"The lost monument" of Borobudur stands as one of the most fascinating sites of classical S.E.Asia, and that fascination is only enhanced by the experience of traversing the structure, rather than arising from any aesthetic appeal of it's rather squat-like, overall, stupa form. Given the paucity of textual sources remaining from ninth century Java the research that has sought to investigate it's meaning and implication has almost resembled an unfolding detective story. Julie Gifford's new book on Borobudur makes a real contribution to our understanding by synthesising the existing literature and taking further a series of plausible arguments concerning how people would have actually used and experienced this incredible structure.
In briefest summary, Gifford has approached the task by reference to some selected bodies of theory (such as Harrison's notion of `intrapsychic memorialization' and McMahan's application of cognitive metaphor theory), careful visual analysis and interpretation of the panels and terrace design, and above all by drawing upon key Mahayana Buddhist texts for further interpretation of the Gandavyuha (the treatise underlying the panels of the upper terraces). It is important to note that the book explores in an ultimately theoretically coherent fashion the whole range of Borobudur's elements, - mandala, galleries of panels, Buddha statues and the final stupa.
Of course Borobudur's mandala-based plan and series of terraces lends itself to a clear almost narrative structuring, and the chapters in Gifford's book follows this customary form of order. However, rather than making the usual overview followed by (necessarily) brief annotations of all of the panels, Gifford takes a more thematic approach to explore her core themes that pertain to the visualisation meditation that would have accompanied the practitioner's ascent and descent of the structure during the Sailendra period. She presents highly detailed visual analysis of a relatively small number of panels. The standard numbering of the panels ensures that the reader can readily cross-reference her interpretations.
In my view it is in chapters three and four (and in particular from around p.100 onwards) that the book really comes `into it's own'. A key emphasis is that the relief panels `refer' as much to meditative practice as to the underlying text. Gifford demonstrates that in the Gandavyuha galleries the panels do not follow the usual `narrative' unfolding sequence of events (such as bodhisattvas' compassionate and devotional acts). Rather she argues that the third and fourth galleries comprise `panoramic art' picturing "a soteriologically privileged realm called a purified Buddha field" (p.19), which is entered by meditatively vividly visualising his spectacular realm, entailing the practice of `zooming in' on detail and `zooming out' to the whole, while maintaining the vivid clarity (p.103). The panels essentially form a "programmatic ritual venue that demands to be encountered at least in part through bodily movement" (p.49) which is better done in a physical structure rather than a text. Her detailed analysis of content, inclusion and point of view of characters, order and omissions (from the underlying text) not only provide strong support to her arguments, but also testify to the incredible scriptural and architectural intelligence of Borobudur's Javanese creators.
One of the fundamental problems of interpreting Borobudur has been the loss of the precise texts used by the Sailendra Buddhists. Gifford draws upon a wide range of work on Indian, (that pre-dated Borobudur) and East Asian and Tibetan (that were translated or compiled later), treatises and commentaries. In particular Gifford is able to draw upon selected Tibetan logong or mind-training texts, including the Public Explication of Mind Training by Sanye Gompa (1179-1250). Gifford is acutely aware of the risks of using later works to interpret the meditational experience of ninth century Borobudur, but provides a highly compelling correspondence between the logong visualisations and the Borobudur relief panels. The connection is highlighted by Tibetan commentaries that stress that with reference to the cultivation of bodhicitta (the altruistic bodhisattva impulse) the logong texts drew precisely upon the teachings of the Sailendra Indonesian guru Serligha.
Although she makes no reflexive mention of it, I suspect Gifford has experience of contemporary Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, in which such visualisation meditation is a central practice. It would have been useful if she had made such experience explicit, as part of authorial reflexivity. I would also contend that such meditational experience (not only Tibetan) is extremely enriching to the study of classical S.E.Asia.
Gifford's detailed visual analysis of the order and content of the Gandavyuha is related to both the particular meditative visualisations and the ritual circumambulation. Rather than following the order in the Gadavyuha text, the panels and galleries follow the order of visualisation practice, for instance with respect to the logong practice of giving and taking, with the shift from contemplating giving to those in samsara to contemplating offering to the cosmic Buddhas. Gifford's panel textual linking seems plausible but maybe raises questions of whether they relate to her personal experience of particular schools of contemporary Vajrayana, which could only be addressed in the kind of greater reflexivity noted above.
The fifth and final chapter customarily explores the cosmic terrace of the (latticed) Buddhas and the central stupa, in terms of sunyata or `emptiness'. Her final conclusion returns to the Sailendra dynasty, and discusses the possible royal performance of the ritual ascent and descent of Borobudur.
Gifford has covered so much ground in this book in just 179 pages (excluding notes, index and bibliography) and I am conscious that there is so much that I do not have space to mention here. It would be helpful if the book is published in paperback, and a glossary of the Sanskrit terms would also be useful to assist a wider readership. This is a terrific book that had to be written.