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Notes on the Geography of Indonesia: Borobudur 5

Most of the space at Borobudur was reserved for one story, told in 450 panels. At great length they illustrate the Gandavyuha, "The World as a Bubble," a story written originally in Sanskrit but translated into Chinese in the 4th century. It tells of a young man named Sudhana, who seeks wisdom. After a lengthy search for a teacher, which occupies the second level, he reaches Vairocana's Jewel Tower, where he finds Maitreya, the next Buddha. Through the many panels on the main wall and then the balustrade of the third level, plus those of the balustrade of the fourth, Maitreya teaches Sudhana generosity and detachment. Finally, on the main wall of the fourth level, Sudhana merges with his last teacher, the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Why so much space to this particular narrative? Presumably because pilgrims to Borobudur were less interested in folk tales and the life of the Buddha than in their own search for salvation, which they saw mirrored in Sudhana's.

The story is known in general terms from the literary text, but the majority of the panels remain inscrutable, in part because the story is abstract and in part because some 90 percent of the surviving texts are devoted to the journey to the Jewel Tower. At Borobudur, on the other hand, almost two-thirds of the panels illustrate events that happen once Sudhana is there. It's frustrating, but things could be worse: the entire sequence was baffling before 1917, when N.J. Krom, then the director of the Netherlands Indies Archaeological Service, realized that he was looking at an illustrated version of the Gandavyuha.

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Indonesia: Borobudur 5 picture 1

The story starts here, on the second level. The balustrade is devoted to more jataka, but two circuits of the main wall carry the story of Sudhana to the point where he reaches Maitreya.

Indonesia: Borobudur 5 picture 2

The text begins with the Buddha performing miracles for an audience too selfish to notice. Here, in one of the first panels, the Buddha's throne is empty, suggesting that pilgrims will learn nothing if they persist in their selfishness.

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The bodhisattva Manjusri has appeared in South India, where the boy Sudhana asks for spiritual guidance. Manjusri tells him to seek a certain monk, and Sudhana sets off.

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Sudhana is patient: he approaches 90 teachers and gains something from each. Among the eclectic group is a ship's captain, shown here with Sudhana and the ship itself.

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His teachers include Shiva, whom he finds in a temple.

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The entire third level concerns Sudhana in Vairocana's Jewel Tower, where he will be guided by Maitreya. He learns how Maitreya in previous lives gave to those in need--in this case, giving away his child.

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In this, his own head.

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In this, his wife.

Indonesia: Borobudur 5 picture 9

On the fourth level balustrade, Maitreya's generous actions are shown. Here, he carries people across a river.

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Maitreya finally tells Sudhana to find Manjusri, the bodhisattva who set him off on his journey. They meet, but Sudhana awaits one final teacher, the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who shortly appears and touches Sudhana on the head. On the remaining panels, on the main wall of the fourth level, Sudhana and Samantabhadra become one and the same.


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