Why was Borobudur the key to our Java/Bali adventure?
Over a decade ago, while in the midst of my first Southeast Asia obsession, I expounded on the glory of Angkor to one of my Tai Chi partners.
She responded: "Have you ever been to Borobudur? We visited it when my husband and I visited Java. It definitely evoked a sense of awe and wonder."
"The largest Buddhist monument ever constructed."
"Right. Near the city of Yogyakarta, the old capitol of Java. It was incredible. I'll loan you a book on the area."
After reading the short pictorial, which also included a brief history of Java and an introduction to Prambanan, the Hindu temple complex, I was hooked. I knew that I had to visit Borobudur to better understand Southeast Asian culture. Lost in my many creative pursuits, I gave up this desire to the Universe. Then Martin contacted me and offered to take us to the land of my dreams. How could I say no?
Now after an odyssey of travel, excrutiatingly long plane flights combined with equally long drives through endless traffic, we were almost at our destination. What will it bring?
After a relatively short drive from the base of the Dieng Plateau, first east and then south, we reach Yogyakarta.
It seems cleaner, less congested and more orderly than Bandung and Jakarta, the big cities of western Java. Further, while the Dieng Plateau was mountainous, we are now on a rolling plain. Volcanic mountains encircle the area, but we are in the fertile valley of Central Java with rice paddies an omnipresent feature of the landscape.
Always one to downplay possibilities, Martin says: "The place we are staying is nothing fancy - just a series of small rooms. But it's close to Borobudur."
Our minivans enter a gated compound with lovely grounds, a pond and marvelous statuary.
A valet is there to take our bags. As we check in, a concierge immediately provides us with a fruit drink and a damp cloth to wash our faces and hands, sweaty from our long day. As we check in, 3 musicians play traditional Javanese music on percussive instruments. Another ecstatic moment for me. [As an aside: it seems that the transitory information packets of sound trigger most of my 'at-one-ment' experiences. 1) Led Zeppelin on the radio as we drive around Jakarta; 2) the mullahs chanting, roosters crowing, and pouring rain at the mountain side resort; 3) Sumedi singing the story on the plateau, and now 4) the Javanese musicians. Is this a pattern or just random circumstance?]
It's late afternoon as we walk to our rooms.
Me: "When are we going to Borobudur tomorrow?"
Martin: "You can go whenever you want. The gates to the temple open at 6AM."
Me: "What do you mean?"
Martin: "You can walk over from the hotel. It's right over there." He gestures to the north.
My jaws drop and my eyes open wide. "We can walk over from here?"
Martin: "Right. That's why I chose this spot."
Me, still incredulous: "Where is it?"
We take a brief stroll and Martin casually points to the enormous Buddhist monument in the distance.
Martin: "The hotel is nothing fancy. The officials required that it be a Borobudur research center, rather than a resort."
Needless to say, Laurie and I are overwhelmed.
Me, still not believing: "We can just stroll over whenever we want?"
Martin: "Anytime at all. Here's the pass. It comes with the price of the room."
Just as Science is helpless before meaning, words are helpless before Borobudur. Laurie, Voonyen (Martin’s Chinese friend) and I head out at dawn. Emerging from the mist is a complex structure, unlike anything I've ever seen. A buddhist stupa seems to emerge from some kind of alien space ship, something that you might see in Star Wars.
As we approach the entryway, a patterned hive-like structure emerges with the lone stupa arising from the top. Ambling closer, we are able to see that the bottom layers of the stone grey fortress is composed of innumerable Buddhas housed in small cubicles. We also see that Borobudur is composed of countless stone blocks of varying colors. When we are close enough to enter the Buddhist shrine, the peak stupa disappears altogether, obscured the tall walls of bottom layers.
Our early morning companion, as with most, wanted to race to the top first – straight to enlightenment – no journey, no pilgrimage – instant nirvana. On the highest floor, we are greeted by sweeping vistas of the magnificent mist-covered valley – verdant well-ordered rice fields merging with the surrounding mountains, which include volcanic peaks. Certainly a magical experience – awe-inspiring.
Borobudur at Dawn
While the bottom levels of this magnificent structure are rectangular, even square, Borobudur’s top levels are round. This is not apparent from a distance. The many mini-stupas that arise from the top platforms in a bewildering regular fashion are invisible from the lower floors. However, once the 7th layer is reached, it is quite evident that the top layers are round. Square bottom, round top (like the square yoni, round lingam of the Shaivites?). This reflects the Chinese notion that Earth is square and Heaven is round – the circle in the square. This is an important Tai Chi principle, as well – the balance of opposites.
As the Buddha who is reincarnated on earth, we now descend the many levels into the world of Maya. The diversity of the bas-reliefs on the 5 lower levels is jaw dropping – sigh evoking. We walk around each of the bottom layers from top to bottom. Scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as his past incarnations, are presumably etched into the sandstone walls.
The quality and subject matter of the friezes vary tremendously. On the top level, we see many Buddhas all in a row. On the bottom levels, there are everyday scenes – the world of form. Borobudur is one big educational device. Eternal Buddhas on each level watch one’s behavior from half–closed eyes.
Our 2-hour tour finished, the Pulse is over. We require a Rest Pulse of breakfast and even a midday nap – both Laurie and I. Even more significantly, we take a needed Rest Pulse from the extended group – Martin and his entourage including family and friends. Laurie and I are by ourselves for the remainder of the day. After arising, miracle of miracles, there is the perfect reference book on Borobudur in the hotel room. Written by experts, it provides all the information I need to complete an excellent well–researched chapter on Borobudur.
After a modest lunch, Laurie and I head out to experience this religious monument properly – from the bottom up, as the pilgrims would have experienced the architecture – just like any proper journey to enlightenment.
We begin our pilgrimage by examining Borobudur's exposed 'foot' at the base. As mentioned, the bottom levels are square. The standard square base enables the structure to kiss the sky. However, because the planner’s vision exceeded the physical possibilities, they had to expand the base at one point. This expansion hid the bas-reliefs at the base – the foot of the temple. Initially, scholars and philosophers assigned mysterious religious significance to the concealed friezes. Most now believe that the decision to enclose the bottom was ultimately based upon practical considerations.
However, the friezes on what is called Borobudur's 'foot' are of a deliberately different nature than the friezes on the higher levels. The subject matter is supposed to represent the consequences to those who are trapped in the world of illusion. Note the sorrowful looks, the shame, and the sense of fear exhibited by the sculpted figures.
The content of the bas-reliefs of the 'foot' is entirely different than the rest of the friezes on the monument. The friezes of the next 4 layers are meant to represent the world of form. While the pilgrim has escaped the world of desire, he is still trapped in the world of form – the everyday world of thoughts, ideas, and personal life.
Another distinctive feature of Borobudur is the yantra shape of the bottom floors. The yantra, a mystical Hindu mandala, supposedly inspires enlightenment if meditated upon for sufficient duration. In this case, the yantra determines the architectural form of the walls. The aerial view of Borobudur reveals the yantra form of the bottom layers complete with interior circles at the top.
The sharp right angles of the rectangular design prevent one from seeing ahead. Turning a corner, we are greeted with surprise after surprise by the sculpted panels. Regular oohs and aahs accompany our mystic quest upward through the world of form. The many angles also provide an abundance of surface area for the artist to ply their sculptural talents. Just as every square inch of land is covered in agriculture, every square inch of wall is covered in bas-reliefs. The diversity is astounding. There are mythological creatures and voluptuous women.
Buddhas and ancient boats.
Besides the friezes, we also are greeted by Kala's gaping mouth at each doorway and Makaras at the cornices of some of the balustrades.
During our pilgrimage from the bottom to the top, Southeast Asians from a variety of circumstances frequently greet us and ask to take our pictures. The picture takers included multiple groups of school children, a family from the nearby islands, and a couple from Singapore. Just as we are curious about them, they are equally curious about us.
As we head from the bottom level upward, the forms and topics of the friezes become simplified - less village life, more abstract Buddhas. On the bottom levels, tall corridors blocked the vista of the surrounding countryside. Viewing the temple from the outside, these intricate balustrades provide visual interest. On the inside, the walls enclose the pilgrim within the world of form.
Indeed, we are so wrapped up in the gorgeous world of illusion – Maya – that we barely see the omnipresent Buddhas gazing down upon us from ledges on high.
We finally reach the 7th platform - the first one that is round. We are barely able to see over the wall to gaze out in wonder at the magnificent views. As we mover higher, presumably into the deeper stages of enlightenment, we are able to escape the narrow confines of our petty world to experience the grand picture. Not trapped in the immediacy of the moment, we experience the eternal now that is everywhere at all times.
The omnipresent serene Buddhas are also on the top levels. But now they are enclosed, even hidden, within mini-stupas – individual bell-shaped structures. They watch us and perform their magic from within their little cell. Having reached enlightenment, we bow down and pray before the magnificence of existence.
As an Outsider, I’ve had a long life, working on project after project, all behind the scenes. My Person attempts to follow the Divine commands – attempts not to get lost in the illusion of fame and recognition – attempts not to become discouraged by the lack of encouragement. Dwelling with God is my constant internal reward, the real baraka. But now at long last, I finally receive a tangible reward for my efforts - external grace/the visible baraka. Even then, it was not easy – the long flight, the long drive. But it was all worth it and the struggle forgotten, now that we have reached the Promised Land.
Thank you Martin – instrument of the Dharma Wheel.