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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Chinese twist to the Monkey tale (2)

Continued from here

The Moral Message

Tripitaka – woman actor, male character*
Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy have been forced into this odyssey with Tripitaka by the Buddha to teach them better manners, which means a heavy application of the Buddhist teachings so that they can work towards eliminating their many and glaring faults.

    Separate and unique characters they may be, but it is possible to interpret their behaviour on an allegorical level. Are not these spirits who accompany Tripitaka the outward manifestations of vices and temptations within us all, as they must have been to our historical pilgrim Hsuan-tsang? Viewed in this light, their place in the story takes on new meaning, one which makes the story much more than a mere didactic tale and which, incidentally, helps us to interpret Mahayana Buddhism in a fresh way.

The Metaphor

Monkey the novel is thus an ancient Eastern version of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, though about a different religion and considerably more readable than Bunyan's rather turgid and humourless offering.

    So in the narrative, the journey to India is symbolic rather than historical. It is a journey through life, a journey to one's own centre, surrounded by all the hazards of that pilgrimage. It is in many ways an exposition of Buddhism through Chinese eyes, written two thousand years after the passing of the Buddha, about a mission which took place a thousand years after that time.

Mahayana Innovations

Two original Buddhas – Gautama and Sylvia
The time gap of millennia alone means that changes in Buddhism are to be expected. Within a few centuries of the foundation of Buddhism, the Buddha became in India what he specifically rejected in his lifetime. He became a god, or something very like a god. This Mahayana view strongly parallels the traditional Hindu notion of gods and their functions, who like the remainder of the created world are subject to the immutable law of karma.

    Above the gods is the Ultimate Reality that is known by various names in the oriental religions – Brahman for the Hindu, Nirvana for the Buddhist, and the Tao in Chinese philosophy.

    In India, the Buddha's devotees began to use his image as an object of meditation, and finally came to pray to the Buddha for guidance and help in mundane activities, much as a Hindu would pray to a particular deity. This was the last thing that the Buddha wanted, as he consistently said that people should ultimately depend upon themselves alone, and no-one else.

    There were legitimate avenues for assistance to people in their search for spiritual guidance and fulfilment, most notably what were known in Pali as the Ti-ratana, the Three Jewels of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. The Dhamma was the righteous path, the duty of the Buddhist, and the Sangha was the community of monks who guide the lay folk.

    On its way to China, Buddhism was thus diluted by Hinduism and the practices and mythology of local sects, which included demons, spirits and magic.

The Journey

Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy were spirits, and Tripitaka's task was, in a sense, to tame them by dragging them along, protesting, on his search for the original Buddhist scriptures, referred to in Pali as Tipitaka, the repository of the Buddhist Canon. This explains why the historical figure, Hsuan-tsang, was called Tripitaka (Sanskrit, Tri Pitaka) in the novel.

    His unwilling companions are very unruly and undisciplined, full of pride and arrogance and vice. Tripitaka constantly urges them to recant and mend their ways, in order to become good Buddhists. He is not always successful, but they do improve with time. Through Tripitaka's exhortations and instructions to them, we as the audience learn the Buddhist message, which is a much more enjoyable way to do so than by simple and austere didacticism.

    While the saga progresses, it is possible to discern interesting and amusing character development in all of them, as the Buddhist teachings unfold when they meet challenges and tribulations.

The Master

Shaven-headed Tripitaka
Tripitaka emerges as a noble-minded, pure-hearted and humble being who is prim and correct to the point of priggishness, which is extremely frustrating for his lesser motivated disciples who often tire of his idealism and single-mindedness. Much to the frustration, too, of a bevy of beauties who inevitably fall in love with him and try to tempt him away from his chosen task.

    The wiles of women are certainly a favourite Buddhist theme in its ancient legends, and Monkey reflects this preoccupation.
*Modified. Unmodified illustration source:


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