How to Sit on a Rock

Having worked with gardeners in Japan before, it was no surprise to hear our bonsai teacher's response when asked about the first thing in caring for bonsai. "Watering," he said, and then quickly followed with "Ishi no ue nimo san nen" (石の上にも三年), a phrase that means to warm a rock by sitting on it for three years. It refers to the patience and perseverance that is needed to eventually overcome any challenge. But could learning to water really take three years to master?!

Our young teacher brings us over to the watering basin, a large glazed pot next to a faucet, and hands us the copper watering can balanced on its edge. It's called a jyōro and reminds me of a kettle with a shower head stuck on a long spout. Holding the top brace, so that our hands remain dry, we tip the jyōro back and submerge it into the basin, letting water filter through a wire mesh opening. The reservoir fills softly and quickly. In what feels like an unnatural way of gripping, we hold the handle so that the spout is facing away from us with the left hand, and walk over to our freshly trimmed and repotted bonsai. When watering, this hand formation allows us to comfortably hold the jyōro high above, letting gravity pull its contents down the long copper neck, and if needed allows our right hand to offer additional support. When the force of this water hits the end of the spout, it gets diverted again through a slanted shower head and comes out like a soft rain. It reminds me of a thousand raindrops bouncing off a puddle. Could this not be the most pleasing way to get watered? The soft leaves and hanging red berries of our new year's arrangement reflect the light of the sun. The freshly laid moss and white gravel are wet yet remain undisturbed, and the black pine, austere even at this young age, somehow looks pleased.

As beautiful as this watering technique seems -- a delicate balance of coordination, gravity and soft materials, I ask myself again why it would take three years to learn. It seems as simple as 'hold copper can full of water, tip, and let rain.' But perhaps our teacher somehow did do it differently in a way that couldn't be seen by a beginner. I remember the phrase he taught us, Ishi no ue nimo san nen, and imagine some stone-faced gardener tipping a can of water for three long years, causing unhappy plants and mountain deluge below. What technique is there to learn anyway in not moving? Perhaps the result is secondary only to the act itself, and one to be performed as long as necessary until it becomes completely natural. Something like: do not water the plants; rather, become like the rain. Maybe happily watered plants are just the fortunate result of an unforced and simple act.

It seems appropriate to ask particularly of a gardener, how to sit on a rock. If they don't smile and say "patiently, for three years" they might just be too quick to answer.