Bamboo and the Broken Lotus
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 18, 2014


My mother once told me the story of a workshop she participated in that had a deep sharing component. She found herself in a small group about halfway through the event in which she and the other participants talked about personal hurdles and difficulties they had experienced in their lives. Difficulties they had experienced and overcome, that was the focus of the conversation. And when it was her turn to share she spoke of a series of major events, losses and tragedies and personal challenges, that all came within the space of a handful of years. She called that time in her life “the crucible years.” They were defining years for her.

A short time later someone reflected back to her that while they had known her for a long time they had not known about those difficulties which my mother had shared. “I always thought you really had it all together,” the person said with a small smile. My mother responded saying “Often the people who seem to have it all together are the ones who have had to put it all back together.”

Back in the fall of 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped in a collapsed mine. Chili had experienced a major earthquake and resulting tsunami earlier that spring. The Chilean people were already weary from loss and tragedy. The mine in question had a history of safety violations and fatal accidents. But the people of Chili poured out their empathy for the situation all the same.

The government stepped in and drilled several exploratory bore holes down into the mine. These were nine-inch wide holes through the 700 meters of rock to reach the caverns. 17 days after the initial cave in they received a response, a piece of paper tied onto the drill saying the men were all alive and well and awaiting rescue. They had been living off limited reserves from one of the mine’s emergency shelters.

The bore holes were big enough to transport food, water, messages, and other basic supplies. It took the rescuers 52 more days to dig the men out. These 33 men hold the record for surviving the longest underground in a collapsed mine (69 days – over three months); and they all made it out. One key aspect to their survival is a commitment each man made to help the whole group survive. They worked together to keep each other alive.

“Come out of the dark earth” May Sarton calls to us from the opening words we heard this morning (SLT #428) “Here where the minerals glow in their stone cells deeper than seed or birth.” Whether figuratively (as the way you or my mother might use to describe a painful time in the past) or literally (as in the example of the Chilean miners) come out of the dark earth, “Come into the pure air… Love, touch us everywhere with primeval candor.” Come rise up from the tragedy, the difficulty, the loss. Come, love touches us; arise.

Stephanie Kallos is a novelist and one of her books entitled Broken for You is about the suffering and loss and brokenness we can experience in life, and it is also about a way through it. At one point she writes:

We speak of ‘senseless tragedies,’ but really: Is there any other kind? Mothers and wives disappear without a trace. Children are killed. Madmen ravage the world, leaving wounds immeasurably deep, and endlessly mourned… But we never stop looking, not even after those we love become a part of the unreachable horizon. We can never stop carrying the heavy weight of love on this pilgrimage; we can only transfigure what we carry.

Whether we speak of tragedies large or small, personal or global, a few things hold true for it all. The suffering and the loss can break us, likely will. It breaks us because we care – and that is in no way a bad thing. The cost of compassion and love is heavy and we will carry it with us everywhere we go. We can never be relieved of our losses, we carry them always. As Kallos writes, “we can only transfigure what we carry.” And that is the secret of resilience.

Poet Jane Hirshields offers us this:

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
Returns over and over to the same shape
But the sinuous tenacity of a tree:
Finding the light newly blocked on one side,
It turns to another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose
Turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs –
All this resinous, unretractable earth.

Nature’s refulgence is forever offering examples of resilience for our living. Today I notice, with almost an eastern eye, the lessons offered by both the lotus and the bamboo. Call to mind the tragedies, the losses, the catastrophes and atrocities that plague your heart. Call to mind things personal or global, recent or in the long past. And hold those heartbreaks as we consider the lessons offered by nature. Let us test this notion that we too can be resilient as a tree, as a turtle, or as the unretractable earth.

Bamboo is not a tree. It is actually a grass. It is a fast growing grass. It is reported to be able to grow more than 3 feet in length in a 24 hour period. Another remarkable thing about bamboo is its strength. It is said that the tensile strength of bamboo rivals that of steel! In South America bamboo is referred to as vegetable steel. Bamboo can also tolerate extreme conditions that most plants cannot. It was actually the first plant to re-green after the atomic blast in Hiroshima in 1945. Bamboo is a persistent, tenacious, resilient plant.

You bow and bend with the angry wind
But you do not break, you stand your ground
Until the wind gets tired, weaken, and departs
Though scarred and shaken, still you remain erect
Many of your delicate leaves may have fallen
But your spirit is undiminished
(from Bamboo by Haley Allan)

What if, in the most troubling times of our life, you could imagine your refuge and security to not be found in stability but in the freedom to bend and sway? What if your image of strength was not a rock but a bending reed?

This weekend I watched the film 5 Broken Cameras. It was part of our monthly Social Justice Film series here at the church. This month’s film was co-hosted by Peace Action and Veterans for Peace from out in the community. The film is a documentary about the Palestinian experience of the Jewish settlements and the wall Israel has built. The beauty, the elegance of the film is its depiction of the Palestinian town’s commitment to non-violence and peaceful demonstration. The Palestinians try to be like the bamboo: strong but not rigid, determined but gentle, yielding yet resolute. It is not simple. Anger and violence are ready responses to injustice and loss and suffering. But to be like bamboo is to be resilient even in the face of “an angry wind,” a violent storm.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. called it Soul Force: that strength of non-violence wedded to direct action and resistance. In nature is looks like the tenacious resilience of bamboo. In political and social change is looks like a non-violent movement. In your personal life it might be called an experience of rebirth or ‘a crucible,’ or the long dark night of the soul when you learn the true mettle of your spirit.

Have you ever felt swept under by the storm? When the storms of life blow over you, can you bow and bend like a bamboo rather than hunker down to hide? “To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” Bamboo is a natural example of how to hold fast with conviction and commitment, to ever remain in place through the strongest of winds. We can be as tenacious and resilient as the bamboo reed.

Resilience is our capacity to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of unforeseen changes, even catastrophic incidents. The lotus flower is also a symbol of resiliency. It is universally seen as a symbol of beauty and peace as well as spiritual purity.

Many people easily recognize the lotus flower as an important religious symbol for Buddhism. One legend is that lotus bloomed wherever the Buddha walked. The lotus is important for Hinduism as well, though for slightly different reasons (as I am sure you could figure out if you know the historical connection between those two traditions.) But did you know that the early Egyptians also saw the lotus flower as a symbol of the sacred. As a symbol of the sun, it had a connection to creation and rebirth. The symbolism comes from the flower’s daily behavior: at nightfall it closes and goes beneath the water and at dawn it climbs up above the water and reopens.

The lotus flower is an aquatic perennial. Sometimes mistaken for the water-lily, the lotus has a distinctively different structure. It also only comes in pink hues or white, whereas the lily comes in many different colors. So to add to the sense of symbolism, the lotus not only emerges each morning from the water, it rises pure white or with pink hues from the depths of what is often muddy water.

In a swamp a lotus reigns …
Lives in muddy waters yet untainted

How’s that for a symbol of a difficult life? You’re sitting in the muck and yet you bloom with a radiance that is not merely surviving – you are a shining icon of beauty and peace. This isn’t a story about a poor kid from the projects who gets a break and makes the big time. It is something that every kid in the projects can tap into because it is not limited to being noticed by a talent scout or being lucky with the whims of culture and fame. A closer analogy would be the story of a kid growing up in a toxic household and becoming a firefighter who saves lives or a teacher who makes a difference or a loving father despite a complete lack of training or modeling.

The lotus flower is a symbol of awakening to the spiritual reality for people who have had tough times in their life and are finally coming out of it. A lotus seed is one of those seeds people talk about being able to germinate even after a long period of time. One type of lotus seed managed to develop into a plant after 1300 years of dormancy. Why not your spirit? Why not the Middle East? Why not a blossom of peace and spiritual maturity from the slow sludge of materialistic culture around us that fosters greed and ignorance, isolation and irrelevance?

Each night the lotus sinks down under the water. Each morning it arises fresh to bask in the clean air. The context of your living will determine your life; but sometimes your spirit will reverse that. Sometimes suddenly even the swamp is transformed to a flowerbed of beauty because your spirit arose there.

We will never not be from where we have come from. We will never be relieved of the baggage of our past: our mistakes, our past tragedies and our losses. But we also will never not have been the ones who loved and cared and tried. “We can never stop carrying the heavy weight of love on this pilgrimage;” Stephanie Kallos writes, “we can only transfigure what we carry.” And that is the secret of resilience.

One aspect I see in resilient people is the capacity to live outside the box, to live within what might seem impossible or absurd – but it only seems to be impossible or absurd. Resilient people like the lotus flower can rise with the sun clean and pure, thriving amid the mud and murkiness of life. Resilient people like the bamboo reed can withstand the storm and wind not by their strength of resistance but by their flexible strength to bend and stay grounded.

This is what I mean by living outside the box. Strength usually looks like unyielding solidity and resistance. Murkiness and mud are not usually thought of as the location from which crisp beauty arises.

But the lost miners survived by sticking together, lost beneath the earth they stayed lost … together …until help arrived like a ray of hope cutting through half a mile of rock. The Soul Force Gandhi called forth from the people of India, the stone of hope King helped hew from the mountain of despair, the plea for peace from both sides of the new Israeli wall – all of these are signs of how it works. The crucible my mother walked through of loss after loss after heartbreak after loss after devastation led her into a ‘strength of spirit’ heretofore unknown to her.

Like bamboo bending in the wind or a lotus rising from the murky depths into the light of day – we can learn of our own resilience. We can bend but not break; we can dwell in difficulty but not be tainted. We all can rise. It is in our nature to rise and bring peace and lend our gentle strength to the universal commitment of love.

In a world without end,
may it be so