Borobodur: Scratching the Surface

I suppose if I really wanted people to read this post, I’d arrange it in a “top 10 list” of things to know about Borobodur. But that approach assumes people are interested in a World Heritage site in Central Indonesia, or that it has some kind of value for their understanding of culture, religion, and history generally.

It’s taken me quite a while to realize that a majority of people could care less about the why and how of a significant place because it has very little to do with the drama of their own lives. Sure, it’s nice to have a photo that documents a visit and destination reached, but when it comes to the details, symbolism, history or other features that enable the site to exist at all, let alone exist over a span of 12 centuries, most people have other things on their minds. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of how things tend to work in a person’s consciousness. I’m the same way of course, and can listen to discussions about mountains, Japan, good writing, etc. until the cows come home. But try to keep my attention about country-western music, pets, American politics, or the economy, and I’m like a second-grader gazing out the window.

Here’s what I find really fascinating about Borobodur. From the very beginning, even before Boro. was builit, there were global networks of political, religious, and economic influence that all intersected in Central Java. It seems that a clan with ethnic and historical roots to southern India, the Sailendras, were able to come into this area and establish a powerful kingdom with Buddhism providing religious legitimation and orientation. This was possible because the entire region had been decimated by a catastrophic eruption of one or more of the local volcanoes around 565 CE. That meant agriculture, kingdoms, transportation networks, local societies and more all collapsed and had to relocate away from the lava flows, ash and mud slides, and general devastation.

150 years later, however, a power vacuum in Central Java presented an opportunity to the Sailendras, who established their regional supremacy after a couple decisive battles. They then formed alliances to promote commerce and defense with local Hindu kingdoms, as well as with Sri Lanka and the Bihar region of northern India, which were predominantly Buddhist at that time (though Hinduism was making a comeback, and Islam was yet to arrive).

We can call the Shailendras “Buddhists” but should not impose our contemporary understandings of the religion on the 8th century. For one thing, it is likely that the “Buddhism” in practice nearly a thousand years after the historical Buddha lived and taught had become a hybrid blend of early teachings, Mahayana or “great vehicle” emphasis on achieving enlightenment and thus liberation from the cycle of existence, esoteric and tantric practices derived from Hinduism, and some ancestor spirit veneration added to the mix. All these features are clearly evident in the design, layout, and structure of Borobodur.

About 60 km. to the south, there is an inscription at a site called Ratu Boko on a hilltop overloooking the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan (see earlier post), dated 792, that is interpreted as a kind of blueprint for Borobudur. The carved reliefs tell of the search for enlightenment, and the sculptures project a powerful sense of meditation and detachment from the winds of worldly passion.

“I pay homage to the Cosmic Mountain of the Perfect Buddhas…endowed with the awe-inspiring power of wisdom, whose profound caves are knowledge, whose rock is excellent tradition, whose brilliance is owing to its relic: the Good Word whose streams are love, whose forests are meditation…truly (it is) the Mount of Few Desires, which is not shaken by the eight horrible winds: the worldly qualities.”

(frontispiece to Borobodur: Prayers in Stone)

The “Cosmic Mountain” referred to is Mount Sumeru, the pivot of the cosmos that exists in at least four (and probably more) dimensions in the Himalayas. Its popular name is Kailash and it remains unclimbed and designated sacred by Hindus, Buddhists of all denominations, the Tibetan bon tradition, local shamans, and, surprisingly enough, even by the Chinese government which now administers the region in south eastern Tibet. The waters of the earth are said to originate from the streams of Sumeru/Kailash, and it forms the archetypal shape that meditators have assumed for millennia.

Building a colossal temple in Central Java becomes a display of cosmic, political, and religious power for the Sailendras, as well as an embodiment of key Buddhist principles held to be valuable at that time. The name Bore-Budur, comes from Javanese term bhudhara (mountain).
The archaeologist Casparis suggested that Bhūmi Sambhāra Bhudhāra, which in Sanskrit means “The mountain of combined virtues of the ten stages of Boddhisattvahood”, was the original name of Borobudur.

The temple also gave rulers a chance to pay homage to their ancestors, which is the religious orientation at the heart of ancient Javanese culture and society. One might think there is a philosophical conflict between a religion that teaches there is no intrinsic reality in concepts, forms, or conventions and a religious and cultural heritage of venerating the spirits of ancestors. But this problem came up all along the route Buddhism traveled from India to the east, with the Chinese as the first people who resolved the tension via ritual.

Think of it this way: your ancestors are not Buddhists like you are, and so how can you help their spirits achieve liberation from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth (samsara) ? The question is answered through ritual, where the ancestors can be blessed and empowered so they too can achieve liberation. Ritual is one form of merit-making activities in Buddhism, like building a major temple that helps spread the teachings of the Buddha (dharma). Merit-making thus encourages understanding about the connections between desire, attachment, dissatisfaction (when attachment leads to suffering), and awakening to the chain of causality–the first major step towards becoming an enlightened being, or “bodhisattva” (bodhi or “wise” and sattva, “being.” “Wise” here implies awareness of the causal connection between desire and dissatisfaction/suffering (dukkha).)

So how did they do it? How did they engineer this immensely heavy and complicated structure in a river valley of soft and fertile soil? They built in the same spot an early Hindu temple took shape but was never completed (due to the eruption). It was on a slight hill with solid rock providing a foundation, although they could not have known this strata rested on less stable material that would later cause the building to twist and turn.

The bulk of the structure consists of six square terraces connected by steep staircases. Each terrace has highly detailed carved reliefs, 2,670 in all, in two layers on both sides, recounting the story of the Buddha’s past lives and his enlightenment (on the lower levels) and the story of Sudana’s quest for enlightenment (on the upper three). The correct way to view the reliefs is to start from the east gate (the main entrance) and circulate around so that the entire structure becomes “a teaching graphic.”

The monument’s three divisions (the square terraces and central stupa at the peak are regarded as one division) symbolize the three realms of (Mahayana) Buddhist cosmology, namely Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and finally Arupadhatu (the formless world). Each one of these levels has to be navigated by the monk or layperson seeking liberation until nirvana is evident. Borobudur is built as a single large stupa, and when viewed from above takes the form of a giant tantric Buddhist mandala, simultaneously representing the Buddhist cosmology and the nature of mind.

No doubt this is way too much information for a casual read. There are, however, a couple more items that deserve mention due to their prominence.

Out of the 504 seated Buddhas at Borobodur, over 300 are headless. As my colleague, the UC Berkeley art-historian Greg Levine has shown in his research on what he calls “buddhaheads,” the black market is insatiable for these iconic images. Many of the statues have been repaired and restored but it is still somewhat dismaying to see the extent of pilfering that has gone on.

Each side of the temple has Buddhas in niches, each one of which is guarded by the Hindu/tantric deity Kala. According to one source, Kala “swallows the past” and thus frees the individual to proceed unencumbered on his or her spiritual path.

On the east side, the Buddhas all display the hand gesture (mudra) that calls the Earth deity to witness at the moment of Buddha’s enlightenment (bhumisparsa mudra). On the west side, we see the gesture for concentration and meditation (dhyana mudra). Facing north, the Buddhas convey the mudra for reasoning, deliberation, and virtue (vitarka mudra), and on the south, the vara mudra displays benevolence and charity.

There is one more cardinal direction: the zenith, where the cosmic Buddha Vairochana manifests the dharmachakra mudra indicating the “turning of the wheel of the dharma” or the significance of Buddha’s teaching about the relationship between cause and effect and liberation. We find this gesture in the 72 seated Buddhas on top the three upper terraces that are open to the surrounding landscapes.

This is just scratching the surface! Trying to summarize Borobodur in a blog post is like tackling the Sistine chapel or the the pilgrimage site of Lourdes: there are layers upon layers of information that, when connected, create a portrait of impressive complexity. I’m going to stop here and forego the recovery of Borobodur in the 19th and 20th centuries, which is a tale of colonialism, good intentions to preserve the jumble of stones from being swallowed by the forest but with unsatisfactory results, and the eventual post-independence initiative that eventually mustered the necessary funds, expertise, and follow-through to rebuild and preserve Borobodur as a World Heritage site.

Since I’ll use some of this information when I teach my “Buddhist Paths” class in the future, I will likely go back and edit the post with more information. Apologies for the length and thanks for reading thus far!


Borobodur, Round Two

Even though I knew it was not very smart to give my knee another workout on the same day, a couple hours of ice convinced me that I could handle it. I went out again in the late afternoon to see how tourists experience the temple (is it really a temple, or was it designed as a place of pilgrimage and instruction about the bodhisattva path, or is it now only a monument?) The scene is not serene. Noisy kids, pushy groups, trash here and there, and on the way out a considerable gamut of sellers hawking junky souvenirs. The exit route goes through a maze of shops of all types, and it is mindboggling for me to imagine a life spent here in these stifling hot passages (even when it’s raining).


By the time I exited the grounds, rain was coming down hard and shelter was needed, so I ended up at coffee place outside Manohara hotel grounds. I walked in from the snarl of motorscooters/cycles on the main road to the sounds of Crosby, Stills and Nash. A beautiful woman who is the owner of the cafe was listening to CSN’s first album, and must have known I was coming so I could drop my bag, sit down, and then be hit between the eyes with the refrain from “Crystal Ships” that goes, “We have all been here before…”. Stills’ silky guitar solos moved me again for about the thousandth time. (And what Buffalo Springfield song featuring a Stephen Stills solo was it I played in the Little River, Kansas restaurant jukebox as an act of defiance (I thought) and no one even looked up?) The coffee house music then transitioned to Ella Fitzgerald singing the blues, w/ Hammond organ backup. While eating my fried rice and veggies dinner, I listened to her dueling it out with the call to prayer from a mosque next door. Jazz over religion every time!

Went out in the evening around 8 to linger in the shadows from a distance and watch a poorly performed Javanese dance in the restaurant area for a few minutes. Overhead, a waning full moon was drifting in and out of the clouds. Priests at the temple in the late 8th century would have seen it in exactly the same position as I did.


Borobodur, Round 1

imageBorobodur, Round 1, November 20

(Whoever might read the following should know that my motivation for visiting Borobodur is both academic and personal. I use it in classes as an example of how religion benefits from global networks, from those established in the 8th century CE to the casual tourism that dominates the scene today. There will be passages with copious details, so don’t think I’m being overly compulsive! And personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the site’s rich symbolism and venerable age, and so one might say it was in a top 10 list of places to visit.)

I got a glimpse of the temple from afar the morning I arrived but did not venture closer due to my weak knee and the importance of keeping it iced, which the Manohara hotel staff kindly helped me to do. On my first full day, how could I not hobble forth into this 8th century wonder of Mahayana Buddhism and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites?

There is a “sunrise tour” run by the Manohara, where a visitor pays about $30 for early access from 4:30 to 6:00. Since there had been rain the previous two mornings, I opted for a 6 a.m. entry. The Manohara is actually within the grounds of Borobodur proper (not sure why, except that it may have once housed international experts who contributed to the reconstruction efforts that began in the mid 1970s) which gave me direct and unimpeded access to the entrance gate. I was 15 minutes early and told to wait. Rather than just stand around, I wandered over to the north side where I found the main exit unstaffed and so could head up the steep stairway, feeling a little conspicuous since I was the only one without a sarong (worn as a sign of respect, even though this is no longer a religious site but one run by the government).

Standard operating procedure for visiting a major temple (in this case, a combination stupa and ancestor shrine) is to circumambulate in a clock-wise manner. To go in the opposite direction is thought to be a tantric practice (more on what this means later) that creates both spiritual opportunities and potential dangers for the pilgrim. So I went up the north stairway to the first tier, then backtracked to the eastern steps, the entrance around which the temple/monument is designed, and headed straight to the top.


To my surprise and delight, no one was there except me and a number of life-size statues of the Vairocana Buddha, deep in meditation. The lower levels are rich with carvings about the life story of the Buddha and what it takes to become a bodhisattva but the upper terraces are completely open to the surrounding landscapes. I had a few precious minutes to myself and, though it was starting to sprinkle, could light incense, positioning it in between the volcanic blocks that form the big stupa on top–the one that is said to evoke a non-attachment to forms, names, concepts, and so forth. As I made a single bow, my wish was for all sentient beings not to suffer. I sensed the moment very clearly, unimpeded by thoughts or anxieties; my two little feet firmly planted on the ancient volcanic stones, water in slight depressions reflecting rain clouds in the sky. That moment was enough, and I could have never returned and still feel satisfied.

After 6:15 a.m., a great swelling of sound and bodies deposited two large student groups on the upper terraces of the monument. Their motivation was not Borobodur but to catch a foreigner speak English to help the students prepare for examinations when they return to Jakarta.

I did my duty, answering questions from w/ a pretty young woman in hijab, her partner, and a young man with an intense expression who wants to go abroad. Rain sprinkles had started even before I climbed to the top, and gradually increased to a downpour as we chatted about their studies, interests, and my trip itinerary. They were happy to continue but I excused myself and headed back to the hotel, soaked but happy, and absolutely delighted that my knee had held up. Breakfast ensued, then an hour with an ice pack that was both relief and therapy for future excursions.


The rest of the morning I read a large format book in my room titled Borobodur: Prayers in Stone, edited by an archaeologist named Soekmono who had spearheaded the reconstruction efforts in the 1970s, and who lobbied the United Nations UNESCO for consideration of World Heritage Status.

T-Shirt Poetry

(all I need are the photos to verify these creative expressions.  Who knows if the wearer knows what his/her t-shirt says…?)
Born to Lose, Live to Sin
Kill! Kill! My Bitch!
Making Business Easy: Narco LTD
I Have Decided to Stick with Love; Hate is too much Work
Integrity in Jesus Christ
“She was armed with beauty” (worn by overweight girl)
My Spouse Lets Me Work! (Borobodur)
Venom Speakers: Poison Your Mind!

Off Trail in the Indonesian Outback, with Consequences

Sitting in a nice room at the Manohara Hotel at Borobodur, enjoying coffee and a view of gardens out the window, I can almost ignore my throbbing left knee. It is a reminder of many important lessons that were learned during a trek yesterday into the deep countryside.

Unfortunately, the young guide in charge of myself and two fellows from Latvia, Sergei and Vladimir, was over-confident that information about trails he got from the caretakers of a Hindu temple was accurate. As a result, we ended up scrambling up and down a very steep hillside with only a marginal trail, and sometimes hardly any trail at all. Add some mud and slickness to the rocks (when available), jungle conditions in a sauna climate with no wind, and you get the idea. We came within about 15 minutes of the ridge but the dead-end of the trail was definitive, so we had no choice but to retrace our steps.

The downhill was far worse than going up, and that’s where we all suffered our cuts, bruises and, for me, a slip and slide that wrenched my knee. I heard it go “pop” but since there was no swelling afterwards, I thought that perhaps it was temporary. Time will tell, but today is definitely a go-slow affair. I may or may not make it to Borobodur even though I have a two-day pass, courtesy of the hotel that is on the grounds.

As you can see from the photos, however, the first part of the hike was quite scenic and very enjoyable. The second part was a rather painful reminder that I need to trust my instincts and experience, and not defer to a person who is supposed to have the skills to lead paying customers into a memorable experience. It is memorable for sure, but not for the reasons we hoped.  Tomorrow will likely teach me whether I actually tore something or if recovery is possible.  Oddly enough, I am fairly accepting of the situation and really blame no one but myself for not speaking out.  Sergei, who walks regularly in a huge forest near his home in Riga, Latvia, says exactly the same thing: he also knew we were on a sinking ship but, out of politeness and good manners, didn’t protest our route up the wet mountainside.

Even a wild boar in Japan would have known better.









Religion and Politics in Central Java (Shh! Don't say it too loud!)

Catholic Minority, Muslim Majority…and yet…

My two classes taught at Sanata Dharma University helped me understand better some of the issues facing Indonesians as they continue to navigate their society’s transition into the current global context. The country won its independence from the Dutch colonialist regime only after WWII in 1945 and has struggled with the balance between religion and secularism in ways similar to India…which is to say, with great difficulty, conflict, and ongoing tension.

A Little Background on Islam in Indonesia

If you are wondering why Indonesia might warrant international attention regarding religion and secularism, the answer is that there are more Muslims here than anywhere else in the world. Basically, there are two varieties: a traditional kind of Islam that had no trouble co-existing with other religious traditions, and a more recent and conservative type that strives for an Islamic state ruled by sharia laws (or laws derived from the Qu’ran/Koran). The former began in the 1500s as traders from India settled in Indonesia and practiced their religion. It later grew in strength as a reaction to Dutch colonial rule and the imposition of Christianity. The conservative type, called “puritanical” Islam by students in the class, is of course a fairly recent phenomena and is tied up with political parties and populism that, once again, is a response to corrupt and authoritative government.

It may be a naive kind of hope but many people worldwide think that the future of Islam worldwide could be modeled on the traditional type found here. Another version is the kind developing in the U.S. and Northern Europe, which appears to not be at odds with civil society and pluralistic religious traditions. Just as many contemporary Christians know that the Bible has to be interpreted as both a sacred and historical text–with some “laws” appropriate for desert, patriarchal cultures 2000 (and more) years ago–likewise more progressive types of Islam understand that the Qu’ran and sharia laws were based on an ancient social order, and that some moderation of the early rules are possible without violating the spirit of the religion.

Back to the Classes

The first class (mostly grad students in English education) had the theme of “Religion and Globalization” (with about 50 attending) and the second “Experimental Buddhism” (with around 30). Prof. Budi Susanto, S.J. (an anthropologist who got his Ph.D. from Cornell and who was introduced to me by Prof. Susan Rodgers at Univ. of Holy Cross) kindly permitted me to supplement his regular course content with these two talks.

In the R&G presentation (based on a Powerpoint slide show I put together in Tokyo, sitting on Max’s sofa and using his laptop) I tried to sketch the different historical forces that have contributed to this unique moment at the dawn of a digital era. I then pointed out some of the characteristics of globalization before moving on to how religious leaders can be simultaneously “within” globalization and “against” it as well (thanks Ugo Dessi, in Japanese Religions and Globalization, for this astute observation).

I asked for the students to contribute 3 questions regarding R&G in any context, and here are a few that caught my attention:

So did Religion come from God or from people?
How can R. walk in harmony with globalization?
Do you think Indonesia would be a better place if R. were separated from society, so people could have religious freedom (like in the U.S.)?
How will your research into R. and Globaliz. contribute to society?
Are there any regulations about R. in the U.S.? Is there a govt. department of religion?
Do you think globaliz. will gradually delete the exact value of a religion?
After hearing that R. has multifaceted meanings, does God also have multifaceted meaning, or is there a singular meaning?
Do you think R. has to be rational?
Is it true that children who have been taught religious values are smarter than those who haven’t?
Does God have religion?

The second class a couple days later (whose students were in Religious Studies) explored the idea of “experimental” Buddhism in Japan as well as a methodology for doing multi-site ethnographic research–something cultural anthropology is still debating as to whether or not it can substitute for the old-fashioned, hunker-down-for-a-year or more approach.

I broadened the context and put some of the characteristics of an “experimental” approach to religion on a whiteboard. (Briefly, these include a pragmatic, rational, and situational application of selective religious resources in order to deal with a particular issue within a person’s life. What religious methodology will work to help an individual or group realize a particular goal or agenda? There is a hypothesis, a method, a testing, and an observation of results, thus the relevance of the term “experimental” for the topic).

We chose some “issues” in Jogja where the idea of multi-site research might apply. From consumerism and new shopping malls to saving the shadow puppet theater, the class worked in small groups to discuss both the method and how religion gets involved in these issues. The photo below is of the second class.


Several members lingered afterwards to talk further. They are fed up with the “puritanical Islam” that is gaining strength in Indonesia, and feel their civic rights as Catholics and Buddhists are threatened. “What can we do?” they asked. All I could offer was to make sure they know their rights according to the Indonesian constitution as well as the law of the land. They can then use those benchmarks to remind more aggressive religious types about tolerance that is protected by civil law.

What was especially fascinating to learn was how, shortly after independence, many Muslims converted to Catholicism. It was clear to them that since many of the country’s elite were Christian, if they wanted their children to advance in society, they needed to be aligned with the powers that be. Two professors I talked with said many conversions took place in their parents’ generation, and so they identify themselves as being first or second generation Catholics/Christians.

I don’t know what percentage of Sanata Dharma university students are Muslim, but I would imagine it is pretty high. At least half the women in the first class (English education M.A. students) were wearing the headscarf (hijab). I was told by another professor that many Muslim parents (and schools) clearly recognize that Sanata Dharma is the place to go for quality education in English, pharmacy studies, business administration, and so on, and they have no hesitation about sending their children there.

A final note about politics. There was a brief mention in the Jakarta Post about the 15 year anniversary of student uprisings against the government in 1998. While Jakarta was the hotspot, Jogja also had its share of street demonstrations and violence. At USD, a student with the given name “Moses” was killed while protesting, and so the city street flanking the university to the south is named after him.