Experiencing Borobudur

 The Jakarta Post, 20 February 2003.

There are many ways to experience Borobudur and paths to enlightenment, as there are many ways to destroy this experience, if current course of events are not mindfully considering the wholesome value of the temple.

For scholars of many fields Borobudur is a depository of knowledge about Javanese men and women and their life in the 8th  and 9th centuries, of which a lot of patterns are traceable to Javanese culture of today. Scholars said that there are more that Borobudur’s bas-relief panels can tell us about the Javanese than what the Javanese can tell us about it. Claire Holt, for example, in her classic Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change (1967) traced evolution of Javanese dance movement and other artistic expressions in relief panels of Borobudur (and other temples).

The late Prof. Parmono Atmadi, the first Indonesian with a Ph.D. in architecture documented types of buildings appearing in Borobudur’s panels. His book Some Architectural Design Principles of Temples in Java (1988), the only one of its kind, registered 902 buildings crafted in 696 of the 1460 panels in the temple. Most buildings were of wood, 254 of the total. The rest consists of 147 stone structures, 6 of iron, 1 bamboo bridge, 463 decorative/temporary structures and 31 stupas.

As a designed object Borobudur is the most exquisite among the largest sculptures on earth for its splendidly integrated million parts –all fitting to each other– into one perfect symmetrical form without any unnecessary accessory. Its overall form has been explained as a stupa symbolising the presence of Buddha, or as a mountain symbolising the dynasty that built it, whose name Syailendra literally means Lords of the Mountains. But Gunadharma, its divine architect, might have intended it as a Mandala itself, or just the centre of even a larger Mandala represented by the whole Kedu Plain where Borobudur is situated. A Mandala is a scheme that shows positions of different Gods and other deities in the universe, used for tantric initiation rituals. Kedu Plain is an area surrounded by two pairs of mountains of Merapi Merbabu on the East and Sindoro-Sumbing on the West, and two hilly ranges of Menoreh on the South and Ungaran on the North. Each of them has a distinct form that makes them perfect markers of the Mandala. Their size, as well as that of the whole Kedu Plain, is commensurate to the task of symbolising deities and the universe.

The main task of the Gunadharma is of course to persent the panels illustrating the pages of seven ancient texts of Buddhism:  Mahakarmavibhangga about hell and heaven, Lalitavistara about the life of  historical Budha Sidharta Gautama, Jataka about the incarnation of previous Buddha’s, Gandavyuha about the journey of prince Sudhana in becoming boddhisattva , Jatakamala, Manohara, and Avadanas. The text of Saddharmapundarika is literally recreated in the design of the temple’s top. It is about the re-appearance of all previous Buddha’s together in an open space of “Buddha field”.

Displaying the 1460 story panels, which totals 5,000 meter long when laid in a row, is breath-taking task for any architect in all time. But the real achievement of Gunadharma is not just simply hanging the panels on the walls as long as required. The message and challenging programme for Gunadharma’s creativity is much more subtle and sublime than that. As many travellers have confessed, one experiences spirituality in Borobudur without even knowing Buddhism, by simply enjoying the spatial quality that it offers in its galleries and top. The galleries and the top of Borobudur offer physical experience that is analogical to spiritual journey and enlightenment that can be felt without understanding Buddhist symbols or texts.

Gunadharma created a system of space that, when a pilgrim is reading the panels, he is facilitated to concentrate rightly, or samyak samadhi, and to experience the physical analogy of pradaksina, the Budhist’s concept of mindful, phased understanding and exercise that leads to enlightenment. Pradaksina is more that just a ritual procession. It is analogical to the “path” that one has to take to achieve Buddhahood. One ancient text of Buddhism is called Lamp on the Path, which is the basis of Tibetan Buddhism for more than one millennium. It was written by the venerable Atisha in the the eleventh century after studying under Serlingpa in the vicinity of Borobudur.

A mindful –neither leisurely nor hasty– circumambulatory walk along these galleries is experiencing seclusion from outside world as one is confined by the walls at the right side and the balustrades on the left side. Only the sky is to be visible as the roof for this purist gallery “rooms”.  The movement is not straight. There are 8 right and left turns along each side of the temple. Having to physically turn left and right every several minutes reminds us to be fully conscious of our being in the “now” of time and space, a concept known as samyak smriti in Buddhism. An analogy of experiencing imperfection and temptation is given by the obscure openings at the middle of each of the four sides of the temple.  These are also where the steps to go up (or to go down, if you wish) are located to reach the next levels. It is after the exhaustive movements around and up the galleries, totalling 5 kilometers horizontal distance plus 26 meters vertical one, a pilgrim is offered an analogical experience of enlightenment at the temple’s top. Here one finds a complete quietness in an open space among the 72 Buddha’s, feeling freed from the confining galleries, and at the same time having an expansive “right view”, or samyak drishti, of the reality of Kedu Plain with all its contents in its wholeness as seen from above, surrounded by the mountains that might or might not symbolise the borders of an imagined Mandala.

For all that richness, Borobudur is indeed a very dense and compact design, architecture of space by excellence, and as if sculpted rather than built. But to experience that, one might need to hurry, as things may become worse soon. A feeling of seclusion and mindfulness along the galleries cannot be possible with brooms, buckets and litters next to Buddha statues, and an enlightening “right view” of reality from the top is difficult to have when huge traffic flow is distracting along the northern side, and hotels spring up along the mountain slopes.


Picture: Buddha with buckets and broom.

(credit: Marco Kusumawijaya, 10 January 2003)

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