Back to Buddha


The last time we crossed paths, he was for sale in a shop window in Ubud. Now, we’re in the largest Muslim country in the world standing on the largest monument to his memory ever conceived. Wherever we’ve traveled in Asia, it seems Buddha is close at hand, which also seemed to be the main point these architects wanted to get across when they shaped this massive ode to Monsieur perma-grin.


Called Borobudur, this stupa was chiseled in the 9th Century by Javanese Buddhists who crafted something so detailed and meticulous, in later years they might have been reincarnated as brain surgeons.

With over 500 Buddha statues (like the one above), 2500+ relief panels comme ca:


And 9 distinct levels, it’s already impressive as an engineering feat. But, after we learned more of how it was designed, I thought it really revealed how amazing it was.


Buddhism often comes off as one big paradox (ex. You can be everywhere and nowhere or You can only achieve enlightenment by not wanting to achieve enlightenment.) In print these sayings sound hokey, frustrating and cringe-worthy, largely because they’re simple and self-evident.

I find reading about Buddhism is like staring at this photo:


One second I see the vase, the next second the people. When I translate this to reading, I think, yeah okay, I get it. Now what? And, of course, that’s it – there is no other point.

Borobudur, I found, works along similar lines. The architects created a showpiece to Buddha which interweaves two strands of Buddhist mythology into a single structure.

First, the more obvious one, that we could witness from the ground is that the whole structure is one big storyline of the Buddha’s life, and his path to enlightenment. As a visitor you walk up the entire structure, one level at a time, and as you rise you pass through a stage of Enlightenment that the Buddha experienced, represented by the sculptures around you.

Starting at the ground level, you begin with the world of Desire which Buddha went through – represented in reliefs that in one way or another are various enticements for him to get laid, drunk or high:


However, good Mr. Siddhartha decided against a career as a rock star, and so passed into the World of Forms, which starts on level three of the structure. Rose and I weren’t exactly clear how the sculptures we looked at represented a form since it seems fairly self-evident (any old sculpture could be seen as a form), but the general concept is that at this stage, Buddha had meditated his way into seeing the world as having only shapes, “Oh wow that thing is shaped like a tube (a tree)”, which I can’t help think, if he’d tweeted his discovery today ex.: “My keyboard is only rectangles”, he’d be tranquilized and force-fed anti-psychotics.


After his geometry phase, he then passed into the Formless World, where – as Lauryn Hill would much later make us aware – everything is everything.

This is also where we took the majority of our photos – next to these huge bells, which each contain a sculpted Buddha:


And, offer amazing views:


Especially at sunset:


That covers the first bit of the architecture – the physical pilgrimage a visitor experiences walking up the structure. However, those wily builders thought, why not go for extra credit and knock out two concepts in one. And so, they also built the entire structure as a material representation of the Buddhist concept of the universe when looked at from above:


This two dimensional image, called a mandala in Buddhism, represents the universe – where the outer walls are squares, symbolizing humans’ attachment to linear concepts of time, followed by inner circles where time is seen as cyclical.

But a mandala, like the architects who built Borobudur, is overachieving. It also serves as a practical map or guide, which a Buddhist can bring to mind during their meditation to help them, as a reference point to focus on moving towards the center where all is one.

In short, Borobudur is the Swiss Army knife of monuments that offers:

1. A representation of Buddha’s life
2. A physical pilgrimage through his life
3. A representation of the Buddhist universe
4. A mental map to follow during Buddhist meditation
5. Underground parking garage

Le joke. Borobudur is a UNESCO world heritage site (yeah, that’s back too), and they seem to be making decent enough money as it’s consistently referred to as Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction, so haven’t felt the need to raise cash from any modern enhancements.

However, they did offer some help a few years back. There were three shots at restoring the structure. First, in the early 1800s when it was “re-discovered” by a British colonial administrator. Secondly, by the Dutch 100 years later; and finally, in 1973 when UNESCO got involved.


There’s a museum on the same grounds which illustrates how they did the last restoration – from the photos and explanations it was basically one massive jigsaw puzzle. The builders took out almost every single block, labelled it, cleaned it up – then reinforced the entire structure with concrete and an updated water runoff system, and put the whole thing back together again.

We were staying at a hotel that was within the grounds of the structure, and were lucky enough to have a two minute walk to it from our room. So, we returned three times to walk up and down it – it was really cool to see.

Next to Angkor Wat, it was definitely a major standout of our entire trip so far.

But we weren’t done with massive, old monuments. Indonesia is not only home to big Buddha, but also big Hindu, all within the structure of the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Next – el Grande, Prambanan.

Talk soon


One comment

  1. Amazing structure encompassing Budda’s cosmology.
    The Canadian flag also presents an optical illusion. The red part is a maple leaf but the upper white part shows two people bickering. What does that mean in Buddist terms?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s