Essentially, the lotus is a symbol of purity but it is rich in other associations. This is only the first of two pages about the lotus. To go to the second, click Lotus2.
The World Lotus
To the ancient Egyptians, a lotus bud or sesen was a symbol of rebirth. It closes in the evening and falls to the water, but in the morning it opens and is lifted above the surface. Its behaviour emulates that of the sun. Because of this rising and setting, it is also a symbol of death and rebirth. According to one creation myth, a giant lotus emerged from the watery chaos at the beginning of time. Out of its centre, the sun itself rose on the first morning. However, this plant is not likely a true lotus but rather a waterlily. (Mythology does not generally have such distinctions.)
According to the prevalent creation myth of India, there emanated out of the primeval waters due to the mind-activity of the Supreme Being, a thousand-petaled golden Lotus. It is presided over by the god Brahma whose four (or at the very beginning of Time, five) faces oversee its quarters.
This Lotus (Sanskrit padma, pundarika) whose petals are each marked with the square symbol of the earth element is the earth-as-goddess, source of the essence of Life which is thought of as Moisture. The sacred mountains Meru [a.k.a. Sumeru,] Himalaya, Kailash and the Vindhya rise from that Earth-Lotus.
This is the location of the continent of which India is a part. The filaments rising from the pericarp, the central organ that resembles the pierced sprinkling cap on the tip of a watering can, are the lesser mountains of the world filled with precious metals and other riches. The various other nations and peoples of the world reside on the outer petals of the Lotus where, on the underside of those petals dwell rakshas or demonic beings, and also the nagas, serpentine beings.
Tibetan Buddhists have inherited this world view, and the symbolic mandala that is offered to the Three Jewels is a representation of this Lotus.
Buddhist iconography distinguishes among the white, the pink and the blue lotus. The blue ones are depicted as double flowers with curly petals, and resemble a Chinese peony. There are red ones, too.
Lotuses white, pink or blue can represent human beings of 3 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 seen as metaphors for the development of the individual being towards enlightenment. That is, the flower stands for renunciation of the entanglements of samsara, and for the pure aspiration that is the desire for enlightenment for the sake of others.
About the Flower
Nelumbo, sole member of botanical species Nelumbonaceae, consists of only two kinds, Asian and American.
Found from south eastern North America to northern South America, the American lotus Nelumbo lutea has pale yellow scented blossoms smaller than those of the sacred lotus.
India has no yellow lotus today, although there are textual references to a "golden lotus," such as the one in which Guru Padmasambhava appeared. It should be noted that in the usage of ancient language, the word "golden" is also be used to mean "shining," like sunlight reflecting from crystal.
The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera is the Indian or Oriental lotus. It is usually pink or white in colour. In texts, when it is reddish, it is referred to in Sanskrit as kokanada rakta-kamala. When it is white, it is called pundarika. The rare blue lotus is termed pushkara or indivara.
Native to southern Asia, it is found at altitudes of up to 1,600 metres. The flower often reaches the size of a cabbage, with leaves the size of dinner plates.
". . . 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 metres 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."
It is interesting that the number of round scars on the rhizome [large, root-like structure] corresponds to the age of the plant in years.
Almost Entirely Edible
Available either fresh or canned, the tubers of N. nucifera can be sliced longitudinally and served as refreshing vegetable that tastes somewhat like a sweet potato. They can also be sliced across to reveal the lacy structural pattern, and can be baked and then dipped in confectioner's sugar like candied yams.
The seeds are edible, but need to be peeled and any bitter sprouts removed. During Chinese New Year festivities, sugared lotus seeds are available as sweets. Also, according to one tradition, the wife who finds such a seed inside a dumpling she is eating can be certain of bearing a son in the year to come.
Like fiddlehead ferns, the young leaves of Asian lotus can be collected before they unfurl, and steamed like spinach or watercress. In China, where seeds have been found that date to 7,000 years BP [before the present,] the lotus is associated with longevity, and all parts of it are supposed to have medicinal properties. Freshly cut long lotus stalks are filled with wine by pouring it through a little hole in the centre of the leaf and letting gravity draw it down to extract the lotus' beneficial qualities.
To purchase editor Kaz Tanahashi & photographer Alan Baillie's magnificent book, Lotus.
The Blue Lotus
Pictured at left is the blue star water lily that is often referred to as a lotus. It is the national flower of Sri Lanka, Nymphaea stellata. This may be what is meant by the Sanskrit designation, utpala.
The Lotus In Yoga
In hatha yoga, the seated posture (Skt. asana) in which the legs are crossed and locked with the heels on opposing thighs is called "lotus pose" or padm'asana. (In Tibetan Buddhism, the same pose is called the vajra posture.)
The chakras (wheels) or energy vortices of the body are depicted as various lotuses. There are over 80 thousand chakras according to one tradition, and 108 according to another. Only the main, spinal ones are popularly depicted.
The number of the central chakras varies according to the particular tantric/yogic
system. Five are usually mentioned in Vajrayana Buddhism, but there are
seven or, rarely, eight shown in the Hindu version. On
a Tibetan Buddhist
torma, a ritual offering cake, we usually see represented only two
The Lotus Chakras
In the practice of Kundalini, where the ordinary objective is to stimulate and align one's vital energy, the 7 stages are conceived as the blooming or unfolding of lotuses. The meditation proceeds to the extraordinary objective, which is extinction of the time-connected self (Skt. nirvikalpa samadhi,) or alternately (depending on one's view,) the union of the self with the divine.
Each chakra is associated with one of the 5 elements (earth, water, fire, air, space) plus "mind" or consciousness, and supreme bliss or "enlightenment.")
The process goes through:
Muladhara chakra: the base of the body, associated with the earth, when activated the 4-petalled crimson [orange-red] lotus blooms;
Svadhisthana: near the genital area, associated with water, when activated a 6-petalled vermilion [bluish-red] lotus blooms;
Manipur: in the lower abdomen, associated with fire, a 10-petalled blue-black lotus;
Suddha: near the heart, associated with air, a 12-petalled red lotus;
Visuddha: base of the throat, associated with the sky, a 16-petalled purple lotus;
Ajna: the "third eye" between the brows, associated with consciousness, a 2-petalled white lotus;
The crown lotus: at the top of the head, a 1,000-petalled rainbow lotus like a canopy or a fountain.
The Lotus in Buddhist Scripture
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the bodhisattva Manjushri addressing the Buddha, says, "Noble sir, one who stays in the fixed determination of the vision of the Uncreated is not capable of conceiving the spirit of unexcelled perfect enlightenment. However, one who lives among created things, in the mines of passions, without seeing any truth, is indeed capable of conceiving the spirit of unexcelled perfect enlightenment.
[For] Noble sir, flowers like the blue lotus, the red lotus, the white lotus, the water lily, and the moon lily do not grow on the dry ground in the wilderness, but do grow in the swamps and mud banks.
Just so, the Buddha-qualities do not grow in living beings certainly destined for the uncreated but do grow in those living beings who are like swamps and mud banks of passions. Likewise, as seeds do not grow in the sky but do grow in the earth, so the Buddha-qualities do not grow in those determined for the Absolute but do grow in those who conceive the spirit of enlightenment, after having produced a Sumeru-like mountain of egoistic views.
Noble sir, through these considerations one can understand that all passions constitute the family of the Tathagatas. For example, noble sir, without going out into the great ocean, it is impossible to find precious, priceless pearls. Likewise, without going into the ocean of passions, it is impossible to obtain the Mind of Omniscience."
Manjushri is presenting the view that being born into samsara is necessary for the cultivation of the bodhisattva aspiration. Also, the experience of existence is essential for realising Buddha-nature, and this is superior to the way of a saint or yogi who strives always to dwell in samadhi (meditative bliss.)
The Lotus Sutra
The image of a lotus blossom (Skt. pundarika, Chin. Lien-hua, Jp. Renge) also acts as a metonymy of Buddha-dharma.
This came to fruition in 6th-century China and later in Japan.
In Mahayana Buddhism, The Lotus Sutra, which was composed 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. Recitation of Om Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, the Japanese mantra associated with the Lotus Sutra, is alone considered a complete form of Buddhist practice by followers of Nichiren (13th-century Japanese master.)
Although The Lotus Sutra (Skt. Saddharma Pundarika) is especially venerated in Japan, elsewhere it is also highly respected as a legitimate Mahayana scripture. Some of the oldest Sanskrit manuscripts of it are found among the Newars of Nepal, and it does appear in the Tibetan canon. The sutric basis for the practice of Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezi) is in chapter 24, and for Medicine Buddha, chapter 22, according to Robert Bunger (via Kagyu email list at Yahoo.)
The Mark of a Lotus
The lotus is one of the 8 glorious or auspicious emblems not only to Tibetans, but also to the Chinese where they are called pa hsi-hsiang.
At Loughcrew, in Co. Meath, Ireland, is a site known as in "The Witch's Sleeve," (ie, tunnel.) Cairn T is one of the roofed burial/ceremonial sites dating from more than 7,000 years ago, and it includes superb engravings of spirals, circles and other figures usually interpreted as solar symbols. These figures in the vertical rock surface are of a familiar continuous-line eight-lobed figure inside a circle with a dot at the very centre. There are a few with more than 8 "petals" but the majority do not much differ from the simplest depictions of the lotus.
The Lotus Foot
The "lotus" depicted in 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." It is not a true lotus, but a blue water lily Nymphaea caerulea. It contains apomorphine, a drug with 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 that blue flower symbolizes whatever urges us to seek new experiences. The
poem refers to the episode in The Odyssey of Homer in which Odysseus'
gets sidetracked on his way home from the Trojan war.
There is a somewhat similar relation in the pairs Judaism/Christianity and Hinduism/Buddhism in that the newer belief system (rightly or not) can be viewed as a completion or fulfillment of the old.
metonymy: This is a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole, eg. the Crown ruled that all subjects must pay taxes.