A Gift of Lotus Flowers

In the Theravadin tradition of Buddhism, there is a tale told of a reception to welcome Buddha Dipankara (the one who preceded Shakyamuni) to the great city of Ramavati. The citizens were at work cleaning, decorating and repairing the road in preparation for the great event when, traveling through space, the ascetic Sumedha saw them and wondered what was going on. He descended to earth and questioned them. They explained the reasons for their labours saying that it was in order that the Buddha and his disciples would enjoy their visit more since they would be able to travel along more comfortably.

Sumedha was delighted at this, reflecting: “It’s hard to [even get to] hear the word Buddha and indeed, it is far harder to become a Buddha.” He asked them to give him a chance to work on a stretch of road.

Although he could easily have done road repairs by means of his magical powers, he used his own physical labour in the knowledge that he would earn more merit that way.

Before he had finished his portion of road however, along came Buddha Dipankara with his disciples. To prevent the feet of the Buddha and his disciples from getting all muddy, he prostrated himself to form a human bridge.

Now, in among the welcoming crowd was a young woman named Sumita who was holding a bouquet of eight lotus flowers. As soon as she saw the ascetic, she was so delighted at his actions that she gave five of the lotuses to him which left her with only three. The ascetic then offered the flowers to the Buddha while still lying in the muddy road.

Solar Symbolism

Surya, the Indian sun god, is depicted with a lotus in each hand. An open lotus looks like the sun. Indeed lotuses, and flowers in general, symbolize the sun because of its ring of rays like petals around the intensely yellow centre. The lotus of Egypt is really a water lily, as we have seen, and it tends to close when the sun goes down. When the sun rises, the lotuses open their petals as if emitting radiation — regaining consciousness, as it were.

The origin of the association with divinity seems to originate in ancient Egypt. The prototype of the lotus seat is that of Horus, who is associated with the silence of divinity, and is depicted sitting 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 shown in depictions to commemorate a time of mourning, as it is known that they used to be tied to the pillars of shrines and homes when someone died. The lotus emblem was also used as a frequent architectural motif especially as the capital [top] decoration of columns.

The lotus is identified also 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.

In the ancient Egyptian cosmogony, the lotus also represents the newly-formed earth, just as it does in India where the lotus emerges from primeval slime to bloom and provide the foundation of the physical world. In one Hindu version, creation occurs 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 later becomes the foundation of the goddess Lakshmi (Laxmi cf. the English word luxury) called Shri, but also Padma or Kamala (Sanskrit for 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.

Laxmi [Lakshmi] bearing lotuses appears in Tibetan Buddhism as Kurukula, Red Tara, the deity of love and wealth.

Rebirth

Sita, Lord Rama’s spouse, in a former life was Kusha, the daughter of a forest-dweller. The men of many realms contested for her hand in marriage, and one of them killed her father. As the mother died of grief, the girl was left alone and eventually she acquired many siddhis or powers through her yogic practices.

One day, the demon, Ravana, seized her by the hair intending to kidnap her. She transformed her arm into a sword and cut off her hair to escape. Then she built a pyre and tried to immolate herself. However, a giant lotus bloomed from the flames which opened to reveal Sita, instantly reborn.

In the Hindu Puranas and in 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.

Saraswati, Hindu goddess of learning and music, usually shown on a swan holding her lute or veena, often has a lotus as her cushion. She is venerated in Tibetan Buddhism*, too, as the consort of Manjushri, bodhisattva an 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 multi-verse. One family is called the lotus or padma family of buddhas. (The others are activity (karma), enlightened, Tathagata or Buddha family, jewel (ratna) family, adamantine (vajra) family, and ethereal or space.) Each type is associated with an Asian traditional element as well as a skandha or component of phenomenal reality.

Sign 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-petaled 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 depicted in Tibetan painted scrolls or tangkas, and in other ritual art, is an indicator of the deity’s dharmakaya origin. It shows that the figure is not being presented as a person, but as a timeless manifestation emerging from ultimate Reality.

The style and colour of the petals of this lotus corresponds to and hence, reveals, certain characteristics of the being depicted in it. Besides, tradition decrees that the passionate energy of the activity of a bodhisattva correlates with the degree of elaboration in the petals of the lotus seat (David and Janice Jackson. Tibetan Thangka Painting. Snow Lion, rev. ed. 1988.) For example, wrathful deities are supported by lotus petals that are flame-like in appearance. Notice the jagged form of the lotus of the intimidating dakini.

There seems a certain correspondence with style in the manner of depiction of thangka elements as in any other pictorial form. For example, the 18th-century Nyingma teacher Bumkye Japa appears in an East Tibetan painting (January page of Tibetan Art Calendar 2000 published by Wisdom) supported by lotus petals of a distinctly 18th-century European rococo appearance.

Lotus of Compassion

Hindu deity, Bhairava, the wrathful form of Shiva as a sadhu, is accompanied by dogs, animals as outcaste as he once was.

This god who embodies the non-dual view is the prototype for many Tibetan Buddhist tantric deities. It is said that not only did he once murder a brahmin, but his victim’s skull remained stuck to his hand. Some hold that this was none other than Lord Brahma himself, whose top-most or 5th head it was that Shiva removed. It may have been that multi-headed god’s vain boasting that “drove” Lord Shiva to commit this most heinous of all crimes; it may have been the penalty for Brahma’s desire for his own daughter. In any case, that is the reason given for the depiction, forever afterwards, of Brahma having only 4 heads.

At Varanasi, where the waters of the Ganges washed away his sin, the horrible relic finally came unstuck. The lotus here symbolizes the possibility of purification, or did an auspicious meeting with the Compassionate One take place there?

~ early 19th-century Kangra image from Blurton’s Hindu Art. 1993.

The best-known figure in Tibetan Buddhism associated with the lotus flower is the bodhisattva, Chenrezi, whose name in Sanskrit is Avalokiteshvara, but whose epithet is Padmapani or, Lotus-bearer. The well-known mantra, Om mani padme hum is used to invoke 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 the two syllables of pad-me (lotus) represent the animal and the spirit realms.

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

Tara the Saviour (Green Tara) is shown as 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. She holds the blue lotus — one bud and one bloom, usually.

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.

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

In 1980-81, the Bahai’is built their sole Indian temple in the form of a giant lotus with 45 petals.

Classical Mythology

Herakles [Latin: Hercules] stole the goblet of the sun-god and used it as a vessel so that he could sail across the ocean. It is said that Helios’ cup was in appearance, a water-lily or lotus.

The Roman poet Ovid, from whom we get much of our idea 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. Then 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,” described as a tree with red blossoms, when it seemed he would finally gain on her.

Dryope was another unfortunate nymph — she was raped by Apollo in reptilian guise. [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, then changed Dryope into a poplar tree.

The Lotis in these classical myths is possibly a kind of weeping willow tree which has long, slender drooping branches that sometimes trail right into a nearby stream. Springtime brings the “pussy willows” resembling the strings of tear drops that are the flow from the eyes of the nymph, Lotis. Poplars are also found in a moist environment.

Side Notes

Who were the “Lotus Eaters” of early Africa?

lotus side noteThe a fabulous people who occupied the north coast of Africa and lived on the lotus, which brought forgetfulness and happy indolence. They appear in the Odyssey. When Odysseus landed among them, some of his men ate the food. They forgot their friends and home and had to be dragged back to the ships. “The Lotus-Eaters” by Tennyson has become a classic of English poetry.

Keywords and Further Lotus Reading

  • egyptian blue lotus
  • persian white lotus
  • growing nymphaea
  • nymphaea alba
  • buy blue lily
  • sacred lotus
  • blue lotus resin
  • dried lotus flowers
  • narcotic lily of the nile