The Lotus Flower, a symbol of awakening in Zen Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, blooms in the murkiest, muddiest swamps. Its roots begin to grow under the swamp water and its buds reach their way to the surface where they bloom into stunning flowers. If you want the beautiful lotus flower of happiness, you must also deal with the dirt and the mud of suffering.
No Mud, No Lotus introduces ways to be in touch with suffering without being overwhelmed by it. “When we know how to suffer,” Nhat Hanh says, “we suffer much, much less.” With his signature clarity and sense of joy, Nhat Hanh helps us recognise the wonders inside us and around us that we tend to take for granted and teaches us the art of happiness. The secret to happiness lies in acknowledging and transforming suffering, not running away from it. Thich Nhat Hanhs’ book No Mud, No Lotus provides mindfulness practices, mindful breathing exercises, and inspiration for transforming suffering and finding true happiness.
Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledges that because suffering can be so painful, we often try to run away from it or cover it up by consuming. But unless we’re able to face our suffering and pain, we can’t be present and available in our daily lives, and happiness will continue to elude us.
Nhat Hanh shares how practising mindfulness through meditation and other activities can help us cultivate the energy of mindfulness within everyday life. With that energy, you can embrace pain and calm down, instantly bringing a sense of freedom and clarity. In this article, we will cover what No Mud No Lotus means, where it came from and how it can help you grow towards happiness.
What Does No Mud No Lotus Mean and Where Does it Come From?
No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering is a book written by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the meaning behind the title is that without mud, the beautiful lotus flower could not grow. This is an analogy of life—without pain or suffering, there cannot be happiness. The key is to learn to transform your suffering and not ignore it, for which Hanh lays out a detailed plan on how to do this with various helpful techniques.
At the very beginning of the book is a quote and approach that can be used when someone asks a difficult question about suffering that has no end in sight. During the Vietnam War, when someone would ask him when the war would end, he knew that he couldn’t tell a lie and say it would be over soon, nor did he want to say that he didn’t know because that would only cause even more despair. So he would answer, “Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end someday.”
Nhat Hanh discusses the question of whether or not the Buddha suffered by saying that since he had a body, feelings, and perceptions (like all of us) he should also have experienced suffering. Both physical suffering and mental suffering are unavoidable, but we can suffer much less if we don’t water the seeds of suffering within ourselves. We cannot simply consume to cover up our suffering; we need to practice spiritual skills to develop the ability and strength necessary to look deep into our suffering and make an inner breakthrough.
How Can We Use Suffering as a Tool for Growth?
The Tibetan monk Khenchen Rinpoche discusses four benefits of suffering: wisdom, resilience, compassion, and deep respect for reality. Wisdom emerges when we experience suffering. We rarely stop to ask ourselves questions about our lives when things go well. However, when we’re faced with a difficult situation, we often get out of our mindless state and start thinking about our experiences. To be able to look deeply, to develop what Solomon referred to as a “wise heart,” we must face the eye of the storm (the storm of life).
Nietzsche, a wise philosopher, famously observed that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Suffering can make us stronger and better able to withstand hardship. Just as muscles must endure some pain in order to grow stronger, so must our emotions endure pain in order to strengthen. Helen Keller, who in her lifetime knew much suffering and joy, noted that “character cannot be developed within ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Everybody hurts from time to time and allowing ourselves to feel these strong emotions connects us together in a web full of compassion. The dictionary defines compassion as a “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it,” but the only way we can gain a deep awareness of the suffering of others is by having suffered ourselves. To truly know what suffering is, we need to experience it. It is stated that suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make a leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. Then it is in these moments, that we know other people’s sorrows and joys, and we can then care about their concerns as if they were our own. This allows us to fully understand one another.
One of the most important benefits of suffering is that, by experiencing it, we come to appreciate the value of reality. While the experience of pleasure connects us to the realm where there are no limits, the experience of pain makes us aware of our limitations. When we get hurt, despite all of our efforts, we are humbled by constraints that we sometimes fail to notice when we are feeling good and positive. When in ecstasy, we often lift our heads up to the heavens, to infinity; but then when in agony, we cast our gaze down to the earth, to finite. This is symbolic as much as it is true.
A healthy psychological state lies somewhere between arrogance and modesty. Combining ecstasy and agony creates a healthy relationship with reality, just as the synthesis between hubris (excessive pride) and humility (a lack of self-importance) breeds psychological health. A deep respect for reality implies an acceptance of what we are—our potential, our limitations, our humanity. We recognize that suffering is integral to life and that there are other advantages to pain, including the development of wisdom and compassion. When we really accept grief and sorrow as unavoidable, we actually suffer less than if we didn’t accept them at all.
Nathaniel Branden refers to self-esteem—which he defines as “the ability to accept oneself”—as the immune system of consciousness. A healthy immune system doesn’t mean that we don’t get sick, but rather that we get sick less often and that if we do get sick, our recovery is quicker. Similarly, suffering is likely to never go away completely, but the more our immune system strengthens, the less often we suffer, and when we do suffer, our recovery is quicker.
The fact that suffering has benefits does not imply that we ought to actively seek it out. Just like illness actually strengthens our immune system doesn’t mean we need to look to get sick. We naturally look for pleasure in our lives and try to minimize the amount of pain that we endure. The imperfect and impermanent world around us provides us with ample opportunities to strengthen our immune system, without us actively seeking them out.
The first of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering. We can either reject or accept this truth as an inevitable part of our existence. Then, if we accept and even embrace difficult experiences, we can use our suffering as a tool for growth.
To live is to endure an endless cycle of suffering and happiness. We all yearn to be happy, but we have unrealistic expectations that happiness can last forever. Happiness is merely the flip side of suffering; it is not something permanent. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that mindfulness is the way to overcome suffering and enjoy happiness. He doesn’t teach anything that relates solely to any particular religious belief; rather, his teachings relate to helping us live in the present, which is the only place and time we will experience happiness.
“Without suffering, there is no happiness. So we should not discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.” So, why not try it today? Try to accept any type of suffering and see how you feel afterwards, you never know unless you give it a go. It may just take you one step closer to happiness.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.