Borobodur in Indonesia has the Potential to Epitomise Religious Tolerance in Asia


SINGAPORE IDN) – Thousands of Indonesian Buddhists went on a 4 km procession from Mendut monastery to the historic Borobodur temple in Central Java to pay homage to the Buddha on Vesak day. The procession on May 18 passed a number of mosques with streets lined up with hundreds of local Muslims.

Vesak, marks the triple anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. It is a public holiday in Indonesia that has the world’s largest Muslim population and this year the Vesak holiday came right in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan.

Tension between Muslim and Buddhist communities across Asia, such as in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, has been rising in recent times. Last October, two Muslim terror suspects were gunned down by the police in northern Sumatra, who were planning to bomb Indonesia’s Buddhist temples. Thus, there was much concern if the two festivals could co-exist peacefully.

Attending the religious ceremonies and a colourful cultural show with a Buddhist theme was Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin. Addressing the audience that included Buddhist pilgrims from neighbouring Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, he encouraged Indonesians to maintain religious tolerance, saying diversity served as the glue that held the nation together. “Diversity is (our) strength, bolstered by democracy,” he said, adding that the core of all religious teaching was love, not hatred.

Indonesia is not officially an Islamic state though according to 2010 census 87 percent of Indonesia’s 270 million population are Muslims, while Buddhists account for only 0.72 percent. However, many Muslims, especially in Central Java, see Borobodur – which many say should be the eighth wonder of the world – as part of their heritage and are proud of the accomplishments of their ancestors.

Since the ancient temple was restored with UNESCO assistance in the 1970s, the Indonesian government has declared it as a national monument – not a Buddhist shrine – and Buddhists were allowed to use it as a religious shrine only on Vesak day. But, since President Joko Widodo came to power in 2014, this policy has changed and he has told Buddhists that they can use Borobodur for religious purposes anytime as long as they apply and get approval from the government.  

On May 18, after the official ceremonies, hundreds of Buddhist monks and devotees remained all night to chant from various Buddhists texts and this would happen more regularly here, now that President Widodo has been re-elected. His government is keen to develop Borobodur as a major Buddhist pilgrim site.

“Anytime the Buddhist community want to use Borobodur temple (President) Jokowi’s policy is to give us permission. With Jokowi the Buddhist community has felt easier to develop activities here,” Venerable Sri Pannyavaro, Abbot of Mendut monastery in Borobodur told Lotus News. He adds that a grand Esala Full Moon (marking Buddha’s first sermon) festival will be held there on July 14. “We expect to have about 20,000 pilgrims and we will chant from the Tripitaka (Buddhist cannon)” he says.

After President Widodo changed government policy on Borobodur temple, in 2015, Governor of Central Java Rizal Ramli has said that Borobodur could become a pilgrim site for Buddhists comparable to Mecca for Muslims. Perhaps he was pushing it too far as Borobodur temple is not a functioning Buddhist temple, with monks nor they have a Buddhist community in the vicinity to support a monastery. It is also not directly connected to the life of the Buddha, such as Buddhist pilgrim sites of Bodhgaya, Saranath and Kushinagar in India, a country where its Buddhist population is also below 1 percent.

A new Mahayana Buddhist temple and another Burmese temple have been built in Borobodur, which hardly have any local Buddhists. Many Asian Buddhists have criticized India’s attempts to expand Buddhist tourism by allowing foreign monasteries to establish temples around the shrines. They argue it does not create the required atmosphere and culture without an indigenous Buddhist community.

Borobodur temple complex is a large landscaped park protected by tall steel fences and armed guards. In recent years, local Muslim residents have added ‘homestay’ rooms to their houses and many small hotels have been constructed to offer accommodation to growing international tourists. There are many new restaurants catering to tourists. A meditation centre is being developed within the Borobodur complex.

According to official statistics Borobodur recorded 3.7 million tourist arrivals in 2017 and it is expected to exceed 4.5 million this year.

Buddhism thrived across much of Java and Sumatra between 6th to the 14th century, when the area was ruled by Srivijaya and Majapahit empires. These islands were major centres of Buddhist scholarship and learning, where pilgrims travelling between China and India spend months and years learning about Buddhism.

It was at this time that the Borobodur temple was built – in the 8th to 9th centuries during the reign of the Syailendra Dynasty. The main temple is a stupa constructed on three-tiered layers decorated with walls of rock carvings depicting Buddhist themes covering a total surface area of over 2500 square meters. Around each tier of circular platforms are 72 openwork stupas each containing a rock statue of the Buddha inside.

It is not clear how the Borobodur temple was lost to the world for centuries until in the 19th century an European Governor of Java rediscovered it. It is believed that the temple was covered by a lava flow from a close by volcanic eruption after which many saw it as just another mountain in this hilly region.

The great civilization that built Borobodur started to decline with the Majapahit kingdom when Buddhism became a Hindu Shiva cult according to Venerable Pannyavaro, and monks got involved in black magic. “Buddhist sangha  (monks) behaved like Brahmin priests and people resented such attitude,” he told Lotus News, adding,”(at the time) when Muslim traders arrived and they said in Islam in front of God everyone is equal, it attracted the ordinary people to Islam”.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here for Buddhists today. In Buddhist countries, especially Thailand and Sri Lanka, there have been many reports in recent years of monks indulging in black magic and commercial activity contrary to Buddhist teachings.

Today, the Indonesian Buddhists numbering about 1.7 million are largely a wealthy business community of Chinese descent and for two days just before the Vesak celebrations here, they provided a medical clinic for the local Muslim population. They have been doing this for over 20 years and this year – on May 14 and May 15 – 184 doctors and 294 nurses provided the services to over 8000 people. They offered free of charge general polyclinic medical treatment, as well as specialist services such as cataract and dental surgery.

The services are organized by Walubi an umbrella organization uniting Indonesian Buddhists. “We do these activities all over Indonesia every two months,” Dr Rusli, a senior member of Walubi told Lotus News.

Right now, in Sri Lanka – where the roles are reversed with the Muslim minority being the richest community in the country – there are lessons to be learned for the island nation’s Muslims  from the way Indonesian Buddhists are interacting with the majority community. Sri Lankan Buddhists have accused the Muslim of flaunting their wealth to proselytize among the majority Buddhists and not helping the poor – who are mainly Buddhists.

“We don’t say we are Buddhist (because) Buddhists in Indonesia don’t want to proselytize. We want to improve the overall Indonesian society,” he added.” We want to give Indonesians a good life not flaunt our wealth”.