I have a natural tale to tell. It is a story from the beginnings of time. First, there was the world, then there was man. Mankind needed sustenance and organised the land, and ricefields flourished in the warmth and beauty of Central Java.
When the stomach is fed the mind also needs sustenance. Throughout the ages, great people have added to the ways in which man can show his gratitude for the gifts of bounteous nature and at the same time improve his life-style.
Such a man was Gautama Buddha whose ideas are still followed today.
Sri Pannavaro Thera, the monk who founded the monastery in Mendut, describes Borobudur as "having slept well for 500 years"
It is the twenty eighth of May in the year of our Lord 1991 and the sun rises, as it has for more than a thousand years, on the temple of Borobudur, in Central Java.
It is a special time.
As light filters across the horizon and begins to flood the surrounding countryside, it brings to sight the rivers and valleys which surround and protect the mighty stone structure which is Borobudur.
The filtered light is followed by the first rays of the sun which light upon the highest of the natural features of the area Mount Merapi, a picture-book perfect volcano, which lies slightly to the east. Soon the same rays have lighted upon the Stupa at the top of Borobudur itself and the mighty monument braces itself for yet another day of extraordinary heat, when the stone of which it consists, will gradually become hotter and await the relief of the afternoon before the respite offered by the coming of night.
This day, while beginning as all others do, is no ordinary day for the temple of Borobudur, for this is the anniversary of the day on which Siddharta Gautama was born, a man who eventually attained enlightenment and became a Buddha and went on to found the Buddhist religion, two thousand five hundred and thirty five years ago.
Borobudur, itself, is the largest of man's tributes to Buddha and as the largest Buddhist structure in the world, it is devoted to telling the life story of the Buddha. The temple possesses an extraordinary power.
The unknown builders and designers of a time long past were successful in designing a structure which epitomises the feeling of Buddhism. Buddhism emphasizes the changes which are wrought on the human character by meditation. The meditative state is attained through peace, both within and without. Borobudur epitomises this peace. It is a monument to silence.
To sit and meditate in the upper terraces of the temple is to feel the great weight of power which funnels through the structure and infuses the earth below and the valleys around with a peace and beauty which has always been part of the Buddhist tradition. One feels a little closer to truth. The spirit of Borobudur is very much alive.
It is interesting that the power which has been so great as to destroy the monument several times in its history has also induced mankind to rebuild it, each time. The last rebuilding which took place in recent times was a combined UNESCO project with funding and engineers from all over the world and we, with our reverence of technology in this modern age, would like to think that will be an end of it, but what of the future? Is it possible that the designers of this structure were successful in building a monument that is meant to self destruct? It is an interesting concept.
The sun has risen. The stupas are warming and freckling with light the surviving Bhuddas, who sit patiently inside them. The day has begun. This is no ordinary day. It is the day for the ceremony Tri Suci Waisak Puja.
In nearby Candi Mendut, a more Javanese structure which dates from about the same time as Borobudur, the Buddhists of today are patiently preparing for the once-a-year celebration which takes them as a community on a walk of three kilometres down the road to Borobudur where they will sit, as Buddha did, under the Bodhi tree.
Before the procession, there is much to be done. The local organising committee has been working for months to prepare for this day and the office of the secretariat is busy with Buddhist believers from all over Indonesia who are registering as participants. Reunions are taking place as groups who have become friends on previous occasions meet again and catch up with the latest. Fifteen thousand people and two elephants descend on the Wihara (monastery) of Mendut.
Stalls happen, as they always do in Indonesia, whenever there is a crowd, and a carnival atmosphere is alive. Pilgrims wend their way through the crowds and up into the inner chamber of the Mendut temple where Indonesia's largest remaining Buddha statue, three meters high in solid black rock, has been decorated with flowers, candles and incense and shines on the believers.
Crowds come to watch each other and police come to control them. Sellers of buddha heads, T shirts, souvenirs, water in bottles and any other conceivable thing, mingle in the crowds. Excitement grows. The local gamelan plays. The loudspeaker, a necessity at every Javanese gathering, brays.
Delegates are reminded to watch their valuables and to take them with them on the procession, as who can tell what might happen in a crowd this size? The procession will start at 2.30pm sharp. All delegates must carry flowers which are available at the front entrance to the temple. They must be flowers which have been blessed. You cannot use your own flowers. Please make a donation for your flowers.
Tourists who have been fortunate enough to find themselves in the area at the time are introduced into the scene. They wander everywhere waiting for the inevitable explanation of what is happening. They stand in front of the cameras of Indonesians.
Within the monastery itself, stalls have been set up in the front for the selling of specialist Buddhist goods. The journalists of Indonesia's only Buddhist magazine, "Manggala", are busy selling the latest issue, taking subscriptions and interviewing delegates for their next piece of copy. Every square inch of space is taken up by the visiting delegates for sleeping.
On the evening before, two Sumatran elephants, a gift from President of Indonesia to the Borobudur Park arrived to lead the procession. In the gentle hands of their trainer they wandered in their shackles and defoliated a tall coconut tree behind the monastery. Their crowd ebbed and flowed.
Enormous pots of Chicken soup and Bakso boil and bubble in the local food stalls as the owners feast on the one day of the year. The profits from this day will make possible the long wait until Waisak comes around again next year. Martabak from the streets of Yogya fries itself into the mouths of the delegates.
Outside again, the crowd was warming for the procession. The loudspeaker began to intone the order of the participants who would be led by a drum band and the elephants.
The elephants who finally appeared, not in their pajamas of the previous night, but dressed in appropriate finery with the keeper sitting on the head of one of them. They carried the relics of the monastery, which include a piece of Buddha's bone, in specially constructed containers. The band marched out. Participants, often dressed in matching colours to represent their region, were handed water as they assembled on the road.
The day and the road were hot. As the delegates waited patiently and the elephants moved slowly from the back of the crowd to the front, a helicopter labelled POLICE made the first of many low sweeps over the crowd. The elephants reacted, the crowd surged, the television cameras whirred and the procession had begun.
If you haven't processed with a crowd of fifteen thousand you haven't really lived. The crowd itself must have stretched for more than a kilometer. Within the crowd were various sub- cultures which would get together and talk for a while and then turn to talk to other groups. People shared words, water, sweets and smiles. Non-retrievable footwear on the road reminded one of the momentary nature of material possessions. It was impossible to retrieve lost footwear as the surge of humanity could not be stopped for long enough for this to happen. Rounding one corner in the road, the flood of humanity stretched for half a kilometer to the front, a sea of people. Candi Pawon was left behind with a mantra. Finally the temple of Borobudur dwarfed the crowd from afar.
At last, we had arrived at the Bodhi tree which was planted in 1934 by a monk from Sri Lanka and under which we now congregated. The organisers had done a wonderful job and red carpet covered the area where we all began to sit and face the dais which had been erected in front of Borobudur. On the right were the assembled monks of Indonesia, and some from overseas.
Still clutching flowers and water, the crowd massed over the carpet until it disappeared in a sea of yellow, white and black. Penjors reminiscent of Bali, but with the addition of electric lights, hung airily over the crowd. Mantras began. Borobudur smiled silently. The large group of pilgrims seemed suddenly, so small, at the base of the imposing stone structure.
In 1983 President Suharto re-opened the temple of Borobudur after is restoration by UNESCO, with the hope "that Borobudur will live a thousand years more" and in the same year the Government proclaimed Waisak a national Buddhist holiday. It was this proclamation which makes possible the congregation of Buddhists from all over Indonesia each year at this time.
Back in the time of Dutch rule the celebration of Waisak at Borobudur began in 1930 and has continued, on and off, since that time. In 1959, monks from all over the world congregated at Borobudur for the celebration.
In 1976, Sri Pannavaro Thera, who describes Borobudur as having "slept well for five hundred years" began the monastery in Mendut in order to service the use of Borobudur for Waisak. The monastery gave a local base for the organisation. What is now an impressive complex began, at that time, as a simple bamboo hut.
Wherever you are in Indonesia, you are not far away from the power of prayer. Buddhism is a minor religion in that country, but as such, in a country of Indonesia's population density, it still has many adherents. To sit in the midst of the thousands and join in the mantras is an experience in humility.
Meditation time. Sudden silence. The silence of Borobudur. Peace.
The power of the great temple of stone which is funneled into the earth below is re-cycled to the heavens by the human power of prayer. The circle is complete. The full moon, as if to signal nature's acceptance of the phenomenon, rose slowly behind the great stupa of Borobudur: the technology of ancient times, both God's and man's, in deliberate conjunction.
Change was the theme of the sermon which followed, delivered by Bhante Giri Rakkhito Mahatera, the second highest figure in the Indonesian Buddhist hierarchy, a monk from the island of Bali. He compared the technology of the times when Borobudur was built with the technology which was obvious about us on that day, the electricity, the helicopters, the PA system, the whirring film cameras. While times change, he pointed out, the rice around the temple continues to grow as it has since technology made possible rice cultivation at a much earlier point in time.
Bhante Giri talked about social change and how we come to accept this, and then he talked about mankind's dependence on others for survival. He went on to talk about the inner change in Dharma which comes about through meditation and the strength which that change gives to man to stand alone.
A young man from England asked me about the ceremony. "I thought Indonesia was a Muslim country," he said. We talked about Panca Sila and freedom of religion. "Why do they use the Nazi Flag?" he enquired. I pointed out that the swastika has been a religious symbol for thousands of years and the opinion of many Indonesians was that the Nazis lost their war because they defiled the symbol by turning it through forty five degrees. "The Nazi colours of black, red and white are used," he said, "it is the Nazi flag." I talked about acculturation. Man's basic colours have always been red, black and white. That the Nazis used these colours in the thirties of this century, does not give them sole right to their use.
Crowds in Indonesia vanish quickly. The people had dispersed. The moon and the feeling remained.
Next day Borobudur opened its sculptures to the cameras of tourists on time. On the top levels of the monument it was already necessary to find shade as the morning sun rose higher.
Yesterday's gathering place was being cleared of the rubbish which accompanies crowds. It had been raked into piles and was being loaded onto trucks. All signs of the one day of the year when the temple is used as a religious shrine would soon be gone. During the next year pilgrims would climb alone, meditate alone, and pray alone.
Only on Waisak is Borobudor opened to the combined karma of the Buddhists of Indonesia. It was a privilege to join with them and partake of the simplicity and beauty of that occasion.
Copyright 1991 Douglas Myers
This article first appeared in The Archipelago Vol.1 No.4