Borobudur: The Long Path Towards Enlightenment

By: Ranilo Abando (Manila, October 25, 2020) ***

The Borobudur monument in Java, Indonesia is a ninth century shrine to the Lord Buddha and a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage. The journey for Buddhist believers begins at the base of the monument and follows a path circum-ambulating the structure as they ascend to the top through the three levels of Buddhist worlds of manifestation, namely, the world of forms, Rupadhatu, the world of desire, Kamadhatu, and the world of the formless, Arupadhatu.

The entire Borobudur structure symbolizes Mount Meru or the Tree of Life – the human mind column.  Travelling upward the different levels of the monument symbolizes the ascent of a person’s seat of consciousness (spirit) toward the higher levels of his own mind column.  The beginning of the journey is abstracting and learning the lessons of everyday life, in the virtual physical reality built by the bottom zone of the lower mind.

The relief panels portrayed at Borobudur’s “hidden foot” are scenes taken from the Karmawibhangga Buddhist texts    The hidden foot depicts the workings of karmic law – the Law of Cause and Effect.  There are scenes of daily Javanese life, together with the full panorama of the Buddhist belief in the human cycles of rebirth and death.

After a minor number of reliefs dedicated to portraying the life of Buddha in the lower section of Borobudur, majority of the relief panels in the lower to middle portion of Borobudur are occupied by depictions of the search for spiritual knowledge by a merchant’s young son, named Sudhana.

Sudhana is a fictional character in the relief panels who travelled widely to various places and approached numerous spiritual teachers in order to acquire knowledge from their experiences.  One of them is the spiritual master Manjusri, who guided Sudhana on how to achieve enlightenment.  Sudhana learned by heart the various aspects of knowledge that each teacher imparted to him.  He interconnected those separate teachings into one coherent, consistent, and integrated set of spiritual wisdom in his own mind, as he could not find such set of wisdom in a single place or a single teacher.

He was shown a multiplicity of realities, vast treasures, and visions of numerous divine and enlightened beings in heaven.  But the most durable lessons were learned from the ordinary physical reality.

The following is from the Gandavyuha Sutra from which the story of Sudhana in the relief panels is based:

“From a fisherman he learned the lore of the sea.  From a doctor he learned compassion toward sick people in their suffering.  From a wealthy man he learned that saving pennies was the secret of his fortune and thought how necessary it was to conserve every trifling gained on the path to Enlightenment.

From a meditating monk he learned that the pure and peaceful mind had a miraculous power to purify and tranquilize other minds.  Once he met a woman of exceptional personality and was impressed by her benevolent spirit, and from her he learned a lesson that charity was the fruit of wisdom.  Once he met an aged wanderer who told him that, to reach a certain place, he had to scale a mountain of swords and pass through a valley of fire.  Thus Sudhana learned from his experiences that there was a true teaching to be gained from everything that he saw or heard.

He learned patience from a poor, cripple woman, he learned a lesson of simple happiness from watching children playing in the street; and from some gentle and humble people, who never thought of wanting anything that anybody else wanted, he learned the secret of living at peace with the world.  He learned a lesson of harmony from watching the blending of the elements of incense, and a lesson of thanksgiving from the arrangement of flowers.

One day, passing through a forest, he took a rest under a noble tree and noticed a tiny seedling growing nearby out of a fallen and decaying tree and it taught him a lesson of the uncertainty of life.  Sunlight by day and the twinkling stars by night constantly refreshed his spirit.  Thus Sudhana profited by the experiences of his long journey.”

The narrative relief panels finally end with Sudhana’s achievement of the perfect wisdom and acquisition of the ultimate truth.

In the last three circular uppermost terraces, 72 stupas surround the large main stupa on the top of the Borobudur monument. The circular geometry represents eternal existence in a formless, blissful, peaceful, and pure state of the spiritual world. No reliefs were carved on these three circular terraces, as this area represents freedom from the experience of virtual forms.  Once the human seat of consciousness is in the spiritual realm, its mind ceases to think in terms of information in visual forms.  Thinking in forms is applicable only while a person is inside the virtual realities built by his mind column. 

In the spiritual realm beyond the mind column, you do not even have to think or dream.  There is no mind there to think with or dream with anyway.  In the spiritual realm, the seat of consciousness is in a state of ideal conscious existence, where there is no more need to find the best options, to struggle for survival, or to suffer any consequences.  The latter activities are only needed when you are inside your mind column, thinking and acquiring the needed knowledge and experience to attain spiritual liberation.

(Thanks to for all the photos above of Borobudur monument)

Published by rabando

I am a Filipino and a geologist by profession but I have also been an ardent searcher for answers to the fundamental questions of human existence ever since 42 years ago. It has been a long, lonely and difficult journey. Why are we here? Where did we come from? What on earth is this world where I found my self in? Surprisingly, I found out that the answers are right there under our noses. There just need to be some adjustments in the way people think.

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