By Nancy Thompson
You often see lotuses in images of Eastern religions or philosophies. They stand for beauty, peace, purity —in Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the buddhas sit on lotuses with as many as 100,000 petals, symbolic of their great wisdom and compassion.
But lotuses, as lovely as they are, grow in unlovely mud, not pristine pools. They live in the mud and the muck; they thrive there. They don’t transcend the mud. They exist together, inseparable. As Thich Naht Hanh says, they inter-are. No mud, no lotus.
Merriam-Webster defines transcendent as “going beyond ordinary experience.” But Buddhism celebrates the ordinary as the path to liberation. Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck started the lineage of Ordinary Mind Zen. Popular teacher Pema Chodron advises us to “start where you are.” You work with what you have—emotions, fears, irritations, pleasures—and use that to wake up to the way habitual patterns rule your life and keep your from directly experiencing the world. “When nothing is special, everything can be,” Beck writes.
Our tendency is to avoid those feelings, to pretend the lotus exists independently of the mud. That leads to suffering, as we blindly follow habits, doing the same things over and over to distract ourselves and wondering why it doesn’t make us feel good. Buddhist psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing,” which refers to that tendency to use spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with the discomfort of life. Denying suffering or bypassing it without examining it, processing it, loving it, doesn’t provide liberation from suffering, and you’re likely to find yourself stuck there.
The Buddha taught that nirvana—or liberation—is not separate from samsara, the world of habit and struggle. They exist together, like the mud and the lotus. It’s about all in how you see and understand it. If we see the mud as an unacceptable, unpleasant aspect of life that needs to be cleaned up or covered over, we’re creating suffering, trying to do what can’t be done. If we accept it, we can appreciate fully the beauty of the lotus.