Although Tripitaka’s compassion almost upended the Journey in the last episode, in this one his sense of social justice enables his disciples to work together to earn merit.
The episode begins with Tripitaka lamenting about dangerous demons, the difficulty of reaching the Western Heaven, and why it is taking so long. Again Monkey responds that it is far too early.
“We haven’t even left the main door yet. … This blue sky is our roof, the sun and moon are our windows, the five sacred mountains our pillars, and the whole Heaven and Earth is but one large chamber.” JW 2 p163&4
However Tripitaka doesn’t let up, wondering when he will be able to bow before the court. Monkey responds:
“Master don’t be so anxious and impatient. Relax and push forward. In due time, I assure you that ‘success will come naturally when merit’s achieved.’” JW V2 p165
Again the necessity of achieving merit is stressed. Wisdom, physical practices, and even meditation are secondary to achieving merit. Although each of our pilgrims, including the Horse, has practiced self-cultivation and attained a high level of mastery, they must go on this Quest to achieve the necessary merit to get back in Heaven. Merit, which takes time, trumps Zen’s instant enlightenment. This episode provides many opportunities.
As it is approaching dusk our pilgrims arrive at a Buddhist monastery. Tripitaka says: “I’ll go inside for all of you are ugly in your appearance, uncouth in your speech and arrogant in your manner.” Inside he sees a magnificent temple with all the appropriate trappings. He sighs:
“If in our land of the East there are enough people who would mold such huge bodhisattvas with clay and worship them with fires and incense, this disciple would have no need to go to the Western Heaven.” JW V2 p167
He has obviously not given up his yearning for home. In this way he has an affinity with Piggy. Tripitaka sees a worker and asks for food and shelter. The worker: “I don’t have the authority. I’ll ask the abbot.” Seeing Tripitaka’s shabby attire the abbot is furious. “Don’t bother me with these poor monks. Only alert me when the wealthy people from the city come to offer money. Tell them to sleep in the hallway.” Tripitaka is crushed, wondering what he has done to deserve such treatment. Upon hearing of his treatment by the abbot Monkey uses his rod to demand that they be given shelter and food. Further he insists that they be treated like visiting royalty. Piggy is amazed at Monkey’s powers of persuasion, but Tripitaka says, “Even ghosts are afraid of nasty people.”
This little mini-episode illustrates Tripitaka’s continuing problem with mistaking appearance for substance. This flaw will get him into big trouble in the following episodes. This is a common problem for those of us with ‘fleshy eyes and mortal stock’. We see the well-dressed businessman or politician and trust them, when they are stealing our life savings. Simultaneously we resent and shun the shabby homeless who ask for spare change. Similarly we place our lives in the care of big hospitals and white coated doctors, who carve up our bodies and give us medicines, which prolong our lives while dimming our vitality. And we disregard those who counsel healthy diet and exercise, because it takes too much effort. Further we entrust our children to well endowed monasteries with their monks in traditional dress, and scorn the long-haired hippies with their focus on love and peace. Overall we trust those with the trappings of success and disregard those who look poor. It’s actually upside down as our T’ang monk will eventually discover.
This scene also illustrates one of the primary differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. The Theravada temples in Thailand have millions of Buddha statues everywhere, while the Mahayana temples in China might feature local gods and goddesses instead. Mahayana doesn’t care which statues adorn the temple as long as the Buddha is inside the heart. This is not to say that the followers of either branch are more or less devote than the other. The majority of people everywhere worship external form over internal substance, as does Tripitaka.
Tripitaka sees a full moon and becomes homesick. He then composes a poem about how the moon is the same moon that shines on the T’ang court. Monkey chides Tripitaka on this superficial view of the moon, saying that ‘the moon may symbolize the rules and regulations of nature’s many modes and forms.’ JW V2 p 176. He continues with the aforementioned yin-yang cycle of the I Ching as it applies to the lunar cycle - pointing out that each stage is necessary for them to reach the Western Heaven.
“The elder [Tripitaka] heard … and was immediately enlightened. …
Truth, grasped by the heart’s one channel, clears up a thousand channels.” JW V2 p177&8
The necessity of stages is a direct refutation of the incomplete notion of Zen’s instant enlightenment. The truth behind instant enlightenment has to do with the realization that we are not really the Person that is striving for enlightenment, but are instead the Light of Being, which underlies all of existence. Once we’ve realized our true identity, we can see the divinity in all things and embrace the imperfection of our Person as a mother does her child. We can then just appreciate the process rather than being obsessed with the end. The parent doesn’t long for a mature adult and instead embraces each stage of growth for his child. Similarly we Beings should love our Person despite his imperfections, relishing each moment that we’re together, rather than always craving results.
A king with wet clothes then appears to Tripitaka in a dream. He says: “I was murdered by a fiend, who pushed me down a well. The monster disguised himself as me, the rightful ruler of the Black Rooster Kingdom. I appeal to you with your mighty dharma power to avenge my death and expose the impostor.” This sets up an extended chain of events, whereby Monkey with Tripitaka’s encouragement convinces the officials of the Black Rooster Kingdom to throw out the impostor and return the rightful king to the throne.
In this episode the only obstacle to the Journey is the need of righting wrongs - of differentiating truth and falsehood. No monster is attempting to eat Tripitaka. None of the Pilgrim’s behavior is out-of-balance. The Universe has just exposed them to injustice. And because they are aware of it and have the power they must rectify the situation. Of course the big problem is that the specious king is identical to the real king in nearly every way. Consequently if they confront the problem directly by testifying to the officials of the court, they would probably be derided or imprisoned. So instead of using force or direct confrontation Monkey must take an indirect approach to expose the impostor.
Lest you think this an artificial problem or something that only exceptional people must deal with, let me relate it to ordinary life. The false is everywhere perceived to be true. But to attack it head on will only lead to failure or disaster because falsehood is embraced as true by the bulk of humanity. Consequently an indirect approach is mandatory to expose the falsehoods that dominate our existence. Specifically the propaganda that emanates from all of our media has been accepted as true because of its ratification by the power structure. Hence any ranting or railing against the absurdities of those in power will only be met with ridicule or imprisonment. The only route that will be successful is through the back door of the psyches of those whose mirror is so filled with dust that the truth is filtered out and the false is allowed through.
Monkey begins by illuminating an insider, the king’s son, the prince. He tricks him into coming to the monastery they are staying at. He then tells him the truth. When the prince is incredulous, Monkey shows him a jade amulet the dead king has given them. As the prince still expresses disbelief Monkey suggests that he go ask his mother, the queen, if everything has been the same since the king left. Check out another source for confirmation. But the prince must go in secret so as not to arouse the false king’s suspicions. When questioned weeping the queen responds: “The only thing that has been different in the last three years is that the king refuses to visit my bedchamber.” No sex. The prince then reveals the truth to her.
To understand this sequence we must look to the nature of the beast. The specious king is a member of the Complete Truth sect of Taoism. This branch of Taoism taught that each of China’s Three Doctrines were equal - adopting what they considered to be the best of each belief system. Because it incorporates each of the doctrines within its school, it might seem identical to each of them. But under this system the king and queen, the male and female, the yin and yang, don’t mate. Although everything else remains the same, the crucial event doesn’t occur.
As Chang Po-tuan says: “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 p30. Conversely, if they don’t mate, no clouds and rain, thus no child. The alchemical firing doesn’t occur. The situation is sterile. Indeed we find later on that the false king is a gelded lion, which confirms the missing ingredient. The teaching of relative equality, while seemingly the same, has lost the essential vitality.
This is akin to those who propound the idea that all religions are essentially the same. The truth behind this concept is that each school of thought contains certain similarities, more than most are willing to grant. Thus those who teach the relative equality of the world’s religions are making a statement for tolerance and understanding, which our world sorely needs. Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Hindu do indeed share many underlying beliefs in common. We do need to respect each other’s beliefs.
However just because they share some fundamentals doesn’t mean that each believe system is essentially the same. Indeed each system has significant differences from the rest. It is important not to gut the heart in the quest for mutual understanding. There is one truth, which leads to the top. And it is hard to differentiate it from the half truths which only take us halfway there. In mathematics there are some iterated root equations, which gradually take one to the real root with each repetition. Then there are some bogus equations which work for awhile, but then stop. All progress flattens out and stagnates. It is these bogus religions that are being warned against in this passage. Seems the same, but falls short. Works for awhile, but then stalls.
Of course this is also the same for each religion. Some followers of every belief system slip onto impotent side paths, which lead nowhere. The trick is to be constantly vigilant on the quest for truth. Bogus beliefs are everywhere, constantly threatening to slip in and pollute the elixir. So note that this section is not a stand against Taoism, but is instead a cautionary warning to beware of bogus beliefs posing as the real thing.
Although the prince and queen now realize the truth, the rest of the kingdom is still in the dark. Monkey understands that he needs some hard-core evidence to convince the rest. He tricks Piggy into helping him to retrieve the king’s dead body. Irritated Piggy gets even by convincing Tripitaka to force Monkey to bring the dead king back to life. Fearing the massive headaches from Tripitaka’s Tight Fillet Spell, Monkey is motivated to obtain some elixir from Lao Tzu to revive the king.
Because of the ambiguity of the situation they disguise the real king as a monk as they approach the city. Once there they expose the specious king, who escapes by impersonating Tripitaka. Monkey almost crushes the true Tripitaka, who is saved in the nick of time by his guardian angels. Monkey is confused until Piggy gives him the solution of how to differentiate true from false. The true Tripitaka can recite the Tight-Fillet Spell which gives him such pain. Of course Piggy loves torturing Monkey. The point here is that the real truth doesn’t protect one from pain, but instead draws one into the heart of the battle. Ugh! That’s not what any of us want to hear.
In terms of ordinary existence we must expect pain from our real children, our real lover, our real job, our real teacher, our real friends and our real creations. Our fake relationships will tell us what we want to hear, not the truth. So we shouldn’t be disappointed when we feel pain from something we love; this is to be expected. And we shouldn’t gravitate towards that which feels good, because the sense of feeling good masques the lack of substance. And we shouldn’t be repelled by that which hurts, for it could be doing us the most good.
Once he discovers how to differentiate the true from the false, Monkey is about to destroy the specious king, when Heaven intervenes. It turns out that the false king is a divine lion who has been released by a decree of Buddha to punish the king for transgressions against Heaven. It also provides our pilgrims an opportunity for merit. It turns out that the king was a spiritual seeker who was afraid to take his quest to the next level. Heaven sent a heavenly messenger to help out. Afraid of listening the king put this divine spirit in the moat for three days. As divine retribution he was drowned for three years before he was revived.
This confirms the general theme of the episode. Those on the quest are doubly cursed if they stop short because they are afraid. They don’t achieve a general contentment. but instead regress into a mental purgatory, under water in suspended animation - swimming in Purgatory. Once you’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, you must dive. You can’t turn around to retreat down or you are cursed with a mental affliction which won’t give you any peace. Lest you think we’re only talking about heroes, this also applies to ordinary life. This is akin to having children or starting a business, you can’t go back or just half way. The blessing of progress is balanced by the curse that you can’t go back. Ouch!