When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed — let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come — let this be my parting word.
Ignore the ducks! It’s not the ducks: Concentrate on the dying lotus plants.
Below is a print by Kiyochika (清親 1847-1915) from 1879. While it may look strange to most aficionados of Japanese prints to me it is a masterpiece. Clearly Kiyochika was thinking outside of the box – way outside. The genius of this print is its break from traditional Japanese linear print. Sure, there had been ‘line-less’ prints from earlier artists like Utamaro, but nothing that looked anything like this one. Perhaps Kiyochika was trying to approximate certain European painting or printing styles. His signature and the title were printed over the area near the ducks’ feet amd not in the ubiquitous cartouches found previously.
Since we all work in ignorance I am never embarrassed to admit to my own. When I mentioned this project on the lotus to an over-the-top intellect I know in San Francisco he made sure that I knew that the lotus I was talking about is the Nelumbo nucifera. I said I did, but I didn’t really. Don’t know why I do that kind of thing, but I do. Anyway, his brain helps me get to the core of things a lot faster than I normally would. A walking-talking reference book. An all-purpose encyclopedia. Everyone should have one. (Another) anyway, that is why I am posting the image of the Australian stamp below to help make this point clear. However, before we move on I want to mention one more thing: Many of the references to the Buddhist lotus speak of it as having only eight petals. This one sure looks like it has more than that. Perhaps it is a hybrid? This is an issue to be resolved later. Maybe I will need to call San Franciso again for clarification. If I do you will be among the first to know.
Ignore the Lotus! It’s not the Lotus! I am not talking about cars here. It is the plant which counts. By the way, does anyone out there know how the Lotus automobile got its name? I need something definitive here. Below is a Lotus posted by BrokenSphere at wikimedia.org.
Heed the science! It is just super – superhydrophobic, that is: On March 16, 2009 I read a report in the science section of the BBC which shook me to my art-historical core. It explained why the lotus leaf remains so pristine. Why water (and dirt) roll off it in a self-cleansing manner. It explains scientifically what had remained unknowable to the ancient Hindus and Buddhists. All they could see was the constant beauty and purity of the lotus which rises out of the muck and mire. Metaphorically and spiritually it formed a core belief which is as important to these two groups as the belief in a single god is to the monotheistic religions. As metaphor it showed that no matter how sordid and sullied one’s temporal existence was each soul could still be reborn into a perfectly paradisical world.
The image below was posted at wikimedia.org by Willa. The one below that with the bead of water resting on the leaf is by Migas and was posted at the same place. There have been recent scientific discoveries regarding the lotus, but more about that later.
Now with the invention of the scanning electron microscope we know why and how the lotus leaf stays so clean. The surface of the leaf is covered with miniscule waxy protrusions which form a regular pattern. Water does not and will not stick to it and an added benefit is that when it rolls off it takes dirt and detritus with it. Not only that it offers a great breakthrough for applications to come. Scientists and dreamers now believe we will have self-cleaning windows, cars which never have to be washed, buildings which will never get dirty and so much more. All that any surface will need is a coating of something superhydrophobic. In an article in “Chemical Science” from September, 2007 – this shows how far behind the times I am – it says: “The extent to which a liquid can wet a solid surface depends on the properties of the liquid and the surface itself. The wettability of a flat surface can be expressed in terms of the contact angle – the angle at which the liquid meets the surface. Surfaces that have a water contact angle of greater than 90° are considered to be hydrophobic. Surfaces with a water contact angle greater than 150° are known as superhydrophobic.” There you go. The lotus leaf has a contact angle greater than 150° and hence nothing will stick. It couldn’t be simpler.
There is a poem by Shōtetsu (正徹 1381-1459) which seems particularly appropriate for the images in this section:
May the pond-mirror
Be polished until its surface
Is without a cloud:
Here, see the quicksilver –
Dew drops on the lotus leaves!
The above translation is by Edward A. Cranston from Harvard. Below is a detail from a print by Koson (古邨 1877-1945).
Contemplate Vishnu’s navel! Below is an image posted at Wikimedia by DoktorMax showing Vishnu asleep with a lotus plant sprouting from his navel. Seated on the lotus is Brahma, the Creator – only one of several creators, but a significant one. Vishnu’s dream forms a major part of the theosophical underpinnings of Hinduism and the lotus plant plays a similar role for Buddhism and other ancient, disparate belief systems.
In a rather odd book from 1960, Secrets of the Cuna Earthmother: A Comparative Study of Ancient Religions, the author Clyde E. Keeler states that “The lotus stem is the umbilical cord and the blossom is the foetal membranes.” If I had read this in isolation I would have probably been somewhat dismissive, but considering the number of places around the world where gods were born upon the flowering lotus perhaps Keeler was onto something. However, when he states that it is curious that Sir James Frazer seemed to miss the identification of The Tree of Life with the umbilical cord it raises more doubts than it dispels – even if it does conjure up a rather clever image.
Keeler added: “The identification of the lotus as the foetal membranes is the ‘secret of the lotus’ in India and the symbology of the ‘lotus of the eternal life’ in Egypt. The picture of the birth of Brahma makes this identification certain for India.”
Here is an interesting take on Brahma from an 1892 publication: “Brahma, who is the creator-god, the universal soul which existed before anything was made. According to the legends… he was born of a golden egg laid upon the breast of the waters of chaos by the ‘Being who existed of himself;’ or, he emerged from a lotus which sprung from the navel of Vishnu, or floated upon the ocean of creation, lying upon the five headed serpent… Once born he created the gods, and after that, the earth, the sun, the heavens, etc. [¶] He began in himself a daughter, Sarasvati, ‘The Word,’ and by his incest with her he gave birth to human kind.” See our post on Benzaiten for more information about Sarasvatī.
Even the Egyptians: Gerald Massey wrote in 1907 that “The Egyptians commemorated the birthday of the world – that is, of the… beginning of time, as the day Horus rose up on the lotus…” There is a photo – seen below – taken by Daniel Mayer and posted on wikimedia.org of a lotus – genus Nymphaea – growing in a pond at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Horus would have appeared from such a beauty.
And there were still others including the Lotophagi: Naturally the Jains, like the Hindus, adopted the lotus as well. The sacred, golden temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar is crowned with a dome which is an inverted, oversized lotus. Below are two photos of the Golden Temple which are both posted at wikimedia.org. The first is by Koshy Koshy and the second one of the dome lit up at night is by Giridhar Appaji Nag Y.
Much is made in Buddhism and elsewhere of the golden lotus. Like the gilded rooftop of the Sikh temple and the glorious, radiant lotus thrones of innumerable buddhas and bodhisattvas the lotus plant itself has its golden period. Perhaps the image below by Shoson will best illustrate that.
The Lotophagi are a whole other world of study. They are to the West – to some degree – what the lotus, as known through the filter of Hinduism and Buddhism, is to the East and I would be remiss not to touch on them to some degree. Among the many Greeks who wrote about the Lotophagi or ‘lotus eaters’ who lived on the north coast of Africa was Herodotus (／ヘロドトス – 5th c. B.C.) who said that these people “…subsist on the fruit of the lotus…” Several centuries before that Homer (ホメロス) talked about them in the Odyssey. After landing in the land of the Lotophagi Odysseus sent three men to find out what kind of people lived there. They encountered these natives who invited these Greeks to join them in a meal. Remember all that the locals ate was the fruit of the lotus plant. In Allen Mandelbaum’s modern traslation of this classic it says:
Those three who feasted on the honey-sweet,
enticing lotus fruit had not the least
desire to bring back word or soon return
at all: they wanted only to stay there,
to feed upon that food and disremeber
their homeward path. I had to force them back,
in tears, to their own ships; there, they were dragged
beneath the rowing benches and bound fast.
This is the crux of the issue in the West. Anyone who eats of the lotus never wants to go home again. For them there is no such word as ‘homesickness’.
Lake Sukhāvatī – Women need not apply: In the Western Paradise, the Land of Bliss, the Pure Land souls are reborn encapsulated within lotus buds. They stay there for some interminable length of time while they get rid of their self-doubts. After the bud opens they exist on the lotus for an eon or so until they move up to the next level. At the center of this idyllic world created out of the karmic merit of the Amitābha Buddha. As I recall there are nine of them and after that nirvāna. At least that is how it was told to me. The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen gives a good description of the place:
“Sukhāvatī… is flooded by radiance which is emanated from Amitābha. The land is filled with the most exquisite fragrances; it is blossoming, rich and fruitful. Wondrous flowers and trees of jewels grow there. There are no hells, no beasts, no corpses, no [demons] Through the countryside flows rivers of sweet-smelling waters with bouquets of flowers afloat on them. The rushing of these waters is music.
Those who, by strength of their faith, are reborn in Sukhāvatī awaken in a lotus flower. All their wishes are fulfilled. There is no sadness, misfortune, pain, or any other unpleasantness. In this buddha-field all beings cleave to the truth of the teaching until their final entry into nirvāna. Their supreme happiness is hearing the teaching proclaimed by Amitābha, who lives in the center of the land and is accompanied by Avalokiteshvara and Mahāsthāmaprātra. In Sukhāvatī the pleasures of love are absent, since no one is reborn there as a woman.”
The Six-Syllable Mantra – Om mani padme hum: There is a Tibetan book from the 14th century translated as The Clear Mirror. The forward is by the current Dalai Lama. This book gives a full description of this mantra and its powers. It states that Amitābha placed his hand on the head of Avalokiteshvara and explained everything needed to know. Reciting or hearing it at the appropriate time almost assures rebirth in a higher realm. Recitation plus the vision of the sublime body of the bodhisattva “…completely pacify the mischievous thoughts entertained by all demons, ogres, evil fiends, flesh-eating pishachi-spirits and other creatures who steal the radiance of life, as well as those who cause death.” The same formula of vision and hearing can subdue of tigers, leopards, bears and other such creatures. For humans the sublime sight and the hearing of the mantra can heal the wicked, blind, deaf, diseased and homeless forever. Om mani padme hum “…is the quintessence of all of the buddhas’ thoughts…” “If an animal, even an ant or worm, hears this mantra beside its ear at the time of death, once it is liberated from its body, it will be born in Sukhavati…” Just thinking of it will reverse the effects of bad karma and bring about rebirth in the Western Paradise. Wearing the mantra will protect a person against four hundred and four diseases, or the harm of fire, water, poison, weapons or demons. A single recitation greater than all of the drops of water in the ocean or the weight of the greatest mountain.
Syllable by syllable the world’s woes fall away: “…Om alleviates the suffering of birth and death among the gods. Ma assuages the pain of warfare of conflict among the demigods. Ni eases the miseries of birth, aging, disease and death in the realm of humans. Pad dispels the suffering of servitude experienced by animals. Me frees hungry ghosts from the torments of hunger and thirst. Hum eases the agonies of heat and cold among the denizens of hellish realms.” Amitābha then explains that “Om is the perfection of generosity… Ma is the perfection of patience… Ni is the perfection of moral conduct… Pad is the perfection of meditation… Me is the perfection of diligence… Hum is the perfection of wisdom…” There is much more to the mantra, but this post is about the lotus and I will leave off here.
In Japan the recitation Namu Amida Butsu (南無阿弥陀仏), “All praise the Lord Amida”, ‘a simplified salvific formula,’ could also secure an eventual place in the Western Paradise.
The flower beneath their feet: Buddhas, bodhisattvas and reborn souls are commonly shown seated or standing on a lotus flower. The image below posted by Kamui on wikimedia.org is one of an innumerable examples. Here the Kannon (観音 – aka Guan Yin in China and Avalokiteshvara in India), the Goddess of Mercy at Ōnishi (大西) Park is shown standing on a lotus which is placed on an inverted lotus pedestal. In Sanskrit the name is Padma-pâni translates as “Born of the Lotus”. She is holding a vase with a cut lotus rising out of it. Another common motif. However, the thing to note here is the inseparable connection between Buddhist deities and the ever-present lotus. Alice Getty in The Gods of Northern Buddhism tells us: “Every Buddha and Bodhisattva being svayambhū, or self-existent, is supported by a lotus-flower to indicate his divine birth.” The lotus itself represents the female element. The Buddha the male. The padma in a vase, like the one held by the Kannon figure below, represents “…the Spiritual and the Material.” Sometimes the lotus stands for the teachings of Buddha and other times it simply means purity.
Elizabeth Goldsmith wrote in 1911 that Avalokiteshvara was born out of a beam of white light emanating from the right eye of the Amitabha Buddha. It was this bodhisattva who first said “Om mani padme hum” which she translated as “Oh, the jewel of creation is in the lotus”. C.A.S. Williams gave a more expansive explanation/translation: “…’O God of the Jewel on the Lotus,’ or more freely, ‘May my soul be like the gemmeaus dew-drop, which lies on the lip of the lotus leaf, before it falls into the peaceful obscurity of the lake (i.e., before disappearing into Nirvana)’; but the fundamental origin of expression is undoubtedly from the Indian worship of Brahma, who is sometimes seated upon a lotus flower, which proceeds from the navel of Vishnu, who floats on his back upon the ocean.’ ”
In 1917 Der Ling, the daughter of the former Chinese ambassador to France and an attendant on the Empress, published Two Years in the Forbidden City. In it she described a visit to a theater production based on the Chinese classic which we know as “Journey to the West” (西遊記). The play is entitled “The Empress of Heaven’s Party or Feast [Where She Invites] All [of] the Buddhist Priests to Eat Her Famous Peaches and Drink Her Best Wine.” (It should be remembered here that the reference to ‘Buddhist Priests’ is actually a reference to Buddhas and bodhisattvas.)
In the opening act a Buddhist priest in a yellow robe with a red scarf floats in on a cloud made of cotton. He descends toward the earth and as he does so a pagoda rises in the center of a stage with a singing ‘buddha’ in its tower. Then four more pagodas with singing ‘buddhas’ rise in the corners. Eventually they leave their towers and are joined by a multitude of other ‘buddhas’ entering from off-stage. At this point Der Ling says: “Then I saw a large lotus flower, made of pink silk, and two large green leaves appearing from the bottom of the stage, and as it rose the petals and leaves gradually opened and I saw a beautiful lady buddha (Goddess of Mercy) dressed all in white silk, with a white hood on her head, standing in the center of this flower. As the leaves opened I saw a girl and boy in the center of them. When the petals of the lotus flower were wide open this lady buddha gradually began to ascend herself, and as she ascended, the petals closed until she seemed to be standing on a lotus bud.” The Guan Yin, i.e, the Kannon, and her attendants join the throng and await the arrival of the Empress of Heaven who descends and invites everyone to the feast held annually on the third day of the third month.
Scene two opens with the setting of the banquet hall where the tables are piled high with her majesty’s peaches and copious amounts of wine. The only figures on stage are the men assigned to guard this treasure. A bee flies in and sprinkles something below the noses of each guard who immediately lose consciousness. Then the bee transforms into a giant monkey who engorges himself. Before he leaves he takes some of the peaches he hasn’t eaten back to his companions on Earth so they too can feast on this heavenly fair. When the enraged Empress finds out who has done this she sends her soldiers to punish the monkey. But he too has magic powers and when confronted with this heavenly host all he has to do is pull out some of his fur and blow it into the air where it transforms into monkey warriors carrying iron rods as weapons.
The print below by Yoshitosh proves the story is true.
The story is long and complex and there is no need for a blow by blow description here. Besides, I am mostly concerned with the importance of the lotus symbolism and its connection to Buddhism. After a couple of failed attempts to capture/punish/destroy the offending monkey king the Empress calls on a young god, aged fifteen, to do the job. He “…was made of lotus flowers and leaves and he could transform himself into anything he wished.” But he too failed so the Empress pulled out the big guns – “…Ju Li, the ancestor of the buddhas, who was the all powerful one of them all; and the Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy…” When they confronted the monkey he recognized Ju Li and submitted passively to his punishment and the promise of eventual salvation in the Western Paradise.
The symbolism: In the newest edition of Williams’ book on Chinese symbolism it says: “Of all flowers the lotus is symbolically supreme, being the symbol of friendly summer, spiritual purity, creative power, and the blessing of immortal gods. Lotus leaves at the base of an image of Far Eastern iconography indicate that the figure depicted is of divine character.”
On July 17, 1952 Dr. Ichiro Oga got an ancient lotus seed to bloom. He had found it at an archeological site and it was at least 1,000 years old. Today it is propagated all over Japan and is referred to as the Oga hasu (大賀蓮). “The flowering signified the full awakening of an ancient lotus seed from its millennium-long sleep. ‘The oldest flower’ in the world…” as Sumiko Enbutsu called it in a Japan Times article from August 5, 2000. The symbolism of such a ‘miracle’ is unmistakable. (Below is one of those flowers as posted at Flickr by Yusuke Kawasaki.)
Wherever Buddha set foot a lotus grew up! – De Visser in his Ancient Buddhism in Japan described the scene of the newborn Buddha at the 9th century temple of Borobudur on Java as he is taking his first seven steps “…and seven lotus flowers arise from the earth, on two of which he has placed his feet. In the Lalitavistara, the story of the historical Buddha. it says: “…he had first been standing upon a large lotus flower, which arose from the earth immediately after his birth. From there he looked to the four quarters, took seven steps to the East and said: ‘I shall be the first of all dharma’s [sic] who are the roots of Salvation’. Then he took seven steps to the South, West and North, and whereever [sic] he placed his feet lotus flowers arose.” (This part was added on July 16, 2011.)
Posted at Flickr by Antonio Perez Rio
On September 13, 2009 I started this new post and decided to approach it somewhat differently. I have been thinking about it for a while. And struggling too. What started out simply became increasingly complex. Like other postings this will probably be ‘Part One’. I don’t know yet. But what I do know is that all of subjects I pick seem to spread outward like the ripples created by a stone thrown into a quietly serene pond. So come back often and we’ll ride this one together.
For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at http://www.printsofjapan.com/.