B. Journey to the West: An Overview

As a body of work I’m called China Papers. However I have two distinct parts (combined with articles provided for elucidation of the text). The first (they do have an order) is Chinese Alchemy & the Monkey.

This work is an attempt to explore the essentials of human existence. To do this we will attempt to shine some reflected light upon the deeper meanings of the classic Chinese novel, The Journey to the West, sometimes called The Monkey, through the eyes of Chinese Alchemy. In so doing we will examine China and the synthesis of her Three Doctrines - Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. We will discover that the Quest for Taoist Immortality, Buddhist Enlightenment, Confucian Sagehood, Psychological Self-actualization, or just a Better Life are all essentially the same. Each of them has to do with tending to the Fundamentals of Life.

Journey to the West is, first of all, a book

As a book Journey is meant to be read. This evokes the image of someone reading a book. On the most basic level, this implies a Reader, a Book, and a Writer. Presumably the Writer has written a Book, which will communicate with a Reader through images, most often words. On deeper levels the Book implies a publisher, a distributor, and a cultural context. In short a book suggests involvement and participation in the external world. This must be kept in mind whether we study the content of the words, the social context of the author, or the historical impact of the book. Writing a book is in of itself an affirmation of ordinary day-to-day reality, unencumbered by philosophical discourse. No matter that the words of the book say that words are useless and that all is emptiness,[i] the writing of the book itself is an act of faith, a leap across the chasm of nihilism. The words say one thing, the action something quite different. Although an author might say that the material world is all illusion, the writing of a book has him firmly participating in its unreality. Hence anyone that writes a book participates in the cult of The Great Work.

Some authors deny their participation in the cult; others unconsciously participate in it, while others actively proselytize. The great bulk of books fall into the middle category of unconscious participation. A minority falls into the first category – denying the reality of their action of writing the book. These verbal protestations normally are a supposed testament to the author’s detachment from ordinary reality, while the book stands as a testament to the author’s ultimate compassion for the empty material world of illusion. The author is reaching out to ease the suffering of the great mass of humanity by teaching them that it is all illusion anyway. An even slimmer minority falls into third category. These books validate and teach how to create the Great Work. The Journey to the West is one of those.

The Goddess, the Great Work cult & the worship of Inspiration

The cult of the Great Work is based in the Nature worship of prehistoric times, sometimes called worship of the Goddess. Taoism, with some misunderstandings on the lower levels, is the modern manifestation of this reverence for the physical world and all her manifestations. The Great Work proceeds internally and externally simultaneously, hand-in-hand.

Although we begin with the Grand Illusion, as do the Buddhists, we use it as a springboard into materialism rather than as a basis for retreat. Life is pain and suffering, but also illusion. Hence pain is also illusion. Therefore why detach and retreat from pain? Instead we must dive into pain and discover its unreality. Hit me harder darling! Let me know that I am alive.[ii]

Because we worship the masterpiece, we cultivate inspiration. Mere execution is not enough. Although repetitions set the stage, we crave the divine fire, the Muse. This Fire is necessary to heat the Cauldron to refine the Ore of the Soul so that the Great Work might achieve Immortality. In the Great Work we are about to explore, the author achieves inspiration and points out how to achieve inspiration. Because of the allegorical nature of the story, the references are oblique. To understand the allegory, we look to Taoist alchemical sources. In alchemical terms, we are shining the light of conscious knowledge upon real knowledge to bring it out.

Journey to the West is a Great Work – ‘the true Scripture’.

Having set a little context for these few words, let us examine our Great Work, The Journey to the West. This is a Chinese novel first published in 1592 during China’s Ming Dynasty. Taoist style it’s author is unknown. Remembering that The Journey is first and foremost a book, we can say that the author participates in the cult of The Great Work. This book actively explores how to create the Great Work, while existing simultaneously as a Great Work.

Liu I-ming, a 19th century Taoist, agrees that The Journey is a Great Work. In his book How to Read The Journey to the West he writes:

“11. The acquisition of the true scriptures by means of the journey to the West actually means the acquisition of the true scripture of The Journey to the West. Apart from The Journey to the West, there are no other true scriptures to be obtained.”

Liu is saying that The Journey is the only true scripture. Additionally he is pointing out that a simple reading does not yield the true scripture; it takes a quest, a journey to the West. As true scripture, it is the externalized inner pill that will bring health to the world. Our book journey is a descent into the true meaning of The Journey.

The Story, an overview

Let us start with the general story. Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, is sent by the T’ang Emperor of China in the East to obtain Buddhist scriptures at Thunderclap Mountain in India in the West, so that they can bring them back to East to enlighten the whole country. Along the way he accumulates 4 disciples, who help him to achieve his goal in a series of episodes.

These disciples are no mere mortals. They are a monkey, a hog, a monster, and a white horse. They are supernatural creatures with supernatural powers. These powers are needed to defeat the supernatural monsters and fiends that block their path. However each of the disciples has real weaknesses, which create additional problems. To understand the pilgrims, their weakness and strengths, it is necessary to understand some processes and symbols of Taoist alchemy. We will get to that.

Monsters and Ghosts, come one and all

Employing supernatural creatures to assist a spiritual quest is direct from Taoist practices.

“Those initiates seeking to become a Master post a sign outside the ritual area enlisting the aid of dead souls, evil ghosts, foreign demons, and all other spirits who are in good shape otherwise but have no home. In this way, the barefoot masters … win over these demons, orphan souls, and other dangerous powers, who are thus able to take a first step up the ladder of merit which leads to heaven.” (Shiffer, p. 50)

Redemption of Fallen Immortals through good deeds

In the case of our pilgrims each of them is a fallen Immortal. By providing them with a chance to earn merit by helping others on the path the journey provides them a way to regain their position in heaven. Earning merit is an essential ingredient in becoming Immortal because the merit provides personal power.

“This [performance of good deeds] resulted in the accumulation of the transcendent force expressed by the notion of merit (kung).” (Shiffer, p67)

Mere understanding or awareness is not enough. Wisdom without action is feeble. It lacks sufficient energy to transcend one’s fate. In Chinese mythology the gods are paying attention. Without sufficient community service one is eliminated from the Book of Life - with no chance for Immortality.

“The Jade Maiden of Obscure Brilliance … is the queen of K’un-lun. … She sails the ocean on the back of a large turtle, a fabulous creature on whose shell is represented the map of the world. Accompanying her are the Six Attendants of Destiny, goddesses of the kidneys who are Merit Inspectors of the body. They are all Jade Maidens. At certain crucial times, midnight of the new moon, solstices and equinoxes, these Jade Maidens give out report cards. The merits are then verified and there is a discussion of all actions, good and evil. For those whose records indicate [good actions], destiny is lengthened and all the gods are promoted. Those whose records are blank will die. Destiny’s Attendant crosses them off the Book of Life.” (Shiffer p. 112)

Personal cultivation is not an end in itself. It is just the beginning - a preparation for social action - so that it is clean of personal agenda. Just as personal cultivation lays the foundation, so do good deeds lay the foundation for the quest for Immortality.

“This is an ancient theme: before beginning the search for immortality, one must accomplish three thousand good deeds.” (Shiffer, p. 243)

Indeed one of the prerequisites for study with many high level masters is the accumulation of sufficient merit.

“One of the Taoist Immortals, Chung-li Ch’uan says to Lu Tung-pin: “To become an Immortal, you must first perform many good deeds. When you have accomplished three thousand of them, I will begin to teach you.” He then offers him some alchemical gold to start his good deeds. But when Lu finds that this gold will dissolve after a few thousand years, he turns it down. Chung-li says that he has already achieved his three thousand good deeds because of his concern for future generations.” (Shiffer, p. 161)

Note that the Querents aren’t seeking enlightenment – Buddhist style, as their quest for Buddhist scriptures and knowledge might suggest. Instead they are seeking Immortal status - Taoist style. Similarly my Author is attempting to achieve merit to accomplish his quest for immortality by writing me. In such a way he expresses his concern for future generations. Hopefully he doesn’t just tuck me away in a folder somewhere - never allowing my words to be read by the many willing, but misguided, souls to assist them on their way – just as the Journey helped him on his.

On the Importance of Taming Monsters

You might wonder why the Initiate needs ghosts, demons, and wandering spirits on his Quest. There are two reasons. One is to test the disciple and the other is to assist him. These are very different functions. In the first the spirit acts as an adversary - to challenge and test the abilities of the Querent. In the second the spirit acts as an ally to assist the Initiate to overcome obstacles placed in his path. Some spirits play both roles; others just play one or the other. Tripitaka’s Disciples play both roles. They are meant to assist Tripitaka on his quest, but frequently their unruly nature gets in the way - testing both Tripitaka’s patience and resolve.

In many circumstances he would have loved to reject their help and go it alone, but this is impossible under the circumstances. He needs their supernatural assistance to surmount the supernatural obstacles along the way. The lesson that he must learn to achieve his mission is that he must work with these raw energies - no matter how disruptive they are to his peace of mind. To succeed he must tame these demons rather than reject them. This is a great lesson for all of us. Me, I would have loved to reject my Author and find someone with more credentials, but he is all I have. I must work with the materials at hand.

Tripitaka’s helpers have many flaws. Besides their character defects, which must be constantly worked on and channeled onto the task at hand, they also don’t look or behave properly. They are not handsome Buddhists monks, as is Tripitaka. Wherever they go Tripitaka is constantly apologizing for their appearance - explaining that they aren’t much to look at but that they are quite useful. Besides looking strange they don’t behave properly either. The hog, whose name is Piggy, continually gobbles his food and Monkey is always speaking out of turn - showing little respect for authority. They don’t employ proper etiquette, whether at the dinner table or in the royal palace. Although their form is fatally flawed, their function is essential.

Conversely Tripitaka’s form is impeccable. Almost instinctively he knows the proper way to behave in any circumstance. So his unruly disciples help Tripitaka to learn that external form is secondary to internal function. Don’t get distracted by external appearances for they can be deceiving. Although Tripitaka’s disciples are wild and unruly with obnoxious behavior they need to be tamed for him to succeed.

To achieve on our personal quest it is essential to continually shift our focus to the essentials rather than getting lost on sidetracks that appear right externally. The quest for wealth is one of those sidetracks, which is so deceiving that it traps many a fine soul in the endless swirl of its many currents.

The desire to refine and tame the raw spirit energies around us is Taoism’s link with the spiritism of ancient cultures. This is much different than Buddhism or Confucianism, which don’t believe in spirits or dismiss them as irrelevant to the quest. The Buddha rejects these energies as a dangerous side path. Confucius focuses on ordinary reality at the expense of the supernatural, just as does the prevalent scientism of modern times, which rejects spirit forces as a superstitious residue of the past. Alternately Taoism with its animistic roots views the world as real and alive with energy that can be tamed. The idea is to harness the wild forces of nature rather than to deny them.

Similarly on our own personal quests sometimes we meet individuals who aggravate and annoy us. Frequently these forces have been sent to test and teach us. The normal person rejects these spirits out-of-hand and attempts to separate from them - blaming them for all sorts of personal ills and faults. Alternately the superior person attempts to learn from and actually use their energies to accomplish his goals. This is not easy. If it were it would not be considered a test. And passing tests builds the internal power needed ‘to steal a march on heaven’, which is necessary if we are to achieve Immortality.

While the Taoists seek Immortality, the Buddhists seek Enlightenment, and the Confucians emphasize social involvement. Although these are quite different on the lower levels of the Mountain of the Quest they become increasingly similar, as the Seeker gets closer to the Peak. Although we’ve been approaching this quest from the external perspective, the whole Journey could be viewed from the inside - Buddhist style. The ghosts and demons that need to be tamed for the Great Work to be accomplished are actually all inside. The Monkey represents our own critical Brain, which is constantly getting us into trouble. The Pig represents our own desires that need to be channeled properly. Tripitaka, the Monk, represents our own need for meaning and spirituality, which lead us into being tricked by appearances. And the Quest is just our internal search for Enlightenment. So on another level these wild forces of nature are all inside.

However as we shall see inside and outside is just another polarity that needs to be transcended. Internal work influences the external work and vice versa. So many of these distinctions are superficial - and are only used as a way of communicating essence. Don’t get distracted by truth. Instead focus on meaning. To avoid the nihilism of relativism, the message of the Journey is that these forces must be tamed - not eradicated or ignored. And this is true no matter which part of the Mountain you’re on.

Simultaneous Transformation of Collective and Individual

1st, Bringing Salvation to the Chinese

In the context of the novel as story, the Great Work is obtaining the Buddhist sutras. However Tripitaka is not able to obtain these scriptures until he has gone through the trials and tribulations of his journey to the West. Then even after he has received the sutras from the Buddha his Mission is still not finished for he must still bring the scriptures back to the East. Once the Great Work is achieved it must then be brought to market. The internal pill of personal cultivation is externalized and used to heal the whole country. Hence although this story could be called an allegory for internal transformation, it is set up externally, i.e., the quest occurs on the external plane. Thus on the first level the scriptures must be obtained and brought back to enlighten the people of China. The quest is not just for Tripitaka’s benefit, but is also for all the people of China. His Mission is to bridge East and West, not just seek personal enlightenment. This bridging is incredibly difficult; it is akin to bringing Heaven and Earth together to find the sacred opening. As we shall see this is directly related to the Bodhisattva vow of Mahayana Buddhism.

A Group Transformation, not an individual Enlightenment

There are two noteworthy elements in this regard. First the group of pilgrims must achieve transformation together. In many episodes, it is shown that the Quest falls apart when the group splits up or is separated for any reason. Tripitaka cannot leave the rest behind, nor can he forget about the people of China.

Second, in many episodes the pilgrims must right social wrongs before they are able to pass through to the next stage. Indeed the final collective transformation could never have occurred, had not the pilgrims achieved merit by their social involvement. Thus individual transformation happens concurrently with the collective transformation. The individual is not ‘independent of’ but ‘dependent upon’ the collective. So while the entire goal of their quest is to transform the Chinese with Western knowledge and while the group must move together rather than separately, on another level the pilgrims must also work for social transformation. In other words: Don’t be so focused on your Mission that you forget to deal with the world around you.

Travel rescripts and political involvement

Another piece of evidence that the transformation must occur on external as well as internal levels is the existence of the travel rescript. It is similar to a passport to travel through each country. Our pilgrims can’t just obtain these from some lower official; the leader of each country must sign their rescript. This leads to many opportunities for achieving merit by solving the country’s problems. At the end the Emperor of China asks to see their travel rescript. It is duly noted that they obtained certification for their rescript from every country along the way. The travel rescript is like a thread that weaves all the countries together. Hence our pilgrims must become politically involved to achieve personal transformation. It is not enough for them to right just some of the wrongs along the way; they must work for the salvation of all of the countries and their peoples along the way.

Bridging East and West

Therefore on the most general level, the pilgrims achieve personal transformation by transforming the whole world from West to East. They bring the Western wisdom back to the East, but along the way they solve the political problems of the West, achieving personal merit. Hence the whole world achieves transformation together. Hence their full Mission is to bridge East and West by their Quest, not just to bring wisdom back to the East. Thus on the outer level of the story, the Quest is the bridging of East and West.

Self Connected with Other

In Taoist alchemy, the east represents the self, while the west represents the other. Hence this bridging of East and West has to do with bridging the self and the other. We are not talking about detachment from the other to relieve us of pain. We are instead speaking about transforming Self and Other through the friction of the interaction.

Transformation comes from fulfilling the Mission

Back to the language of the Goddess: The collective transformation is based upon the fulfillment of the divine Mission. To fulfill this Mission, the whole world is transformed along the way. The whole Mission consists of bearing the Diamond Fruit and then bringing it to Market. Just achieving the Great Work, internally or externally, is not enough. The Golden Pill must be given to the country to heal its populace thereby balancing Heaven and Earth. I keep repeating this litany as a reminder to my Author that his creations are not enough. He must share them with the World if he is to achieve Immortality.

Enlightenment a necessary sign post, not the destination

We must stress that Journey portrays a collective transformation experience, not just a personal enlightenment. In other words, the pilgrims are not just seeing into the truths of existence; they are going through a collective transformation internally and externally. Both they and their external world are transformed by the Quest, but none of them achieves the tranquility and permanent peace of mind associated with traditional enlightenment.

Although Tripitaka goes through many enlightenment experiences throughout the Quest, he is still attached to his physical comfort and afraid for his physical security even after he receives the scriptures. The enlightenments act as signposts rather than as destinations. They are not the end, but only part of a cyclical spiral. On many levels individual enlightenment is given secondary status to collective transformation.

That enlightenment to truth is secondary to collective and personal transformation points to Taoist roots. However it is more complex than that. The stories also show that insight and understanding alone don’t allow one to achieve Buddhahood. But transformation can’t be achieved without enlightenment either. Monkey tells Tripitaka at one point that he’ll never reach his goal if he keeps worrying. The only way to reach the goal is through experience combined with enlightenment. Neither is enough by themselves.

Achieving the Way, the Tao, is also not enough. Achieving the Tao is the consolidation of their base, realization of the Mission. However, Keeping to the One = the Way, once it has been achieved, is a massive task fraught with peril and temptation. Attaining the Tao, and achieving enlightenments are only steps on the path towards Immortal status. Wisdom that is not manifested is akin to unused wealth that sits under a pillow. It has no real purpose.

Transformation more external than internal

With all their experiences, enlightenments, and transformations the master and his disciples never shed their personality traits. This reemphasizes the greater importance of the external nature of the quest. Monkey still gets angry, Piggy is still slothful, Tripitaka is ever fearful even unto the later episodes of the quest.

As late as chapter 80 of the 100-chapter book, Monkey questions Tripitaka’s lack of internal transformation in three categories. After so much travel and so many experiences Tripitaka is still afraid, Monkey says, “Your words, Master, hardly sound like those of a seasoned traveler! They seem more like those of a prince or nobleman who sits in a well and stares at the sky.” Then when Tripitaka is homesick, Monkey says, “Master, you are always so full of longing for home that you are hardly like someone who has left the home. Just relax and keep moving! Stop worrying so much.” Although Tripitaka is continually chanting sutras he is still afraid. Although Master and Disciples had many experiences together, interpersonally they still maintain the same cantankerous relationships they had when they met.

This just illustrates the truth that eternal Being, even once it is uncovered, never sheds the connection to the Person, nor is it necessary. The clouds are blown away by the wind and uncover the Sun that was always there, but the weather doesn’t go away. The alcoholic quits drinking, but all his flaws don’t suddenly disappear. Ideally the love of the mother for her children is continuous despite the changes they might go through. Being loves her Person despite and because of his flaws. We love Piggy for his gluttony, Monkey for his attitude, and Tripitaka for his fearfulness. We don’t wish them to shed these personal idiosyncrasies, but are proud of them for accomplishing their Quest. Similarly despite my Author’s personal failings, including his poor writing skills, I still love him for attempting in his pathetic way to strip away some of the Veils of Illusion that obstruct the Truth.



[i]This is similar to the warning repeated throughout the day on MTV, that there are more things to do than watch TV, so please turn off the TV. The TV is telling the viewer to turn it off, granting it more legitimacy. The author telling you that words are a distortion is a similar disclaimer.

[ii]Watch how, Kuan-yin, the representative of The Mother Goddess in The Journey to the West, manifests this principle constantly. What is her original Compassion? We will find out.

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