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Contemplating the Lotus

Lotus-post-4COLUMN: In Everyday Life
by Mark Rasmuson, Vietnam

I am surrounded by lotus flowers. They are everywhere in Vietnam.

Every pagoda has statues and paintings of the Buddha or other deities seated or standing on a lotus and usually a small pond where the flowers are growing. The lotus is a crop cultivated in large ponds to harvest the seeds that are used for tea. It is the logo of the national airline. The design of Saigon’s newest and biggest skyscraper was inspired by a pointed lotus bud with a first petal opening out of it, though the Vietnam Lonely Planet guide irreverently but rightly describes it as looking more like a “huge CD rack with a tambourine shoved into it.” (The petal/tambourine is a helicopter pad on the side of the building.)

I look around my apartment. There is a silk wall hanging on my wall from Hoi An — a tall graceful embroidered lotus with leaves, buds, blossoms, seed pods — gift from my daughter Chloe. On my table, a lotus-shaped candle lamp. And, most unique, in a tall blue and white vase on the floor, an entire bouquet of long-stemmed pink and white lotus flowers made out of stiff, crinkled paper, a traditional craft from Hue. In my kitchen I have and sometimes drink lotus seed tea (the box says it has a “calming effect”).

Lotus-post-1I did a little googling on the lotus. Ever read Homer? The Odyssey? Then you may remember Ulysses in his years of wandering encountered the isle of the lotus-eaters, whose inhabitants were addicted to the fruit of the lotus which, like opium, induced a sleep of “peaceful apathy”. He had to tear his men away, back to the ships, lest they fall prey and miss more challenging encounters with the Sirens and the Cyclops. According to Wikipedia, this could have been the blue lotus (nymphaea caerulea) found in Egypt that has effects described as from “mildly sedating” to those of a “psychedelic aphrodisiac”. The flower is frequently depicted in Egyptian stone carvings and paintings in connection with “party scenes”, dancing, or significant spiritual/magical rites such as the rite of passage into the afterlife. More likely, however, Homer’s lotus-eaters partook of the ziziphus lotus, a relative of the jujube tree that bears fruit like a date.

In Asia, it is the white and pink lotus (nymphaea lotus) that holds sway and has long been held sacred in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential mahayana buddhist sutras. It presents the doctrine of compassion, the presence of buddha nature in all life, and the attainment of enlightenment as a possibility for all beings.

The lotus is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s eight auspicious symbols. One of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism is Padmasambhava, who brought buddhism from India to Tibet in the 8th century and whose name literally means lotus born. He was said to have appeared as an 8-year old child floating in a lotus on a lake in what is now the Swat Valley in Pakistan. My son Elliot and I trekked to a famous cave shrine in Tibet where Padmasambhava spent years in meditation.

Lotus-post-2-139x200Several weeks ago, I looked down on the river below my apartment and saw seven enormous pink lotus blossoms floating there. Constructed from silk and bamboo, the size of small islands, and beautifully illuminated at night, they were part of Danang’s celebration of Vesak — commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. The legend is that lotuses sprung up from the first seven steps taken by the baby Buddha.

The flower is the subject of Vietnamese folk songs and poems. Here is one that points out its essential symbolism:

No other species in the lake can rival lotuses / Green leaves, white blossoms, and yellow pistils / Never tarnished by the neighboring dirty mud.

Mark_Bodhisattva2-200x150The lotus signifies mental and spiritual growth and purity. It is rooted in the muck at the bottom of the pond and sends its delicate bloom to flower on the water’s surface. Just so, beauty can emerge from ugliness. The mind can progress (in the words of one internet sage) from “the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment.” A suffering human being can transcend the causes of suffering and achieve peace.

You’d have to ask her, but I think my daughter Chloe had something like this in mind when she had a lotus tattooed on her side a few years ago after a rough patch in her life. From adversity, a flowering.

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1 response to “ Contemplating the Lotus ”
  1. Sala Sweet
    Aug 18, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you, A beautiful and peaceful lesson.


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