Summary and Analysis of Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Ch'eng En
The tale of Monkey and his journey deep into the Buddhist heartland of India is an elaborate tale filled with adventure, allegory, and spiritual insight.
Monkey tricks his way in and out of many stressful situations. He is a deviant, mischievous little fellow who can never be trusted. The story itself is quite unlike any traditional Western tale. However, this highly unlikeable protagonist is loved dearly by the Chinese people.
Monkey is a sinner - and yet, he paves his own path in a constant quest toward self-enlightenment. Many people can surely relate to this situation as they go through their own lives. Not everyone makes the most morally or ethically sound decisions one hundred percent of the time, but nonetheless they are still searching, deep down, for answers to the really hard questions.
For Monkey and his companion Xuanzang, the answers to these questions were contained in the Buddhist scriptures they both so eagerly sought. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are the three Chinese spiritual traditions that appear in this text.1
Buddhism originated in India; Taoism and Confucianism in China. However, the lines that define these three religions become increasingly blurred as Monkey’s journey progresses. It would seem evident to the reader that Buddhism is the favored religion of Monkey and Xuanzang. They both deeply adore the Buddha and seek to learn about his mysterious and enlightened ways. But it is important to consider that during the time Monkey was written (presumably by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century2), the dominant spiritual affiliation in China was actually Taoism.3
Perhaps this means that Monkey’s authorship was mocking Buddhist ways, making a satire of the religion with Monkey’s foolish and clumsy antics. Regardless, the presence of three religious traditions in Monkey could be an illustration of the idea that there is not one specific path toward enlightenment; instead, there are many different spiritual paths that can be chosen in life to achieve the same means.
Confucianism appears in this tale in far less direct ways. Confucianism is less of a religion and more of a belief system centered around ethics, values and morals. This is because during the time of Confucius, it was “a time of moral chaos, in which common values were widely rejected or simply disregarded..., government was routinely corrupt and distrusted by the people, who didn't fail to observe the lack of productivity among the rich and powerful.”
Monkey personifies these problems in different ways throughout the story. He is continuously loyal to Xuanzang even though Xuanzang wrongly punished him, in the same way that the Chinese people were loyal to their government even though it plagued them with so many injustices.
One of the most prominent themes throughout the story revolves around the Buddhist belief of reincarnation. In Chapter 11 of Monkey the Emperor is summoned to the Underworld. Once he is there he begs the First Judge to be let back into the natural world, and the Judge eventually obliges him. Reincarnation maintains that the human soul repeatedly manifests itself in various forms over and over again until spiritual enlightenment has been achieved, and this is a perfect illustration of that belief.
Chinese Taoism also openly teaches the belief of reincarnation to its followers. The Chuang Tzu, an important Taoist scripture, states:
"Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting point. Existence without limitation is space. Continuity without a starting point is time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of God" 4
It is curious, then, knowing that both Buddhism and Taoism support the belief of reincarnation, that Monkey was largely concerned with finding a way to cheat the reincarnation process. In one part of his journey, when he is heaven and one day aimlessly wanders into Lao-Tzu’s laboratory. Lao Tzu is understood to be the father of Taoism.5
Lao Tzu is a sage, and is busy packing immortality elixir pills. Monkey steals and eats as many pills as he can possibly find. The trick ends up backfiring though, and Monkey is forced to stay under a mountain for 500 years.
Another Buddhist ideology that reoccurs in Monkey is the practice of worshipping Bodhisattvas. Monkey befriends the “Great Compassionate Bodhisattva Kuan-yin” (or Guanyin) on his journey. A Bodhissatva is essentially an “enlightened existence” or one who seeks to be enlightened.6
The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin plays a very important role in Monkey’s journey. She is the one who convinced him to bring the Buddhist holy scriptures to the people of China, so that Monkey can attain salvation and be allowed back into heaven.
The Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin is extremely forgiving and helpful to Monkey and his companions. In India, the Kuan-yin is represented in male form, and goes by the name “Avalokiteshvara,” meaning “the lord who looks upon the world with compassion.”7
Scholars believe this is “probably because of Kuan Yin's great compassion, a quality which is traditionally considered feminine, most of the bodhisattva's statues in China since the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 - 907) have appeared as female figures. In India, however, the bodhisattva is generally represented as a male figure.” This is an excellent example of how a fundamental concept shared by Buddhism and Taoism has been altered to each religion’s specific beliefs.
Monkey at the 2008 Olympics
Does Monkey Learn His Lesson?
It is hard to tell if Monkey experiences any positive change or spiritual growth during his journey. His is quite obtuse in his thoughts and actions and offends others everywhere he goes. This behavior continues for basically the entire story.
At the end of Monkey’s long journey to India and back, Monkey explains, “Now that the evil has been destroyed you will realize that there is a Way in the Buddha’s faith. From now on you must have no more foolish beliefs. I hope that you will combine the three teachings by honoring both the Buddhist clergy and the Way of Taoism, and by also educating men of talent in the Confucian tradition. I can guarantee that this will make your kingdom secure for ever.”8
This is the only time Monkey embraces all three religions, demonstrating that he may have actually taken a valuable lesson from his adventure.
“Using Monkey King to Understand Chinese Religious Life,” Adventures in Chinese Culture: The Monkey King’s Guide, accessed April 6th, 2011
Hu Shih (1942). Introduction. New York: Grove Press. pp. 1–5
“A Study Guide to Monkey,” accessed April 5th, 2011, http://www.nvcc.edu/home/dashkenas/MONKEY.htm
“The Chuang Tsu,” Universal Tao E-Products Store, accessed April 5th, 2011, http://www.universal-tao-eproducts.com/taoism-resources/ChuangTzu24nUTEP.html
“Lao Tzu and Taoism,”accessed May 4th, 2011,http://www.taoisminfo.com/
“Bodhisattva,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed April 4th, 2011, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/70982/bodhisattva
“Kuan Shih Yin - Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,” Buddhist Studies: Deities and Bodhisattvas, accessed April 4th 2011, http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/kuanyin-txt.htm
“Using Monkey King,” Adventures in Chinese Culture