It was back in 1590 that one of the four pillars of Chinese literature was published, the Xīyóu Jì (Journey to the West) attributed to the scholar Wú Chéng’ēn. Based on a historical event, the pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuánzàng, it’s enriched with mythical and legendary elements as is typical of the Eastern tradition. The result is a desecrating masterpiece of literature, esotericism, cultural and religious traditions seasoned with so much irreverence and action.
It was in 629 CE when Xuánzàng had a dream that led him to go to India. As a Buddhist monk of the Mahayana school, or of the Great Vehicle, he could only take it as an oracle. Tired of the constant differences between the Chinese Buddhist sacred texts, after studying Sanskrit, he began his long pilgrimage to India, or to the West, breaking the decree of the Tang dynasty emperor Taizong, which forbade the Chinese to expatriation due to an ongoing war against the Eastern Turks. He left the capital Chang’an stealthily, with the intention of recovering the original Sanskrit texts. His journey was long and full of interesting experiences.
Xuánzàng arrived in India in 630 and travelled far and wide, trying to “suck” as much knowledge as possible: he stopped in the main Buddhist communities, visited the most famous places of pilgrimage and studied at the University of Nalanda. He returned to China only in 645, bringing with him 657 Sanskrit sutras of the Tripiṭaka (“the three baskets”, or the Buddhist canon pali) which earned him the name of Sānzàng, a Chinese translation of Tripiṭaka. Emperor Taizong received him with many tributes, prompting him to write a detailed account of his journey which was entitled: Journey to the West by the great Tang. Xuánzàng dedicated the rest of his life to the translation of the texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, greatly expanding the Chinese canon and thus allowing for sutras that were then lost in the original.
From history to legend
“Ever since Creation began it [the stone] had been receiving the truth of Heaven, the beauty of Earth, the essence of the Sun and the splendour of the Moon; and as it had been influenced by them for so long it had miraculous powers. It developed a magic womb, which burst open one day to produce a stone egg about the size of a ball. When the wind blew on this egg it turned into a stone monkey, complete with the five senses and four limbs”
Journey to the West
Evolution of the story
Ever since Xuánzàng made his admirable journey, his stories were enriched with legendary and mythological elements. This story was transmitted orally for centuries until, during the Song dynasty, it was put down in writing with the name of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua) in which a monkey already appears as Xuánzàng’s main helper. It is around the end of 1200. With the Yuan dynasty, the first theatrical dramas appear about the legendary journey, called Xiyou ji zaju (theatrical works of Journey to the West). Finally in 1590, what is still considered the official story, was put into writing.
Wú Chéng’ēn, or whoever, was aware of all this oral corpus and decided to arrange it, giving it an organic form, giving it a proper literary style and turning it into a masterpiece. The oral transmission was typical of storytellers, even in the West, and China was no exception. The exploits of elusive heroes were sung and narrated in the squares, peppered with fantastic adventures intertwined with historical events. Only under the Ming dynasty did Chinese culture feel the need to put these stories down on paper, including the Journey to the West.
Peculiarities of the novel
The richness of this book is typical of oriental writings. Like The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, the One Thousand and One Nights, the main story is framed by a myriad of secondary stories. Stories added during the centuries of oral transmission. What makes the Journey to the West one of the most famous Chinese novels is the abundance of contents and styles: being written in spoken language it was clearly intended for the common folk. Not only to those who could read but also to all who could listen to those who had read it for them. It is a novel full of action and adventure, full of battles, puzzles and trials to overcome; loved by boys and girls who identify themselves with the heroes who defeat the bestial enemies; from the adult who finds criticism to a stupidly bureaucratic and cumbersome society; from the spiritual who relate to the break with institutionalized religions.
It has many features in common with the European chivalric romance: the quest (before for the immortality, then for the Scriptures), the battles, the dialogues between the duelists, the hurdles to be overcome, the moral and spiritual growth of the protagonists. In fact, there is not a single main character (which if there were would be Sun Wukong, certainly not the monk Xuánzàng), but it is a “choral novel”, as is the Mahabharata or The Lord of the Rings. And with them he also shares the typical characteristic of coming-of-age novels: the characters evolve, grow, mature to overcome difficulties and with them grows the reader.
Just like in Eastern philosophy, enemies are often nothing but “good people” in search of redemption, or who have lost their way. Once defeated, they will find their place among the immortals of Heaven. This is part of the Buddha‘s plan who created trials and hurdles in order to make his pupils evolve. The most striking element remains the religious one: in the course of history, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are intertwined by sticking to each other, to then rediscover their common essence. The rigid Chinese society is constantly attacked with wit, in all its aspects: political, cultural but above all religious.
With an irreverence equal only to the cheeky Oscar Wild, the three religions are the object of pungent sarcasm. Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian mythology merge with reality as if there were no separation between them, but gods, spirits and demons were as common as men and animals. Religions, however, are only the mask: behind them lies an essence full of symbols, esoteric keys, initiations and secret teachings. Only those who are not scandalized by irreverence, popular and often vulgar language, the violence of fighting, those who manage to go beyond moralism, religious ritualism, can understand the secret knowledge of this multifaceted novel.
There are three notable English versions: the compendium published in 1942 with the name of Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China, translated and made by Arthur Waley; a complete translation in four volumes by William John Francis Jenner called Journey to the West, published in 1982-84; The Journey to the West (1977–1983), a complete translation in four volumes by Anthony C. Yu, the first to translate also the poems and songs.
“As they were travelling along one day, evening drew in, and Sanzang said, “Where are we going to sleep, disciples, now that it’s getting late?”
“That’s not the right thing to say, master,” said Monkey. “We monks are supposed to eat the wind and drink the rain, and sleep under the moon and in the frost. Our home is wherever we are. So why ask where we’re
going to sleep?””
Journey to the West
After a brief introduction, the novel begins talking about the character who consecrated the Journey to the West as an absolute masterpiece: Sūn Wùkōng. Often simply translated with Monkey, his name, given to him by the Patriarch Subhuti, means: Monkey Awakened to Emptiness. He is the soul of the book, which makes it so special. We find described in details his miraculous birth (from a rock that has split and then has generated an egg which turned into Monkey), of his growth thanks to his marked intelligence and ease in learning, of the encounter with the Patriarch who teaches him how to achieve immortality, the 72 transformations, how to defend himself against the Three Calamities and how to fly on a golden cloud. His power grows to the point of challenging Heaven itself: by force, he takes possession of the mythical iron cudgel that is able to grow and reduce at will. After having upset the Taoist paradises and becoming almost invincible, he is imprisoned by Buddha himself in the Mountain of the 5 elements.
It will only be released 500 years later by Xuánzàng (in the book called Tripitaka). The monk, sent by Emperor Tang Taizong in search of the Buddhist Scriptures of the Great Vehicle, alone and weak, unable to face the dangers of the journey, needs companions who can protect him. Thus the Bodhisattva Guayin, who had offered to Buddha to look for a champion able to receive the Scriptures and to join Him in the Thunder Monastery in India, instructs 4 demon-spirits repentant and willing to regain their heavenly rank, to assist the young monk. Monkey is the first of these demons and certainly the most powerful and intelligent. But because of his pride, his free spirit and intractable character, Tripitaka needs a magic circle to place on his head, activated with a mantra provided by Guayin, to tame the irreverent monkey.
Plot: the journey
Thanks to Scimmiotto (and to the mantra to tighten the golden circle around his head in order to cause him atrocious suffering and make his so docile), Tripitaka is able to face every danger. The two soon meet Yùlóng Sāntàizǐ, the third son of the Dragon of the Western Sea, who will be the transport for the monk in the form of a white horse. The next demon, who will also become Tripitaka’s disciple, is Zhū Bājiè, or Pig of the Eight Prohibitions, simply called Pigsy. The last to join them is Shā Wùjìng, Sand awakened to Purity, called Sandy as it lived in a river of quicksand. The quintet is complete and can finally head towards the West.
A series of repeated dangers follow as many demons are attracted by the sweet flesh of Tripitaka, capable of giving immortality to those who consume them. Monkey must use all his magical powers and the help of his companions to defeat these demons. He is often forced to invoke Guayin or Buddha himself, as the situation is inextricable. Many of the demons encountered are none other than celestial spirits who ended up on Earth as a punishment or simply fled to enjoy the pleasures of being incarnated. Others are wild animals that have obtained semi-human powers and form thanks to the asceticism practised for decades. In any case, Tripitaka very often is to blame because he stupidly falls into the traps of these slothful enemies, above all for not having listened to the warnings of Monkey, the only one capable of seeing reality beyond appearance.
The completion of the mission
Finally, the endless dangers have been overcome, the enemies defeated, the puzzles solved. Arriving at the Peak of the Vultures, they finally reach the Thunder Monastery, where Buddha with the Bodhisattvas and the other saints of Heaven await them with the Scriptures. After having played a trick on him that shows that everything has a price, even the sacred texts, our heroes are led home by 8 spirits who take them in flight. Given that the trials faced by Tripitaka were 80 and not 81 (9 x 9) as tradition dictates, they are subjected to the last trial, in which some sutras are slightly damaged, but Monkey reassures: “Heaven and earth are incomplete and this scripture used to be complete. Now it’s been soaked and torn to fulfil the mystery of incompleteness. This is not something that could have been achieved through human effort”. Once this is over, they are escorted to Chang’an, welcomed with great celebration by Tripitaka’s emperor and followers. The Scriptures are deposited and during a ceremony officiated by Tripitaka in person, the five pilgrims are kidnapped by spirits to be taken to Heaven, by Buddha, and they are granted divine ranks.
“The symbol is neither abstract nor concrete, neither rational nor irrational, neither real nor unreal. It is always both”
Carl Gustav Jung
What interests us as spiritual people on a journey is the esoteric meaning of the artwork. As much as it has to be appreciated as a literary masterpiece, to enjoy adventure and action, to laugh out of irreverence, vulgarity and sarcasm, the ultimate goal is to leave a very powerful symbolic and archetypal message. Each character has a function and represents a part of the human being. In fact, they are 5 (although Yulong does nothing but being a horse, apart from one episode).
The number 5 has an extremely important meaning: it represents the 5-pointed star, which for visual association symbolizes the man (just think of the Vitruvian man of Leonardo). It indicates human individuality, will, inspiration, vertical evolution, progressive and ascending movement. Being the human number, as the median between earth and sky, it indicates the possible transcendence towards a superior condition. But it can be symbolically susceptible to a negative deviation towards involution, descent and degradation (in this case represented by the 5-pointed star facing downwards). The number five, like all odd numbers, generates activity in the positive form of evolution or in the negative form of involution. It connects the top with the bottom and can stretch towards one of these poles. Ultimately, 5 represents the man on the move, with the possibility of rising or falling. It is no coincidence that the characters are 5 because they represent man and our possibility of growth.
A pre-existing figure, probably born under the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), evolved from the legends about the monkeys of the kingdom of Chu (700 – 223 BC) in which the gibbons are revered, above all the white ones, according to some scholars he is connected to the Hindu god Hanuman. His magical birth from a rock giving birth to a stone egg immediately reveals that it is not a common monkey. Equipped with unique intelligence and courage, it has the characteristic of learning very quickly, especially in battle imitating the moves of the enemy. Thirsty for fame and power, he acquires immortality through the teachings of the Subhuti Taoist, along with the 72 transformations (thanks to which she can turn into any object, animal, plant or person), to the ability to fly on a cloud and be able to jump over 20000 km with a single leap.
Immediately he becomes King of his group of monkeys, slowly subjugating all the demons of the territories around his. Not happy with abusing the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, taking many magical objects with force, in particular, the As-You-Will Gold-Banded Cudgel, a magic rod encircled by gold capable of getting bigger and smaller at the will of the owner. Believing himself superior to all, he calls himself the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. After being able to enter into Heaven, he makes so many troubles that he becomes the terror of the heavens. He eats all the peaches of immortality, drinks the wine of the immortals to the point of drunkenness, gobbles up Laozi’s cinnabar gold pills. Finally, the Jade Emperor, King of the Gods of Heaven, declare war on him but no one can stop him: only the intervention of Buddha is significant. With an incredibly simple trick, he imprisons him in the Mountain of 5 Elements for 500 years.
Time hardly necessary to make him redeem: when the Bodhisattva Guayin proposes to accompany Tripitaka along his dangerous journey, he willingly accepts, but once freed, with the first disagreements with the monk, he goes away becoming intractable. Once again Guayin’s intervention is decisive. She givesTripitaka a gold circle to be worn by Monkey. Once he has it on his head, he can no longer pull it off. Thanks to a secret mantra received from the Bodhisattva, Tripitaka can make the circle tighten creating atrocious pains to the irreverent monkey: this is the only way he has to keep him under control. Once the mission is accomplished, however, Monkey will discover that the circle has disappeared on its own, as it is now totally subservient to the will of the mission. Thanks to his extraordinary powers earned in Heaven, he has control of all the spirits, which he evokes at will whenever he needs them. He can fly to the most remote corners of the sky, to the private rooms of the Bodhisattva Guayin or other important deities.
What does it symbolically represent? Not being an allegory, but a symbol and an archetype, there is not a single interpretation but multiple ones, so not even an overlap with them is contemplated. But in general Sun Wukong represents the Mind, so powerful but capricious, capable of coming into contact with the spirits but a slave to pride and longing. In many Eastern traditions, the mind is compared to a crazy monkey, spiteful and impossible to manage. Only the mantra (from the Sanskrit “instrument of thought”), provided by the master, has the power to subject it to our will. During the story he is sometimes called Monkey Spirit, Metal Lord or simply Metal and is associated, according to Chinese philosophy, with the Metal element.
We have seen that he is based on the historical character Xuánzàng, a Buddhist monk of the Mahayana school, although then he has little or nothing to do with that figure and his real journey. In the novel, he is the reincarnation of Golden Cicada, a disciple of the Buddha too lazy to work to achieve enlightenment so much to fall asleep during a sermon, so he is forced to reincarnate many times to become Tripitaka (birth name: Chen Hui). Being him an important character makes him extremely attractive for all the demons he encounters on his way, as it was believed that eating his flesh made the demon become immortal.
He is extremely naive; although he has very developed compassion he is totally lacking in wisdom. He easily falls into the traps of the demons who want to eat him and always rages with Sun Wukong who, instead, recognizes the demons even in disguise and kills them before the eyes of the monk. But he believes that they are human beings and he always scolds his disciple, even going so far as to chase him away. All this happens even after Tripitaka has fallen into the traps of demons several times. It will take a long time before the monk learns to trust Sun Wukong.
He has a mournful and whining character, he always complains about the difficulties of the journey and the demons he meets, of which he has a real terror. However, he has a pure heart, immune to pride, greed, the seduction of power. A devoted monk, he always respects his obligations and duties, without ever breaking a rule. He can remain in meditation for hours and hours without getting distracted. He is only a slave to his fear, which he will win at the end of the novel, accepting the death of his physical body at the passage of the river that leads to the Thunder Monastery. He represents the Heart with its purity, the immovable desire to reach its own realization, at any cost. He is the primordial nature, incessant contemplation. He keeps the other parts together, firm and focused on the mission. In titles, he is called Heart Spirit and is associated with the Fire element.
His original name was Tian Peng. Born lazy, stupid and idle by self-definition, thanks to the encounter with a real Immortal he learns to fly and the 36 transformations, he is welcomed into Heaven and called Marshal of the Milky Way. Laozi builds for him a weapon of which he is enormously proud: a nine-toothed rake. Unfortunately, during the annual banquet of sacred peaches, organized by the Queen Mother, he repeatedly gets drunk and harasses a girl, who was none other than the Goddess of the Moon. Sentenced to 2000 beatings and to reincarnate on earth, he makes a mistake and slips into the belly of a sow: half a man and half a pig is born.
He lives feeding on wayfarers who meet his path. The Bodhisattva Guayin convinces him to convert to Buddhism and to stop his violent life, giving him the name of Pig who is aware of ability. Taken human aspect, he moves to the farm of the Old Gao who grants him in marriage one of his daughters. Pigsy works hard but slowly his appearance returns to that of a pig, which makes Gao suspicious. When Tripitaka and Monkey arrive, after an initial battle with Pigsy, they welcome him into the group. Not totally satisfied, Pigsy asks his father-in-law to keep his wife for him as if his mission went wrong, he would return.
Pigsy, in fact, represents all the carnal appetites: he has a boundless hunger that he cannot control, he cannot resist the vision of a young woman for whom he feels an uncontrollable sexual attraction, he is eager for gold and valuables, he is false, a liar, listless, often jealous of Monkey. He never misses an opportunity to put him in bad situations. On the other hand, he has superhuman strength, he carries the baggage throughout the journey, often helps Monkey in battles and is formidable in water combat. He represents the appetites that all of us human beings have and his only true mission is to learn to manage them without becoming a victim. Because of his impetuous nature, he is associated with the element Wood and called the Mother of Wood.
Also a celestial General like Pigsy, during the usual annual peach banquet, breaks a precious vase (some sources say out of distraction, others out of anger). He is punished with 800 rod strokes and with exile on earth, where 7 flying swords pierce him every day. He then decides to live inside the river of quicksand to avoid swords. He feeds on poor travellers who approach the river. He looks scary: a partially bald head, a red beard, wearing a necklace of skulls and holding a magic staff. The necklace is made from 9 skulls of monks that he has eaten. After sucking the bone marrow of the unfortunates, he throws the remains into the river but strangely these skulls remain afloat. So he decides to make a necklace.
Only the encounter with the Bodhisattva Guayin converts him to a non-violent life, and he receives the name of Shā Wùjìng, Sand Aware of Purity. When he meets the cheerful group he will join them, not after an initial hitch. He is less powerful than Monkey and Pigsy and knows only 18 transformations. Compared to the two exuberant confreres, Sandy is definitely more posed, calm and reasonable. He leads Tripitaka’s horse by holding him by the bridle, he stays at the master’s side when the disciples are in a battle against some treacherous demon, he tries to bring peace within the two bizarre brothers, he is consulted by the monk when he is looking for advice.
His calm nature, however, makes him full of inertia and dependent on others to make decisions. According to the Chinese symbolism, it represents the Earth element and is called the Yellow Woman. The Earth, in Taoist philosophy, is located at the centre and gives support and baking to the other 4 elements. He, therefore, represents our centre that tends to inertia on one hand and to bring balance to our opposites on the hand. He, therefore, needs to learn to get involved without being dependent on others.
Yùlóng Sāntàizǐ is a character who remains on the sly for almost the whole novel, yet he also has his own symbolism. In most commentaries, he is not even taken into consideration, but in the story, it is specified that without this special mount Tripitaka would never have reached its destination. He also has a story like any other. He is the third son of the Dragon King of the Western Sea and one day, by mistake, he caused a fire that led to the destruction of some precious pearls donated by the Jade Emperor himself to his father. He is sentenced to death despite parental ties. Thanks to Guanyin’s intervention, he was saved, promising to expiate his severe sin through the service to Tripitaka in the form of mount. The first contact with the master is not the best since Yulong eats his frame in one gulp and takes refuge in the river. Useless attempts by Monkey to bring it out (and he as an underwater fighter is pretty bad), only Guanyin’s intervention clarifies the situation and Yulong is transformed into a white horse.
In a single episode, he takes human form with the intent, being a desperate situation, to save the master from the claws of the Demon Yellow Robe, without success. Then he convinces Pigsy to go and call Monkey, whom Tripitaka had hunted. Apart from this episode, for the rest of the novel, he remains a simple, silent horse. Yet he too is brought to Heaven at the end of the story and made one of the eight exceptional creatures and reaches nirvana. He represents the element of Water and is called the Horse of the Mind. Throughout the journey, he does nothing but transports the master, never complaining or withdrawing. For Chinese culture, the white horse symbolizes mental will or conscious willpower.
The Chinese version of the Grail quest
“You were given blank texts because you came here to fetch them empty-handed. The blank texts are true, wordless scriptures, and they really are good. But as you living beings in the East are so deluded and have not achieved enlightenment we’ll have to give you these ones instead”
Journey to the West
The Journey to the West represents for Asia what the Arthurian legend is for Europe: a collection of epic adventures, battles, love plots, quests, travel and symbolism. Stories for the common folk, written in the vernacular, born in meta-religious contexts. Those who told them, first orally and then in writing, in both cases, wanted to address types of people usually ignored by the rich and cultured classes. Although the religious aspect is present in both, it is more like a background while its elements are used to show an esoteric and archetypal world that goes beyond religion.
All cultures present writings in the form of an epic, initially handed down orally, containing symbolic messages masked with religious, amorous, political elements, which had the purpose of spreading at the working-class level, teachings usually relegated to sects, literary circles, political or aristocratic elites. Just think of The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, The Iliad, The Odyssey, the One Thousand and One Nights, the aforementioned Arthurian Legend, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Viking sagas, the Kalevala and of course our Journey to the West. This list is not exhaustive!
The ultimate meaning of the book
As for the quest for the Grail or the Odyssey or the One Thousand and One Nights, the final goal is never the true goal. The authentic purpose is the journey itself that triggers the transformation of the characters. During the reading, those who identify themselves with the work can do nothing but transform themselves together with the characters.
There is no Grail, there is no Scripture superior to the others, there is no secret teaching: the purpose of every human being is to overcome the dualism of the phenomenal world to rejoin the ultimate and unique reality, which also includes the world phenomenal! Waking up in the world, not beyond it. Develop a constant awareness, a tireless presence, which reminds us every time who we really are and that we have all the tools, within us, to realize ourselves.
Our Mind, our Heart, our Senses and appetites, our solid Trust and the Force of Will. Thus the Monkey-Mind reaches the state of Victorious Fighting Buddha, the Monk-Heart becomes the Candana−Punya Buddha full of merits and virtues, the Senses are realized as Altar Cleanser, the Support-Earth becomes Golden Arhat and the Strength-Water of Will reaches the Nirvana. But these aspects of man are not really separated but are part of the inseparable unity which is the human being and above all the ultimate reality of which we are made.
From the reading, repeated over the years and the different editions, of this masterpiece, my double-track project is born, both tracks related to writing and to spiritual research called Back to the West: a spiritual journey.