Miranda: “Dad, snap out of it. It’s time to go.”
Me: “Sorry. I was just visiting ancient China. It took a little while to get back.”
Miranda: “My dad, the space case. Everyone’s waiting for you in the bus.”
Thinking to myself: “They’re probably talking about shopping for antiques in Malacca. I’m proud that I’m not a materialist. I have little craving for things. I’m very different than the rest of humanity.”
Universe: “Fool! Let’s see how different you really are.”
Walking past the Temple gift shop, my eyes casually scan the multitude of knickknacks that are omnipresent everywhere.
Me, to myself: “Shopping opportunities, anywhere I look. I’m so glad that I’m immune.”
Then suddenly I see my friend, Monkey, who I’ve been seeking for years.
Me: “Monkey! Old friend. What are you doing here?”
Monkey: “Just waiting for you to come along.”
Me: “But everyone else is waiting for me.”
Monkey: “Well here I am - manifested as a nice brass sculpture - in one of my martial poses - staff in hand ready to strike my enemy. Can you really resist me?”
Me: “United at last. I’ve been searching for so long.”
Infected by the fever I couldn’t wait to possess my very own Monkey.
Me to the merchant: “How much?”
Merchant: “80 ringgits.”
Me: “How about 65?”
Not understanding English, he brought out a calculator. I pressed the appropriate buttons. He nodded in agreement. I pulled out my wallet. Not anticipating my fever of materialism, I hadn’t brought enough money.
Me: “Laurie, do you have any money?”
Laurie: “I didn’t bring any with me.”
Me, angrily: “Why not?”
Laurie: “Relax. I have money back in the bus.”
Me: “Could you go back and get it?”
Laurie: “Let’s go together.”
Me: “I don’t want to lose touch with my monkey. I’ve been searching for so long.”
Laurie: “Let’s go together. It’ll still be there when you get back.”
Me: “But everyone is waiting.”
Laurie: “It won’t be any quicker by myself.”
Me: “Well OK.”
I run back to the bus, where everyone else is sitting patiently.
Feverishly I exclaim: “Could you wait just a few more minutes. I’ve found my monkey.”
Others: “No problem.”
Danna: “Your monkey?”
I run back with my money. I am grateful that the merchant has wrapped my purchase up. I am about to pay my 65 ringgits when Danna rushes up.
Danna: “How much are you paying.”
Danna: “Too much.”
The merchant immediately offers the sculpture for 60, about $25.
Gleefully I grasp my purchase and return to the bus.
Danna: “Still too much.”
Me: “It doesn’t matter. I’ve been searching for so long for my Chinese monkey.”
Danna: “How long?”
Monkey: “What happened to your anti-materialist stance?”
Me: “Out the window, in the face of something I really wanted, you.”
Monkey: “Face to face with your spiritual materialism. You are just the same as the rest.”
My pride humbled, I nodded silently.
Later, as we were driving, Me to Danna: “When I saw your city on the tour itinerary, I was immediately captivated. I mentioned to many around me that ‘Kuala Lumpur is calling me.’”
Danna: “You were called here, half way around the world, to get your monkey.”
Tingling up and down my spine, the crown of my head, and my fingertips, as I have a direct experience of the Divine Plan working itself out.
Now that I have my Monkey, at last, let me introduce you, both.
Reader - Monkey. Monkey - Reader.
I met Monkey in an odd way. I was waiting for my Tai Chi class with Master Ni to start. A stranger entered the room. I noticed him talking to one of my classmates, who pointed at me. The stranger came right over and said: “Are you, Don?”
I nodded in the affirmative.
He handed me a paperback book. Before I could ask him any questions he left.
The name of the book was simply, The Monkey. My curiosity piqued, I began reading the story at my first available opportunity. It was about 300 pages long, with about 60 chapters. I rapidly devoured it. Each chapter was a different episode in the adventures of Monkey and some fellow travelers as they went to the Indian Himalayas from China to obtain some Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk we’ve already met, was the leader of the journey. Monkey, as a formidable martial artist and divine personage, was just there to protect him. Piggy, another powerful fighter, who we’ve also met, was also meant to protect Tripitaka. Of course, both Piggy and Monkey have lots of personality and get Tripitaka in lots of trouble, but also regularly save his life. To round out the group, there was also Sandy, another Buddhist monk, who was actually a fallen god, and the Horse, who was actually the son of a Dragon.
While the book was funny and irreverent, spoofing serious manifestations of any religion, it was also a metaphor for Life’s Journey - told from a Chinese standpoint, including Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in a delicious mix. Indeed Buddha put Kuan Yin in charge of the Journey from the divine perspective. In this context she was definitely the Bodhisattva of Compassion, helping out our travelers when they got in too much trouble.
A few months later, I was practicing Push Hands, a exercise based on Tai Chi principles which sometimes leads to free form sparring, with Bill Powell, a professor of Religious Studies at UCSB. To illustrate a point I mentioned a story from the Monkey Book, as I called it. He looked startled. I started to explain my point more thoroughly.
Bill: “You need not go on. I understood what you were referring to. I was just taken aback, because I’m about to teach an entire course on the Monkey Book, as you call it. It’s real name is Journey to the West.”
Me: “Not according to my book.”
Bill: “Yours is an older abridged version. The complete version, which we’re using for my class, is four volumes, 500 pages each, with 100 chapters total.”
Starting to drool, Me: “Is there any way I could purchase a copy of it. I just love the book. It speaks to me so deeply.”
Bill: “Sure. But I was going to suggest that you take my class, if you like the book so much.”
Me: “But I’m not enrolled at UCSB. I’m not a student.”
Bill: “That’s OK. The class won’t be full. You can audit it. I give you permission.”
Me: “That would all right?”
Bill: “I’m the Professor and I say it would be just fine.”
Although it interrupted my leisurely day, my personal projects, and my schedule of picking up my two children from school, I made my way out thrice weekly for nearly 3 months to UCSB to audit Bill Powell’s class. I was inspired by the outrageous Monkey and his gang.
I became quite intimate with the characters spending 3 months and 2000 pages discussing this book. Then for our final Bill instructed us to write some of our reactions to the book based upon the Chinese context, which we had learned from his lectures and readings. Inspired I began writing about the Taoist alchemical meanings behind the episodes. I finally stopped 80 pages later.
Then I had another experience which deepened my relation to the Journey even more. A few seasons later another Tai Chi partner named Peter became interested in the Monkey Book, Journey to the West, after Master Ni said that an avatar wrote it. An avatar, according to Hindu metaphysics, is an enlightened being who is here to relieve human suffering. Peter was hooked. He purchased the complete version and began reading. Because of my affinity for the book, I began reading it along with him. We discussed it almost daily during our Tai Chi sessions in Oak Park for the few months it took him to finish it.
Due to this extended participation with these unusual characters, I began viewing them as my intimate friends, rather than as literary figures. Hence my obsession and excitement upon discovering them on the Malay Peninsula.
Monkey: “You’ve spent this entire session explaining your connection to me without revealing any of my marvelous exploits. Now I’m going to give you a brief synopsis of our Journey from my standpoint.”
I began my life searching for a spiritual master. After what seemed forever, I heard a woodsman singing a song which I felt indicated his deeper understanding. I asked him to be my master. He said that he had learned the song from someone else, and then led me to his presence. I studied under this master until I acquired some proficiency. Before I left the master made me promise that I would never reveal that he had instructed me. Obviously he could sense the mischief I was going to get into.
I was proud because I had cultivated my talents. I could travel on the clouds, go through 72 transformations, and was an incredible martial artist. I decided to challenge the gods. To make a long story short, I first ate their Peaches of Immortality and then eventually stole their wine. They called all their heroes in to control me, but to no avail. I even escaped from Lao Tzu’s Yin Yang Cauldron.
Finally the Buddha was summoned. He and I made a deal. If I could escape his presence then he would make me ruler of Heaven. I immediately dashed off, using my abilities to reach the end of the Universe. There were four pillars there. I peed on them and wrote on them. ‘Monkey was here.’ I rushed back to be proclaimed ruler of Heaven. Instead he showed me his hand. On one of his fingers, which smelled liked monkey urine, was my writing.
Having won our bet, Buddha then flopped his hand over on me, imprisoning me. His hand turned into a mountain, which held me captive for 500 years. Finally Kuan Yin came by and freed me on the condition that I help Tripitaka on his Journey to obtain scriptures in the West. I was so bored I would have agreed to anything. Sensing this Kuan Yin provided me with a net cap, which Tripitaka could use to control me. If he said a magic incantation, it would begin to tighten giving me an incredible headache.
Soon after my friends, Piggy, Sandy, and the Dragon Horse also joined the Journey. My pride, Piggy’s desires, and Tripitaka’s excessive compassion, got us into lots of trouble, endangering the Quest more than once. Piggy regularly threatened to leave because the work was too hard or too dangerous. I had to trick him to keep him on track.
I did leave once when I got so mad because I felt that I wasn’t being given the respect I deserved. Tripitaka was tricked by a demon, disguised as a pretty girl. Sensing this with my powers of discrimination I flattened the demon with my mighty club. Tripitaka was furious because he thought the demon was a devout Buddhist, who was providing assistance. I didn’t feel appreciated and left. Kuan Yin herself had to intercede to get me to return.
Gradually but surely, my pride, Piggy’s desires, and Tripitaka’s unrealistic expectations were curbed and tamed. We all eventually learned to work together for the good of the group. At last we reached the Buddha and received the scriptures. I could have easily taken Tripitaka to his goal, but he had to get there on his own two feet to get the full benefit. After we returned to China the Buddha made me a god because of my assistance to Tripitaka on his long Journey.
In some ways I represent the Pride that arises with proficiency. This needs to be curbed to fulfill Life’s Journey. I also represent the fragmented mind which constantly gets distracted, wanting things so much that focus on the destination is lost.
If you want to know more about my exploits you might read one of the many versions of Journey to the West. Everyone with a Chinese or Japanese background knows some of my stories. They are so popular that some of these tales about me have been highlighted in film and opera. While everyone knows my stories, few know their meaning. If you want to know the deeper intent provided by alchemical Taoism read Liu I-Ming. If this is still inaccessible read this author’s explanation of the underlying meanings. He did a pretty good job for a barbarian.”
Me: “Thanks for the plug.”