Look Deeply

American Lotus – Nelumbo lutea

by Ginny Parkum

It’s early August in Harrisburg. At Wildwood Lake, the green sea of tall lotus plants are in full bloom, creamy yellow-white flowers following the sun as it crosses the blue sky, some leaves wrapped tight as sausages, most slowly waving like bright parasols over the murky water. These are real American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, the same species as Nelumbo nucifera, the Asian lotus of fame and legend.  
Buddhist lore is full lotus tales and images. Queen Maya dreamed of a white elephant holding a white lotus the night the Buddha was conceived. At his birth, myth has it that lotus sprang forth at each step he miraculously took. Many statues have the Buddha or bodhisattvas standing or sitting on a lotus. A favorite Zen story has the Buddha simply, silently holding a lotus flower, the sole content of his Dharma talk that day. Dogen wrote about exploding blue lotus, the sky full of them. And of course, there’s the Lotus Sutra and the mantra Om Mane Padme Hum, the jewel in the lotus.  
That’s only a tiny sampling, the tip of the lotus bud. But what might a lotus say all on its own as you walk along the pond? No books, no way to quick ask Google for a story or reference. Just walk, look, and listen. 
Well, the story of the Lotus growing from the muck and mud is certainly true! This is not a pristine, clear body of water. Take a closer look and…glorpUrk, you slipped in, up to your hip in ooze and dank goo. I did. What a mess. Good thing I keep big garbage bags in the car to protect the front seat from water when the door leaks in heavy rain. As they say, the path isn’t always clear and easy.  
Out of this mud, the lotus grows…or does it? Well, it does, but the seed would just rot or lie dormant if that furry animal running across the path just now didn’t gnaw on it first. The seed needs a muskrat to chew into the hard protective seed coat, which lets the water in, which gets the plant growing…in the mud. The real spiritual journey seems to truly begin when we are in a dark place and something cracks our shell, even a little. Some light or nutrient comes in, and we get growing. Thanks, muskrat. Enjoy your meal of lotus seeds. The Dharma feeds us all. Thanks for leaving those chawed-on seeds to remind me. 
Here and there, pointy buds appear out of the green pond scum. And there are the big lotus blossoms. The stories are right…no water damage, no icky mud clinging to the huge petals. And, oh, there’s a diamond…no…a water drop, sparkling right in the middle of a flower! The jewel truly is in the lotus! 
And so fragrant! The sweet smell of the Dharma is all around. No wonder early Buddhists used that description.  
It’s early morning, and so many insects are almost staggering from one flower to another. They’ve spent the night in the closed flower, and as it opens to the sun, they fly out, coated with pollen and maybe high on the nectar! Like new students high, or at least mighty enthusiastic, from the sweet dharma teachings! Thich Nhat Hanh tells of rowing out onto a lotus lake in the evening and putting tea leaves in the flowers before they close for the night. In the morning, they would row out again, remove and brew the scent-infused leaves into a wondrous cup of tea, right on the boat. 
Look further. There are a few big, plate-shaped leaves resting on the water. Most are a yard or more above the surface, untouched by the glop. But like life, glop happens. The surface of the low leaf is unmarked. Let’s lift it up. Might as well. We’re already messy from having slipped in before. Wow! Under that huge leaf, life is teeming! Things crawl, wriggle, cling…living the relative life right there in the pure, absolute world of that shiny green lotus leaf.  
And look deeper! There’s a gnawed many-chambered root lying in the duckweed. You’ll see a cleaned up slice of that root in many eastern dishes like your Chinese take-out. The Dharma feeds humans and all beings in many different ways. Chew on that! 
Well, that’s it for today. The sun’s getting hot, I’m thirsty, and the glop is drying in my sneakers. Oh…here comes one more teaching. There are some beautiful yellow waterlilies growing in the remnant of the old Pennsylvania Canal next to the lake, right on the other side of the trail. They are often mistaken for lotus and used in photos in books and posters by Western illustrators. But hey, we’ve got our own homegrown, evolutionarily adapted lotus right here! It’s a beauty, and just right for American glop. Like Bright Dawn! 

Ginny Parkum is part of the Lay Minister program with the Bright Dawn Way of Oneness Sangha.  To learn more about Bright Dawn Way of Oneness please visit us here.


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