The lotus has been a symbol of purity since before the time of the Buddha, and it blooms profusely in Buddhist art and literature. Its roots are in muddy water, but the lotus flower rises above the mud to bloom, clean and fragrant.
In Buddhist art, a fully blooming lotus flower also signifies enlightenment, while a closed bud represents a time before enlightenment. Sometimes a flower is partly open, with its center hidden, indicating that enlightenment is beyond ordinary sight.
The mud nourishing the roots represents our messy human lives. It is through our human experiences and our suffering that we seek to break free and bloom. But while the flower rises above the mud, the roots and stem remain in the mud, where we live our lives. A Zen verse says, "May we exist in muddy water with purity, like a lotus."
Rising above the mud to bloom requires great faith in oneself, in the practice, and in the Buddha's teaching. So, along with purity and enlightenment, a lotus also represents faith.
The Lotus in the Pali Canon
"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus -- born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water -- stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I -- born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world -- live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as 'awakened.'" [Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]
In another section of the Tipitika, the Theragatha ("verses of the elder monks"), there is a poem attributed to the disciple Udayin --
As the flower of a lotus,
Arisen in water, blossoms,
Pure-scented and pleasing the mind,
Yet is not drenched by the water,
In the same way, born in the world,
The Buddha abides in the world;
And like the lotus by water,
He does not get drenched by the world. [Andrew Olendzki translation]
Other Uses of the Lotus as a Symbol
The lotus flower is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism.
According to legend, before the Buddha was born his mother, Queen Maya, dreamed of a white bull elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk.
The Lotus Sutra is one of the most highly regarded Mahayana sutras.
The well-known mantra Om Mani Padme Hum roughly translates into "the jewel in the heart of the lotus."
In meditation, the lotus position requires folding one's legs so that the right foot is resting on the left thigh, and vice versa.
According to a classic text attributed to Japanese Soto Zen Master Keizan Jokin (1268-1325), The Transmission of the Light (Denkoroku), the Buddha once gave a silent sermon in which he held up a gold lotus. The disciple Mahakasyapa smiled. The Buddha approved Mahakasyapa's realization of enlightenment, saying, "I have the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of Nirvana. These I entrust to Kasyapa."
Significance of Color
In Buddhist iconography, the color of a lotus conveys particular meaning.
A blue lotus usually represents the perfection of wisdom. It is associated with the bodhisattva Manjusri. In some schools, the blue lotus is never in full bloom, and its center cannot be seen. Dogen wrote of blue lotuses in the Kuge (Flowers of Space) fascicle of Shobogenzo.
"For example, the time and place of the opening and blooming of the blue lotus are in the midst of fire and at the time of flames. These sparks and flames are the place and time of the blue lotus opening and blooming. All sparks and flames are within the place and time of the place and time of the blue lotus opening and blooming. Know that in a single spark are hundreds of thousands of blue lotuses, blooming in the sky, blooming on the earth, blooming in the past, blooming in the present. Experiencing the actual time and place of this fire is the experience of the blue lotus. Do not drift by this time and place of the blue lotus flower." [Yasuda Joshu Roshi and Anzan Hoshin sensei translation]
A gold lotus represents the realized enlightenment of all Buddhas.
A pink lotus represents the Buddha and the history and succession of Buddhas.
In esoteric Buddhism, a purple lotus is rare and mystical and might convey many things, depending on the number of flowers clustered together.
The white lotus signifies a mental state purified of all poisons.