Borobudur – Buddhism rediscovered 1993
Though Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Islam is relatively new to Java. While Muslim territories had existed on the north coast since the first Arab traders arrived, it’s not till the 1360s that the Javanese rulers started embracing Islam while abandoning Hinduism and Buddhism. Today, only pockets of practising Hindus are left on the island of Java. Two of the more sizable groups are the reclusive Badui in West Java and the Tenggerese in East Java. The latter achieved some level of prosperity from tourism, capitalising on the scenic, otherworldly beauty of the Tengger Highlands. Bali is probably the largest and most well-known bastion of Hinduism in Indonesia, but many of the most ancient, authentic and magnificent Buddhist/Hindu monuments are found in Java.
The prehistoric Javanese probably had a civilisation of some sort, but it was not till 2000 years ago that locally produced historical records first came into existence in Java. Unfortunately, little is known about the “original” Java. Along with Burma, Laos, Siam and Cambodia, Java came under the influence of a far more ancient foreign civilisation – India. The only ancient Java we know is an indianised Java. It is therefore not surprising that the religions which dominated ancient Java for the greater part of its recorded history are Hinduism and Buddhism.
Incidentally it is also within this period that some of the greatest architectural achievements were made. With time, the houses and palaces, made mainly from wood, bamboo and straw have been decimated by the elements. Not much is known about daily life during those times. Fortunately, the ancient Javanese had the good habit of building their temples out of stone. All the antiquities that survived the millennia and remain today are stone temples and shrines called “candi”. Their durability offers us a valuable glimpse into the spiritual lives of the indianised Javanese.
Clearly from a forgotten epoch and totally out of context with their modern Islamic surroundings, these antiquities exude the charm and mystery of a lost civilisation. It may make one wonder if aliens had planted them. These ancient Buddhist or Hindu shrines are indeed remarkable in both form and setting. Some, like the Arjuna shrines found on Dieng Plateau, are situated on misty landscapes more than 2,000m above sea level. In terms of size and intricacy, the ancient temples in Java also amaze us. Located just 41km northwest of Yogyakarta, is the most impressive one of all, Candi Borobudur.
When first “discovered” by the Western world, Borobudur was overgrown with trees. Stamford Thomas Raffles (yes, the man who founded modern Singapore) ordered the site to be uncovered. The task was undertaken by H.C. Cornelius, a Dutch military engineer for whom the job proved onerous. It was not till 1975, with financial aid and technical expertise from UNESCO that the monument and its several million pieces of stone were taken out piece by piece and cleaned. A concrete foundation was laid and Borobudur reassembled to its former glory. The mammoth project took modern engineers 9 years.
Borobudur today covers an area of 2500 m² and stands at 35m at the highest point. Some researchers believe that it once stood above a lake and was meant to look like a lotus blossom. Construction was estimated to have taken the ancient builders 75 years. The builders are believed to be subjects of the Saliendra Dynasty. Originally Hindu, the Saliendra Dynasty later came under the influence of Srivijaya in Sumatra and the budding Hindu structure made in the image of Mt Meru was modified into a Buddhist monument. Then, mysteriously, Borobudur was abandoned in the 14th century.
Written in Stone
Borobudur is massive. The size of a sports stadium, it takes at least two hours to walk through if you wish to appreciate the reliefs. After all the superlatives that you have read from the travel brochures, you may be led to believe that the monument is going to take your breath away. Chances are, it won’t. It shouldn’t, at least not until you have really seen and understood Borobudur. The intention of the builder was not to impress but to educate. Many package tours advertise Borobudur as a temple. Having grown up in Singapore, I used to see Chinese temples as places where kiasu people go to donate money and pray for their own safety and personal prosperity. In ruins, Borobudur is ironically better able to convey Buddhist principles to the open-minded and astute visitor than opulent structures brimming with wealth.
It was early in the morning when I arrived at Borobudur. The gate had just opened and there were hardly any tourists around. Presently, a voice came over the PA system, welcoming us to one of the Seven Wonders (actually, it’s not). From a distance, Borobudur looks like a hill of rocks. But even from a distance, symmetry shows and no visitor will fail to see that it is a manmade structure. As I approached, the symmetry became even more obvious with steps and repeated structures. The sun was mild and the carved rocks lay bleak and lifeless. On the gallery, there was a sweeper who added a sense of mundane reality to the mystical-looking stone monument. When I came close enough to look at the approximations between the individual blocks of stone, I made a stunning discovery – no cement!
Like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of the monument were so precisely crafted that millions of pieces of them could be stacked up and form a self-supporting mega structure. That’s ancient Javanese engineering! I walked through the “first” gallery, which seemed to be walled on both sides. It gave me the feeling of enclosure and the slanting rays of the rising sun did not quite fill the gloom. Brightly illuminated on the parts of the exposed first gallery, I saw reliefs depicting desire and the life of the common man, complete with images of sexy nymphs. This is the realm of Samsara.
However, the greater part of the actual first gallery is covered with a thick wall of rock. Why is it that after painstakingly carving out these reliefs, the builders had decided to cover them up? One explanation is that the builders felt that while desire must be depicted, they must also be hidden from the eyes of people seeking Enlightenment. The second and more plausible explanation is that at some stage of its construction, the monument threatened to collapse. So a wall was constructed to reinforce it.
Ignorance Of The Sheltered
The reliefs here tell many stories of Sakyamuni in his previous lives, as well as the story of how Prince Siddharta became a Buddha. It all began with Queen Maya of Kapilavastu, a very small kingdom in present-day Lumbini, Nepal having a dream in which a white elephant carrying a lotus blossom in its trunk, encircled her and then entered her womb. When she related the dream to the king, he consulted a group of Brahmin priests. The panel of 64 experts predicted that the queen would soon give birth to a baby who would grow up into a man with such power and wisdom that he could rule the whole of India. However, if he were to see terminal sickness, old age, death and asceticism, he would renounce his throne and use that power and wisdom to free mankind from ignorance.
In 543 BC, Siddharta Gautama was born as Prince Siddharta. Pampered from birth, the prince received the best education, shelter and nourishment his parents could afford. His future was decided for him before he was even born. His royal parents, who feared one of his possible destinies, made the “obvious” choice – that he would be king of India. As far as Siddharta was concerned, death, old age and debilitation did not exist, or they existed but would never directly involve him. His only concern was to become a scholar and a well-trained military commander so that he might one day rule India.
He married a lovely woman, had a beautiful child and life seemed so perfect. But the poor Siddharta’s only connection with the outside world was a garden not far from the palace. It was here where he had his fateful encounter with the old, the dying, the dead and the ascetic who wished to find a way out of all this. Siddharta renounced his kingdom and ventured out to face the reality from which he had been deprived.
At first, he followed the path of asceticism and later realised that nothing is gained by deliberately inflicting injury and discomfort on one’s body. Through meditation, Siddharta discovered that to put an end to Dukkha or suffering, one must first realise that as long as one lives, pain and suffering are inevitable. Being humans, we seek a way out of all this suffering. The most obvious game plan is to acquire and possess more and more material wealth and comforts. Almost inevitably, people who follow this game plan are disappointed when things are always “not enough”. Life at either extremes of deprivation or opulence will not lead to happiness. A balanced Middle Path is the best way.
But in spite of the Buddha’s teachings having been around for thousands of years, is Sakyamuni’s childhood not being enacted every day, in almost every part of the world, including places we call home? Have I not been struggling with an illusory aim, only to find inner peace, away from a society that is always overdoing things and widening the margin of safety? Skandia International’s Wealth Sentiment Monitor did a survey in 2012 and found that the global average “happiness income” is around US$161,000 p.a. for 13 countries surveyed. Globally, the average amount needed to “feel wealthy” was US$1.8 million. Singaporeans, however, stood out on “wealth needs”, with US$2.91 million needed to feel wealthy. Are we just playing safe, or are we such greedy and difficult people to please?
As the morning sun rose, the grey stones took on a golden hue. I was coming to the end of the squarish terraces. The walls seemed lower. The Buddhas, some of which were headless, seemed closer. The next step on Borobudur took me to the circular terraces. There were no walls or balustrades on these terraces. They were evenly dotted with stupas, each a bell-like structure with a Buddha within.
From this platform, I could feel a gentle breeze, see the deep blue sky with near-perfect pyramids of solidified lava and verdant green plantations – a simple pleasure you won’t get even if you own a unit in the Pinnacle Duxton. On this higher level, the monument had ironically become simpler. More importantly, it opened up, acknowledging its own smallness in the vastness of its surroundings. All that we had seen or will see in the material world is transient and illusory. When too many material possessions clutter the scene, we see and understand less of the real world. By doing away with intricate walls and galleries, the majestic monument of Borobudur has ingeniously engaged in self deprecation. This is the realm of formlessness or Arupadhatu.
The Big Picture
As I ascended the highest terraces, the stupas looked even simpler and were fewer in number. On the top level, was the main stupa. Though I couldn’t see any openings, there are supposed to be two empty chambers within. Why empty? Perhaps there were treasures inside that got stolen. Perhaps the emptiness meant the highest level of Enlightenment where the individual loses all concept of self, worldly possessions and attachments both physical and emotional.
For me, Borobudur has delivered a powerful message beyond all the burning incense, freeing of animals, blessings, offerings, complex rituals, taboos, wishing and chanting. The wisdom of Prince Siddharta’s enlightenment are not easy to grasp and adopt in a truly meaningful way. That’s because its logic and common sense make it unappealing to an insecure world that needs miracles to overcome fate.
Some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha was already teaching his disciples to accept, protect and live harmoniously with nature. He had the magnanimity to allow his disciples not only to listen to other teachers but to question his teachings. Indeed, environmental concerns, compassion, human rights, moderation, the free flow of information and even democracy are not Western inventions as some autocratic leaders would have us believe. In a modest and definitely incomplete way, Borobudur has enlightened me. May you find the meaning of life on your own spiritual journeys. Happy Vesak Day.
This blog entry was adapted from Chan Joon Yee’s e-book Knapsack Notes, downloadable at Amazon Kindle.