Lotus Flower Folding & Enlightenment in Cambodia


“The spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the new lotus in the [muddy] water which does not adhere to it.” ~From the Lalitavistara, a sacred text of the life of Buddha by Dhrarmaraksha (308 AD)

“I worship the Buddha with these flowers; May this virtue be helpful for my emancipation; Just as these flowers fade, Our body will undergo decay.” ~Buddhist Chant upon offering flowers

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

“Those petals ARE folded,” I whispered with excitement to Jody as we watched our Cambodian guide quickly fold back the green outer petals of the lotus flower she just purchased at the temple.

We had noticed various lotus flower bouquets in the high-end hotel where we were staying, and Jody was convinced that the green outer petals of the flower were all hand-folded and tucked away to show the flowers’ beautifully colored hearts. I was not yet a believer; some of the bouquets literally have hundreds of flowers, and thinking about the work that goes into folding each individual bud, I thought maybe there was another way or that the folds were a natural result of this flower’s blooming mechanism.

But of course then there is Occam’s Razor, of which I am a firm believer: simply said, all things being equal, the alternative with the least complex assumptions (the simpler one) is usually the “right” one. Yes, these flowers – and bouquets – are all individually hand folded and arranged.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, central tower of a village temple WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple tower in stone WMWe were visiting the ruins of a 12th century Buddhist temple well off the tourist-beaten path about 20 miles south of Phnom Penh. Ta Prohm, a temple built by Jayavarman VII, was still a very active religious temple, where local poor people were allowed to maintain various Buddhist altars in what’s left of the individual towers of its compact complex. Our guide felt compelled to buy lotus flowers during our visit, and I too joined in with a few American dollars. I had learned earlier in the day, quite surprisingly, that it is the locals in Cambodian who predominantly support beggars, rather than tourists. The purchases weren’t just a form of charity; the items are worldly and long-standing offerings made to Buddha, and there’s little doubt that we all could use a little more karma in our lives.

Buddha is very often depicted sitting on a lotus flower. But why is this particular flower the symbol of such a long-standing philosophy which teeters as a religion?

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

In Buddhism, the lotus flower represents good fortune. But please don’t think about this in terms of prosperity or abundance as in material wealth. Rather, the flower represents spiritual fortunes in this life…and in the next.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe lotus grows in muddy waters, where it rises above its dirty and humble beginnings to blossom to its full potential, attaining a form of natural enlightenment. Coupled in this process of fully flowering is the notion of purification: we are all born into the muddy murkiness and dirty suffering of our physical lives, where we must strive to rise above and purify our spirits. This itself takes faith and perseverance, more important symbolism found in the lotus blossom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, rustic flowers and gates WMFlowers, especially in a religious context, can be thought of as exceedingly pure, and proper in every respect. They are rich in beautiful colors, emit soothing fragrances, and offer soothing touch. Worldwide, flowers are a supreme source of joy and comfort; they are used in celebration of birth, marriage, and even death. Flowers cover the earth, and can be obtained without engaging in evil or tainted deeds. Even the most humble among us can collect them without fear of depletion and without exchange of monies or other types of barter. Likewise, flowers can be offered without fear of regret or loss (as opposed to, say, tithing), so such offerings can be made with a pure mind and heart.

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

But they are offered in a certain way to the Buddha in Cambodia. The unopened bud’s green protective petals are individually peeled back, folded over on themselves and then tucked back under in order to uncover the next layer of wrapping. But soon the inner “heart” of the lotus starts to peek into view, and then is completely revealed, uncovering its sublime beauty for all – especially Buddha – to see and admire.

Jody's Folding her Flower

Jody’s Folding her Flower

I was surprised at how well my folded lotus turned out. Although Jody and I took much longer than our guide did in folding, and ours looked rather like a 5-year-old attempted the task, we were all ready to provide our own offerings at various altars within Ta Phrom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 4 WMCambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 3 WMLotus coloring also holds important meaning. White flowers, like in most of the rest of the world, implies purity and perfection, of both the mind and the spirit to the True Nature of Things, called Bodhi in Buddhism. It generally has eight petals corresponding to the Buddhist “Noble Eightfold Path of the Good Law,” and is the lotus on which depicted Buddha’s sit. Red, again like in most of the rest of the world (we are more connected than we are different), refers to compassion and love that is the original nature of the supreme heart (hrdayam). The blue lotus represents the perfection of wisdom, logic and knowledge, all of which are needed to obtain true enlightenment, always displayed only partially opened with its center never fully in view. Pink flowers, or the “Supreme Lotus,” help to recall the history of Buddha and the legends and myth which surround him. And finally, gold, the color which Buddha wears, reflects awakening or enlightenment.

Temple Ruins

Temple Ruins

Our particular flowers were purple, which reflect the magical mysticism found in following the teachings of Buddha. A perfect choice for non-Buddhist lay people with only the most basic understanding of what is not so much a religion but a way of life, one which seems to circumvent most of the thorny issues that make monotheistic faiths so exclusionary, divisive, and generally incompatible with even their own core teachings.

Temple Gate Ruins

Temple Gate Ruins

The growth cycle of the lotus holds other important symbolism in Buddhism, primarily as physical representations of the stages one moves through to attain enlightenment. When closed they represent those in search of enlightenment, while a bloomed and open lotus flower signifies divine rebirth in the form of full enlightenment and self-awareness.

Temple's Central Tower

Temple’s Central Tower

Buddha Altar

Buddha Altar

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, celestial dancer carving 2 WMWe had three flowers to offer to Buddha, one each: our Cambodian guide Thalay’s (her nickname pronounced Tah-lay, where an “h” is not pronounced in Cambodian unless it’s a double consonant), Jody’s, and mine. Thalay offered hers first at the main altar in the temple, always found under the tallest, most central tower. Hers was a ritual we watched closely to help ensure that we didn’t later offend any of the locals…or more importantly, Buddha! She presented her folded lotus, took and lit incense, dropped to her knees and placed her hands together in the Cambodian sompeyar, a form of greeting and show of respect. In praying to Buddha (or showing respect to the King), the hands are held in front of the forehead while the upper body is bowed. Monks are greeted with hands in front of the face, while a standard show or respect is with the hands over the chest. Basically, the higher the hands, the more reverence shown. This type of prayer is very common to both Thailand and Cambodia, countries of the Therevada tradition of Buddhism. In such traditions, the offering of lotus flowers is commonly supplemented by incense and/or candles.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense offerings WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, crumbling tower WMCambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe act of offering is called dana – an act of generosity, itself an emotional and physical expression of veneration not just to the Perfectly Enlightened One (Buddha), but also to Buddhism’s Dharma – The Truth – and to all the other lessor but still Noble Enlightened Ones, like the Bodhisattvas. And since flowers are the some of the most beautiful, pure, and untainted creations of the natural world, they are perfect offerings in most any setting. Even when they fade, they often remain at Buddhist altars as a reminder that all things in this life fade as well; as a Buddhist teaching goes, “whatever is of the nature to arise is also of the nature to cease.”

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha WM

Jody and I placed our offerings at two smaller altars under minor towers to the sides of the main, central tower of the temple complex where Thalay left hers. When we provided our flower, and in return were given freshly lit incense to also place before the Buddha statue, which often are missing their heads, most stolen eons ago since they are much easier to transport than entire solid-stone effigies.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha 2 WM

Incense is thought to have a calming effect on the mind, although you must see my blog Serene Sanctuary for quite a different take on the role of incense in Buddhism served up by a head monk himself. In offering incense to Buddha, we are, in essence, offering our own peace of mind. It serves to remind us that we always wish to offer a little bit more patience, calmness, and peace to the world, thereby attaining those qualities for and in ourselves.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple attendant WM

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense for Buddha WMOf course not being practicing Buddhists, Jody and I only did what we were comfortable doing. I have and always will respect the worlds’ great religions, but I will admit that I feel much more spiritually centered and less conflicted in a Buddhist setting than I do or have in any other religious setting. In making my offering, I paused to reflect on all that I have to be thankful for, and for all that I still have left to do in my own journey forward towards fuller awakening. In no way do I claim to be on the path of enlightenment. Or on any path to that end. What I will admit is that I remain a student to what spirituality can teach me, and love, unity, and peace in our lives is an obtainable goal worthy of which to strive.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, weather stone and wild flowers WM

In the meantime, however, I continue to swim in the muddy waters to which most of us seem relegated. For me, however, the lotus blossoms at the surface become clearer every single day.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, ladies peek WM

 

 

Sources used in this Blog:

http://buddhists.org/buddhist-symbols/the-meaning-of-the-lotus-flower-in-buddhism/

http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_lotus.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offering_(Buddhism)

http://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/dodrupchen-III/offering-flowers

https://essenceofbuddhism.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/why-do-buddhists-give-offerings-to-the-buddha/

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/theravada.html

Power in Poverty


“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” ~Mother Teresa

Floating Village on the Mekong River

Floating Village on the Mekong River

The blog I authored yesterday about the real nature of possessions got me thinking last night, during a very late night of sorting my own possessions in the midst of our three different moves, of a fling I took to the Far East back in 2007.  It involved a trip into Cambodia, one of my most memorable trips, and although the main thrust of that foray was to see and experience Angkor Wat, I also took a river trip along the Mekong to a “Floating Village,” made up of primarily Vietnamese (see above).

The fascinating issue here centers not primarily on possession, but more on the nature of poverty.  And not poverty with a Western flare (so to speak), but poverty seen through a completely different cultural filter, one that may be hard for many if not most Westerners to understand, let alone appreciate.

There is no question that most people in this rural part of Cambodia along the border with Vietnam live in what we would consider severe poverty.  That alone is hard for any of us reading this – with a computer, an internet connection, besides the discretionary time to spend reading….  Oh, and just consider that fact that if you are reading this, you CAN read (and think a teacher, mind you). 

People are the Ultimate Power

People are the Ultimate Power

The question is, if you lived in such conditions, what would you do with a very limited amount of power.  Not like power over the weather or our destiny.  But simply electrical power.

As you can see from my photos of the trip, the nature of this lifestyle is quite unique.  The homes are all located in a flood plain of a major Asian river, and most are not placed on pilings, but rather they float.  Most people live a typical 3rd world rural existence, working primarily agriculture.  And like most other similar areas, without the idea of birth control (not even considering access), there are large families, and kids are both independent and put to work very quickly.

Homestead Dichotomy

The Dichotomy of Homesteads in Rural Cambodia

There are also floating shops, stores and services for all the typical needs of life.  But not too many wants….

So, back to the central question about power.  There is a sense of wordplay here between power and electricity.  What we all take as background, as something that is simply “there” when we need it, in quantities and qualities required, is also there when  we want it.  And needing and wanting are two quite different things.  In a very basic analysis of the modern first world, electricity does indeed equal power. 

The Most Reliable Form of Washing Machine

The Most Reliable Form of Washing Machine

Look at it this way.  The first world has moved from agriculture, through manufacturing, trailing off in technology, but fully enveloped in information.  Decades ago without access to the snail-mail service, and then landline-based phone service, people were at a severe disadvantage.  Today that still holds partially true; however, real and substantial disadvantage now portends from lack of internet access.  Which requires computers.  Which require electricity.  Steady, constant, quality power.

So, in this floating village, as you might guess, there is extremely limited electricity.  There are no power lines, very few generators (which are mainly reserved for tourist shops and restaurants), where most fuel goes to a few boat engines…. 

But there are batteries.

Like large car or marine batteries.

Which are used daily, picked up by boat service and recharged at a charging station, and redelivered prior to dark.

Battery Recharging Shop

Battery Recharging Shop

And these most people have, and consider prize possessions.  So, back to the central question:  what we YOU use such a limited amount of power for?

So, maybe this battery power would be used for lighting.  Lighting allows an expansion of productivity, which may be important to people who probably measure their potential incomes and livelihood by the arc of the sun in through the skies. 

Nope – there’s candles and oil for lights at night.

How’bout refrigeration?  Being able to store and preserve food over time certainly would lend a dramatic improvement in quality of anyone’s life.

Floating Dry-Goods Grocery Store Delivery

Floating Dry-Goods Grocery Store Delivery

Nope – there’s a daily delivery of dry goods and foodstuffs from a floating grocery store, as well as fresh dairy (and adult beverages) available from a floating drink vendor.

Floating Drink Sales

Floating Drink Sales

Maybe you would use if for a small combination washer/dryer, commonplace throughout Asian where space and economy are so very important.  Oh, and the top brands of these appliances are made by the Asian car manufactures!

Nope.  There’s laundry service as well.  And of course the river is used for manual washing, and solar wind energy provides all the drying most all day long.

Floating Laundry Service

Floating Laundry Service

No, all these ideas are sound and completely plausible.  And there are all taken for granted in our lives and lifestyle.

No, what really matters to the people of this floating village is…

…what for it…

Television.

Look at the photos closely.  The photos provide all the clue necessary to deduce the use of power in this village….  Look at all the arerials, tall antenni needed to drawn in a signal transmitted by the city of Siem Reap many, many miles away!

TV Antenna and Traditional Wedding Dress

TV Antenna and Traditional Wedding Dress

It seems almost inexplicably that these people would turn to TV above all the other necessities of life.  Television is a want, not a need.  And there could be wholly rational, sound, logical arguments for using such a limited power supply for most anything else.

Floating Junk & Color TV

Floating Junk & Color TV

But in their world, perhaps, power is not as important as escape.  If you think about it, television for many is a way of dreaming made concrete.  A way to breakout of the drudgery of daily life and live an existence that is simply beyond reach and physical attainment.  It is, without doubt, every bit as important to these peoples as the substance sustainance of life itself.

There is indeed power in poverty, even in the most rural and remote corners of the earth.  Next time your thrown a light-switch, turn a computer on, or run any appliance in your house, think about how rich and gorged our lives our with such abundant power.  Give thanks, be thankful, and acknowledge the richness of life where, for us, the grass is certainly greener.

Floating Dreamers

Floating Dreamers

And please, never stop dreaming….