Buddhism. Allegory in “The Monkey and the Monk” Essay
In The Monkey & the Monk: an Abridgment of the Journey to the West, the Monkey is one of the main protagonists of the book, as is apparent from its title. He is portrayed as a multifaceted, almost controversial figure. It seems to consist of incompatible qualities and traits of character, not easily found in one person. From his mysterious origins at the beginning of the plot to becoming Victorious Fighting Buddha at the end, the Monkey fascinates readers with his lively and rebellious nature.
He is always ready for a fight, has a zeal for longevity as well as devotion and physical strength. In the book preface, Yu explains that the narration is based on historical events that influenced the Buddhist culture in China for many centuries to come (x-xi). It is worth analyzing the plot to better understand what the figure of the Monkey represents in the book and how it reflects Buddhist teachings.
Everything that is connected to the Monkey is magical and divine – from his birth to his adventures to earthly transformations to his weapon, hair, and supernatural powers. It is not for nothing that the first seven chapters of the book are devoted to his life story (Yu 1-111). The Monkey comes from an immortal stone, the essences of Heaven and Earth. Upon his birth, he immediately attracts the Jade Emperor’s attention. With that, the Monkey’s epic journey through time, distance, and self-cultivation begins.
It is manifested in transformations of his body to almost any object he wishes, possibly hinting at his overall ability to adjust and reform, which is essential for the plot but in a spiritual sense. As the tale of the Monkey unfolds, readers see how his mind transforms. His name changes throughout the narration symbolize the protagonist’s evolution from the stone monkey to “Handsome Monkey King to Great Sage to Pilgrim” (Wang and Humblé 506). One of his other names is Sun Wukong, given by his first teacher, Subodhi. In it, the word “Wukong” means “awakened to emptiness”, and awakening is the underlying concept of Buddhism. Thus the name suggests the Monkey’s role in the narration.
In his first identity of a monstrous beast, the Monkey is depicted as wreaking havoc and causing uproar in Hell and the heavenly kingdom, constantly battling warriors and messengers of Jade Emperor. The Great Sage craves the most prestigious positions among the equals, and at the court of the Celestial Palace. He clings to his desires to rank higher in the hierarchy of immortals. Due to his vanity, the Monkey is incensed that in Heaven, he is ordered to tend to horses, rebels against guarding the Peach Garden, and is angry at not being invited to a banquet. For all the perceived insults, he takes his revenge in any way he can.
So the Great Sage is a sinner who is, at some point, punished for his deeds and needs to repent. His repentance is attending to Chen Xuanzang, a Tang monk, on a mission to bring to China Buddhist scriptures from India. The topics of atonement for one’s sins and of constant self-improvement are well within the Monkey’s path through the narration. There are plenty of faults in his behavior – pride, defiance, and arrogance, which can all be found in humans and which propel the cycle of suffering. The Great Sage’s following the monk and conversion to Buddhism look to be evidence of the fact that the Monkey epitomizes Buddhist teachings. The attraction of this religion and its values is such that even the animal, almost a monster, is imbued with Buddhist concepts.
In the book, a pursuit of immortality is indicative of the Monkey’s actions throughout his depiction before joining Xuanzang. The Monkey is afraid of death and does everything he can to prolong his life, usually in ways denounced by Heaven. From Subodhi the Monkey learns spells that bring eternal life. Then he wipes off his name from the book of mortals in Hell, goes on to eat peaches of immortality in the garden he has been ordered to look after, stealthily drinks the heavenly wine, and surreptitiously devours pills of longevity. These deeds are uncharacteristic of a Buddhist, but that of a transgressor, they lengthen the list of the Great Sage’s misdeeds, producing more bad karma for him.
The Monkey’s life story seems to correspond to some extent to the circle of rebirths postulated by Buddhism and fundamental to it. Every living creature goes through rebirth cycles until it is freed from them by reaching nirvana, the ultimate goal of a Buddhist. In Chapter Seven, the narrator describes how the Monkey, who has already proclaimed himself the Great Sage, is condemned to be killed for his multiple infractions in Heaven (Yu 97-111). Upon several unsuccessful attempts to execute the Monkey, he is being distilled into an elixir in a crucible for 49 days. Yet he survives and even gains more supernatural qualities than before, like recognizing evil. It appears this plot development demonstrates an attempt to show that the Monkey is going through at least one cycle of rebirths and getting closer to the path of enlightenment.
However, being reborn does not seem to liberate the Monkey from his vain cravings of glory and immortality. The Great Sage challenges the Buddha again – by betting, he can escape from the deity. The Monkey mistakes the latter’s five fingers for pillars at the end of Heaven and urinates on them. The punishment from the Buddha comes in the form of the Monkey’s imprisonment under a five-phase mountain for five centuries, which influenced the Great Sage profoundly. The recurring theme of the digit five appears to be connected to the idea of the Five Precepts in Buddhism to be observed for a virtuous life. Besides, the Monkey’s long captivity is probably a hint at asceticism, which lies at the core of much of Buddhist teachings.
When given a chance at freedom and redemption by Bodhisattva Guanyin, the Great Sage is impatient to be released, meet Xuanzang, also called Tripitaka, and join him to fulfill his mission. Now readers witness the second identity of the protagonist, and he appears to be thankful and devoted to his master, less arrogant than before. Upon accompanying the monk, the Monkey, now called Pilgrim, acts as his bodyguard because this priestly person is incapable of defending himself. With every good deed and thought Pilgrim improves his karma.
Still, the Monkey’s temper and behavior are controlled by the monk, with the help of a headband. Once the Great Sage is tricked into putting it on his head, he can not get rid of it till the journey ends. Tripitaka uses the band to cause pain if the Monkey misbehaves. Along the journey, the Monkey subdues and converts to Buddhism several pagan monsters who are after his master as they want to devour Xuanzang because his flesh is thought to give them eternal life and immense power. Wang and Humblé write that during the pilgrimage with his master, “Monkey accumulates his “fruits” and “merits” or “good stock” by converting the other monsters into Buddhists” (518). Due to his ability to see evil, Pilgrim can recognize the true nature of any demon whatever disguise it uses, thus helping Tripitaka to avoid dangers.
The scripture seeker, Pilgrim, and three more of the monk’s disciples are successful at their mission. The Monkey stays with the Tang monk through all of 81 misfortunes and disasters, cleansing karma along the way. After 16 years of traveling to the Land of the West and back, they deliver the Buddhist scriptures to China, bringing knowledge of the religion to the Land of the East where people were unenlightened and sinful. The Monkey’s reward for the arduous pilgrimage is that he achieves the condition of a Buddha – meaning he evolves from a mortal creature to the rank of deity.
To conclude, it can be said that the Monkey looks like an allegory of Buddhist teachings. Through the depiction of the Great Sage’s life before and after the quest to get the scriptures, the protagonist’s two different identities are juxtaposed, and he is shown as, first, an unruly challenger to heavenly creatures, seeker of great posts and a ruthless warrior. On the pilgrimage with Tripitaka, the Monkey walks the path of repentance and reaches Buddhahood by atoning for his sins.
The Monkey & the Monk: An Abridgment of the Journey to the West. Translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu, The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Wang, Feng Robin, and Philippe Humblé. “Analysis of the Buddhist Conversion of Great Sage.” Chinese Semiotic Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, 2018, pp. 505-527.
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