lotus and mud

The lotus, with its blossoms of extraordinary beauty and delicacy, grows out of the mud and slime of ponds.  Particularly in Asian countries it has come to symbolise spiritual development.  “As the lotus rises on its stalk unsoiled by the mud and the water, so may I speak of peace and remain unstained by the world.” 

In the New Testament the same thought appears: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: …to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).  But the similarity is not as exact as it seems.  Here in full is what James wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” 

Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable people in society.  Clearly, keeping oneself unstained by the world did not mean standing apart from it, physically or spiritually, but rather enfolding and cherishing its most vulnerable parts.  

The lotus is hydrophobic: water does not cling to its leaves or flowers.   Still, we would want to say that it does not exist despite the mud and water; it exists because of them.  Without them there would be no lotus.  In fact the lotus is mud and water in another form; it is mud and water transformed.  The lotus transforms mud into a thing of beauty reflecting the brightness of God.  Imagine a group of lotuses rising out of the pond, their petals opening to the sun.  “We, with unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image that we reflect, from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).  The spiritual struggle is not a simple matter of resisting evil passions; it is about transforming evil passions into good. 

Furthermore this gives us a reason to respect ponds with their mud and slime and stagnant water.  The lotus reminds us to have basic respect for the actual situation of every person, including ourselves, even if that situation is very far from perfect.  “The muddy waters of attachment and desire” are certainly full of danger, but they are not other than oneself.  The “swamps and mud banks of passion” are the stuff of virtue and enlightenment.  Goodness that has not wrestled with evil, but only avoided it, has no strength; it tends to be full of suspicion and fear.  
I know a man who finally broke the tobacco habit by smoking with intense awareness.  He had tried and failed many times to force himself out of the habit, but his efforts only gave it an added attraction.  Awareness – which hardly seems like effort at all – achieved what no amount of effort could achieve.  Anything that is forced out of one’s life will keep trying to force its way back in.  Awareness – meditation – is the best moral procedure and the best therapy, because it is based on respect rather than on fear, hatred, or guilt.  Its greatest strength is that it is from beyond the ego, for as James added, “this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.”

Donagh O'Shea


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