Buddhist Allegories in “The Monkey and the Monk” Essay

April 5, 2021 by Essay Writer


Reading Chinese classics is always interesting, educative, and difficult at the same time. On the one hand, a reader gets an opportunity to learn one of the oldest cultures in the world with its beliefs and ideas. On the other hand, it is easy to be lost in an offered variety of adventures and allegories. Therefore, it is expected to choose one path and follow it through the course of reading. The Monkey and the Monk is a great Chinese novel that was created in the 16th century and translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu in the 2000s.

It is characterized by the presence of a true Chinese spirit of Buddhism and its valuable impact on human lives, traditions, and an understanding of history. The author mentions that the novel depicts changes in people and discusses them through the prism of “itinerant adventure, fantasy, humor, social and political satire, and serious allegory built on intricate religious syncretism” (Yu x). This essay aims to analyze The Monkey as a successful allegory of Buddhist teachings, where pilgrims travel and comprehend the worth of knowledge, cooperation, support, and power.

Main Ideas of the Story

Ancient China was not easy, and people continue improving their understanding of this culture. The Monkey and the Monk is not an ordinary story with a list of characters with the ability to develop particular relationships, grow in their specific ways, and demonstrate necessary lessons to the reader. There are 100 chapters that represent a journey that began when “Pan Gu broke up the nebula” and “humaneness supreme enfolding every life” (Yu 1). One of the main characters, Sun Wukong, a monkey, wanted to grasp the secrets of immortal life. Being exposed to the wind, “a stone egg about the size of a playing ball” transformed into a monkey “with fully developed features and limbs” (Yu 3). His transformation continues under the Five Phases with their challenges and opportunities, knowledge and doubts.

Tripitaka is another character whose traveling symbolizes the development and self-improvement through becoming a monk, desire to bring new standards to the damaged land, and the necessity to deal with personal demons and sins. Zhu Bajie, or Pigsy, Sha Wujing, or Sandy, and the Dragon-Horse are three other pilgrims in the journey that determine the influential qualities of people – greed (Pigsy), obedience (Sandy), and courage (Dragon).

In stressful situations, these heroes demonstrate their worst and best abilities to support, run, or betray. However, in total, the combination of loyalty to humans and respect for Buddha’s orders contributed to the successful completion of the mission (Wang and Xu 105). Each character got what he deserved, including Golden-Bodies Arhat (Sandy), nagi (Dragon), Janitor of the Altars (Pigsy), Buddha Victorious (the Monkey), and Buddha Candana (Tripitaka) (Yu 494). Multiple lessons about how to control personal behavior, how to respond to danger and external kindness, and how to live with sins and redemption were given between the lines of The Monkey and the Monk.

Allegory and Its Essence

In a variety of sources, the authors try to discuss the nature of the novel and its relation to Buddhism. One of the most common statements is that The Monkey and the Monk consists of perfectly developed supernatural adventures, humorous situations, and religious allegories (Wang and Xu 103). An allegory is a story the meaning of which may be hidden between the lines to promote moral or religious aspects in society. For example, when the Monkey King could not help but jumping joyfully to demonstrate his grateful salutation, the Patriarch made a decision to teach him and control his emotions (Yu 19).

On the one hand, this situation seems to be harsh and diminishing people’s intentions to follow their needs and desires. From another angle, the same lesson helps to recognize true intent, promote obedience, and explain the worth of following orders set by supreme powers. The allegory is hard to catch, but its impact remains critical for further development.

This literary device is frequently used by writers; however, its success is determined by the possibility of the reader to grasp the truth and achieve the goals set. The allegory of The Monkey and the Monk is represented in terms of three levels that are revealed through reading the novel, including the idea of adventure, karma, and self-cultivation (Yu as cited in Wang and Xu 103). This method does not only depict the nature of Buddhism but also helps to identify the difference between Chinese and Western religions and philosophies. Instead of focusing on the identification of good and evil aspects like it is inherent to the western regions, China remains under the impact of Indian traditions, where Buddhism enhances salvation and self-improvement.

Allegoric Examples of Buddhism in The Monkey and the Monk

One of the main distinctive features of The Monkey and the Monk is a combination of several stories and religions within one great novel. The goal is to prove that “to harmonize the Three Schools is a natural thing/One word’s elucidation in accord with truth/Leads to birthlessness and knowledge most profound” (Yu 20). The author touched upon a variety of aspects of three religions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Despite the intention of this essay to focus on Buddhism teachings, none can diminish or neglect the role of other traditions and cultures in the story. There are many examples of how The Monkey becomes an allegory of Buddhist teachings, starting from the decision of Tripitaka to travel and ending with received honors and ranks.

The journey of the main characters remains the main evidence in the discussion of allegory in Buddhism. As soon as they decide to change something in their lives, people understand the need to improve and find out better virtues and values. Analyzing human actions, Tathāgata explained that “people neither honor the teachings of Buddha nor cultivate various karma; they neither revere the three lights nor respect the five grains” (Yu 457). As a result, it becomes hard to control humans with their negative qualities of “greed and killing, lust and lying” (Yu 457). Redemption turns out to be an internal part of their adventure, which leads to enlightenment and forgiveness.

There are multiple obstacles due to their karma that must be recognized and understood. The story underlines that “sinful karma is very deep”, and even the current redemption cannot promise a safe future and the avoidance of the same mistakes with time (Yu 126). Sometimes, it is easy to take a step, hurt someone’s feelings, and ask for forgiveness. Still, Buddhist teachings are not about forgiveness only but about the necessity to understand the worth of karma and behave respectfully.

At the same time, the strength of The Monkey and the Monk is the possibility to identify personal mistakes, think about the consequences, and share the lessons with other people. Each of the characters is never introduced as a perfect man with good intentions only. Their behaviors during teachings, uncontrollable powers, and unexplainable superiority over ordinary people took place and determined who they were. With time, new knowledge and explanations felt in their minds, and they changed.

Tripitaka got a better understanding of what it means to behave with circumspection, “don’t even enter a house without permission”, “wait until someone comes out”, and “request lodging politely (Yu 292). Such simple rules introduce the whole of idea of Buddhist teachings because this faith cannot be imposed or order. It has to be voluntarily accepted and developed in human minds and souls.


In general, it is correct to consider The Monkey and the Monk as an allegory to Buddhist teachings due to a number of urgent themes raised by the author. A life-long journey, an understanding of karma, redemption, and enlightenment are the critical elements in human development. It is not enough to know the rules and follow the standards in order to become a religious and cultural person.

The examples of Tripitaka, the Monkey King, Pigsy, Sandy, and the Dragon Horse as the main five pilgrims whose concerns, decisions, and purposes explain a true worth of Buddhism with its strong demands and expectations. As well as a journey, Buddhism is unpredictable for people who do not know the details but try to take as much as possible from it. The Monkey and the Monk can be a good guide for those who come to the conclusion that enlightenment is the goal to be reached to fulfill life with memorable events and lessons.

Works Cited

Wang, Richard G., and Dongfeng Xu. “Three Decades’ Reworking on the Monk, the Monkey, and the Fiction of Allegory.” The Journal of Religion, vol. 96, no. 1, 2016, pp. 102–121.

Yu, Anthony C, editor and translator. The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of the Journey to the West. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

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