No doubt, we spend plenty of time talking about bamboo, writing about bamboo, and thinking about bamboo. So sometimes I even get meta about it. That’s when I start to think about what people think about bamboo. And that can get really interesting, because people have been using and thinking about bamboo for at least 10,000 years, making it about 10 times older than the Magna Carta and 5 times older than the Bible, just to give a little perspective.
Bamboo Meanings and Allegories
Throughout Asia and beyond, people look to bamboo and admire it as kind of miraculous plant. Since time immemorial they have used bamboo to build houses for shelter, to build weapons for hunting and defense, and to eat its tender shoots for sustenance. It’s no mystery why primitive people would assign bamboo a sacred status, and revere it as a bona fide gift from the gods.
Besides these life giving properties, bamboo also contains a spiritual message that resonates deeply in the Far Eastern ethos. We’re all familiar with bamboo’s remarkable strength and hardness, qualities that inspire respect among both man and beast. But the real genius of bamboo lies in its pliability and resilience, its ability to flex and bend without breaking. More than a mere model of brute force, the one who knows when to give in and how to sway in the breeze is the one who will truly weather the storm and survive.
As important as it is to go with the flow, in the spirit of Taoist philosophy, bamboo goes beyond even that. Characteristically hollow, bamboo is emblematic of Buddhist enlightenment. When the initiate has learned to embrace emptiness, s/he becomes a vessel for the universal spirit. Once free from worldly attachments, s/he begins to find relief from suffering and to attain real wisdom. Such are the teachings of the Buddha.
Consider also the Zen koan, which states that “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.” A koan is a riddle meant to be contemplated, not solved, but one interpretation of this saying would suggest that objects and beings do not take shape according to what they contain, but rather from what they lack and from what surrounds them. The structure of bamboo embodies these mysteries almost to perfection.
Bamboo Legends and Myths
Such a fast-growing and ubiquitous plant, it’s easy to see why sages of the East would associate bamboo with fertility, long life, and even immortality. Across Asia, there are legends, myths and folktales describing bamboo’s supernatural capacities. Here are a just a few examples.
From The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, a classic Confucian text from the Yuan Dynasty (13th century), there comes a story entitled “He Cried and the Bamboo Sprouted.” In this ancient folktale, a boy named Meng Zong lives alone with his mother, as his father died when he was quite a young. When his mother comes down with a serious illness, the country doctor prescribes a hearty soup made with fresh bamboo shoots.
The boy looks everywhere, but because it is winter he can find no bamboo shoots. So he goes into the forest and weeps profusely. As his tears sink into the soil, new bamboo shoots beginning sprouting from the earth. Quickly, the boy gathers a basket of shoots, takes them back to his mother and prepares a pot of soup. On the verge of death, she drinks the soup, and slowly she recovers until her health is fully restored.
A fantastic creation myth from the Philippines, entitled “Malakas and Maganda” (The Strong One and the Beautiful One), tells a story of the first man and woman being born from a stalk of bamboo. This etiological legend describes a time before time, in which there was nothing but the sky, the sea, and a single bird.
The bird, lonely and exhausted from always flying, goes looking for a place to rest. Eventually, it stirs up a commotion and causes the sky to rain down islands into the sea, and at last the bird has a place to build a nest. Still alone, but relieved to have a nest and a resting place, the unlucky bird is one day struck by a falling bamboo pole.
When the bird retaliates by pecking at the fallen bamboo, the hollow pole splits open and out comes a man (the Strong) and a woman (the Beautiful). Naturally, these two decide to get married and produce a great number of children, but with time the parents grew weary of their children and chased them off.
Some children hid in different rooms the house and later became chiefs of the islands. Other children hid in the walls of the house and became slaves, while others escaped to the forest and became free. Some hid in the fireplace and acquired dark skin, while others fled to the sea and returned some centuries later with white skin, which explains the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
The Hundred-Knot Bamboo Tree is a popular fable from Vietnamese folklore. It’s the story of a wealthy and devious landowner with a very beautiful daughter, and a hopeful young man who works for the landowner and longs to marry the daughter.
Learning of the young man’s ambitions, the landowner offers his daughter’s hand in marriage if the innocent bachelor will agree to stay and work as a servant for another three solid years. Naively, the man agrees, but meanwhile the father makes other plans to marry his daughter off to the son of a wealthy village chief.
When the young man discovers the dishonest plot, he confronts the landowner. The wicked man then tells his servant he can still marry the daughter if he can go into the forest and find a bamboo tree with a hundred knots. Try as he may, this turns out to be an impossible task, another dishonest trick. But the young man meets a wise sage in the forest who shows him an even better trick, with which he can take a hundred pieces of bamboo and make then magically stick together like a single piece with a hundred knots.
The young man returns and finds the landowner and the chieftain celebrating, as the wedding of their daughter and son is already underway. When the servant presents the hundred pieces of bamboo, the members of the wedding party all have a good laugh at his expense. But then he magically commands the bamboo to stick together, which it does, along with the landowner, the chieftain and his son. In exchange for setting them unstuck, the young man is finally awarded the lovely daughter. Thus the two marry promptly and live happily ever after.
One of the oldest examples of Japanese folklore, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter dates back to the 10th century. In this intriguing story, a beautiful princess named Kaguya who is a discovered as a baby living inside a glowing bamboo stalk. A childless woodcutter discovers the mysterious phenomenon in the forest one day, and he decides to bring the infant home to his wife. They decide to feed and look after and essentially adopt this young girl.
Soon after this, the man discovers that each time his cuts down a stalk of bamboo, he finds a nugget of gold hidden within. Quickly he and his wife grow rich, and also the news of the girls and her unmatched beauty spreads across the kingdom.
Many suitors come proposing marriage, but the man and his wife turn down every request. To discourage more proposals, they assign impossible tasks to the hopeful suitors, and so every effort fails. Even the Emperor, learning of this exquisitely beautiful princess, comes and asks to marry her. But she rejects him, telling him it cannot be done because she is not of this kingdom.
Over a serious of mystical events, it is revealed that the princess Kaguya actually came from the moon, and to the moon she must return. The Emperor, entirely smitten with the otherworldly princess, does everything he can to prevent her departure. But ultimately, she is transported back to the moon on a beam of light.
Before leaving, she granted the Emperor a phial of the Elixir of Eternal Life, but he refused to drink it if he would have to spend eternity without her. After she’d left, the elixir was sent to the top of Mount Fuji to be burned. This explained the trail of smoke rising from the top of the mountain, back in the times when Fuji was more volcanically active.
A myth from India tells the story of Rama’s wife, Sita, who had an extra finger on one hand. So she cut off one finger, buried it in the ground, and from it sprouted a bamboo plant. Then along came a pig who began chewing holes in the bamboo stalk. Through the holes, people found different grains inside each segment of the bamboo. And this, according to the legend, is how rice and the ancient, sacred grains of India were discovered: millet, sorghum, and amaranth.
Do you know of a good bamboo legend that we overlooked? Let us know in the comments section.
If you enjoy a good fairy tale, be sure to take a look at some of our Zen Parables, like The Magician and the Prince or The Mind is the Forerunner of All Things. And for more philosophy, check out the article on Bamboo Wisdom and Transcendence.