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The Jewel In The Lotus

BY Mark C.E. Peterson April 25, 2021

Lotus on water. Creative Commons.

Campbell was fond of talking about dualities and how getting beyond them forms a critical part of the hero’s journey: dualities like finite and infinite, transcendent and immanent, sacred and profane.

The blooms of April provide us with an excellent opportunity to talk about these dualities and a lesson, a pollen path, to help us navigate between them. The lesson is about a famous flower.

Aum maṇi padme hūṃ.

The jewel is in the lotus.

You’ve probably heard this before. Let’s start with Campbell.

“‘The jewel (maṇi) in the lotus (padme),’ signifies, on one level: the immanence of nirvāṇa (the jewel) in saṁsāra (the lotus); another: the arrival of the mind (the jewel) in nirvāṇa (the lotus).”

(Masks of God, Volume 2: Oriental Mythology 484)

The lotus sinks its roots deep in the muck of the river bottom while the leaves float on the surface. The flower sticks up out of the water entirely and, strangely, it’s one of the only plants that produces seeds and flowers at the same time. Reaching for the sky, sunk in the mud, and numinous beauty nourished in the filth of the world, “the jewel in the lotus” represents the simultaneous presence of the infinite in the finite and of the transcendent made immanent. It represents the experience of moving beyond the dualities that condition our normal mode of thinking.

But how do we do that? The first thing is to acknowledge the conditioning frameworks by which society has taught us to understand the world and ourselves, to recognize the cultural cognitive bifocals strapped on at birth that encourage us to see the world in black-and-white. 

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Black-and-white has certain advantages: it’s easy, it satisfies our need to believe we’ve understood something, and we can take refuge from the complexities of life by reducing the often incomprehensible indeterminacies of ethics, politics, and love to easily digestible categories.

Like all fast food, these interpretive frames provide a delicious and satisfying psychological meal – but provide little nutritional value. Dining on the simplistic, if yummy, world of black-and-white we find ourselves prone to the threat of spiritual heart disease.

“Shut up, I don’t care!” my ego hollers. 

“I want more fries! And pass the ketchup!”

The trick, as always, is not merely identifying the truth – that the world and our lives are tessellated with complex, overlapping shades of gray. Nope. Everybody knows that already. The trick is finding a way to put us into relationship with this truth and for that you need a metaphor; for that, you need a myth.

That’s what the jewel in the lotus does.

I mentioned transcendence and immanence in a previous Mythblast, and how they look leaky. But leaky is only how they look through the bifocals of duality.

Once you recognize the conditioning frames of your understanding, once you take off the bifocals, transcendence and immanence can be seen as simultaneously present in the same moment – everywhere and everywhen as the transcendent unfolds into the field of time and space.

In the West, William Blake probably said this best:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

– but wait a sec: something can be transcendent and immanent at the same time? 


“But isn’t that just a dumb contradiction?” demands my logical brain.

It might look like a contradiction, but it’s not. It’s a paradox. 

Let’s take a quick detour.

Contradiction is the technical term for how your understanding interprets the conjunction of two mutually exclusive statements. Typically we assume one must be true while the other one is false: black and white, finite and infinite, Bears or Packers, etc. 

So far, so good.

In a paradox you are once again confronted by the conjunction of two, mutually exclusive statements but, in this case, both are true. This suggests that embracing paradox is required to move beyond the dualities that lock us into black-and-white thinking and that dualities are dissolved by paradox but thrive in contradiction.

Back to the flowers.

“The jewel in the lotus” does not represent transcendence and immanence taking turns but the paradoxical simultaneity characterized in Campbell’s description of apotheosis from the Hero’s Journey. It is the recognition of eternity concealed in the forms of the finite and the temporal. 

At first glance it is tempting to believe that apotheosis marks the end of a mythic journey, that the jewel in the lotus marks the end of our pilgrimage.

Aha! Enlightenment!

(I mean, c’mon. Apotheosis literally means to “make into a god.” You’d think that’d be plenty.)

Alas, no.

A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion wood engraving. Public Domain.

This experience of seeing the transcendent as immanent and immanence as transcendent is not the end of the journey, but confirmation that we have endured, embraced, and transited the dualities of daily life – a life in which (for most of us, most of the time) the transcendent plays peekaboo, interrupting the finitudes of daily life with disruptive glimpses of the eternal. But those transitory glimpses are bait on the hook of our authentic lives.

I might note in passing, since this year’s April included Easter, that this is a useful way to access the mythological import of Jesus nailed on the Cross. In that moment He represents both the finite sacrificed to the infinite and the infinite sacrificed for the sake of the finite: two mutually exclusive statements, both of which are true. There’s a jewel in the lotus for sure. 

But, as Campbell noted, myth leans toward the comic and away from the tragic mood and I’m compelled now to imagine what would happen if we translated this into Norse mythology. We’d have to expand the symbol to include that rascally squirrel Ratatoskr, maybe as a fish, swimming from root to lotus and lying to the jewel about what the muck has been saying.


Thanks for musing along,

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and former President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

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News & Updates

The great sequence of Holy Week has concluded in the West but begins in earnest in the Orthodox tradition on April 25.

Two birthdays from two traditions: On Sunday, April 25, Jains celebrate the nativity of Lord Mahavira; and, on Tuesday, April 27, Hindus mark the birth of the monkey god, Hanuman.

The three-day celebration of the Theravāda New Year begins on April 26.

The anniversary of the foundation of the Nichiren Sect (1253 CE) is observed April 28.

Ghambar Maidyozarem begins April 30 as Zoroastrians give thanks for the harvest and the creation of the sky.

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