When we started selling bamboo towels more than a decade ago, there weren’t many brands to choose from. Back then BAMBU BATU was still the only all-bamboo boutique in California, and we were determined to stock our shelves with some incredible towels, at a time when no one had even heard of bamboo towels.
We took our chances and ordered a case of 60/40 bamboo-cotton blended towels, made in India, from a now defunct company with a major distribution center on the east coast. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, but one thing is certain, those towels exceeded even our greatest expectations. When the company discontinued the towels a year later we were absolutely devastated. Not only did we love the towels more than anything, but they were far and away the best selling line in the store. Apparently BAMBU BATU’s small scale success was not enough to keep the multi-national factories running.
After that heart break, it took us years to find a comparable replacement that lived up to that same level of quality, softness, absorbency and durability. Those towels had opened our eyes to a whole new world of post-bath luxury, and the genie would NOT go back in the bottle. So we dabbled in a dozen or more different brands of bamboo towels, ordering samples from all corners of the globe.
We washed, we dried, we daubed, we shimmied. But we were not about to settle for anything less than the very best. Eventually, we came up with a winner, and those are the towels we proudly sell in our San Luis Obispo brick-n-mortar shop and online.
Our exhaustive research led us to many brands of bamboo towels, and a tremendous range in quality. Some towels were exceptionally soft but just didn’t seem very absorbent. Others were just too easy to snag on jewelry, on finger nails, or in the dryer. And some just didn’t seem to have the softness or the fluffiness that we’d come to count on from a great bamboo towel.
Ultimately, we found quite a selection of incredible bamboo towels. Thankfully, they’re considerably easier to find than they were back in 2007. So here’s our list of finalists.TOP CHOICE: Daisy House Bamboo Towels
Amid the forest of bamboo companies, it’s not easy to narrow it down to just one superior choice. So what makes Daisy House stand out from the crowd? We love these towels for a lot of reasons. Most of all, they accentuate all the characteristics that make bamboo towels great: super soft, super fluffy, and super absorbent. Made in Turkey from a blend of cotton and bamboo, they also hold up very well over time.
In addition to these essential traits, Daisy House towels come in an astonishing variety of colors. Last time I checked there were 22 to choose from. Maybe your bathroom is hot pink with flamingo wall paper, or perhaps you’re trying to match the aquamarine tiles you picked up on your last trip to Mexico. Or do you prefer to go au natural? No matter what, they’ve got you covered.
Furthermore, Daisy House is a small, family owned company, with excellent, personal customer service. In an age of automated everything and corporate conglomerates, it means a lot to me when I can purchase my sustainable bamboo products from real humans with souls and voices.Caribbean
In my experience, and as much as I love the bamboo, I have to say that I generally prefer the towels that are made from a blend of bamboo and cotton. It’s like they somehow give you the best of both worlds. But if you absolutely must have 100% bamboo, then Caribbean is the way to go.
These guys are real purists. They use nothing but 100% organic bamboo. And they donate a portion of their profits to UNICEF for children. So there’s a lot to love about these towels. Maybe they’re not as thick and fluffy as some of the bamboo-cotton blended towels, but the light weight and silky softness makes them ideal for babies and children.
The only down side here is that you won’t find a tremendous selection of colors. Being such purists, they only use un-dyed bamboo, so all their towels are white. But if you’re looking for 100% unadulterated organic bamboo towels from a company that really cares about helping children around the world, then Caribbean is your best choice.Brooklyn Bamboo
This company offers a luxurious 3-piece set of 100% bamboo bath towels, with all the fabulous qualities of softness and absorbency that make bamboo towels such a wonderful choice. The woven jacquard pattern adds an extra touch of elegance. Brooklyn Bamboo also carries a variety of bamboo towel sets for babies.
Keep in mind, with the 100% bamboo, these towels are not going to be as thick and fluffy as some of the bamboo-cotton blends like Daisy House. Also, Brooklyn bamboo towels are only available in a couple of colors, grey and off-white.Cariloha
This company sprouted up out of nowhere about five years ago and dominated the internet virtually overnight. Their online presence makes them impossible to ignore, but they also deliver a pretty decent product.
As with any great bamboo towel worth mentioning, these are extra super cushy. Cariloha uses a 50-50 blend of bamboo and turkish cotton to produce a great towel that’s extremely soft, fluffy and absorbent. They also offer a good selection of colors, in case you’re trying to match a specific bathroom decor.Murphy Bamboo
Murphy offers a line of luxurious bath towels made from 70% bamboo and 30% cotton. The ribbed terry fabric gives these deluxe towels and extra air of plush softness. There’s no doubt, these are some wonderfully soft, fluffy and absorbent towels. Personally, I’m a big fan of of ribbed towels, so that’s a plus for me, but some people might prefer a more uniform texture. The only other downside is the lack of color selection. Murphy Bamboo towels are currently only available in white.Bamboosa
Looking for a good family feeling and an American-made towel, look no further than Bamboosa of South Carolina, recently relocated to Los Angeles, California. This family-owned and operated company is a true pioneer in the bamboo field. Since around 2004, they have been committed to providing the most environmentally responsible and ethically produced bamboo products imaginable, while creating jobs and opportunities right here in America.
Bamboosa’s towels are made from a blend of 80% organic bamboo and 20% recycled polyester. They are incredibly soft and absorbent, and so far as we know, the only bamboo towels being manufactured in the USA.
As a small mom-n-pop enterprise, however, their availability is sometimes rather limited. Currently they have a bamboo gym towel and a some bamboo baby towel sets in stock. Visit their website to order and to check availability.Chakir Turkish Linens
Another excellent line of luxuriously soft towels made from a blend of 65% Turkish cotton and 35% bamboo. Chakir towels are comparable to Daisy House and Cariloha in price and quality, remarkably soft, thick, fluffy and absorbent. They are also available in several colors.
UPDATE: Last we checked, these towels were sold out on Amazon, and it was not known when they would be available again. Seems that these towels are just too hot to keep in stock!Bamboo Classic
Their name says it all. No frills, just great bamboo. Made from a blend of 55% bamboo and 45% cotton, these towels are certainly soft and absorbent. To increase the softness and absorbency, they recommend washing the towels before use.
The Bamboo Classic towel sets only come in white, but at $40 for a set of four bath towels, they are among the least expensive bamboo towels on the market. However, the low price might come at the cost of durability. These don’t seem to be the same quality material that we’ve handled elsewhere.Conclusions
The benefits of bamboo as a textile go on and on. It is one of the fastest growing and renewable plants on earth, and its versatility is unparalleled. Fabric made from the bamboo plants have also proven to be hypo-allergic, anti-microbial and odor resistant, making it an excellent material for products like t-shirts, socks, underwear, and more.
With such softness and absorbency, bamboo is also an ideal material for towels. But as we’ve seen, some varieties of bamboo fabric seem to harness that softness and absorbency better than others. For some reason, for instance, the bamboo-cotton blends appear to make for the best towels, fluffier and more absorbent than the 100% bamboo towels.
We also take into consideration the philosophy and spirit of our bamboo producing colleagues. As a family-owned business founded on a commitment to environmental awareness and social responsibility, we prefer to promote and do business with like-minded companies. And so, for all of these reasons, we’ve chosen Daisy House as number one, and named Caribbean a close second.
Whatever bamboo towel you choose, we wish you all the best in your bathing, drying and bamboo swaddling!
There’s an old saying among seasoned bamboo growers. “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps.” Those wanting a quick spreading hedge or grove in their backyard might be disappointed with their new stand of bamboo after the first 6 to 12 months. But it won’t be long before they’re running for their chainsaws and pick axes, desperate to curtail an out-of-control root system.
So before you plant that super sustainable renewable grass specimen in your garden, you’ll need to have a clear strategy for bamboo containment. And if it’s already too late, and the clump you planted just two or three years ago is already running amok, then you’ll want to consider some effective methods of bamboo abatement and eradication.
Or worse yet, maybe your neighbor went gung-ho a few years back after an inspiring trip to the home and garden show (or a quick glance at this rousing article on best bamboo varieties). And now his short-sighted dream of a Japanese garden is turning into a nightmare of bamboo rhizomes wreaking havoc on your fence line, your flowers beds, your veggie patch and your sprinkler system. In this case, you’ll want to study up on both topics mentioned above, in addition to possibly signing up for a course on non-violent communication.
When it comes to time make peace with your neighbor, you’re on your own. But this article will help you with the first two issues, and also prevent you from becoming the kind of gardener whose neighbors want to come after them with a bulldozer in the night.
The Importance of Bamboo Containment
If you’re planting a fast-growing (read: aggressively spreading) bamboo privacy hedge, or one of the popular and massive timber bamboos, and you live in a neighborhood (as opposed to rural farmland), then a good rhizome barrier is absolutely essential.
Here are a couple things you will need to keep in mind. First of all, never underestimate the tenacity of a healthy bamboo plant. Bamboo is a force of nature unlike any other. People like to talk about runners vs. clumpers, but as they mature, all bamboos display the undeniable will to spread out. You can put bamboo into a pot or a barrel, but don’t kid yourself. If there’s a crack in the barrel or a hole in the pot — and surely there is — the bamboo roots will eventually find their way out. And if there’s soil below, the roots will take hold faster than you can say phyllostachys!
Also know that those little rhizomes have an amazing ability to sniff out a good water supply, especially in a dry climate like California. That means, if you have some bamboo in the ground, and one of your neighbors has a drip irrigation in their herb garden, or they regularly run their sprinkles to keep the lawn green, it’s very likely that your bamboo will send out runners headed straight for that water source.
It’s like the bamboo has a kind of plant ESP. But just wait till those well-watered roots start sprouting up new shoots in the neighbor’s perfect lawn like UFOs (Underground F#@&ing Objects). Don’t expect them to be welcomed with open arms.
And don’t think you can just yank those unwanted sprouts from the soil like a handful of pesky dandelions. It’s not unheard of for people to rent a backhoe or a bulldozer to really clear out an established stand of bamboo. Otherwise, count on spending a few hours with a spade, maybe a pick ax, maybe even a Sawzall (reciprocating saw), to keep those running rhizomes at bay. And you’ll need to do that sort of maintenance at least once or twice a year if you really want to keep your bamboo from getting the upper hand.
How to Contain your Bamboo
After many centuries of man and bamboo butting heads, and bamboo almost always coming out the winner, some brilliant gardener(s) finally devised a virtually impenetrable system of bamboo containment to help keep your grass where it belongs.
Today you can (and should!) buy sheets of extremely durable black polyethylene, about 1.5 mm in thickness, and usually 24″ to 30″ in width. It’s normally available on a roll, anywhere from 25 to 100 feet in length. You might think 24″ is plenty. After all, who wants dig a 3 foot trench all the way around their hedge? But trust me, use at least 30″, you’ll be better off in the long run. Like I said before, never underestimate the perseverance of a bamboo.
The most popular, most effective, tried and true bamboo containing material is available online. It’s the DeepRoot Bamboo Barrier, 30″ deep by 100 ft roll. This stuff is nearly invincible, going a serious 2.5 feet underground, and the 100-ft roll gives you enough length to contain a pretty major privacy hedge. Consider it $350 well spent on your peace of mind and good neighbor relations.
Another less expensive alternative to consider is Bamboo Shield’s 24″ by 100 foot roll for $199.
Bamboo Shield also offers shorter rolls with deeper coverage to contain the most aggressive bamboo specimens. Check out the Bamboo Shield 30″ by 25 foot roll for $95, or the extra heavy duty Bamboo Shield 36″ by 25 foot roll for $149.
How to Remove Bamboo
OK, so it’s already too late. You or your neighbor let some bamboo run free, and now it’s just out of control. Is there an easy way to get rid of it? Well yes, there are ways to get rid of it. But none of them are easy.
First you’ll need to cut it down to the ground, as low as possible. And then start digging. Pull out roots and rhizomes as you go. And keep on digging. If it’s a particularly tenacious variety you may want to reach for a pick ax or a hand saw. If nothing else works, or your back just isn’t up for this type of labor, your best best will be the Sawzall. As the name suggests, these things saw through anything.
Or you could save a few bucks with a similar Black and Decker Reciprocating Saw for $39.
In any case, don’t let these tools and cautionary tales frighten you out of planting an amazing grove of bamboo. With proper preparation, these incredible products make it possible for even the suburban gardener to plant an astonishing stand that the whole neighborhood can enjoy!
Photo Credit: Bamboo rhizomes resisting containment (Wikipedia)
After some 10 or 20 thousand years of cultivation, bamboo’s popularity may in fact be at an all-time high. Of course, 10,000 years ago, there were a lot fewer people around to exchange gardening tips. But it’s also true that more and more people today are recognizing bamboo for its utility, versatility, aesthetic beauty, and all-around sense of good joo-joo. Though it’s been revered in the Far East for these same qualities for many thousands of years, it’s taken a few extra centuries for this thing of wonder to reach the west and spread like wildfire — not unlike a few other things I can think of. Yoga and sushi quickly come to mind.
As if sorting through the options of bamboo toothbrushes and bamboo towels weren’t challenging enough, consider now that if you’re looking to plant a few varieties of bamboo in your garden, you’ll have between 1-2,000 species to choose from. Even the bamboo specialists can’t agree on the actual number of bamboo breeds. But no need to split hairs over speciation. Today we’d like to help you narrow it down to the 10 best bamboo varieties for your garden.Two Types of Bamboo
Some people like to say that there are types of bamboo: runners and clumpers. Of course, that’s a sweeping generalization, because, like I said, there are really something like 1-2,000 species of bamboo. Not only that, but there are also slow runners and aggressive clumpers, and a number of other factors that could affect the growth habit of your bamboo. Having said that, this still remains the simplest way to think of bamboos.
Most bamboos are runners, meaning that they send out rhizome roots racing underground in pursuit of moisture and elbow room. If you’re looking to plant a privacy hedge that will spread quickly along a fence line, or you just enjoy watching a voracious plant as it wields its dominion over the landscape, then this is the way to go. They also tend to be the easiest to find, especially at non-specialist nurseries, because they do propagate so easily.
But be careful, and think before you plant. The old adage about bamboo says that, “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.” In other words, you might not think it’s a runner after the first year, but by the third or forth year, you almost certainly will, and so will your neighbors.
Running bamboos have no respect for property lines. If the neighbor to the one side is regularly sprinkling his perfectly manicured lawn, or the neighbor on the other side is constantly irrigating her prize-winning rose bushes, it won’t take long (especially in a dry place like California) for those eager rhizomes to sniff out those delicious water sources and wreak havoc on the roses, the lawn, the vegetable patch, the herb garden, and pretty much everything in sight. There goes the neighborhood!
So how do you avoid this un-neighborly catastrophe? Here are a few options:Allow your running bamboo plenty of room to spread. If you’re gardening in a tightly-squeezed suburban subdivision, then you probably will not have plenty of room. If you’re trying to fill out and green up some vacant acreage, then that’s more like it. Keep you bamboo well-contained. There are a number of ways to do this, ranging from a simple solution like planting into a old wine barrel (or half barrel) to burying any manner of rhizome barrier into the ground. Just remember, with time and pressure, there’s almost nothing that stop those roots from spreading. So whatever you put into the ground, plant it thick and deep. (Check out our tips on bamboo containment.) Get your hands dirty and prune your bamboo regularly. That means not only trimming back the shoots, but going underground and cutting back those vigorous roots. Look for smaller and slower running bamboos, like some of the ground cover varieties. But keep an eye on them. Sometimes they look sleepy on the surface, even while the roots are constructing an invisible empire underground. Find some clumping bamboo and plant those instead.
The fact is, many of the most interesting and attractive bamboo species are runners. They also tend to be less expensive and easier to find in nurseries. So now that you’ve been warned, here are a few great bamboo varieties to look for.Phyllostachys vivax
You’ll definitely want to allow some extra space for this tremendous timber bamboo that easily reaches 20 to 50 feet in height, with culms up to 4 or 5 inches in diameter. As you can imagine, it will also have a pretty massive footprint. But for anyone who’s got the space for it, this majestic grass could be a prized specimen and the envy of bamboo enthusiasts all around.
I planted one of these in my suburban backyard in San Luis Obispo, and kept it in a 15 gallon pot for fear of it overtaking the neighborhood. After 5 or 6 years it never looked unhealthy, but it sure never reached the kind of stature described above. It really needs room to spread out.Semiarundinaria fastuosa
Another very impressive variety, its regal appearance has earned this one the nickname of “Temple Bamboo”, which also happens to be FAR easier to pronounce! This bamboo can get to be 20 or 30 feet in height, but its richly colored culms don’t grown much larger than an inch or so in diameter.
I also planted one of these in a 15 gallon container, but it didn’t take long to break out and proliferate around the yard. But with such handsome shoots, I just couldn’t bring myself to uproot them. This really is a beautiful species of bamboo.Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo)
The distinctively dark brown (not quite black) shoots make this one of the most popular strains of bamboo, and any nursery that sells bamboo is likely to have some of this on hand. As the plant matures, the dark color of the culms grows richer, making for a very attractive contrast against the bright green leaves.Pseudosasa japonica (arrow bamboo)
Also quite popular, arrow bamboo earned its name from its long, strong, straight poles, which Samurai warriors used to make arrows. Today it’s a great choice for planting in shady corners of the garden. Also, though technically classified as a runner, it has a far more restrained growth habit than most bamboos of that class. The broad green leaves make this a very vibrant and attractive specimen.Dwarf Green Stripe
One of the few bamboos that can be cultivated as a ground cover, this one makes an excellent accent alongside larger bamboo varieties, around Japanese pines, and in any sort of Asian themed garden setting. Its compact size also makes it much easier to contain, despite its being a runner. Just keep an eye on those roots!
While the most impressive varieties of bamboo tend to be runners, the conscientious gardener is always on the look out for a good breed of clumping bamboo. They might not always display the awesome meter-a-day growth of some fabled bamboos of the tropics, or the massive culms that make you want to reach out your arms for a bear hug, but they can lend an exotic charm to any small scale zen oasis or Japanese garden.
Now before you rush over to Home Depot, or your nearest box store discount nursery, and start asking sales clerks for their recommendations on clumping bamboos, keep in mind that very few people — nursery employees included — can reliably distinguish a runner from a clumper. And as long as clumpers remain more expensive, more sought after, and harder to come by, it’s easy to imagine how unreliable certain sales people could be.
With that in mind, I’d like to recommend a couple of my favorite bamboo nurseries in California: Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol and Bamboo Giant near Santa Cruz. These guys really know their bamboo. But if you want my opinion, here are a few of my favorite clumpers.Bambusa oldhamii
An old favorite, Oldhamii is said to be the most widely grown variety of bamboo in all of the United States. You might say it’s an old standard. Native to Taiwan, it does have a preference for the tropical climes and is not very cold-hardy. But with shoots reaching up to 60 feet or more (under ideal conditions) and growing up to about 4 inches in diameter, it’s certainly an impressive specimen, particularly for a clumper. You’d have to agree, it’s an oldie but a goodie!Otatea acuminata (Mexican Weeping Bamboo)
With its slender stalks and delicate, wispy leaves, this delightfully compact specimen looks good in nearly any garden. All it needs is a gentle breeze to make it really come alive. It also prefers warmer climates. I grew some in a cool, coastal climate, and it always looked happy; it just never grew very big.Buddha’s Belly (subspecies of Bambusa vulgaris)
With a catchy named derived from the bulbous shape of its internodes, Buddha’s Belly is one of the easiest species to recognize and one of the largest varieties of clumping bamboo. Whatever it lacks in straight and narrow poise, it more than makes up for with portly character. This subtropical variety also does better in the warmer zones.Alfonse Karr
Exquisitely elegant, this variety is easy to recognize with its green and yellow racing stripes. Even amidst a great collection of bamboos, this one is sure to stand out. In ideal conditions, it can get up to 20 feet, and the culms grow to about 1 inch in diameter.Himalayacalamus hookerianus (Himalayan Blue)
The richly colored, powdery blue culms give this bamboo an especially attractive appearance. Indigenous to the mountains of China, it also does better in warmer and subtropical regions. But it grows especially well around ponds and in containers. Culinary tip: fresh shoots of the Himalayan Blue are edible are said to be quite tasty. Anyone for stir fry?
I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. If you have a favorite bamboo that we were unable to include in this short list, go ahead and let us know in the comments section. Meanwhile, happy gardening!
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
A New Year has just begun, and what better time than now to see things from a new point of view? Why not look at the world through a fresh pair of sunglasses or readers fashioned in beautiful, renewable bamboo from Blue Planet Eyewear!
This eco-friendly line of eyewear, available locally at Bambu Batu, comes in a variety of materials to suit your conscious lifestyle. But, of course, we are big fans of the bamboo frames. Here in sunny San Luis Obispo, it’s important to have at least one reliable pair of shades, and these bamboo sunglasses strike a flattering look. Drop by the shop to see which style looks best on you.
Also, for those of you who spend a lot of time reading or in front of a screen, you’re going to love our newest addition, the bamboo readers! Again, these come in multiple styles, for both men and women. So come in and see for yourself.
And if you’re interested in other eyewear made from certified wood and recycled materials, you can check out Blue Planet Eyewear. The world of sustainable options will never look the same!
Are you still looking for the most comfortable and ecologically responsible undergarments known to man and woman? So were we, but it looks like we’ve found them: Boody Wear.
Here at Bambu Batu, we never stop striving to find the best bamboo options on the market. That’s how we’ve stayed in business for ten years now and counting. That’s also how we discovered such favorites at the deluxe bamboo towels from Daisy House and the 100% bamboo sheets from Bed Voyage.
And now we are delighted to announce a new day in the world of bamboo panties. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my wife discovered and purchased a pair of Boody Wear classic bikini panties at a health food store up in the Santa Cruz mountains. After having tried out a dozen different brands and styles of bamboo undies over the past decade, she was quickly convinced and these became her new favorites.
So we now carry those bikini briefs and several other styles of women’s bamboo undies from Boody Wear, as well as three different styles of leggings (another personal favorite) and a wide variety of tank tops, camisoles and undershirts. Boody also makes a couple styles of men’s bamboo underwear—both boxers and briefs—and some exceedingly comfortable and well-made bamboo socks. And like my wife, many of our customers are quickly becoming addicted to Boody’s superior softness and quality fit.
If you’re looking to enjoy the comfort of bamboo, with softness where it really counts, I invite you to come on in to Bambu Batu and peruse our undergarments. (Yes, I really said that!) But be careful, you might get hooked.
Over the years, Bambu Batu has earned a pretty solid reputation for creating some of the best bamboo t-shirt designs available anywhere. So we are very proud to introduce the latest jewel in our eco-conscious crown: Life in the SLO Lane.
Anyone who’s ever worn a bamboo t-shirt can assure you that it’s about the softest, most comfortable material known to man. Not only that, but its fast growing and resilient growth habit make it one of the most sustainable resources as well.
And anyone who’s ever spent any time on California’s gorgeous Central Coast can tell you that there’s no place on earth like San Luis Obispo. Often described as the happiest city in America, SLO has a charm and a lifestyle all its own. Situated almost exactly halfway between the sprawling metropolitan areas of LA and the San Francisco Bay, and about 10 minutes from the pristine coast, the little town of 44,000 features many of the cultural opportunities and amenities of the city, without all the hassles of traffic, smog, crime and congestion. Spend a couple days here, and you’ll soon realize just what we mean by the “SLO Life”.
This original t-shirt celebrates our way of life with style and comfort. It comes in several colors—sky blue, brick red, harvest orange, pine green and mustard—and in all sizes for men and women. This unique design is printed locally in small batches, so they’re not on our website yet, but feel free place your order by phone (805-788-0806), or better yet, stop by Bambu Batu and see it for yourself.
Even before the emergence of myths and drama, our ancestors produced symbols to express the quandary of their condition. No image encapsulates the pattern of human experience quite so precisely and succinctly as the ancient mandala, rendered most elegantly in the icons of Tibetan Buddhism, but dating back dozens of millennia to man’s most primordial symbol making and as far forward as his most contemporary dream weaving.The circle in the square
Stripped bare of its elaborate ornamentation, the mandala essentially consists of three basic elements: a small circle, enclosed by a square, enclosed by a large circle. As I see it, these three simple shapes correspond ever so neatly with the three elementary components of every great story, namely every great myth that has endured the ages. In The Odyssey, the classic hero’s tale, we have departure, adventure and return. In the Riddle of the Sphinx we hear of childhood, manhood and old age. The Book of Genesis speaks of Paradise, Paradise lost and Paradise regained, or in the parlance of the New Testament, we have birth, death and rebirth. These are but four of the best known examples, from which we could extrapolate endlessly to draw parallels with every familiar storyline.
In other words, the simple geometry of a mandala acts as a metaphor for the simple structure of the myth, which is a metaphor in itself. So, let’s see if we can’t do a little metaphorical unpacking here to unravel the symbols of the human experience.Birth
Our story begins in the small circle. A one-sided shape with neither top nor bottom, the circle signifies wholeness, unity. This is the circle of bliss, in the ignorance of infancy, where the undeveloped and undifferentiated psyche draws no distinction between itself and the other. Then the child grows and enters the square, defined as having a top and a bottom, a left and a right, perfect pairs of opposites. As she encounters the unknown, the child must learn to classify things, to differentiate between good and bad, and to categorize the objects of her world into neat little boxes. The hero spends a lifetime navigating this terrain, which many mandalas aptly portray as an intricate maze, much like the labyrinth of the Minotaur.Death
The rigorous complexity of the square eventually takes its toll. The unity collapses, fracturing into all those pairs of opposites. In maturity, the mind requires order, logic, and categorization. We learn to identify things as good or bad, male or female, healthy or unhealthy. Everything must belong to one category or the other.
The individual longs for the simple unity it knew in the womb or in childhood. But there’s no going home again. To fulfill his destiny, he must advance to the next level, and this metaphor functions equally well for every stage of development and maturation. When the going gets rough, you can’t just move back in with your parents and resume the life of a happy child anymore than you can squeeze your toothpaste back into the tube.
And yet, how many unhappy adults do we know who try to pass themselves off as happy adolescents?Rebirth, Atonement, the Hero’s Return
Finally, the page rescues the princess; the martyr is reborn and crowned king; the Jedi knight reconciles the forces of darkness and light. The protagonist overcomes his challenge after grappling with the pairs of opposites, and he comes to terms with weak and strong, good and evil, right and wrong. The cycle is now completed in this state of enlightenment. He enters the higher circle and recognizes his oneness with an understanding he never had as a child. He has differentiated himself from the other, wrestled with the unknown, and now he embraces a unity vast enough to include all of it.
The terminology of archetypal psychology describes these three stages with marvelous clarity. The mandala diagram essentially illustrates what Carl Jung calls unconscious perfection (of childhood), conscious imperfection (of middle age), and conscious perfection (of old age). We may recall a passage of the Bible that puts it similarly. “Except ye become as a child, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Indeed, the ultimate destination is a circle, just as the starting point is a circle, but a circle at a whole other order of magnitude.Communion with the Universal Mind
It is vitally important, in the imagery of the mandala, that each shape is contained inside the other. Moving from one level to the next does not mean abandoning the previous stage, but requires the act of transcending and including. This is worth remembering through any and all stages of maturation, for the initiate will inevitably be tempted to reject his prior identity and cling to the “better” and more sophisticated self. But this is a mistake. The true sophisticate will retain all of it, understanding that even those inferior qualities contribute something valuable to the whole.
The large circle seems to represent the highest realm of consciousness, enlightened Buddhahood and oneness with the divine. For most of us then, the mandala provides a helpful roadmap for spiritual development, even as we realize we are unlikely to attain that state of total nirvana on any regular basis. It this case, it is useful to see the image as a metaphor for incremental improvements, as we climb upward step by step. So don’t get too comfortable when you reach the big circle; it is not the finish line, but merely the opening of the next mandala, in a cycle that repeats itself indefinitely, as we continue to step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown, always striving to include and transcend and grow as humans.Evolution of Consciousness
Finally, we can read the mandala as a metaphor for human development on a larger, historical scale. In antediluvian times, our as forefathers gathered around the fire, danced naked in the moonlight, and threw virgins off of the pyramids, they experienced a unity with god, or imitatio dei. Even in more recent history, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament spoke to God, through angels and shrubs.
Only in the last three or four centuries, thanks to the paradigm shattering discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc., whose discoveries literally moved the earth, mankind has been driven into a quagmire of spiritual uncertainty where God is dead. We have succeeded in naming the elements, categorizing the life forms, and dating the universe, but we have separated ourselves from Mother Earth and Father Sky.
We have learned to dominate our environment, but at what cost? The last century has seen a mad rush to return to the comfort of the small, infantile circle, in the form of religious fundamentalism, archaic astrology and backwards-looking wicca. Yet we know that this regression will get us nowhere, unless they can be directed at opening the larger circle of the One.Enter the Kingdom
In order to thrive and regain the state of blissful unity, we must move forward, we must take the next step up that spiraling staircase. Our faith in the forces of the market are no substitute for an immovable faith in the All Father, but this is where we have arrived. Adam Smith’s invisible hand cannot replace Neptune’s triton, but for many it has. To restore the lost paradise we must rediscover one another, we must reconnect with highest forms of human potential, we must abandon the false idolatry of materialism, and we must learn to see through the eyes of others as if they were our own.
If you enjoy these sorts of metaphysical speculations and interpretations, you’ll also like reading about the symbolism behind the Indian Ganesh, and the archetypal dimensions of Kermit the Frog. And you can always share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.
Some call him the elephant head, some call him the Remover of Obstacles. What is this fascination we have with the glorious Lord Ganesh, India’s mighty and most revered elephant deity? None can deny the charm of the thick-skinned behemoth, the largest animal to walk on land since the ice age, with its chunky tree trunk legs, its floppy ears and that ridiculous protrusion of a trunk. Legend of both the savannah and the big top, the elephant lends itself easily to fairy tales and folklore; but take a close look at the iconography of Ganesh and you’ve got a regular circus of mythological exegesis. (And if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll also want to take at look at our article on the meaning of the Mandala.)Lord Ganesh
Ganesh stands out unmistakably among any pantheon of gods, with his prepossessing elephant head, that of an animal widely associated with long life, strength and wisdom, not to mention a perspicacious memory. The symbolism is fairly explicit, and the disproportionate size of Ganesh’s head suggests wisdom in every way. But a further look at the elephant noggin reveals more: his massive ears and his small, hidden mouth. Indeed, what could be a more universal indication of wisdom than to listen better and speak less? Proverbs Eastern and Western all point to this noble disposition. And when the face of wisdom has a nose like a 6-foot garden hose, we are reminded that wisdom is unremarkable without the virtue of good sense of humor.Smile for me
Something about the face of an elephant, it never looks angry, never overly worried. And what good is wisdom, worldly or spiritual, without the ability to relax and laugh at your own shortcomings? Ganesh’s healthy, round belly reiterates this air of joviality. He is one who laughs often and enjoys life, not overly concerned with asceticism and self-abnegation, unlike many other religious teachers.A show of hands
Now, for some deeper layers of meaning, let’s have a look at Ganesh’s busy hands. The Indian deities are notorious for their many arms and hands, and hands are such an essential and defining characteristic of man as a species. (Consider the linguistic root of words like manual, from the latin manu, for hand.) This many-handedness, for me, signifies the super-human status of the gods. Not non-human, as western theology often suggests, dividing us from them (or from Him), but more than human, possessing our vital characteristics, only more so.
Representations of Ganesh typically show him with four or six hands, and although depictions can vary quite widely (with up to 20 or more hands), there are a number of standard accoutrements that the deity generally carries. Let’s take a closer look at each of those hands.One hand always holds something sweet and delicious, and it’s often difficult to see what it is exactly—maybe a mango—but it tends to be in one of the lower hands, held near the belly and the end of the trunk. Materially, this signifies, like his jolly belly, Ganesh’s ability to enjoy some of life’s sweet pleasures. But spiritually, and more significantly, it suggests the sweet rewards of mental discipline, the kinds achieved through meditation and devotional practice. This divine delicacy, something reminiscent of the Manna from Heaven, is frequently held just below the trunk, where Ganesh seems to savor its aroma. In the upper right hand, which we might reasonably consider to be the most important position, Ganesh is almost always wielding an axe. As with most images of destruction found in Indian mythology, this weapon is intended for chopping down evil and cutting it out of our lives. By evil, Ganesh really means to obliterate ignorance and illusion, the kinds of misunderstanding that lure us into cycles of suffering. Only by freeing ourselves from these fallacious paradigms, misconceptions about ourselves and the world around us, can we come close to finding enlightenment. The axe of Ganesh also serves to sever the bonds of attachment, the grasping and clinging. This attachment, to both objects and ideas, constrains us like chains, confining us to a narrow world view and preventing us from experiencing the world through clear, unfiltered eyes. Across from the axe, in his upper left hand, Ganesh usually holds a rope. An implement of attachment, the rope would appear to act as a kind of counterpoint to the axe, suggesting the need to strike a balance between opposites. The rope is commonly identified as a yoke for leading an animal, which offers some interesting interpretation. Some say that Ganesh has harnessed an animal which leads him to his destination, underscoring the need to follow our passions in pursuit of our goals, again counterbalancing the axe which severs our desires and attachments. But I also see the rope as a tool for taming the inner beast, channeling the restless, primal energy and putting it to constructive use, the way our ancestors did when they domesticated the ox. One more hand position worth mentioning, seen in the lower left hand of the Ganesh pictured above, is the open palm of protection. This virtually universal gesture of peace and providence can be found throughout the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon, as well as in the icons and images of western saints, including the Messiah himself. The protective hand reminds us of forces beyond our ken that guard our well being. Accepting imperfection
Another intriguing feature characteristic of many Ganesh masks and sculptures is the broken tusk, which can mean a few different things. One interpretation has to do with accepting the good with the bad, and not demanding perfection. The single broken tusk can also be thought of as the one flaw of an otherwise perfect figure. Consider Marilyn Monroe’s dainty mole, or more significantly, the limp or scar that often afflicts a mythic hero. There are also a couple of anecdotal explanations. One reports that Ganesh lost a tusk in combat with his father Shiva, and another explains that Ganesh broke the tusk off himself to use as writing tool in transcribing the epic Mahabharata as it was dictated to him by the sage Vyasa.Here comes the mouse
Various depictions of Ganesh include countless qualities and signifiers, but I’d like to finish by looking at one last element, his vehicle, the little mouse (or rat) typically seen scurrying around the god’s feet. The idea that the elephant uses a rodent as his vehicle strikes me as something like a zen koan, an irreconcilable riddle to be contemplated rather than solved. Like the the yin yang, and numerous other symbols and stories, this partnership leads us to consider the relationship between opposites, as we must learn to embrace light and dark, good and evil, great and small, together as one.
Furthermore, the mouse of legends and lore often acts a symbol for our thoughts: the squeaky, incessant sound from inside, that inner dialog that races back and forth across the floorboards of our mind. Try as we might, this inner soundtrack cannot be silenced. Likewise, the elephant may try and stomp out the pesky mouse, but his clumsy stumps are no match for a darting rodent. Yet, Lord Ganesh, with his superhuman cranium, has somehow managed to tame his thoughts, to quiet his mind, to control the seemingly uncontrollable. And that is the most divine feat of all. For thoughts are the forerunner of all things; our thoughts become our reality, so when we control our thoughts we control our world.Rodent reminders
For an even more sophisticated interpretation, consider the rat. The rat is a pest, and we are pestered by our conscience. Our conscience speaks to us from the other side, reminding us of our transgressions and helping us distinguish between right and wrong. A healthy, well-developed conscience can guide us in our actions and our choices, and this guidance is the vehicle on which an enlightened creature moves forward.
Take a good look at the elephant god. Smile at his flappy ears and laugh at his dangling trunk. But also meditate on his wisdom and his mental prowess. Invoke him for strength and courage. Follow his example, learn to overcome the illusions and accept the contradictions, and soon you will be removing obstacles on your own.
In the meantime, we’d love to hear about your special connections with the glorious Ganesh. Let us know in the comments section below.
Photo: Bronze statuette from the BAMBU BATU collection
In today’s post, we derive our inspiration from an often overlooked passage of the classic Muppet melody, “The Rainbow Connection,” a song that unquestionably and unapologetically takes up a dialog with the wisdom of the Other Side.
“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that I’m supposed to be”
-Kermit the Frog
Messages from the Deep
The role of frogs and toads in folklore and fairy tales is widespread and well-documented throughout the world. As a window into the collective unconscious, fairy tales serve as a kind of secular scripture, and it is no exaggeration to say that the frog takes a preeminent place in this light-hearted yet deep-seeking genre. The Brothers Grimm’s “Frog Prince” is among the best known stories in their comprehensive anthology, and one that has equivalents from dozens of other cultures across Europe and Asia where the motif is repeated and revised into countless variations.
One need not look hard to find the traits that give frogs a unique, if not magical, status among the animal kingdom. Their very life cycle is a wonder to behold, as they mature from aquatic tadpole into amphibious adult. Water itself is an elemental symbol loaded with meaning. As a source of life, water can mean the mother; as a taker of lives, it can equally denote death. It can be clear and cleansing or dark and murky, smooth and reflective or rough and choppy, but always deep and mysterious, like the cloudy depths of the subconscious.
In the variety of frog prince fairy tales, the creature’s capacity for transformation is explicit, but the frog’s greatest fascination comes from its dual nature, as much at home in the water as it is on land. It’s a rare being who has knowledge of both elements and can move effortlessly between the two. Archetypally speaking, this amphibious nature suggests a preternatural ability to move between realms of the conscious and the unconscious, or mythically speaking, between the land of the living and the land of the dead, heaven and earth.Mythic dimensions
Such characters are of chief importance in the mythological pantheon, generally referred to as tricksters or psychopomps, the best known in western culture being Hermes (or Mercury). In addition to his function as divine messenger, Hermes is known as a “guardian and guide,” and “bringer of good luck.” (Iliad) Besides stirring up mischief, deities of this sort serve as the connective tissue between the sacred and the mundane, holding the communicative key that unlocks the secrets of the spirit world.
The frog’s cyclical lifespan and amphibious lifestyle have also earned it a mercurial reputation in the Far East, where Taoist tradition associates these pond squatters with healing and immortality, and regards them as spirits recovered from the deep “well of truth.” (It is noteworthy that Hermes carries the staff of Caduceus, whose twin snakes have come to symbolize medicine, making the link between Greco-Roman trickster and Oriental toad even less remote.)
Certainly Kermit’s keen intuition and ardent empathy support the frog’s legendary distinction as intermediary to the stars. When he speaks of voices who call when you’re half asleep, he is recalling the language of dreams, the language our unconscious uses to address our waking mind. It is a language scarcely intelligible without the aid of a skilled amphibian to perform the translation. But a creature like Kermit has the rare ability to see through what ordinary beings would consider an opaque boundary, and to guide us across the barrier like Charon over the river Styx.
The text further invokes the voyage of Odysseus, whose crew of sailors are lured by the sweet song of Sirens, one more obstacle on his epic journey back to Ithica and his long lost Penelope. The sweet voices in the case of our text, however, are not a distracting temptation, but the true calling. So beware, Kermit warns us, listen closely and discern, for the truth can all too easily be mistaken for the distraction, and vice versa. Listen carefully to the inner voice, trust in your self, and you will know not to ignore it.Resonating rainbows
“And some day you’ll find it, the rainbow connection.” When the light of higher truth penetrates our temporal reality, the deep will suffuse the shallow, and a ray of light will spread out into every color of the rainbow. The imagery points now to Mount Ararat, where Noah has survived the flood and docks his trusty ark on the hilltop. After delivering the devastating, nearly apocalyptic deluge, God promises never again to enact such destruction, and seals his promise with a rainbow, to signify the “everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-16)
After showing the way as translator and spirit guide, the prophet Kermit also guarantees his words with a rainbow. Like the Noahic covenant of the Old Testament, the Rainbow Connection seals the pact between the earthly and the divine, the sacred and the profane. The voices have entered from another realm, and with highest thanks and praise to Kermit, we are blessed with “ears that hear and eyes that see.” (Proverbs 20:12)
If you enjoy this sort of archetypal exegesis, you’ll also want to read about the meanings of the Mandala, and the symbolism of the Indian Ganesh. And you can always share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.