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Friday, November 12, 2010

Flash ME this week! Borobudur by Michelle Ong

One day, children, we shall tell you the story of what happened last night. But so we don't forget, here's the piece of the week. One day we shall also more eloquently explain why we can no longer call this feature, "Poem of the Week", as if it were not already obvious. However, it does make for sophomoric puns.


by Michelle Ong

In Borobudur, I could breathe easier. Once I passed the gates and followed a path through manicured lawns up to the first terrace, I entered peace.

Bodhisattvas perched in alcoves above me. They faintly smiled and held a hand up in greeting. Their legs neatly folded like hands in prayer. Tiny stupas decorated the borders in between terraces and mythical creatures crowned the corners, their mouths agape.

I traced the story on the nearly fifteen hundred relief panels, filled in blank or crumbling faces, and mentally erased the lines separating one relief panel from another. I followed the story in no particular order. I circled the stones of the floor, cut to fit within each other without mortar. I shuffled from one side to the other and backtracked to catch another scene. Here was a group of men meditating beneath the bodhi tree. There was a person offering a child sitting cross-legged with his hands pressed together at his chest to a bearded man. I scrutinized a ship in full sail, perhaps journeying to Sri Lanka in one of Buddha’s pilgrimages. I examined forest scenes, a variety of wildlife, and individual leaves carved in fine detail and wondered.

I climbed the staircase in between each terrace, sweeping my left hand along the gentle slope of a long tongue protruding from a mythical creature that served as a handrail. In one section, still in construction, identical Boddhisattvas sat in a row, some missing heads and limbs. The Boddhisattvas overlooking the previous terrace were now at eye level. Their backs faced me, their curly hair was tied in a single top bun, and their elongated ears rested beside their chins. Their eyes were eternally shut from the view of the surrounding mountains and the volcano that occasionally spurted lava and emitted a portent at night.

The overcast sky abruptly opened and cold rain began to fall. I unfastened an umbrella and jumped when I heard the sound of metal scratching against stone as I drew too close to a relief panel. The rain darkened the gray stones and turned most visitors away. I wandered the terraces alone. The air hushed until the sound of rain drumming against my umbrella filled my ears.

At the top terrace, large stupas enclosed meditating Buddhas. Some stupas lacked their latticed covers and displayed serene figures. Touching the hands and feet of the statues was considered good luck. I touched the big toe of one, hoping for a blessing.

A colossal sealed stupa stood in the center of the terrace. Previously believed to house a large golden Buddha, it now stood empty.

The sky had whitened and reflected the blankness I pictured a mind should possess during meditation. I felt poised to learn something vital and fleeting in that moment. I had turned my attention away from the Buddhist fundamentals I had grown up with. But after waking every morning at 4 with the first call to prayer and being surrounded by those who loved and followed their religion, I reconsidered. As I descended those terraces, the stones now washed anew and slick, I absorbed the story.

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