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Editorial Writing


by Tony Page

Borobudur is both shrine and school, confusion and relief, friend and foe. It is a Buddhist mystery in stone built a thousand years ago by a people with a great religious need.

The stones speak to you at Borobudur. Especially in the darkness before dawn. You can feel their insistent voices coming up through the soles of your feet as you stand on the age-old monument. Finely chiselled blocks of basalt spewed aeons ago from the fiery bellies of nearby volcanoes; exquisitely carved Andesite reliefs on stone quarried from the great rivers Progo and Elo. They tell of unnumbered, innumerable pilgrims who have preceded you, and left part of their spirit to give life to this sacred place. Or perhaps the immense pyramid has attained some kind of consciousness on its own: acting like a giant lens, gathering and focusing spiritual power instead of light.

Behind me the great central dagob towers snub-nosed into the dusk-pink sky. Massive and overpowering, it instils a sense of awe into the human onlooker, making him realise his petty insignificance, so that deep down inside he knows  something greater than himself is challenging his prized individuality. Borobudur was created out of an unbelievably powerful religious need, an aching search for communion with the Eternal, and a desire to build a lasting monument to its builders' devotion. That in itself is a paradox, for to a Buddhist nothing is permanent, everything changes, and salvation is to be found within, not through external means.

Borobudur is both shrine and school, a Buddhist mystery in stone, a "shining tower of the law" proclaiming the Mahayana doctrine. Three hundred years older than Angkor Wat, this colossal cosmic mountain took 10,000 men perhaps a century to build, and has already stood a thousand years. Like a giant, three-dimensional mandala moulded by the hand of God, it is said to resemble holy Mount Meru, or Kailas, the sacred mountain in Tibet.

Below me, the swaying kanari trees around the base of the monument form a dark wall in the predawn light.  I look down into the misty indistinctness: the past becomes the present.  Once again the midday sun hangs like a searing golden lantern in a cerulean sky.

I enter the monument by the Eastern Gateway and do pradaksina, walking clockwise around it thus paying tribute to the gods. The first five terraces above me are rectangular in shape; they represent the World of Form, Rupadhatu, a transitional sphere in which human beings are gradually released from worldly matters.

The succeeding levels unwind before me like a reel of film; the carved walls too rich in detail to be fully grasped without careful study. It would take a lifetime to give every panel the consideration it merits.

As I pass from one level up the narrow stairway to the next level, I am symbolically swallowed by the Kala monster carved over the gateways, to be given new spiritual life beyond. Four hundred and thirty two Dhyani-Buddha statues, each carved from a single block of stone, guard the four directions on these lower terraces, and 1,472 small stupas point their blunt fingers towards the heavens above.

At last the final gateway is reached. Gone are the intricate bas-reliefs, here there is only space and Pure Mind, no trappings of Karma but only symbols of the Spirit.  I feel uplifted, my mind seems to expand and my spirit flows outwards. In front of me on the first circular terrace, a stone Dhyani-Buddha sits in dharmacakramudra and greets the dawn of another day, as he has for more than a thousand years. But this day will be a special day, different from the others. For on this day the sun will rise twice over Borobudur.

It is half way through the morning now, and the burning, blistering heat of the tropical sun has lessened into the beginnings of twilight. The air is awash with tension; it soaks through everybody like water through a sponge. Strangely, there are relatively few people here - at least where I am standing in my carefully selected viewpoint.

When the moon's shadow first appeared on the sun's disc, not everyone noticed it. Then, beginning in several places at the same time the cry spread like a living thing, springing from throat to throat into a great swelling sigh of relief, of hopes fulfilled. But now the nervous tension has returned: an awesome event will soon occur. And deep down, no one fails to feel the irrational hand of some atavistic fear clutch at their hearts, or cloud their minds.

Already, the anguished crowing of a confused cockerel has lent a surrealistic quality to the course of events. Birds twitter in consternation; an ox in a nearby village bellows doubtful defiance.

The sun is dying, the time is approaching. From the northern side of the monument a great cry rises up - they have seen The Shadow, racing towards its rendezvous with Borobudur at 2,000 kilometres an hour.

Then, in an instant, the sun is gone, snuffed out like a brief candle, its lifegiving illumination sucked into the cavernous maw of the moon's umbra. An involuntary sigh is jerked in unison from a thousand throats, and every eye turns upward. In awed silence we gaze at the totally eclipsed sun. It is a flaming black orb, a bottomless hole in the dark purple-blue sky, surrounded by the fires of creation.

I suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of loss, of nature being out of joint. The dim light is unearthly, magical; everything seems unreal, as if the normal laws of the Universe are in abeyance. My feeling of insignificance grows, the different in scale appals me: I am an infinitesimally small spark of consciousness, a minuscule spectator on the tellurian sidelines as the sun, earth and moon perform their celestial dance.

Borobudur's central stupa points directly up at the dark sun overhead. The eclipsed orb is like a magnet, I cannot take my eyes off it. But within my field of view the monument's silhouette and the sun's flaming corona are both visible: it is an awe-inspiring spectacle.

Just in time, I recall the danger of being blinded by the sun's reappearance and look away. With a dazzling, searing flash the very edge of the sun's incandescent sphere shows behind the moon's black disc, like a gigantic diamond ring set in the heavens. Immediately, the sky becomes lighter, this dawn is but momentary. Once more the soft, luminous glow of morning washes over the landscape, not brightly as yet, but indisputably there.

The tension is broken; we are all congratulating each other - about what, I fleetingly wonder? Kala has released the sun, the earth is reborn, and ourselves with it. I feel immensely happy inside, and cannot stop smiling: the gentle sunlight warms my flesh and succours my soul. I look up towards the ancient Buddhist monument. As it has for a thousand years, the great stupa dominates the hill above. Borobudur has kept its mystic rendezvous with the heavens, and taken its place in the cosmic dance.

That day at Borobudur, the sun died - for a while, and earth was tense - for a while. Then, the moon yielded up its claim on the sun and earth relaxed.

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