After traveling for a few months our pilgrims come to the Heaven Reaching River, which is so wide that Monkey can’t even see the other side. Tripitaka, as usual, becomes very anxious, saying:
“When I left Ch’ang-an that year, I thought that the way to the Western Heaven was quite easy. How could I know of the obstacles of demons and monsters, the long distance over mountains and waters!” JW 2 p356
This is a common misconception for many of us who embark upon a long project, whether it be children, career, or a work of art. We rarely anticipate all the difficulties we will encounter, and almost always think that our journey to completion will be much easier than it is. Don’t be deceived. The real project is filled with trials and tribulations.
As it is getting dark our pilgrims find shelter at a local village. They discover that a local monster has been terrorizing the residents by regularly demanding a virgin boy and girl for consumption in exchange for wind and rain to water their crops. Prosperity is frequently accompanied by an unreasonable sacrifice. Beware the pursuit of wealth and fame, when the cost is your personal vitality.
To earn merit Monkey volunteers his and Piggy’s services. They disguise themselves as the virgin boy and girl, which are alchemical symbols for purified lead and mercury, which are the refined essences of mind [Monkey] and desire [Piggy]. And purified earth - true intent [Tripitaka] is what naturally binds them together. These primordial elements are in their proper place.
When the monster comes for his sacrifice, Monkey and Piggy fighting together thwart his evil plans. However they are not able to destroy the monster, which escapes back into the river. Pilgrim Monkey makes an off hand comment at this time, which turns out to be quite significant.
“No need to chase him anymore. … This fiend has to be a creature of the river. Let’s wait till tomorrow before we try to catch him and ask him to take Master across the river.” JW 2 p372
As we shall see Monkey’s underlying message is that the only way for them to cross the river is to catch the demon. And unfortunately for him, Tripitaka is going to be the bait.
After returning to his watery kingdom the monster was relieved that he didn’t lose his life, but lamented his loss of prestige combined with the loss of his sacrifice. Further he had heard of this pilgrimage and yearned to consume Tripitaka’s pure flesh to prolong his life, but was afraid that he couldn’t overcome the martial prowess of the disciples. One of his underlings suggested a plan to catch the monk. “Freeze the river. Then disguise some of your subjects as humans and have them walk on top of the river, giving the illusion that it is solid. The T’ang monk, impatient to get the scriptures, will attempt to also cross the river. Then when we hear his footsteps, we can break through the ice and seize him and his followers.”
According to plan the river freezes over. Seeing people on the river Tripitaka wants to take advantage and cross. He says that he promised the Emperor that he would be back in three years, but:
“It has been seven or eight years and I have yet to see the face of the Buddha. I have great fear that I may have exceeded the royal limit, and I am also troubled by the viciousness of demons and monsters.” JW 2 p377
The elders of the village counsel him to wait - saying that the river isn’t frozen through and will probably break. They suggest that he wait for a change in the weather when it will be safer to cross, assuring him that this unseasonable cold will pass. But seeing the people walking on the river Tripitaka’s impatience grows and turns into faith combined with resolution. He mistakenly convinces himself that Heaven has provided him a blessing.
“I thank Heaven for providing assistance by freezing the river.” JW 2 p380
This is one of the curses of impatience; it blinds common sense. Instead of waiting we take unreasonable risks, walking into danger, thinking that the gods will protect us because of our pure intent. Although the gods do provide assistance to those on the right path, they also provide tests of our Balance. All the signs said to wait, but Tripitaka’s eagerness overwhelmed his reason.
The Golden Flower has something interesting to say on the topic of Tripitaka’s excess enthusiasm.
“But don’t get enthusiastic about attaining the experience. (This easily happens whenever reality is taken too seriously. That means not that you shouldn’t recognize reality, but that the rhythm of reality is on the brink of existence and nonexistence. You can get it by intent that is not willful.)” Secret of the Golden Flower translated by Thomas Cleary Harper San Francisco 1991 p32
Obviously Tripitaka has taken reality too seriously. His substance is so heavy that it will break the ice. Instead of residing on the brink of existence and nonexistence, he is firmly entrenched in his conception of reality. The Universe is providing him with an experience that should help him to let go of this excessive attachment to enlightenment - which only gets in the way - providing the biggest obstacles to attainment.
His mental fever raging Tripitaka only sees what he wants to see and does what he wants to do. The village elders again caution his to wait, but Tripitaka has been overwhelmed by his desire for enlightenment. When Tripitaka questions them about the people he sees walking on the frozen ice, they say that they are risking their lives for huge profits. Tripitaka clearly understands saying:
“Profit and fame are regarded as most important in the world; for profit, men would give up their own lives. But the fact that this disciple strives so hard to fulfill the imperial decree may also be taken as his quest for fame. Am I so different really from those people?” JW 2 p381
But he can’t hold himself back and immediately saddles his horse and prepares to cross. Of course the ice breaks and the monster captures him. This impatience is a common human trait. Despite warnings to the contrary, we plow ahead into disaster. Of course sometimes desires must be pursued for better or worse.
Investigating this disaster Monkey discovers Tripitaka in a coffin like box weeping and lamenting his circumstances:
“I loathe River Float, a life plagued by woes!
How many water perils bound me at birth!
I left my mother’s womb to be tossed by waves;
I plumbed the deep to seek the Buddha in the West
I met disaster at Black River before.
Now in the ice break my life will expire.
I know not if my pupils can come here
Or if with true scriptures I can go home.” JW 2 p388
Although Buddha has chosen him for this glorious mission, Tripitaka curses his fate. This is a common emotion that the Chosen feel from time to time despite the honor and blessings. Even Jesus, God’s Chosen One, on the way to his execution, lamented to the heavens: “My God why hast thou forsaken me?” So this emotion is usual. But the heroes proceed ahead, while ordinary mortals are deterred from their path.
Monkey responds to Tripitaka’s whining about water with the following quote.
“Whereas earth is the mother of the Five Phases;
Water is their very foundation;
There is no birth without earth,
And no growth without water.” JW 2 p388
In other words - while water is destructive it is also necessary for growth. But water must be controlled to be productive. Although Monkey is powerful, as metal he is rusted by water. So he sends in Piggy, who as wood, grows in water, and Sand, who as earth, is able to contain water. Monkey tells the others to entice the monster to the surface so that he can join in. “That’s what we call mutual cooperation. Only that can accomplish anything.” JW 2 p394
Then we have a testimonial poem, which describes the alchemical processes taking place.
Proper affinity can perfect the great Tao:
Mutual growth or conquest holds Ganges’ sands
Earth conquers water
And the bottom’s seen when water dries up.
Water begets wood, which in ascendancy will bloom
Zen and Tao when cultivated lead to the same essence.
Elixir, refined and forged, does tame the three faiths.” JW 2 p392
This verse has to do with proper affinity, as do many of the episodes. Affinity is using the proper tools for the job. This is why Monkey always attempts to find out the nature of the beast so that he employ the proper means to defeat it. The phrase ‘mutual growth or conquest’ is frequently used to refer to the appropriate use of the elements of the Five Phases. And when this proper affinity between the Five Phases is attained it can be used to perfect the great Tao. And lest there be no misunderstanding the author assures us that Zen and Tao lead to the same essence.
So earth gives birth, while water nourishes the growth of wood. “And wood, flourishing brings forth strong, bright fire.” JW 2 p393 So the Piggy wood essence, when powerful, brings forth Tripitaka, who corresponds to fire. And Tripitaka’s fire is used to refine Monkey’s metal. First Monkey submitted to Tripitaka’s spiritual fire and the quest for enlightenment. Then Tripitaka uses the flames from his Tight-Fillet chant to further tame Monkey’s wild nature. So the Journey is an external exercise in harmonizing the Five Phases, each in their proper place. Once that occurs the great Tao is perfected.
And the last line of the poem brings alchemy into the Five Phase package. Earth gives birth, water nourishes wood, which provides the fuel for the fire, which refines and forges the metal, or the elixir, which tames the three faiths. The yin-yang theory transcends all faiths, but is simultaneously at their foundation, just as science transcends all cultures but is at the heart of the material world. Similarly the alchemical metaphor with its many processes can be used to describe or tame the ten thousand phenomena, including China’s Three Doctrines, without judgment or censure. In other words the processes of the Five Phases or the Yin Yang Theory are universal. Like science they describe the world without being dogmatic. So the point is to use natural affinities to balance and control your world rather than employing brute force or passive retreat, both of which frequently cause more problems than they solve.
Despite Monkey’s use of the affinities of mutual growth and conquest, he still can’t save Tripitaka and defeat the monster. Evidently this fiend is one of those phenomena that transcend theory - similar to the subatomic particles that transcend simple cause and effect. Having done what he can, Monkey realizes he needs to do more research into the monster’s background and decides to go to Kuan-yin for assistance. Piggy chides him for wasting time. Monkey responds that it is the only way.
Upon hearing Monkey’s tale Kuan-yin is so alarmed that she doesn’t even bother to put on any makeup or get properly dressed because she realizes that the monster is one of her goldfish that had been missing. Evidently the goldfish had been listening to her lectures, and had escaped with the tide. Once again partial knowledge is dangerous. She recaptures the monster with a bamboo net that she had woven and the disciples are able to save Tripitaka.
The elders of the village express their gratitude and thanks to the disciples, but admonish Tripitaka for not heeding their warnings, saying that he wouldn’t have had to go through these ordeals had he listened. Monkey responds that this ordeal was necessary as it enabled them to capture the monster that had been terrorizing their village. This is a case of everything happening for the best. Tripitaka’s misfortune based on his impatience was necessary for them to save the townspeople from their distress. While sometimes mistakes are setbacks, other times they are divinely ordained in that other problems are solved. For instance the Author didn’t go away to college, which he considered a mistake, but because of this mistake he met his wife and soul mate, whom he has lived with harmoniously for over 3 decades.
Note that there was a placard in front of the river, which had an inscription: “Heaven Reaching River - A width of 800 miles which few, from days of old, have crossed.” The trap of this river is the danger of being consumed by the monster of impatience, which guards its deep waters. Those who can’t contain their impatience and wait for the right time rush on to thin ice and drown in the icy river. This is one of the fundamentals that must tended to in order to have a successful life. It doesn’t merely apply to heroes or those on a spiritual quest. Each of us needs to beware of impatience in the achievement of our goals.
When we tend to the fundamentals, everything else falls naturally into place. On the trivial level: when we put things in their proper spot, we frequently find something we lost. On a more important level: when we tend to the fundamentals of taming the mind, subduing the emotions, and aligning the body and mind, we naturally align with the Universe and are able to experience Being to the fullest.
After Tripitaka is saved the ice melts and a huge tortoise rises to the surface. In gratitude that his river has been returned to him from the clutches of the monster, he offers to give the pilgrims a ride across this Heaven Reaching River on his back. Grateful for a safe passage across this wide river, Tripitaka wants to give the tortoise something. But the tortoise, who has been practicing self-cultivation for thirteen hundred years, asks for only one thing in return for his services. He requests that they find out from the Buddha when he will be able to cast his shell and be reborn a human. Tripitaka assures him repeatedly that he will fulfill this small request when he sees the Buddha. You must read on to the end of the book to discover how this simple promise leads to some very interesting ramifications.