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Lotus: flower of an immaculate Buddhist world



The lotus is a plant of the water lily family. It is one of the most common motifs in Buddhist temples. Indeed, depictions of the flowers are found almost everywhere, from paintings and statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas on lotus thrones, to altars and ceilings of the main shrine rooms, to pagodas, and even on roof tiles. To the lay observers, the lotus may appear as a mere adornment, but the flower has profound symbolism in the Buddhist world.

In Buddhism the lotus is a symbol of the true nature of beings, which remains unstained by the mud of the world and is realized through enlightenment. Traditionally the lotus (“padma”) is a very important symbol in India and for Buddhism. The lotus has been ascribed with special meaning since the time of ancient Indian mythology.

The lotus flower grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty. The flower closes and sinks underwater at night, to rise and open again at dawn. Untouched by impurity, the lotus symbolizes the purity of heart and mind.

Especially, in such Mahayana Buddhist texts as the Lotus Sutra, the lotus flower is emphasized as a symbol of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the model practitioner in the Mahayana tradition that dedicates his or her life entirely to the salvation of other beings.

Just as lotus plants are rooted in the bottom of shallow, murky ponds, but their beautiful blossoms rise above the water, the bodhisattva likewise forgoes nirvana to remain in the muck of samsara (the cycle of birth and death) for the sake of saving living beings. They remain pure in mind and free from suffering because they realize the Sunyata (emptiness) of all Dharmas (phenomena) and thus remain unattached to them.

The lotus flower is an apt metaphor for our own spiritual path and the action of a bodhisattva. The lotus represents the fact that even if we are ignorant, we should have hope and perseverance in our practice to become a bodhisattva and, eventually realize that we are already Buddhas _ though we don’t know it.

The lotus refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds. The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raises the mind above worldly existence, and gives rise to purity of mind. An open blossom signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies the potential for enlightenment.

In Korea, with emphasis on this symbolism, a nationwide Lotus Lantern Festival is held every spring. The Lotus Lantern Festival begins in May, which is the month during which the Buddha was born. The lotus lantern signifies the removal of our ignorance with the light of awakening.

On Buddha’s birthday the lotus lanterns light up each temple and everyone can go and put a “tail” on the lanterns where they can write the names of their family, friends or departed ones. In this way they remember those dear to them and make good wishes for their future. As the lanterns are so beautiful and such fun to make, this has now become a national festival.

Prior to Buddha’s birthday, tens of thousands of people gather in downtown Seoul to march in a parade carrying more than 100 thousand lanterns. In recent years the festival has taken on a more international feeling with foreign residents and tourists joining the celebration. In fact, the event has been voted by foreigners as the best annual festival in Seoul for several years now. Brilliant lights, lanterns, and floats are a rich, colorful display of the striking style of Korean Buddhist culture. Traditional music and dance accompany the procession of lanterns with each embracing significant meanings.

The handmade lanterns themselves are another Buddhist symbol that appear in the festival. It symbolizes the bright light of Buddha’s Dharma and our sincere wish for enlightenment and the liberation of all beings from suffering. From ancient times, the lantern has been a necessity in human life to expel the darkness.

In Buddhism, the light from a lantern has religious significance. Such Buddhist scriptures as the Flower Garland Sutra and the Lotus Sutra record the spiritual efficacies of offering the light of a lantern. Until now, on Buddha’s Birthday, Buddhists make much of the offerings of bright light emanating from every corner of the temple. The light from a lantern contains the aspirations of the public who desire all sentient beings in the world to be saved through the bright illumination as from the lotus lanterns.

Dragons also appear in the Lotus Lantern Festival and can be found in many temple arts such as Buddhist painting and architecture. Basically dragons signify the power to ward off evil spirits. Korean dragons are legendary creatures in Korean mythology and folklore. Although generally comparable with Chinese dragons in appearance and symbolic significance, Korean dragons have unique culture-specific properties that differentiate them from dragons in other cultures. Whereas most dragons in European mythology are generally related to the elements of fire and destruction, dragons in Korean mythology are mostly viewed as benevolent beings related to water and agriculture, often considered bringers of rain and clouds. Hence, many Korean dragons are said to have resided in rivers, lakes, oceans, or even deep ponds within the mountains.

Source: Korea Times

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