When we grapple to understand life’s most puzzling mysteries, we can often look to nature to find the basic patterns that illustrate the most complex aspects of human behavior and psychological development.

As we’ve demonstrated elsewhere in this blog, bamboo provides a reliable model for understanding some of human nature’s highest qualities and greatest aspirations.

A perennial grass that grows from a prolific system of rhizomes and adventitious roots, bamboo finds strength in numbers. A single root system can produce hundreds of high-flying shoots, each stretching for the sun and spreading its leaves in the fresh air. At times these individual shoots may compete for resources, but more often, the greater intelligence of the rhizome network knows to spread and avoid such self-destructive competition.

Over the years, a patch of bamboo can grow exceedingly thick and excessively dense. For the collective advantage of the grove, individual shoots may be crowded out, or they may need to be removed through selective harvesting. Enter the blade of the scythe, universal symbol for the Grim Reaper: man’s worst fear and the greatest nemesis of human consciousness.

But when we recognize our role in a larger system and understand our relationship to something higher and more meaningful, then we see for ourselves the overall unimportance of the individual. Detaching from our own selfish identities, we free ourselves from the bounds of the ego, and elevate to a higher state of consciousness, to find ourselves serving a healthier and more functional community.

This holistic model functions on every level. In our own bodies, cells are constantly dying and decaying, by the hundreds and thousands. The individual’s significance has limitations. In about seven years, not a single molecule in our body will remain. Each will be replaced by a younger, fresher one, and we will go on living.

And when a tattered old stalk of bamboo meets its end and falls to the ground, a vigorous young shoot will be there to fill its place – or perhaps it will find an even better place where it can thrive and bring good to the grove. So the cycle of eternal return repeats itself, again and again, as it has since the beginning of time.

In memory of Donald William Hornaday (Feb 7, 1941—Jan. 21, 2009)

Drepanostachyum khasianum Himalayan bamboo

Onward and upward with bamboo

For more sage wisdom related to bamboo and Eastern spirituality, check out some of these provocative articles.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in February 2009. We revised it in November 2019.