The Japanese writer Mishima
begins his tale The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love
with a vividly detailed description of "the joys of the [Buddhist] Pure Land." Its "fifty million halls and towers are wrought of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, agate and pearls." There, great bands of heavenly angels are singing and playing sacred music and, in emerald ponds, the myriads of faithful are performing ablutions. The skies are filled with every known species of bird plus "hundred-jeweled" ones, "all raising their melodious voices in praise of Buddha." There are treasure bells suspended on jeweled cords in the air and exotic musical instruments "which play themselves without being touched." But, writes Mishima, the "uninitiated sightseerer cannot hope to penetrate deep into the Pure Land."
We live near Lu Xun Gong Yuan, a large & leafy public park, that for all the visual & aural stimulation it provides, might be the terrestrial counter part of the Pure Land. Should the sightseer, uninitiated or otherwise, have a mere 24 hours in Shanghai, and spend the hours when the park is open (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) wandering within, the sightseer could witness nearly everything that amazes tourists about public behavior in China. At any given moment, within feet of each other, there might be an 8-person harmonica orchestra with ampilifiers; a goodly number of middle-aged couples ballroom dancing in a style more military than romantic; a huge gathering, sometimes easily over a hundred seniors, belting out "red" favorites with revolutionary/nostaglic fervor; a dozen chinese opera singers, a few western opera singers and several dozen players of traditional instruments; practitioners from every school of tai-chi & fan dancers & qi-gong-ers who are walking backwards & slapping themselves; water calligraphy writers and fan painters; serious badminton players; miscellaneous characters on vehicles for the disabled with boom boxes broadcasting latin beats...besame, besame mucho; people strolling in their pajamas or swimming past the gigantic no swimming sign in their underwear. (I'll leave the phlegm hackers & spitters out of it for now.) The sound level... well, it is just as Mishima has to acknowledge in an aside about the birds in Pure Land: "However sweet their voices may sound, so immense a collection...must be extremely noisy." Only on Weds mornings is the park both packed & quiet: it is the morning when the deaf community gathers, a great racket of fluttering hands, utterly, disconcertingly, silent.
Just as in the Pure Land, in the center of all this activity, in the months of June, July & August, deeply silent in its own way, is the lotus pond. Nelumbo nucifera.
It doesn't take a thing of explanation
to appreciate why the lotus is symbolic of Buddha in his enlightened state. Out of a pond that is usually non-descript & mucky, in the summer, arises the great beauty of the lotus, each flower opening in the morning & closing at night for a mere three days. All stages of the lotus are visible at all times: its closed bud rising on its tall stalk (the potential for the enlightened state rising from the mud of suffering), its glorious flowering, a translucent bowl of petals that holds light (the state of full enlightenment & self-awareness,) its green seed pod with its edible seeds that in Chinese medicine "clear heat", and the beautiful brown husk the seeds leave behind once they have dropped down into the muddy murk to begin next year's cycle (rebirth/reincarnation.)
The flower opens at 5-6 o’clock in the morning on the first day and closes at 7-8 o’clock at night. The size of the closed flower bud is not big. On the second day, the flower opens at 5-6 o’clock in the morning and closes at 10-11 o’clock at night. The size of the flower bud at this stage is double the size compared to the first day. The flower will open again at 5-6 o’clock in the morning on the third day and begin to close at 3-4 o’clock in the afternoon. The lotus will slowly wither on the fourth day as the seed in the lotus seed pod matures and can be harvested at about three weeks.
I visit the lotus quite frequently & always there are many other admirers circling, photographing, contemplating, maybe taking solace. The other day a fellow lotus stalker, filled with wonder, tried & tried to point something out to me but I just couldn't see it. Finally, he brought his camera over & showed me the close-up: a dragonfly harbored inside the curl of a lotus leaf.
Not far from our old house in St Louis, there's also a lotus pond, at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I loved that lotus pond too, wished that I could step out on to one of the great waxy viridian leaves & curl myself into the spot at its center where the water bead forms. But in StL, the lotus was an exotic stranger. In Shanghai, nearly every park has a lotus pond in summer; they are as common as pigeons in New York City. And that's what makes me love the lotus pond here most: such spectacular serenity & beauty, a refuge from "the clamors of the world," entirely commonplace.
Imaginative power can provide a short cut for escaping from the trammels of our mundane life...If we are endowed with a rich turbulent imagination, we can focus our attention on a single lotus flower and from there can spread out to infinite horizons.
-The Priest of Shiga & His Love
from Death in Midsummer & Other Stories by Yukio Mishima
|Drawer 7.8: From the top 1. Artificial lotus bud & red light bulbs from the Buddhist Supply shop on Bao'an lu, now closed 2. Tin & glass container, Traditional Chinese Medicines; in the large photo, the container is missing 7 the liner is made from a box of a popular juice drink 3. Lotus flower w/ Chinese knot, macrame 4. Small lotus flower lamp w red light bulb from a shop in the street of the Jade Buddha Temple|
Photo credit of drawer: Bruno David; all others are mine