The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo. The practical, aesthetic, and spiritual significance of bamboo is deeply embedded in Japanese culture. The particular part of Nara where we live is famous for myriad bamboo products, such as tea whisks, tea utensils, knitting needles, and so on. The symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and offers practical lessons for life and for work. Below I list ten ways in which the bamboo offers up for us practical lessons. Nature is always speaking to us and providing lessons. We only need to improve our ability to hear with our eyes and see with our ears to appreciate her lessons.
(1) Remember: What looks weak is strong
The body of even the largest type of bamboo is not large compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are sometimes the only “trees” left standing in the aftermath of a storm. Remember the words of a great Jedi Master: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?” We must be careful not to underestimate others or ourselves based only on old notions of what is weak and what is strong. You do not have to be big and imposing to be strong. You may not be from the biggest company or the product of the most famous school, but like the bamboo, stand tall, believe in your own strengths, and know that you are as strong as you need to be. Remember too that there is strength in the light, in openness and transparency. There is strength in kindness, compassion, and cooperation.
(2) Bend but don’t break.
One of the most impressive things about the bamboo is how it sways with the breeze. This gentle swaying movement is a symbol of humility. The foundation of the bamboo is solid, yet it moves and sways harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it. In time, even the strongest wind tires itself out, but the bamboo remains standing tall and still. A bend-but-don’t-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets for success whether we’re talking about bamboo trees, answering tough questions in a Q&A session, or just dealing with the everyday vagaries of life.
(3) Be strongly rooted yet flexible
The bamboo is remarkable for its incredible flexibility. This flexibility is made possible in part due to the bamboo’s complex root structure which is said to make the ground around a bamboo forest very stable. Roots are important, yet in an increasingly mobile world many individuals and families do not take the time or effort to establish roots in their own communities. The challenge, then, for many of us is to remain the mobile, flexible, international travelers and busy professionals that we are while at the same time making the effort and taking the time to become involved and deeply rooted in the local community right outside our door.
(4) Slow down your busy mind
We have far more information available than ever before and most of us live at a very fast pace. Even if most of our work life is on-line, life itself can seem quite hectic, and at times chaotic. Often it is difficult to see the signal through all the noise. In this kind of environment, it seems all the more important to take the time to slow down, to calm your busy mind so that you may see things more clearly.
(5) Be always ready
As the great Aikido master Kensho Furuya says in Kodo: Ancient Ways, “The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action.” In presentation or other professional activities too, through training and practice we can develop in our own way a state of being ever ready. Through study and practice we can at least do our best to be ready for any situation.
(6) Find wisdom in emptiness
It is said that in order to learn, the first step is to empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. One can not fill a cup which is already full. The hollow insides of the bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions; we have no space for anything else. In order to receive knowledge and wisdom from both nature and people, we have to be open to that which is new and different. When you empty your mind of your prejudices and pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities.
(7) Smile, laugh, & play
The Kanji (Chinese character) for smile or laugh is 笑う. At the top of this character are two small symbols for bamboo (竹 or take). It is said that bamboo has a strong association with laughter, perhaps because of the sound that the bamboo leaves make on a windy day. If you use your imagination I guess it does sound a bit like the forest laughing; it is a soothing sound. Bamboo itself also has a connection with playfulness as it has been used for generations in traditional Japanese kite making and in arts and crafts such as traditional doll making. We have known intuitively for generations of the importance of smiling, laughing, and playing, now modern science shows evidence that these elements play a real and important role in one’s mental and physical health as well.
Above. This is the bamboo forest behind our home in Nara. I took this short clip from the back of our house on New Year’s eve. Note the soothing sound of the bamboo as it sways in the strong wind.
(8) Commit yourself to growth & renewal
Bamboo are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. It does not matter who you are — or where you are — today, you have amazing potential for growth. We usually speak of Kaizen or continuous improvement that is more steady and incremental, where big leaps and bounds are not necessary. Yet even with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, our growth — like the growth of the bamboo — can be quite remarkable when we look back at what or where we used to be. You may at times become discouraged and feel that you are not improving at all. Do not be discouraged by what you perceive as your lack of growth or improvement. If you have not given up, then you are growing, you just may not see it until much later. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we’re moving forward.
(9) Express usefulness through simplicity
Aikido master Kensho Furuya says that “The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same.” Indeed, we spend a lot of our time trying to show how smart we are, perhaps to convince others — and ourselves — that we are worthy of their attention and praise. Often we complicate the simple to impress and we fail to simplify the complex out of fear that others may know what we know. Life and work are complicated enough without our interjecting the superfluous. If we could lose our fear, perhaps we could be more creative and find simpler solutions to even complex problems that ultimately provide the greatest usefulness for our audiences, customers, patients, or students.
(10) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo is a symbol of good luck and one of the symbols of the New Year celebrations in Japan. The important image of snow-covered bamboo represents the ability to spring back after experiencing adversity. In winter the heavy snow bends the bamboo back and back until one day the snow becomes too heavy, begins to fall, and the bamboo snaps back up tall again, brushing aside all the snow. The bamboo endured the heavy burden of the snow, but in the end it had to power to spring back as if to say “I will not be defeated.”
These are just ten lessons from the bamboo; one could easily come up with dozens more. These are not things that we do not all ready know, of course. Yet like many a good sensei, the bamboo simply reminds us of what we already know but may have forgotten. Then it is up to us to put these lessons (or reminders) of resilience into daily use through persistence and practice. You do not need to be perfect. You need only to be resilient. This is the greatest lesson from the bamboo.
Below I shared some of the lessons learned from the bamboo in this 12-minute TEDxTokyo talk which was recorded (and streamed) live from Tokyo on May 21, 2011. You can see the slides I used in this talk below on Slideshare.net. These slides were made in Photoshop and Keynote and exported as a PDF file for Slideshare.