I wonder if you’ve ever noticed – on many things to do with yoga or Buddhism, or even “New Age” – that there’s generally a picture or a symbol of a lotus flower? I don’t know if we have native lotus flowers in Australia; I know we do have water lilies, which look very similar.
In Thailand I was shown the difference: while both water lilies and lotus flowers are very delicate-looking and come in similar colours, it is the water lilies and their leaves that float on top of the water.
Lotus flowers and their leaves rise above the water.
But what has that to do with yoga or Buddhism, I hear you ask. Well … really the hard-to-notice difference between water lilies and lotuses is: water lilies grow in relatively clean water. Lotuses grow in swamps.
From a murky swamp emerge strong, beautiful lotus flowers – sometimes rising half a metre or more above the water of the swamp!
This is where I want to re-visit the yamas and niyamas – the first two limbs of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. These are the steps we need to take to reach the ultimate goal – enlightenment and total bliss. And if this were a gardening show – and you were the lotus you are trying to grow – I would suggest that you already have the muck and swamp (everyday life) – now all you need are the yama and niyama to help you grow strong and tall.
The yama and niyama help us to gain peace of mind, without which true happiness is impossible.
One of the really great things about the yamas and niyamas is that ANYONE can practise them. We don’t have to be advanced or highly-evolved souls in order to start on the road to eternal bliss.
All we have to do is make a decision to follow the yamas and niyamas and do our best to live by them.
The first yama – the very foundation stone of yoga is AHIMSA – non-harming in its fullest sense: non-harming of any living thing or being, including ourselves. The others are:
SATYA – truthfulness and openness
ASTEYA – not stealing anything, ever
BRAHMACHARYA – not being controlled by our senses and
APARIGRAHA – not being greedy or envious
I want to emphasise that these yamas and niyamas are NOT “commandments”. They are “tools to improve the behaviour of the mind”. 1 Once we can improve, and ultimately control, the behaviour of the mind, we are in a position to experience peace of mind, and from there, true happiness.
So the lotus flower symbolises the hope we have: that, like the lotus that grows in the swamp, we, with all our short-comings, can rise up out of our murky, or difficult, or painful current circumstances and blossom into something magnificent – gentle, pure and beautiful. The yamas and niyamas lead the way.
“Can we be like the lotus? Can we swallow the pain and confusion of life, and thrive on it, and use it to become one of those rare jewels of the world – a truly compassionate person?” 2
I feel both humbled and elated that even I, with all my faults, all my “hang-ups”, and all my problems – both conscious and unconscious – still have the chance to really blossom.
The lotus flower is my new symbol of optimism.
1. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati: “Raja Yoga” (April 2015) Yoga Magazine, p.35.
2. Geshe Michael Roach, “The Diamond Cutter”, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2009, p.52.