Chapter 22: Sand Monk, the final Disciple
Earth necessary to contain & protect
Our pilgrims proceeded on toward the West. They came upon ‘a huge and turbulent river,’ 800 miles wide, 3000 feet deep, called the Flowing-Sand River. Besides the enormous size of the river, not even a goose feather will float in its waters. A monster came out of the river and went straight for the T’ang monk. Piggy defended Tripitaka. The two entered combat, but were fighting to a draw, when Pilgrim couldn’t stand just guarding Tripitaka anymore and entered the fray, scaring the monster away. Tripitaka insists that the monster shouldn’t be killed but made to help them cross the river. Monkey says he doesn’t like to do business in water and so sends Piggy instead, telling him to feign defeat to draw the monster out of the water. Again they battle, Piggy retreats, again Monkey is too anxious to fight, strikes prematurely and scares the monster back into the river. Monkey resorts to insults to entice the monster to fight, but nothing works. Discouraged, Tripitaka leaves his Horse - no more Will.
Mortal nature and worldly bones too heavy
Faced with this 800-mile river and no way across, Piggy asks why Monkey doesn’t just fly him across with his great powers. Monkey responds, “Why not you?” Piggy says that, “The mortal nature and worldly bones are as heavy as the T’ai Mountain.” Monkey points out that for him the T’ai Mountain is as light as a mustard seed, while he can’t even lift a mortal off the ground. He then makes a comprehensive statement of the whole novel.
“It is required of Master to go through all these strange territories before he finds deliverances from the sea of sorrows; hence even one step turns out to be difficult. You and I are only his protective companions, guarding his body and life, but we cannot exempt him from these woes, nor can we obtain the scriptures all by ourselves. Even if we had the ability to go and see Buddha first, he would not bestow the scriptures on you and me. Remember the adage: ‘What’s easily gotten, is soon forgotten.’” JW I, p436
Simply speaking, each of us mortals must go through our own trials and tribulations. No one can go through them for us. As parents we can help out, but we can’t take the journey for our children. Also because wisdom is experiential, we can’t transmit wisdom either. We can only point to the path and offer protection. But we can’t make the trip.
Asking for help makes it easy
Realizing they are stumped, Monkey goes to see Kuan-yin, who chastises him for wanting to be so independent that he does not reveal his mission. For this is the last disciple planted by Kuan-yin and would have immediately given up, had Monkey merely revealed the Mission. She sends her disciple Moksa, who calls out the monster’s spiritual name. The monster immediately comes up and submits to Tripitaka and his Mission. He is given the nickname of Sha Monk or Sand Monk.
Floating upon the skulls of other scripture pilgrims
How does Tripitaka with his heavy mortal bones get across? When Kuan-yin converted Sha Monk to the Truth of Buddhism, he confessed that he had eaten many travelers. Furthermore he pointed out that while everything else sunk into the sand of the river bottom, that 9 heads of scripture pilgrims that he had eaten floated. He had fashioned them into a chain, which he wore around his neck. (JW I, p190) Moksa, Kuan-yin’s disciple uses these 9 skulls to make a dharma boat for Tripitaka to cross the Flowing Sand River. In the center of the dharma boat is Kuan-yin’s gourd. The 9 skulls of the scripture pilgrims that make the dharma boat show that they did not die in vain, but that they are used by Tripitaka, to cross the Flowing Sand River, reaffirming his nickname, River Float.
Non-action in the midst of action or the Distortion of Action
Tripitaka crosses this great river without getting wet or moving. Instead his disciples do all the work. “[Tripitaka] did not drag up mud or water, and happily both his hands and feet remained dry. In sum, he was pure and clean without engaging in any activity.” (JW I, p443) His fellow travelers engage in the action, while Tripitaka remained in the midst of non-action, wu-wei. This is an important Chinese principle.
Wu-wei is based in quietude. Chang Po-tuan says:
“Nothingness produces white snow;
Quiescence produces yellow sprouts.”
In explication, Liu I-ming points out: “White snow symbolizes the energy of the primordial unity. … Yellow sprouts … symbolize the movement within stillness.” (Inner Teachings, p. 6-7)
This very important concept is at the base of the quest. Only from the point of absolute quietude does the true yang emerge. This pure yang emerging is the same as the yellow sprouts. In the yin-yang cycle the beginning of true yang emerges from absolute yin. This is sometimes called the return of the yang. In the West we might call it the Little Voice. Whatever it is, it is only heard in the midst of quietude. This is a common theme throughout Journey. Tripitaka’s ability to remain quiet maintains the integrity of the Quest. Conversely his inability to remain quiet continually threatens the Quest. The Yellow Sprouts are the Mission, which arise from Tripitaka’s Quiescence.
Entering into action, means the inevitable participation in the distortion. However Tripitaka is the only one who must ride quietly. The others, Monkey, Piggy, Sha Monk, and the White Horse, are all quite active. Although true intent, the Mission, emerges from quietude, the others actively serve it as their master. Their activity in service of the Mission is good, while when they act independent of the Mission, a distortion appears. We will see this phenomenon throughout the episodes.
Kuan-yin’s gourd, Semen Retention & the Diamond Fruit
At the center of Tripitaka’s dharma boat is Kuan-yin’s gourd. The gourd is a sexual symbol for the woman’s vagina. Tripitaka sits on top of Kuan-yin’s vagina to get across the Flowing Sand River, but he participates from a position of non-action, absolute quiescence. Although Tripitaka uses the female energy to cross the river, he doesn’t exert or lose any of his own energy - his vital seed - his sperm. He remains clean from any polluting activity.
In terms of the sexual analogy, the Chinese believe that sperm retention is essential in order to preserve vitality. The Buddhists take it a step further, calling for sexual abstinence in order to maintain the vitality necessary to attain spiritual enlightenment. Those of us, who worship Nature, believe that sex is just another metaphor that has been confused for reality. Sex is not the true issue. Bearing the Diamond Fruit is. And Vitality is a necessary ingredient.
Those of us on these spiritual quests all worship Vitality. And we all feel that sperm retention is a method that allows us to avoid the normal way that leads to dissipation and dissolution. However this is not just sexual abstinence, for then eunuchs and those who maintain celibacy would all be enlightened immortal sages.
Sex is just another symbol for desires. The normal way is to pursue desires at the expense of the Quest, whether it be enlightenment, Immortality or the Diamond Fruit. Most focus upon sexual gymnastics and pleasures, instead of self-cultivation, thereby aborting the Mission. Thus Tripitaka’s non-action allows him to avoid the excessive movement that leads to dissipation due to desires, whether sexual or other.
Vitality and its conservation are an essential aspect of the Alchemical quest for physical immortality. We Artists are also concerned with Vitality, but only to produce the perfect Fruit, not to live a long life or to reach enlightenment. Instead of pathetically attempting to preserve our fragile physical shell or reach a deeper understanding, we are passionate about our desire to bear the Diamond Fruit that will transcend the Great Fire of Death. On less dramatic levels sperm retention and subduing desires yields a greater vitality that allow us to maximize our potentials to enjoy life more.
Voluntary submission or Spontaneous Arresting
Note that all of the pilgrims are bound to Tripitaka voluntarily, not by force. Of course, he couldn’t coerce them too join his quest, even if he wanted to. Each of them possesses supernatural powers, which far surpass his ordinary human abilities. So how is this binding achieved, if not by force?
Remember True earth arrests true lead. True lead controls true mercury. In explication Liu I-ming says:
“The method of arresting and controlling is not a matter of conscious contrivance; it is natural, spontaneous arresting and controlling.” Inner Teachings p. 5-6
This spontaneous arresting is based upon Tripitaka’s quietude. This is not a simple matter of will power. Nor is it based upon his vitality due to sexual abstinence either. This arresting is based upon the emergence of true intent from a point of absolute quietude. The other elements are naturally attracted to Tripitaka’s alignment with Heaven. It is as if his purity allows him to channel the divine energy, as if he were a powerful magnet that resonates with the Universe, including the polarity of Heaven and Earth. The attraction to this purity of intent overwhelms the weaker magnetism of humans resonating with their groups.
Most humans possess only a weak magnetism due to the lack of personal cultivation. They follow the normal way, which is to be swayed here and there by the arbitrary whims of the collective human magnetism. Our disciples, however, due to intensive personal cultivation have connected with the Universal Magnetism. As such they immediately cleave to Tripitaka’s universal power. Their lack of connection with human ways is illustrated throughout the episodes when they regularly fail to follow social convention by neglecting the refined rituals of bowing and self-effacement. Instead they are frequently referred to as crude, rowdy, and without tact. However despite their lack of social graces they are totally devoted to Tripitaka and his Mission.
Thus Tripitaka by merely maintaining his alignment with Heaven is able to avoid ‘the conscious contrivance’ … ‘of arresting and controlling’’. Instead Monkey, Piggy, the White Horse and Sha Monk, naturally align with Tripitaka’s divine forces. So because Tripitaka’s internal force is attractive rather than coercive, it is imperative that he cultivate his Heavenly spirit rather than dissipate any of his energy dealing with the external world, which only detracts from his internal energies, which are needed to attract his superhuman disciples to his divine Mission. This is an important aspect of wu wei, non-action in the midst of action.
Similarly in our day-to-day lives, it is necessary to cultivate our inner garden so that we are not swept away by the winds of humanity, which drag us to our destruction. This inner cultivation will also lead us naturally to powerful forces that point or lead us in the proper direction.
The Curtain Raising Captain
Who is this latest addition to the Quest? Previously he had been an immortal, ‘the Curtain-Raising Marshal who waits upon the phoenix chariot of the Jade Emperor at the Divine Mists Hall’. (JW I, p189)
What kind of position is the Curtain Raising Captain? “When the emperor holds court, the screen or curtain separating his throne and his subjects would be raised.” (JW I, p 529) The function of the Curtain Raising Captain would then be to raise the curtain between emperor and subjects. As such he is protecting the emperor and also opening up a connection between power and the rest. With the emperor mentioned, it points to a connection with the real world rather than the spiritual world. Hence the protection that Sha Monk provides connects the ruler, Tripitaka, with the people, the Chinese. This quest is not just personal. Similarly the canvas of the Artist connects the inspiration of the Artist, the emperor, with the people, the public. Hence once again, the author is pointing to an externalization of the internal transformation.
Punishment for carelessness and release
Sha Monk punished for breaking crystal chalice
But our Immortal had degenerated into ‘a man-eating spirit, long a lord of Flowing-Sand.’ (JW I, p 430) Why crime did our monster commit to lose his Immortal status. As punishment for carelessly breaking a crystal chalice at the Festivals of Immortal Peaches, Sha Monk had been turned into a monster and sent down to the earth to the Sand River, a real place, by the way. Every seventh day a flying sword would come and stab his breast and side more than 100 times. In the meantime he would eat travelers that happened to come his way.
Only skulls of scripture pilgrims floated
While most of the bones sank in the river, ‘not even goose down can float on it’, nine skulls of scripture pilgrims floated which he saved. (JW I, p190) When Kuan yin saved Sha Monk from this miserable life to help Tripitaka on his quest, she stopped the flying sword and told him to make a necklace of these skulls. Sha Monk was named ‘awakened to purity’ by Kuan-yin. He had promised to ‘seek refuge in right action’. He waited patiently at the river until Tripitaka arrived and then joined the Quest using these 9 skulls as a dharma raft to float Tripitaka across the river.
Tripitaka nicknamed him Sha Monk, which means the Sand Monk, because he was the monster of the Flowing Sand River.
The Flowing Sand (of Nature) River? or Impossible to float
This is the second river that has presented an obstacle. The first, Eagle Grief Stream, was so clear and deep that reflections tricked highflying birds. All flexibility, no rigidity - the dragon, all by himself, with no tiger for stability. This one is so wide and deep that it is impassable. What is the nature of this Flowing Sand River?
Although the Sand River was slow flowing it was very wide and very treacherous. Nobody or thing could float on the river.
“The raft of a god cannot come here,
Nor can a leaf of the lotus stay afloat.” JW I, p187
Sand River, ‘the flowing sand of the sea of nature’
What is the significance? First this treacherous sand river where nothing floats represents ‘the flowing sand of the sea of nature’. Piggy is identified with nature. ‘The flowing sand of the sea of nature’ refers to the dissipating aspect of the normal way. Substance sinks. Kuan yin asks about the river. ‘The scripture pilgrim will be of temporal bones and mortal stock. How will he be able to get across?” (JW I, p187) The sinking aspect of mortal stock is referred to by the fact that nothing can float upon this river.
How to transcend the heaviness of our mortal stock and temporal bones
This aspect of mortality, which pulls downward into the sea of nature, drowns us. How is this mortality to be defended against? We have reached the Sand River. How do we get across? How do we, humans, give up our attachment to our worldly bones and mortal nature in order to float on top of the River of Life, rather than being swept away by it?
Only the empty mind is light enough
We float across upon the skulls of prior scripture pilgrims. We take these skulls to be empty of thoughts - or thoughts unattached to desire. Only the empty mind is light enough to float on the Sand River. In Taiji, the classics point out that it is important to know who is the commander of the waist. I asked Master Ni who the commander of the waist was. He said, “The mind. Only the mind is light enough.” But this mind is empty because it has no thoughts. Using muscle power in Taiji is the lowest level - to dense to float. Even chi power, although better, is too heavy and will sink. Only the mind, empty of word-thoughts, is light enough to float on the Sand River without sinking. Only empty mind is light enough to guide your body so that your opponent doesn’t pull you down or throw you back. Only with an empty mind are you light enough to transcend your fate and fulfill your destiny.
Tao has no compassion for hard thoughts
This lightness is also referred to in Taiji. As soon as one acquires substance, whether physical or mental, one can be manipulated. An opponent can push against a hard muscle or a hard thought. Although we rarely engage muscle against muscle in day-to-day life, we have thought battles regularly. The only way to lose a thought battle is to have a hard thought. These hard thoughts are what the Tao has no compassion for. Indeed sometimes it seems as if the Will of Heaven is to soften us up with regular poundings. Those with hard rigid thoughts either soften up or develop the rigid diseases and sickness from internalizing their thoughts.
Side effects of hard thoughts
Some major side effects of hard thoughts are the pride/anger complex and the fear/anxiety complex. These two complexes are related but manifest differently. Monkey’s unhealthy anger is associated with his pride. Tripitaka’s fear and anxiety are based on attachment to his home and life - not truly understanding the unreality of existence. This is where Sand Monk comes in. He stabilizes and grounds these hard thoughts, providing a voice of balance to these hard thoughts. As such he is related to the phase of earth.
Sha Monk, as earth, containment of desire
In later episodes Sha Monk in his function as earth is able to contain the mortal bones of Tripitaka so they don’t sink into the sea of nature, Piggy. He regularly warns Tripitaka not to trust Piggy’s laziness, which leads towards ease, comfort and dissipation. The difficult way is to be so light that you are not weighed down by desires. As long as you are serving your function you are so light that you are able to float on top of the sea of nature. However as soon as desire enters in, one simultaneously acquires substance. As soon as one acquires substance, one is pulled down by gravity into the sea of nature and washed away. On the way to acquire the truth symbolized by the scriptures, many earlier pilgrims were sunk by their desires. They still had substance. Thus on the way to our spiritual goal we must be so light that the gravity of desires does not sink us in the sea of nature.
Also as earth, Sand Monk protects Tripitaka’s physical body. As such he is related to maintaining the material world. Tripitaka focuses on the goal; the Horse takes him there; while Monkey and Piggy fight off demons and monsters by providing discrimination and passion. Sha Monk provides protection to the Light - the Flame - the Fire - Tripitaka.
The Sand Monk is the body. In our obsession with our goals it is essential to maintain contact with our physicality by respecting it. This is where Taiji comes in. It is essential to cultivate the body as well as the mind. Sha Monk is there to remind us not to forget the earth as we’re flying high in the stratosphere. I’m talking to you, my author. As Amstar Ni said on one of his more talkative days, “Spine straight - Hips tucked in - Chin in - Shoulders down - and Muscles relaxed.”
Remember that it was only skulls of the scripture pilgrims that floated. Only their empty minds were light enough. But how is the mind emptied, purified and refined. How are our false thoughts separated from our true thoughts? How is the spiritual refinement achieved? This chapter certainly doesn’t know. I’m not even sure this book knows. At this time you must read The Journey to the West yourself to see and experience the 81 ordeals that Tripitaka must go through to become light enough to cross the River to Heaven on his own - the only way.