Monkey’s Journey to the West

The Monkey King. Image Credit: eso-garden.com
The Monkey King. Image Credit: eso-garden.com

Wu Ch’eng-en

 

Considered to be one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature Monkey: A Folk Novel of China, details monk Tripitaka’s (Xuanzang) journey to India with three disciples to obtain the sutras under the Buddha’s instructions. The original text was published in the 1590s anonymously, but has since been credited to Wu Cheng’ en. The novel comprises many Chinese folk tales and mete outs spiritual insight through an action adventure tale.

 

"I have sometimes laughingly said to myself that it is not I who have found these ghosts and monsters, but they, the monstrosities themselves, which have found me." While Wu Ch'eng-en spoke of a different piece of work, since lost to the world, his statement could apply to Monkey, as suggested by  Hu Shih in the introduction to Arthur Waley's translation. "Monsters" are part of daily life. They come in all patterns and guises. How one faces  them will create an ultimate path. Monkey uses religion as the weapon to combat, overcome, and defeat these monsters through eventual enlightenment of its main characters. Good works hold the key to attaining this enlightenment. Although Buddhism appears to be the religion of preference, an embrace of all three religions (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism) is embodied in Monkey. Each character possesses certain attributes to aid  in their journey , and conversely each holds certain weaknesses, or monsters, to be overcome. They prove to be a microcosm of humanity.

Monkey Begins

 

The Monkey character manifests attributes of strength, intelligence and courage. He is the only monkey in the group who dares to pass the water curtain and in turn discovers the land "Mountain of Flowers and Fruit leads to Heaven". Throughout the novel the theme of taking chances by pushing past normal boundaries to broaden one's horizons and knowledge is prevalent especially with Monkey. Instead of being content to remain by the waterfall curtain, Monkey sets off on a journey to discover a way to bypass reincarnation and become immortal. Persistence leads him to the Immortal Patriarch Subodhi where he learns a great deal and gains much in the way of magical power through Taoism study, but his penchant for exhibition sees him banished. While Monkey holds many positive  character traits, he consistently displays their often negative or monstrous counterpoints of over-confidence and greed, which eventually imprisons  him for five hundred  years, until he is released  with the understanding he will help Tripitaka on  his  journey.

Image Credit: Google Images
Image Credit: Google Images

The Pilgrims

Hsuan Tsang (Tripitaka) is the only human of the scripture seekers. He represents the meek, humble, and holy  of humanity, yet also demonstrates weakness and lack of faith as he is often overcome with tears of grief when presented with an obstacle. Lack of faith haunts Tripitaka to the end of his journey, and it takes Monkey to push him into the bottomless ferry to complete his final crossover to Buddha-hood. Where faith is the baseline for religions such as Christianity, accumulation of good works is the key to salvation in Buddhism:  "'If the Master had not received our vows and accepted us as his disciples we should not have had the chance to  do good works and win salvation,'" states Monkey.

 

The characters of Sandy, Pigsy, and Dragon originate from the divine, yet fall into disfavour with the Jade Emperor and find themselves in the category of monster. At their worst they are bloodthirsty, overindulgent and greedy, yet compensate with strength and loyalty to Tripitaka. Again, good works earn them divine employment, and escape from their earthly prisons. No soul is lost if they are willing to change their ways and seek enlightenment.

 

Like the journey of life, the pilgrims' trek to secure the scriptures and enlightenment, is littered with danger. Their various weakness, and other circumstances often land  them into difficulties, but their combined strengths carry them through. After many occasions of rescuing others from circumstances, the pilgrims are usually rewarded with aid in furthering their journey. For their part in returning the Turtle House to its rightful owner, the white turtle offers to take the pilgrims across The River that Leads to Heaven -- further confirmation of the belief that good works will benefit the individual. Helping others seems to be the most important  factor in attaining enlightenment. Slips into old habits and patterns do not delay this goal. Throughout the book both Monkey and Pigsy misbehave on several occasions, yet in the end they succeed. Even Tripitaka loses his patience with them. When they had thoroughly frightened several Buddhist priests, the Master admonishes them by quoting scripture; "'To be virtuous without instruction is superhuman. To be virtuous after instruction is reasonable. To be instructed and remain incorrigible is to be a fool.' You three have just shown yourselves to be fools of the very lowest description."

Tripitaks's Journey. Image credit: cornell.edu
Tripitaks's Journey. Image credit: cornell.edu

Heaven and Religion

The various divinities are consistently involved with the characters, either to help or hinder. Heaven and its beings are seen as a reflection of the Chinese bureaucratic system, where promotion is sought, and good seems as prevalent as evil. The Chinese transplant Earth to heaven complete with Emperor, Lords, Ladies, and the lower echelon. Life continues in Heaven as it does on Earth.

 

No single religion dominates the Chinese belief system for very long. They  often combine them to suit their needs. Both characters of Monkey and Tripitaka begin their study through Taoism, but convert to Buddhism  prior to their journey. The Chinese people embrace many religions beginning with ancestor veneration which remains as a constant through to today. Taoism and Confucianism followed. Buddhism entered China from India in year 65 and eventually developed into Chan Buddhism (combination of Taoism and Buddhism) after Tripitaka's  quest. Although there were periods of conflict between the religions, the Chinese embraced all. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, known as the "Three Teachings", were dominant and often practised by the same person. An official might follow the concepts and rigid doctrines of Confucianism in his  public life, live as a Taoist in the quiet of his home, and adopt a Buddhist attitude toward death and rebirth. The actual dominant religion of Monkey doesn't seem to be of great importance to the Chinese, as the novel was, for three hundred years, attributed to the author Chiu Ch'u-ki, a Taoist.

 

As well as being an entertaining action adventure, Monkey is a study of the human character with all its strengths and weaknesses using extreme examples. No matter how vile a person is, they can be redeemed through good works and the search for enlightenment. Life's journey is depicted as one fraught with dangers and obstacles, yet through time and perseverance these difficulties can be overcome. Religion is not seen so much as a single doctrine, but as an anthology of many. Near the end of the novel, Monkey becomes philosophical  and a hint of his changed nature surfaces when he addresses the five hundred  Buddhist priests; "Never again follow false doctrines nor follow foolish courses, but know that the Three Religions are one. Reverence priests, reverence Taoists too, and cultivate the faculties of man."

Works Consulted

a)      Cotterell, Arthur East Asia From Chinese Predominance to the Rise of the Pacific Rim. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

b)      Smith, J.Z.,ed.,Green, W.S.,associate ed. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion. SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995

c)      Wu Ch'eng-en. Monkey, Folk Novel of China. Translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Grove Books, 1970

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