“Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.”
-Albert Einstein

buddha faceIn order to understand the reasons why the Javanese constructed Borobudur we must gain some knowledge about the Buddhist faith that motivated them to do so.

Borobudur’s foundation is far more than just the stone base upon which the monument rests. At its most fundamental level, this sacred Buddhist site rests upon a spiritual foundation that is based on the noble doctrine of one of the world’s great spiritual teachers. (1)

Modern scholars believe that the historical Buddha was born about 560 BCE into the royal Sakya clan of a small kingdom located near the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in what is today the country of Nepal. At the age of 29, Siddhartha renounced his royal lineage to become a wandering monk. Six years later, he attained enlightenment under the canopy of the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, which is located in the modern Indian State of Bihar.

The One Thus Come

The great sage of the Sakya clan (Sakyamuni) never referred to himself as the Buddha (the “Enlightened One”); only his students called him by that name. Instead, the Sakyamuni proclaimed himself to be the “one thus come” (Tathagata). The great sage also denied that he was the first enlightened being to ever make an appearance in the world. According to his teachings, other enlightened masters had preached identical messages of salvation throughout human history. In addition, the Buddha taught that enlightened teachers will appear in the future to seek the salvation of all self-aware or “sentient” beings.

“The Law proclaimed by all the Tathagatas is likewise one and the same; and when it is stated that Buddha evolved the Law from within himself without the aid of a master, the meaning is that by his intuition he re-discovered the old truths which had been forgotten in the night of dark times.” (2)

Prior to becoming the Tathagata, the young man who would eventually become known as the Buddha lived in the court of his noble father. Surrounded by wealth, beauty and opulence, Siddharta remained blissfully unaware of the sorrows of human existence. Eventually, however, he was to encounter his first glimpses of sickness, old age and death as he traveled down the road that connected his father’s palace with the pleasure gardens at Lumbini. The experiences so troubled Siddharta that the young man decided to abandon family, home and kingdom in order to seek a solution to the problem of human suffering.

under bodhi treeFor a six-year period, Siddharta lead the life of a spiritual wanderer, practicing yoga and asceticism in the company of other truth seekers. Upon failing to realize his goal of finding an end to human suffering, he resolved to practice meditation underneath a great ficus tree at Bodh Gaya in northern India until he either discovered the cure for ending suffering or perished in the attempt.

“May my body wither on this seat, my skin, bones and flesh decay; until I have attained the Wisdom so hard to achieve in many eons, my body shall not be moved from this spot!”

In the late watch of the night at the very cusp of the break of day, the young man finally achieved the highest and most perfect wisdom. The Sakyamuni would later call his realization of enlightenment the “middle way” because it avoided the two extremes of indulgence and austerity that had once characterized the two periods that had comprised his former life.

The Turning of the Wheel

buddha batheForty-nine days after his profound awakening under what would later be called the great wisdom (bodhi) tree, the Buddha arrived in the Deer Park at Benares to deliver his first sermon. Called the “Turning of the Wheel of the Law” (dharmachakra), the Buddha’s first exposition of his realization under the Bodhi Tree consisted of the “Four Noble Truths” about suffering as well as the “Eight-Fold Path” that provides the means whereby one’s salvation from the perils of human suffering is obtained.

mendut buddha“See, brothers, the holy truth about suffering: birth is suffering, age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, union with those one does not love is suffering, separation from those one does love is suffering, and not to succeed in one’s purpose is suffering.”

“See, brothers, the holy truth about the origin of all suffering: it is desire, accompanied by pleasure and envy, which now and again is satisfied; the desire for pleasure and material wealth, the desire for the impermanent.”

“See, brothers, the holy truth about the suppression of suffering: the extinction of desire by the complete destruction of desire.

“See, brothers, the holy truth about the way in which desire is banished and forsaken: it is by following the eight-fold noble path–namely right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration–that one is liberated from desire so that it has no further place.” (3)

For the next 45 years, he traveled throughout northern India in the company of his followers, preaching his message of salvation to anyone who wished to listen. The Buddha died at the age of 80 at Kusinagara near modern-day Patna.

The Buddha’s Pari-Nirvana

Over the remainder of his lifetime the Sakyamuni continued to preach his message of salvation while traveling around upper India. Along the way, he attracted a legion of followers and founded spiritual communities of the faithful called “sanghas.”

Shortly before the Buddha’s death at the age of 80, an impatient merchant asked the great sage to briefly summarize his message of salvation.

“Do that which is good, avoid doing that which is not good,” replied the great sage.

“But any young child knows that!” replied the impatient merchant.

“Yes,” agreed the Buddha, “but difficult even for an 80-year-old man to accomplish!”

Forty-five years after his spiritual awakening underneath the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha informed his disciples that it would soon be time for him to depart this world. Upon arriving in the town of Kusinagara, the Sakyamuni delivered his final sermon to his followers, picked a spot between two great trees, laid down on his right side, faced the setting Sun, and obtained the eternal peace called “Nirvana.”

“A condition there is, brothers,
wherein earth, water, fire and air are not;
wherein is neither consciousness, nor space, nor a void.
Neither this world nor a world beyond are there,
neither are there the Sun and Moon.
It is not a coming, it is neither a going,
nor a standing still, nor a falling, nor a rising.
That is the end of sorrow. That is Nirvana.”

“There is also, brothers,
that which is not born, nor become, nor made.
If that were not, there would be no refuge
from that which is born, is become, is made.
“That is the end of sorrow. That is Nirvana.” (4)

The Buddha had obtained his first experience of Nirvana while sitting underneath the great Bodhi tree. According to the Buddhist scriptures, however, the Sakyamuni’s final Nirvana did not take place until he abandoned his physical body at the time of death. For this reason, the Buddha’s passing from the world is called the “Pari-nirvana.”

Challenging the Hindu Worldview

During the Buddha’s lifetime, Hindu society was governed by a hereditary social structure that consisted of priest, warrior, householder and untouchable classes. Each of these four “castes” had a different role to play in Hindu society that placed severe limitations on social interaction as well as each individual’s participation in religious life.

hindu rishiCalled Brahmins, the Hindu priests taught that the human body was merely a temporary shell for an eternal soul called the “Atman.” Moreover, they believed that the soul’s light of knowledge could only be realized through the performance of yoga and other spiritual practices that regulated the mental processes through which the practitioner’s limited and subjective sense of “I” ever interacts with the Atman. The goal of this process of self-realization was the attainment of a state of tranquility that was not subject to the slings and arrows of worldly existence.

The Brahmins also taught that the Atman survived the destruction of the physical body by migrating through a succession of material existences or “incarnations.” The transmigration of the soul from one life to the next was believed to be governed by a moral order or “dharma,” with he moral responsibilities of each individual varying according to the particular caste into which each person was born. Those who fulfilled the moral obligations of their caste were guaranteed a higher state of existence in the next life, while those who failed to conform to their dharma were condemned to lower forms of existence in the next life.

The ultimate goal of Hindu spiritual practice is the complete liberation (moksha) of the soul from the endless cycles of worldly existence. This liberation could only take place after the Atman had reached a state of total purity, at which point it merges with its counterpart at the macrocosmic level–the eternal, omnipresent and omniscient ground of being known as “Brahman.” Despite their belief in a myriad of Hindu divinities, the Hindu faithful conceived these celestial beings to be merely the divine agents through which the universal soul of Brahman ever interacts with the cosmos.

hindu rishiThe Buddha, however, taught that the soul doctrine of the Hindu faith was merely an illusion because all existence in the phenomenal world is subject to, as well as totally dependent upon, elements, causes and conditions that are continually arising and continually falling away. Under such circumstances, taught the Sakyamuni, there can be no soul that can be said to possess an intrinsic nature or absolute value.

“Looking for the builder of the house
I ran to no avail through the cycle of many lives.
It is wearisome to be born again and again.
But now, o maker of the house, I have seen you;
never more shall you erect this house.
All your rafters are broken, the ridgepole shattered.
The mind released from its binding conditions,
has attained the joy of eternal peace (Nirvana).” (5)

The Buddha had observed that whenever the mind perceives itself to be intrinsically separate from the field of sense objects and sensory experiences that surround it, the desire for self-gratification becomes the mind’s primary motivating factor. Furthermore, the mind ruled by desire is willing to perform whatever wrongful actions, speech, and thought that it deems necessary to realize its objectives. for this reason, the Sakyamuni perceived desire to be the root “cause” of all wrongful activities for which suffering is the ultimate “effect,” both for oneself and for others. This interlinked principle of cause-and-effect is known as the Law of Karma.

“Our life is the creation of our mind.
What we are today originates from our thoughts of yesterday,
and our current thoughts build the life of tomorrow.
If one speaks or acts with an impure mind,
suffering follows as surely as the cart
follows the animal that draws it.
But if a man speaks or acts with a pure mind,
then joy follows him like a shadow.” (6)

brahmanDespite his denial of the reality of the Hindu soul doctrine, the Buddha did incorporate many elements from the Hindu tradition into his teachings, carefully remodeling each elements to fit the specific requirements of his followers. Although the Buddha allowed that all existence is ruled by “dharma,” he preached that the moral laws of the universe were the same for everyone, regardless of caste, creed or gender. The Buddha welcomed anyone who wished to join his community of the faithful without distinction. This undoubtedly contributed to his popularity among the lower classes.

The Buddha also taught that all living beings are trapped in endless rounds of existence called “samsara,” with the karmic effects of one’s past thoughts, speech and actions playing a direct role in determining all future states of existence. Each time a new being is formed out of a new set of causes and conditions it inherits a burden from previous lives that must be carried forward. While denying the Hindu soul doctrine, the Buddha instructed that there is indeed a continuity between past and the present life because the karma of both of these existences are one and the same.

The Buddha refused to say whether or not a Supreme Being rules over the universe because he could see no way for human beings to profit from the answer. For this reason, the divinities that are mentioned in the early Buddhist scriptures only play incidental roles in relationship to the central teachings of the faith.

In another major departure from the Hindu tradition, the Sakyamuni preached his message of salvation in the vernacular in order to reach the widest possible audience. This is in stark contrast to Hindu religious texts, which were written in an ancient language that could only be understood by the members of the Brahmin caste. Composed thousands of year ago, the Vedas consist of songs that were originally composed to honor various Hindu gods. The composers of the Vedas never intended these texts to serve as a liturgy for sacrificial rites. Over the course of time, however, the Brahmins came to believe that every word, line and verse in these hymns had a sacred role to place in the creation and well-being of the universe.

By the Buddha’s lifetime, the animal sacrifice was regarded to be the most important ritual of the Hindu religion. Each sacrifice had to be performed in total conformance with a set of rules that made it all but impossible for anyone but a Brahmin to perform. In addition, the Hindu faithful were taught that any failure to comply with the prescribed procedures would nullify the intended effect of the sacrifice.

Challenging the authority and power of the Vedas, the Buddha denied that any benefits could be derived from the performance of sacrificial rites. The superior sacrifice, said the Sakyamuni, was the one in which the illusion of self was set ablaze. The Buddha also took care to devise different means for presenting his teachings so that they could be easily understood by people of different intellectual capacities and educational background. In addition, the Sakyamuni allowed his followers to freely examine and challenge his doctrines without fear of retribution.

The Elder School

laos monkFollowing the Buddha’s parinirvana, the Buddhist community continued orally pass his teachings from one generation to the next. The first written versions of the Buddha’s message of salvation did not appear until two hundred years after his departure from the world. Some of the oldest Buddhist texts to survive into modern times were written in an ancient Indian dialect called Pali. These religious documents form the heart of the Theravada (“Elder School”) tradition, which is the predominant form of Buddhism that is practiced today in the Southeast Asian countries of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand. This Theravada tradition is also referred to as the “southern school” of Buddhism.

The so called Pali Canon consists of three text collections called the Tripitika (“Three Baskets”), which consists of the Buddha’s discourses (Suttanta), the rules of conduct governing monastic life (Vinaya) and various studies governing the development of spiritual insight (Abhidhamma). The Pali word “sutta”–as well as the Sanskrit word “sutra”–literally means “thread” or “string.” It is often compared to the plumb line of masons and carpenters, which is used to ensure the accuracy of the work.

The Vinaya texts, which set forth the rules for monks and nuns, describe Buddhist monastic life in great detail. Boys and girls had to be at least seven years old before they could enter monastic life as novice monks or nuns. In addition, a man had to be at least twenty years old before he could become a fully ordained monk.

laos monksPrior to the ordination ceremony, the candidate’s hair and beard were shaved off and the initiate was garbed in monastic robes. During the ceremony itself, the candidate bowed down at the feet of the monks and spoke the following three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” This is the holy Buddhist trinity known as the “three jewels,” which represents the body (Buddha), speech (dharma), and mind (sangha) of the Sakyamuni.

Precepts that were calculated to, as much as possible, remove desire from the human equation governed all aspects of monastic life. For example, monks and nuns were required to remain chaste at all times. Members of the Sangha also had to refrain from dancing, singing or otherwise participating in secular forms of entertainment. In addition, the precepts set forth rules concerning the clothing and other personal items that the monks and nuns were allowed to use.

laos monksThe survival of each monastic community was completely in the hands of local lay brethren, who obtained spiritual merit by bestowing food, clothing, and other gifts upon the monks and nuns. Monks and nuns could not participate in any business activity nor could they accept money. All food had to be obtained by begging from door to door. In addition, dietary laws were established that restricted the intake of solid food to a single meal that had to be consumed during the morning prior to the “horse-hour” of local noon.

Each monastic community held regular meetings on the 8th and the 14th days of the lunar half-month, at which time the members confesses their sins in front of the congregation. In addition, monks and nuns were not allowed to travel during the rainy season.

The photographs right are of Theravadin monks in the old Laotian capitol of Wiang Jan.

Go to: Buddhism 101, Part Two


(1) Mahayanists and most western scholars date the Buddha variously 566-486 BC (the preferable date), 563-483 BC or 558-478 BC. See Gard, Richard A. Buddhism. New York: G. Braziller (1961):47. In his public appearances, the Dalai Lama also sometimes refers to the existence of yet another Buddhist tradition that proposes a date for the Buddha’s birth that is more than 400 years earlier.

(2) Kern, H. Manual of Indian Buddhism. Strassburg: K.J. Trübner (1896):64.

(3) After Foucher, as cited in Dumarcay, Jacques. Borobudur. Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press (1978):7.

(4) Adapted from the Dhammapada.

(5) Adapted from the Dhammapada.

(6) Adapted from the Dhammapada.