By Alyssa McFarland and Teresa Lamb
In late January 2018, His Eminence Sakya Khondhung Avikrita Vajra Rinpoche, His Eminence Sakya Khondhung Abhaya Vajra Rinpoche, Her Eminence Dagmo Kusho Sakya, and more than fifty ordained and lay students from thirteen different countries all came together in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia for several days of pilgrimage to various sacred Buddhist temples.
Although now predominantly a Muslim country, the roots of Buddhism still exist in Indonesia. The evidence of this lies in the ancient Buddhist temples still standing in various states of repair and the fact that it is still an active place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world. Another special reason Buddhists go for pilgrimage to Java is because of the beloved 11th Century teacher Atisha Dipankara who was known to have traveled there to receive special teachings on Bodhicitta and Lojong (mind training). When Atisha later traveled to Tibet, he would take these teachings with him. Guided by H.E. Avikrita Rinpoche, we were able to visit many of the very same temples that Atisha once visited.
In the morning, H.E. Avikrita Rinpoche bestowed a special Akshobya purification initiation (Akshobya is one of the Five Dhyani Buddhas) and in the afternoon, we received an in-depth teaching on meditation and compassion.
His Eminence Avikrita Rinpoche gave the special reading transmission for “A Condensed Practice of the Mahasiddha Virupa’s Upadesha On the Mind-Training of Unequalled Compassion,” a practice that is considered advanced training in bodhicitta for serious practitioners. Virupa was the greatest of the 85 Mahasiddhas who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries and whose teachings are a specialty of the Sakya tradition. Rinpoche bestowed this blessing in anticipation of the next day’s pilgrimage to Borobodur where we would learn of Virupa’s mysterious connection to this ancient Buddhist site.
The group boarded several air-conditioned buses for an hour-long ride to Borobodur, the main focal point of our pilgrimage. Built around 800 AD, Borobodur, is a giant mandala in design, consisting of six levels of square platforms, three circular levels and one main stupa. The walls of the structure are covered in reliefs that depict the stories of the Buddha’s past lives as well as his teachings which are reflected with each level of the mandala.
What is so unique about the design of Borobodur is that it is said to reflect the Buddhist conception of the Universe. As you circumambulate through each level you move from the inside out (metaphorically). Moving from the desire realm, through the realm of forms where we abandon our desires but are still bound to name and form, and finally to the realm of formlessness where there is no longer either name or form. These levels also coincide with the Bodhisattva levels of the path to enlightenment, each level containing fewer statues and carvings until finally only a large empty stupa at the top symbolizes emptiness, or the state of Nirvana.
Upon arrival at Borobodor, we walked up a special ramp to get to the monument’s south eastern side. Avikrita Rinpoche led us to an area of relief panels that were once covered by huge bricks of volcanic rocks. Originally these rocks were used to stabilize the structure, but now the bricks had been removed in order to reveal the relief panels below. There, above a carved relief panel of the Buddha’s teaching, was Virupa’s name carved in ancient Javanese script. What was so mysterious is that there is no written history of Virupa ever having been to Java. After standing in awe of this miraculous artifact we began our upward journey through the mandala, and to the delight of many nearby, there were two kittens nestled into one of the crevices. There we stood in awwwww for a few more moments before continuing on our way. We spent a couple of hours climbing, circumambulating and reciting prayers.
The weather was extremely hot and humid, and there were countless dragonflies flying everywhere, adding to the mystical feeling of the place. After leaving the monument proper, we became moving targets, dodging dozens of vendors who wanted to sell us everything from fans to small stupas made of volcanic rock, until finally making it back to the buses.
Next we visited Pawon and Mendut temples, which are geographically situated in a straight line with Borobodur, and are thus believed to have been intentionally constructed in connection with Borobodur. During the full moon in May or June, Indonesian Buddhists observe Vesak by walking from Mendut to Pawon to Borobodur.
The Pawon temple is believed to have been built as a tomb or mortuary for a king, and contains the relics of saints. It is considered a jewel of Javanese temple architecture, and Atisha is said to have done retreat there. It had a shop nearby where you could sample and purchase the famous luwak (civet) coffee, a specialty of the region.
The Mendut temple has an elevated terrace for circumambulating and is surrounded by bas-reliefs of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya and Samantabhadra. In the entryway, there is an image of a nursing woman, Hariti, and local legend said that if you touch her while making a wish, your wish could come true.
This was “Arts and Crafts” day, where the group could go and have the experience of making pottery and batik art. In case you’re not familiar with it, batik is an Indonesia fiber design technique involving wax resist. The group had an opportunity to visit Batik Art Center in Kampung Kauman to practice their own batik drawing. We stopped at a place where traditional Javanese pottery was made. We all got a chance to practice making some common pottery items and some of us made some “not so common” pieces. It was so fun to get in touch with our inner artist on this day.
This was our second day of visiting temples. First we went to Prambanan, which was built in the 9th century. Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple area in Indonesia, and in the same area are three Buddhist temples: Bubrah, Sewu and Lumbung. At Lumbung temple we recited the Manjushri prayer. It is said that if you look up at the sky from this roofless temple, you may see a vision. We didn’t hear of any of our group seeing a vision, but maybe they are keeping it to themselves. Bubrah temple has an “invisible Buddha.” Sewu temple is the Manjushri temple with architecture based on the Vajradhatu Mandala. This was a very spiritually powerful place and it is said that there are Terma (hidden Buddhist texts) buried somewhere within its foundation. These were very interesting and powerful temples to visit, both architecturally as well as spiritually. Last but not least, we visited Kalasan temple. This is where Atisha had a vision of Tara, who instructed him to go to Tibet. In fact, it is said that Tara may have originated at this very place. What an amazing two days!
The restaurant we visited for lunch on this day was possibly the fanciest of them all. It was called Sekar Kadhaton in the famed Silver City. A small gamelan band played for us while we ate a vegetarian buffet lunch in beautiful traditional Indonesian surroundings.
The pilgrimage officially over, we started to go our separate ways. Some pilgrims left for home, while others visited nearby islands or stayed on Java for another day or two or five.
We were all so very grateful for this amazing opportunity to visit these holy places, to have spent such precious time with H.E. Avikrita Rinpoche, H.E. Abhaya Rinpoche, H.E. Dagmo Kusho and the many monks and other pilgrims from faraway places. We all felt very well taken care of on this trip. And to the phenomenal organizer Gordon Black and Indonesian guide Bram) thank you for taking such good care of us and being meticulous in keeping in mind every detail (including providing water bottles with “Sakya” labels!). There was a rumor that this pilgrimage may happen again, so keep your ears open! Thank you so very much to H.E. Avikrita Rinpoche for guiding us on a truly amazing pilgrimage!