Chaps 16 & 17: Cooking up Monkey
A bragging contest with tragic results
“After leaving that place, they had a peaceful journey for two months. For all they met were barbarians, Muslims, tigers, wolves, and leopards.” JW I p. 329
This is meant to be funny. On the road they encounter all these seemingly dangerous beasts and threatening situations. But the Author considers this a peaceful journey compared to what comes next. The travelers now come to an apparently safe environment, the Kuan-yin Zen Hall. But it is here that Tripitaka almost loses his life. This is a constant theme. That which appears safe is most dangerous and vice versa. Appearances deceive.
The monks of this Buddhist monastery immediately reveal their worship of the surface. When they first see Monkey, one says, “Such a hideous creature, and you made him your disciple?” Tripitaka replies, “You can’t tell by mere appearance. He may be ugly, but he is very useful.” (JW I p331) It is as if the monk is saying that one has to be good looking to search for enlightenment. Tripitaka is also frequently tricked by surface manifestations. But, in this episode, it is Monkey’s turn to get cooked and purified.
The monks brag that they have a Patriarch who is 270 years old. They then boast that their patriarch has four walls of exquisite embroidered silk cassocks. Tripitaka warns Pilgrim,
“Disciple, don’t start a contest of wealth with other people. … The rare object of art should not be exposed to the covetous and deceitful person. For once he sees it, he will be tempted; and once he is tempted, he will plot and scheme.” JW I p334
However, Pilgrim can’t stand it. Tripitaka had gotten a marvelous cassock from Kuan-yin who had gotten it from the Buddha. It was to protect Tripitaka from harm, so he was not to separate from it. However despite Tripitaka’s warning Monkey/Pilgrim shows this marvel to them. The Patriarch, who was obviously collecting cassocks, now needed that cassock to complete his collection or he couldn’t have any peace. He first asked to borrow it overnight. Tripitaka hesitated, but Monkey, assuming his magical powers were enough to protect the cassock, acquiesces.
The Zen monks visit the Patriarch and find him weeping uncontrollably. They inquire why. He says that he can’t be happy unless he can have Tripitaka’s cassock permanently. He thinks that he will somehow experience the permanent joy of enlightenment if he can somehow have the cassock. In response to the Patriarch’s suffering two of the monks, named Big Plan and Great Wisdom, suggest that they murder the monk by burning down the building he sleeps in and pretend that it was an accident.
Fanning the fire, instead of putting it out
Pilgrim, however, ‘was a spiritual monkey; though he lay down, he was only exercising his breath to nourish his spirit, with his eyes half-closed.’ Taoist meditation is indicated by breath cultivation, spirit, and half-closed eyes. He immediately concocts a ‘great enterprise’. He first proceeds to Heaven to obtain a divine Fire-Repelling Cover to save Tripitaka. The one giving him the Cover says,
“If wicked people are starting a fire, you should go find water to save him [Tripitaka]. … This monkey is still plotting with an evil mind.” JW I p339
So true. Instead of saving the monk and leaving, Monkey protects Tripitaka with the Cover and then fans the fire with his breath. It turns into a roaring blaze and eventually burns down the whole monastery. Seeing the devastation the ancient Patriarch kills himself.
Monkey as Mind has put gasoline on the fire rather then water. Liu I Ming gives us an alchemical explanation of the situation.
“The discriminatory awareness [Monkey] uses consciousness to produce illusions; seeing fire it flies - without the lead of real knowledge to control it, the discriminating awareness would cause trouble and it would be impossible to return to reality. This is the function of WATER. Water symbolizes real knowledge [Tripitaka], which has the pure ‘water’ of pure unity. When you use this pure water to extinguish the aberrant fire of discriminatory awareness, after the aberrant fire goes out, conscious knowledge returns to reality.” Inner Teachings p 18
Because Monkey fails to take the advice he receives from both Heaven and Tripitaka, an entire monastery is permanently destroyed. If he had of put water on the blaze instead of fanning it with wind, the members of the monastery would probably have come to their senses after the fever of desire had passed.
Similarly in day-to-day life we see something and desire it. This might cause great anguish if we are unable to attain it. We have contracted the fever of materialism. If fan this Fire with thoughts generated by Mind, the anguish, anger, frustration, yearning grows to a roaring blaze, which threatens to consume our peace of mind. Thus aroused we might even do or say something that is permanently destructive to our situation. If instead we let the fire of desire burn itself out or attempt to put it our with meditation or prayer, then everything returns to normal once the fever passes with no permanent damage done to our psyche.
This applies to interpersonal relations as well. A wife speaks infuriating words to the husband. Agitated he reacts with angry words, which act to fan the flames of dispute, and might even lead to insulting words, which are not easily forgiven. If he instead takes a moment to reflect on the unreality of self, he realizes that his reaction is only based upon his attachment to illusion. He seeks quietude to put out the blaze of consciousness and the emotional conflict is resolved with no damage done. A long happy marriage is the result.
The Conflagration attracts a Monster
This wasn’t the only problem with Monkey’s wicked scheme. The fire aroused the attentions of a local monster, which came to investigate. Upon seeing the beautiful cassock untended, he stole it.
“Thus it is how wealth moves the mind of man! He neither attempted to put out the fire nor called for water. Snatching up the cassock, he committed robbery.” JW I p 341
When Pilgrim came to recover the cassock, it was gone, unraveling all his plans. Tripitaka can’t believe how irresponsible Monkey is. He reiterates the heavenly advice,
“When a fire starts, you should get water. How could you provide wind instead?” JW I p342
Instead of fanning mental fires with thoughts multiplied by thoughts, attempt to still the mind - taking a bath in the non-duality of quietude.
The Quest for Permanence ain’t easy
Note that the Patriarch’s desire for Tripitaka’s cassock had to do with his desire for permanent spiritual validation of his life. Although he had lived a long time he still had not achieved anything other than closets full of beautiful, though inferior cassocks. He had confused the form of Buddhism for its function. He had accumulated the superficial externals at the expense of the essential internal development. Similarly he thought that he would achieve validation for his life’s work by merely possessing Tripitaka’s cassock.
A significant poem follows indicating the difficulty with which the substantiality of spiritual transformation and growth is attained. It points out that the get rich quick schemes based upon exploitation are based in emptiness. Remember that Big Plan and Great Wisdom were the names of the monks advising the Patriarch.
“If you think what endures can come with ease,
Yours will be sure failure and certain grief.
Big Plan, Great Wisdom, of what use are they?
To gain by others’ loss - what empty dreams!” JW I p 344
The equivalence of Monkey, Kuan-yin and the Bear
Monkey begins blaming the monks for the theft and threatens to kill them. Tripitaka starts chanting the fillet-tightening spell giving Monkey an incredible migraine. Monkey/Pilgrim discovers the monster, who happens to be a Bear, who had ‘attained the way of humanity through self-cultivation’. He was Pilgrim’s equal in battle. While Monkey has not yet refined himself of pride and the need for revenge, the Bear had not yet distilled out his materialism.
Monkey must call for Kuan-yin’s assistance. He first berates her because her worshippers caused all this trouble. She points out that it was he, who was showing off the cassock, and it was he who had fanned the fire with wind. But she reluctantly agrees to help for Tripitaka’s sake. This again points out that Kuan-yin only grants assistance because they are on the right path. She doesn’t assist indiscriminately.
Kuan-yin disguises herself as a Taoist wolf friend of the Bear to gain entrance to his cave. She says,
“Wu-k’ung, the Bodhisattva, and the monster - they all exit in a single thought, for originally they are nothing.” Immediately enlightened, Pilgrim … changed at once into a magic pill.”
This statement reflects the interconnectivity of all things, which is at the base of the Bodhisattva vow. Because we are intimately connected, your problems are mine. I can’t achieve individual peace of mind unless my environment, of which you are part, is also at peace. Therefore it is mandatory to work for the salvation of all. Anyone who has children is aware of this. Parents share both the pain and the pleasure of their offspring. To achieve peace of mind the parent attempts to assuage the suffering of their children.
The Bear submits to Kuan-yin’s compassion
As the Bear’s apparent friend, Kuan-yin then gives him the Monkey-pill. The Monkey does gymnastics in his stomach. Suffering the Bear has no choice but to gives the cassock back. But after Monkey leaves his stomach he rebels. Kuan-yin puts a fillet on his head - a tight fitting cap similar to the one Monkey wears. As with Monkey, this causes him great anguish.
“Convinced by the unbearable pain, he had no choice but to fall on his knees and beg: ‘Spare my life, for I’m willing to submit to Truth.’” JW I p365.
Kuan-yin then bestows meaning on his life by giving him the task of guarding the rear of her mountain.
“Today his vaulting ambition is checked;
This time his boundless license has been curbed.” JW I p365
The Bear committed two sins. First he was searching for external immortality. A theme of this episode and the novel is the futility and emptiness of this quest. The Buddhist Patriarch had lived over 200 years and yet was still corrupted by the cassock. His external trappings were rich and lush but his eyes were dim; he had no teeth, and his back was bent. He was a friend of the Bear and had been exchanging ideas of immortality. Because of the selfish and external nature of their Quest, they both succumbed to greed for Tripitaka’s treasure. Lest you think this is inapplicable to the average person, the quest for health, independent of social service, is equally misguided - like hoarding snow to act as foodstuff.
Second the Bear was corrupted by greed. It is only through incredible physical pain that he gives up his materialism. Then through mental pain he lets go of his vaulting ambition and converts to selfless service. Once again Kuan-yin accomplishes her conversion with a heavy dose of mental pain. This is another instance of how Pain precedes coming to the Truth. Frequently the alcoholic hits rock bottom before realizing he has a problem that he needs help with. Most of those trapped in the game of materialism don’t escape until there is financial hardship or emotional suffering due to the emptiness of things.
Expedient Means Trumps Good & Evil
Another point of note: Kuan-yin’s conversion of the Bear is an example of the Buddhist concept of expedient means. Any action, no matter how deceitful, is justified if it brings someone to the Truth. Kuan-yin converts the Bear by coming as his friend bearing gifts in order to gain entrance to his cave. These gifts are presumably external pills of immortality. This means of external conversion becomes internal when Monkey goes inside, transforming the Bear from within. Any means to gain entrance to a psyche are justified as long as these deviant means further conversion. Some even say that the reported constant bliss of enlightenment is not really true, but is merely a type of expedient means to inspire individuals to do good deeds and purify their mind and diet. Similarly the Biblical Heaven and Hell, whether true or not, have inspired multitudes to lead better lives.
Small Deed has dramatic repercussions
The concept of expedient means indicates the ambiguous nature of good and evil actions. This ambiguity is also exhibited by the entire episode. Monkey’s small act of bragging about Tripitaka’s Buddha cassock would be considered evil by most, especially since it leads to the destruction of the Kuan-yin Zen monastery, the death of their Patriarch, and threatened the Journey. However his out of control emotions also lead to the conversion of the Bear. The ways of Mother Nature are mysterious. If Monkey had not become angry then the Bear would not have been converted and he would not have learned his powerful lesson. There is no need to assign blame. Joseph in the Bible. What is evil? Vanity with its attendant pursuit of beauty leads to the pursuit of health, which leads to the pursuit of vitality, which grants the energy to accomplish the Mission. Who’s to say that vanity is totally evil if it leads to the Mission?
Can Monkey control his Anger?
Liu I-ming sums up some of the crucial points of this episode when he says:
“The essential point in self-refinement starts with controlling anger and desire. … If you do not exert effort to block it and cook it into something that does not move or stir, it can easily thwart the process of the Tao.” Inner Teachings p. 9
Instead of controlling his anger and channeling it into something productive that might put out the fire of materialism, Monkey got revenge and almost thwarted the process of the Tao - Tripitaka’s Quest.
Did Monkey learn anything from the experience? Was he cooked? We don’t know. You must read the next section to find out what happens.