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Notes on the Geography of Indonesia: Borobudur 4

The upper row on the main wall of the first terrace recounts in 120 panels the life of the Buddha. Specifically, it illustrates the text known as the Lalitavistara, or "Unfolding of the Play." Some 45 images are shown here from this sequence, which ends 40 years before the Buddha's death and at the peak moment when he expounds the Law for the first time. Until 1901, nobody knew what the panels were about: that was the year a Dutch scholar decoded them by linking them to the Lalitavistara. In retrospect, it doesn't seem as though it should have been so difficult, but see for yourself.

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Indonesia: Borobudur 4 picture 1

Assuming that Gautama Buddha is not a person but only a vehicle for the return to earth of the Buddha, the Lalitavistara begins with him in the Heaven of Contentment, floating above Mt. Meru. He has yet to decide to return to earth.

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He announces his plans to return to earth. The strap around his knee is the yagapatta, designed to make it easier to stay in this sitting position.

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To honor his decision, gods assume the form of Brahmans and descend to earth to teach. The figure on the right is still coming down.

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Still in the Heaven of Contentment, the Gautama Buddha gives his crown to Maitreya, a bodhisattva whom he has chosen as the next Buddha.

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Meanwhile, down in the earthly city of Kapilavastu, Queen Maya asks King Suddhohana if she may take a vow of abstinence. He consents.

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Goddesses descend to see this future mother of the Buddha.

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The gods gather round the Buddha to decide which of them shall accompany him.

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Queen Maya is asleep as the Buddha enters her womb.

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The queen has gone to a forest, where she tells a kneeling servant to fetch the king.

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A detail shows architectural designs of the time.

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The king, arriving in the forest, is unable to enter the room where Maya awaits. Finally he succeeds in doing so. Maya explains that she has dreamt of an elephant entering her womb. The advice of Brahmans is sought.

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A Brahman explains that she is pregnant with a king or the next Buddha. She decides to go to the Lumbini Pleasure Garden to give birth. She travels in a great procession.

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Holding a tree for support, the queen has just given birth. Servants wash her feet.

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The same panel: the quite large (and now defaced) infant stands on lotuses, which spring up at his every step.

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Maya dies a week later, and her sister Gautami cares for the young prince, shown in her lap.

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Wise men come to honor the child, shown in his father's lap.

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The king and prince go to the temple.

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En route.

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In the temple, the gods and statues--brought to life--kneel before the prince.

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The prince is taught by the Brahman Visvamitra, who on first seeing the young man had fainted at the sight of his brilliance.

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The prince desires to marry a princess named Gopa. Another prince, Davadatta, is overcome with jealousy and kills with one blow a white elephant brought as a gift to the prince. To spare townsfolk the annoyance of a rotting carcass, the Buddha-to-be picks picks the elephant up and throws it over seven walls and moats.

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Gopa's father consents to her marriage after the prince shoots an arrow through seven trees.

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The gods descend to congratulate the prince but most importantly to ask him when he will begin to seek enlightenment.

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The king has dreamt that the young prince will leave; hoping to prevent it, he sends women.

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The prince goes to a park but never gets there: instead, he turns around after seeing an old and impoverished man.

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In the second of four encounters, he sees a sick man.

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In his third encounter the Buddha sees a corpse. In this, the fourth encounter, the prince sees a monk, freed from suffering.

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The prince asks Gopa's father if he can leave. The king, on the left, signifies consent.

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This time it is Gautami who sends women to discourage him.

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The gods make sure that the prince sees the women as unattractive.

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The Great Departure: the prince leaves on his horse Kanthaka, whose hooves are supported by the gods so no one will hear them clipclopping on the way out.

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The prince cuts off his hair.

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The gods applaud the prince, who has already acquired the usnisha, or bump of wisdom.

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The prince has been studying with Arada Kalapa, a Brahman. Now, however, he himself has become a teacher. He is handed water by a student while his own gesture, the abhayamudra, indicates that he is calming their fears.

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Despite entreaties, the prince declines to eat and almost dies of starvation.

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Seeing this, his mother's spirit intervenes. The prince decides not to die, nor to be sustained magically. At the village of Uruvila, he accepts food.

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A village girl, Sujata, feeds the prince: steam rises from the pot.

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He bathes while gods throw flowers.  In the lower right, two nagas or water spirits appear; they will give him a throne.

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Sujata had given the prince a golden bowl; now he throws it away, into a river. The naga king retrieves it for safekeeping as a holy object.

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The prince seeks a place to meditate. Gods decorate bodhi trees to attract him. Magically, he appears to sit under them all.

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Hoping to disrupt his meditation, the demon Mara shoots arrows at the prince. She is the ruler of the Kingdom of Desire and has achieved that position by sacrificing herself in a prior life. The prince says that her sacrifice does not match his, for he has given himself in hundreds of previous births. She demands proof. He touches the earth, in the gesture known as bhumisparsamudra--it appears in countless Buddha images--and calls the earth to testify to his sacrifices. It does so.

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In a last and doomed effort, Mara sends her daughters to seduce the prince.

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Rejecting them, the prince is now the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

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The naga king bows before him.

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The Buddha travels and is honored.

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He begs food from his former disciples, who momentarily reject him as insufficiently austere, then relent.

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His brilliance overcoming them, they have a change of heart. Here, they bathe him.


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