Prayer Pyramid

Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia

September 21, 2010

The Stupas of Borobudur Over the Kedu Plains of Java

What’s a prayer but a human attempt to tap into the spiritual realm. In Asian thought, this realm is both at the center of the universe and the innermost sanctum of the soul. Nature demonstrates this pattern in the heliocentric solar system, the inner core of the earth, and the cellular nucleus. Spirituality is not just an act of reaching up but of reaching in. Most Eastern religious monuments, from ziggurat to stupa, physically depict this centripetal connection. Borobudur, a grayish-brown bump of volcanic stone on the green plains of Central Java, perfectly embodies this philosophy. Indonesian archaeologist, Soekmono, regarded as the guardian of Borobudur, called this 9th century temple “a prayer in stone.”


From ground level, the temple resembles a pyramid with graduated terraces crowned by a stupa – a bell-shaped structure that symbolizes Buddhist nirvana. It is not immediately revealed at this perspective that the temple is a larger-than-life mandala, an Eastern concentric representation of the universe. A thousand years before mankind invented air travel, it is a mystery how the builders of Borobudur could’ve imagined this architectural marvel to look from above.

If Buddha had a Facebook wall, his wall posts would look like this.
Buddha’s Life in Bas-Relief

You merely get a sense of this tantric pattern as you circumambulate the temple in a clockwise direction (be guided by the pradaksina – processional pilgrimage – arrow signs). The terraces correspond to six rectangular levels, five of which form galleries with parapets lined by Buddhas, mostly decapitated, on one side and a wall of bas-relief panels that depict the life of Buddha and Buddhist values on the other.

Structurally, Borobudur is a three-tiered scale model of Buddhist cosmology. The buried base contains panels that represent Kamadhatu, the Sphere of Desire. It’s the second tier that ushers the visitor at the start of their pradaksina. It represents Rupadhatu, the Sphere of Form. This realm straddles the physical and the spiritual, where the soul is freed from sensuous passions but still fettered by bodily form.

The panels show scenes of Buddha’s life from birth to his transcendence to Bodhisattvahood (the essence of enlightenment and compassion – a combination of traits that should make a religious leader, regardless of affiliation). Other panels offer a glimpse into Javanese daily life at the time, incorporating indigenous flora and fauna in the images. Interestingly, most human forms in the carvings are full-bodied. Even male figures take on voluptuous forms and possess the gracefulness of an apsara. They do not evoke an image of an emaciated ascetic, neither are they endowed with brawn required in building this majestic edifice of stone. I would’ve been incredulous about how the ancient Javanese were able to lift and stack these volcanic rocks to build a solid structure that would survive natural and religious-political cataclysms for a millennium if I were not standing on it.

An image of Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya, can be found among the thousand panels. I do not imagine her to be revered by Buddhists as Mary, the mother of Jesus, is by Catholics, but her obscure place in history is enough to hold my fascination. Like Mary, Queen Maya is a humanizing aspect in her almost deified son, Siddhartha Gautama.

Queen Maya, Mother of Buddha
Buddha in Lotus Position

More Buddhas occupy niches high up on the walls and on top of balustrades. There are over 500 Buddhas in Borobudur. The heads of most have fallen into the hands of looters and the Dutch colonists who fielded them out to museums and foreign governments. Moreover, the island had converted to Islam during the 15th century, and the locals increasingly regarded the temple as a heathen monument, their reverence stemming more from superstition than from appreciation of its historical and artistic value. Headless or not, the Buddhas are inert in their lotus positions, their hands resting on their laps in dhyana mudra – the meditative hand position of Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. These statues exude a powerful sense of serenity.

British Girl, Japanese Umbrella, Javanese Rain
Visiting Borobodur in the Rain

Intermittent rain showers Borobudur with a peaceful hush. Torrential downpours in the afternoon have dampened the spirit of the touristy crowds. I almost have the temple all to myself, yet there is an air of pervading detachment. Something is off that day that is getting in the way of my in-the-moment experience. I find myself in a funk. I have made the trip to this remote jungle in the middle of Java only to be half-present. So much for a processional tour of a prayer pyramid. This prayer is perfunctory at best.

Bird over Borobudur

But any prayer is rewarded with redemption. Approaching the summit, I feel I am approaching the closest thing to nirvana that I can ever imagine. This ultimate tier, the pinnacle of this prayer pyramid, is Arupadhatu, the Sphere of Formlessness. The rectangular terraces have given way to circular platforms dotted by smaller perforated stupas and topped by a giant stupa at the center, the largest in the world.

The circle symbolizes the Buddhist universe, and at this level you can very well connect with the eternal – the vast expanse of rainforest that has surrounded Borobudur since its construction a thousand years ago, the horizon ringed by mountains that partially conceal distant volcanoes, the dome sky with its endless procession of slow-moving clouds, the freedom in the flight of birds overhead, the unceasing drops of rain, the circular forms of the stupas – as below, so above. I have bargained for the momentary present at the lower tier; I am rewarded with a glimpse of eternity at the top tier.

Contained in each stupa is a Buddha. One stupa has been dismantled to reveal its occupant in all its meditative glory. With eyes shut and a hint of a smile on its lips, this Buddha has seen a thousand years pass – frequent volcanic eruptions have buried it in white ash, countless earthquakes have rocked it in its stupa, seasonal downpours have drenched its already porous stone, religious conversions and foreign occupations have threatened its head – yet he sits there, cross-legged, hands in mudra position, back straight, eternally unperturbed by the march of time and the chaos of the world.

Right then I see the connection: There is peace and equanimity only when one lives in view of the eternal.

Buddha in a Stupa: Borobodur
Like a Yogi: The Transcendental Tourist in Borobodur

Borobudur, the prayer in stone, is not a traditional place of worship. It is not a place to hear mass, listen to a sermon, or read a holy text; the place IS the prayer. This architectural masterpiece has expressed Buddhist philosophy so perfectly, so literally. The central stupa is solid, not perforated. No one knows what it contains, perhaps nothing. In our roundabout journey through life and into ourselves, we all inevitably become that unknowable nothingness.

This prayer in stone strips its pilgrims of attachments that encumber until only the indestructible part of us remains. I am not Buddhist; I have visited Borobudur only for its art. And what’s art but a sensuous symbol of our prayerful abstractions.

The Central Stupa of Borobodur
Buddha at Borobodur

45 thoughts on “Prayer Pyramid

  1. This was a wonderful post! I loved climbing to the top with you. I felt as if I were right there. You amaze me with your knowledge and writing as well as your artistic eye. And to me you shine like a bright light with an energy that radiates to me all the way over here. Thank God I found you. You bring me joy and a sense of peace. I know you are too humble to realize your gift but it is there my dear friend. Most defiantly there!

    With Love, Deanne

    1. I appreciate you scaling up Borobudur with me, Deanne. It’s exactly my intention for writing this. An experience is an experience, whether it’s vicarious or not. And thanks for the kind words. Light and love to ya too!

  2. I think you are really born as a greatest and one of a scarce writer. Well I feel so small in my knowledge about my own Borobudur to compare with your wisdom and knowledge about the philosophy of Borobudur itself. What a very talented writer you are AJ, and thanks a million for promoting my country in your website.
    PS: Hmmmm….you look so handsome the umbrella AJ, and Borobudur is a bit dusty now because the eruption of Mount Merapi.

    1. Awww Neneng, terima kasih. I just happen to be interested in the stories behind the places I go to. Oh, your photo comment made me blush! That was a first. And you made it so memorable. 🙂

  3. Wonderfully- written again,AJ!!!! I must admit I was looking forward to this entry… The place itself is a magic- I loved it the moment I saw your pix… now this adds to the thorough experiencing it, thanks, my guide in the Eastern Culture, the one adding spice to my life…:)))
    ( you were really lucky to visit the place before the eruption,Gods must have known….;) )

    1. I can always count on you, Teacher Reny! Yeah, that was a close call – the eruption happened exactly a month after my trip. In geological timeline, that’s like a blink. My Buddhist friend said that Merapi had to clean Borobudur with volcanic ash to erase all memory of my sacrilegious poses. 🙂

    1. Thanks, fellow teacher and traveler! Would love to read your post and see your photos of Borobudur, Andrea. Couldn’t find it in your blog. Oh, and thanks for that sweet tweet! 🙂

    1. Indonesia was never in my travel plans ever – it just seemed too similar to Pinas. It was almost by accident that I got to go. But my trip taught me never to judge a place…well cuz it’s not a book. Haha! Now I wouldn’t think twice going back.

  4. I was probably 10 when I saw pics of Borobudur in a Readers Digest mag and 1st in the list of the mag 7 wonders! Its magnificent and wonder how men can build structures like these. Very captivating and stunning pics. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I was just going to say that! There is a certain smile on his face in every picture and the smile is not a posed one, it is the smile of satisfaction; as if one had everything one wanted:) I appreciate the artist for this.

    1. Yup, it was a blessing in disguise (or “a blessing in the sky,” as Melanie Marquez would say). I was getting anxious on the way there cuz the rain was pouring without let-up (again, as Melanie would say, “when it rains, it’s four!” hehe). Good thing the rain halted to a drizzle by the time I got to Borobudur.

  6. Wow, you’ve inspired me to visit this place, which, surprisingly, I didn’t know about until now. Will I be politically correct if I say this is a better place to go to than Angkor Wat, if I want to get in touch with my spiritual self (if I have such) and achieve nirvana? 🙂

    1. Hahaha I dunno about nirvana. Maybe I was just relieved from all that climbing! Angkor Wat is similar yet also very different from Borobudur. Let’s just say that Angkor Wat is a city while Borobudur is a building. That should give you an idea. 🙂

    1. Plus 1 to that, Kris! Unfortunately, you gotta trek to this monument in the middle of the Javanese rainforest if you wanna post on his wall. 🙂 Obrigado!

    1. Hi Nelieta, thanks for revisiting this post! Jim, if Jesus had Twitter, do you think he’d have more than 12 followers? 🙂 Interesting thought. Thanks for the support!

  7. another EPIC post! See? I saw the mole 🙂 the pics are indeed breath-taking! love the architecture and sculpture!

    I’m learning and at the same time kinda visiting the picturesque places you’ve bee every time I read your blog entry. Keep it up!

    one day I could also visit there… hehe…one day…


    1. Haha you got the mole there. This was months before I had it excised. The mole’s days were already numbered in this photo. 🙂

      Curly, no visa needed for Pinoys in Indonesia. And airfare is a bargain, thanks to CebuPac and Air Asia. You go girl!

  8. Sir AJ,
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful wanderings and your transcendental thoughts and ideas. With this post, I am almost on site, too. How I want to read through all of it but I have to read and study your assigned article, too. I don’t want to be tongue-tied again when asked about it, hehe. But I should and will find time reading your educational and informative postings. Makes me think of Sri vijaya and Madjapahit Empire again where I think I had a past life. (wild thoughts, eh?) Thanks again for the invite……..Mia (tesl/cll/dlsu)

    1. Hi Mia! Greatly appreciate you dropping by. Yeah, you must’ve been a princess and queen in the ancient empire of Sri Vijaya! Do share your materials with me. I’m very curious about the connection between the Visayas and Sri Vijaya.

  9. Hmm, yes, neneng is right. I actually noticed that, too; that you’re cute under that red umbrella; a decade younger than your classroom get-up; could be shielded by that pair of “professor spectacles”, eh?
    Oops, was that below-the-belt fallacy?
    Anyway, thanks for inviting me in your “transcendentalists club” – a combination of language, history, arts, and values education site. Thanks again……mia

    1. Ooooooh mamma Mia, smooth operatah, haha! My professor spectacles are my psychic wall in class, but I’m known to shed them at the most inopportune times. 🙂 Welcome to the transcendentalists club!

    2. Sir Aj,
      Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your Java experience. Hmm, makes me think back to the Sri Vijaya-Madjapahit Empire days. (???) Well, just thought that I had a past life in that era in that part of the old world. (wild thoughts, eh?) Haha!
      Thanks for the invite……mia

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