Chapter 54B: Ming’s Journey to the West

Now that we have set up some Chinese foundations over these hundreds of pages we can discuss the authorship of The Journey to the West.

It was under the late Ming that The Journey was written. By then the Three Doctrines were well established and thoroughly mixed. The literati were well acquainted with Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian doctrines, writings and practices, but by and large considered themselves Neo-Confucians. The Taoists were too tainted by popular religious beliefs to be seriously considered by the intelligentsia. And Buddhism was too non-worldly.

However in terms of authorship the book contains many ambiguities, which evade an easy, pat answer. Consequently there has been much discussion as to whether the author of The Journey was Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist? Let me add my two cents worth in the following pages.

Externally – Journey Buddhist?

Let us start with the assumption that the author was Buddhist. After all Tripitaka, the Master of the Quest, was a Buddhist. They were going to the Western Heaven in India where the Buddha was, under his orders, to obtain Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. Kuan Yin, divine protector of the Journey, is a major Buddhist god. The exterior trappings certainly point to a Buddhist authorship of the Journey.

Let us sink a little deeper into the question by examining Tripitaka’s achievements and how he achieved them. Let us start with a review of Buddhist goals. While Buddhists and Taoists both practice meditation to achieve quiet, they have different goals. While the Taoists practice quietude in order to hear Heaven’s quiet voice, the Buddhists practice meditation in order to realize the illusory quality of existence in order to detach from this realm. The object of the Buddhist/Yoga meditation is not alignment with the Will of Heaven. The object is to become enlightened to the illusory quality of Samsara, existence. Thus the Buddhists orient themselves towards enlightenment, when they fully incorporate the illusory quality of life into their innermost beings. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, of Buddhist orientation, points out that as long as there are attachments to this life of suffering that one will continually choose to be reborn again and again until one’s attachments to this life are severed.

Further this enlightenment has to do with integrating the notion that life is illusion into one’s whole being. Understanding this concept intellectually is not enough. Thus we have the Zen master, whapping his student over the head or giving him riddles, koans, to wake him up to the ‘suchness of things’. While it is easy to understand that life is an illusion, it is difficult to integrate the idea into the body. Anytime the individual feels anger/fear or desire, it is a sign that they are not truly detached from this world. Any attachment to this plane manifests emotionally when it is threatened.

Does Tripitaka, the external protagonist of the novel, Journey to the West, achieve this state of detachment? Early in the Journey, a Zen Master gives the Heart Sutra to Tripitaka. The essence of the Sutra is that life is illusion and so there is no reason to be afraid. After a few days of diligently chanting the sutra, Tripitaka experiences enlightenment to the ‘suchness of things’.

Immediately after going through this enlightenment experience, Tripitaka is captured by a Tiger to be consumed by his Master. Tripitaka whimpers, cries, and in short is terrified. Although his mind or brain has understood that this world is only illusion, his body hasn’t. He still has a long distance to go.

Under the Buddhist orientation Tripitaka must go through many more ordeals in order to fully achieve enlightenment to life’s illusion. For the Buddhists the Journey has been set up to train Tripitaka to disassociate from attachment; everything else is incidental. Indeed the branch of Buddhism that Kuan Yin belongs to believes that he must go through 81 ordeals in order to reach purification. Tripitaka practices austerities, meditation, vegetarian diet, and no sex. On the Buddhist level this is to become detached from desires so that Tripitaka can transcend this plain of suffering based upon attachment to desires.

Internally – Taoist?

On the Taoist level these austerities are practiced to align oneself with the Tao. Thus Tripitaka pursues quietism in order to better align himself with the Tao, the Will of Heaven. In terms of the story, the Will of Heaven is that Tripitaka journey to the west in order to obtain holy scriptures from Buddha, which he will bring back to China. On this journey Tripitaka learns detachment, but the Journey on the most basic level has more to with obtaining the scriptures and returning to China than it has to do with Tripitaka’s personal enlightenment. Indeed even unto the end of this mystic quest, Tripitaka is still attached to the truth of the words, to fairness and social service. Tripitaka never quite detaches himself from this plane of existence. Instead, his mission accomplished, he is removed to Buddhist Heaven by divine beings. In the story Tripitaka does not stay on earth to preach truth and goodness, instead he immediately ascends to other planes.

It must be reiterated that while the Chinese world view, whether Taoist or Confucian/Duke of Chou, attempts to align themselves with the Tao or Will of Heaven, the Yogic/Buddhist complex denies this reality and in fact considers it an attachment that needs to be eliminated. The goal is to escape the cycle of transmigration by eliminating attachment to this plane. The attribution of meaning to this plane is an illusion that must be eventually severed to escape the cycle of rebirth. On the Taoist level the object is alignment with the Tao of Heaven, while for Buddhists the object is to become enlightened to the ‘suchness of things’. Thus Tripitaka’s intense spiritual desire to fulfill the Will of Heaven, albeit Buddhist, is distinctly Chinese rather than Indian Buddhist.

While the Buddhist interpretation of Tripitaka’s stillness was that he was detaching from desires, the Taoist interpretation was that this stillness was necessary to avoid polluting the Divine Will with personal desire. Every time Tripitaka moved of his own volition he got into trouble, threatening the Quest. It seemed that the author was linking Tripitaka with the Taoist notion of wu-wei, non-action. Tripitaka was the chariot rider in the center riding on his dragon horse, wielding his Monkey, Piggy, Monster personas to achieve his goals, always remaining motionless himself, through balance. Thus Tripitaka, through stillness, aligns himself with the Will of Heaven and fulfills his destiny to become an immortal. Through the achievement of these Chinese goals, not only does he become immortal, he also achieves Buddhist detachment from this world. To the Chinese this achievement of Buddhist detachment is secondary, while to the Buddhist the fulfillment of the heavenly will is secondary.

Becoming an Immortal

By following the Tao of Heaven, Tripitaka has become Immortal.

In a general sense immortals appear in every culture. They are humans who have achieved such prominence that they are remembered far past their death. They might be heroes, artists, religious leaders, scientists, or even evil dictators that caused wide spread havoc in the world. Shakespeare, Jesus, Mohammed, Ulysses, Achilles, Moses, Hitler and Einstein are all immortals in this sense. Throughout the world the common man tends to elevate these human beings to divine status. Their accomplishments are so incredible that they can’t be made of the same substance as me. They must have the blood of gods within their blood. Jesus and Achilles are examples of two historical characters given divine parentage. In each of these cases the immortal reaches far beyond their station to transform the world around them, for better or worse.

As an aside, the Taoist Immortals are quite different. These Immortals are humans who have achieved physical immortality by some means or another. They have not transformed the world and are usually quite drunk. Most followers of Taoism don’t necessarily want to be an immortal because they are so weird. This was especially true in conformist Chinese society. These Immortals lived outside of social custom, coming and going somewhat as they pleased.

For those of us who worship Fruit, the Immortals were individuals who had achieved something that would transform the world and last forever. Tripitaka’s alter ego fulfills this definition. I am writing about the Journey to the West, written 400 years ago about an event that had occurred over a millennium earlier. The ‘immortal’ event referred to is this. Hsüan-tsang, a real man, traveled to India from China to obtain Buddhist scriptures and then brought them back to China. This journey was immortalized in the Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Tripitaka is Hsüan-tsang. Hsüan-tsang is an immortal, though not Taoist.

The Story – Tripitaka, a Confucian Sage?

Tripitaka, in most perceptions, did not achieve enlightenment in the Buddhist/Yogic context, (even unto the end, he remained his righteous Tripitaka self). Furthermore he did not achieve physical immortality in the Taoist sense, (although he did leave behind an incredible legacy.) He did however become an immortal in the Confucian sense, clothed in the being and attire of a Buddhist monk, draped in the words of Taoist terminology. How deliciously ironic.

As a Buddhist, in the midst of a Taoist alchemical metaphor, Tripitaka achieves the state of sage in the Confucian context. As we saw, in the I Ching, it states that a sage is someone who creates a tool for the masses. A tool is something, which helps out. Hence Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, were all sages because they left the tool of their wisdom behind to help out. Tripitaka was not really that wise. He was persistent, centered, focused, but wise, not really. Rarely did deep wisdom come from Tripitaka; most often it came from Monkey, sometimes Piggy, many times the author, but Tripitaka’s immortality lay in his persistence rather than in his wisdom.

On the surface Tripitaka’s tool that established him as a sage were the Buddhist scriptures that he brought back to China. However the holy scriptures that were returned to China should have been blank according to the Buddha. Because Tripitaka complained that the Emperor and the people of China needed words, the Buddha gave him scriptures with words on them. Even these distorting words were incomplete because parts of them were damaged and destroyed on the way home by water due to a trick of the gods. Hence the tool that Tripitaka employed to establish his sagehood, was not the wisdom that he brought back but instead was his persistence in the face of great tribulation.

Tripitaka’s accomplishment was that he crossed the Great Water and returned. Thus Tripitaka’s tool was his own life. It was not his Buddhist wisdom, nor was it the Buddhist scriptures that he brought back to China; it was his own life, his courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, to pursue his vision. Because his vision aligned itself with the Will of Heaven, he was protected by guardian angels.

In order to cross the Great River to align himself with the will of Heaven, he had to leave home. He left his safe sheltered ancestral home in the capital of Imperial China to cross the Great River. The home represents comfort, ease, and prestige. He left the home by crossing the Great River. Only by leaving the comforts of home to cross the Great River was Tripitaka able to achieve his great goal. Which of us would have chosen to leave the comforts of T’ang China to travel across unknown territories to obtain some Buddhist scriptures from India on the other side of the Himalayas. Who of us really wants to be an immortal if it takes crossing the Great River and leaving the comforts of home?

The idea of Crossing the Great River comes from the North – the Mongolians, the Confucians, the I Ching people. It was they who had to deal with the intense flooding of the Yellow River, sometimes associated with the thawing of the glaciers of the Ice Ages. Crossing the Great River had far greater significance for those in the erratic river valleys of the north than it did for those associated with the smooth flowing Yangtze River Valley further south.

Generally the Taoists are not considered social reformers. The Taoist Chuang Tzu says he would rather be a tortoise wagging his tail in the river, rather than adorning the Emperor’s wall. It is Confucius, himself, who tends to be associated with Tripitaka’s moral conscience. The ju, i.e. Confucians, stressed culture as a criterion for leadership but they were not social reformers either. Thus Tripitaka, while not really enlightened in the Buddhist sense, nor physically immortal in the Taoist sense, could be considered a Confucian Sage especially in the context of the novel. In the novel there are many situations in the Journey where the travelers could have easily passed through trouble but each time Tripitaka has them stop and help out.

Summarizing the ambiguities: each member of Tripitaka’s group is one of the five elements of Taoist Alchemy. Simultaneously they are Buddhists attempting to spread the truths of Buddhism. However Tripitaka’s achievement is social and therefore of the Duke of Chou/Confucian line rather than Buddhist or Taoist in nature. However he accomplished his journey in Taoist Alchemical fashion, i.e., by aligning the five elements, which aligned his journey with the Tao, the Will of Heaven. However the Will of Heaven was dictated by Buddha and was of a Buddhist nature, i.e. retrieving Buddhist scriptures from India and returning them to China to help out. Furthermore by Buddhist means of sexual abstinence, strict vegetarian diet, and leaving the home, Tripitaka was able to have the necessary energy or vitality to accomplish his goal. Tripitaka, the name, even suggests the ‘Three ways’.

No Roof?

We’ve seen that The Journey to the West incorporates the ‘Three Doctrines’ in a complex and ambiguous fashion. The discussion as to whether Journey is Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian, is similar to the question of whether China is predominantly one of those three. The following discussion offers yet another way of looking at these questions.

“The pig was domesticated early in the history of China and became a symbol for prosperity for the common man. If you were rich enough to have a pig living in your house, you could feel relatively secure.”[1]

Hence in Chinese, the word for home or family is jiä[2], whose ideogram contains the symbol for a pig under a roof.

{Show calligraphy}.

This symbol represents a relatively happy, prosperous and secure family with their pig under their roof.

This word, jiä, has other meanings as well. It also means ‘a school of thought’. The basic idea is that a family of ideas is formed, which everyone adheres to. We see this manifested especially in Taiji forms, where the Chen, Yang and Tung families have each propagated their own unique forms of Taiji. Hence we have the Confucian school or family of thoughts. The word ‘schools’ in the ‘hundred schools of thought’ during the Spring and Autumn Era was the word, jiä.

In the Journey we see this same symbolism of the pig under a roof played out in an explicit manner. When Tripitaka and Monkey first encounter Piggy he is living under a roof. Further he is providing great prosperity for his ‘family’ because of his hard work. Once Tripitaka reveals himself and his quest, Piggy, under Monkey’s encouragement, leaves his ‘family’ to assist Tripitaka. Hence Piggy leaves his family with their secure roof for the great outdoors.

Continually throughout the rest of their Journey, especially when their quest is threatened by seemingly insurmountable dangers, Piggy is continually tempted to return to the safety and security of his family. Sometimes he, himself, suggests it as a solution to their woes. Other times Monkey tempts him with the idea. Regularly Monkey, Sha Monk, and Tripitaka refer to their group as those who have left the family.

Remember that the word jiä can be translated as family or as school of thought. Thus our scripture pilgrims have not only left the family, but they have also left schools of thought behind. The ceiling or roof of ideas contained in the school of thought could be conceived of as the dogma of the school. The ceiling or roof is manmade while our Pilgrims sleep under the canopy of Heaven. Our Pilgrims have left the security of the dogma of a manmade school of thought for the unpredictable Will of Heaven. The warmth and security of manmade dogma is replaced by the focus upon the Journey, the Will of Heaven.

Thus our discussion of which doctrine is at the root of Journey to the West is answered simply. The Journey has left the family behind. The Pig is no longer under a roof. Our Pilgrims have substituted the Will of Heaven, that they acquire the scriptures, for the security of any school of thought. Hence the philosophy behind the Journey transcends the Three Doctrines, while containing elements of each. They have left schools of thought behind with their protective, but limiting, ceilings. Their desire to fulfill the Tao of Heaven transcends any specific school of thought. They sleep under the stars, not under any manmade roof. Similarly Chinese thought while including the Three Doctrines actually transcends them all. Now we can finally understand Master Ni’s first quote included in the introduction.

“I teach Taoist meditation, but am not a Taoist. I am a free man.”

He too sleeps under the stars rather than under a manmade ceiling. He has left the Chinese family of thought behind to follow his own destiny.

[1]Chinese Characters, p.49

[2]In these pages,, the umlaut is used to represent the bar over the vowel.

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