Fun Bad or Good

Post-Dated, The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk 

by Michael Hagedorn

by Cheryl Petty -- February 2, 2009

After years crafting bonsai ceramics, Michael Hagedorn, author of the new book Post-Dated, The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk, studied Japanese and landed himself a two and a half year apprenticeship with bonsai master Mr Shinji Suzuki in the small town of Obuse in rural Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

Michael Hagedorn

Michael Hagedorn

Michael says in his preface “ we classify most experiences simply: good, bad, fun.” And he explores our vocabulary, juxtaposing ideas like apprentice with seismic. He compares the powerful and micro-managing European guild system of the Middle Ages with the more independent and creative, parent and child-like Japanese apprenticeships, ‘shugyou.’ Like a parent, Mr Suzuki urges his apprentices to “ eat their vegetables.”

He traces the origins of the spiritual philosophy of Zen to China, the source, as Chan Buddhism, itself a blend of indigenous Taoism and Indian Buddhism. He describes the cultural, aesthetic and philosophical buttresses of bonsai, Taoism and Zen Buddhism. But don’t think this is some kind of esoteric work, Michael injects a constant flow of stories and information taken from his diaries.

The two apprentices‘ of Mr Suzuki had an impressive daily routine, starting with cleaning or ‘soji.’ Every morning they swept up fallen leaves under benches, soil, and bits of cut wire. They weeded, dealt with aphids and scrubbed moss and slime in three large green houses, a studio and a museum across the street. All this happened in an hour and before watering. Trees and apprentices gain strength through ‘kurou’ or struggle, and obedience and surrender to the ‘way.’

‘Ubu’ is a special quality meaning 'pure, innocent, untouched, as if just born' which when applied to a bonsai that have never seen a carving tool and could not be improved by one, a kind of “ understated aesthetic nuance.” The Kokufu show is seen as a spirit pageant where the rare character wins, “ a live coal covered by grey ash.”

Michael takes us behind the scenes of the bonsai world and shows us that discerning clients own the most valuable trees in Japan. Bonsai professionals provide services to these clients, procurement, restyling, re-sale and maintenance. All of this is focused on entering clients’ trees into shows. “ Having clients’ bonsai accepted into the Kokufu is essential to building the reputation of professionals.”

Post-Dated is a vicarious view of a life previously secret, not completely impossible to imagine now and beautifully bound for a little 215-page paperback.

Published Golden Statements The Magazine of the Golden State Bonsai Federation Vol xxxii No.2 Mar/Apr 2009 Book Review p.8