The lotus symbolizes the co-existence of pure and impure, mundane and eternal, mortal and divine, and offers a promise that earthly things can aspire to perfection.
On a less exalted plane, observers at ponds have always marveled how water droplets skitter across the surface of the lotus leaf like blobs of mercury.
Now, a scientist in Germany has revealed that the secret of the lotus is nanotechnology.
Jewels don’t have too much to do with it.
The Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum, traditionally translated as “The Jewel in the Lotus” (padme is “lotus” in Sanskrit), is perhaps the most common religious invocation on this planet. Every time a prayer wheel is spun, the chant is repeated millions of times through copies of the chant inscribed on paper rolls inside.
I found a website that alerted me to the karmic benefits of an Om Mane Padme Hum screen saver and could even turn my disk drive into a high tech, 5400 rpm prayer wheel.
Another site, www.omanipadmehum.com stated, “we are asking for your help in two ways, 1) install the OmMaNiPadMeHum files on your computer and every computer you can, 2) contribute financial support as you may so that we can convert internet servers into massive prayer wheels”. Remembering that Arthur C. Clarke short story, The Nine Billion Names of God, I declined to turn my PC and sympathetic servers across the Internet into an Om Mani Padme Hum-chanting machine.
The Jewel in the Lotus mantra invokes the intercession of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who renounced Buddhahood in order to take the universe and its creatures under his/her care.
Avalokitesvara appears in a myriad forms, from a multi-tasking thousand armed and headed deity solving everybody’s problems at once; to a feminine form—Kuan Yin—sometimes described as the Chinese Virgin Mary; to the Dalai Lama, whom the Tibetan Buddhists regard as the bodhisattva’s incarnation.
The lotus is one of his/her most commonly-depicted attributes. Buddhists revere the sacred lotus (nelumba nucifera) as a symbol of the Bodhisattva and expression of their creed because it rises from the muck but still retains its purity, just as the soul can arise from the muck of human existence and achieve Buddhahood.
Science now intrudes on the scene.
As reported by Adam Summers in Natural History magazine, the leaf of the sacred lotus is one of the most water repellent materials known to science. Water that strikes the surface of a leaf balls up to a contact angle of 140 degrees—almost a perfect sphere.
But that’s not the whole story.
Wilhelm Barthlott, a German botanist, examined lotus leaves under an electron microscope and discovered that the leaves are not smooth. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. At the microscopic level, the surface is a wild landscape of tiny mountains and valleys that offer water droplets virtually no foothold to cling to.
[A water drop] touches only the peaks of the little wax mountains, leaving such a tiny area in contact with the surface that the adhesive forces between the drop and the leaf’s contours are vanishingly small…cohesive forces…hold the droplet in a nearly spherical shape as it rolls off the leaf.
Adam Summers, Secrets of the Sacred Lotus, Natural History, April 2006
The utility of the arrangement to the lotus is this: when water strikes the leaf, dirt adheres to the water droplet. When the leaf sheds the soiled water droplet, the leaf is cleansed, achieving that wondrous purity that inspires Buddhist practitioners while ensuring that a lotus sitting in a muck-filled pond still has plenty of clean, unobstructed leaf surface available for photosynthesis.
The ingenious Dr. Botthold has patented the lotus leaf micro-pattern as the Lotus-Effect and licensed it to a coatings manufacturer for an exterior paint that needs only dousing with water to keep it clean.
An eye-popping computer visualization of the lotus leaf’s nano-landscape is available here.
You might think That’s the jewel in the lotus.
However, according to Donald Lopez, there never was a jewel in the lotus at all.
In a teaser for his book, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Lopez writes:
Here is something for the initiated: The most famous of all Buddhist mantras, om mani padme hum, does not mean "the jewel in the lotus." It means instead, "O Jewel-Lotus." Nineteenth-century European scholars of Sanskrit misread a vocative ending as a locative ending, thus thinking that the jewel (mani) was in the lotus (padme). The mistranslated mantra took on a life of its own, probably because of its sexual symbolism; for instance it has been the title of scores of books, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Tibet or Buddhism. The mantra is actually a prayer, calling upon the bodhisattva of compassion—of whom the Dalai Lama is the human incarnation—who is depicted holding a jewel and a lotus in two of his one thousand hands. One of his epithets is thus (Mr.) Jewel-Lotus, so the mantra could be roughly translated, "O, Mr. Jewel-Lotus. Please give us a hand."
But to me, there’s still a jewel in the lotus where science, nature, and spirit intersect.