Parson to Person: “An Indonesian Tale for Buddha’s Birthday” April 9, 2021

Back in November and February I wrote a couple columns on some lessons I learned on a trip I took to Indonesia in 2013, thanks to a gift from a family in the church I was serving then. (Actually, two members of that family are now friends of UCN, and one of them is also active on the UCN Social Justice Committee.)  Today I’d like to tell you about the most memorable part of my trip. It was the temple at Borobudur, in Java (which is one of the major islands of Indonesia). Borobudur–which means either “Temple on the Hill” or “Accumulation of Virtue in the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattvas” (no one seems to be quite sure)–is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It was built over a thousand years ago (1200 years ago, actually) around the year 800 (at the same time Europe was living in the Dark Ages). It’s kind of a stepped pyramid, standing over 100 feet tall and 400 feet on each side, arranged in terraces going up five stories to the top.

As you go up the various stories, the walls are so high that you can’t see anything outside, except the sky above. The lower walls have carved images of ordinary life, both good and bad. Then, as you go up, there are images of Buddha’s previous lives (as animals and then humans), then of his life as the Buddha-to-be, including his enlightenment, preaching, death, etc. And the temple is made so that if you travel around the various levels up to the top, you feel as if you’ve just gone on a life journey through the “lower” levels up to “enlightenment”–which is symbolized in two ways. One: There are 72 Buddha statues at the top, each covered with a bell-shaped stone with holes in it so you can see the Buddha inside. But, more importantly, there are no walls around you anymore–you’re on the roof!–you can now see the entire earth around you from 100 feet up. It’s a beautiful vista–so surprising after all those closed-in terraces–a vista unavailable to you before you made the journey to the top.

Since yesterday (April 8th) was Buddha’s Birthday, I thought I’d share this with you in today’s Parson to Person column. As some of you know by now, Buddhism is an important part of my spiritual journey. But even if the Buddhist tradition doesn’t appeal to you spiritually, the idea of your life’s journey as a path up closed-in spaces–to a place from which you can see the truth at last–is one that I think we can all identify with. It’s not that we didn’t see the world before; it’s that we didn’t see it in the same way. (There’s an old Zen saying that speaks to this: “Before I studied Buddhism, I saw a mountain as a mountain. After I studied for a while, I saw that a mountain is not a mountain. But finally, after further study, I see that a mountain is a mountain. … But not the same mountain.”)

May we ever see the mountains of our world from broader and broader vistas. We will never, of course, see the whole truth. But we can commit to the journey of being open to seeing more and more of it.

And that is good enough. Happy Buddha’s Birthday, everyone. Along with, of course …

peace and unrest,

tony