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
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
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
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
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
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.
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