Indonesia's Buddhist Heritage

A fascination with ancient Buddhist temples led me in August 2003 to visit Borobudur, an eighth-century monument located on the Indonesian island of Java. But the visit also taught me a great deal about kejawen (“Javanese”) piety—the syncretistic blend of Hinduism and Buddhism with Sufi-influenced mystical Islam that characterizes much of Java’s spiritual life today. In addition, I learned how Indonesian Jesuits are currently applying the Buddhist teachings—sculptured on the walls of Borobudur in the service of interfaith dialogue.



From a distance Borobudur gives the appearance of a step-pyramid: row upon ascending row of stone galleries, built upon a hill that dominates the plains and rice fields of south-central Java. Pilgrims came here 1,200 years ago to marvel at the thousands of sculptured figures carved into the lower tiers of Borobudur. These figures were meant to teach. Like the narrative statuary crowding the exterior walls of the cathedral at Chartres and other great churches of medieval Europe, Borobudur’s carvings conveyed the insights of faith in a sequential storytelling framework that would have been accessible to the educated and unlettered alike.

Prominent among Borobudur’s sculptured tales are the Jatakas or “birth stories.” These are legends (popular in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism) that tell of Siddhartha’s earlier incarnations before he became the Buddha. In many of these tales the Buddha-to-be takes on the form of an animal—a lion or deer or swan, for example—and acquires merit by sacrificing his own selfish interests for the good of the other animals or humans he encounters.

Most visitors today spend little time in Borobudur’s narrative galleries, preferring instead to hurry up the stairs to the monument’s summit. Here repose numerous statues of the Buddha shown seated in meditation. The Buddhas look out over palm groves and crops of tobacco and sugar cane to a horizon of limestone hills and distant volcanic mountains. Local Indonesians mingle with tourists from throughout the world to admire the views and enjoy Borobudur’s serenity.

The serenity was marred in January 1985, when terrorist bombs damaged a portion of the monument’s upper terrace. Only two years before, in 1983, Indonesia’s government, in cooperation with the United Nations, had completed a decade-long project to restore Borobudur. When I toured Borobudur in 2003, I wanted to learn more about this terrorist attack. The previous December I had visited the city of Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest frontier province, where a pro-Taliban political coalition had recently come to power. I had listened as educated Muslims in Peshawar argued over the Taliban’s stance toward the region’s pre-Islamic heritage. Everyone recalled that the Taliban in March 2001 had blown up the colossal 1,500-year-old Buddhas that adorned the Afghan city of Bamiyan.

Indonesians I interviewed at Borobudur and the nearby city of Yogyakarta pointed out that the Muslim militants who bombed Borobudur had done so as a way of defying the national government. For the militants, Borobudur was a symbol of kufr (pagan unbelief), and the government’s sponsorship of Borobudur’s restoration was consistent with the national policy of refusing to impose Islamic law on the religiously diverse population of Indonesia. While it has the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia has substantial minority communities of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, together with adherents of indigenous Austronesian traditions.

According to my Indonesian informants, the militants responsible for the Borobudur bombing had been influenced by “foreign” forms of Islam. By “foreign” they meant radicalized versions of the faith imported from the Middle East—specifically the intolerant strains associated with Saudi Wahhabism.

All the Indonesians with whom I talked at Borobudur expressed affection for the site as part of the nation’s heritage. “We respect this place,” one young Muslim man said to me, “because we respect our elders. Our ancestors built it.” Both at Borobudur and at Prambanan (an ancient Hindu temple nearby in central Java), many legends and folk rituals surround certain statues that are believed to have the power even today to grant wishes and bestow favors. “Such beliefs,” one informant told me, “are all part of our kejawen tradition.” The strength of kejawen spirituality—as opposed to the doctrinaire puritanism in vogue among fundamentalists—is its ability to harmonize the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic components of Java’s religious heritage.

From Borobudur I traveled to Yogyakarta, which for centuries has been the region’s cultural capital. There I interviewed Muslim faculty members at the Islamic State University. In our conversation we discussed the Taliban’s hostility to the Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I mentioned my plans to return to Pakistan and asked these Indonesian scholars, “Are there any arguments that you could offer as Muslims from an island with a strong Buddhist background to discourage people like the Taliban from destroying the monuments of their own pre-Islamic heritage?”

Their reply was of considerable interest. Several scholars drew on Islamic scripture, referring to Koranic stories of ancient pagan civilizations that God had brought low because of their unbelief. A professor from the department of Muslim literature said, “The Koran invites us to contemplate the ruins of these sinful cities and learn from their mistakes.” He quoted chapter 3, verse 137 of the Koran: “‘So travel throughout the world, and behold the fate of those who refused to believe.’”

“How can we learn from the sins of these ancient civilizations,” he concluded, “if we destroy their monuments and remove all trace of their existence?” I observed that this was a somewhat negative way of arguing for the preservation of the pre-Islamic heritage. Might it be possible to offer an argument that presented monuments such as Borobudur in a more positive light? “Certainly,” the professor said, “monuments such as Borobudur are remarkable technical achievements. Our ancestors built them, and they did so without the help of any Western technology. We should take pride in such things.”

A different approach to an appreciation of Java’s Buddhist heritage emerged in my talks with faculty members of Universitas Sanata Dharma, Yogyakarta’s Jesuit university. Budi Susanto, S.J., of the university’s Realino Study Institute showed me a Jesuit-produced film entitled “Learning from Borobudur.” The film displayed the site’s narrative sculptures from the Jataka Tales, while an accompanying voice-over summarized each story and its moral message.

An example of this technique is the film’s presentation of “The Jataka of the Hare.” In one of his incarnations the Buddha was born as a wild hare, which because of its piety and aura of peace attracted a following among the various beasts of the jungle. One day the hare discovered a wandering Brahmin priest astray in the forest. The priest was weak with hunger and in need of help. Rather than follow its instinct to flee, the hare resolved to offer itself as a meal to save the Brahmin’s life and jumped into the man’s cooking fire. Thereby the Buddha-hare offered its fellow animals a lesson in self-sacrifice and compassion for the suffering of others.

“Learning from Borobudur” concludes its description of the Buddha’s career by characterizing it as a life lived “in solidarity with the poor.” Christian viewers will recognize eucharistic and social justice motifs in the Jataka talks presented in this video. Yet at the same time the film makes clear that Borobudur’s lessons involve universal values accessible to viewers of every religion.

Through Father Susanto I was introduced to members of progressive Muslim organizations in Java with whom local Jesuits have collaborated in community outreach projects. Syarikat Indonesia (the Muslim Community for Social Advocacy) calls for “reconciliation and rehabilitation for the victims of 1965.” This group courageously draws attention to a long-suppressed chapter in Indonesian history dating from the end of the Sukarno regime in 1965: the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of individuals who had been accused of belonging to the P.K.I. (the Communist Party of Indonesia). Another Java-based association, Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial (the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies), was awarded the Prince Claus Award, given by the Netherlands, in 2002 for its educational efforts in promoting a pluralistic and tolerant form of Islam in Indonesia.

Yogyakarta’s Jesuit university also advocates pluralism in Java through various outreach projects. Among these is a curricular requirement that each student (most of whom are Christian) must spend a month living with rural families in the impoverished Muslim villages outside Yogyakarta. Father Susanto introduced me to several undergraduates who were living with Muslim families in Klemprit, a village located in the hill country between Yogyakarta and Prambanan. One evening these students took me on a visit to the village. The unpaved road led past a spring, from which local residents were drawing water. Klemprit’s spring, the students told me, is considered sacred. According to the villagers, a spirit inhabits the spring, a spirit that takes the form of a turtle. The turtle safeguards the water and afflicts with bad luck anyone who pollutes or otherwise harms the spring.

To tease them I asked the students, “Can you tell whether the turtle is Christian or Muslim or Buddhist?”

They laughed and said at once, “Oh, the turtle is definitely kejawen.

The turtle, in other words, belonged to the trans-denominational “Javanese” tradition. The students, I thought, had given me a good answer, one that was entirely consistent with the universal message of Borobudur.

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