Inspiring, contagious presentation: Kiran Bir Sethi teaches kids to take charge
Wisdom from the principles of Budō: Lessons for work & life

Be like the bamboo: 7 lessons from the Japanese forest

Bamboo_leaf The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo trees. In Japan, the symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and wide and offers practical lessons for life and for work. I summarized the lessons below with presentation and learning in mind, but as you read these seven lessons from bamboo, try think of practical implications for your own work.

(1) Bend but don't break. Be flexible yet firmly rooted
  Bamb007 One of the most impressive things about the bamboo in the forest is how they sway with even the slightest breeze. This gentle swaying movement with the wind is a symbol of humility. Their bodies are hard and firm and yet sway gently in the breeze while their trunks stay rooted firmly in the ground below. Their foundation is solid even though they move and sway 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.

(2) Remember: What looks weak is strong
Bambooi2The body of a single bamboo tree is not large by any means when compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. It may not look impressive at first sight at all. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are sometimes the only trees left standing in the aftermath of a typhoon. They may not reach the heights of the other trees, but they are strong and stand tall in extreme weather. Bamboo is not as fragile as it may appear, not by a long shot. 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 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.

(3) Be always ready
Bamboo_8Unlike other types of wood which take a good deal of processing and finishing, bamboo needs little of that. 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.

(4) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo_snow 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."

(5) Find wisdom in emptiness
Bamboo_empty 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.
(6) Commit to (continuous) growth
BambooiBamboo trees 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. Even though the bamboo that is outside my window grows quite rapidly, I do not notice its growth from day to day. We too, even when we are making progress, may not notice our own improvement. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we're moving forward. The bamboo grows fastest around the rainy season. You too may have "seasons" where growth accelerates, but is slower at other times. Yet with sustained effort, you are always growing. 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.

(7) Express usefulness through simplicity

Bamboo1 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.


Giovanni Lanzani

Great article Garr,

I really enjoyed this article (along with almost every other you wrote).



I liked this post. May we be like bamboo!

Jose Arriaga

Great post! We should all strive for creative and simple solutions for audiences and clients.

Thanks Garr

Mike Sporer

Real words of widsom, Garr. Perfect timing for me...just what I needed.


I was really impressed the article.

In Japanese, when we say your personality as 'split bamboo', that means you are openhearted and a straight talker - just like you found!

The notion of the bamboo's emptiness was very interesting. Maybe, that is the reason why bamboo is so flexible.

Thanks for the post!


Amazing analogy Garr ..Just perfect and highly inspirational.. Your posts about Focus, Zen garden & many many out of japanese culture are very inspiring !
A BIG Fan :)

Nora O'Neill

Thank you for such a beautiful refocusing on the deeper values of living well in a complex world.


Good article on presentations, life. It made me feel natuskashii as I lived in Nara a few years back.


while I understand your ideals in saying's, well, too idealistic based on simplistic philosophy.

reality is, steal and concrete trump bamboo by a long shot :) complex engineering beats it.

bamboo doesn't adapt, it splinters all too easily,

basically, like aikido, its completely useless for real pragmatic purposes beyond some simple forms in which it excels.

if you want to be a good startup, a good company, might be better to model yourself after an MMA fighter :)


Thanks for your input, Keith.

<< it's, well, too idealistic based on simplistic philosophy.

Mine was a simple observation and analogy. No attempts at philosophy here I am afraid, "simplistic" or otherwise.

<< reality is, steal and concrete trump bamboo by a long shot

Well, the point is not merely to think of all the things that can destroy bamboo, but to see what, if anything, it has to teach us by analogy -- but since you mentioned it. Even steel and concrete are no match for the elements (i.e., nature).

When the humans abandon their steel and concrete buildings, nature quickly takes over. See for example Battleship Island off Nagasaki or read the book The World Without Us. Steel and concrete have good utility, but they are ephemeral. Personally, I find inspiration and teachings in the nature around me. In the words of Kensho Furuya "Don't try to conquer Nature; try to learn from Nature. Nature is the great teacher."

<< like aikido, its completely useless for real pragmatic purposes

The lessons from nature are there for those who will see them. As for Aikido being "useless," I think you may be missing the point. The main point of martial arts training is not competition nor even mastery of technique. Isn't the real lesson of budo the mastery of self? The real lessons of the martial arts are very practical and extend far beyond the dojo. One of the real lessons is surely cultivating inner strength.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

Marco Caressa

Good article and interesting input. Elegance through semplicity.

I completely agree with you about learning from Nature and discovering analogies. Practically all we've learned comes from Nature (i.e. importance of feedback in control of dynamic systems, power of net structures as in living systems, etc.)

Thanks for your work

P.S. talking about complex engineering and material resistance, the material of a spider web is 4 resistant than steel and 3 times elastic than kevlar :-)


You are more ‘Japanese’ than ordinary Japanese people(including me).
You are like an egg. Outside is white, but inside is yellow.As a Japanese, I'm glad to see how deeply you love Japan.

Jude Rathburn

Hi Garr. Thanks for the wonderful post - I have also been attracted to the simple beauty of bamboo. Your analogy helped me to understand the many lessons that bamboo has to offer. Is it possible for you to post a PDF version of your post to make it easier to print and post on my inspiration board in my office? Thanks.


Hello Garr,

thanks for your inspiring post. I've been following your blog for a couple of years and I want to tell you that is wonderful.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

Olga from Barcelona, Spain


Good article.

Nikki Ty-Tomkins

A beautiful piece. I was searching for the quote " I am the hollow reed through which life flows" and was unable to locate the source. But instead I found this moving article which shares many other wise observations on bamboo.

Thank you, Shukriya and Mahalo. We can all learn from the bamboo forest no matter what culture we are born or adopted into.

Khalid Saeed

Very usefull, thanks.

Julie Howell

Keith, I believe what you said was very insulting to the person who wrote these quotes. If you are stuck in the rules of the world and don't have a spiritual or spiritual way of life or thoughts beyond your minds capabilities, I respect that. But, to come to a post about denying that nature or enlightenment in our ways of peacefully finding beauty in the ugly world, offends you, then maybe you should find another site. Or, look deeper into your soul and heart and chose to see the swaying, pretty, natural- un materialist, innocent Plant in an opposite fashion as sticking with the cement, technologies, scientific ways that are destroying nature.
Let the anger go and educate yourself before condemning it.
I say with all due respect.

Niitu D P Singh

Thanks Garr,

Very inspiring Article to keep oneself optimistic and serene.

Niitu DP Singh

R. Thomas-Bey

Thank you, Garr, for sharing. Peace.


Thanks Garr. Nice article

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