Monday, August 05, 2013



I like to believe I don’t have many attachments. I do have several favorite things. My favorite mammal is the cat. My favorite bird is the parrot. My favorite fish is the Pacific Salmon . . . broiled with dill butter. My favorite plant is the bamboo.


The Far East may be jam-packed with people and developments, but in most countries there are large bamboo forests. Perhaps that is why, in Asia, the bamboo plant is an age-old symbol for everyday living. Perhaps that’s why Asian people cultivate bamboo in their gardens and in their homes and consider the plant almost sacred. Let’s consider some of the characteristics of bamboo.

1. It is strong but flexible.
2. It bends without breaking.
3. It is able to spring back.
4. It is comfortable by itself.
5. It is committed to continuous growth.

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth. A typical growth rate may average nearly four inches a day. In favorable climates some species may grow almost forty inches in 24 hours. Certain types may reach more than a hundred feet in height, and have a culm diameter twelve inches or more. As exuberant as this may seem, bamboo is basically a grass related to turfs and lawns.

          Owing to bamboo’s endurance it is a symbol of longevity in China, and owing to its tranquility it is a symbol of friendship in India. In China the bamboo, plum blossom, orchid, and chrysanthemum are honored as “The Four Gentlemen.” Also in China the bamboo, the pine, and the plum blossom are esteemed for their year-round perseverance and are known as “The Three Friends of Winter.”

          That term “The Three Friends of Winter” is also a badge of honor in Japan. Bamboo is used in sushi sets and tea ceremony sets. At a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, the pine (matsu) is considered the first rank, the bamboo (také) is the second rank, and the plum (ume) the third rank. All three plants are unvaryingly present in a ryokan garden.

Bamboo has countless practical applications. To name all of its uses would be tough. Bamboo is used in medicines for treating infections and healing. It is used in martial arts training as well as in Zen meditation. It is used in construction for scaffoldings, floors, and countertops. It is used for food bowls, plates, and utensils. It is used for textiles, paper, musical instruments, furniture, fishing poles, bicycles, skateboards, rafts, weapons, and writing instruments.

          Bamboo is a food for giant pandas, lemurs, chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and humans.

My teacher Hiromu Oda cultivated bamboo in his garden as well as in his bonsai plantings, and he did countless paintings of bamboo. He liked to say, “Bamboo is gentle. Bamboo is your friend.”

          As one writer has noted, in Japan the symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and wide and offers practical lessons for everyday life and for work.

In this talk I’ll try to stay close to the virtues of bamboo and leave the morals to you.

          No matter how thick a bamboo forest may be, its members sway in the slightest breeze, and the stems make a peaceful clacking sound. Bamboo plants bend in the slightest puff of air, yet they stay rooted firmly in the ground. Bamboo never fights the wind. As one writer said, this bend-but-don't-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets of living whether we're talking about bamboo trees, or answering tough questions, or just dealing with the everyday moods of life.

          The stem of a single bamboo may appear modest in size compared to the trunk of an oak. But bamboos are able to endure cold winters and hot summers. They can withstand great strains without breaking, and sometimes they are the only plants left standing after a hurricane or typhoon. Even a very young bamboo may look fragile, but it is strong and robust.

          Time for a proverbial parallel. You may not be from the biggest company or the very best school, but if you trust in your own strength and ability you will be as strong as you need to be.

          In winter a heavy snow can bend bamboo almost to the ground. But when the snow falls off the leaves the culms spring upright. The Japanese consider bamboo a symbol of resiliency and good luck.

          Zen says that in order to learn we have to first empty ourselves of what we may have been taught by society. We have to get rid of preconceived notions that block us. A cup that is full can’t hold anything more.

          Bamboo is hollow. It can remind us that we humans are too often full of . . . . well, of ourselves and there is no room for anything more.

          As I mentioned earlier, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The bamboo in your garden or in your bonsai container may propagate rapidly but you usually aren’t aware of its activity. In human terms, how fast or how slow we may progress is not an important issue. What is important is that we are growing and moving forward, no matter what our age.

          Bamboo pops up fastest during the rainy season. Humans too have “seasons” of fast growth as well as no apparent growth at all. But individuals shouldn’t surrender or feel discouraged. Something in the human, or in the bamboo, is always happening, always changing.

          Kensho Furuya was one of the world’s greatest masters of kensho. He said, “The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same.”

          And now a bamboo story. A Zen master was walking through the forest with one of his students. The student lost his footing and slipped down a steep incline. Just as he began falling he reached out and grabbed a small bamboo. The bamboo bent nearly all the way over as the student continued to hold on tightly, but it wasn’t uprooted. The student pulled himself up and brushed himself off.

The Zen master asked, “Did you notice that when you fell, you grabbed the bamboo and it supported you?”

“Yes,” the student replied.

 “Be like the bamboo,” the master said. “It is pushed around by the wind and yet it always bounces back and grows upward. Have you ever felt as though you were going to snap? Have you ever felt as though you were at your breaking point, emotionally?”

“Yes, I have,” the student replied.

“Then bend, do not break. Such is the way with bamboo. It endures the stress and finds a way to rebound. This is called resilience.”

          To close, here is a haiku by Basho, and another haiku by Issa.

The winter storm
         hid in the bamboo grove
And quieted away.   -- Basho

Scratching the face
of a bamboo shoot...
cat's shadow.  -- Issa


Post a Comment

<< Home