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

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