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Lotus — showing the way to enlightenment

by Amy Chavez

We all know that the lotus flower is a symbol of Buddhism, but is that all there is to it?

The lotus flower is not your average flower — it is a power flower! It is bigger than life, bigger than you and me. But you too can grasp the essence of the lotus.

The lotus flower is revered in Japan for its ability to rise from the dirty, murky waters to bloom into a beautiful pure flower. This process symbolizes attaining enlightenment. The idea is that we can rise above human suffering in the same way as the lotus by moving from the lowest to the highest state of consciousness. If I ever do manage it, I only hope I’ll look as good.

Like all flowers, beauty is fleeting so even the lotus flower must die. This shows the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Unless of course you reach nirvana, in which the cycle ends as you reach a state sans suffering. Although the lotus flower is a symbol of enlightenment, I wonder if it ever reaches nirvana. I also wonder what kind of suffering the lotus bloom endures.

Kanrensetsu is lotus flower viewing which can be done in special lotus flower viewing boats in ponds or lakes, or by partaking in lotus viewing parties. In Okayama Prefecture where I live, Korakuen Park opens at 4 a.m. on the first Sunday of July for the annual lotus flower viewing. Paparazzi lotus photographers can come into the park before sunrise to catch the lotus pond come to life at the crack of day. So many flowers achieve enlightenment at the same time, it is said you can hear the blooms as they “crack” open.

There are at least two kinds of lotus flowers in the pond, the ittenshikai (which means “universe” lotus? whoa!) and the oga lotus. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with these names; there are over 800 different names of lotus flowers. If you don’t arrive early enough to catch the flowers as they attain enlightenment, you can still observe the already opened blossoms. You are even encouraged to have tea with them.

Lotus blossoms appear symbolically all over Japan too. The sacred mountain of Mount Koya, 800 meters above sea level, lies in a basin surrounded by eight peaks, giving it the appearance of a blooming lotus flower.

The Buddha and bodhisattvas are often pictured sitting on lotus flowers, which shows that some lotus flowers double as chairs. Very comfortable ones, I would imagine. This could be the key to sitting long periods of time in a meditative position. Forget the mats, bring in the real stuff! Other bodhisattvas are pictured merely holding the lotus flowers, so I guess we can extend our hands to them in friendship too.

The “lotus position,” by the way, is so called because you look like a lotus blossom when you sit that way. See? You’re closer to enlightenment than you thought. On the other hand, no one says what you look like if you can’t manage to sit in the lotus position.

You’ll also find the lotus symbol representing the womb of the world in the Womb World Mandala of Shingon Buddhism. I bet you didn’t know the world had a womb, did you? Leave it to the lotus, bigger than life.

One thing is for sure though: The lotus root gets down and dirty. In fact, the roots themselves can grow up to 1.2 meters long. Renkon, or “lotus root” (which is really the rhizome), is an integral part of Japanese cooking. As a seasonal food, it is eaten in the autumn and winter, and is served at New Year’s as an auspicious food.

The fact that renkon has holes in it makes it a very stylish vegetable on the plate. I put it up in the category of other cool things with holes in them such as doughnuts, Swiss cheese and ¥5 coins. Personally, I think the holes in renkon make them look like sliced wagon wheels. They’d make great vegetable go-carts. Edible ones. Is anyone else getting hungry? Try renkon raw in salads or fried as tempura.

You can also eat the leaves and the seeds of the lotus flower. The lotus fragrance is used in oils, lotions and soaps.

As if that isn’t enough, the bigger than life lotus even has the most famous sutra named after it. The Lotus Sutra is Buddha’s most notable teaching on “emptiness” as a necessary step to enlightenment. Perhaps that is why the lotus root has holes in it — to show its empty roots.

What is the lotus flower to the Japanese then? Whether the real thing or just a symbol, the lotus flower is an 800-named, edible, smellable, sittable, photographic, super power flower womb of the world showing the way to enlightenment.