Self Balanced - the Quest can Begin

or the consolidation of the base

So let’s take a little breather to see where we are in our Journey. Tripitaka received his Mission from Kuan-yin and then embarked with the Emperor’s blessing and assistance. On the way he accumulated 4 supernatural disciples to help him complete his arduous quest.

An Alchemical Tune-up or 5 Phases Consolidated

What is happening alchemically? Just before the pilgrims cross the Flowing Sand River, we have a testimonial poem.

The Five Phases well balanced as Heaven’s Truth,

He can recognize his former master.

The self’s refined, the base’s set for wondrous use;

Discerning good and evil he can see the cause. JW I, p 441

The Five Phases are the five members of the Pilgrimage. The Five Phases in this context are the polarity of Tripitaka, Fire, the flame of inspiration, pure yang, and the White Horse, Water, flexibility, pure yin, balanced by the polarity of Monkey, Metal, the discriminating mind, and Piggy, Wood, desire or passion. These two polarities are bound by the fifth element Earth, Sha Monk, the container and protector. As Liu I-ming says, speaking of the five phases,

“If FIRE and WATER do not have Earth, even if they include the four forms, they cannot form the elixir.” Inner Teachings, p. 88

The elixir is the externalization of the internal Pill and as such is the Great Work. Without the container, the Great Work is meaningless. In this context Tripitaka has refined his internal pill, but now must externalize it by acquiring scriptures and bringing them back to provide salvation to the Chinese. But without protection he is doomed. This is why Sha Monk is an essential member of the quest. He provides the stability of Earth to contain Tripitaka’s Fire.

The base is set for wondrous use. Because our foundation has now been established the journey can begin in earnest. The first wondrous use of this base is the transcendence of the Flowing Sand of Nature.

The Artistic Inspiration

Let us reinterpret these symbols in terms of the Great Work. Let us look at these alchemical processes from the viewpoint of an Artist, i.e. someone who wants to create the Great Work that will transcend the Great Fire. First there is a Divine Plan - our Artist has an inspiration. Sometimes the Artist thinks it comes from his own brain, sometimes as a reaction to his environment, but deep down it is a manifestation of divine intent. The Artist channels the divine spark through his material shell and hence it is colored. But people can’t see White Light anyway.

Now our Artist considers how he is to achieve his Mission, he needs Mind to serve the Intent. Mind is not the ruler, only the servant. The Mind, by itself, has too much pride to channel the Divine Inspiration. Mind has no heart. Monkey was the first disciple accumulated. Of course the Mind solves problems and sees through falsehood, but the Mind also manifests as anger and pride. Hence the Mind must be chained to Mission in order to purify itself of these distracting energies.

Now the original idea has a certain firmness, but to move it forward flexibility is needed. If the artist is too firm and rigid, he will not be able to cross the many obstacles to the realization of the Insight. Hence a blend of flexibility and firmness, combined with mind begins to move the journey forward. The Dragon Horse of Will is added to the Quest.

Next the Artist must cultivate a passion for his art, spiritual essence. This passion balances the mind in serving the Art. The Mind by itself has no soul - in the blues sense; it is word play without life. Passion by itself is unrestrained, generally pursuing pleasures. But with Mind balancing Passion and Passion balancing Mind, the project can proceed. Piggy/Passion joins the Quest next, balancing Monkey/Mind as a pair. Firmness and Flexibility, Mind and Passion, the two polarities move forward.

But there is no container to hold it. The artist has gotten the idea, has balanced it with flexibility, has employed the mind, as a tool to solve the problems, and has directed his passion towards the execution of his plan, instead of the fulfillment of desires. Now the artist must decide what medium to use. Without something to hold his inspiration, it is like a fart in the wind. As Monkey says to an Immortal inviting him to join him at his palace,

“Old Monkey can’t do what he did before, ‘squatting on a rotted bench and dispensing lofty discourse.’ Now that I have to protect the T’ang monk, I haven’t a moment’s leisure. Give me a rain check!” JW I, p 342

There are a millions of bars with the hundreds of millions dispensing lofty discourse. If the Great Wind does not blow it away, then it will be swept away in the Flowing Sand River. The artist talking away his ideas and hours in idle discourse in bars or on his E-Mail wondering where his time has gone. The original drug of inspiration is dissipated through the mouth and there is not enough energy left to cook the Creation. Low-grade ore.

Hence our Artist needs a Medium for his Creation. Something to hold his Inspiration. Something to protect it from the Great Fire. Passion, Mind, Inspiration and Will, mean nothing without something to protect it. It is now that Sha Monk joins the Quest with the express purpose of protecting Tripitaka. Passion and Mind instinctively move outward exploring the myriad forms and so can’t really be counted upon to protect the Original Inspiration. The Will must be directed by Inspiration to do Something. To escape the Great Fire, a container is needed to insulate the Inspiration from harm. Thus the container protects as well as provides a vehicle to move through the Fire or across the Flowing Sand River.

Thus in some ways the skulls of the monks around Sha Monks neck could be viewed as the small inspirations of others which join to form a boat for the Big Inspiration. On a more intimate level, all the little works of the Artist are necessary to create the Great Work that will enable him to eventually cross the River.

However Crossing the River is only an initial step. The Artist avoided the Great Wind of perpetual discourse on lofty issues. Now he has chosen a medium to protect his Inspiration. This provides him a boat to cross over the Flowing Sand of impermanence. The base has been established but now the Artist must execute his project - keeping all of these diverse elements under control. First he chooses his subject, then a medium with the proper tools. Maybe he practiced a little, experimenting with forms - the skulls of the monks. Next he picked out his canvas, type, size and shape. Enlightenment! Hardly. Now it is the time for the execution of the self. It is the time for the Journey to the Masterpiece to begin.

The Quest for scriptures same as attending fundamentals of life

Now let us reexamine our symbols and story from another perspective - that of the ordinary man. This is not stretching for correspondences, but is well within intent of Journey. At the beginning of the next chapter, the author of Journey reveals the equivalence between the spiritual quest and attending to the fundamentals of life.

“The principal aim of this chapter is to make clear that the quest for scriptures is essentially the same as the need to attend to the fundamentals in one’s life. We now tell you about master and disciples, the four of them, who, having awakened to the suchness of all things, broke the lock of dust asunder. Leaping clear from the flowing sand of the sea of nature, they were completely rid of any hindrance and proceeded westward on the main road.” JW I, p444

The author is telling us that ‘the quest for scriptures’, in essence, is the same as ‘the need to attend to the fundamentals in one’s life’. This equation tells us that the quest of the novel is an allegory for the process of attending to the basics of existence.

How is that? Let us examine the rest of this quote to see how it applies.

Having awakened to the suchness of all things, [the travelers] broke the lock of dust asunder. The suchness of all things has to do with understanding the perfection of existence in the midst of its imperfection. It is the realization that despite flaws that our lives have everything they need. Just being is enough. This is the state reached during a good meditation or just a glass of wine with dinner. Everything is perfect to have reached this spot of contentment.

Then reaching this state breaks the lock of dust asunder. The lock of dust is the way of humankind - the societal pressures which drive us to follow the urges of the masses rather than following our own internal urges. Red dust is a word the Alchemists use to mean cultural conditioning. The lock of dust has to do with mindlessly following the social norms, no matter how destructive they are to health and peace of mind. So reaching this state of internal contentment breaks the vise grip that social norms have on us.

The Flowing sand of the sea of nature

Leaping clear from the flowing sand of the sea of nature, they were completely rid of any hindrance and proceeded westward on the main road. The flowing sand of the sea of nature is the normal way, which leads to the dissipation of our life force. False earth, i.e. intent colored by desire, is unstable, hence symbolized by flowing sand. Not just any flowing sand but a river of flowing sand. False earth = the quest to fulfill desires = false mercury inspired by sense = false lead, washes everyone away. Instead of consciously arresting the flow of nature by focusing upon true intent, which arises internally and spontaneously, not consciously, we dissipate our energies and sink into the river of humanity or are washed away by it - victimized by our lack of quietude. But through divine intervention our pilgrims have leapt over the flowing sand and are proceeding westward on the main road.

The Five Phases applied to the Ordinary Person

How do the five phases relate to the average person leading an ordinary life? Briefly it is necessary to seek quiet time to allow the proper course to arise. This is Fire = Tripitaka. This step is necessary on a regular basis for the Path is not easy to follow. There are many forks that need to be avoided. And sometimes the well-traveled path is the wrong one. Then we must cultivate a flexible and open mind to pursue this path. This is Water = the Dragon-Horse. However this flexibility mustn’t be allowed to overwhelm the quest by losing ourselves in the relativity of all things, but must be concentrated on flexible solutions rather than ‘who cares - it’s all the same anyway.

Next we must use the powers of our Mind to assist us on our quest, whether it be raising children, working at our jobs, or just dealing with our health. This is Metal = Monkey. However we need to be constantly on our guards lest the Mind take over. Remember he is just meant to be the servant, not the master. Similarly we need to follow our passions. This is Wood = Piggy. Again our passions need to be focused upon the true intent, which regularly arises from quietude rather than the desires generated by our senses. Passion is also the servant, not the master. Finally we need to take care of our Body. This is Earth = Sand Monk. Without a strong base, everything falls apart because there is no vitality. Similarly with the other elements it is important not to get lost in the quest for health at the expense of the Mission.

The mutual dependence of Awareness and the Quest

So we can see from this discussion that our Journey acts on many levels simultaneously. It is a metaphor of 1) the Buddhist quest for enlightenment, 2) the Taoist striving for integration with the Tao, 3) the Confucian desire for Sagehood, 4) and the Alchemist quest for Immortality. It is also relates to 5) the Artist’s craving to create a Masterpiece, 6) the Western quest for actualization, and finally 7) the average human’s quest for a better life. These are all addressed by tending to the fundamentals of life. The Journey relates to issues concerning the spiritual quest as well as the average man going about his daily affairs. Each of us must actively and continuously seek to maximize our existence by fulfilling our potentials; this whether artist, writer, teacher, housewife, or garbage collector.

However fulfilling potentials through self-actualization is just a parallel goal to increasing awareness - as they both sharpen each other. The process of self-actualization enlivens the spirit, thereby increasing awareness. And increasing awareness facilitates the realization of self-potential. Conversely decreased awareness reduces the potential for self-actualization through missed opportunities and less than ideal manifestation.

Similarly not pressing forward in one’s life is deadening - which also lowers awareness and the subsequent ability to completely experience Reality. These two features of existence are mutually dependent - rising and falling together - though not simultaneously. This might seem obvious, but many cultivate Awareness at the exclusion of Destiny, while many more cultivate Destiny at the expense of Awareness. Of course the multitudes cultivate neither Awareness nor Destiny but are instead just victims of Fate - fodder for the Cannon - worker bees who are sacrificed for the greater good.

The Multiplicity of Names and their Meanings

As we can see The Journey to the West can be interpreted from multiple perspectives - externally, internally or combination of the two. For instance we could view the whole book as a representation of what Hsüan-tsang, i.e. Tripitaka, went through internally on his historical trip from China to India and back. After all many of the characters and places are historical. Or we could view the entire journey as a metaphor for the individual quest for enlightenment. Tripitaka is going to see the Buddha for that reason. Or we could interpret the episodes as an alchemical guidebook for personal integration and growth. Our interpretations have certainly supported this stance.

The multiplicity of interpretations are possible because Journey mixes metaphors freely. Each of the main characters operates on many levels simultaneously, but not necessarily consistently. Frequently they operate on mutually exclusive levels. The plane the individual episodes are operating on is frequently revealed through the names of the characters. For instance, as we’ve mentioned, Monkey as Great Sage Equal to Heaven is able to defeat the heavenly forces, but when he acts as Pilgrim minor monsters are able to defeat him. Due to the importance of names, let us discuss the names of each of our travelers and their meanings.

Each character has many names. Kuan-yin gives each of the travelers a surname and a religious name, after they submitted to her. Tripitaka gives each of his disciples a nickname, when they submit to his mission. Each of the disciples also has a heavenly name. Then Piggy and Monkey have nicknames for each other and themselves. Each of these names is significant and not used accidentally. Now that all the members of the Quest are assembled and have been named, let us look a little more carefully at their many names.

Popular names

First their common names: Monkey calls himself, old monkey. Piggy calls himself, old hog. Hence Monkey and Piggy are their popular names. The dragon is called the White Horse, while the monster, who just joined the pack, is called Sand Monk. The monk is called Tripitaka, the three baskets of Buddhist teachings. These will be the names we use most frequently. Monkey calls Piggy, Idiot, while Piggy calls Monkey, pi-wa-wen, which was Monkey’s title when he was tending horses in Heaven, not a job he liked. The title was actually offensive to him because it offered no status and so is used to irritate Monkey.

Heavenly Names

Each of the 5 members of the Quest is a fallen Immortal, so they have heavenly names, when they are dealing with matters of heaven. Tripitaka is called the Golden Cicada because he has shed his skin to come back to the Earth. Monkey is called Great Sage Equal to Heaven relating to his mind powers. Piggy is called Marshall of Heavenly Reeds. Sha Monk is called the Curtain Raising Captain. The White Horse was a heavenly Dragon. These names are used when speaking with other Immortals from heaven, who know them by those names. The moving in and out of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld, reflects the Chinese notion of the permeability of all the realms.


Tripitaka gives the disciples their nicknames. Monkey is called Pilgrim. In this role he is Everyman seeking enlightenment through self-cultivation, and exhibits many weaknesses. Piggy is called Pa-chieh, which is the name for the 8 Buddhist restrictions. (JW I p 520). This is a name of extreme irony because he is always breaking these dietary commandments. Tripitaka names the Monster, Sha Monk, or Sand Monk, because of his connection with the Flowing Sand River. Tripitaka’s nickname is the River Float (JW I p. 263), which refers to his ability to float across rivers, above the sea of Samsara, despite extraordinary difficulties. He has already made some difficult river crossings against all odds. Tripitaka is also called Master by his disciples. When these names are used, they are referring to themselves as members of the Quest.

Surnames and religious names

Monkey is given the surname and religious name of Sun Wu-k’ung by his master. Piggy is named Chu Wu-neng and Sha Monk is named Sha Wu-ching by Kuan-yin, when they submit to her. Tripitaka’s name is Ch’en Hsüan-tsang. His surname relates him to the Emperor of China, while his religious name is a real historical name of a famous monk who really traveled from China to India to pick up Buddhist scriptures in the 7th century CE. When these names are used it is referring to the Buddhist nature of the pilgrims. The Buddha uses these names when referring to their higher side.

Religious names

Notice that each of the three disciple religious name starts with Wu. Wu means ‘he, who awakens’. When each submits to Kuan-yin, it mentions that they awaken as if from a dream. This is not an aggressive conversion. Hence each of the disciples awakens to Buddhism, but each in his own way. Monkey awakens ‘to vacuity’, i.e. emptiness, no-mind. Piggy awakens ‘to power’, from desire to spiritual power. Monster awakens ‘to purity’, no more eating the flesh of humans. Each of the disciples must come to grips with their own awakening. Many times Monkey is asleep to vacuity and Piggy is asleep to his own power. The Quest is an awakening for the disciples. The conversion was only the beginning of the awakening process.


Monkey’s surname is Sun, which means Baby boy, and is connected with the ‘Doctrine of the Baby’ (JW I p. 82), which is part of the alchemical metaphors. This is connected with the Taoist principle of return, which we shall examine more extensively. Piggy’s surname is Chu, which means hog, related to his appearance. Monster’s surname is Sha, which means sand and is connected with the Flowing Sand River. When these names are used, it refers to that aspect of their nature, i.e. Piggy’s hog nature etceteras. These then are the many names of our pilgrims relating to their many natures and roles.

Name and Nature

One last item on names. When a conversion occurs, a new name is given to indicate their new role. Old names are used to refer to backsliding. Hence the names indicate the nature of the disciple. The names are given by the master to indicate where the conversion is heading to, not where it has reached.

A Collective Alchemical Transformation

Now that you have been introduced to the five members of the Journey we are going to leave them behind to accomplish their quest on their own. But before we begin our exploration of the cultural context of the novel, which is China, we will make some summary comments to tie up some loose ends concerning our Great Work.

Tripitaka is not just going on a trip to acquire scriptures. He and his disciples must collectively pass through ritual purification in order to earn the scriptures. They are all necessary for the achievement of the goal. Hence we are purifying Monkey into true lead = mind focused upon spiritual intent; Piggy into true mercury = desire focused upon spiritual essence; Tripitaka into true earth = intent focused upon the Divine Mission.

Even if Tripitaka had been given the scriptures at the beginning of the journey he wouldn’t have understood them anyway. He hadn’t gone through the alchemical transformation necessary to understand the truth. Hence the men of the east while virtuous don’t have the necessary purification necessary in order to understand the great truth. There is no reason to grant the truth. It would be as if pearls are thrown before swine. Hence Monkey in a later chapter points out that Tripitaka will never acquire the scriptures if he is plagued by fears. In order to acquire the scriptures Tripitaka must go through the 81 ordeals.

Wordless nature of the Truth

Let it further be stated that once Tripitaka acquires the scriptures that he doesn’t read them. Nobody reads them; their contents are not revealed. While the substance, content, of the holy sutras are never read, all of the members of the Quest achieve Buddhahood or at least Immortality. Hence it is seen that achieving Buddhahood has nothing to do with knowledge. As a matter of fact, the initial scriptures are wordless. Reluctantly the Buddha gives them sutras with words on them.

This reflects Ch’an Buddhism, which becomes Zen in Japan. While it reflects these Buddhist teachings, it also reflects Taoist fundamentals. Buddhism is a very verbal religion based upon countless sutras. Buddha says that he has three baskets of scriptures, which contain 15,144 scrolls. While Buddhism is very logical, albeit transcendental logic, Taoism eschews logic calling it an inferior way of understanding.

Ch’an Buddhism was Buddhism’s reaction to Taoism, while, as we shall see in the next section, the canonization of the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu in the Taoist tradition was the Taoist reaction to the institutions of Buddhism. Hence silence and unpredictability are Taoist, the dragon, while verbosity and intellectual understanding are Buddhist, the tiger. Hence Tripitaka, the Tiger, Master of Buddhist Law, is carried upon the White Horse, a Taoist Dragon, to the west.

Not wanting to be repetitive but wanting to stress the symbol of the story, Tripitaka’s quest is to acquire the scriptures and bring them back to the West. It has nothing to do with understanding the scriptures. The content of the scriptures is secondary to the Quest. The Quest is where the members of the Pilgrimage achieve merit, go through ordeals, and deal with temptations in order to achieve Buddhahood. The scriptures could be blank as far as Tripitaka’s Buddhahood is concerned, (they are the first time).

Furthermore Tripitaka is concerned about the blank scrolls only because the Emperor of China won’t understand and will think that Tripitaka is making a joke. This is akin to a big research project yielding incredible but impractical results. Those who have run the project go through transformation while those funding it are disappointed.

Hence the whole journey has been set up as an opportunity for the members of the Quest to earn merit so that they might achieve Buddhahood, not enlightenment. Tripitaka goes through many enlightenments and falls out of each of them. They are a sign that the alchemical process is proceeding properly, not that it is finished. Hence the Quest is an alchemical firing and purification. It has nothing to do with intellectual understanding. The Quest is everything; the actual scriptures are secondary.

Of Children and Grandchildren

One last point before moving on. Time is needed to achieve merit and purification. It is not instantaneous. As Chang Po-tuan says,

“20. When husband and wife mate,

Clouds and rain form in the secret room.

In a year they give birth to a child,

And each rides on a crane.” Inner Teachings, p. 30

At this point in our journey, all the elements have been joined together. When husband and wife mate, Clouds and rain have formed in the secret room. Heaven and Earth have kissed. Yin and Yang have made love and the embryo has been formed. We are now in the pregnancy stage. It is going to take some time for the child to be born. In a year they give birth to a child. And each rides on a crane.

Riding on a crane has to do with spreading of the wisdom over generations. The Parents need children to produce grandchildren. In a similar way the Artist needs a Creation to produce the grandchildren of a wider effect. Also the master needs disciples to spread his word. The more effective the firing process, the greater the circles of transmission.

This is the very tricky alchemical process. As Liu I-ming says,

“Restoring the elixir takes place momentarily, refining the self requires ten months. The work of refining the self is no small matter.” Inner Teachings, p. 10

This might seem obvious to most of us, but it stands in opposition to the instant enlightenment concept of Ch’an Buddhism = Zen. The firing process of alchemy needs time. The 81 ordeals of the Journey occur over years. Understanding can occur immediately, but processing and applying the information takes time and circumstance. The instant enlightenment of Zen has to do with the real understanding of the implications of the transitory nature of existence, which leads to the understanding of the illusory nature of the Self, which is at the root of most ignorance. Once the problem has been identified, the solution is immediately apparent. But this is just the beginning, not the end. Habit patterns established from birth must now be broken or refined. The solution to the problem of alcoholism is not drinking. Instead this is just the beginning of the attempt to eradicate the disease. Many times the enlightenment to the truth is instant, but the application of these truths takes a lifetime because our habit patterns are so deeply rooted.

Base consolidated we have reached a fork in the road. You can continue with this analysis of the content of the episodes of the Journey. Or you can proceed to the context of our Great Work. Although the content stands independently, an exploration of the context will lead to a deeper understanding of the issues that are being explored. As we saw earlier the first context is that a book has been written designed, as books are, to communicate on the external plane. The second context is that the book is consciously a Great Work in that its design is to bring salvation to the people. The third context is the cultural and historical setting in which our novel was created. Because my Monkey part has no understanding of China’s history and culture you must proceed to the Tao of China if you wish to examine the external context of Journey. Else proceed to the next episode.

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