By Rev. Master Phoebe
From time to time when I show someone around in the Meditation Hall the question arises: why do we have lotus flowers on our altar, can we not have roses, or other non-oriental flowers? The answer is of course that we can, and sometimes do, have other flowers, according to the season and occasion. Flowers on the altar are an offering of teaching, and the Lotus has qualities that are not easy to find combined in any other plant in quite the same way.
The Lotus is the symbol of enlightenment, and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are often seen seated or standing on a lotus flower. It is fairly easy to see the symbolism of the flowering, but there is more going on here. The lotus plant grows in muddy, stagnant water; the deeper and stickier the mud, the happier the plant. The roots are said to be bitter, and Reverend Master Jiyu told us that at the time of Transmission the Master and Disciple share a dish of sweet melon and lotus root, in recognition that in training together they will accept not only the sweet but also the bitter. The stem then rises through the dark water, where no light penetrates, till it breaks the surface. Then it continues to grow straight up above the surface without other support, for sometimes as much as several feet, before the flower opens and sends out its lovely fragrance. Stem and flower are neither muddy nor wet. In the center of the bloom a seedpod is already visible, and as the flower opens wider, we can already see the seeds beginning to show. The flower may last days or weeks, but eventually it withers and dies, and the seedpod is left, fat and heavy with its seeds sticking partly out of it. It continues to grow and ripen, until finally it gently bends over, allowing the seeds to fall out into the deep muddy water, where they germinate and continue the cycle.
We can use this image of the lotus to contemplate the spiritual life of practice, and find encouragement and examples for ourselves. Even though people put most emphasis on the flower, which is spectacular and attractive, the other stages of existence are not to be overlooked or neglected. Without the nourishment of the deep mud – all the seemingly worldly things we have to deal with in our lives, the bills, cooking and cleaning, stress and gritty relationships – spiritual growth would not be possible. So rather than extricating ourselves from worldly conditions in an attempt to find quietude, we root ourselves firmly in what needs to be done, and through practice gain faith, direction and a strong ability to stand up straight. Once we can see obstacles as the very stuff of practice, our life changes completely. Only then will the beautiful flower form itself, and open to the sun, for all to see. Its fragrance will permeate even beyond where one can see the flower, as it is said that the effect of one person applying the Buddhist Precepts to their life benefits the entire world. But this is not the end of practice, and we cannot remain indefinitely in this lovely phase of our spiritual growth. As we continue to be rooted and nourished, gratitude will begin to take the shape of the seedpod, a longing to give to others. In all these stages there may be long periods where seemingly nothing much happens, but internal ripening takes place. The withering of the flower can be a bit disheartening, if we do not understand what is going on, but if we are willing to give up everything, including this pleasant period in which things “go well”, the training will ripen and bring forth good seeds for another plant and stage in our life.
Of course, we can use other flowers to inspire us, and see qualities in what we find in our own back yard, so to speak, to help us keep going. How about for instance, the sunflower – so lovely and tall – seemingly effortless in turning its face full to the sun all day long? What about the humble grass, which though small, is upright and very flexible, allowing the winds to bend it in all directions, and which does best surrounded by many of its friends? Here is an example of training with others, of the willingness to bow to conditions and do what needs to be done without standing out or insisting on being recognized. And what about the rose – so lovely, but difficult to approach, given its thorns? Or the orchid – strangely beautiful with its roots exposed and without fragrance? Once we start to look with the eye of meditation at the myriad things the world around us offers, the teaching will appear naturally and opportunities to bring it into practice present themselves at any moment.
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