Saturday, July 17, 2010

Serenity Now--Borobudur

Borobudur is one of those places everyone should try to get to at least once in their lives.  It is magnificent.  I have been to it a half dozen times now and every time I am stunned by its beauty and sense of serenity.  Even with thousands of people assaulting it and hawkers selling t-shirts, soft drinks, post cards and trinkets, it maintains its integrity.

Built in the 9th century, Borobudur was constructed on a mound that apparently rose from a shallow lake plane, appearing like a lotus flower above surrounding water.  It’s an amazing technological achievement, a massive mandala structure that appears like a small mountain in the distance.  According to Wikipedia, it has 2,672 carved relief panels and 504 lifesize Buddha statues.  While the accomplishment of its construction is  amazing, the experience of visiting the site is awe inspiring.

Entering the grounds to Borobudur ($2 for Indonesians, $15 for all others), you approach the temple down a tree-lined path.  The first curve when the temple appears before you is incredible.  Despite the thousands of people surging towards and clamoring over the stones, you can’t help but be stirred by the sight of Borobudur itself.  A distant hill at first, as you get closer it appears to expand, becoming monumental.

The temple was intended as a shrine and as well as a didactic device, instructing visitors on Buddhists beliefs as well as the life of Buddha.  It has three levels, representing the world of desires, the world of forms, and the world of formlessness.  The Wikipedia article gives a good explanation of the design and significance of the different levels of the temple.

We arrived shortly after 9:00 a.m. under a cloudy sky.  By 9:30 the clouds were dispersing and the sun was coming on strong.  The last Saturday of school holidays, every family in Java and many from outlying islands decided to squeeze in a visit.  There were several thousand people there already and more kept coming.  The heat, from the sun, from the mass of bodies pushing up the narrow steps and around the walls of the different levels, was oppressive.  Buddha himself might have screamed “fuck this shit, give me some air.”

Rivulets of sweat ran down my nose.  At each level I discovered a new degree of crankiness.  By the time we climbed to the top level, the level of enlightenment, I was miserable.  I could hardly take a step without brushing against another person, the heat from their bodies, from the sun above and the stones of the temple exorcising all the moisture from my body.  Despite the beauty and peacefulness of the temple, all I wanted to do was get down and away from the throngs of people.

One thing caucasians should expect when visiting Borobudur is to have people request to have their photo taken with you.  On my first visit in 1983, I was amused when groups of teenagers approached and asked me to pose with them and sign their notebooks.  It has happened every time I have gone there.  This time a group of school girls from Surabaya stopped me to practice their English.  If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, Borobudur is the place to go.

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