Sunday, October 3, 2010

Buddha's heel

The 9th Century Buddhist temple at Borobudur, now a bona fide UNESCO World Heritage site and the most popular tourist destination in Indonesia, is about 20 minutes form my house. I finally got a chance to get over there this weekend and thought I'd share some images. The temple is pretty massive, hewn from volcanic stone taken from the nearby Mt. Merapi, and I visited mid-day. Normally, Westerners go for sunrise, when the sun comes up over Merapi and everyone gets Kodak pay-dirt, or for sunset, when the sun dips down behind the Menoreh Hills and sundry other Minolta moments are had.

This time I was traveling with a friend who's a lecturer at the local teacher's college in Magelang and he insisted that no self-respecting Indonesian gets up early or stays out late to see Borobudur. So we went went about noon and the place was like a blast furnace. All that lava stone really radiates some heat. But the temple is impressive anytime. I'll go back for a proper guided tour--maybe at sunrise, with my camera!--but what I learned this time is that Borobudur has three main levels, each representing a different phase of the life of Buddha. Visitors make three clockwise laps around the temple, following ornate stone carvings that tell the story of Buddha's transformation from wealthy and sheltered prince to transcendent thought-wave.

Eventually, the carvings give way on the third and final level to a series of stone stupas that represent lotus flowers. Inside each stupa sits a cross-legged Buddha. And in the center of the temple, at the very top, sits a giant stupa. This one, as I understand it, represents full enlightenment.

Tourists clamor all over the temple--a guard repeatedly warned people not to climb on the carvings or over the walls--and student groups approach Westerners to ask questions in English for class projects. Two middle school kids stopped me, both from Surabaya in far off East Java. The first, a talkative girl, asked all about America and Chicago and what I knew and liked about Indonesia. The other, a boy who didn't like making eye contact, wanted to know all about crime in America. Is it bad? What kind of crimes do people commit? Is there a favorite crime in America? I asked if maybe he wanted to be a cop someday. Yes, I do.

When we got to the top of the temple, my friend took me to a particular stupa and said if I could reach inside and touch the heel of the Buddha inside, I would have good luck and would be granted at least one wish. He said his own arms were too short to do it but mine looked about right and so I gave it a shot and stretched as far as I could and got ahold of Buddha's foot and worked my way to his heel and gave it a little rub and now have banked at least one wish.

But when I got back to school Saturday, my principal said I'd gotten it wrong. Yes, you get good luck if you reach in and give Buddha a rub. But not his heel, he said, You're supposed to grab his crotch. Which I didn't do, and which my reach simply won't ever allow. I think I'm fine with that.


  1. Evidently, you wished that murdered mice could be reincarnated as shiny red motorscooters...

  2. And Buddha said, You will ride. But very carefully.