About This Festival
Waisak goes by many names (Vesak, Wesak and other iterations, including the charmingly straightforward Buddha Day) around the Buddhist world, which is perhaps fitting, as this most important celebration of the Buddhist calendar has many layers. Does it commemorate the Buddha's birthday? Enlightenment? Death? The answer is all of the above, and as such, Waisak celebrations are a multi-faceted thing.
That diversity considerably expands when you consider the many streams of Buddhism that have flowed out of its original source. Like Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists are split by some theological differences, but geography has altered the religion as much as, if not more than, ideology.
And yet, a river runs through them all: a creed that hews to the Buddha's wisdom, ultimate victory in his quest for peace, and a belief that accomplishment can be replicated by dedicated followers. Somewhat ironically, said river finds its expressive voice in the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world. Islam may be the dominant faith over much of the Indonesian archipelago, but this nation—particularly the island of Java—has historical roots that twine deeply with Hinduism and Buddhism.
The most physically impressive evidence of this ancestry is the fantastically carved temple complex of Pawon, Mendut and, crowning them all, the multi-tiered stone mountain that is Borobudur. Taken together, this amalgamation of religious sites is the nexus of Waisak celebrations, and a place of pilgrimage for the wide spectrum of Buddhist practitioners from around the world.
The Walk to Wisdom
Walking pilgrimages factor largely into Buddhist worship, and Waisak is no exception to this rule. You don't need to be particularly fit to walk the relatively flat, short distance between the three temples, but bear in mind the crowd is slow and the tropical sun will likely be blazing. Optionally, you can wait at Borobudur for the main procession, but then you miss some of the shared spirituality of the joined pilgrimage.
The entire affair begins at the Mendut temple, amidst a sea of souvenir stalls, joss sticks, food and beverage stands and monks clad in saffron and orange robes. Side note: if you've ever wondered about those colors, they simply mark the stylistic preferences of different monasteries. Burmese monks usually wear saffron robes, while Thai monks prefer orange, but even within these countries there are many exceptions to this loose rule.
You'll hear lots of languages within the crowd, representing Buddhist worshippers from across the world, but besides the monks, the plurality of attendees will be Indonesian Buddhists, who are largely drawn from the nation's Chinese-descended minority.
At mid-afternoon, the crowd leaves as a procession from Mendut, following the multihued Buddhist flag and banners displaying the Wheel of Dharma. Candles and flames which representing enlightenment are carried along the way, and form an omnipresent element of the festival. From Mendut, the pilgrims march first to Pawon, then Borobudur itself. Here, monks chant, meditate and circumambulate the enormous temple along the Pradaksina, a path that encircles Buddhist and Hindu religious temples. Walking the path around Borobudur, itself a model for the universe and gateway between the secular and spiritual, is a crucial component of the pilgrimage.
With that said, the most important element of Waisak is recommitting to the Buddha's teachings. The enlightened one himself told followers that rather than focusing on the Buddha—the man—and the trappings of ritual, they should direct their attention to his sermons and lessons, ideas that would last well beyond physical bodies and temples.
Communing with Ancient Java
Java is overwhelmingly populated by Muslims, but in centuries past, the island was ruled by kingdoms that practiced a fascinating blend of Buddhism, Hinduism and local animism. Although Islam destroyed much of this indigenous belief system (which survives on the neighboring island of Bali), in some ways all of the above elements survive in the form of Kejawen, a word for Java's myriad traditional forms of worship. Kejawen is not practiced on its own in a vacuum, but rather supplants Javanese Islam, in the same way indigenous animism influences Christianity in South America and Africa. For practitioners of this Agama Jawa (Javanese religion), Borobudur was something like the Vatican.
The structure is designed as a stone mandala, a symbol of both the mind and the universe. Architecturally, Borobudur consists of a series of concentric elevated tiers, each mirroring either the surrounding temporal world or spiritual evolution. The bottom "steps" are decorated with scenes of trade, commerce, fishing and relationships—the world of desires—while higher tiers have carvings of monks, angels, Gods and mythological figures—the world of forms. The very top of Borobudur is capped with meditating Buddhas, including one final stupa that gives way to the formless cessation of Nirvana.
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