Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Blue Lotus

The Blue Lotus
Its only a small point but I’ve always liked small points. Because of their diminutive size they are usually overlooked but if noticed they sometimes reveal something of interest and occasionally something of importance. The small point I am talking about here is the blue lotus. Lotuses of whatever color have quite a high profile in the Tipitaka. There are at least seven names for the lotus in Pali - aravinda, bhisapuppha, kamala, paduma, pokkhara, pundarika, and mulapuppha. The Milindapanha describes the flower as “shiny, soft, desirable, fragrant, liked, sought after, praised, unsoiled by water or mud, adorned with petals, filaments and pericarps, frequented by bees and growing in cool limpid water” (Mil.361). Lotuses grow best in still muddy ponds and when mature put forth exquisite blossoms which rise above the surface. This characteristic is often mentioned by the Buddha as being analogous to the enlightened person who lives in the world of ignorance and craving and yet rises above it to become pure and beautiful (Th.700). The Buddha also often compared the way drops of water slip off the lotus leaf to the way the enlightened person remains unaffected by the temptations and vicissitudes of the world (Dhp.401).
The botanical name for the lotus is Nelumbo necifera or sometimes the older name Nelumbium speciosum is still used. Botanists like giving plants two, three, four or even more names to a single plant; it helps confuse the lay man. In the same family as the lotus, i.e. Nympheaceae, is the water lily, Nymphaea lotus, a name which of courses further ‘muddies the water.’ Thus the lotus and the water lily are often confused despite the distinct differences between the two plants. Firstly, the lotus plant is much bigger than the water lily. The lotus has rounded concave petals, the water lily long narrow pointed ones. Lotus leaves have are slightly cone-shaped, have a powdery look and rise above the water while water lily leaves are flat, shiny and float on the surface of the water. The receptacle of the lotus looks something like an upturned cone with the seeds clearly visible in it while the water lily’s receptacle is hidden by all the golden-yellow pistils.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that in many translations of the Pali suttas you get sentences like, “Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses…” (e.g. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p.261). Now the problem is that there is no blue lotus. A blue lotus is a botanical chimera. No such flower exists or ever has. Lotuses a can be white and they can be pink or pink going on red, but they are never blue. Water lilies can be blue though. In the sentence quoted above the word translated as blue lotus is uppala while the two other words are paduma and pundarika. The Hindi word for the blue water lily is uppal. Indian Buddhist iconography usually (although not always) makes the distinction between the two flowers. The top picture of Padmapani (Lotus in Hand) depicts him holding what is clearly a lotus. The other picture, of Tara, shows her with what is unmistakably a water lily. Is this so important? Not really. Like I said, I just like small points.

1 comment:

Jon Ciliberto said...

Thank you for this post. I have added a link to it on our site.

Jon C,