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published: 4/17/04
updated: 8/7/13

The Lotus Symbol in Buddhism



What is the meaning of the lotus flower in Buddhism?

White lotus
The lotus rises out of the mud with a pristine bloom. Photo: Lindley Ashline.

The lotus, from Sanskrit and Tibetan word "padma," is one of the most well-known symbols of Buddhism. The lotus flower is one of the "Eight Auspicious Symbols" in the religion, and is one of the most important images in the faith.

The roots of a lotus flower extend into the mud and the stem grows up through the water and the flower blossoms above the surface. In Buddhist theought, this pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. Though there are other water plants that bloom above the water, it is only the lotus which, owing to the strength of its stem, regularly rises eight to twelve inches above the surface. (Go here for Buddhist Beliefs and here for Buddhist Facts.)





The Lotus in Buddhist Beliefs


Pink lotus. Photo: warryronin.

White Tara on a lotus
White Tara and other deities seated on lotuses in a Tibetan thangka painting. Photo: Exotic India Arts.

Eight Auspicious Symbols
A Tibetan lotus as part of the Eight Auspicious Symbols, on a banner from Sikkim, India. Photo: Chirantan Mandal.

According to the Buddhist scholar Lalitavistara,

"The spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere to it."

According to another scholar,

"In esoteric Buddhism, the heart of the beings is like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the Buddha develop therein, the lotus blossoms; that is why the Buddha sits on a lotus bloom."

The lotus is one of Buddhism's best recognized motifs and appears in all kinds of Buddhist art across all Buddhist cultures. Scrolling lotuses often embellish Buddhist textiles, ceramics and architecture.

Buddhist deities

Every important Buddhist deity is associated in some manner with the lotus, either being seated upon a lotus in full bloom or holding one in their hands. In some images of standing Buddhas, each foot rests on a separate lotus. (See Buddhism deities here.)

The lotus does not grow in Tibet and so Tibetan art has only stylized versions of it, yet it appears frequently with Tibetan deities and among the Eight Auspicious Symbols.

Colors of the lotus flower

The color of the lotus has an important bearing on the symbolism associated with it:

  • White Lotus (Skt. pundarika; Tib. pad ma dkar po): This represents the state of spiritual perfection and total mental purity (bodhi). It is associated with the White Tara and proclaims her perfect nature, a quality which is reinforced by the color of her body.
  • Pink Lotus (Skt. padma; Tib. pad ma dmar po): This the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity. Thus naturally it is associated with the Great Buddha himself.
  • Red Lotus (Skt. kamala; Tib: pad ma chu skyes): This signifies the original nature and purity of the heart (hrdya). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion and all other qualities of the heart. It is the flower of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
  • Blue Lotus (Skt. utpala; Tib. ut pa la): This is a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, and signifies the wisdom of knowledge. Not surprisingly, it is the preferred flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.

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Sources:
  1. Based on an article by Nitin Kumar for Exotic India Arts. Reprinted by permission.