The Half-Smiling Lotus

Symbol and significance of Vietnam’s most beloved blossom

Lotuses are one of the most revered flowers in history. In ancient Egypt, they were a sacred symbol of the sun. In North America, indigenous peoples planted lotuses as a food source and spread them across the continent. But nowhere else is the lotus as ubiquitous as in Vietnam.

It is a resilient thing to be born of mud and muck and rise with elegance, strength, and grace. After French occupation and the prolonged terror of the Vietnam War, the symbol is potent for as Vietnam’s national flower. In fact, strolling through Vietnamese towns, you’ll notice three things each have in common: a village gate, a banyan tree, and a lotus pond.

Lotuese are commonly seen in Vietnam
Lotuese are commonly seen in Vietnam

Traveling Vietnam, you’d have to be blind not to not see the lotuses surrounding you. They sprout in sculpture, art, poetry, and food. One of the most common Vietnamese poems about the lotus flower is roughly translated as:

In the pond, the lotus flower is beautiful
Green leaves, white flowers, and yellow stamens
Yellow stamens, white flowers, and green leaves
Near mud, but it does not smell of mud

It’s an ancient bloom. An early angiosperm, they evolved around 65 million years ago and remain little-changed since then. In Hindu myth, the lotus flower was the womb of creation, out of which Lord Brahma was born. Hinduism considers these flowers to hold ever-renewing youth, fertility, eternity, and divinity. Apt, considering a single seed can last unsprouted for 1,300 years–I’d call that eternal youth.

Opening in the daylight, lotus blooms spread their delicate plates of petals wide.Their yellow button center is filled with infant seeds, frilled with stamens and pollen. The flowers draw in pollinators with their sweet scented nectar. The beetles come, intoxicated and bumbling in the fine jackets of yellow dust. At night, the lotus folds its petals and generates heat, creating a warm encasement for the beetles. Pollen-rich within the sleepy womb of petals, it’s only when dawn breaks and the tight fist of flower unfurls that the beetles fly for the next nectar-laden blossom.

It was first domesticated in Asia over 7,000 years ago as an edible crop, and are still popular to eat in Vietnam. The seeds are eaten raw, dried or boiled. A popular dessert is sweet lotus soup, seeds boiled in sugar water. Or candied seeds, a scrumptious and snackable dessert alternative. The young stems are supple in salads, and ‘lotus rice’ is a beloved dish of rice steamed within lotus leaves that features stems and seeds.

Vietnamese lotus rice
Vietnamese lotus rice

Lotus tea is the crowning art of Vietnamese tea culture. It takes around 1400 lotus flowers just to make 1kg of lotus tea, and most of the lotus farms in northern Vietnam grow hectares of lotuses just for tea. 

Tea farmers collect the lotus pollen and intersperse with green tea for two days, allowing the lotus aroma to be absorbed fully by the leaves. The process is repeated seven times over the course of three weeks, when the scented tea is left to cure for six months. This delicately floral blend is distinct amongst teas in Vietnam, historiclaly reserved for just the upper class and now used mostly for special events.

Lotuses are everywhere–within a few block radius, I think I could find them on the signs for a dozen businesses. Yoga studios, massage schools, even a drug addiction rehabilitation center. Its potency as a symbol has spanned history and persists even in foreign countries and disparate cultures. To the Vietnamese, the lotus is a Zen teacher. We are nothing without the muck that makes us.

Thich Nhat Hanh used the lotus as the core metaphor for an entire book: No Mud, No Lotus. In summary, he wrote, “Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Growing out of mud, the lotus blooms pure and untainted
Growing out of mud, the lotus blooms pure and untainted

I’ve recently been trying to take a few lessons from flowers–the ones that are near me aren’t nearly as universally known or coated with layers of meaning as the lotus. Still, to stand amongst them or look out across a field of swaying buds, a sense of peace and anticipation catches me.

In lotus fields, the buds are cut just before full bloom. It’s a stage called a “half smile.” I love that visual: hundreds of greenish pink half smiles, ready to burst into an open grin. It reminds me of the Buddha, the peaceful part-smile that rests on each depiction of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. And there they sit, resting often on a lotus flower.

Humanity is a fickle, painful, murky thing. Clouded in delusion, we grow like the germinated lotus. Slowly whirling up through water to what we feel is light. In Buddhist thought, we all are lotuses. Just as we all contain Buddha nature. All that’s waiting is for the emergence, the blossoming of perfection that comes when the muddy delusion drops away and we stand, half-smiling, in the light of a new day.

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