Anyone who spends more than a few minutes in my presence will eventually hear me singing the praises of bamboo as a wonder crop, a miracle resource, and a glorious addition to the garden. If you’re lucky enough to attend one of my bamboo workshops, you can listen to me wax rhapsodic for well over an hour. Given bamboo’s immense diversity, fascinating growth habit, and remarkable potential for carbon sequestration, erosion control and phytoremediation, I invariably run out of time before I run out of things to say.

Bamboo isn’t just great for the earth, though. It’s also good for the soul!

As a sustainable resource and fast-growing grass, the ecological benefits of bamboo are widely known and well-publicized. But the greatness of this plant goes beyond what can be measured by crop scientists and climatologists. Bamboo has a magical quality that’s difficult to put your finger on. And it has a lot to teach us about spiritual growth and development.

NOTE: This article first appeared in August 2021, most recently updated in June 2024.

Bamboo grove for oxygen and ecology
A breathtaking grove of Moso and other Phyllostachys. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

A grass both ordinary and extraordinary

On the one hand, bamboo is just a grass. It belongs to the family Poaceae which includes some 12,000 species of simple monocots, both annuals and perennials. But at the same time, there are varieties of bamboo that grow taller, stronger and faster than many species of trees.

Timber bamboos commonly exceed 50 or 60 feet in height, and some species grow more than 100 feet tall. The woody culms or stalks of bamboo are hard and thick enough to replace traditional lumber and even steel for many construction applications. The substantial biomass of bamboo can burn as a source of heat and energy, and its cellulose can be fermented into ethanol to fuel cars. It can even be spun into thread to produce textiles that are softer than cotton.

All this from a plant that can easily grow as fast as a foot a day, and in extreme cases, three feet a day. Bamboo replenishes itself without replanting and requires no added fertilizers and pesticides. And its robust root system can revitalize the soil and capture impressive quantities of atmospheric carbon.

Not only that, but bamboo also looks beautiful in almost any garden.

Dalai Lama kindness quote

What bamboo can teach us about soul and spirit

As a renewable resource and a means of combating climate change, bamboo’s potential is unsurpassed. But it’s so much more than just a cash crop and an industrial material. Bamboo has a number of exquisite properties that have inspired people to honor and revere this plant for many centuries.

As such, the qualities of bamboo offer us something to emulate and much to learn.

Strength and pliability

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of bamboo is its great strength. This is why bamboo makes an exceptional material for flooring and cutting boards. More impressive than its raw strength, however, is bamboo’s flexibility. In a stiff breeze, even hurricane weather, those massive poles have the ability to lean and bend without breaking.

As people, we should aspire to cultivate a similar balance of strength and flexibility. On the material plane, we can achieve this through practices like yoga.

But even more important is to remain supple and agile in the mind. When things don’t go our way, we may find ourselves paddling against the current. We can stand up and resist, but we also need to know how to adapt, to go with the flow, and to stretch our comfort zones without losing our composure.

Bamboo emptiness and soul
Most bamboo is hollow inside, a symbol of humility. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Emptiness is form

What defines bamboo, and ourselves, is not only what’s there, but also what isn’t there. Anyone who’s ever sawed through a bamboo pole knows that it’s hollow on the inside. Rather than weakening the bamboo or taking away from it, this empty space inside actually seems to add to it.

With its emptiness, bamboo serves as an excellent vessel. Segments of bamboo make perfect cups, vases, and carrying cases. Because it’s not filled with pulp or other plant mass, the core of the bamboo remains available for other uses.

In the same manner, when we learn to let go, detaching from our past regrets and future anxieties, we create the mental space necessary to be fully present in the now.

Running Bamboo Rhizome
Bamboo is resilient and has a way of bouncing back. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

Resilience and tenacity

We already pointed out the strength of bamboo poles and their ability to sway in the wind. But bamboo’s resilience goes well beyond that. You can take a chainsaw or an ax and cut a grove of bamboo right down to the ground. But if you think you’ve killed it, think again. As sure as the sun will rise again tomorrow, the bamboo will grow back next season.

Similarly, when you get struck down by harsh words or personal loss, do you quit and give up? Hopefully not. You may need a brief time out to regroup and gather your strength, but when the next season comes, you need to bounce back.

As above so below

The secret to bamboo’s ability to bounce back from defeat lies in its robust root system. Here, underground, is the heart and soul of the formidable grass.

The old proverb says that in the first year, bamboo sleeps. In the second year, it creeps. And in the third year, it leaps. That’s because bamboo focuses its energy beneath the surface before it begins to produce those magnificent culms above ground.

The lesson here for us is to concentrate on developing what’s inside and build up our inner strength before we unleash our zest and zeal on the outer world. Only after we’ve grown comfortable on the inside and learned to love ourselves can we express ourselves authentically and lovingly toward others.

Higher bamboo proverb

More bamboo and spirituality

If you too have a deep appreciation for the magical properties of bamboo, then feel free to share this article in your network. You might also want to check out more of my articles about bamboo and Eastern spirituality.