The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division , at sacred-texts.com
Amid the dirty waters of small streams and rivers as well as from the semi-stagnant pools of water throughout the tropical area of Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.) can be seen the bright green floating leaves and the lovely colors of the Lotus. Such is the contrast of the flower to the environment wherein it grows, that long ago, Buddha used it as a symbol of his teachings. Growing out of the impure, the dirty, and the waste products of civilization, where sanitation is practiced quite differently than in America, the Lotus lifts high its stately and lovely blossom in such unsullied and pure form that it is an object lesson. Buddha taught that as the flower achieves its mark in spite of its environment, so may men lose their passions and desires and thereby find release in the spiritual serenity of Nirvana.
The Lotus flower thus became a religious symbol as well as a popular food and a sight that creates aesthetic pleasure. The Lotus bud is perhaps the single most popular offering of the Buddhist as he worships at his temple, or his home altar. It is quite often held in the folded hands of the listener within the temple as sermons are given or meditation is practiced. Often in the early morning hours as the Buddhist bonze makes his way through the streets with the "merit bowl" wherein the laity may earn merit by giving cooked rice, there will be a Lotus bud or two within his hand. Likewise, it has come to form a part of Asian architectural and sculptural motifs.
Sometimes the Lotus is compared to the feet, the heart, or the life-giving attributes of the Buddhist female. Moreover it has a history that predates Buddhism as its symbolism was also of Hindu heritage. For instance, Brahman legend tells the story of how when Brahman, the god of the universe, was creating this universe, he went to sleep on the job; as he slept, the Lotus bud appeared from his naval and its petals opened, Vishnu emerged and finished the creation.
Buddha used its four stages to symbolize the four types of people and their distance from enlightenment. The four stages are: (1) the Lotus bud deeply submerged as it starts its development; (2) the bud about to reach the surface of the pond; (3) after the bud has cleared the surface, but with leaf and bud still folded; and (4) the bud standing tall and straight with its beauty undefiled by the mire from which it grows. Because of this symbolism, it is always proper to use it as a floral offering to bonzes when ceremonies are performed or as means of earning merit. The Lotus bud signifies in Buddhism that the worshipper is capable of reaching enlightenment because of the opportunities within his grasp. The unopened bud also tends to last longer than other flowers, and it has the capacity to bloom when placed in water and left before the altar.
Incidentally, there are at least five varieties of the Lotus with the water lily being included, even if not always accepted as a true Lotus; but the Thai people refer to the two types as "string Lotus" and "stalk Lotus" with several types of "string Lotus" with flowers of purple, white to pale blue, and red. There are also at least five kinds of "stalk Lotus", with each having its own characteristics and charm when closely studied.
Apart from its religious symbolism and its aesthetic and, at times, almost ethereal beauty, the Lotus is also a food plant. As food it was known to the Greek Homer and was widely used by the Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asians. Its seed may be eaten fresh or dried and used in sweet soups and deserts. The root may be used in salad, boiled in soup, or preserved in sugar and used as desert. From the root may also be extracted a fine starch used by the inhabitants of that area for certain special foods. Thus, while in many places it might be just a nuisance, the Lotus has been turned into food and given religious values while adding lovely colors in unexpected places.