WHEN FAITH’S A CHUCKLING MATTER © Duncan Graham 2006
Indonesia’s first Buddhist Maitreya vihara opened in Malang, East Java, 55 years ago. Now there are around 300 across the nation. The latest is in Surabaya. Duncan Graham reports:
The massive 1200-year-old Borobudur temple near Yogya is substantial proof that Buddhism once exercised huge influence in Java.
Buddhism yielded to Hinduism in India about 900 years ago. The two religions merged in Indonesia but rapidly declined after the arrival of Islam in Java during the 16th century.
To the non-believer all representations of the Buddha look enigmatic. By contrast the smile of Mona Lisa is instantly decipherable.
Buddhas standing, reclining, sitting – their hands in scores of different gestures, their accessories (if they have any) brimming with symbolism. It’s seriously complex, but Buddha Maitreya, also known as the Laughing, Happy or Future Buddha is certainly accessible.
However to make things a mite more difficult some regard him as a Buddha-in-waiting, a bodhisattva. This is a monk eligible for nirvana (the state of blessedness) but who delays transformation through concern for human suffering. Whatever his proper rank, he’s a compassionate chap.
Interpretations in paint and statuary show a plump fellow with a beaming face. He flaunts a potbelly and breasts big enough to warrant a D-cup bra. In any Western health care campaign he’d be depicted as a prime candidate for a cardiac arrest and be warned to lay off the carbohydrates, particularly beer.
But in Chinese culture obesity is a symbol of happiness, luck and generosity.
Maitreya (a Sanskrit word) is also known as Hotei in Japan (the word can translate as ‘glutton’), and Pu-Tai in China. Another name is Samma Sambuddha, which has a jolly alliterative ring. He may have been modelled on a peripatetic Zen scholar who wandered around China predicting the weather; a meteorological monk, if you like.
Pandita (priest) Haris Amerta directs the Vihara Buddha Maitreya in Malang, the first established in Indonesia. He said the Buddha’s dangling ear lobes represented longevity. The gourd on his sash holds jamu (herbal medicine) and the bell he carries is to wake the conscience of the people. The sack on his back is full of goodies for kiddies.
“We’re vegetarians and offer a short simple service that has dispensed with many traditions, including the shedding of shoes,” he said. “Our garments are plain white.
“We’re more flexible than Islam or Christianity and have adapted to meet the changing times. We understand busy people can’t afford to spend hours praying so we meet their needs.
“But we haven’t cut back on the message of love and forgiveness, and the responsibility to help others. May happiness come to you.”
The congregation worships under bright lights in a room free of the usual smoke-smudged timbers and cacophony of clocks which feature in Chinese temples. Men and women pray together, their position depending on the priest’s gender. Incense and candles are limited.
If that person is a woman, then the women are in the front rows and the men behind. If a man, the order is reversed.
The Maitreya cult first appeared in India about 1700 years ago and spread to Japan, Korea, China and Indonesia. It’s part of the Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) school of Buddhism.
This recognises multiple Buddhas ready to help those who seek liberation.
Theravada (the Lesser Vehicle) originated 2500 years ago. It says the Buddha was unique and has gone. This form is most popular in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
Haris said that some Javanese worship at the vihara because they associate Maitreya with the shadow puppet character Semar. The dwarf clown who features prominently in wayang kulit performances is also fat and wise.
Semar is believed to be the incarnation of a god, and a peculiar Javanese addition to the Ramayana story. Like Buddhism this epic tale of mystery and majesty, war and peace, revenge and intrigue also came from India.
To some Buddhists Maitreya is a messiah figure who will eventually appear on earth as a world ruler. As in other religions there have been a few false prophets attempting to seize this title. Among them was L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
However their claims are neatly neutered by the wide acceptance of a prophecy. This says Maitreya will not appear until all remaining relics are cremated and the teachings forgotten.
As Buddhism is a growth religion in the West (followers outnumber Baptists in Australia) the Maitreya’s return will be a long time coming. The present estimate is 30,000 years.
If the size, style and opulence of the new vihara Maitreya in Surabaya are any measure, then Buddhism is booming in Indonesia.
Technically only one per cent of the population is registered as Buddhist. But with 300 Maitreya vihara alone across the country and at least six other prominent schools of the religion all with their own places of worship, the official figures look a little wonky.
The Great Hall of the Surabaya vihara is dome shaped, like a mosque and three storeys high. There’s a lift to the upper levels, large chapels behind and a huge auditorium. A library, childcare rooms, communal kitchens, souvenir shop and dormitories make the vihara a major addition to Indonesian religious life.
With its great timber doors, hectares of polished ceramics, closed circuit security cameras and computer systems it’s clear no expense has been spared.
Although officially opened last November facilities are still being completed. It’s big, but not the largest in Indonesia. That title is held by the vihara on Batam Island, opened in 1999 and covering almost two hectares.
Pandita Harmono Njoto from the Surabaya vihara said it was important to differentiate between religion and tradition.
“We’ve embraced modern technology,” he said. “Technology is neither good nor bad; it depends on how you use it.
“This is an open faith. Everyone is welcome.”
In Buddhism individuals are responsible for their faith and priests are not required to intercede. Vihara are built to help worshipers develop their own self-awareness.
A central feature of Buddhism is acceptance of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Truths acknowledge the recognition that all existence is full of suffering caused by a craving for worldly objects. Suffering ends when craving ceases.
The Eightfold Path leads to enlightenment and invokes perfect views, resolve, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
(Additional research from US Library of Congress.)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 February 2006)