Allow me now to cloud-somersault over the plot. Xiyouji is, after all, one hundred chapters long. That’s nearly as long as this review has been.
Mutiny in Heaven
So, the Handsome Monkey King left the Flower Fruit Mountain and went in search of wisdom. He studied under the Buddha’s disciple Subhuti (considered in the Mahayana accounts to be foremost in understanding the doctrine of shunyata, or non-substantiality). After that, the monkey was given the name Sun Wu-K’ung (a name indicating that he had awakened to non-substantiality), and considered a “sage equal to heaven.”
(Note: The Buddhist concept of non-substantiality is often confused with the Taoist concept of nonbeing. But they’re like totally different, ok? Glad I could clear that up. You’re welcome.)
The celestial Jade Emperor appointed the newly sagacious Sun Wu-k’ung to a minor post in the Heavenly Court. Despite all the learning and titles, he was still pretty much a monkey and couldn’t resist stirring up trouble. He deliberately worked counter to his duties, which he considered beneath him. He stole stuff. He said, “All your immortal peaches are belong to us!” And the Heavenly Court cried, “What you say?” and he hauled his monkey ass out of heaven, post-haste.
He didn’t really care if the emperor of heaven hated him. Sun Wu-k’ung was a hot-shit immortal and could somersault on a cloud to any corner of the world. And nobody could whup him. Well, nobody but the Buddha himself. (The Buddha of Xiyouji is not the usual “I’m OK, You’re OK” smiley dude representation one so often sees. This Buddha is a bad-mutha-shut-yo-mouth.)
The Buddha made a wager with Sun Wu-k’ung. If the monkey could leap over the Buddha’s hand, then the Buddha would ask the Jade Emperor to give up his throne to Sun Wu-k’ung. The monkey, who had the power to leap to the other side of the world without much effort, took up the wager gladly. He leapt, soaring high into the air and suddenly found himself surrounded by five spectacularly massive pillars. Sun Wu-k’ung, thinking this to be a very strange land, wrote his name on a pillar, took a piss and jumped back. He said to the Buddha, “See, I jumped over and now I’m back.” The Buddha then showed where on his finger Sun Wu-k’ung had written his name and had taken a leak. He’d never jumped over the Buddha’s hand; rather, the life of the Buddha is so vast that the monkey could not possibly comprehend, let alone jump over, the enormity of it.
The monkey, subdued for the moment, was later assigned by Kuan-yin, Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion, to assist Xuanzang in a quest to India to recover the sutras. So that Xuanzang can control the monkey, Kuan-yin placed a spell on Sun Wu-k’ung’s head, causing horrific pain whenever magic words were spoken. Divine behavior modification. How compassionate, eh? Worse still, Kuan-yin wouldn’t allow Sun Wu-k’ung to simply jump to India. He had to walk. Oh, the drudgery.
Here’s a little Bodhi-trivia: in Buddhist folklore, the goddess Kuan-yin started out as the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a man. This makes Kuan-yin Buddhism’s first post-op trannie.
Xuanzang as he appears in the book is a bit of a wuss, as I mentioned before, so I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. I’d like to mention his names, though. In the book (Yu translation) he’s referred to most often as Tripitaka or the T’ang Monk. T’ang refers to his affiliation with the imperial family, not the powdered monastic-robe-colored beverage. Tripitaka means “three baskets,” or the three early divisions of Buddhist scripture (rules of monastic discipline, sutras and commentaries). It’s an interesting name in that he’s kind of being called what he was looking for. It’d be like calling Perceval “Sir Holy Grail.”
The T’ang Monk and Mr. Monkey-migraine traveled with colorful companions. Chu Pa-chieh is an avaricious, voracious man-pig demon who fights with a rake. He was once a commander in the navy of Heaven but got the boot after trying to get a little some-some with the princess of the moon. (Who can blame him, really? Moon princesses are hot.) Later came the Sha Monk, former heavenly general, exiled for breaking the Jade Emperor’s vase. Kind of a minor offence, I think. A dragon prince transformed into a horse became Xuanzang’s mount. Symbolically speaking (is that redundant?), the pig represents uncontrolled desire, the Sha Monk represents sincerity and the horse represents the virtue of willpower.
Together they fight and travel and fight and cause trouble and fight and do crazy things and fight. They travel 108 thousand miles (108 being the number of earthly desires, as those of you interested in the “Dharma Initiative” may already know) and endure 98 hardships (I have yet to figure out the numerical significance of 98. Any suggestions?) At the end, they reach Vulture Peak (Skt. Gridhrakuta, where, in real life, Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have taught the Lotus Sutra and others) and receive the sutras so long sought for.
As a reward for bringing the sutras back to China, Sun Wu-k’ung and Xuanzang attain Buddhahood, the Sha Monk becomes an arhat (a word with many meanings, the shortest of which is someone who has their shit together) the horse becomes a dragon again, Chu Pa-chieh the pig gets a job cleaning Buddhist altars, the Scarecrow gets a diploma and Han Solo gets a medal.
The Celestial Venn Diagram
In Xiyouji, religion plays a central and somewhat confusing role. Despite definite affinity for Buddhism, at no point does Wu Cheng-en totally divorce himself from the religious syncretism characteristic of Chinese culture. Taoist characters, Confucian concepts and Buddhist folklore permeate just about every aspect of the book.
Wu Cheng-en presents all three belief systems as true, though in differing degrees of power. Sun Wu-k’ung, for example, is only ever totally subdued by Buddhist characters.
I’d like to speculate here on the nature of Wu Cheng-en’s religious views. Purely my own interpretation. I organize it as follows: There’s the essential truth, the behavior based on the truth and the vehicle for pursuing the understanding of the truth. The truth itself he might call the Tao or Dharma, without specifically meaning the Taoist or Buddhist teachings. The behavior could be Confucian social dynamics, or Buddhism’s emphasis on interconnectedness and compassion or Taoism’s cultivation of unprejudiced perception. The vehicle is the particular thought systems of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, all of which Wu Cheng-en respected, but in varying degrees. I would say he valued Buddhism most, Taoism slightly less and Confucianism least of all, perhaps due to his sour experiences as a minor official.
However strong his regard for Buddhism, in focusing so much on Sun Wu-k’ung, rather than the virtuous Xuanzang, Wu Cheng-en might be showing that he wanted to thumb his nose a little at everyone, regardless of religion. Sun Wu-k’ung insults the Immortals without a second thought. As for the four Confucian bonds of filial piety, he pretty much takes a dump on them whenever possible. And being taught non-substantiality by Subhuti wasn’t enough to straighten him out either. Though Buddhism wins out in the end, it’s only through threat of excruciating pain that he’s stopped from ripping Xuanzang a new asshole or three every other page. There’s something inherently satirical in that idea.
Another way of looking at it is that the characters combined make Wu Cheng-en’s view of an ideal Buddhist practitioner. Alone, Tripitaka is morally inflexible. He needs the wild power of the monkey just as the monkey needs guidance. The desire of the pig and the good-natured demeanor of the Sha Monk provide momentum for the quest, all the while upright and solid on the back of the indefatigable horse of the will. They combine, Voltron-like, into one big Buddhist metaphor. The journey toward enlightenment is not simply for the pure of heart but for the imperfect person who screws up, breaks stuff, falls prey to greed, anger and foolishness but continues on, nevertheless.
In the way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was equal parts Holmes, Watson and Challenger, maybe the pilgrims are all Wu Cheng-en, wishing to free himself of the head-constraining spell of his less-than-stellar life and leaping over the mountains of Ming society on a cloud of poetic wackiness.