On a quiet Saturday afternoon in December, my wife, Eva, and I visited Chung Tian Temple in Priestdale, Queensland, Australia. Coincidentally, we met Meng, one of the volunteers at the Temple, whom I had wanted to see, but didn’t expect to run into. She greeted us warmly and then asked: “Have you seen the lotus pond?” We had no idea there even was a lotus pond. What followed turned our visit into an unforgettable experience. On her way to a meeting, Meng introduced us to a gardener, John McVitty, who then led us to a large pond filled with pink lotus flowers swaying in the warm early summer breeze! Surrounding the pond are gently sloping hillsides of Australian eucalyptus bush. The peacefulness and serenity of the location are still etched on our minds. This fantastic setting was only minutes from where we parked our car!
For a moment, Eva and I silently admired the wonder of so many lotus flowers dancing in the sunlight before us. Then, strolling around the pond, I began to reflect on the special significance of the lotus flower in Buddhist perception. (However, the lotus is also seen as a sacred flower by Hindus and ancient Egyptians.)
Stages of Growth
Our efforts in spirituality can be compared to a lotus flower. Rooted in mud at the bottom of a pond, the plant’s leaves and flower buds grow through the water to the surface. Finally, beautiful flowers rise above the water.
Similarly, in their own time, by grace (a process we cannot fully understand, but whereby an individual receives a precious human rebirth), a person will start emerging from the muck of worldly passions and aversions. Ultimately in their life, there will be a beautiful flower of spirituality, signifying full enlightenment and self-awareness.
When opened and visible in full bloom, clean and fragrant, the exquisite lotus flower may be compared with the full expression of the Buddha-mind. By contrast, a closed lotus bud could represent the time not long before a person’s enlightenment.
Interestingly, while the lotus stem and beautiful flower rise above the water, its roots remain in the mud. This mud, nourishing the roots, can represent our disordered and chaotic human lives. All humans are born into a world filled with suffering. However, this suffering becomes an essential part of the human experience – eventually, it strengthens us and teaches us to resist the temptations of evil. Through our human experiences and suffering, we learn to break free from the causes of suffering and bloom in the beauty of love and compassion for ourselves and others.
In other words, the mud teaches us who we are, and we realize the need to choose the heedful path over the heedless one. Our aspiration becomes: “May we exist in muddy water with purity, like a lotus” (a Zen verse). As we free our minds of evil thoughts and deep-rooted mental defilements, we begin to break free of the muddy waters of worldly pursuits and become at one with the Buddha.
The lotus flower pictures rebirth, both figuratively and literally. In a figurative sense, rebirth can be a change of ideas, an acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings, the dawn after a black period in one’s life, a renaissance of beliefs, or the ability to more fully acknowledge one’s own past wrongs. In a literal sense, the lotus flower in Buddhism represents rebirth into a new realm of existence.
Faith and Purification
For us to rise above the worldly mud and blossom requires faith, and so a lotus flower can also represent sound belief, assurance, and conviction. Moreover, a lotus refers to faithfulness – those seeking to rise above the muddy waters need to remain faithful spiritual practitioners. Finally, another meaning of the lotus is purification – it represents the purifying of the spirit which was born into murkiness.
The Lotus Flower and the Buddha
At one time, the historical Buddha was asked if he was a god. In his reply, he used the symbol of the lotus:
“Just like a red, blue, or white lotus – born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water – stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I – born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world – live unsmeared by the world.” (Dona Sutta, Pali Tipitika, Anguttara Nikaya 4.36, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation)
Using the image of a lotus flower, a poem by Udayin shows how an awakened person can live in the world of sensory experience without attachment, craving, and clinging – all of which inevitably bring about suffering.
“As the flower of a lotus,
Arisen in water, blossoms,
Pure-scented and pleasing the mind,
Yet is not drenched by the water,
In the same way, born in the world,
The Buddha abides in the world;
And like the lotus by water,
He does not get drenched by the world.”
(Pali Tipitika, the Theragatha, a poem by the elder Udayin [Thag 15.2 PTS: Thag 700-701] Andrew Olendzki translation)
Colours of the Lotus Flower
The various colours of the lotus flower also convey particular meanings. A blue lotus is usually linked with the perfection of wisdom – it symbolizes the victory of the spirit over the senses, and is the symbol of intelligence, wisdom, and knowledge. A golden lotus pictures the realized enlightenment of all Buddhas. A pink lotus represents the Buddha, and the history and succession of Buddhas – it is the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity. A red lotus can be linked with the heart and our pure nature – in other words, it represents the original nature of the heart, and is the lotus of love, compassion, and all the qualities of the heart. Finally, the white lotus represents a mind purified of all poisons that has reached spiritual perfection (or, total mental purity).
Walking away from the lotus pond filled with swaying flowers, we were reminded that like a lotus flower that grows out of the mud, and then blossoms above the water surface, we too can rise above our defilements and sufferings of life and one day experience full enlightenment forever. May we emulate the Buddha: As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world.
© Copyright 2013 by Alex and Eva Peck