Finding peace among the hillside Buddhas

by Simon Marcus Gower, Jakarta Post, Oct 11, 2008

Bandung, Indonesia -- Something glistens and gleams in the distance. At first it is little more than a glimpse of something that is white, something that catches the eye. But then it comes slightly more into focus.

It is still, though, an unusual sight to see among the hills that surround Bandung. So a second look, a refocusing, may be necessary.

Upon a second, refocused look and upon getting nearer to this unusual object that shimmers in the sunlight streaming onto the hills here, it becomes clear that what can be seen is a large Buddhist stupa. It sits on the hill, the tallest building amongst a huddle of other buildings.

The entrance at the bottom of the hill to the temple complex is guarded by a statue of two large white elephants that face each other, almost aggressively, near a footpath that may be taken to the largest stupa (the large central stupa is surrounded, at each corner, by four smaller ones).

But there is also a road leading up to a small car park set among trees, somewhat shielded from the main buildings of the temple complex. Upon arrival at this Buddhist temple that is known as Vihara Vipassana Graha, the sense of being at a spiritual place is almost immediately felt.

The repetitive chants, or mantras, of Buddhist prayer can be heard coming from the various buildings that are set up with large open spaces within them for collective or individual prayer. Buddhists monks wonder among the buildings. Their robes flutter in the breeze. Calm expressions and peacefulness show on their faces.

The faithful come in crowds, buses are seen parked along the road to the temple that have carried worshippers from quite afar. But although there may be many people within the temple complex, the scale of this development is such that the area does not really feel crowded. The temple grounds are quite extensive and varied.

There are many people in the temple's grounds, but this does not disturb the general feeling of calm and peacefulness. Bells hanging from the eaves of buildings gently sound as a soft breeze passes. The unwanted noise and disturbances of modern city living do not crowd in and disturb the mind here.

The temple was first established here in 1987 and has evidently grown, in terms of the number of buildings within the complex, since it was first established. One of the primary features of the temple is a reference to it being the "temple of 10,000 Buddhas". But this, perhaps, needs some explanation and clarification.

There are indeed many statues of the Buddha within the complex but there are also large mirrored walls with small shelf spaces covering them entirely. These small, pigeonhole like, shelves each contain a single Buddha statue of perhaps six to eight inches in height.

Each one of these thousand or so small statues, (which appear to be made of brass), have in fact been donated by people making a contribution to the temple. For a fee of around Rp 1 million, which can also be paid in installments, "donators" can have a statue placed on a shelf here and it will appear with their name, or names, printed on the base.

It is very hard to count exactly how many Buddha statures there are, but it is said that the target of 10,000 has not yet been reached. But these Buddhas are, in a sense, secondary to the large white central stupa surrounded at four corners by four smaller ones.

The tallest stupa of the five here is essentially the rooftop over another wide prayer area. It is, though, possible to climb up to this stupa. From this vantage point there is an excellent view over the entire temple complex and the surrounding countryside.

From this high point it is possible to look out upon the surrounding hills in the area and the hills that surround the city of Bandung. This also highlights the deliberate choice of a prominent, and yet relatively secluded, location for the temple.

On the walls that surround the large stupa, stories of the life of Buddha are told in relief. Colorful flags flutter in the wind flowing over the hill. The flags then create a gentle rustling sound which is just about the only sound here. Looking directly down from this vantage point, at each corner there stands a pristine white stupa. Within each corner stupa there is a single statue of the Buddha.

The statues that reside within the corner stupa are either life-size or near life-size. Each is a different representation of the Buddha, whether standing or sitting. Each representation does, however, have meaning. The extent and detail of this meaning can be so precise that different gestures or placements of the fingers mean different things.

For example, an image of the Buddha that has a hand in a lowered position with the palm facing up and outward is a gesture of bestowing blessings and charity. Similarly, a Buddha statue that shows a hand raised with the palm facing outwards represents fearlessness and reassurance.

There is, then, much meaning and spirituality to be found within the precincts of this temple complex known as Vihara Vipassana Graha. One does not necessarily have to be a believer in the Buddhist faith to sense this. The general aura and sense of peace that can be experienced here is pleasing to the mind, body and soul.

The temple is located in the hills just north of Bandung. The traveler does not have to travel very far from the Bandung district of Dago.

Journeying towards Lembang, there is a road off in the direction of the temple and this road is densely populated by sellers of potted and flowering plants, roses, shrubs and trees.

It is, then, a relatively short and pleasant trip from the center of Bandung to this relative peace.

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