Indonesia’s Nalanda

Borobudur in 2013.

Borobudur in 2013. Wikipedia

By Jamyang Dorjee

RAVANGLA, Sikkim, 4 October 2016

When I saw a uniformed Muslim security guard with the name tag ‘Ahmed’ zealously guarding the world’s greatest Buddhist monument Borobudur, and politely requesting an American tourist “please do not sit on the chaitya, this is a place of worship,” it moved me.

Initially the idea to join a group of Buddhist leaders to a famtour of Indonesia, a Muslim-dominated country, was not very exciting. The destruction of the Nalanda University by the evil Muslim invader Bakhtiar Khilji and of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban has created a deep impression of mistrust of the Muslim world in the minds of the general Buddhists.

‘Seeing is believing’, as they say is true in this case, for I saw how the biggest Muslim country can also be a perfect example of true secularism, Indonesian style. We see Indonesians taking pride in their cultural diversity, living together harmoniously among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims; Muslim preachers constantly evoking the peaceful elements of the Qur’an and denouncing the violence used by the ISIS; and a rapid rise of the middle class with dazzling shopping malls. Above all Suharto’s lasting legacy of Panca sila order within Civil Society remains the dominant ideological unifier of the Indonesian people.

Tourism and Buddhism are the two fastest-growing industry and religion respectively these days, and the Indonesian Government has rightly recognised it so. I was fortunate to be a member of the first official delegation of representatives of Tibetan Buddhism, consisting of the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Jonang, and Geluk schools, and representative of Bonpo tradition, to Indonesia on invitation by the Ministry of Tourism from 22 to 29 September 2016. The delegation was led by Gaden Shartse Khen Rinpoche Geshe Jangchub Choeden, former abbot of Gaden Shartse monastery, a great Buddhist scholar and a linguist. He is currently the secretary of the international headquarters of the Gelukpa tradition called Gaden Trithog Khang in Mundgod, South India, and is also the Executive Director of the International Geluk Foundation.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, where 88% of Indonesia’s 235 million people are Muslims. Buddhism is the second oldest religion in Indonesia; Hinduism, the oldest, came to Indonesia around the second century. It is evident that for more than 2,000 years, India’s philosophy, language, culture, and religion had an overall impact on the people of Indonesia. India’s image as Jagat Guru can rightly be felt with great vibrancy once you land in Jakarta. Watching an amazing mesmerizing performance of the Ramayana Epic ballet by Javanese Muslim dancers at the outdoor theatre against the backdrop of the ancient Prambanan Hindu Temple at Yogyakarta, I felt it as not only a testament of unbroken strong cultural ties between India and Indonesia, but a perfect example of the inter-religious fusion.

Unlike the Borobudur or Prambanan temples, which are composed of volcanic rock, the ruins of the Muarajambi monastic complex are made from red brick like the Nalanda University ruins. Candi Muaro Jambi is the biggest monastery complex, spread along 7.5 km of the river bank of Batanghari on Sumatra Island. A statue of Prajnaparamita, the Buddhist Goddess of Wisdom, was found in the first excavated temple. Eighty mounds of temple ruins, called menapo, can be found there. Only seven temples have been restored so far.

According to I Ching, a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled to Indonesia and Nalanda, and studied and translated more than 60 sutras into Chinese, the golden period of Sumatra island was between the 7th and 14th centuries during the Srivijaya empire. For Tibetan Buddhists the island is known as Serling or ‘golden island.’

I Ching praised the high level of Buddhist scholarship in Srivijaya and advised Chinese monks to study there prior to making the journey to Nalanda, India. He wrote:

In the fortified city of Bhoga, Buddhist priests number more than 1,000, whose minds are bent on learning and good practice. They investigate and study all the subjects that exist just as in India; the rules and ceremonies are not at all different. If a Chinese priest wishes to go to the West in order to hear and read the original scriptures, he had better stay here one or two years and practice the proper rules …

It indeed was the second Nalanda monastic institution. Why are the Muara Jambi monastery complex and Borobudur monuments so important to Tibetan Buddhism and to the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism?

It is here that Buddhist master Atisha Dipamkara Srijna (982-1054 CE) — whom Tibetans refer to as Jowo-je — lived for 12 years to receive the teachings to develop mind through the unique techniques of thought transformation (lo-jong) Bodhichitta from Lama Serlingpa. Also known as Dharmakirti, Serlingpa Suvarndvipa was a renowned tenth-century Sumatran master and the main teacher of Atisha. It is said that among all his one hundred and fifty seven spiritual teachers, the one he revered most was Lama Serlingpa. Thereafter, as predicted by Lama Serlingpa, Atsiha was destined eventually to teach in Tibet.

After the Tibetan Empire collapsed as a result of a chain of events that started with persecution of Buddhism by the king Lang Darma, Tibet disintegrated and remained in spiritual darkness for seventy years. The revival of Buddhism was initiated by Yeshe-o, the king of the Guge empire in the Ngari region of northern Tibet, when he sent his scholars to Vikramashila to study Sanskrit and to plead with Atiśa to come and teach the Dharma in his homeland. Atisha’s arrival in Tibet and spread of his wisdom of Boddhichitta once again revived the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism in Tibet, where it flourishes even today. Therefore, it is so important for the followers of Nalanda tradition of Buddhists to visit both the sacred sites of Nalanda in India as well as Muara Jambi and the Borobudur temple sites in Indonesia, the second Nalanda. There are also Tara Temple, Manjushree temple, Maitri Buddha temple, and of course Prajanaparamita temple is a must visit.

As a Tibetan calligrapher, I found a special connection with the Javanese ancient script. Both the Tibetan and Javanese scripts claim their roots in the Devanagari script, and they look similar, especially the Umed Tsugthung form of writings of Tibetan calligraphy. We were happy to visit and appreciate the great philanthropic works of Master Cheng Yen’s Tzu Chi Temple, and to share and talk about the rich cultural heritage of Tibetan script and its evolution to modern calligraphy style.

In short, this was a great tour of learning, sharing, connecting, and inspiring in the land of our Gurus, wonderful Indonesia.

About the author

The writer is a Buddhist student and a master calligrapher, based in Sikkim. His website is

Copyright © 2016 Jamyang Dorjee Published in Tibet Sun Posted in Features » Tags: , , ,