KJ and I joined the bonsai community in 2003 because we had a love for trees and a particular admiration for the skill it took to grow a bonsai in a pot that resembled one in the wild. Little did we know how frankly hard this is to achieve. We had talked about getting into bonsai for several years but frankly just didn’t know where to go. I finally found an advertisement in a local yellow pages for a bonsai nursery in Hayward, CA. So we headed down on a Saturday morning and this started our journey into bonsai.

We purchased our first tree, Procumben Nana, and took it home to care for it and with a sincere hope that we wouldn’t kill it. We visited local shows all over the Bay Area. At first most of these shows seemed well planned and had lots of nice trees and then we visited the Bay Island Bonsai show and we were frankly taken back by what we saw. Absolutely beautiful trees. Most in very well done 2 or 3-point displays. These trees, in our opinion, were years ahead of what we had seen in other shows. Not that there were not great trees at other shows as there were, but this show seemed to exhibit a higher bar of entry. It was at that meeting we decided to join a club and it was going to be Bay Island Bonsai.

I want to add that I had heard a lot of scuttlebutt about this club. Membership by invitation only, teacher was too tough, you had to purchase expensive trees to be in this club, the members were “stuck up” and it went on and on. I guess had we not been enamored with their trees we would have simply left and not considered joining BIB. I certainly understood we had no trees of this caliber. That whatever tree we brought to the workshop was going to be so far underneath their standard that they might laugh. Regardless of our fears, it was worth the risk if there was a chance to own a tree like one of these one day.

Let me take a moment to tell you what really happened once we joined the club. Membership was open to anyone with a real desire to own and improve their trees. The members were highly welcoming of newcomers. The club meetings were educational and social – the best of both worlds. These people were serious about their bonsai and their teacher, Boon, was inspirational in his desire to impart knowledge, a love of good bonsai, and he demanded that our displays be done well. Even though as we look back at the trees we took to workshop there was no giggling behind our back. Boon was straight forward in communicating that some of our trees were never going to be good bonsai. We sold them. For others that had a chance of being a nice, but not great tree, he worked as hard as possible to teach us how to care for the tree and how to wire and style it. We always felt welcomed and never looked down on because we didn’t own great trees yet. Over the years, we learned as most do that the first trees you collect were based more on budget and a fear that if we killed it there wasn’t a huge financial loss. However over time we began to own several trees that won awards at our annual club show. How did that occur? Because the teacher of our club deeply cared about his art and he imparted his knowledge and love of bonsai and people to others. He was encouraging yet didn’t lower his standards of what he defined as good. It lead to the opportunity of owning this tree. It was worked on by Daisaku and Daisaku is very important to this post as you will soon read.

Bay Island Bonsai 2008 - One of our Junipers before it was sold.

Bay Island Bonsai 2008 - One of our Junipers before it was sold.

We included this tree in our post as an example that exemplifies the heart of this post.  We had searched for a very long time for a tree like this one.  Great trunk with lots of movement, great deadwood and lifeline.  We ask Daisaku to style this tree and this is the result. Can it be improved – absolutely.  However, this tree won an award at the BIB show and has been listed as an American Masterpiece in International Bonsai magazine.  However, we can’t tell you the number of times that people have seen this tree and immediately begin to criticize the tree, its design, or even the pot it is in.  By the way, the pot is a ~150 year old antique Chinese pot with a beautiful patina and no cracks or chips.  Go figure – the wrong pot for this tree.  There are more experts in bonsai I believe than those that can style a tree.

So if our teacher and his club was not any of things being said about it and if so many people harshly critiqued the tree above – why is it this way? It is because there are very few really good teachers and there are hundreds of people who act like they know what they are doing, they set themselves up as experts and frankly they know very little about the art. They can be arrogant, ignorant or both, and these traits always produce the  exactly the same outcome – they turn people off to our art.

So before we get flamed let us say this to our readers. Skill levels will always vary that is why there are only 0-4 winners at Kokufu every year. That doesn’t mean they have bad trees in the show it just means some of them are significantly better than others. For those of us who struggle to create good, if not great, trees we realize how very hard this is to do. It is even harder when you have someone who says they are an expert, or acts like one, and who frankly knows very little about bonsai – period but yet they judge what is good or bad. They teach what they don’t truly understand and the results can be easily seen by looking at their work. They don’t have a single good tree in their collection but yet are teaching others. This is a complex subject as often people are so hungry for knowledge that they listen to almost anyone and everyone even though they are getting conflicting feedback and advice.

Seek out the very best teacher you can. Support that teacher financially. Take their workshops, their privates, their intensive classes. Purchase your trees from them, your pots whatever it takes to keep that teacher teaching. If you don’t have a local teacher, then find one somewhere else and go there 2-4 times per year and work with them to improve your skills. However, if you teacher is highly critical, doesn’t own good trees themselves – run! It takes years to undo poor teaching. Just watch someone who was never taught the correct way to wire and see how difficult it is to break those bad habits.

So this article is aimed not at the good teachers or the good practitioners of bonsai or suiseki, it is aimed at those who are openly critical at everything they see. How many of you have worked on your tree, or found a nice suiseki and you want to show it to club members or others in your specific art and the first thing they do is begin to openly criticize your tree or stone? This normally happens within about 5 seconds of them looking at your tree or stone. I know I use to do the same exact thing. As if I had a clue what I was talking about. Perhaps it was a mismatched pot, or poorly positioned first branch, or a not so great daiza. Why is it we want to point out every flaw in everything we see? Is it cultural? Is it only happening in America?

Let us suggest a few rules of engagement. First, when viewing someone’s tree or stone – study the tree and stone and look for what is good about it. Otherwise engage your brain and disengage one’s mouth. Instead of a critique why not ask the owner what they see in the stone or in the tree. Attempt to first learn what the owner thinks about their subject. Why did they collect that particular stone? What does it represent to them? As importantly or even more so, what meaning does it have for them?

Let me give you a personal example. We have a Japanese Black Pine that is a triple trunk. When Daisaku visited, I asked him to please style the tree. I conveyed to him that I wanted this tree to represent our family. Daisaku quietly listened. He thought for a few minutes while gazing at the tree and then said these simple words. I understand. About five hours later he asked for me to come and view the tree. I looked at the tree but kept my mouth shut. After a quiet period, Daisaku began to explain. One of the tree’s trunks were slightly bent, the smallest one. The secondary trunk was a bit higher on that opposite side to give stability to the tree. The third trunk was arching over the smaller trunk as if to provide shelter and protection. I believe you see what his design was communicating. The smaller trunk were our boys. The secondary trunk was KJ who brought stability and balance to our family. The third trunk was me – standing in harmony with my wife and providing protection to our children while happily watching them grow.

I was struck by the thoughtfulness and brilliance of the design. How Daisaku had listened but more importantly understood what I wanted to accomplish but didn’t have the insight or skills to do. Now the sad part. We know longer show this tree to anyone except very close friends that visit our home. Want to know why? We are going to bet that many of you already know the answer. Many that we invited to see this tree started immediately to tell is what is wrong with the tree. It needs more ramification, the trunks need to be bigger, perhaps better nebari and on, and on and on. None of these people ever stopped for a moment to simply look at the tree, to study it and even more importantly to ask this simple but penetrating question: “Why was the tree designed as it was and what does the tree mean to us?” “What was our future plans for the tree?”

This tree is very meaningful to us. It isn’t just a black pine in a pot. It is representative of our family. Not perfect but in harmony. Not perfected but beautifully balanced and moving towards perfection – never to be obtained of course but nevertheless seeking that level of beauty.

What did most viewers see – a tree that needed a lot of work. Are we that superficial? Is our knowledge so shallow that all we can do is find fault? Why don’t we seek to find the beauty in what we observe. If we can’t, and that might be often, then why don’t we simply ask the owner to tell us what they see, what aspirations they have for it and even more importantly what it means to them. This is a relational and more respectful approach. This also opens up an avenue of conversation where we might then want to ask what can be done to improve the tree. They key though is wait till we ask.

I will never forget a bonsai show I attended (not BIB) and someone walked in and began to loudly criticize someone’s tree and setup. Little did they know, or care, that the owner was standing right beside them. I knew this individual. He was not a man of means but he loved his trees, he cared about them deeply. He had done the best with what his situation afforded him. The individual that began to criticize his tree not only was demeaning the tree and setup in his mind but freely shared it with anyone standing around. What an ass. Shortly after this the individual left the club. I don’t know if this event added to his departure or not but I can assure you that it didn’t help.

I’m sure the recalling of this story infuriates you as it does us, but let me ask this question – haven’t we all done this to some level. A good friend shows us their tree or stone and we immediately begin to tell them what could be improved. KJ and I have been just as guilty of this as anyone who is reading this post. That being said, now that we are aware we are committed to not doing this ever again. We are going to study the object and seek to see the beauty in it not the fault. We want to engage the owner to understand what they see in it and what their future plans might be. Simply said, we are going to listen more and talk less.

We have paused and pondered at how many people we might have impacted into not joining bonsai or suiseki because of our harsh and critical critiques. How many others in the U.S. might enjoy these wonderful art forms if they had been given encouragement rather than hearing barbed, even though well intended, critiques. I have to admit, the feeling of indignation almost to the point of disappointment (polite word for anger) arose within us when a few critiqued our family tree; however, that event ran full circle into us thinking of how we had done exactly the same thing. Over and over.

So, you might ask, what is this post about? The question we are posing is this. Are we our own worst enemies when it comes to our behaviors actually blocking the entry of new people into the art that we say we love so much. How many people have left because of our insistence of being so critical about the very thing we say we love – an appreciation of nature in the form of bonsai and suiseki.

Would we in fact by listening and looking for what we can appreciate in those items being shown to us greatly help our art form to thrive and flourish? Perhaps we can lay down a challenge for those interested in participating. In the next few weeks, as your friends or club members show you trees or stones don’t critique. Study them quietly. Ask the owners what they see in the tree or stone. What is their future plans for it. What deeper unsaid meaning does it have for them. We think this will establish a real relationship. One supporting and nurturing. Also, let us be bold. If some expert, in their own minds, begins to critique our stone or tree before we ask them – stop them. Cut them off. Begin to discuss with them what was attractive about the item. What future plans you have.

I hope this post can change just one person and their attitude. If it does, it improves the odds of us bringing more people into the art that we love. It opens the possibility that they might one day have the same level of appreciation for even better trees or better suiseki. I know it worked for us.

Let us know what you think. We look forward to your comments.