It is not a coincidence that Cetho and Sukuh, two of the most mysterious Hindu-Buddhist era temples in Java, are located on the equally mysterious Mount Lawu. This huge extinct volcano peaks at an altitude of 3265m on the border between Central and East Java Provinces. The mountain is shrouded in mystery attributed to ancient legends, myths and strange anecdotes by contemporary climbers and spiritual pilgrims. If we take into account the metaphysical and esoteric meanings of the place in Javanese spiritual beliefs (kejawen) and practices (kebatinan), the religious functions of both the Cetho and Sukuh temples clearly contribute to a mountain-wide spectrum of processes and dynamics proper to the Javanese worldview, not to say genesis of the world.
A widely popular mountain to climb, Gunung Lawu possesses several trail routes passing through highly attractive natural attributes in terms of lush valleys with old dipterocarp and evergreen forests, several springs and waterfalls, eventually leading to amazing panoramic views from the three different rocky peaks at the top. As a consequence, climber groups flock towards its slopes, attracting local and international nature lovers as well as outdoor activities and educational trips for schoolchildren. Yet for all its natural beauty assets, the mountain is first and foremost revered or feared for its mystical assets both amongst local communities and spiritual pilgrims following the Kejawen tradition of animism-dynamism and Tantric Hindu-Buddhist beliefs. It contains for them several sacred sites worthy of night-time rituals and ascetic meditation practices. In their interpretation, all the natural, geological and hydrological wonders become so many places of the kramat (esoteric) variety, where metaphysical beings and spirits haunt and guard the secrets of longed for ilmu or spiritual knowledge and boons.
Candi Cetho and Sukuh at the Lawu base tell the tales of the heroes of old, the Wayang gods and ancestors of the Javanese. Theirs are stories of morality, of spiritual powers and of higher wisdoms not easily learned through worldly forms of transmission such as schools or work trainings. They disclose the truths of existential life and higher goals, karmic danger and pitfalls of illusory habits and emotions, secrets of success and true happiness. Amongst the Javanese society, we find the occurrence of aliran kepercayaan or mystical groups, which perpetuate these traditions of ancestral spiritual transmissions through concepts and ascetic practices. Many of these have Gunung Lawu as a main dot on their training schedules, for a good reason as the mountain is considered a high point of spiritual kejawen activities and history through its relation to royal figures of the past. It is considered so anker (haunted) that many prohibitions involving actions and speech are in place while on its slopes, for fear of supernatural reprisals leading to undesired accidents. Respect of the traditions, nature and beliefs is thus recommended, even for mere tourists and climbers.
An important reason of its mystical attraction is found through a historical anecdote which took place around the end of the 15th century, when the last Hindu-Buddhist King Brawijaya V had to abdicate to the Muslim armies and subsequent religious change of the Javanese kingdoms of that time. A local legend (dongeng) tells that upon seeing his empire and even capital being attacked and destroyed by the invading Muslim armies of Demak led by his own renegade son Raden Patah, Brawijaya decided to escape accompanied only by his two faithful counselors, Sabdopalon and Noyogenggong. They ended their fugue on the Gunung Lawu slope, where they were received and guided by two local chiefs, namely Dipa Menggala and Wangsa Menggala. Brawijaya told them of his intention to meditate on the highest peak in order to receive a sign of guidance (petunjuk) from God Himself, which would define his future actions, revenge or acceptance for the fate of his doomed Majapahit Empire. After reaching the peaks of Lawu, the King realized he had to accept his fate and perform the ultimate Tantric deed namely Muksa or self-induced death through meditation. This he did in order to help his descendants who were to become the future rulers of Java and even beyond. He would thereupon assist them as a divine subtle being. His two wise counselors followed his example, as well as the two local chiefs who became respectively the spirit guardians of the Island of Java and of the Gunung Lawu Mountain.
These divine ancestor spirits (leluhur) are now still known as Semar, Sunan Lawu and Kyai Jalak and it is these wise ancestors that Javanese mystics attempt to enter in communication with for spiritual advice and realizations. This type of esoteric shamanic transmission happens through ritual meditation involving specific traditional offerings at a variety of sacred spots or petilasan. The realizations acquired through these practices in connection with the well-known qualities of the divine spirits are believed to guide a human wisely through his/her own life. Avoiding karmic mistakes, overcoming existential challenges and acting as a compassionate being with an indestructible faith in a Universal Creator are some of the hoped for outcomes, often made easier by the acquisition of powerful mental capacities such as metaphysical perception and manipulation, supernatural power strength, clairvoyance and heightened self-confidence. Brawijaya V showed the path, by a contemplation practice known as Neng Ning Nung. Neng comes from the word Meneng or Calm Abiding, Ning from the word Wening or Mental Clarity leading to a state of Nung from Dunung meaning Union with the Divine. As such the Javanese mystics know this practice by the saying “Menenging Solah Bawa, Weninging Ati Manungkung Puja”.