The Great Exposition of the Law of Karma

Buddhism postulates that for every cause there is an effect. Those who undertake good actions generate good effects, while those who initiate wrongful actions generate bad effects. Although the person committing the act may not immediately realize the results generated by his or her actions, the karmic effect will eventually play out, if not in this life then in a future existence.

In 1885, the Borobudur’s Dutch conservators removed a portion of the stone casing that surrounds the entire monument in order to be able to repair the sagging walls and floors of the first gallery. To their amazement they discovered a series of previously unknown relief panels located directly under the curved molding that surrounds the monument’s outermost walled perimeter. The vast majority of these 160 relief panels were last seen in 1891, when archaeologists restored the monument’s casing stones to their original positions. During World War II, however, soldiers from the Japanese occupational force decided to uncover the hidden reliefs located at the southeast corner of the monument’s base. When archaeologists restored Borobudur during the 1980s, they decided to allow this southeast corner to remain exposed so that future visitors would be able to see a few fine examples of these reliefs for themselves. (1)

Several of the hidden reliefs bear short inscriptions written in the Old Javanese language. Others have suggested that the architect may have elected to write down a few key words on the panels to give the sculptors some directions as to the nature of the scenes to be carved.

These short inscriptions present “…graphical features similar to those in the script commonly used in royal charters between the last quarter of the 8th century and the first decades of the 9th. The obvious conclusion is that Candi Borobudur was very likely founded around the year 800 AD.” (2)

The content of these hidden reliefs is loosely based on a Sanskrit Buddhist text called the Mahakarmavibhangga (“Great Exposition of the Law of Karma”). Buddhism postulates that for every cause there is an effect. Those who undertake good actions generate good effects, while those who initiate wrongful actions generate bad effects. Although the person committing the act may not immediately realize the results generated by his or her actions, the karmic effect will eventually play out, if not in this life then in a future existence or reincarnation.

The Sanskrit-based Mahayana edition of the “Great Exposition of the Law of Karma” has never been fully translated into English. However, a Japanese edition is presently being prepared for publication. In response to an email from this writer, Professor Mauro Maggi replied that his recently issued book “…is an edition and translation of the Karmavibhanga fragments in Khotanese, a Middle Iranian language. The Khotanese version does not correspond to any of the known versions of the texts, including the Central Asian ones (Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tocharian). The Nepal manuscripts used by S. Lévi are being diplomatically edited in Japan (four installments have appeared so far in the “Annual report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University” (1998-2001). I am not aware of any complete English translation of the Nepalese Sanskrit recension, which might be sensible only if based on a new reading of the manuscripts (available from the Nepal-German Manuscripts Preservation Project) or on the Japanese diplomatical edition, once it is completed.”

However, a few short quotations from the Mahakarmavigghanga in English are available from various sources. For example, the Buddha tells the young Brahmin Shuka that there are a total of eighteen benefits to be derived from the building a Tathagata Stupa.

“What are these eighteen?

One will be born as the child of a great king
One will have a noble body
One will become beautiful and very attractive
One will have sharp sense faculties
One will be powerful and famous
One will have a great entourage of servants
One will become a leader of men
One will be a support to all
One will be renowned in the ten directions
One will be able to express oneself in words and verses extensively
One will receive offerings from men and gods
One will possess many riches
One will obtain the kingdom of a universal monarch
One will have long life
One’s body will be like a collection of vajras
One’s body will be endowed with the major marks and the minor signs (of a Buddha)
One will take rebirth in the three higher realms
One will swiftly attain complete nirvana

These eighteen points are the benefits of building a Tathagata Stupa.”

Elsewhere in the text the Buddha says the following:

“If in this life you often use harsh speech to irritate others, and if you delight in exposing their private matters, and if you are stubborn and unyielding, then in your next life you will be born as a fire-spewing hungry ghost.”

We may derive additional information concerning the contents of this text by examining the version of the Mahakarmavibhangga that appears in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism.

In the Pali version of the text, the Sakyamuni presents a discourse in which he describes various human actions and their corresponding results. He begins by listing the ten wrongful actions of the evil-doer: killing living beings, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking falsely, speaking maliciously, speaking harshly, engaging in gossip, coveting that which belongs to others, harboring ill will toward others, and holding wrongful views. In addition, he delineates the ten rightful actions, which consist of abstention from committing the aforementioned ten wrongful activities.

According to the Buddha, the minds of individuals are complex, generating a variety of karmic results within a single lifetime. The result of any karmic action may not even be realized during the same existence in which the act has been committed. Moreover, it is incorrect to presume that the evildoer always goes to hell, or that the good man always goes to heaven. Instead, the Buddha lists four possible outcomes concerning the evildoer who goes to hell, the evil doer who goes to heaven, the good man who goes to heaven, and the good man who goes to hell.

It is entirely possible, said the Buddha, that any good actions that a person commits just before death could result in an evildoer going straight to heaven. Or the evil actions of a person committed just before death could cause someone whom had previously performed numerous acts of merit to go straight to hell upon the dissolution of the body. However, neither heaven nor hell is to be regarded as a permanent condition. Each individual will eventually be reborn into future existences where the karma they have generated during previous lives will inevitably exert its effect.

The Javanese artists have succeeding in transforming the d
ry, abstract contents of the text into a wonderful series of lively snapshots of Javanese village life during the period in which Borobudur was constructed, including scenes that depict people relaxing at home, working in the rice paddies, visiting the market, or fishing along the banks of a river.

The reliefs have been structured show both the good and evil sides of the karmic equation, with some scenes portraying the punishments of hell while others display the rewards of heaven, with each panel that illustrates a karmic action immediately followed by a second panel that portrays the result of that action. The first 117 reliefs in the series portray a variety of different actions, all of which lead to an identical result, while the remaining 43 panels display the various results that can arise from a single action.

Only 23 of the 160 panels in the series actually appear to portray the examples that the Buddha sets forth in the versions of the Mahakarmavibhangga Sutra that have survived into modern times. The remaining reliefs are either based on a secondary text or are the result of a purely local interpretation of the primary scripture. In either case, the reliefs reflect how the Javanese once viewed the Law of Karma within the context of their own indigenous customs and beliefs. (3)

Although no one knows with certainty why Borobudur’s architect had decided to shroud these beautifully executed reliefs in eternal darkness, several modern investigators have proposed possible explanations. During the 1980s when archaeologists were restoring Borobudur they discovered a large number of carved architectural elements underneath the monument’s northern stairway. Although none of this debris belonged to the monument that visitors, the carved stones appeared to belong to a building that must have been quite similar to Borobudur. An earthquake could have caused part of the building to collapse during construction, which would explain the opening up of a wide gully in the hillside. In this case, it would have been natural for he architect to use these damaged elements as infill before renewing the construction effort in order to lend further stability to the monument. This would explain the purpose of the stone casing that surrounds the entire monument, which may have been intended to enhance the pyramid’s structural stability. However, the modern structural engineers who have examined Borobudur says that the architect could have employed far less drastic measures than deploying a veritable mountain of stone.

Supporters of the instability theory point to other on-site evidence that seems to support the proposition that Borobudur’s architect abandon the reliefs of the hidden foot for structural reasons. For example, when the casing stones were fitted over the hidden foot a few of the hidden panels were carelessly damaged, while other panels in the series were never completed. Had the architect simply decided to bury these reliefs underneath the promenade casing stones and then simply forget about them?

Others believe that despite their lack of visibility, the reliefs of the hidden foot continued to play an invisible role in the monument’s symbolic existence long after their disappearance. Since ancient times, the layout of the Javanese village home has followed a symbolic plan that is intended to conform in microcosm with the structure of the universe at large.

“In the vertical plane, the house is typically divided into a tripartite scheme of things, where the roof space is identified with the realm of the gods and the floor level represents the mundane world of everyday existence. The void beneath the house is linked to an underworld populated by malevolent spirits, the souls of the dead and other supernatural agencies. In symbolic terms, movement from one part of the house to another represents cosmological journey between these different realms whose mystical geography is delineated in myth and ritual….” (4)

For the Javanese, the area beneath the house was a place of potential danger. For this reason, offerings of food were left in this area to placate malevolent spirits who might otherwise elect to prey upon the human resident above. It is not untenable to suggest that the builders of Borobudur had elected to place an offering of spiritual ‘food’ in the monument’s basement so that the denizens of the underworld would not prey upon the pious pilgrims who walked above. In addition, the hidden reliefs would have fulfilled one of the primary aims of the aspiring bodhisattva, who vows to seek the salvation of “sentient” beings everywhere, even unto the depths of hell. Even today the natives of Bali place small baskets on the ground outside of their homes and businesses that contain food, drink, flowers, and incense. The offerings are intended to placate malevolent spirits of the underworld. By contrast, the Balinese place offerings that are intended for the gods on top of the high shrines located in the corners of their family compounds.


(1) Perhaps the 160 relief panels of the Mahakarmavibbgangga may have a numerical significance in relationship to the 160 streams of consciousness that another Buddhist texts states is a contributor to the generation of karmic results. According to the Mahavairocana Sutra, a total of 60 “atomic” minds combine in various permutations to generate a total of 160 “molecular” streams of consciousness. (See the Enlightenment of Vairocana, translated by Alex Wayman, p. 41.)

(2) Borobudur: A Monument of Mankind by Dr. Soekmono, p. 9.

(3) Professor Ryusho Hikata has suggested a correlation between certain panels of this series and a sixth-century Buddhist text called the Lokaprajnapty-abhidharma. See Cultural Horizons of India, Volume IV by Lokesh Chandra, pp. 76-77.

(4) Indonesian Heritage: Architecture, p. 18.

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