The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is the Flower Sermon and the holy flower of West, South and East Asia

Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred Lotus, is an important symbol in Asian gardens

Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred Lotus, is an important symbol in Asian gardens

Zen Buddhism grew from the Flower Sermon and thus from the growing habit of the Sacred Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. Towards the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a pond, possibly in the Jetavana. They were expecting a sermon but the Blessed One only pulled a lotus flower from the waters and held it before them, its roots dripping mud. Holding it before Mahakashyapa, he told the group:

‘What can be said I have said to you. What cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.’

Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor. The Sacred Lotus has importance in Buddhism because it grows from murky waters and struggles to raise its pure and beautiful flower into the sunlight, with the lesson that humans should do likewise.  Asians thought this was a truth worthy of contemplation – leading to Zen Buddhism. The lotus was also a sacred flower in Ancient Egypt and, probably through the influence of Buddhism, became sacred in China, Japan and South East Asia.

Perhaps we will be able to grow the lotus outdoors in London when global warming has gone a little further – but the winter of 2009-10 is not pointing in this direction. Meanwhile, I am wondering if I could rig up a solar panel to keep a tub warm enough for the lotus. But we would need more sunlight for this to work.

15 thoughts on “The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is the Flower Sermon and the holy flower of West, South and East Asia

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    Not too much! – but the ancient faith of Japan (a variety of animism called Shinto ‘The Way of the Gods’) held that gods lived in natural objects, including rocks, trees and sacred spaces (niwa – which, much later, came to mean gardens). So the places where gods lived were marked off with ropes. Personally, I do not see the old idea as being so very different from our own idea that we should live ‘naturally’ and that if interfere too much with nature then we must expect trouble.

  2. Christine

    Thankyou. Interestingly the Kami spirits seem to be localised in particular natural objects rather than diffusely present in all nature.[ ]

    I am not sure myself what this threshold of ‘too much interference’ with nature might mean in practice? For example, is there a pollution threshold etc? Would human-induced global warming be an instance of too much interference with nature? There are certainly indigenous Australian beliefs that wrong behaviour can have disastrous natural consequences (ie. cyclones have been said to have been caused)…although quite what the casual chain is, is not usually made explicit.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    If I have got the story right then felling the trees on Easter Island is an example of too much interference with nature. Had they regarded trees, instead of statues, as sacred then the society of the island might not have declined (though the introduction of rats was also detrimental). There is no getting away from the fact that some belief systems are more human-centric and some more nature-centric. I think Confucianism and Christianity are in the former category while Daoism, Shinto and Buddhism are more in the latter category. Our own society emphasises ‘natural science’. It is too soon to know which of the two categories this places us in – but I suspect it is the former. The ‘world of nature’ is treated as a bounty to be harvested – even natural parks are seen as tourist resources.

  4. Christine

    In interesting issue when nature is differently regarded is how ecological balance is achieved. Australian Indigenous cultures ‘increase’ and ‘decrease’ ceremonies were performed which sought to achieve an ecological balance in the populations of species of which there were totemic relationships.[ ]and
    [ ]

    The Easter Island story certainly makes for grim reading! [ ] I certainly hope we don’t have a future to look forward to that includes hiding from each other in caves for fear of being eaten!

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    Australian indigenous culture was the very model of a sustained society – in the strict sense of a society which was maintained over a long period of time. Interesting that a belief system was an integral part of the achievement.
    Bangladesh could turn into an Easter Island type story. The laud used to be protected from floods by the great swamps and forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. Very few people could live there because of the malaria. Then an alien culture arrived with anti-malarial drugs and the forest lands became part of another country. The forests were cleared and the flood problem grows worse every year. One day, all the people will be swept into the ocean. The country is too flat to have caves! If the forests had remained sacred, as they do in Japan, the problem might have been averted. I guess the lotus is ‘sacred’ in a half-hearted way – but Bangladesh is an Islamic country and so idolatory and tree-worship would be taboo.
    Jared Diamond tells a wonderful story, or rather a wonderfully awful story.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    I wish they would teach the history of Easter Island in schools. By hearsay, the history teaching in UK schools is little-but-the-Tudors in primary school and little-but-the-Nazis in high school. So boys leave school thinking they should wear black jackets and boots to enjoy a wealth of nubile girls. I do not know what the girls think of this deal.

  7. Christine

    Ok. As a female if the choice is a) being eaten or b) being a slave or c) being a Christian – I pick option c – even if this means losing my traditional land and intermarrying.

    As for the reference to boys in the UK…perhaps being disappointed in their expectations they will consider converting to Islam and the option of several wives? I suppose females in general favour monogamy.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes, Christianity has much to recommend it, particularly if one is female, has no taste for slavery and prefers stirring the pot to being its meat. But Ian McHarg and David Attenborough both see Christianity as a disaster for the man:environment relationship. They blame the Book of Genesis for a host of problems from the burning of tropical rainforests to the extinction of species – and trace these problems to Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” I don’t see how the Book of Genesis can be blamed for the Easter Island disaster – but perhaps the culture of the island would have survived if they had become Buddhist, even if it is not much of a place for growing the sacred lotus.
    Re Islam, I have read that the political class in the European country with the largest Islamic population (France) believes that part of the reason for Muslim men liking traditional ways so much is that it gives them dominion over their womenfolk.

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    A very good question – to which I am pleased to have found a very good answer. The Hebrew word rada means ‘to tread, to rule, have dominion, dominate’ and there were similar words in the other Semitic languages:
    * Judeo-Aramaic rada “he drove, ruled, chastised”
    * Syriac rada “he went on, moved along, drove, chastised, it flowed”
    * Arabic rada(y) “he trod”
    * Akkadian radu ” to drive, tend the flock,” related to radad * tr. v. 1. “he ruled, had dominion over, dominated;” 2.”he subuded, subjugated;” 3. (Post-Biblical Hebrew) “he chastised, punished,” and hirda “he subuded, subjugated (in the Bible occurring only Isaiah 41:2.).
    This appears to add force the Ian McHarg/David Attenborough view that the Bible supports the exploitation of nature. It is a view which can be changed if a religion is allowed to change – but it puts fundamentalists in a difficult position with regard to ecology, sustainability and environmental values.
    I think Islam is the most garden-friendly of the Abrahamic religions but that the three religions from irrigation countries are less environment-friendly than the religions from the rainfall/monsoon countries (inc South China, South East Asia and India). Monsoon countries have more pools – in which the Sacred Lotus can flower. The Abrahamic religions presumably saw this as idolatory, as they did tree worship.

  10. Christine

    27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

    28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

    [ ]

    I take it we are OK about God creating us (male and female) but not that happy with his very first instructions to us?

    a) Is this because we don’t want to increase in number?
    b) We are not that sure what filling the earth means?
    c) Much less subduing it?
    d) The fish tend to go there own way anyway….(no wonder they travel in schools!)
    e) The birds of the air are no more compliant….
    f) And we are having only marginal success with “creatures that move on the ground.”

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