Borobudur—Philosophy in Stone
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN INDONESIA
IN A picturesque setting of green terraced rice fields of Central Java, Borobudur is located. Built about 800 C.E., it has a name thought to mean “Monastery on the hill.” But rather than being a monastery, it is a huge, forty-two-meter-high square pile of stones enveloping the top of a hill. Strangely enough, the philosophy of Buddha is reflected in this mammoth pile of stones.
Buddhist teaching does not conceive God as a personal being. Thus man becomes the important thing. That is why many Chinese Buddhists are at the same time also followers of Taoism and Confucianism, to fill the religious lack of Buddhism. Since Buddhism is not so much a belief as a philosophy, Borobudur resembles, not a place of worship, but one of meditation.
Today, next to being a favorite tourist attraction, Borobudur serves as a holy place for Indonesian Buddhists. Many of them make an annual pilgrimage in order to celebrate their most important festival, the enlightenment of Buddha, during the full-moon night in May.
Magic Taken Seriously
During that night the followers of Buddha gather at the field surrounding Borobudur. The place becomes, they believe, a strong reservoir for magical power. “White magic” is said to be obtained in order to fight “black magic.” Buddha’s spirit is thought to appear in visible form on top of a southern mountain, and after the celebration is over, “magic water” is taken along from Borobudur for those who could not attend the celebration as well as for healing sick people.
Those who have witnessed Waiçak, or the celebration of the enlightenment of Buddha, have seen how important spiritism or occultism is for Buddhists. Such observers may rightly wonder why Buddhists do not believe in God yet, on the other hand, regard magical power from invisible creatures very seriously.
Buddhist Evolution Depicted
The very shape of the monument of Borobudur resembles the philosophy of Buddhism. How so? Built in ten terraces with a small room on top, it depicts the Buddhist concept of gradual transfer of the human being into the ultimate destiny of Buddha nirvana. This is represented by the central upper chamber. There are no clearly marked entrances. But on all four sides are flight steps and gateways leading to the upper chamber of the step pyramid.
Evolution is part of Buddhist philosophy. All life is thought to have its origin in the rocks. The rock is said to become sand, sand becomes plants, plants change into insects, insects into wild animals, wild animals into domestic animals, and domestic animals are thought by Buddhists to become humans.
No links are required as in Darwinism, as the Buddhist-type evolution is thought to be achieved through reincarnation. Thus Buddhists believe that Gautama Buddha himself lived before becoming a human, once as a rabbit, another time as a turtle, then as a monkey. Next, he became a man, according to Buddhist philosophy, later a spirit, and finally entered nirvana.
Now, all these different stages of life according to Buddhist concept are illustrated through artistic carvings and statues over the whole monument of Borobudur. For example, the supposed prehuman life of Buddha is depicted as a rabbit, or as a good turtle saving the lives of shipwrecked sailors by bringing them on its back safely to the beach. Thus the sculptures depict the Buddhist philosophy of evolution of man.
Efforts to Eliminate Human Suffering
Illustrated at Borobudur in the hundreds of well-preserved reliefs on the first five terraces is the Buddhist concept of life full of suffering.
Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, which means the Enlightened One, is said to have lived from 563-483 B.C.E. Moved by the sudden realization of illness, old age and death, he left his home in search of wisdom that would eliminate human suffering. That was a very long time ago, and his teachings have spread far over Asia. But if we think for a moment, what did he accomplish?
With his good intentions, did Gautama finally succeed in solving human problems? Did he eliminate illness and its cause, old age and death and its cause? Or do people even today, 2,500 years after Gautama’s enlightenment, suffer from illness, old age and death? You may say: “Of course, I too feel sick sometimes; I have seen people grow older and die.” Then did Buddha really succeed in freeing humans from suffering?
After spending seven weeks under the shade of a bo tree, he came to the conclusion one night that charity and renunciation are the keys to nirvana. His argument was that if a person is in no way affected by what he sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes and thinks, he becomes free, uninvolved, unconscious of life, death, old age and sickness. He enters what is called nirvana, which is described, not as a place somewhere, but as a condition, the end of all suffering.
You may naturally wonder, How can it work to be completely uninvolved in life; not to hear a thing, or not to see? If, for example, you see something very horrible, something really disgusting done to your friend, are you not immediately moved to react? Most people would feel so. Or, if you suddenly realized that you put your hand on something very hot, would you not automatically retract it? That is what every normal person would do.
No Remembrance in “Reincarnation”
What comes next in the philosophy of Buddhism is shown on the next four terraces. This part of Borobudur is not square-shaped as the lower part is but is circular and is covered with seventy-two bell-shaped, perforated stone chambers. Each chamber contains a Buddha statue. These statues, being without ornaments, are thought by Buddhists to indicate spiritual life on a higher level than that of a human. Although the main position of Buddha is the same with each statue, the different positions of his hands are thought to indicate the progress to higher virtues.
Since it seemed impossible for a human to get completely disassociated from life, not to feel anything nor to see, hear, smell or think anything during his short lifetime, Gautama continued in the Hindu belief of reincarnation, the evolution of man into a higher form after his death.
After a person has died, according to this concept, his real spiritual personality is immediately transferred into a newborn baby somewhere else, and he now has a chance to continue his human progress to reach the unconscious life. If he has led a good life during the first lifetime, it is thought that his new life will be an improvement. That is, he may have wealthier parents, be more handsome or have better personality traits. On the other hand, if he was bad, it is thought that he may be reborn under poorer conditions, be uglier, or if he was really a bad fellow, he may even be transferred back into a newborn domestic animal.
But you may wonder, What benefit is there in reincarnation, in an experience, if you cannot remember a thing of what has happened in the life before? How can there be an improvement of the personality or a striving after a higher desire if all the lessons of the former life are not remembered anymore?
Disassociation or Enjoyment of Life?
While visiting the seventy-two statues on the four terraces, the Buddhist pilgrim is in search of freedom from human life. Each image, by means of how the hand, are held, is said to give hints of how to get disassociated, to become unconscious of life. You may wonder, however, how a person can ever be happy, enjoy and share happiness if he disassociates himself. For just the opposite is required to enjoy life—participation, the use of the senses and the use of the brain.
Did Buddha really teach love of life? Or does his philosophy not rather indicate fear of life? To try to run away from it, to disassociate himself from life, is surely not the successful way to make himself or others happy. Is Gautama’s philosophy of enlightenment not rather a way to get rid of life, to finish its existence while trying to convince himself and others of an uncertain nobility in doing so?
Torment in a fiery hell in a life after death was always a fearful expectation of Hinduism; Buddhism tries to abolish this fear by concentrating on nonparticipation. Since the use of the senses would be required for making hell a place of which to be afraid, Buddha thought that by putting the senses out of action, this would make hell ineffective; and the state of nonparticipation would abolish all things, good and evil, pleasant as well as unpleasant.
The tenth and final terrace of Borobudur is formed by a huge bell-shaped structure. It contains an empty chamber with two compartments. If the pilgrim has reached these rooms, he maintains a complete silence, meditating that he has now symbolically reached nirvana, the highest form of disassociation. He ceases to exist. The world is still there, but he himself has gone out of it. No material nor spiritual matter will ever affect him anymore, it is believed. For him the world has ended and there is nothing anymore that will come thereafter.
A Better Way of Liberation
It is true that since man’s beginning about 6,000 years ago, we have suffered from sickness, old age and death; and it is also right for humans to look for a way to free themselves from these sufferings. So why not ask man’s Creator himself how suffering will finally end?
Then you will learn that God will end suffering for all obedient mankind right here on earth. They will not need a nirvana. They will have a rich, happy life. The plants are good, and the earth is good, and the animals are good too. For people who love what is good and like to live, the Bible promises: “And [God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.”—Rev. 21:4.
Borobudur is man-made, and so is the philosophy that formed it. Siddhartha Gautama was human, and so was his thinking. And although Borobudur is an outstanding example of Indonesian art and craftsmanship, it merely expresses man’s need for liberation. God’s Word the Bible tells us in simple terms God’s way of liberating mankind. And people of all races, colors and languages can take courage that God’s time for liberating us from old age, sickness and death is now at the very threshold.