgar world, just like the miniature gardens that play the same role for those who cultivate them.

This legend shows up in several other works, including a Daoist encyclopedia of the seventh century (i.e., early Tang dynasty) which contains a number of rituals or magical practices to which the legend contributed. One detailed procedure allegedly allows one to be able to transform a pint container so that it contains Heaven and Earth. Another ritual lets one reduce one's size as well as reducing distances.

Were Fei Jiang-fang’s magical miniatures actually only detailed dwarf potted trees and other landscapes which transported the imaginations of viewers to other lands? Was his story indicative of the potential of the miniature landscape? Or, were the earliest pen gardens actually attempts to recreate Fei's works? And for how many years or centuries might individual or sects of Daoists have developed the cultivation of these tiny gardens as a memory aid and focusing device for their attempts to be like Fei?

At this point we cannot credit Fei with originating magical miniature landscapes: the earliest graphic images of these comes several centuries later and shows much more primitive compositions than are told of in his legend. 1


1. Stein, Rolf A. The World in Miniature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pp. 54-55, 66-70, with Fig. 29 b&w photo on pg. 68, pg. 78, notes 129-134 on pp. 294-295. See pp. 58-78 for much more information concerning hu (calabash gourd-shaped) vessels and miniature/magical worlds. Depictions of the three Blessed Isles in the fourth century, for instance, resembled hu vessels, and they were known by the names Peng-hu, Fang-hu, and Ying-hu. In addition, the gourd represents in all of Chinese East Asia the cornucopia: Chinese doctors pack their drugs into little empty gourds or into vials of the same shape, which also makes the fruit the symbol of curing. Other examples of magic and miniature landscapes are found on pp. 50-54.;

Mentioned in Wu, Yee-Sun Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants (Hong Kong: Wing-Lung Bank Ltd.; 1969, 1974. Second edition), pg. 62; Lesniewicz, Paul Bonsai: The Complete Guide to Art & Technique (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press; 1984), pg. 13; Lesniewicz, Paul and Hideo Kato Practical Bonsai, Their Care, Cultivation and Training (London: W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd.; 1991), pg. 8; Webber, Leonard Bonsai For the Home and Garden (North Ryde, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers; 1985), pg. 1; Koreshoff, Deborah R. Bonsai: Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications; 1984), pg. 3;

cf. Samson, Isabelle and Rémy Samson The Creative Art of Bonsai (London: Ward Lock Ltd.; 1986), pg. 8: "Then, during the Tang dynasty and the later Song dynasty (960-1276) public records refer to a man who 'had learnt the art of creating the illusion of immensity enclosed within a small space and all this contained within a single pot.'";

The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.; 1991), pp. 53, 143;

Yanagisawa, Soen Tray Landscapes ( Bonkei and Bonseki ) (Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau; 1955, 1956, 1962, 1966), pp. 2, 77;

Behme, Robert Bonsai, Saikei and Bonkei, Japanese Dwarf Trees and Tray Landscapes (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.; 1969), pg. 15;

Cahill, James Scholar Painters of Japan: The Nanga School (New York: Asia House Gallery; 1972), pg. 89.
cf. "Zhang Guo was a Daoist magician who could ride vast distances on a magical mule; when he stopped to rest, he would fold it up like paper and put it in his hat-box. He could bring it back to life when needed by spraying it with water from his mouth. In an ink and color on silk handscroll by Ren Renfa (1255-1328), Zhang is seen demonstrating his magic powers before the Tang emperor Minghuang (Empress Wu's grandson Hsüan Tsung, the last great figure of the dynasty, 712-756). As the old magician looks on with a crafty smile, a boy releases the miniature mule, which flies along the floor toward the emperor. The mule is perhaps the size of a rat but has perfect equine proportions, complete with a tiny saddle. Minghuang leans forward, credulous but reserved, while a courtier standing nearby clasps his hand and opens his mouth in wonderment. (The painter of Zhang Guo Having an Audience with Emperor Minghuang followed a career of official service under the Mongols and as a painter specialized in portrayals of horses.)" Per Yang, Xin et al Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press and Beijing: Foreign Languages Press; 1997), pp. 150-151.

"Let me put this another way. The world in which alchemy was practiced recognized no sharp distinctions between mental and material events. In such a context, there was no such thing as 'symbolism' because everything (in our terms) was symbolic, that is, all material events and processes had psychic equivalents and representations. Thus alchemy was -- from our viewpoint -- a composite of different activities. It was the science of matter, the attempt to unravel nature's secrets; a set of procedures which were employed in mining, dyeing, glass manufacture, and the preparation of medicines; and simultaneously a type of yoga, a science of psychic transformation. Because matter possessed consciousness, skill in transforming the former automatically meant that one was skilled in working with the latter -- a tradition retained today only in fields such as art, poetry, or handicrafts, in which we tend (rightly or wrongly) to regard the ability to create things of great beauty as a reflection of the creator's personality. We say then, that the talent of the alchemist in his laboratory was dependent on his relationship with his own unconsciousness, but in putting it that way we indicate the limits of our understanding. 'Unconscious,' whether used by Jung or anyone else, is the language of the modern disembodied intellect. It was all one to the alchemist: there was no 'unconscious.' The modern mind cannot help but regard the occult sciences as a vast welter of confusion about the nature of the material world, since for the most part the modern mind does not entertain the notion that the consciousness with which the alchemist confronted matter was so different from its own. If the state of mind can at all be imagined, however, we can say that the alchemist did not confront matter; he permeated it.

"It is thus doubtful that the alchemist could have described what he was doing to us, or to the modern chemist, transported back to the fourteenth century, even if he had wanted to. His was (again, from our point of view) partly a psychic discipline that no nonpsychic method (save neutron bombardment in a nuclear reactor) can possibly accomplish. The maunfacture of gold was not a matter of replicating a material formula. Indeed, its manufacture was part of a much larger work, and our attempt to extract the material essence from a holistic process reveals how contracted our own knowledge of the world has become. We cannot know the alchemical process of making gold until we know the 'personality' of gold. We, here and now, have no real sympathetic identity with the process of becoming golden; we cannot fathom the relationship between becoming gold and making gold. The medieval alchemist, on the other hand, was completed by the process; the synthesis of the gold was his synthesis as well."

-- Berman, Morris The Reenchantment of the World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 1981), pp. 92-93.
Substitute "magical miniature landscape" for "alchemy" in the above two paragraphs. What does this now mean for us?

"United with its rock womb, the pine tree grows old and acquires medicinal and magical properties; it becomes an "essence" (jing [ching]), a word that has also come to mean spirits or goblins... '...[C]ertain large trees, majestic in their branching and remarkable because of their great age[, have been held in awe]. As they grow old, they become ling [full of spiritual power]... In China, any old object, animate or inanimate, can rise to the ranks of the spirits as it grows older, even if it is a statue, a stone, or a block of metal.' ...All these objects share the nature of gu-jing [ku-ching], "old essences." At the end of a thousand years, the essence of blood is changed into a precious stone and that of a pine tree into yellow amber... Jing [ching] means the quintessence of materials that have gone through a refining process. It is white rice, distilled alcohol, purified metal[, and the non-ejaculated sperm in men]. Thus, old objects are remarkable for the concentration of their properties and for the transformation of their ordinary qualities into spiritually powerful, precious, or medicinal properties. Old trees and ancient stones characterize the sites depicted in the pagoda enclosures of cults dedicated to healing, health, longevity, and posterity -- the supreme desiderata of the Far East. A gu-shu [ku-shu] (old tree) is also the term for a twisted, strange, dwarf tree growing in a miniature garden... To cultivate such a miniature garden in one's own home brings [one in contact with the old essences which leads to] longevity and the shining, firm skin of one in the full vigor of maturity...

"The spiritual powers, essences of trees (jing [ching])... are... female spirits with disheveled hair, also a characteristic of [Daoist] female mediums in China. The theme of disheveled hair is, in fact, closely associated with vegetation. 'Plants and trees live upside down; animals live horizontally; only people live upright. This is why humans have consciousness, plants have none, and animals have some, but only a bit.' The head and hair of plants are thus at their bottom (their roots), and this fact is tied to their lack of understanding. In addition, plants are the fur of the earth or the hair of mountains. But the theme of being upside down is the predominant one. No description of places full of wonders omits a note of any plants, or especially stones, that grow upside down [, i.e., especially stalagmites in caves]. This theme is clearly connected with the problem of the circulation of the sap, which has always preoccupied the Chinese. The [D]aoist who imitates animals and plants in his rituals achieves a state of unconsciousness and spontaneous life, which is that of nature itself. He hangs himself, like the trees, upside down, making his sperm go back into his brain. Trees that are old and dwarfed by twisting, which results from a technique used to slow down the sap and lengthen the vessels that it must pass through, are behaving like a [D]aoist who adopts the special gymnastic ritual."

-- Stein, pp. 96-98. Additional relevant material is then presented through pg. 101.

*Thanks to original source of this article:      -  

He is the actual author and "great Master of old," Robert J. Baran, bonsai researcher and historian.

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Please cite the original source of this article as Cordially, the ACTUAL author and "great Master of old," Robert J. Baran, bonsai researcher and historian.

    1. Sorry for the omission Robert. This is the best I could do with my phone so I hope it meets with your approval. Please let me know if you see any other issues. Be well!

      Namaste' 🙏