Monday, December 05, 2005


Fotograf: Michel Estermann

A Burmese lady called Nan introduced me to Central Java’s most famous monument: Borobudur. I had got talking to Nan, along with her jovial husband and pretty teenage daughter, in the bar of the Ambarrukmo Hotel in Yogyakarta, about twenty-five miles from Borobudur. Nan was in her mid-forties, had been educated in London, and now taught English at a school in Bandung; she dressed with a balance of the classical and the colourful; she had intelligent, almond shaped eyes and a permanent warm relaxed smile. Nan had offered to be my guide to what she called ‘Buddhism’s greatest work of art’. Nan would give me the tour of Borobudur, while her husband and daughter explored Yogyakarta’s markets.

"Borobudur looks quite mystical, doesn’t it?" said Nan, as we got out of my Mitsubishi, on that bright July morning. "I can never get enough of this place. You know that for hundreds of years it was covered up by jungle."

I looked up at the giant bell-shaped stupa at the top of the pyramid-shaped grey-brown mass of stone. The pyramid had been built on a low hill. Beyond the hill were rice fields and palm trees and beyond that steep-sided volcanoes, ten thousand feet high. The giant yellow sun floodlit part of the scene, emphasising the blackness of the shadows and the orange-blueness of the sky. Cockerels were crowing and there was an aroma of warm flowers. This was surely a place as wondrous as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Bagan in Burma.

"It looks impressive," I said. "How old is Borobudur?"

"Begun in the eighth century AD," said Nan. "It’s actually bigger than it looks. It’s the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. If you wanted to see all the carvings it would take you many hours."

"Buddhism must have been important here."

"Buddhism and Hinduism," said Nan. "This island was Hindu-Buddhist for over a thousand years. Hence Indonesia’s Garuda symbol; and the Indian word puasa for fasting; and the gentle, unselfish nature of some Indonesians."

"They can be very unselfish," I said. "I’ve often noticed poor children sharing their food and toys."

We climbed some steep steps and reached the foot of the monument. Above us were nine terraces, four of them having half-enclosed galleries with lots of stone carvings.

"It’s in good condition," I commented, "apart from the litter and graffiti near the car park."

"It’s been restored," said Nan. "It’s now on a bed of reinforced concrete."

"You’re going to be my guide. Tell me all about Buddhism."

"Ha. I’ll try my best," said Nan, as a party of cheerful girl guides squeezed past us. The guides were followed a few moments later by a group of lively boy scouts.

We reached the first of the four galleries stretching around the monument. "There’s a great variety of beliefs," said Nan. "The Buddha, about 2500 years ago, didn’t write his teachings down. The Buddhists who completed Borobudur have different views from the Burmese Buddhists. Here, at Borobudur, people believed in lots of supernatural beings who helped you reach Nirvana. That’s no problem so long as people don’t sit back and think these magical beings are going to do all the work."

"You believe in free will?" I asked.

"The advertising agencies think they can predict what we’re going to do. But scientists like Heisenberg tell us that life is not always predictable."

"Heisenberg?" I asked, while running my fingers over one of the stone figures. I noticed that the carvings included dancing girls.

"Heisenberg was the scientist who said that the path of the electron is unpredictable."

"I’m not too good on science," I confessed. "Do you think that electrons have got free will?"

"Anything’s possible," said Nan, with a chuckle. "What I do know is that everything we are is the result of our thoughts. What we are going to become is the result of what we are thinking now."

We had caught up with some of the scouts and guides. Two scouts, arm in arm, were studying a carving of a ship. As we passed them there was a whiff of clove cigarettes. As we passed two guides who were sketching an elephant, I thought I detected an aroma of marshmallow.

"There are people who think we’re like robots," I said to Nan.

"Just think," she said. "What would happen if people stopped believing in free will? If I stole your car, I could claim that I had had no choice in the matter. I was acting like a robot."

"So Hitler was not forced by his environment, by his heredity or by his ignorance to choose the bad path?"

"Hitler knew what he was doing," said Nan. "He had decided to follow his selfish ego. He was deliberately ignoring what was good for the world as a whole."

"So Hitler was evil?"

"Buddha might have said that Hitler’s actions were unwise, unwholesome and undesirable, rather than evil."

"Is it all relative?" I said, while noting a stone carving of a camel. "Think of a lion killing a lamb. To the lion it’s good. To the lamb it’s bad."

"Perhaps the lion has chosen the path that leads to it being a lion."

"The lion might be reincarnated as a vegetarian?"

Nan laughed. "And the lamb might be reincarnated as a lion."

"Is it all relative? Take the bombing of Hiroshima. To some Americans, it was good. To some innocent Japanese children who got killed, it was bad."

"Some Buddhists would say that good and evil are relative. But killing is wrong.," said Nan. "It’s a matter of self-knowledge or enlightenment. We have to learn that we have a selfish ego. We then have to take the path of suffering, to learn to get rid of the selfish ego. We have to struggle."

"Struggle?" I noticed some immensely fat American tourists struggling up the steep steps below.
"Some effort is usually required if you are going to follow the right path: becoming loving and kind to all, not being bad tempered, not saying hurtful things. But love will be spontaneous for the more enlightened." Nan looked sunny and relaxed as she gave her tutorial.

"Does Borobudur help?"

"It’s thought that pilgrims would come here to learn more about the path to Nirvana. Look at this panel." We stopped at a carving showing a rather unhappy looking man. "I think," said Nan, "it’s meant to show the laws of cause and effect. You desire something bad and you automatically suffer as a result."

As we moved along the galleries we could not see the rice fields or the trees outside, only the sky. "It’s a long walk," I said, noticing the sweat on my face. We had moved faster than the American tourists, but slower than the guides and boy scouts. We passed a middle-aged couple who were probably Chinese-Indonesian; they looked as if they were dressed for a luxury cruise.

"It can be a long journey to Nirvana, said Nan. "In this part of the world you might find a rich Chinese Buddhist who makes a lot of money. He uses doubtful methods to get money from a bank and then takes land away from some poor Moslems and builds a factory or hotel. If he thinks he can achieve salvation by giving money to some temple or orphanage, he could be wrong. He won’t reach Nirvana until he learns to conquer greed and starts loving his poor neighbours. Good works are useless without love."

"Saint Paul said something about that."

"Paul? ‘I may give away all my money, but if I have no love, I am no better off. Our understanding of things is only partial. It will pass away. But love will never come to an end.’"

"You know Saint Paul?"

"I went to a Christian school," explained Nan.

"Where are we now? What are these carvings?"

"This is about where man is reminded about the need for self-sacrifice, to help others. He also learns about the escape from continual reincarnation."

Finally we reached the highest realm of Borobudur, the area from which you can view the whole world around you, from the rice fields to the mountains and beyond. There were no more galleries. Instead there were dozens of Buddhas, each one sitting serenely inside his stupa. The topmost stupa was empty.

"This is where you learn about Nirvana," said Nan.

"What do Buddhists believe about God, Nirvana, heaven, reincarnation? It all seems a bit obscure."

"Nirvana," said Nan, "cannot be described. It’s beyond our understanding. We can say that in Nirvana there are no longer lots of individual beings; there is no yin and no yang."

"So," I said, "how do we achieve this Nirvana?"

"We have to make the effort to achieve self knowledge. We shouldn’t think that we are our physical bodies. We should realise that we are part of God. As Jesus would say, remove the plank from your own eye. Love everyone. Love unites the yin and yang."

"Could take a while," I commented. "Might take many reincarnations."

"Reincarnation," said Nan, "is like the flame passing from one candle to another. The flame is the person’s consciousness, and the person’s karma, the seeds of good and bad deeds."

"In Nirvana, there is no individual self?"

"I don’t have a self that will always be Nan. But Buddha did believe that things which are real cannot cease to exist. In other words Nirvana is something positive and good."


"The person, let’s say Nan, who has certain lusts, who gets angry sometimes, who likes certain music and certain books, that person doesn’t continue for ever, unchanged. That person doesn’t enter Nirvana until the anger and lust have gone. But whatever there is about me that’s real, that real part doesn’t cease to exist."

"Can you remember a past life?"

"I get a sense of deja vu, that’s all. Mozart composed music at the age of five. Pascal invented some geometrical system at the age of eleven. Could be knowledge gained in a previous life."

To our left, a slim young girl guide was pointing out Mount Merapi to her excited friends. Below the volcano was a luscious landscape of coconut groves and rice-terraced hills.

"What about God?" I asked.

"The early Buddhists didn’t seem to take an interest in the kind of god who pulled all the levers of power. They were more interested in Nirvana."

"They didn’t believe in the sort of old man who’d help his people conquer cities and wipe out women and children? The sort of old man in the sky who’d create typhoid? "

"No. The typhoid has a cause. It has developed out of something. Its karma has led it to become typhoid."

"Don’t you need a God, or some mysterious something, to make reincarnation work and to make sure people are rewarded and so on?"

"Buddhists have the Dharma or law of nature. It’s inside us. It’s the mysterious something. Buddha believed you couldn’t grasp it with the mind alone. Some people can call it God if they like. Buddha didn’t speculate."

"Talking of mysterious somethings," I said, "are we going to see the Hindu temples at Prambanan?"

"It’s next on the itinerary. Let’s go before we melt in this heat. There are drinks in the car."
At the car park I noticed one particularly battered old bus. The faces of happy boy scouts were pressed against its back window. When the bus started, huge clouds of black smoke were emitted from the exhaust.