Worship the Lotus

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Worship the Lotus

Nelumbo, sole member of botanical species Nelumbonaceae, consists of only two kinds. The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera is the Indian or Oriental lotus. Native to southern Asia, it is found at altitudes of up to 1,600 metres.  Found from southeastern North America to northern South America, the American lotus Nelumbo lutea has pale yellow scented blossoms smaller than those of the sacred lotus:

It’s a perennial plant growing from a thick rhizome. Its rounded leaves can reach up to 50 cm. in diameter. The first leaves that appear, few in number, are flat and float on the surface. They are followed by thicker, funnel-shaped leaves with slightly wavy edges that may stand from 50 cm to 2 meters above the water. The leaves are coated with a film, upon which water forms magnificent, glittering droplets. The flower stalk rises above the leaves, ending in large, sweet-smelling, white or pink blooms which appear one at a time. Each flower lasts from 2 to 5 days and darkens with age. Ranging in diameter from 15 to 25 cm, lotus flowers are termed single when they have fewer than 25 petals, semi-double if they have 25 to 50 petals, and double if they have more. After blooming, the petals fall, leaving a cone-shaped seed head that resembles the rose of a watering can. Each of its 15 to 20 openings contains a fruit. — Montreal Botanical Garden.

It is interesting that the number of round scars on the rhizome indicates the age of the plant in years.

The Blue Lotus

The “lotus” depicted in the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt and found scattered upon the corpse of Tutankhamen when the tomb was opened in 1922 is also known as the ‘lily of the Nile’, and it is not a true lotus, but a blue water lily Nymphaea caerulea. It is rumoured to contain apomorphine a drug that is said to have psychoactive properties. It is this flower which lent its name to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s (fl. 1850) poem, Song of the Lotos-eaters in which it symbolizes that which urges us to seek new experiences. The poem refers to an episode in The Odyssey of Homer.

The common water lily (Nymphaeae) of North America, usually white in colour and bearing a distinctive scent, resembles the larger lotus but belongs to a different species. Its split disc leaves or pads tend to lie on the surface of calm ponds and lakes

Iconographic Types:

Buddhist iconography distinguishes among the white, the pink and the blue lotus. The blue ones are shown as double flowers with curly petals, somewhat resembling the Chinese peony.

Lotuses white, pink or blue represent human beings of 3 varying types since they either stand on the surface, slightly above, or up and out of the water. Because they emerge from slime and corruption, then grow up through the purifying water to emerge into the sunlight, they are thought to parallel a person’s progress towards enlightenment. That is, they stand for renunciation of the entanglements of samsara and for the pure aspiration that is the desire for enlightenment for the sake of others.

Two other flowers are prominent in Tibetan painted scrolls [tangkas], the utpala or nilopala which may appear in the form of a multi-bloomed flower like the anemone, and the ashok which is the rose. The nomenclature is somewhat confusing since the flowers held by the Taras [see below] and the one supporting the book in the iconography of Manjushri is often referred to as utpala which usually denotes the blue lotus.

Other Plants in Buddhist Iconography:

The so-called naga (serpent or water spirit) tree is depicted in a way that recalls a succulent such as the ‘pencil plant’, jade plant or the aloe.

The Medicine Buddha, Sangye Menla [Bhaisajyaguru], is usually depicted holding a sprig of the arura or myrobalan plant, believed to be a panacea [cure-all] in the Ayurvedic (Indian traditional medical college) tradition.

Visit ‘All About the Eclipse’ for the tale of how Vajrapani tried to murder Rahu and created medicinal plants as a consequence of his actions.

Deities associated with the lotus:

The origin of the association with divinity seems to originate in ancient Egypt. The lotus seat is that of Horus, associated with the silence of divinity, depicted in the corolla of the flower with his fingers pressed to his lips.

Osiris, culture hero and god of the underworld is depicted crowned with lotus buds. Isis is sometimes portrayed emerging from a lotus as a sign of resurrection. Lotus buds are therefore, associated with funerary rites, and held in the hands of mummified bodies. They are depicted, presumably to commemorate a time of mourning, tied to the pillars of shrines and homes. The lotus emblem was also used as a frequent architectural motif especially as the capital decoration of columns.

The lotus is also identified with Nefertem, a sun god of Heliopolis who was believed to spring up each morning from a lotus flower. He bears a lotus sceptre surrounded by plumes.

Hapi, son of Horus, is considered the father of all creatures. He is depicted as a mummified man with a baboon’s head and the breasts of a woman. He may hold both a lotus, symbol of Upper [southern] Egypt, and a papyrus plant [Lower Egypt] to signify the union of the two lands.

Classical [Greek and Roman] Mythology:

The Roman poet Ovid, from whom we get much of our ideas of Greek mythology, tells in his Metamorphoses that there was once a nymph in Oecalia or Arcadia called Lotis. She was a daughter of Poseidon who passed out, along with many other party-goers, after drinking wine.

Priapus, the deity who proudly displays his enormous genitals, tried to creep up on her, but a donkey alerted her with its bray, and she managed to flee. She metamorphosed into the lotus flower when it seemed he would finally gain on her.

Dryope was another unfortunate nymph. She was raped by Apollo in disguise. [Did you think Apollo was the god of reason, healing and the arts?] The god then returned in his true form, seduced her, and she eventually gave birth to a child called Amphissus.

While at a spring one day with her sister, Iole, and her baby in her arms, she plucked some blossoms from a lotus tree to make a garland. The tree was really Lotis, the poor nymph, and from where the flowers had been taken, blood flowed.

Lotis, angry and in pain, changed Dryope into a poplar tree.

Since lotuses do not grow on trees, one wonders to which flower these myths refer!

Indian mythology:

In ancient Egyptian cosmogony, the lotus represents the newly-formed earth, just as it does in India. In Indian mythology, the lotus emerges from primeval slime to bloom and provide the foundation of the physical world which takes form through the agency of Vishnu, also known as Narayan, the Creator. As he reclines in the coils of the cosmic serpent Ananta, on the surface of the deep, a lotus stem emerges from his navel which blossoms into the flower that is the created earth-as-we-know-it.

This lotus becomes the foundation of the goddess Lakshmi (Laxmi cf. the English word luxury) called Shri, but also Padma or Kamala (Sanskrit: lotus) who is the consort of Lord Vishnu. She is the bearer of prosperity and success, spiritual as well as material, and is depicted sitting or standing, holding lotuses in opposing hands. She is depicted having only two, or as many as eight, upper limbs.

In the Hindu saint Markandeya’s version of the cosmogony, it is four-faced Brahma who is seated in this lotus. It is his day and night which are the kalpas, the eons of time. Each kalpa is divided into a series of yugas usually translated ‘ages’. We are currently thought to be in a yuga that precedes the dissolution of the universe, the Kali yuga.

Surya, the sun god, is depicted with a lotus in each hand. Indeed lotuses, and flowers in general, symbolize the sun because of its form with rays or petals around the yellow centre.

Saraswati, Hindu goddess of learning and music, usually shown on a swan holding her lute or sarangi, often has a lotus as her cushion. She is venerated in Tibetan Buddhism*, too, as the consort of Manjushri, bodhisattva and emanation of Vairocana, considered the solar buddha of the five primal or adi-buddhas. (These five used to be referred to as dhyani or contemplative-wisdom buddhas which is not an accurate way of regarding them.)

Each represents a form of buddha-activity in the multiverse; one family is called the lotus or padma family of buddhas. (The others are activity (karma), enlightened (buddha), jewel (ratna), adamantine (dorje), ethereal or space.) Each type is associated with a traditional Asian element as well as a skandha or component of phenomenal reality.

Laxmi, bearing lotuses, appears in Tibetan Buddhism as Kurukula, goddess of love and wealth.

Janguli, with 3 faces and 6 arms, is another Buddhist deity associated with this flower; she is the protector against poisoning and snakebite. Besides the lotus, she has a white snake and a peacock with her.

The best-known figure in Tibetan Buddhism associated with the lotus flower is of course, Chenrezi, whose name in Sanskrit is Avalokiteshvara, but whose epithet is Padmapani; that is, Lotus-bearer. The well-known mantra, Om mani padme hum is used to evoke his presence: It calls on the one known as Jewel-in-the-lotus. Each syllable stands for one of the six realms of existence; note that these syllables pad-me (lotus) represent the animal and the spirit realms.

Tara the Saviour (Green Tara) is shown to be so eager to help in any situation that she is depicted not only on a lotus seat, but with her right foot on a small lotus cushion, as if she were in the process of standing up.

White Tara is often shown holding a spray of three lotuses in varied stages of bloom. They may be interpreted as past, present and future, or as the various stages of progress towards the goal of enlightenment.

In the description of the Pure Land of Amitabha, beings are reborn in lotus buds that open after a certain time measured in ages, depending on the individual’s karma.

Symbolic of Divine Manifestation:

Legend has it that the divine white elephant that, in her dream entered the side of Maya, Shakyamuni Buddha’s mother, was holding a spray of lotuses.

Immediately after Buddha Shakyamuni’s birth, he stood and walked seven steps and lotuses sprang from his footprints. Indeed, in the years immediately following his death, he was symbolically depicted as a pair of footprints within a lotus-petalled wheel.

The legend of Guru Rinpoche tells how he manifested in this world, in the Tibetan borderlands, as an 8-year old boy sitting in the calyx of a great lotus. It is for this reason he is called Padmasambhava.

Thus the stylized lotus seat of buddhas and bodhisattvas, as they are depicted in Tibetan painted scrolls or tangkas, and in other ritual art, is an indicator of their dharmakaya origins. It shows that the figure is not being presented as a person, but as a timeless manifestation. The style and colour of the petals of this lotus corresponds to and hence, reveals certain characteristics of, the being depicted in it.

Wrathful deities are supported by petals that are flame-like in appearance. Notice the jagged form of the lotus of the intimidating dakini.

In tangka images, there is also a certain correspondence of style with time and place, as in any other form of artistic expression. For example, the Nyingma teacher on the January 2000 page of the Tibetan Art Calendar published by Wisdom, is supported by petals of a distinctly 18th century rococo appearance.

The Lotus In Yoga

The chakras (wheels) or energy vortices of the body are depicted as various lotuses. Their petals range in number from two to a thousand, like the one at the crown of the head.

The number of these chakras varies according to the tantric/yogic system; five are referred to in Tibetan Buddhism but there are said to be seven in the Hindu* version. On a torma, a ritual offering cake, we often see represented only two wheels.

The seated meditation posture [asana] in which the legs are crossed and locked is called padm’asana.

The Lotus Sutra

The image of a lotus also acts as a metonymy [figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole: the Crown ruled that … ] of buddha-dharma.

This came to fruition in 6th century China and later in Japan. In the Tendai sect of Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra (saddharmapundarika: The Lotus of the True Law) written about the first century of the contemporary era ) is thought to encapsulate all the teachings of the Buddha so that no other is necessary.

Here, the Lotus stands for the essence of Buddhism. The Sokka Gakai movement of contemporary Japan is centred on this teaching, partly for that reason. Recitation of Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, the mantra associated with the Lotus Sutra, is alone considered a complete form of Buddhist practice by followers of Nichiren (13th century Japanese teacher)..

The lotus is one of the 8 glorious or auspicious emblems [Pa Hsi-hsiang] to the Chinese.

*There is a somewhat similar relation in the pairs Judaism/Christianity and Hinduism/Buddhism in that the newer belief system is seen to be a completion or fulfillment of the old…