From the beginning of the humankind, symbols have been used very often. They convey a message that is universal in meaning. They represent abstract concepts or ideologies of a particular society and to properly understand them, you must depend on your knowledge of that culture. They make their statement in a special way that invites individual interpretation without a lengthy written explanation. Symbols play an important part in Chinese life and reveal a great deal about how the Chinese related to the cosmos and all of nature around them.
“The leaves break the bandage of the green stem, stretch themselves and form a green pool with untidy edges. Now the flower comes from out of the vast surface of the water, just like a very beautiful woman coming gracefully from her bath.”
Old Chinese Poem
Chinese have always loved lotus (lian-hua) flower paintings. These flowers are thought of as being like a gentleperson, who keeps themselves clean, alive and healthy in a dirty environment. Essentially the Chinese lotus flower represents creative power and purity amid adverse surroundings. It is also a symbol of the seventh month, summer. Chinese poets also use lotus flowers to inspire people to continue striving through difficulties and to show their best part to the outside world, no matter how bad the circumstances may be. This is understood as being just like the lotus flower, bringing beauty and light from the murky darkness at the bottom of the pond.
Another symbolic characteristic of the Chinese lotus flower leads from the observation that the plant’s stalk is easy to bend in two, but is very hard to break because of its many strong sinuous fibers. Poets use this to represent a close unbreakable relationship between two lovers or the members within a family, showing that no matter how far away they might live nothing can really separate them in heart.
In Buddhism the lotus flower symbolizes faithfulness. The golden lotus that is mentioned in Buddhist sutras has two meanings; one is the symbol for the achievement of enlightenment and the other points towards a real flower which is beyond our normal perception. It is also symbolizes the complete purification of the defilements of the body, speech and mind, and the full blossoming of wholesome deeds in blissful liberation.
In Mahayana tradition Lotus flower characterizes regeneration, perfection, youthful bloom and immortality. It is a sacred flower in Buddhism. The closed lotus represents potential. Depending on the number of petals, the lotus meaning changes, shaped by the symbolism of the number. With eight petals it means cosmic harmony. In Chan Buddhism tradition, the fruit of the lotus, the flower and the stalk symbolize the past, the present and the future. The blue lotus blossom (qing) stands for cleanliness and modesty.
The significance of Lotus flower in Buddhist Culture is quite remarkable and it needs a thorough intensive study to reveal the hidden meaning of this symbolism. The natural characteristics of Lotus flower reflect upon the interpretation of the similes and metaphorical statements in the Buddhist teachings.
The flower is beautiful in colour and fragrant in smell. It is always clean and pure and usually grows in the cool and clean water. Although it comes out mud and water it is not spoiled by the soil nor it is soaked with water. It blooms above the surface of the water so elegantly that it beautifies the entire pool. The blossom floats above the water dancing up and down, in accordance with the changing current.
The Buddhist cosmology reveals Lotus to be the first flower bloomed in the beginning of this cosmic world. Five holy lotus flowers appear for the first time in this “Bhadda Kappa” aeon prophesying the Enlightenment of five Buddhas in this very human world. And this is the most unique event for Buddhism.
“Of all the flowers, [the Buddha] selected the lotus blossom to symbolize the Lotus Sutra. There is a reason for this…. The benefit of all the other sutras is uncertain, because they teach that one must first make good causes and only then can one become a Buddha at some later time. With regard to the Lotus Sutra, when one’s hand takes it up, that hand immediately attains Buddha hood, and when one’s mouth chants it, that mouth is itself a Buddha…”
[The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1099]
By Shaolin Master Shi Yan Zhuo