The Monk and the Poet: Meet the Rebels behind the Legendary “Journey to the West”
Hsi-yu chi, or Journey to the West, is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. The novel adds elements from a bewildering array of Asian cultural lore, as well as from the three major religious traditions of China (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). Adding elements of the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist teachings which are still reflective of some religious attitudes today, the story is considered so relevant that it becomes the basis of many retellings, movies, video games and animes.
Although Journey to the West may be considered as a pleasant introduction to the calm and gentle Buddhist philosophy, behind this story is in fact a real journey by a Buddhist monk ten centuries earlier who defied his emperor and became a fugitive questing his way to India. Also behind this story is a passionate poet who broke China’s literary tradition and wrote something for the common man at the expense of his own reputation.
The Journey of a Monk and His Divine Protectors
The story of The Journey to the West follows one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s disciples who was banished from the heavenly paradise for slighting the Buddhist precepts. He was sent to the human world and forced to spend ten lifetimes practicing religious self-cultivation in order to atone for his sins.
In the Tang Dynasty, (and now in his tenth lifetime) the disciple reincarnates as a monk named Xuanzang (also known as Tang Monk and Tripitaka). The emperor orders Xuanzang to travel west and bring the holy Mahayana Buddhist scriptures back to China. After being inspired by a vision from the goddess Guanyin, he accepts the mission and sets off on the quest.
A statue of the legendary Xuanzang. (CC BY 2.0)
After ten lifetimes of self-cultivations, Xuanzang is no ordinary monk. His flesh is said to impart immortality. However, the weak and timid young monk is no match for the evil creatures seeking to kill and eat him, and therefore is ill-equipped for such perilous travel on his own. Knowing this, the goddess Guanyin provides the monks with four divine protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their own sins.
Statue of Guan Yin in the courtyard of Daien-in Temple, Mount Koya, Japan. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
These protectors are the monkey king, and former Keeper of the Heavenly Horses, Sun Wukong who was punished for rebelling against heaven and for eating the heavenly peaches, the former Commander of the Heavenly Naval Forces Zhu Wuneng who was banished to earth for flirting, the former Celestial Curtain Lifting General Sha Wujing who was banished to earth for shattering a goblet of the Celestial Queen Mother, and the dragon prince Yulong who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father's great pearl. Out of mercy, Guanyin gives them one more chance to return to their celestial home if they agree to protect the monk on his pilgrimage.
Sculpture depicting the companions in Journey to the West. (CC BY 2.0)
Indeed, it is a very difficult journey as they encounter one trial after another. They are never short on demons and evil spirits coming after the monk through force or deception and through wealth or beauty. Yet, in the end, the pilgrims triumph and return to China with sacred scriptures – later achieving their rightful places in the heavens.
The Original Xuanzang: the Fugitive Monk who Obtained the Sutras
The Journey to the West is based on a true story— the legendary pilgrimage of a seventh century Buddhist monk from Chang’an, Xuanzang, who traveled to the "west"— that is Central Asia and India, to obtain Buddhist sacred texts and then returned to China after many trials and suffering.
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Top Image: A painting depicting a scene from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West. The painting shows the four heros of the story, left to right: Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, Zhu Wuneng, and Sha Wujing. (CC BY-SA 3.0)