Sunday, June 23, 2013

Borobudur: Adventures of a Pilgrim by Lynn Newdome

By Lynn Newdome - June ‘13

Ancient sculptures of exquisite beauty carved onto the walls of an enormous stone temple -    I was captivated by Borobudur from the moment I opened the pages of Golden Tales of the Buddhas[1]. Built between 760 and 830 CE, buried for centuries by the jungle and rediscovered in 1814, Borobudur remained a mystery to the modern world. With the profile of a stepped pyramid, its aerial view revealed the imprint of a giant mandala. Its sacred images evoked the Tibetan Buddhism I’d studied and practiced for over twenty years, and the essence of this faraway place resonated in my being.

Fast forward another twenty years to 2011, when I picked up that book again and instantly knew I must go to Borobudur. I didn’t know whether, as an American woman in my fifties, it would be safe to venture (alone) to the foot of an active volcano on an island I couldn’t even find on the globe. I didn’t like to travel, had little understanding of Indonesia’s Islamic culture, and couldn’t speak its language. Without hesitation I booked flights halfway around the world and arranged a month’s at the Manohara Hotel, within the sacred grounds of the Borobudur complex.

During the first seven months of 2012 I devoted my every spare minute to studying the Indonesian language and learning all I could about Borobudur. Scholars had identified the sources of its images as particular Buddhist sutras, but could only theorize as to Borobudur’s original meaning and function. My research verified that during the eight and ninth centuries, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism were flourishing in India and spreading along Asian land and sea trade routes. I saw Borobudur’s thousands of panels of relief sculpture as describing the nine-yana path to enlightenment. Rather than looking for its historical relevance, I would journey to Borobudur as a modern pilgrim to experience its wisdom directly.

That summer I attended teaching retreats of Tibetan master Chögyal Namkai Norbu. Rinpoche spoke intimately of the Vajrayana and Dzogchen lineages I’d intellectually researched. In dedicating the newly-constructed Vajra Hall in Buckland, Massachusetts, he said we weren’t building it for ourselves, but for “people of the future.” Perhaps Borobudur, as well, hadn’t been intended only for the Buddhists of its era, but also to manifest in a future time.

By the end of July I thought I’d prepared for everything, but couldn’t have anticipated losing my glasses. On my red-eye flight out of Boston, I took two sleep meds, not realizing they were double strength, so that I’d actually taken a quadruple dose. The last thing I remembered was looking for my glasses case. The first thing I realized upon waking was that my glasses were missing. Without them I was nearly blind.

I contemplated spending a month at my dream destination without being able to see it. I was determined to not let it ruin my trip. Through a fog of connections at London and Singapore airports, I called my hotel with a message. When I finally landed in Java, my surroundings were a blur, but I’d arranged for a car to drive me to an “express” eyeglass store. There, although I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t see the big “E” on the chart, the optician figured out my prescription, and in about an hour, made my glasses. I’d arrived in a new country and now was literally seeing Indonesia through new eyes.

Suddenly the world was vivid and wildly in motion. All around me, the streets of Jogia (Yogyakarta) were teeming with motorcycles, half of them ridden by women with traditional headscarves. None observed the road’s center line, and all seemed to have complete disregard for the danger. Scared, I kept gasping, “Crazy!” as my driver, Eko, laughed in agreement.

Using my limited bahasa Indonesia, I talked with Eko. He asked how long I was staying at Borobudur, and I answered, “Satu bulan (one month).” At this, he looked confused and said, “Satu hari (one day).” I tried to explain that I really was staying “satu bulan,” but Eko was convinced that I meant one day, because no one stays at Borobudur for one month.

The hour-long drive stayed on city streets and not into countryside I’d expected, so I was surprised to see Candi[2] Borobudur suddenly come into view. The car turned to enter Borobudur Park and stopped in front of the elegant Manohara Hotel. My new home was constructed of richly carved wooden beams and graceful roofs, but without many exterior walls. There being no boundary between inside and outside, its “interior” spaces opened directly onto the beautiful surrounding conservation land.

The next morning was August 1, and I was ready to begin my exploration. The candi was an easy walk from my room, on a hill bounded by an iron fence. Borobudur’s four sides faced the cardinal directions, each with gateways and stairs leading up to the central circular terrace. I entered through the main East Gate and climbed a steep staircase to reach the base. Most visitors proceed straight to the top, but on that first day I greeted a pair of stone lions guarding the entrance and turned left to circle around the outer wall.

To my right ascended 432 life-sized Dhyani or “Five Wisdom” Buddhas, and to my left was open landscape. I stopped in front of each Eastern Buddha in earth-witnessing mudra (hand gesture), initially disturbed to see that many were without a head or hands, or missing altogether. Below them, encircling the outer wall, was a row of elegant male and female bodhisattvas which I couldn’t identify from my studies of the narrative reliefs. Only eventually did I realize that they were among Borobudur’s additional 1,212 “decorative” panels.

At the candi’s Southeast corner, part of the outer wall had been removed to reveal a segment of Borobudur’s “hidden foot[3]”. Displayed here were scenes of tormented beings with twisted bodies and grimacing expressions, illustrating the Karmavibhanga Sutra[4]. Even though only a few of the original 160 panels remain visible, understanding their principles of suffering and its causes is necessary to embark on the Buddhist path.

Turning the corner to the South side, I paused at each Buddha in generosity mudra. Next I went on to the Western Buddhas in meditation mudra, and lastly, the Northern Buddhas in fearlessness mudra. Though not visible from my vantage, Central Buddhas in teaching mudra are along all four sides of the fifth level.

Midmorning I heard the Islamic prayers broadcast from what seemed to be the four directions of the mountains. Their low resonance sounded to me like Tibetan chanting, a call to meditation. My instinct was to turn outward and take the posture of the buddhas. Gazing at the expansive volcanic range, I felt like I was at the center of the world.

Wherever I walked, I was eager to greet people with my new phrases of Indonesian. For the Central Javanese, meeting someone from the U.S. was unusual. (In fact, during my entire stay I didn’t encounter another Caucasian American.) Introducing myself was always received with broad smiles and an enthusiastic “Amerika good!” Many Indonesians asked to take my picture, and women warmly embraced me. They were a little surprised and curious to learn that I was Buddhist. But it always came as a complete shock to hear that I was staying at Borobudur for “satu bulan”. Soon I became recognized as the “satu bulan” woman.

I spent late afternoons in my room, studying the reliefs’ symbolism and reading the sutras on which they were based. Dinner in an open pavilion brought the unexpected delight of live gamelan[5] music. As a musician, I found the cascade of bell tones completely captivating. Later, traditional Javanese dancers in full lavish costume performed the slow, graceful movements of their ancient art. And rising in the background was Candi Borobudur, illuminated in the night sky. I was thoroughly and contentedly satiated.

The following day I was ready to enter the first of Borobudur’s four Galleries, corridors of relief sculpture wrapped around the candi’s mandala-shaped outer edge. I planned to view each panel one-by-one before eventually reaching the top. My logical mind told me that to cover all 1,460 reliefs arranged in ten series along both sides of the four levels, I’d need to average about sixty panels a day. This, however, wouldn’t leave much time for me to be on the Upper Terrace, so I came up with the alternate plan of making one circumambulation each day.

Again entering through the East Gate and greeting the lion pair, I climbed to the First Gallery, counting 124 stairs, some nearly as high as my knees. A small sign with a left-pointing arrow indicated “Pradaksina,” the traditional practice of circling a stupa clockwise, and I turned left into the passageway. To both sides, the inner walls and outer balustrades were covered in dense sculpture, and blue sky opened above.

Using my homemade tools - a binder filled with small captioned photographs and a diagram mapping Borobudur’s numbered panels - I started trying to identify the reliefs. This was difficult, as centuries had worn at the details of the sculptures. Slowly I learned to correlate each scene with its description, study its meaning, and then stand back to appreciate it. These depictions of Buddha’s past lives (Jatakamala) and stories of noble pre-Buddhists (Avadanas) included many worldly scenes with babies and families. Here were humans and animals, acting with generosity and kindness toward each other.

But the corridors turned constantly right, then left, and I continually got lost in their labyrinth. With blazing sun overhead and little opportunity for shade, sweat rolled down my back. I pushed on and after two hours, paused to check my “progress,” only to find that I hadn’t yet made it to the South Gate, one quarter of the way around. Taking a deep sigh, allowing the fierce heat to relax me, I continued. It took almost five hours to complete the series, ending at the East Gate, where I’d begun. Swelteringly hot, utterly exhausted, with sore knees and aching back, I was filled with gratefulness for this incredible and precious opportunity.

Each day I persevered in this way, spending four days on the four series of the First Gallery. Gradually I became more familiar with the ancient iconography, able to identify bowls, lamps, flowers, jewels… I was able to recognize symbols of different classes of beings: the shaved heads of nuns and monks, the ornamented crowns of royalty, wild headdresses of yaksas, and snake-headed nagas.

For me, the Northwest balustrade was particularly beautiful, with its sensual images of bodhisattvas in relaxed postures, joined by women dancing, caressing. In images of graceful devis bearing offering trays, I saw Gauguin’s inspiration for his Two Tahitian Women (my favorite painting). Repeated again and again, I noticed a central Buddha in teaching mudra, with monks to his right, and lay men and women to his left. This seemed to convey, even emphasize, that Buddha taught a secular community of practitioners, as well as the monastics who went on to establish the Buddhism we know today.

On my fourth day in the First Gallery, while viewing scenes of the Lalitavistara, a sutra of the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, I listened as Indonesian tour guides, women and men, told these stories. It was wonderful to hear the dharma spoken in so many languages - English, Indonesian, French, German, Japanese… I found that these Muslim guides demonstrated more openness toward Buddhism than many Westerners, and often with a greater understanding than some Buddhists: “Buddha is the last and greatest Buddha for now, but there were many buddhas before him, and the next buddha is Maitreya.” “This Buddha was born as a man, but ‘buddha’ is a title. Everyone can become like Buddha.”

Borobudur’s second, third and fourth levels all portray the Gandavyuha[6], taught by Buddha but perceived only by beings of a higher realm, and not by humans on earth. This long and detailed sutra describes a boy’s quest to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime, taking Sudhana to meet 53 spiritual guides. Strikingly, about half of these are women, and they are Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular, and of all ages, social classes and vocations. Through them, Sudhana journeys beyond the limited view of any particular cultural or religion, beyond ordinary perception and into unconditioned consciousness.

These Upper Galleries are entered via narrower, steeper staircases and elaborate gateways crested with gaping-mouthed kalas. On the Second Gallery I sat on stone benches built into the wall while reading the panels’ corresponding passages from Entering the Realm of Reality[7]. I followed Sudhana as he first met monks, then a banker, a lay woman, a prophet, a girl... That first day I was able to cover less than a quarter of the way around (almost to the South Gate), but felt peaceful as I viewed, studied and contemplated. The following day I was continuing with this focused intent, until something caused me to look up. There, above me, I saw the Dhyani Buddhas, watching over me all along.

I’d arrived in Java during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims, about 88% of Indonesia’s population, observe the fast of not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. This was a time of relative quiet for Borobudur, but that day I learned the tranquility would come to an end on August 19, when the close of Ramadan would be celebrated with the holiday of Idul Fitri and a week-long school vacation. Hoards of people would arrive, and not just from Java, but from all over Indonesia’s many islands. Abruptly, I realized that I’d like to finish viewing the galleries sooner than planned, to have a few quiet days on the Upper Terrace.

But at the close of yet another day, I still hadn’t made it even halfway around the Second Gallery wall. The visions of Sudhana’s teachers became more and more fantastical, climaxing in the elaborate visions of Night Goddesses. Each woman described vast attainments over countless lifetimes and limitless worlds, and each concluded with “…but this is the limit of what I know. To learn of enlightening practice, go on to see (the next)…”

By my fourth day on the Second Gallery, my mind was pretty much “blown.” Sudhana continued meeting guides - women, men, boys and girls - and the panels became increasingly difficult to decipher. I was, however, aware of an overall transformation taking place, as elements of Vajrayana emerged - mudras, tantric implements and multi-armed Buddhas. Finally, late that afternoon, I completed the Second Gallery, where Sudhana met his 51st teacher, Maitreya.

That evening I wrote in my journal, “After a day of reading and viewing stories of wondrous beings, abilities and displays, I feel like I’ve walked into one of those scenes… The dharma is so close, and the world becoming so transparent, as if the veil between fixed view, solid reality, and miraculous display is being lifted, or shed in stages.” I saw elephants stroll across the lawn at breakfast…met the artist who taught these elephants to paint…and white bats appeared in the night sky, dancing like butterflies…

The next day I went on to the Third Gallery to view its balustrade, where narrative scenes alternated with decorative reliefs of multiple bodhisattvas. I felt enveloped in this circle of enlightening beings. On the inner walls, Sudhana was approaching the closed gates of Maitreya’s palace. Slowly, panel by panel, the doors opened wide. Inside, Sudhana at once experienced towers within towers, each larger, grander and more ornate. I gave up trying to follow the words of my book as he returned to his first teacher, Manjusri, then met his final guide, Samantabhadra. Merging minds, Sudhana entered the realm of the primordial buddha.

A Javanese man sweeping on the third level asked about my book. When I showed him the Gandavyuha, he smiled, and said, “Buddha good.” I replied, “Mohammed good.” Using just a few words, we communicated that I was Buddhist, he was Muslim, his friend was Catholic, and in Indonesia all religions were at peace. We shared thoughts: “Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus...all teach to make us good… All teach peace, so there is not conflict.”

Having a mutual understanding of world peace was easier than figuring out the remainder of the Third Gallery. Sections of it had been closed off for restoration, so I repeatedly had to go back down to the second level, then climb up again at another gateway. Reaching the crescendo of my exhaustion, my legs became too tired to lift my heavy body. Nearly overcome with weakness, I grasped the rail and started pulling myself up. Suddenly and strangely, I recognized this experience - from my sleep. It was my recurring dream of dragging myself up stairways in utter fatigue. Now, that dream was actually happening

The following day I’d intended to re-view the third level, but before I knew it, was already in the Fourth Gallery, having been inexplicably drawn through its open archways of flames and magical creatures. I found myself kneeling before each panel of innumerable bodhisattvas and buddhas, scenes of the Bhadracari, Samantabhadra’s vows. Curiously, I noticed a guard, then several guards always staying within sight. Were they watching me because I’d peeked into closed Third Gallery areas the day before, or was this just the quietest place for their break? Either way, we were friendly, and it felt appropriate to have guardians accompanying me here. That day, for the first time, I wasn’t tired when I reached the South Gate. At ease with myself and my surroundings, I simply observed, not particularly trying to understand.

On that afternoon, August 14, following two rigorous weeks, I at last finished viewing all 1,460 narrative and 1,212 decorative reliefs, and I wasn’t about to wait for the next day to get to the top. Pausing at the highest East Gateway, I noticed its latticed pattern was the same as Maitreya’s palace on the Third Gallery, entry to the primordial realm.

Beaming at the guards, I rose to the magnificent Upper Terrace. Before me was the grand central stupa, surrounded by terraces of smaller latticed stupas. As I turned to pradaksina, vajra bells marked the boundary to the outer world, volcanic peaks came into view, and all above was vast sky. I slowly circled, moving around the border of heaven and earth.

The next day I spent hours on the Upper Terrace, circumambulating its three raised platforms of bell-shaped stupas. It was only then, by standing right next to a stupa and peering directly into it, that I could see its seated buddha within. Not all of the statues remained whole, but by looking closely through a diamond opening, I could see the buddha’s hands in dharmacakra, wheel-turning mudra.

The evening of August 18 marked the end of Ramadan. It was a clear and beautiful night, and from all the mountains I heard fireworks and a thousand voices raised in praise, prayer and joy. For the remainder of my stay, Borobudur would be alive with the sight and sounds of tens of thousands of visitors. Each day I joined a continuous parade of Indonesians in colorful clothing, scarves and umbrellas, climbing to the top. Children peeked into the stupas and reached out their hands to try to touch the buddhas. Families posed for­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ photos, spreading their arms wide as if to express, “What a wonderful world!”

Over the next two weeks, each morning I started at the East Gate and retraced my path through the Galleries before ascending to the top. At first referring to my notes and books, I’d  eventually put them away. My pradaksinas became leisurely strolls as I gazed to the left and right, appreciating the sculptures anew for their beauty and detail. Approaching the top, the clarity of the upper stupas increased, the central stupa appearing as the form of perfection.

I spent afternoons walking among the nearby villages, meeting shopkeepers, artists, and families. In the evenings I feasted on the music of the gamelan, standing right next to it, where I could hear, see and feel its sparkling layers of sound. The elegant Javanese dance, performed this same way for thousands of years, enchanted me. This truly was a wondrous dream, and I knew that when I left Indonesia, it, more dramatically than other “dreams,” would disappear.

I grew to love the Javanese people, warm, generous and eager to share their heritage: my hosts at Manohara, who greeted me daily and encouraged my fledgling bahasa Indonesia… the gamelan musicians who, with patience and humor, tried to teach me not only their instruments, but also the traditional Javanese language of their island… Robertus, a Catholic artist, who heard the Islamic prayers as Gregorian chant… Agus, a guard at the candi, who pointed out and demonstrated the dharmacakra mudra of “Indonesia’s” buddha… Tami, a batik artisan’s friend, who explained the Javanese “way” to me - that although we can’t control what happens to us, we can choose to respond with a “smile.”

Indonesians had always told me, “You can’t meditate at Borobudur,” meaning, I think, that it wasn’t isolated or quiet. But on my next-to-last day, I finally felt comfortable enough to practice meditation on the Upper Terrace. I found a relatively quiet spot among the stupas and sat, slowly taking off my shoes, crossing my legs and placing my hands in meditation mudra. Next to me were the buddhas, before me the vajra walls, beyond the mountains, and all about, the colorful movements of people, their voices like music. With quiet mind, I experienced this vivid display with contentment and joy.

What I hadn’t realized was that I’d positioned myself right next to a stairway and in the middle of the traffic flow. People stopped at the sight of me, a white woman sitting in the same position as the buddhas. Many took my photograph, others tried out my meditation posture, and women handed me their sweet babies to hold on my lap.

On my last day I visited the candi for a final pradaksina, ambling along, not caring what relief went where, or how it related to what. The sculptures were so exquisite to me that even the stones’ porous texture was beautiful. I reached the Upper Terrace, where a guard recognized me and cheerfully called out, “Satu bulan!”

Walking among the stupas, I felt that these buddhas, whether perfectly formed or eroded down to a pebble, were manifest in this world as anchors of buddhadharma. I found a spot to meditate (this time not next to a stairway). Knowing that I’d soon leave, a part of me wanted to forever imprint this view solidly in my mind. I gently let it go.

Later that afternoon, I ventured to the western landscape of Borobudur Park, an area I hadn’t been aware of. There, to my surprise, were large open-air pavilions, perfect for large group meditation. Farther along, winding pathways lead to smaller, more isolated structures. I realized that as much as I’d experienced at Borobudur, there was yet more to discover.

On August 29 I returned home, feeling vital and enriched. Of course the afterglow couldn’t last indefinitely, and the day I returned to work, my Indonesian glasses fell off and broke. But in so many ways, Borobudur continues to stay with me. From its open pavilions, I recognize that walls surrounding me don’t obstruct limitless space. From the Islamic calls to prayer, I have four meditation sessions to shape my daily life. And from the leap which began as my unlikely impulse to travel to an unknown, faraway place, I’ve given wings to my dreams and learned to soar.

Lynn Newdome is a member of the Dzogchen Community at Tsegyalgar East. A professional violinist, Lynn has a Master of Music degree from Boston University and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Colorado. She has played with the Boston Pops, Hartford Symphony, Springfield Symphony, and many other fine orchestras. Lynn teaches violin and chamber music at the Hilltown Cooperative Public Charter School and her private studio in Northampton. She is on her way back this July for a return visit and further explorations.

Mirror subscribers can read the full three part series in the last three issues.


[1] Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas, text by John Miksic, photographs by Marcello Tranchini, Shambhala Publications, 1990.
[2] Pronounced “chaundy,” the Indonesian term for an ancient Buddhist or Hindu temple
[3] Borobudur’s original base, covered over in an early phase of construction to fortify its foundation
[4] Buddha’s teachings on karma and the chains of samsara
[5] An Indonesian ensemble of gongs, metallophones, drums and vocalist/soloist
[6] Sanskrit sutra which is also the final book of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Ornament Scripture).
[7] Entering the Realm of Reality: the Text, a translation of the Gandavyuha by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, 1989.

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