Navigating the Wheel

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Structure and imagery (continued)

Hand gestures (mudras) are used in Buddhism as symbols of spiritual ideas and teachings.



Some of the traditional mudras are relatively straightforward: if a flat open hand (fingers together) faces downward, it means generosity; if it faces upward, it means the act of teaching. Many two-handed mudras are more complex: a fist grasping an upright index finger, thumbs tucked in, symbolizes the perfect interpenetration of form and emptiness.

In the Wheel, various hand gestures represent specific paths. As sign language, they are allusive but not elusive; the Wheel is meant to be handy—useful and accessible.

The changing hand positions also help to give the Wheel a sense of motion. Engaged Buddhism, a movement itself, embraces movement into the world.

Flowers have  figured prominently in Buddhist art and literature for thousands of years, in their own right and as symbols. The titles of a number of Buddhist sutras refer to flowers because those texts claim to represent the flower (peak) of Buddhist insight. One of the best known is the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or the Lotus Sutra. Lotus flowers often connote enlightenment amid the pain and dust of the world: though a lotus plant has its roots in the mud at the bottom of a pond, above the water it puts forth beautiful lush blossoms, perfect just as they are.

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In the Wheel, the lotus flower does more than adorn. It refers to the process of awakening, which sometimes takes its course the way a flower blossoms, one petal unfolding after another. For some people, the flower may correspond to the search for insight; for others, it may signify the actualization of insight, and the quest for ever-deeper enlightenment. Since engaged Buddhists believe that awakening is actualized in the realm of self-and-others, the lotus doubles as a symbol of bodhisattva mind. Can we press one more load on these frail petals? If so, a flower is a felicitous reminder of interdependence. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes,

A flower is always receiving non-flower elements like water, air, and sunshine, and it is always giving something to the universe. A flower is a stream of change, and a person is also a stream of change. At every instant, there is input and output. When we look deeply at the flower, we see that it is always being born and always dying, and that it is not independent of other things. The components of the universe depend on one another for their existence.

In short, the lotus flower expresses the awareness that engaged Buddhists strive to bring to their involvement in the world.