Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


My new Province is a land of bamboo groves; their shoots in spring fill the valleys and hills. The mountain woodman cuts an armful of them and brings them down to sell at the early market. Things are cheap in proportion as they arc common', for two farthings I buy a whole bundle, f put the shoots in a great earthen pot, and steam them over the boiling rice. Their purple nodules broken, they suggest an old brocade; their white skin gleams like new pearls.

PO CHU-I (A.D. 772-846)

 Two hundred years after Po Chu-I, the Chinese poet Ou-yang Hsui sang of the myriad leaves of the bamboo which give a thousand sounds and all of them lamentations, the same beauty and sadness echoed by the oldest and simplest and most melodious flutes in the world, bamboo flutes made in immemorial traditions like the Japanese shakuhachi, with its sweet pentatonic scale. Masters who make these vertical flutes are very few in the world. They are fast disappearing along with the whispering majesty of undisturbed bamboo groves and the quiet hours spent in contemplating their grace. Masters who fashion such perfection go alone each winter into the mountains and select the stems they will use. They dry them upon their roofs for three months and then place them in the dark for three years. The cutting and shaping and boring of the shaft is an extended process of meditation wherein the craftsman imbues the flute with the living sigh of bamboo bowing in the wind.

 The natives of Malacca pierce the stems of growing bamboo so that a flute-like music is produced when the wind blows. Some are slit at every internode, resulting in a harmony of as many as twenty notes. They call these plants bulu perindu, 'the plaintive bamboo'. Beauty and sadness commingle like the world and the brief life of man. Echoes emanating from the groves of ancient times whisper of death covered by growth, of graceful tenderness masted to inexorable change. Surely these were the feelings shared by Li Ho when he wrote: "There is a sad loveliness among the scented bamboos; white powdered gnarls, leaves freshly green, furry grass drooping sorrowful hairs, glistening dew shedding faint tears, a road winding to a green cavern amongst dense leaves." A pathway winds in and amongst the giant stems, gathering darkness and melancholy but skirting the edges of exuberant growth. To be amongst the bamboo is to be surrounded by a sense of peace which is not born of stillness. The branches and the leaves far above are unresting and the vitality of the young sprouts is almost tangible. Indeed, many people in old China used to go into the groves on a quiet night to listen to the audible pop of sprouts bursting through their sheaths as they emerged from the ground, marking the beginning of each spring.

 In the archaic annals of the West the first mention of the word 'bamboo' was made in 400 B.C. by Ctesias, the court physician to King Artaxerxes Mnemon of Persia. Most scholars consider it a Malayan onomatopoeic word describing the exploding noise of the sprouts bursting and of the canes when they are burning. Marco Polo observed how in the Orient travellers would tie green poles together and suspend them near the campfire so that they would explode at intervals and frighten away any wild animals prowling about. The Chinese word for bamboo is chu, which is rendered in calligraphic form as two interdependent plants standing side by side. The Chu P'u or Bamboo Treatise was published in the third or fourth century and gives a detailed account of the bamboo and its multiple uses in ancient times. A familiarity with such a work or the Chinese language itself reveals a frequent use of the radical chu which enters into the composition of many characters expressing some action or object connected with the use of bamboo. The symbol for 'writing brush' includes this character, as do those for gambling, dice, cards, mah-jong, arrows, books and numerous other things which are made of or even abstractly relate to this kingly grass.

Kaki-dake' to
Tombo to utsuru
Shoji kana!

The shadow of the
Bamboo fence, with
A dragon-fly at rest upon it,
Is thrown upon my paper window!

Japanese Haiku

 The white-rimmed leaves of the kumazasa bamboo evoke the eloquent scenery of the mountain. They are placed in bowls where wearied eyes may rest upon them and drink in their fresh, moist curves. Thus through art and symbol the Japanese revive and refine their souls in thousands of ways. In the hottest weather, bamboo leaves rustling give an illusion of coolness, of endless whispering. In the evening, unobserved, women sprinkle water upon them so that visitors walking through their garden are refreshed and enchanted by the jewelled drops poised upon the curves of foiled leaves, suspended from their cascading blades. "Moonlight slides up and down the stems of young bamboo, swayed by the night breeze." It floods into the little tea-house and illumines the tea-whisk, the water ladle, the flower vase, the mats and paper windows, all fashioned of bamboo. The shadow of the bamboo fence is one of myriad artistic elements of a delicate and exquisitely simple scene. The dragon-fly is almost redundant.

 Along with the winter plum and pine tree, the bamboo forms the Trio of the Winter Friends depicted so frequently in Chinese art. It represents resistance to hardship and the smooth expanse between its nodes symbolizes virtue or a long distance between faults. The hollow interior is a sign of modesty signifying the inner emptiness which is the characteristic of the scholar-gentleman who is upright in bearing but humble. Because of these venerable associations, the bamboo is the emblem of the Buddha. In India the seven-knotted bamboo staff indicates seven degrees of initiation and invocation which are rooted in wisdom and gentleness. This combination of unostentatious flexibility and immense strength is the key to understanding the natural symbol of the bamboo. They say the wise bamboo bows before the wind but never breaks, and so the wise man lays low before the storm but rises up fresh and unbroken when it has run its course. The bamboo's gracefulness and constant growth exemplify a yielding but enduring strength and pliability which the Japanese take as the symbol of good breeding, lasting friendship and longevity. The long canes reaching ever upwards represent truthfulness, while the curved branchlets and trembling leaves express a beauteous devotion. So auspicious and beauteous are the symbolic characteristics of bamboo that it has served as the most enduring motif in oriental art, and many a family in feudal Japan proclaimed at least a partial exemplification of them by adopting a bamboo design as its identifying crest.

 There are over one thousand species of bamboo, making up fifty genera which grow in varying distributions on every continent except Europe and Antarctica. Growing from sea level tropics to thirteen thousand-foot mountain slopes, the bamboo ranges from the size of field grass to one hundred twenty-foot culms (trunks) measuring one foot in diameter. At this height the great Dendrocalamus giganteus of Burma weigh over two hundred pounds, despite their being hollow, and such groves in India and Burma extend into millions of acres. Describing the awesome experience of walking amongst these friendly giants, one author wrote: "The foot-thick culms glisten in the submarine light and rise for one hundred feet amongst dagger leaves that stir with a susurrus like surf on a distant shore. A passing breeze rubs the tapering stems together and subdued groans, stuttering creaks, and a small scream fall from the moving canopy." Vast forests of pure bamboo stands in Colombia were described by Humboldt as being "several leagues in extent". Their culms and leaves were used to build entire houses one hundred fifty years ago as they are today, and their ninety-foot height created wide belts of lacy chartreuse green which accented the darker surrounding vegetation. As a building material bamboo is very strong indeed, its strength lying in the bundles of fibres running the length of the culm held in a matrix of pith. In a tree the living tissue is only in the outermost ring under the bark, but in the bamboo the columns of living tissue are scattered throughout the culm walls, giving a very high tensile strength to weight ratio. In many parts of the Far East yellow bamboo is used for scaffolding on high-rise buildings because it is lighter and even stronger than steel.

 Over three thousand years ago the Chinese classified the bamboo as ts'ao, thus identifying it as one of the grasses of the world. It is a botanical cousin to rice and corn and its specific family, Bambusacea, is distinguished by the special structure of its culm, its growth rate, the fact that it reaches its full height in a very short time, and its flowering habits. Though the rhizomes (roots) and the leaves are used, it is the culm which is so valuable and makes the bamboo the most versatile plant in the world. In China there are three hundred species of bamboo, while in Japan there are six hundred sixty-two types, including the unique kikko-chiku (tortoise-shell bamboo) which can be found in Kyoto. A variety of the mao chu (hairy bamboo) used widely for furniture and construction in China, the tortoise-shell bamboo grows in alternating humps, its culm resembling a long line of turtles in tandem spiralling their way upwards.

 No other living thing grows so tall so fast. In Japan the ma-dake bamboo has been measured at a growth rate of four feet in twenty-tour hours. In Washington, D.C., an engineer who enjoyed entertaining his guests with evening bridge sessions used to keep tabs on the time spent by measuring the new shoots of bamboo that grew in his stairwell at the beginning of the evening. When the session ended he would measure them again and proclaim that "we have played one and a half inches!" The bamboo sprouts and reaches its full height in six to eight weeks, but the young culms are mostly water and will shrink when cut. This does not, however, deter the bamboo from growing through a sheet iron roof as it telescopes its way upwards towards the light. The most common mode of growth is illustrated by the monopodial or runner type of bamboo. The rhizome of the monopodial plant reaches its full length in one season and lives for ten years. Every node of it possesses buds, one of which may develop each year into either a culm or a rhizome. In this way the running bamboo extends itself from three to twenty feet in a year. In a quarter-acre grove excavated in Kyoto, the length and weight of living and dead rhizomes belonging to the ma-dake type measured over ten thousand yards.

Two live as one
One live as two
Two live as three
Under the barn
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree.


 The unrestrained multiplication of the bamboo will continue until checked or disciplined by man. Its propagation by budding and branching is asexual and continuous throughout an annual cycle that may last as many as one hundred twenty years. But it does this in alternating patterns and cycles. When the stem grows, the roots do not, and when the stem stops growing, the roots begin to do so. It is also the case that the bamboo tends to grow well and poorly in alternating years, the new culms fluctuating in their number and quality. Rhizomes yield culms, culms yield branchlets, and each component axis consists of a series of nodes and internodes. There is no central trunk or main axis. The entire growth of the bamboo is clothed with enveloping sheaths that face alternative sides of the axis at successive nodes. With minor exceptions, each sheath subtends a bud or a branch complement. The segmentation, that is to say, the regular alternation of nodes and internodes, is an expression of physiological periodicity. The nodes are thus periodic centres of morphogenetic activity alternating with internodes of rest and extension.

 "In the growing point it is at the loci later recognizable as nodes that sheath primordia are initiated and segmentation first comes into focus." The leaf of the bamboo is merely an appendage to a sheath proper which embraces the developing internode, roots and branches emerging only at the nodes. Each segmented axis is thus a branch of another segmented axis. This pattern is echoed by the rooting action of the rhizomes, which at each successive axis burrow deeper into the earth in a series of 'necks' which take a horizontal course only to turn upwards when a change in the physiological state of the growing point induces an alteration in the pattern of the tissues subsequently produced. At the curve of each of these rhizome necks the axis takes on the form of a developing culm with negative geotropism strongly developed. The culm then grows so rapidly that it cannot provide sustenance for itself and is completely dependent upon the 'mother bamboo'. The quality of the mother determines the quality of the takenoko or 'bamboo children'. The monopodial mother distributes her children abroad while the sympodial (clump style) mother keeps her progeny close. The individual parent plant has done all of its growing in one season and its function thereafter is to gather nourishment for the new sprouts (to which it transmits its characteristics) rather than for itself.

 For most species of bamboo, flowering is like the swan-song of their existence. Because of this, people in India interpret the appearance of their flowers as the presage of some disaster. In fact, certain types of Indian bamboo when flowering bear fruit which fall in a ripe state and nourish multitudes of rats. The death of large stands of bamboo is a tragedy to people who need them or make their living from them, and the difficulty is aggravated by the increased numbers of rodents who bring disease in their wake. Plants of the same species, wherever they are in the world, tend to burst into flower at the same time. When this happens the culms die but the grove survives because some rhizomes continue to live, and seeds from the dying flowers fall to reproduce sexually most of the new generation. The tragedy for people who depend upon the bamboo lies in the fact that it takes from five to ten years for the grove to regain its maturity. This is sometimes of very serious consequence to other forms of life as well. The Sinarundinaria nitida, which grows in dense thickets in Szechwan Province in China, is the only source of food for the fabled giant pandas. Shortly after these large bamboo recently reached the end of their century-old cycle and began flowering en masse and dying, one hundred forty pandas were discovered dead in the hills.

 The flowering of one type of bamboo occurring simultaneously all over the world is regarded as satisfying proof that the genus sprang originally from a single stock at some period now obscured in the mists of time. Some types flower in cycles of sixty, ninety or one hundred twenty years, some in lesser cycles. But the gregarious flowering is thought to be due to a genetic imprint in the plants. The Indian fruit-bearing bamboo Melocanna baccifera flowers every thirty years in a dependable cycle like an alternating waxing and waning of fortune. The species is slated to flower again in the year 1992. In the meantime, it will be put to innumerable uses and provide food and shelter for millions of people. All over Asia the bamboo is the poor man's timber. Farmers live with it from birth to death. In India, China and Japan the umbilical cord was traditionally cut with a bamboo knife and cradles were fashioned from its canes. Bamboo tools are used throughout a lifetime and the leaves feed the elephants and the cattle who toil with their masters in the fields. It can truly be said that for over one-half of humanity, life would be completely different if there were no bamboo.

 In Japan the structural uses of bamboo are seemingly endless. It provides the ceilings, moulding, rain spouts, gutters, corner-posts of the tokonoma (the viewing alcove), paper for walls and windows, and the mats on the floor. It is the raw material for peace or war, being the stuff of which baskets, furniture, umbrellas and rope are made, as well as bows, arrows, kendo swords and slatted armour. The finest fishing rods in the world were first manufactured long before the Christian era from Tonkin cane which grows on the Sui River near Canton. This excellent bamboo is now exported from China to be used for horticulture in Europe, snow markers and ski poles in Scandinavia, furniture and fishing rods everywhere and pole vaults for the athletic connoisseur. Observers have noted that a Chinese junk is almost one hundred percent bamboo. In addition to the boat itself and the sail, paper, nails, buckets, lanterns, fish traps, pillows, anchor and nets are all fashioned from bamboo. Oriental ships descend from ancient bamboo sailing rafts from which they take their box-like design. The idea of watertight compartments was inspired by the bamboo and later imitated by shipbuilders from the West.

 The earliest records in China were written upon bamboo slips which, strung together with silk, comprised annals used by the rich and powerful as sources of knowledge and law. Medicine was extracted from the rhizomes and culms of various species, including a secretion called tabasheer which forms and hardens between the nodes. For millennia this substance was considered a panacea, and though its use has been dismissed by modern science as the remnant of a popular superstition, more recent knowledge has vindicated the wisdom of its application. As a silica, tabasheer acts as a catalyst to remove toxic products by absorbing them into its own insoluble structure where they are fixed and rendered incapable of causing any further harm.

 Hanging cables of twisted bamboo are ancestral to cables of the world's suspension bridges. The great bridge of Szechwan which spans the two hundred fifty-yard width of the Mi River hangs from split bamboo twisted into cables seven inches in diameter. Each of twenty of them is wound around the capstans on either side of the nine-foot-wide span so that they can be tuned like strings upon a lute. No iron or nails are used anywhere in this bridge, and yet it has served for more than a thousand years and is renowned as one of the engineering marvels of the world. Its strength and beauty have been described in Chinese bamboo books which, when passed on into Japanese culture, were probably read by the light of candles made of the wax coating scraped from the nodes of yearling culms. Such candles illuminated the homes of the great lords in medieval times; and hundreds of years later in America, after experimenting with six thousand different materials in his search for a filament for his newly invented light bulb, Thomas Edison chose bamboo. It was delicately fashioned from the charred fibres of ma-dake bamboo which grows around Iwashimizu Hachiman, a Shinto shrine on a hill in Kyoto.

 Truly said is the Vietnamese proverb: "The bamboo is my brother." It has bowed to the needs of man since man's memory has ushered it forth as a civilizing agent in the world. The Chinese poet Pou Sou-tung eloquently asserted this when he stated: "Without meat we become thin; without bamboo we lose serenity and culture itself." The closeness of the identification between man and bamboo is affirmed in many songs and fables that tell of the woodcutter discovering a heavenly child within the womb of a bamboo. Though this child usually leaves the earth to return to her celestial abode, her earthly sojourn is timelessly remembered in the conical perfection of Mount Fujiyama or other such inspirational markers. In the Chu Shu (Bamboo Books) of ancient China, full accounts of such supernatural and marvellous events have been preserved. They tell that bamboo was first brought to China by Hwang Ti, the legendary Yellow Emperor who ruled Cathay at the dawn of recorded history. Huang Ti corresponds to the element of the earth, and his reign, together with the appearance of bamboo, marks the beginning of civilization as we know it. This idea must have spread through the Orient and into the islands of Oceania like the rhizomes of monopodial bamboo, for the notion that human life and culture sprang up and multiplied in and through the bamboo is one of the common mythical themes throughout this geographical area – man and bamboo, each affected by the nature of the other, and man seeing in the latter a symbol of himself. In a garden in Kyoto are seven small black bamboo on a tiny island. The garden is over six hundred years old and the seven bamboo are descendants of an original group planted in memory of the seven pupils of the great teacher Muso-kokushi. The pupils thus stand eternally upon an island of serenity created for them long ago by a wise and loving master.

I love, bamboo, your fidgets
And sudden sighs, bamboo;
Awake, alone I listen
To secret susurration
Like paper scraping stone,
Stroking the inner surface
Of this old heart, bamboo.

 So close to man, so utterly capable of capturing and reflecting the hidden longings that emanate from the hollowed sanctity of a humble man's heart, the bamboo is truly a brother. It serves and it guards, like the shihochiku which possesses pointed spikes at its nodes and is planted near the gates of temples and houses to ward off evil powers. It is an extension of man's vision, his artistry, his creative flexibility and his enormous endurance. The interlocking roots of bamboo support and restrain the earth during earthquake or flood in the same way as the interconnecting and multiplying ideas of man lay the basis of civilization. And the works and arts of man flower in their swan-song and decline as does the bamboo in its cycles, but the grove of human civility does not die. It lies resting in seed form for a while and then begins its telescopic growth pattern through the alternating movements of a developing cultural dialectic which rises up in distinctive shoots but also turns deeply into hidden channels in order to proliferate. The bamboo is a living symbol of man's past and future potential, and it is a bridge which leads him in seven knots, like the narthex which carries the flame, to the knowledge of himself.

 In the Amazon jungle, people of the Guarayo tribe play a haunting melody on bamboo flutes to their Grandfather of the Ancient Skies, Tamoi. At the dawn of time, Tamoi ascended from the east to the top of a bamboo where he released spirits who struck the earth through the culms. Thus the bamboo is seen by the Guarayo as the chief benefaction of their solar god and they consider it to be an intermediary, a bridge-like flute which they can sound. Through the spirits of the culms, the seven vowels of the Word, they call forth the Divine Presence. They believe in a periodicity of events and readily recognize its appearance in the regular alternation of nodes and internodes of the bamboo. They understand something about the morphogenetic activity that can be evoked by those who attempt to work with Nature's hidden currents. They recognize the growing-point where the "sheath primordia are initiated" and the regular alternation of development "first comes into focus".

 There is a point when the rooting process in the soil of the world is sufficient and the rhizome turns upward towards the light. A change in the physiological state of the growing-point occurs and the axis takes on the form of a developing culm. Like Bodhisattvas gracefully pointing to heaven, they send down all their light and nourishment to their multiplying offspring, who in their turn will rise up and join the ranks of the benefactors of the world. The alternating pattern of their growth draws upon the powers of the four corners of the universe and synthesizes them in axes of matchless endurance and exquisite flexibility. In the bamboo the spirit of the Bodhisattva, of the refined human soul, is eloquently expressed. It is echoed thousands of times over in the artifacts, poetry and music that have sprung from the hearts and hands of countless craftsmen and dreamers. And it is conveyed by the bamboo itself, by its whispered rustlings, its graceful swaying in the moonlight and its yielding but dependable service. The bamboo is our brother and it lives and propagates and serves infallibly. And it can convey a deeply moving message of brotherhood. A few years ago a celebrated maker of fishing rods in the United States discovered in a shipment of bamboo from Guangdong a culm inscribed with a column of characters. A Chinese field-worker, knowing that the cane he cut would travel across the sea, had inscribed upon one of them: "Peoples of the brotherhood of man! May our friendship last ten thousand years!"