White Lotus Day and Its Meaning
White Lotus Day is a date on the calendar, but it is also a holy time.
A Commemorative Date
As a May 8th date on the calendar, White Lotus Day commemorates the passing of H. P. Blavatsky out of the sorrows, pains, and tribulations of this world to a state of greater Life, Light, and Love. The anniversary of H.P.B.'s death was named by her Theosophical Twin, Henry S. Olcott. The Colonel records the origin of the commemoration in Old Diary Leaves (4:452-4):
As we have been celebrating the anniversary of H.P.B.’s death now for eight years, and as, undoubtedly, the ceremony will be continued, it may be as well to put on record the Executive Notice of 17th April, 1892, which led to the observance of the event. It was worded as follows:
“In her last Will, H. P. Blavatsky expressed the wish that yearly, on the anniversary of her death, some of her friends ‘should assemble at the Head quarters of the Theosophical Society and read a chapter of The Light of Asia and (extracts from) Вhagavad-Gītā’; and since it is meet that her surviving colleagues should keep green the memory of her services to humanity and her devoted love for our Society, the undersigned suggests that the anniversary be known among us as White Lotus Day, and makes the following official order and recommendation:
“1. At noon, on 8th May, 1892, and on the same day in each succeeding year, there will be held a commemorative meeting at the Headquarters, at which extracts from the before-mentioned works will be read and brief addresses made by the Chairman of the meeting and others who may volunteer.
“2. A dole of food will be given in her name to the poor fishermen of Adyar and their families.
“3. The flag will be half-masted from sunrise until sunset, and the Convention Hall decorated with White Lotus flowers.
“4. Members living outside Madras can arrange for their food by applying to the Recording Secretary at least one week in advance.
“5. The undersigned recommends to all Sections and Branches throughout the world to meet annually on the anniversary day, and, in some simple, unsectarian, yet dignified way, avoiding all slavish adulation and empty compliments, express the general feeling of loving regard for her who brought us the chart of the climbing Path which leads to the summits of Knowledge.”
Copies of this were sent at once to the London and New York Headquarters, thence it spread to the Branches, and now I presume each of our hundreds of Branches throughout the world annually renews the recollections of the character and services of H.P.B.
That is what the date on the calendar means. It is a time of commemoration, when Theosophists all around the world remember H. P. Blavatsky and her accomplishments, her character and services.
A Holy Time
In what sense, however, might we also regard White Lotus Day as a "holy time"? That way of looking at the event is not directly associated with H.P.B. herself. The Colonel was especially anxious that the Society avoid any "hero-worship" with respect to either of the Founders or anyone else. Rather, "holiness" is associated with the symbolic meaning of the White Lotus and with a proper understanding of what "holy" means.
Let us first consider the latter point. Our ordinary sense of "holy" connects it with organized religion, divinity, devoutness, and piety. But in the case of this word, as with many another, it is useful to pay attention to its etymology. The term "etymology" comes from Greek, in which it means literally "the study of what is true". So what is true about "holy"?
The English word "holy" comes from a root from which come also the words "hale", "hallow", "heal", "health", "healthy", "whole", and "wholesome". Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being are all interconnected; and they all depend on our being unified within ourselves and united with the goodness of the universe. That is also the point of Yoga. "Yoga", which is directly related to the English word "yoke" and indirectly (through Latin "jungere") to "join", means literally "union". To be holy is to have achieved the aim of Yoga, to be whole and united within oneself and with the great Life of the cosmos.
The White Lotus is a symbol, above all else, of wholeness, of unity. The lotus flower carries a symbolic message in Hinduism, Buddhism, Egyptian religion, and elsewhere around the world. Because the lotus is traditionally depicted as having eight petals, it represents the eight major compass directions and thus the totality or wholeness of space, eight being the number of cosmic balance. There are eight spokes in the Buddhist Wheel of the Law, representing the Noble Eightfold Path, and eight trigrams in the Chinese I Ching. The Gnostic ogdoad, or group of eight, consists of eight divine beings or aeons. In Shintoism, there are said to be eight world sages. All of these groups of eight, like the lotus itself, represent wholeness and universality.
In Hinduism, Vishnu sleeps upon the coiled body of the serpent of eternity, floating on the cosmic ocean. From his navel grows a lotus plant, whose flower produces the god Brahma, who creates a new world. The Buddha and the Bodhisattvas sit upon lotus blossoms. The Buddhist mantra mani padme, "the Jewel in the Lotus", represents the union of opposites: the lotus flower being transitory and delicate, whereas the diamond jewel is lasting and the hardest of substances. That mantra is also a profound insight, for we discover the eternal and real in the bosom of the temporal and illusionary. Nirvana and samsara are one and the same. Universality is here; forever is now.
In Egyptian symbolism, the lotus is said to represent sexuality. But sexuality is simply the most intimate and best know manifestation of the cosmic principle of polarity. Everything in the universe comes into being as a result of the interaction of the polar opposites, the duality of samsara. The lotus thus represents creativity, life and death, birth and rebirth, the promise of renewal and of continuation.
Most famously, perhaps, the lotus represents our life in the four human worlds: the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual. The roots of the lotus are in the boggy, physical mire at the bottom of the pond. The stem of the lotus rises through the surging waters of emotion. The blossom of the lotus opens in the fresh air of mentality. And that blossom looks toward the fiery sunlight of spiritual inspiration that radiates down upon it.
Thus the lotus is a symbol of holy wholeness, of the yogic union that combines all aspects of our being in harmonious oneness. Lotus blossoms are said to be pink or blue or white. Pink and blue lotuses represent, respectively, the sun and the moon, that is, all complementary polarities. But just as white light combines and unifies all colors, so the White Lotus is a fitting symbol of the ultimate unified wholeness of all life.
Time and Holiness
White Lotus Day itself can be seen as a representation of the unification of dualities.
On the one hand, as a commemoration of H.P.B.'s life and accomplishments on the anniversary of her death, White Lotus Day represents time and imperfection. H.P.B. was a great woman. But she was human, and all human beings are imperfect until they achieve the state of seventh-round evolution. Colonel Olcott emphasized two things: that H.P.B. was a flawed and imperfect human being and that she was a great teacher and admirable exponent of the way to holiness, that is, the way to Unity of Being.
On the other hand, as a symbol of that very Unity of Being to which H.P.B. pointed the way, White Lotus Day represents the eternal and perfection. The White Lotus symbolizes the holiness or wholeness that is the aim of human evolution to achieve. Like the lotus flower, we are rooted in physicality, often a very murky, grubby condition. Like that flower, we need to extend ourselves upwards, with a resolute, firm stalk through emotional waters to blossom in the pure intellectual air of understanding. We cannot yet actually reach the blazing sun of spirituality, but we can open ourselves to its warmth; we can absorb its energy.
So on White Lotus Day, let us by all means remember and respect that great soul, H. P. Blavatsky. But let us also absorb the lesson of the White Lotus into our inmost being. Let us strive, as she did, to unify the opposites, to become what all of us are destined to be—whole and holy.
Posted here by permission of the author in a version that may be slightly different from versions published elsewhere. Originally published in The Theosophist, May 2008.