showing the way on the ocean of truth;
they are bridges
conveying all sentient beings across the sea of mundane life;
a pathway to the holy for all sentient beings."
At Borobudur, the story
of the historical Buddha called the Sakyamuni is completed in just 120
relief panels. The monument’s presentation of the Gandavyuha, however,
occupies a total of 460 relief panels--one visible indication of the
high regard that Borobudur's builders had for this particular text.
Another visual cue of the text's importance is the location of these
reliefs upon the monument's higher terrace levels.
Borobudur's Gandavuya reliefs portray a young merchant's son as he
travels the world in search of wisdom. During his many journeys, the
young man Sudhana encounters a total of fifty-five spiritual teachers
who share their spiritual knowledge and experiences with the young
man. The fictional hero of our tale represents the highest aspirations
of all those who strive to attain knowledge and wisdom in this world.
He serves as the reflecting image for revealing the pure Buddha nature
that is inherent in all beings, which might otherwise remain hidden
behind layers of self-doubt, defilement and delusion as well as the
ever-present "now" as opposed to the past that is reflected in the
reliefs pertaining to the Buddha as a historical personage. By
mirroring the aspirations of the celebrants who once traveled down the
gallery pathways, Sudhana reveals the potential for goodness that
exists within each and every human being.
the ancient Sanskrit language of India, Sudhana means "good wealth."
The use of this particular name for our hero suggests that the riches
that one accumulates in life should be applied to good use for the
benefit of others. The young noblemen of Java undoubtedly saw their own
reflections in these reliefs. Like Sudhana, these Buddhist princes
likely had traveled the world on the ships of the Sailendra fleet in
their search for wisdom and knowledge. For this reason other have
suggested that the Gandavyuha reliefs may contain elements that pertain
to Javanese missions to the Holy Land of India and elsewhere. (1)
Gandavyuha reliefs often portray Sudhana with an umbrella over his head
to his status as a nobleman or prince. In the text itself, however,
Sudhana is merely identified as the son of a merchant. And yet the
Gandavyuha reliefs at Borobudur reliefs portray Sudhana with an
entourage that is equipped with elephants and other accutrements that
were associated with royalty. This is contrary to the Gandavyuha text
itself, which says that Sudhana traveled alone. In addition, the
reliefs portray Sudhana as a young man, while the Sudhana of the text
is a young boy. The sum of these departures from the text of the
Gandavhya indicate that they were intended to serve as instructions for
the future rulers of central Java, perhaps even incorporating
autobiographical elements from the life of the founder of the Buddhist
Sailendra dynasty that, in all likelihood, was responsible for
Borobudur's construction. (2)
The opening scene of the Gandavyuha takes place in
a pavilion in the Jetta grove. The Buddha is seated within the
pavilion, surrounded by a multitude of bodhisattvas, monks, kings,
devas, yaksas, nagas and other divine beings. Perceiving that the
multitude wished to see him perform a miracle, the Buddha enters into a
state of contemplation known as the "coming forth of the lion."
"As soon as the Buddha had entered this concentration, the magnificent
pavilion became boundlessly vast: the surface of the earth appeared to
be made of indestructible diamond, the surface of the ground covered
with a net of all the finest jewels, strewn with flowers of many
jewels, with enormous gems strewn all over; it was adorned with
sapphire pillars, with well-proportioned decorations of
world-illuminating pearls of the finest water, with all kinds of gems,
combined in pairs, adorned with heaps of gold and jewels, with a
dazzling array of turrets, arches, chambers, windows, and balconies,
made of all kinds of precious stones, arrayed with jewels in the forms
of all world rulers, and embellished with oceans of worlds of jewels,
covered with...flags, banners and pennants flying in front of all the
portals, the adornments pervading the cosmos with a network of light.
Outside the grounds where the inexpressibly vast circle of the assembly
was, there was a magnificent array of balustrades, and in each
direction was a stairway consisting of a mass of jewels, adorned
superbly in a well-ordered fashion." (3)
Suddenly the white tuft of hair located between the Buddha's eyebrows
began to emanate a beam of light that envelops his entire body and an
innumerable number of Buddhas emanate from each and every pore. Despite
this great display of mystic power, however, many members of the
congregation were unable to perceive this startling transfiguration.
According to the Gandavyuha, those who failed to see the miracle lacked
the requisite roots of goodness and were only concerned with
accomplishing what they had to do to achieve their own enlightenment.
However, those on-lookers who followed the practice of universal
salvation were able to witness the Buddha’s mystic transformation. To
their amazement, they saw an infinite number of Buddhas radiating
outward into the ten directions of space, appearing simultaneously in
all places and at all times.
"Observe the infinite, vast power of Buddha arisen in the Jeta grove,
having emanated clouds of bodies as sense objects that pervade all
directions. The vast pure arrays of offspring of Buddha, various, of
infinite forms, are all seen reflected from the thrones, which contain
the objects of sense." (4)
witnessing the awesome power of the Buddha's transformation, the
Bodhisattva Manjusri decided to visit the human realm where he meets
Sudhana for the very first time. After listening to Manjusri as he
addresses a crowd, Sudhana approaches the Bodhisattva and asks for
instructions concerning how one should go about obtaining wisdom.
"Noble one, I have set my mind on supreme enlightenment," says Sudhana,
"but I do not know how an enlightening being is to learn and carry out
the practice of enlightening beings."
Observing the purity of Sudhana's intentions, Manjusri encouraged the
young man to seek out 'good friends' who could help him to realize
"Then Sudhana, pleased, enraptured, transported with joy, delighted,
happy, and cheerful, laid his head at the feet of Manjusri in respect,
circled Manjusri hundreds of times, and looked at him hundreds and
thousands of times, with a mind full of love for the spiritual friend,
unable to bear not seeing the spiritual friend, with tears streaming
down his face as he wept, and left Manjusri." (5)
In Buddhist art,
Manjusri is usually portrayed as a beautiful young boy holding a book
in one hand, which indicates his dedication to the pursuit of wisdom.
The Buddhist scriptures call Manjusri the mother of all the Buddhas
because enlightenment can only take place when the great wisdom that he
symbolizes is combined with a great compassion for the welfare of all
To begin the process of obtaining wisdom, Manjusri sends Sudhana to
visit the first in a series of spiritual teachers. Beginning with the
monk Meghasri, each of Sudhana's "good friends" demonstrates a single
aspect of what the spiritual practice of an enlightening being entails
and then sends Sudhana onward to visit another good friend who can
further expand the young man's storehouse of spiritual knowledge.
During his travels from guru to guru, Sudhana contemplates what he has
just learned and then integrates each new-found piece of knowledge into
his spiritual practice. The underlying message of the text is that the
spiritual practice of enlightening beings is not to be found in any one
place or embodied in any single individual.
Sudhana says, "Bodhisattvas are navigators showing the way on the
of truth; bodhisattvas are bridges conveying all
sentient beings across
the sea of mundane life; enlightening beings are a pathway to the holy
for all sentient beings." (6)
Among Sudhana's other
teachers is the Hindu god Mahadeva, eight night goddesses, the
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and a host of other saints, monks, and
sages. At each stage of the journey, the young man is shown
inconceivable miracles, vast treasures, a multiplicity of worlds,
visions of innumerable Buddhas and bodhisattvas, incomparable magical
powers, and the infinity of space and time itself. But perhaps the most
important revelation is that the ultimate truth is not only to be found
in heaven, but also in meetings with ordinary people from all walks of
life. In the Gandavyuha, the mundane world of everyday life is
transformed into a luminous existence that consists of one continuous
and miraculous teaching.
"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.
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.
who seek for Enlightenment must think of their minds as castles and
decorate them. They must open wide the gates of their minds for Buddha,
and respectfully and humbly invite Him to enter the innermost chamber,
there to offer Him the fragrant incense of faith and the flowers of
gratitude and gladness." (7)
Go to: The Gandavyuha, Part II
(1) De Casparis, J.G. "The Dual
Nature of Barabudur" in Gomez, T. & Woodward, H., eds. Barabudur:
and significance of a Buddhist monument. Berkeley:
Asian Humanities Press (1981):55.
(2) Ibid. p. 72.
(3) Suzuki, D.T. The Essence of
Buddhism. Kyoto: Hozokan (1968):54
(4) Suzuki, Beatrice Lane. Mahayana
Buddhism: A brief outline.
New York: MacMillan (1959):33.
(5) Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics:
exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern
mysticism. Berkeley: Shambala (1975):296-297
(6) Cleary, Thomas, tr. The flower ornament scripture: a
translation of the Avatamsaka
Sutra. Boulder: Shambala (1984-87):1138.
(7) Buddha. The
Teaching of Buddha. Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (1966):105-106.