Oct 30, 2022
Martin Goodson

Bamboo on the Mountain | A story of patient endurance

Exercises in Mindfulness

Bamboo grass has something important to teach us about the natural flow of things.



In Zen, nature is a source of perennial wisdom. In fact, the appreciation and meditation upon nature is seen as an important practice for any Zen student.

When I lived in the temple, Saturday evening was the one day in the week when we could watch TV. As the programmes we watched were not usually broadcast at that time we had an extensive video library to choose from instead. The largest section was made up of natural history and nature programmes. This choice was deliberate. In the same way as  the Buddha taught the oneness of nature, we could see that the many forms which life inhabits share  many characteristics and experiences.  Therefore we can learn from how others cope with shared difficulties.

In the history of Zen, painting, poetry and calligraphy were used to convey this common wisdom which is to be found through the contemplation of nature. We could say that the wisdom of the Buddha nature shows itself through myriad forms and that this wisdom can be realised through meditation and reflection.

Master Daiyu once said that high in the Chinese mountains there are forests of tall bamboo. In winter the temperature drops below zero and the snow falls. The snow falls are quiet and persistent. The slim leaves of the tall bamboo catch the sticky clumps of snowflakes. Unlike the evergreen trees, the bamboo is flexible and as the weight of the snow on the bamboo increases the bamboo bends down and eventually lies horizontal on the icy ground. Snow piles on snow until the bamboo is hidden from sight by several feet of snow. From above there is no sign of it.

Master Daiyu went on to say that here it waits for the spring thaw. Perhaps for five or six months it waits patiently under the snow, offering no resistance to the power of the season, since it knows in its heart that just as all things are subject to change so too winter will depart.

 When the thaw comes, the snow melts and water runs away and the newly-revealed bamboo stretches up, once more skyward, to bathe in the life-giving properties of the sun’s light.

Trevor Leggett commenting on a similar theme said that there is a ‘Dharma of going’ and a ‘Dharma of staying’. When it is time to stay then it is important not to try to go and when it is time to go it is important not to stay.

The patient endurance of the bamboo is for those times when circumstances do not permit for my plans, and we can  learn to recognise that such a time is upon us and to rest. This can be very difficult for ‘me’ to do as it does not coincide with my wishes in the moment, and yet, what is to be gained raging against the ‘dying of the light’? What if we were to use our energies to endure patiently what cannot be changed, since it is not yet its time for passing ? We do this in the knowledge that even as we endure, time passes, the wheel turns, and at some point this too will pass.

When on retreat (sesshin), the many hours of sitting meditation (Zazen), teach such patience  and the importance of conserving energy for endurance rather than  frittering it away in wishing the circumstances could be other than they are. After all, we have all chosen to be there in the first place! The most difficult part of a long sitting is coming towards the end, when ‘I’ know that there is not long to go until the end; it is difficult to contain the yearning for the end and just this thought has an amazing power to ramp up the painful experience, taking a supreme effort  truly to endure it to the end.

In such circumstances, become the bamboo, lying down, not resisting. As the old psychological law has it: that which ‘I’ push away, I give power over myself. So, instead, bow into the endurance, open up to it with that great ‘Yes’ in the same way as the winter bamboo does, lying quietly high on the mountainside.

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