I’ve been enjoying Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. And like many folks, I’ve grown quite fond of Iroh, the old cool-headed firebender who does his best to guide his honorable yet stubborn nephew Zuko. Not only is the tea-loving ex-general a spin on the “old wise man” archetype, but he is later revealed in the Avatar series to be a prominent member of a group known as the Order of the White Lotus. The secretive order is made up of leaders from different nations who work to maintain balance between the powers of the various peoples of the world, much like the Avatar. In the The Last Airbender, they fight the expansion of Iroh’s own country, the Fire Nation.
The Order of the White Lotus shares similarities with, and is very likely inspired by, the lotus societies of China. The lotus societies were also rather secretive and, at times, rebellious. They also have their origins in the work of the first Pureland ancestor, Huiyuan.
Huiyuan founded the White Lotus Society, a group of monastic and lay Pureland Buddhists who gathered together to revere Amitabha. Not only did these Buddhists share a practice, they were also dedicated to each other, promising to meet one day in Sukhavati. After the successful establishment of the first lotus society, it is said that Huiyuan planted others.
After Huiyuan, the lotus societies would grow, and soon a spirit of community and political engagement evolved. Although largely keeping a Pure Land tradition, lotus societies would also form their own syncretic traditions, combining Taoism and Mancheism. The movement would also become millenarian in the idea that many adherents believed that Amitabha or Meitraya Buddha would descend upon the Earth and bring peace. They would also prove to be formidable and successful cells of opposition. The teachings of the White Lotus were the basis for the Red Turban Rebellion between 1351 and 1368 which lead to the downfall of the Yuan dynasty.
Centuries later, from 1796 to 1804, the White Lotus Rebellion would prove to terminally weaken the Qing dynasty, even after being crushed. Out of the movement rose the White Lotus military leader, Wang Cong’er. Her success in guerilla tactics against the Qing were noted by her admirers who compared Wang Cong’er to Hua Mulan.
In a time when this country is witnessing fascism, including the government’s use of federal police to beat, shoot, and kidnap protesters, I am finding inspiration in the lotus societies both historical and fictitious. They are a reminder that Buddhism has always been engaged in the world. Sometimes its followers bring down regimes.
Namo Amida Bu
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