# 319: Bonsai Death
Story behind the Passage
These days, I am really into plants. I mean, not plants in the sense of “drugs,” I really mean indoor plants and outdoor plants for your home. I have been buying a lot of new ones these past weeks and I finally started taking care of all the old ones in my apartment. And when I say “old,” I mean that some of these plants have been with me for a long time. And that in of itself is a miracle because I have not really taken good care of them. Literally, when I am saying that I am “into plants now,” this is basically the first time in my life that I can honestly say this. Yes, I am a gardener and I plant veggies and take care of all the big plants outside in the garden. But the plants inside, I hardly ever looked after them, just watering them once in a while.
Now, I feel ashamed about this.
Yes, it is true. Since my interests have shifted a lot towards the natural sciences in the past few years, I have become more and more aware of “what holds this world together.” Well, awareness is too big of a word. I am at least taking baby steps towards understanding what terms like “matter” and “universe” actually mean. And this also makes you look at nature in a completely different way — in an even more apprecive way. And my experience is exctly in line with the history of science in this respect. To me, the scientific knowledge about nature in no way collides with the beauty and partly metaphysical quality of nature. Rather, the two complement each other and nature appears even more fascinating.
Still, I feel bad about the bonsai.
“Mittlerweile sickert jedoch immer mehr durch, dass jeder sich mit dieser Form der Kunst befassen kann, denn es handelt sich nicht um den Ablauf komplizierter Vorgänge, sondern um eine Philosophie, eine Lebenseinstellung und eine Art Selbsterkenntnis.“ / “Meanwhile, it has become clearer to many people that everyone can become engaged with this art form — it is not about a series of complicated processes but a philosophy, an attitude towards life and a form of self-knowledge.” As you start reading this book which is really a lot more than just a “how to bonsai” book, you get a sense of the role the plants play in Japanese culture — its “philosophy.” I am not even sure if philosophy really is the proper term here. It does not matter. I do not want to get into the details of bonsai care because I have not even finished reading the book. What caught my eye, of course, is the word “self-knowledge.”
To make a long story short: When I realized how much I had neglected my bonsai, especially in light of what the book is teaching about it, I felt like shit. Plants are living beings. They have a right to breathe, to get fed, nourished, and cultivated in every possible way. I am the one taking care of animals — even spiders, snakes, and flies — as if they were dogs or horses. I even rescue mice and do everything to not kill them, even if they live in the basement and could really cause harm. I do all that because my compassion applies to all living beings. At least, this is what I was telling myself before the bonsai illumination two days ago. I was wrong. When I looked at all the roots of the bonsai which were smashed in the small pot — a pot that had become way too small — I almost cried.
Actually, that is a lie.
I did cry.
Because I had not granted the plant one of the most important values I treasure:
And the space to grow.
As I thought more about this, I remembered a conversation with Jordan Peterson that I had watched a few days ago. In this conversation, right at the beginning, Dennis Prager describes how he has never met Peterson in person before but watched a great deal of his lectures and listened to his book(s). Then, before opening the real discussion, he explains how he has always had an antenna for detecting “good” people. And this is what follows (more or less literally):
Prager. “Everybody knows you’re bright. But I know, you are good.”
Peterson: “… I don’t think it’s true. Here is why… One thing I learned in the early eighties was that people have a great capacity for evil. …. I would never claim to be good. I think it’s dangerous. But I did become terrified of how terrible I could be.”
So, what does Peterson and his evil side have to do with my bonsai?
The answer is very clear. The moment I realized how terribly I had treated my bonsai for many years, my own capacity for evil jumped right at me. And I am not even talking about the very fact of potentially killing a plant that has even more symbolic value in another culture. I am talking about the double standard here of claiming to be “good” — in the sense of telling myself to be good, even honestly trying hard to be good — and terribly failing at this self-set ideal. This was remarkable, terrifying, and truly liberating at the same time.
The reason why I am saying “liberating” is very simple. Every true finding is liberating — feels liberating. And this finding, this gain of self-knowledge, in line with what the author says about bonsai care, was made possible by this very plant in my living room. I appreciate this immensely because this has led me to an even more fundamental realization. As with every realization, the finding, maybe even the insight, was there before. What was missing was your willingness to allow this insight to reach your consciousness. And the realization I had when this finally happened was my true belief that real self-knowledge, actual jumps in your personal growth and development, only happen whenever you are being confronted with your evil side — not just confronted, even terrified by it for a moment.
The question which emerges from any kind of finding, no matter how “deep,” is: What do you do with it? I think, the real growth of character shows if you are not tempted to hate yourself for this evil side you might have encountered. I think, the term you would probably use for this in Buddhism or even psychology is “integration.” The faster and better you are able to integrate this side, the more grown you are as a character. I am not saying you learn to ignore it or downplay it. It might still take you a while to chew on it, swallow it — to make sense of it. Still, it becomes more of a confirmation of your personal philosophy that evil is part of human nature. And that evil, counter to some universal definitions, always depends on your personal definition of morality and doing good.
What a wonderful and wise green teacher I have here next to me…
1) What is your favorite plant?
2) Which evil side did you discover about yourself which you struggled to integrate?
3) How do you think of cultures that turn plants and animals into sacred “creatures”?