The Life of the Buddha (Lalitavistara) from Borobudur
a complete collection of high-definition creative commons photographs from Borobudur, Java, illustrating the Life of the Buddha as told in the Lalitavistara, together with further information.
Conception & Pregnancy
Birth & Youth
Signs & Renunciation
Meetings & Striving
Awakening & Teaching
Introduction to the Lalitavistara Reliefs at Borobudur
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001: Bodhisattva in Tuṣita Heaven amongst the Gods
The Bodhisattva Śvetaketu sits surrounded by female attendants in his Palace in Tuṣita Heaven, and all around are divine musicians (gandharva), and other gods (deva), who encourage him to be reborn for the welfare of both men and gods.
We can see the detail that the artists of Borobudur were capable of even in this first panel, in the musicians with their lutes, drums, flutes and other instruments, and the marvellous depiction of hair styles, clothes and the like.
002: Bodhisattva’s Announcement that he will be Reborn on Earth
The Bodhisattva is sat on the throne Sudharma in Dharmoccaya palace, turning to the gods, who are lined up in orderly and respectful fashion, he announces his decision to return to Earth.
One of the gods on the left is wearing a necklace and holding a lotus flower, while the others are holding their hands in añjali, a form of respectful salutation used in India and throughout the east.
003: The Gods take the form of Brahmins on Earth
The Pure Land (Śuddhāvāsika) gods, now disguised as brahmins, descend to Earth to announce that the Bodhisattva will be reborn, and to show people how to recognise him by the thirty-two characteristics that will be found on his limbs, and the two choices he will have before him: to be a Cakravarti Monarch, or to go forth and become a Sammā Sambuddha.
Sections of this panel at the top have been lost and replaced with uncut stone, and other portions are quite worn down. Still some of the attendant gods have wonderfully sublime looks on their faces.
004: Pratyeka Buddhas leave Earth now that the Bodhisattva will be Born
Other gods, represented by one in the air on the left, descend to Earth to tell the Pratyekabuddhas of the immanent birth of the Bodhisattva within twelve years. They must now leave Earth as there cannot be Pratyekabuddhas on Earth when the Buddha and his teaching are available.
As we can see from the beautiful depiction of the deer on the left of the panel these particular Pratyekabuddhas are residing in Ṛṣipatana near Vārāṇasī. The story tells that there were five-hundred residing there and that they rose into the sky and after entering the fire-element (tejadhātu), they attained parinirvāṇa.
005: Bodhisattva’s Guidance to the Gods
The Bodhisattva, sat in the Uccadhvaja Palace in Tuṣita Heaven, now gives the 108 Dharmālokamukha (Entrance into the Light of the Dharma) teachings to the gods who assembled to listen. The Palace was so beautiful, it is said, that the Palaces of other gods seemed like charnel grounds to them.
One of the gods on the left of the panel holds a lotus flower, a sign of purity. To the right of the Bodhisattva, as we look, are the Bodhisattvas who are revealed to the gods by the power of our Bodhisattva. One of them holds what looks like ritual objects, a vajra and a mirror.
006: Passing the Crown to Maitreya
The Bodhisattva Śvetaketu sits in the midst of the gods and passes his crown to the Bodhisattva Maitreya, thereby anointing him. He announces that he will be the next Buddha long after his own Dispensation (Sāsana) has finished, and that he will meanwhile teach the Dharma to them.
To Maitreya’s left we see that the gods are holding strips of writing in their hands.
007: Choosing the Incarnation
The Bodhisattva asks the assembled gods what form he should assume when he enters into his rebirth womb. Many forms are suggested: the form of a child, the form of Śakra or Brahmā and many more; but the former Ṛṣi Ugratejas suggests he should enter the womb as a six-tusked white elephant, in accordance with the Vedas.
008: King Śuddhodana and Queen Māyā
Queen Mahā Māyā approaches King Śuddhodana in his music hall and asks permission to keep the eight Feast Day (Upavasatha) vows and retire to the Palace Dhṛtarāṣṭra, where she will remain pure and engage in good deeds. The King joyfully accepts her request.
On the King’s left we see musicians and poets, and standing on the right are dancing girls. The others appear to be courtiers.
009: Goddesses visit Queen Māyā who has vowed Celibacy
Keeping celibacy and the other precepts Queen Mahā Māyā sits in the Palace Dhṛtarāṣṭra and is surrounded by her waiting ladies; also goddesses, on her left and in the sky, come to pay their respects.
On Māyā’s right we see offerings being made, and the water jug of donation to confirm the offering. On the left of the Queen we see a woman holding a fly whisk, others with more offerings, and some musicians.
010: The Gods discuss who should accompany the Bodhisattva
The gods are met to discuss who will accompany the Bodhisattva in his earthly life, and they praise the benefits accruing to one who will go with him, from rebirth in the various Heavens to attainment of Nirvāṇa.
The reliefs of the gods are particularly well preserved in this panel, and we see how the sculptors were able to endow each of the gods in this ensemble with real character. To the left of the gods stands the Bodhisattva’s empty Palace.
011: The Gods venerate the Bodhisattva
The gods once more gather round the Bodhisattva and sing his praises foreseeing the great accomplishments ahead of him in his new life, and encourage each other once more to accompany the Great Being to Earth.
The sublime look on the faces of the gods as they discuss these matters is once more evident.
012: The Bodhisattva descends to Earth accompanied by the Gods
The gods now gather round, in great festive array, holding banners, pennants, umbrellas and whisks, as the Bodhisattva prepares for his descent from his Heavenly Palace into the womb.
The Bodhisattva is shown here in full lotus meditation position, as he prepares for his mindful descent into the womb.
013: The Bodhisattva enters Queen Māyā’s Womb
Queen Māyā reclines on her bed asleep, while her waiting women stand round, one of whom massages her legs. To her right we see the Bodhisattva in the form of a white elephant descending under an umbrella.
There are seven distinct, but connected sections to this panel, on the Queen’s far left we see musicians and courtiers under a tree, next to them a couple under another tree, three small ensembles, besides the elephant and the central figure of the Queen.
014: The Bodhisattva inside Queen Māyā’s Womb
The Bodhisattva is sitting in his Palace inside the Queen’s womb. On either side is a Guardian of the World (Lokapāla), and more gods fly in the sky and sit on the floor around him.
According to Lalitavistara the Bodhisattva sat nested inside a Palace within a Palace within another Palace. The gods were only able to see these Palaces by coming into his direct presence.
015: The Queen wishes to meet King Śuddhodana in the Aśoka Park
Queen Māyā, under the umbrella in the relief, is accompanied by her waiting women into the Aśoka tree park, where she sends a request to her husband the King to come and meet her.
The Palace she has departed from is on her left, and on the far right of the panel appear to be soldiers watching over her in the park. The tree in the middle represents an Aśoka tree, which are tall and pointed.
016: The King goes to meet the Queen
King Śuddhodana, under the umbrella, approaches the Park on his elephant and with his courtiers but he is unable to enter. The Queen tells her dream to him and asks for the brahmins to come and interpret the dream.
Queen Māyā is surrounded by her waiting women; and a gate separates her from the King. The mahout is still on the elephant, and a bell hangs round the elephant’s neck.
017: The Queen tells her Dream to the Brahmins
Queen Māyā explains to the brahmins the substance of her dream, and asks them to interpret it for her, and the brahmins agree.
The King and Queen are sitting in the Palace, and all around are musicians and attendants, females to her left, and males to her right. The person next to the king, with the beard, represents the brahmins.
018: The Brahmins interpret the Queen’s Dream
The brahmins calm her fears, and tell them this is a good omen, and a son will be born to the Queen. They then predict he will become a Universal Monarch, but that he will renounce the home life, go forth and become a Buddha, who will bring blessings to the world.
The middle section of this panel is quite worn, but to the King’s right a brahmin now sits on a raised platform, and another below him; others in the picture are part of the court, one holding a pennant, another an umbrella.
019: The Brahmins receive Gifts
King Śuddhodana, pleased at the brahmins’ words, in accordance with tradition, now offers them gifts aplenty, and he also arranged for gifts to be given to others in the city.
Three brahmins sit at the far left of the panel as we look, with servers bringing them the gifts the King has arranged, while the King and courtiers, one of whom has a dog, look on. On the right the Palace is empty.
020: The Gods preparing for Queen Māyā
King Śuddhodana announces he will build a Palace for the Queen so that she may be comfortable during her pregnancy, and the gods assemble each vying to give a bigger and more splendid Palace then the others.
The King is sitting apart to one side, with his courtiers behind him, and the gods are facing him on the right.
021: Queen Māyā in more than one Palace
All the Palaces are built, and through the power of the Bodhisattva’s meditation the Queen and the Bodhisattva appear to be living in each of them.
In the panel we see three magnificent Palaces, which represent the many that were built, including one by the King. Queen Māyā appears to be sitting in all three.
022: Queen Māyā heals the Sick
To continue with their good deeds the King gives gifts to the poor, and the Queen now finds that through the power of the Bodhisattva she is able to heal the sick by placing her right hand on their heads. She also had the power to find medicinal shrubs and roots for people.
The King is seen on the left side of the panel giving out gifts, while in the centre sits Queen Māyā healing someone; behind her are courtiers, and to the far right guards sit under a tree.
023: The Śākyans give gifts to the Poor
The King and other leading Sākyans now give out largesse to the poor at the four gates and throughout the city in celebration of the conception of the Bodhisattva.
Various scenes of gift-giving are assembled in one piece, and we can see them handing out food, clothes and other gifts to all who ask. Notice the very realistic depiction of a fruiting coconut tree.
024: King Śuddhodana visits Queen Māyā
During the pregnancy the King kept the fast on the Poṣadha day, and would not perform any works of state, but only study and learn Dharma.
In this panel the King is sat on the right and is visiting Queen Māyā, who is seated at the front, and asking after her health. Her ladies-in-waiting in the penance grove.
025: The Portents before the Bodhisattva’s Birth
In the tenth month, at the terminus of the pregnancy thirty portents appear heralding the birth of the Bodhisattva, among them lions descend from the Himalaya to the city gates, but do no harm, elephants worship the King, and gods gather round.
The King is second left of the four elephants in the panel, on his lap, sits one of the gods (devaputra), and another is on the right. The lions are seated at the gate of the city.
026: Queen Māyā’s Time Draws Near
The Queen is now approaching her term and requests to go to the garden, as the natural setting will bring peace to her mind, and the King gives his consent and makes preparations for the journey.
It appears on the right of the panel that the Queen is dictating her petition to the King, and that in the centre he is receiving it. Courtiers, some bearing gifts, are on the left of the panel.
027: Queen Māyā traveling to Lumbini
Queen Māyā has ascended the chariot made specially by the King, which no one else is allowed to ride in, and is being taken to the Lumbini garden.
It is said in the story that the Four Great Kings drew the chariot, and that Śakra cleared the path and Brahmā led the way.
Birth and Youth
Photographs and Text by Anandajoti Bhikkhu
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