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!



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