This episode begins with this phrase.
“The dharma body in primary motion meets the strength of the cart.” JW 2 p301
In short as our travelers journey to the West [the dharma body in primary motion] they encounter a kingdom where the Taoists, who are in power politically, have enslaved the Buddhists. The Buddhists are forced to push a cart up a steep incline to build a new Taoist temple, hence the name of the country - Slow Cart Kingdom. This is the way things are in this part of the world. And no one has the power to change things. This is the strength of the cart. It has to do with the power of established ideas and conventions. It takes the dharma power of our little group to overturn the cart and set things aright. Note that they haven’t gone out of their way to right these wrongs; it is right in the middle of their path.
This is a funny episode. Monkey, Piggy, and Sand steal into the Taoist temple to see what’s going on. Fearful that they might be discovered they disguise themselves as talking statues of Three Pure Ones, Taoist divinities. Awed by this miracle the Taoist priests ask for some kind of divine blessing. The disguised Monkey tells them to retrieve some vessels, which the Three Pure Ones will fill with the elixir of immortality. He then tells them to leave to give them some time to work their miracles. After they leave Monkey, Piggy and Sand pee into these vessels. After the bogus Taoists return, they greedily gulp down what they perceive to be the elixir, but which is just monkey piss - a great symbol for the results of external alchemy.
Note that the Journey is filled with bathroom humor such as this. When the monster is riding on his back Monkey cautions him not to relieve himself on his back. When Monkey is taking a shit, he calls it the Transmigration of the Five Grains. These bits of levity should not be taken too lightly - disregarded as inconsequential. Instead the laughter, or at least inward smiles, that they engender breaks the spell of seriousness that sometimes encompasses and even strangles the spiritual quest. The intense seriousness that is Tripitaka’s is too heavy to make it over the Flowing Sand River. It is counter to the lightness that is necessary to pass over the many rivers that are on the Path. Thus these irreverent jokes are meant to dispel the tendency of many of us to take ourselves too seriously. In fact humor has the ability to liberate us from the Duality into the merriment and wonder of the Vortex.
The king had adopted Taoism because three Taoist priests had been able to summon rain for his drought afflicted, parched kingdom, while the Buddhist monks had been ineffective. But instead of just favoring the Taoists, the king, on the recommendation of the bogus Taoists, had enslaved the Buddhists. Observing the dharma power of Tripitaka and his disciples combined with their connection with the mighty Chinese Empire, many of the king’s advisors recommended that he just sign their travel rescript and let them pass peaceably through the kingdom.
(Note each time they arrive in a country our travelers seek to have their travel rescript certified, presumably so that their presence in the nation is official. These travel rescripts are probably similar to our passports - not necessary except to establish authenticity and to avoid problems with the law. However this desire to have their travel rescripts signed provides a dynamic to many of the episode because they are not able to just skirt through hostile kingdoms, but instead must face the rulers and their corruptions rather than avoiding them. In this case our travelers as persecuted Buddhists would have definitely avoided the Cart Slow Kingdom. But Tripitaka’s upright nature demanded the certification of their passport, which led to the opportunity to right these wrongs.)
The Taoist priests, seeing their authority undermined, object to this safe passage. They instead request a test of abilities to see which religion is more powerful. They begin with three tests, including who can bring wind and rain and who can meditate the longest. Using the divine connections, which are aiding their Buddha-ordained quest, our pilgrims win the contests. Although Monkey is dominant in these contests he requests that Tripitaka participate in the meditation challenge because he Monkey can’t sit still for a moment. After winning these contests the 3 Taoists request some lethal contests, including boiling in oil and cutting out the stomach. Although these Taoists have real abilities Monkey is able to survive each of the contests, while each of the Taoists perish due to the intervention of Monkey’s divine connections.
Finally the king signs their travel rescripts; the local Buddhists are freed; and Monkey says to the king:
“Hereafter you should never believe in false doctrines. I hope that you will honor the unity of the Three Religions: revere the monks, revere also the Taoists, and take care to nurture the talented.” JW 2 p354
The obvious point of this entire episode is tolerance for all religions. Indeed this is a theme of the entire book with Taoists and Buddhists regularly spoofed and revered. Although these Taoists were definitely evil, the Sage Equal to Earth, who had the ginseng tree, was a high level Taoist Immortal with positive intent. The Buddhists of the Kuan-yin monastery, who attempted to steal Tripitaka’s coat were definitely misguided, while Kuan-yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva is definitely one of the most powerful figures in the book. Regularly disciples of the major religious characters, including Taoist Lao Tzu, Buddhist Kuan yin, and the Buddha himself, go down Side Paths, become evil and threaten the Journey, until they are refined or tamed. Also the divinities of each religion are frequently shown with human anxieties. Kuan-yin rushes off without her makeup. Monkey aggravates Lao Tzu. And the Jade Emperor is agitated with worry over how to deal with Monkey’s shenanigans.
Further none of the disciples show any respect for the conventions of the religions or governments. In fact they regularly poke fun at established ideas, attacking rigid dogma of any faith. Even the highly refined Tripitaka is shown holding on too tightly to some of his Buddhist teachings, which lead to big problems. Any deviation from the truth deserves rectification no matter which religion is the offender. And each doctrine contains some truths mixed in with the falsehoods. Indeed the entire book is an attempt to weave through the complexities of the varieties of beliefs to ferret out the real truth. And, as we’ve seen with this episode in particular, light-hearted tolerance is revered as one of the highest virtues. Only in this way can truth be distinguished from falsehood.
“And so this was the purpose of their journey:
A diligent search for the three canons.
A strenuous quest for the primal light.” JW 2 p354