The Lotus Flower - Significance as symbol explained

In Hindu / Buddhist philosophical literature, the lotus flower is a symbol with great significance. For example, in Sloka 10, Chapter 5 of the Bhagavad Gita it is said: "One who leads his life dedicating all his actions to Brahman, abandoning attachments, is freed from bondage just as a lotus leaf remains unaffected by the water.

 Alan Watts, in his Essay "Seven Symbols of Life" explains the symbolic meaning of the Lotus flower thus: 

It figures in the art of every great civilization of Asia, and in the course of thousands of years has gathered to itself associations which, to the Western mind, are bound up with all that seems exotic in the life of the East. For the lotus is a mystery—a perfected glory appearing out of the unknown, a flower in whose circular spread of petals has been seen a symbol of the Wheel of Life and the rays of the sun. Yet while there is mystery in the perfection of its form, the greatest mystery is that such a form should appear out of the slime—the formless primeval morass, where, in the earliest ages, stirred the first living creatures—the home of blind worms and slithering reptiles, feeding upon one another and begetting their kind in innumerable masses.

This underworld of the morass has been sufficiently described in Kesserling’s masterpiece the South American Meditations, and there is no need to describe it further. But what must never be forgotten is that this underworld still exists in the soul of man; that while his spirit, like the Lotus struggles towards the light, so beneath him and surrounding and nourishing his roots is the primaeval slime. And further, below this slime is the world of minerals, the rock and ores descending deeper and deeper into the earth right down to that flaming darkness which men have imagined as Hell - From all this the flower gathers its nourishment while from above the sun and the rain bring to it the gifts of Heaven.  Both are essential to the life of the flower.

It might seem to the eyes of man that the lotus is no more than a flower, that this resplendent creation exists of itself floating detached and spotless above the water.  But this is illusion. For just as the sage may appear spotless and detached from the world he is like the lotus in that he has roots in the primaeval slime—and knows it. Foolishly it is thought that the highest achievement of the human spirit is a heavenly purity detached from earth—a rootless flower suspended in the air and nourished wholly from above. Yet in the symbol of the lotus we see that there is no conflict between heaven and earth; above, the flower develops into the fullness of its glory, expanding joyfully, opening its petals in welcome to sun and rain, while below, its root. stretch out into the morass, welcoming darkness and slime as the petals welcome light and air. For the life of the lotus is not in the flower alone; if it were, the roots would shrivel and die and the flower too would sink back into the mud.  Nor is its life in the roots alone, for if this were so the flower would never raise its head above the water.

The realization of the truth contained in this symbol is the central problem of human life—the equal acceptance of both earth and heaven. Yet remember it is the roots which accept the slime—not the flower, and the flower which opens itself to the sun—not the roots. The reverse of this would indeed be abomination and evil- But nothing can be evil so long as it is in its right place, for the conflict between good and evil is not a conflict between heaven and earth, but between a right and a wrong orientation of man between the two.  For evil is when the flower turns and plunges into the slime, twisting up its roots to gesticulate meaninglessly in the light of day. Or again, evil is to withdraw from either the root or the flower, to try to deny either of the two by refusing it its right to reach out into its appropriate world. Thus the particular problem of modern man of the West is to recognize his roots. 

For hundreds of years his peculiar interpretation of the teaching of the Christ, his cult of consciousness, his moralism, his belief in progress towards the hygienic, the individuated and the independent has made him forget his roots in the primaeval slime. But he must remember that the roots are not to be recognized once more by searching them out with the flower; to attempt this would be to lose all that he has gained by his development, one-sided though it be. It is this folly which we see at work in the West to-day, in the growing obsession with the irrational force of sex, of the herd, of blood and violence. Yet these forces are, in themselves, as pure as any of the virtues, and as full of life-giving nourishment as Reason and the cool thought of great philosophy. For this obsession is not recognition. It is feeding the mouth with the contents of the bowels, or, conversely, filling the bowels with undigested food.

What must be done, therefore, if man is to attain a right orientation between heaven and earth, and a full development of both root and flower? How can he fulfill the Eastern precept, “Grow as the flower grows, at peace”? How can he give full recognition to the slime, and at the same time rise upwards to the sun?

In the darkness below the surface of the water lies what modern psychology has termed the Unconscious. A little way down it remains individuated, but the further it descends, the more individuals are lost in the mass. Thus in the slime is the world of reptiles, an ever coiling and uncoiling world of flux, where the individual is subordinated to the one aim of reproducing the species—a world of extreme fertility and ruthless destruction—symbolized by the circle snake which swallows its own tail. In the depths of the slime below the reptiles are even more primitive and un-individuated forms of life—plasmic formations wherein even the distinction between the sexes has not developed, formations which reproduce their kind simply by dividing into two. And further down, beneath the bed of decaying vegetable and animal matter (the death from which life arises again and again), is the formless substratum of the mineral world. 

These depths have their counterpart in the soul of man, for his Unconscious sinks beyond the personal and the chain of his past lives and the lives of his forefathers, to the race, to the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds. Here lies hidden the memory of the whole Universe, and in these unconscious depths every man has his roots. From them he derives his life just as much as from the conscious world above the water. And by accepting them he transmutes the life of the slime into the glory of the flower. Therefore man must learn to recognize his foundation, to accept the primaeval slime as part of his nature—nay more, to affirm and welcome it with his roots, stretching them down deeper and deeper into the earth.

For as men we cannot deny that we came into the world with blood and pain, that the powerful reproductive urge symbolized by the reptile stirs within us, that we have bowels as well as brains, that our life depends alike on growth and decay, and that what we have been accustomed to regard as dirt, violence and pain is an essential part of our nature. This is the meaning of the Resurrection, that life comes forth out of death and decay, just as the fruit must rot for the seed to grow into the tree.

Therefore nothing is to be gained by trying to escape from the primaeval slime; without it we should die, while in truth it is no evil, Indeed, the humility of the sage is his capacity to accept the lowliest of things, to find goodness in slime. Yet it is strange that this should have been perverted into the false humility of the ascetic who rejoices in the dirt on the outside of his body, for this again is obsession, it is making the flower descend to the root.

Some will ask if this is not a ghastly life where the most gorgeous of flowers depends on slime, where growth can only be had at the expense of decay, where great achievements of the human spirit have their roots in the darkness and “depraved” irrationality of the Unconscious. Indeed, there are those who are so revolted by this life that they deny both flower and root, growth and decay, light and darkness, conscious and unconscious—hating both. 

But their attitude is false, for they do not really hate both; they hate the dark side and would like to have the light, could it be had without darkness. When they speak of the vanity of life we must remind ourselves of the story of the sour grapes; they would not call it vain if it could be had without death. Yet nothing is to be achieved by revulsion and denial, not only because the attitude is fundamentally false, but because the denial of a thing does not make one free of it. Paradoxically, hatred binds one to the thing one hates, for if anything has enough power over a man to make him hate it, to that extent he is bound and conditioned by it. But while hatred is extracted, love is given. Therefore freedom comes not through hatred and denial, but through love and affirmation. “Love” is not meant in the sense of “like” as opposed to dislike, for one may love without liking; the two are on different planes. To love both the root and the flower, earth and heaven, slime and air, death and life is not merely to like decay because it makes possible growth; it is to bring the two together into an inseparable unity and to become one with it by a complete acceptance; until, beholding it, man can make to himself that tremendous affirmation: Tat tvam asi —That art thou!     by ALAN WATTS
Source:    Posted by  k.ram   #18

Top 50 results for Alan Watts: Amazon Books: ;
Symbols Of Life (Inscribed); Being an essay on eternal verities as expressed in the images of the lotus, of water, wind, fire, man, woman and child (Paperback) - Alan W. Zen - Watts