Chapters 9>12: Tripitaka gets his Mission

JW Chapter 9: Biography of a virtuous man

Chapter 9 is simply the biography of our virtuous believer. This is Hsüan-tsang, eventually renamed Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk, who eventually becomes the leader of the Journey. Hsüan-tsang (596-664 CE) is a real historical personage, a Buddhist monk of the Tang court. Journey to the West is loosely based on the arduous round trip he made to India and back to study Buddhism. Although a real historical person this biography is fictional.

Through unusual circumstances Buddhist monks raise the fictional Hsüan-tsang from birth. This indicates that his flesh is pure - having eaten no meat, nor had any sex. This purity is to be his strength and liability. His purity allows him to seek the holy scriptures, but also entices a variety of monsters to eat him because consumption of his undefiled virgin flesh presumably brings immortality. He is also a Master of the Buddhist Law, hence a word specialist. Aligned with heaven he is firm like a tiger.

JW Chapter 10 -> 11: A Butterfly flaps its wings

In chapters 10 through 11, a butterfly flaps its wings, causing a hurricane in China. A woodsman and a fisherman are bragging to each other about who has the better life. Both are educated men, who can read even though they have never taken the state exams to obtain an official position. They both look down on the confined life of the court even though it conveys prestige, wealth, and possibly fame. They extol the virtues of the freedoms of the simple life in a poetry contest. This is the philosophy of Chuang Tzu, which we’ll explore a bit later.

They finish with a composite poem boasting of the simple life of nature. In parting the fisherman warns the woodsman to watch out for tigers. The woodsman responds: “Hey, don’t lay this curse on me. The thought becomes the reality. Beware of drowning in a storm.” Fisherman: “I don’t have to worry about that because I know a fortuneteller who always warns me about harm. He tells where to fish and he’s always right.”

A raksha of the streams overhears this conversation between the woodsman and the fisherman, and immediately reports it to the Dragon King of the river. Dragon King: “We can’t have someone telling the future perfectly or our waters will be over fished.” [A premonition of our future when scientific understanding allows human predators to destroy our eco-sphere due to over consumption.] Advisor: “Maybe the humans are just boasting. Before doing anything rash, explore for yourself.” The Dragon King disguises himself as a human and goes to the fortuneteller, who predicts when it will rain to the minute and how much there will be. Dragon King: “Are you sure?” Fortuneteller: “Quite.” Dragon King: “If so, I’ll give you an abundance of gold. If not, I will destroy your abode and drive you out of town for fooling humans.”

In charge of rainfall the Dragon King knew that he could manipulate events to his advantage. But then Heaven sent down the command to rain at the exact time and with the exact amount the fortuneteller had predicted. The Dragon King ignored the command and tweaked events so that the fortuneteller would be wrong. He then returned to the fortuneteller and began destroying his home. But the fortuneteller was unperturbed. Dragon King was confused: “Why aren’t you upset?” Fortuneteller: “I align myself with Heaven, while you have committed a fatal transgression by tweaking events to your advantage. Because of this you will be executed in three days by one of the Emperor’s men. It is you that should be worried, not I.” [Aligned with Heaven is the only place to be. Out of alignment and disaster is not far away.] The Dragon King immediately realized that he had blown it and began apologizing. Fortuneteller: “There is nothing I can do. But you might go to the Emperor. He might arrange a pardon.”

The Dragon King appeared to the Emperor in a dream and extracted forgiveness. The Emperor then attempted to engage the Dragon’s human executioner in a game of chess at the appointed hour, but he fell asleep and executed the Dragon King in his sleep. The spirit of the Dragon King was furious that the Emperor hadn’t kept his word. He went to appeal his fate in the Underworld. [Hope he had a good lawyer.] Simultaneously a multitude of spirits appeared to torture the Emperor’s sleep for not fulfilling his promise. Disturbed the Emperor became sick and began losing all his vitality as if he were going to die. The same Advisor who had executed the Dragon suggested that the Emperor die and appeal his fate to the underworld because he the advisor knew people in high places there, who would be able to arrange circumstances to the Emperor’s advantage. [It helps to know people in low places.] Accordingly the Emperor dies, meets his Advisor’s connections, and is able to reverse his death. In the process he observes the misery of those in Hell, who are just suffering and unable to get onto the Wheel of Transmigration to be born into a new life. Touched by their misery he vows to ‘celebrate a Grand Mass of Land and Water for the salvation of those orphaned spirits.’ JW V1, p253. It is at this Grand Mass that Kuan-yin reveals the Mission to Hsüan-tsang, a.k.a. Tripitaka. Thus it is that a small conversation by two insignificant personages gets the Journey rolling.

One of the reasons that Emperor T’ai-tsung might have had to visit the Underworld was that he needed to be absolved of the very unfilial act of murdering his own brothers to ascend to the throne. Buddhism’s forgiveness of past transgressions once one has submitted to Buddhism allowed him to escape the censure of the Confucians, who would deem this an unforgivable crime against the family and culture.

JW Chapter 12: Does Buddhism violate Chinese principles?

As the Emperor initiates the arrangements for this Grand Mass, Fu I, one of his Advisors, also a real historical personage, objects, saying that Buddhism violates many basic Chinese principles. He argues that Buddha left the family, i.e. his parents, wife and child, and so violates the fundamental idea of filial responsibility. He continues that this undermines the whole social structure as the Emperor is the father of the state and is to be honored as such. “Further,” he argues, “Buddhism teaches that by following certain practices we can transcend our fated death and rebirth. This is folly and misguides the ignorant because we all know that our death and rebirth are already written in heaven’s books and cannot be changed. This also undermines our society because the natural order of things is challenged. Because of these violations, Buddhism should be banned not honored.”

Another of the Emperor’s Advisors rose to the defense of Buddhism saying: “Buddha was obviously a sage in that he attempts to relieve the suffering of the masses by dispelling ignorance. As such he should be honored. Further in looking at the fruits of Buddhist teaching one only sees good. The people are instructed to act compassionately and do good works. Since the arrival of Buddhism on our continent each of the teachers including the 5th Patriarch, who seemed to descend from Heaven, and the Bodhidharma, have behaved impeccably, honoring our traditions and the Emperor, which has served to enrich our culture with their teachings. Besides the Three Doctrines are now firmly entrenched in our society, balancing and extending each others teachings.”

Convinced by the latter the Emperor embraced Buddhism, instituting a 20 year realm of peace. It is also true historically that Buddhism was encouraged and flourished like never before during the Tang Dynasty. As we’ve already seen this mixing of real and fantasy is classic Chinese. The tao of China is definitely of this world not of the next. We see again that even their Heaven and Hell are bureaucratic extensions of the organization of the Empire, as witnessed by the Dragon King appealing his fate and the Emperor using connections amongst the officials of the Underworld to reverse his death.

The Mass of Land and Water or Kuan-yin establishes True Intent

Because of Hsüan-tsang’s purity and intelligence he is chosen to lead the Grand Mass. Although he begins lecturing, we the Reader, don’t get to hear any of the words, only the general topics. This is significant as we shall come to discover.

In the meantime Kuan-yin has come in disguise as a scabby skinned monk. [Again appearances are deceiving.] At the Grand Mass she hears Hsüan-tsang speaking upon some Buddhist sutras. She calls out:

“Hey monk! You only know how to talk about the teachings of the Little Vehicle. Don’t you know anything about the Great Vehicle. … The doctrines of your Little Vehicle cannot saved the damned by leading them up to Heaven; they can only mislead and confuse mortals. I have in my possession Tripitaka, three collections of the Great Vehicle Laws of Buddha, which are able to send the lost to Heaven, to deliver the afflicted from their sufferings, to fashion ageless bodies, and to break the cycles of coming and going.” V1, p276.

Basically she is identifying the original Buddhism, Theravada of the south, as the small vehicle, hinayana, which can only mislead and confuse mortals. She says that she has the true teachings of the large vehicle, Mahayana, which can really save souls and allow mortals to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. But, she says, these scriptures are in the West and can only be obtained by a arduous and perilous journey. She continues:

“These Books, when they reach your fair state, can redeem damned spirits from Hell. If someone is willing to go, he’ll become a Buddha of gold.” p 279

Hsüan-tsang, a virtuous man and enthusiastic Master of the Law, volunteers for the Mission. Because he must go on a great journey to acquire the scriptures, he needs imperial support. The Emperor of China finds this a worthy task and gives his blessing for the Quest. Again the collective nature of the Quest is emphasized. This is not Hsüan-tsang’s individual quest but a Quest to purify a nation, actually a whole region, the East. Kuan-yin tells Hsüan-tsang that his task is to ‘cultivate the fruits of virtue’. Virtue, in this case, means sperm retention, good diet, the cultivation of compassion, and above adherence to the Buddhist Law. But note he is not cultivating virtue, but their fruits. In other words he must put his virtuous practices to work.

The Emperor then asks for a hint as to the wisdom these scriptures contain. At that point Kuan-yin assumes her real form, beautiful fragrances and all, ascends into the sky and vanishes. Of course everyone is in awe.

Hsüan-tsang is then renamed Tripitaka by the Emperor. Tripitaka literally means ‘three baskets’ and is the word used by Buddhists everywhere to refer to the three baskets of true scriptures referred to by the Buddha. Indeed each sect of Buddhism has their own ‘tripitaka’, which contains the truths transmitted by Buddha. Supposedly the most authentic are those of Theravada Buddhism, which is the prevalent form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. So Tripitaka is seeking after the three baskets that bear his name. It is these three baskets that are the true scriptures, which will bring salvation to the people of the East. This identifies Tripitaka as the Word of the Law and also points to his Quest as the scripture itself, ala Liu I-ming.

Mahayana vs. Theravada Buddhism?

At this point in the story the Reader is left with the impression that Tripitaka is on his way to the West, i.e. India, to obtain the scriptures that will convert China from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism. Because of the historical nature of the novel, the Reader might even thing that this was the original or at least the symbolic differentiation of the two sects of Buddhism, which still stands today. Mahayana Buddhism is still practiced in northern and eastern Asia, while Theravada is practiced by the residents of Southeast Asia. The Reader’s curiosity has been whetted for the difference between the two. The dynamic tension of the story is set in motion. The Reader plods through 4 volumes, some 2000 pages, to discover what these truths are that set off Mahayana, the great vehicle, from Theravada, the supposed small vehicle. Why will Mahayana prove efficacious while Theravada prove deleterious? the Reader wants to know.

Note however that in these first 200 pages of the novel that, although wisdom is referred to, no verbal wisdom is ever enunciated. Monkey’s first master whispered secrets into his ear that the Reader is not privy to. Lao Tzu performs alchemical experiments of which the Reader is unaware. Buddha converts Monkey by plopping his hand on top of him. But no words of wisdom are exchanged. No principles or practices are enunciated. Any spiritual knowledge that is obtained by the Reader is only gleaned from metaphors, not from speeches, dialogues or monologues.

The Necessity of Leaving the home

Note also that Tripitaka must leave the safety of home to obtain the scriptures. This is a common Buddhist theme. Why is it necessary to leave home? If these scriptures contain the information needed to obtain salvation and redemption why didn’t Kuan-yin just give them to the Emperor to be distributed? Why is this perilous quest necessary to obtain the knowledge? If understanding is all is takes to achieve liberation from this veil of tears, to escape from rebirth, then why not make it immediately available to all? Is this just a stylistic device to create a dynamic for the novel? If not, then why doesn’t Kuan-yin just reveal the wisdom and avoid the unpredictable journey - the perilous quest?

In Buddhism the disciple must leave the family so that he can devote all his energies to meditation and practices. The family takes too much energy away from more important things. This devaluing of the importance of the family was one of the Confucian objections to Buddhism. However one of the poems that begins each chapter points out the futility of meditation and physical practices for the attainment of enlightenment.


Ask at the site of meditation,

How it is that even endless exercise

Often leads to empty old age!

Polishing bricks to make a mirror,

Hoarding snow to use as foodstuff.

How many young persons are thus deceived. JW V1 p180


The poem refers to this story. One monk asks another why he is rubbing bricks together. The second replies: “I’ll get a mirror by polishing these bricks, when you get enlightenment from meditation.”

Then what does it mean to leave the home, if it doesn’t mean to have more time for spiritual practices? In the context of the Journey leaving home has more to do with leaving the safe confines of a comfortable life with its normal routine to risk discomfort and the unusual. Simply speaking it means reversing the normal processes - to escape habituation. The Home is the normal way leading naturally to Death, consumed by the Great Fire. For those of us who have left the Home, we are looking to pass through the Great Fire. We know the only way to achieve this is to reverse the natural processes. This is to leave the home. Tripitaka had to leave the comfort and prestige of the royal court to pass through ordeals to achieve the inner wisdom necessary for sagehood, immortality, Buddhahood or self-actualization, depending on your perspective.

At the beginning of our novel Monkey practices a spiritual discipline. In the process he acquires incredible powers and achieves Immortality. However because he still behaves irresponsibly despite his training, Buddha locks him under a mountain. According to alchemical theory Monkey as lead or sense, the discriminating mind, hadn’t focused his energies behind true earth or true intent - a personal mission. Now Tripitaka as true earth has been given a mission to seek out the holy scriptures. The true intent has been established. It is an excruciating journey in the pursuit of truth. This is the mission for each of us - to diligently search out the truth, to find out the meaning in things, the underlying structure, in whatever form that might take. Frequently just naming something is enough to understand its ‘truth’. In more than one episode in our novel, just discovering the enemy’s name is enough to vanquish it. To understand a name is to understand a nature, which means to know its opposite. It can then be balanced and neutralized. So now that the true intent has been named Tripitaka can begin his spiritual Quest, beginning with the accumulation of disciples, first of which is Monkey. If you want to discover how Monkey joins the Quest you must read the next chapter.

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