Padma and vajra: the lotus and the thunderbolt

Posted by on Jun 3, 2013 in Buddhism | 1,343 Comments

One of the first things I wrote when I did my MA in Buddhist Studies was about the significance of the images of the lotus (padma) and the thunderbolt (vajra) in Buddhism.

I see them as two different approaches to the spiritual life (and in fact to life in general). They suit and appeal to different character types. And when you get properly into one myth, you find your way to the other. So really they’re just two doorways into the same thing.

The lotus in Buddhism

The lotus is a flower (considered the most beautiful flower in ancient India). It is born in the muddy gunk at the bottom of a pond.

Out of this unceremonious beginning it emerges. Intuitively it grows out of the earth and up through the water. It is searching for the light. Even though it’s never seen sunlight, it finds its way, without a teacher, to the surface of the pond.

There it breaths the air. The shoot grows into a magnificent flower which opens to bathe in the sun. People walk past and admire its beauty.

And all the time, its roots remain in the gunk at the bottom of the pond. In fact, it requires the gunk for its nutrition, just as much as it requires the air and the sunlight. There’s a kind of union there.

An amazing journey, and yet the lotus is just doing what it was born to do. There is no striving, no doubt. Just a natural movement towards the light. When the conditions are right, the growth happens.

The thunderbolt in Buddhism

The thunderbolt is a different thing altogether. It smashes through everything in its path. It is force and power. It is speed and noise.

The word ‘vajra’ also means ‘diamond’. So there’s a quality of it being strong and sharp. Pure. Beautiful and shining. Born of immense pressure.

How this fits together

The one approach of letting go to your own nature, of trusting that you know your path on an organic level, is vital to the spiritual life.

Anyone who’s ever tried to achieve anything, though, knows that this isn’t the whole story. Not by a long chalk.

If you want to achieve anything, you must strive. You must push through. You must be precise, focused, unstoppable. All that stuff.

For many people, that’s their whole thing. There’s something reassuring about taking action. We like to have a direction and push against obstacles. It makes us feel useful. It helps with the illusion that we’re in control 😉

We all have something to learn. Even the people our culture calls ‘high achievers’.

How to use the padma and vajra myths in your life

We need to work both of these approaches. Here are a few ideas:

1. Try to work out what your natural tendency is. Like I said, we tend towards one approach or the other.

2. Then try to be honest about how you respond to your natural approach. Oddly, if we secretly feel like we’re a lazy lotus, we may counteract this with a forceful vajra approach to life. And if you think you’re an uptight thunderbolt, you may be constantly at the spa trying to relax! If you ask your friends what you’re like, you may be surprised to find they think of you the opposite way to the way you see yourself.

3. Experiment. Try to find the lotus in the thunderbolt and the thunderbolt in the lotus. When you observe closely, in the moment, it’s actually possible to completely blend the two approaches. This is true balance. It’s the way to get things done without getting stressed. Neither hurrying, nor tarrying.


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