Indonesia: at the top of Borobudur6 min read


Apparently, when Neil Armstrong looked down from space, he saw something glowing on the face of the earth. When they zoomed in to see what he could see, they realised it was a structure in central Java, the enormous Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. I got up at 5 to go there before the heat and the crowds. I was prepared to be overcome, and I was.


You are supposed to walk around the corridors of stone reliefs five times, clockwise, following the stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, the story of the Buddhas’s life, and of Samsara and the hell realms, and how to escape both. As you ascend, winding through the narrow spaces, enclosed in dark stone walls, you are drawn into the meandering stories which find their way into your mind in the shadows, and the occasional shaft of sun bronzes the stones, making them golden. You walk around and gradually climb higher until there are no more steep walls and you emerge gasping into the light and are surrounded by strange stone bell shapes with Buddhas hiding inside, aware of you before you are aware of them.

Then higher still, just open stone and the world is tumbling away beneath you, steeply, dizzily. You cast your eyes up and where you are standing is above the world,  surrounded on all sides by distant purple volcanoes blooming and peaking and falling in mist on the far horizon. You meditate up here, sitting peacefully amongst the stone bells, having walked five kilometres up and up to symbolically ascend to nirvana. You transform and your energetic body is cleansed and aligned and you are one with all creation, interconnected on every level, ego-free.

What I imagined I would be doing at Borobudur

That was what I had hoped would happen to me. But as I started my slow meaningful walk around the reliefs of samsara, some tourists came towards me in the wrong direction, clearly not knowing about the importance of following the stories in the right order and how important clockwise was. Clockwise, deosil or sunwise in Gaelic, the sheng cycle in Chinese, the magic of winding and creating in all traditions – well they didn’t care and I kept meeting them in their hired sarongs noisily passing me and doing the temple wrong. My temptation to tell them they were doing it wrong made me realise I had been living in Germany too long.

the path to Borobudur
stone corridors – clockwise only
Buddha teaching
reliefs, Borobudur


I ascended slowly, doing it right, and as I climbed the steep blocks that served as steps to the first of the levels without reliefs, moving up and away from the worldly, I found myself in the middle of a gaggle of teenaged girls in bright school uniforms, yellow hijabs with drawstrings and matching yellow floor-length skirts. I weaved through them up the stairs, avoiding their selfie sticks, just as the whole group collided with a second troop of school students, coming down, in orange this time, also with selfie sticks and giggles.

It was 6.38 a.m., on a Saturday.

I muttered silently and tried to get back to being spiritual. I climbed another set of steps to get away and to the top, to experience the wonder of the view and the feeling of being beyond my human limitations.

‘Hello Mrs!’

I felt someone gently tugging on my sleeve.

‘Have you time? What is your name?’

‘Time for what?’

I turned and she was reading from a small stapled paper book.

‘Where are you from?’

‘The U.K.’ She wrote it down in tiny letters in the gap beneath the question.

‘Where do you want to go?’

I was stumped.

‘Ermmm – in my life? Later today? Away from you?’

‘Can I take photo with you?’ Selfie with school girl.

‘Sorry for the disturb’ reading carefully. ‘Wish you good day.’

I smiled an indulgent smile and moved away, to gasp at the breathtaking early morning, the sun glinting on the edge of a buddha as he gazed out on all phenomena.

‘Mrs. Have you time?’

And so followed a repeat of the same school trip interview. I answered curtly, and cursed their teacher in the non-spiritual part of my mind, conveniently avoiding reflection on all the ‘surveys’ I had sent teenagers off to do on innocent members of the public over the years.

Borobudur: school trip central
kids hanging out, Borobudur
school trip
survey teacher hiding


More school groups had arrived and by 7 a.m. the top of the stupa was swarming with hijabs and tee-shirts in purple, blue, pink and yellow-green, like exotic twittering birds. Selfie sticks clashed, poses were struck, mostly with gangsta finger shapes, and small groups sat around on the bits you are not supposed to sit around on, hanging out, chatting, being on a school trip.

On my way back down to samsara, I was interviewed twice more – even politely waiting for the question ‘Where do you want to go?’ knowing I had no answer to give. I posed in groups and ones and twos, I smiled into camera phones.

It seemed I was the only westerner in the whole of Borobudur.

Back down in the cool stone corridors, there were fewer school children. More Buddhas. But these were worldly buddhas, samsaric ones. I felt cheated, like I hadn’t had the experience. I had missed the top of the stupa and wanted to have a moment to myself where I felt the power of the orientation and the energy that Neil Armstrong saw glowing. Surely it was my right as a Buddhist, as an ex-nun?

I steeled myself and turned to climb back up. By now it was teeming not only with school trips but also with family groups on a day out. I got to the top, pushed through the crowds, and crept around one of the stone bell-shaped structures, guiltily sitting down with my back to it, looking out over the brightening morning blending with the dark of the volcanoes, with the treetops and sky. I breathed out and felt a moment of exquisite presence and then a voice said…

‘Mrs, have you time?’

I turned and looked into the upturned face of the girl looking at me shyly, hopefully, her hand in a gesture of appeal. I smiled at her.

There is no spiritual and not spiritual. The Buddha is not on the top of the stupa, or walking clockwise, waiting for me to find him. He is in the small stapled book and the strange question ‘Where do you want to go?’

‘Here, with you,’ I said to her. ‘I want to go here.’

Buddha and teenagers

Buddha nature

3 Replies to “Indonesia: at the top of Borobudur6 min read

  1. The way this ends is so beautiful. I’m tearing up. Giving your time to others and kindness are surely the best qualities one can have.

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