Waisak in Borobodur

I have always fantasized about spending Vesak, or as the Indonesians call it, Waisak, in Borobodur. I imagined hundreds of monks serenely performing a ceremony with Borobodur as the backdrop, candle light processions…boy was I wrong.

Invited by photographer Jerry Aurum to go hunt some photos in Borobodur over Waisak, I jumped at the chance and risked life and limb by hopping on a Lion Air flight to Jogjakarta.

On Waisak day, while watching TV before going over to the Puja ceremony in Borobodur I got the bad news: there was a talk show featuring the head Walubi, one the Indonesian Buddhist associations, and the head monk of what looked like the Mahayana sect. Mr Walubi looked like a Chinese godfather with a desperate need for media training. But that aside what emerged was that the main celebrations for Waisak this year was shifted to Kemayoran in Jakarta. Kemayoran! Drab, senile and home of more than one scandal Kemoyoran over Borobodur? What gives?
No matter, we rode our arses sore on small motorbikes to Borobodur to watch watever procession there was anyway. There was a cast of thousands of spectators but only a few score monks at the foot of Borobodur where the ceremony was held. It was drab, it was colourless and the hundred or more photographers who converged on Borobodur — some enticed by a photo competition with a handsome prize offered by the Waisak Day organizers — we left wondering why they even bothered making the journey.

The monks were also less than impressive. One monk sitting on the dias was so bored by the goings on that he started sms-ing his pals.

He wasn't the only one. When I was at the Joga Airport lounge waiting for my plane back to Jakarta. A group of monks sat nearby. One of them whipped up a handphone and proceeded to sms. Another whelled a Mont Blanc traveling bag.

Makes you wonder wny these guys become monks in the first place. I always thought you became a monk so that you'd not be hampered down by unnecessary material possessions – such as handphones and addictive sms-ing.

Back in Jakarta and several days later I completed Karen Armstrong's book Buddha. The last chaper was particularly poignant: it details the Buddha's last days when at 80, he increasingly isolated himself and, frail and poisoned by bad food, he died quite alone, instead of in the presence of the thousands who were his followers.

It was a life that inspired and still inspires. The courage of the man in pursuing non-self and the serenity that must ensue as the fruits of the struggle. But where was the serenity during the Waisak weekend in Borobodur? It did not seem to reside with most of the monks, save one, in Prambanan, during the afternoon ceremony. While other monks were preoccupied by their conmfort or lack of it, he seemed consumed in a blissful state, oblivious of all the bustle around him. He looked like he had transcended the world for the time being.
That was the only sight that made Waisak in Borobodur worthwhile.

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