The lotus (Sanskrit: Padma, Kamala) which grows from the dark watery mire but remains completely unstained by it, is a major Buddhist symbol of renunciation, purity and freedom from the faults of cyclic existence. As a hand-held attribute the lotus is most frequently colored light red or pink, with eight or sixteen petals, and often bears within its upper petals a specific ritual objects or deity emblem. The lower stem of the hand-held lotus often curls slightly in the form of a lotus root. The thumb and one of the first three fingertips of the deity, or lineage holder, are often positioned at the level of the heart in the gesture of teaching or giving refuge, and delicately hold this lower stem. The stem then curves gracefully upwards, putting out leaves as it ascends to blossom at the level of the deity’s ear. This symbolizes the nectar like transmission of the Buddhadharma, which attracts disciples like bees to the pure and unconditional fragrance of the spoken or ‘ear-whispered’ teachings. The main stem of the lotus commonly branches into three shoots as it ascends, culminating in a seed-pod at one side, the main blossom at the center, and a small unopened bud at the other side. These three stages of fruition represent the Buddha’s of the three times, past, present, and future respectively.
The lotus is primarily the emblem of Amitabha, the red Buddha of the west and the Lord of the Padma or Lotus Family, whose qualities of discernment represent the transmutation of passion into discriminating awareness or wisdom. Amitabha’s presiding bodhisattva is Padmapani Avalokiteshvara, the ‘Holder of the Lotus’, and the Bodhisattva of great compassion and the patron deity of Tibet. Padmapani, meaning ‘lotus-handed’ bears the attribute of an eight-petaled white lotus as a symbol of his immaculate purity, love and compassion. As emanations of Avalokiteshvara, the fourteen successive incarnations of the Dalai Lama are each commonly portrayed with his white lotus of compassion in their right hands. One of the main female Bodhisattvas of the Lotus Family is White Tara. Tara’s attribute of a sixteen-petaled white lotus symbolizes the perfection of all of her qualities, and her likeness to a sixteen year old maiden. The kumuda is a white lotus or water lily that is said to open only in moonlight. The pundarika or ‘edible white lotus’, is a specific symbol of the Buddha Shikhin, who attained enlightenment in a previous era whilst seated before this delicate flower. The pundarika is a symbol of rarity and transience, as this flower seldom blossoms from its peculiar leaf-tip and it delicate petals fall easily when touched.
Lotus blossoms may also be colored white, pink, red, yellow, golden, blue and black. The pink or pale-red lotus is commonly identified by the Sanskrit term kamala, which is also another name for the Hindu ‘lotus goddess’ Lakshmi. The term kamala derives from the root kama, meaning love, longing, sexual desire, and intercourse, and is a potent tantric metaphor for feminine beauty and voluptuousness. The term padma and kamala are both synonymous Sanskrit terms for the ‘lotus’ of the female vagina, which is soft, pink, and open. Likewise the vajra is synonymous with the male penis, which is hard and penetrative. The vajra represents form, the lotus emptiness, and their union symbolizes the perfect ‘coincidence’ of method and wisdom, or the spontaneous arising of great bliss and emptiness. The yellow lotus and the golden lotus are hand attributes of a few of the different forms of Avalokiteshvara and Tara, and generally identified by the term padma. The blue, indigo, or black lotus is specifically identified as the utpala or ‘night lotus’ in Indian Buddhist Sanskrit texts. Since the lotus does not grow in the high altitudes of Tibet, the Tibetans later adopted this term to cover all varieties and colors of lotus blossoms. The blue lotus was especially venerated in ancient Egypt, where its petals were steeped in water, tinctured in alcohol, or distilled into an essential oil to produce a potent and rejuvenating aphrodisiac panacea. The term utpala means ‘to burst open’ or ‘without flesh’. The name utpala-naraka is applied to one of the eight cold hells of Buddhist cosmology, where the skins of its denizens turns blue from the intense cold and bursts open into utpala-like cracks. The blue utpala lotus is an attribute of Green Tara and many other Vajrayana deities. It is also known by the Sanskrit terms nilabja, nilotpala, pushkara, and nilanalina.
The male and female bodhisattvas commonly bear their particular emblems on hand-held lotuses, with these attributes resting upon the domed pericarp or central pod of these lotuses. The human (nirmanakaya) and divine (sambhogakaya) manifestations of the eight great Bodhisattvas may bear upon their lotuses: (1) the sword and book of Manjushree; (2) the vajra, or vajra and bell of Vajrapani; (3) the wheel and water vase of Maitreya; (4) the sword of Akashagarbha; (5) the jewel of Kshitigarbha; (6) the sun of Samantabhadra; (7) the moon of Nivarana-vishkambhin; (8) the unadorned lotus of Avalokiteshvara. The goddess White Prajnaparamita bears the attributes of two texts on the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ (Sanskrit: Prajnaparmita-sutra), which rest upon white and red lotuses that sprout from the palms of her right and left hands respectively.