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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Chinese twist to the Monkey tale (1)

Tuesday, 1 January 2013
The Monkey story has more parallels with my life than I thought, until now. At a point that he and his companions had no idea was coming, they were forced out of a life of comparative ease to one dramatically different. Monkey had no choice but to begin a new life through totally alien terrain from any he had experienced. He was guided by helpers of great compassion as he tried to fight off his demons as he undertook a strange journey in search of ultimate peace and contentment.

Let the story begin.

Buddhism through Chinese Eyes: Mahayana and Monkey Magic

King Monkey
At certain times a few years ago, the casual observer in any Australian city or town may have noticed the unusual phenomenon of scores of children leaving their games to settle in front of the nearest television set, in order to watch the ABC series, Monkey Magic.

   The same observer would also notice quite a sprinkling of teenage and adult viewers similarly addicted to the spectacle of King Monkey's antics as he pilots his master, Tripitaka, across the craggy terrain of China to the spiritual home of Buddhism in India. Monkey Magic is, for most viewers, their first experience of the Buddhist message, and the fact that its appeal is so widespread might further lead an observer to speculate upon what its impact has been, and the sort of Buddhism it portrays.


The original tale about Monkey and his companions was written in the sixteenth century by Wu Ch'eng-en. It is about the trials and tribulations of the celebrated Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang, who in the seventh century CE travelled to India in order to bring back to China the original Buddhist scriptures. Hsuan-tsang was, as the Chinese records show, an historical personality; a man of great courage and tenacity, who fulfilled his mission at great peril to his life, and we have his account of these travels to verify it.

The Chinese Novel

So much for historical fact. In Wu Ch'eng-en's novel, Journey to the West, he is known as Tripitaka, and is accompanied on the pilgrimage by a monkey spirit, who is really the hero of the novel, as well as a pig spirit and a water spirit. These characters are reproduced for us in the television series as Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy.

   Here is the first sign that we are encountering the Mahayana version of Buddhism, for in classical Buddhism there are no spirits and no magic. There is not even a god nor a Buddha figure to whom one can pray for help or guidance. But that is no problem for Mahayana. It is the popular brand of Buddhism, packaged, as it were, for the market; consumers who are used to spirits, demons, magic and gods, and heavenly interference in earthly matters.

Original Buddhism

The essential Buddhist message propounded by its founder, Gautama, in the sixth century BCE, is that life is full of unhappiness caused by egocentric desires and cravings, and that release from the unsatisfactoriness of life is possible through correcting one's understanding of things. By observing a number of moral preliminaries, and by intense self-effort, ultimate salvation from the pain of this world, the blissful state of nirvana, is achieved.

"New" Buddhism

Demons, spirits and magic have no place in this logical and rational analysis of life's problems, but after several centuries, Buddhism split into a number of schools, of which two main forms, Mahayana and Theravada, survive. Theravada retained many of the original teachings of the Buddha, but Mahayana adopted syncretic tendencies as it spread to China and parts of Southeast Asia, absorbing local cults and practices along the way.

    In China, it developed further forms on contact with Taoism, producing sects such as Ch'an which in Japan became known as Zen. It is not surprising, then, to find that the type of Buddhism portrayed in Monkey and the television series has many exotic elements, quite unrelated to the religion of its founder.

Stars of the Show

Tripitaka, the pious Buddhist monk, thus finds himself accompanied by these three unwilling disciples, all of whom are capable of a little magic of their own. The monkey spirit – King Monkey, Great Sage, Equal of Heaven as he proudly calls himself, – is an immortal. Whilst in Heaven he cheekily drank from the Heavenly Emperor's cup of immortality, and was thrown out of Heaven for the transgression.

    He still retained his ability to cloud-fly, and to change shape at will, and many other tricks which are invaluable in case of attack by demons, and was particularly adept at using his magic stave on the many occasions when hand-to-hand combat was required.

    The pig spirit was likewise thrown out of Heaven for breaking Heavenly rules, this time for displaying too openly those piggish qualities of lust, greed and slothfulness. It is a sad demotion from his former position as Marshal of the Heavenly Armies to the indignity of being cleaner of the royal stables, and he falls to earth with his muck-rake which, incidentally, he can use very effectively as a weapon if need be.

    The other spirit, Sandy, a water spirit with a previously bad reputation for eating people, turns out to be the philosopher of the troupe – not a very good one, but he adds substantially to the humour of the story with his whimsical meditations and musings.

    It is the subtle humour of the television series, much of which comes from the original tale, which is its chief attraction to adults. With a plot based on an old Chinese novel about an Indian religion played out by Japanese actors and dubbed into English by a translator with a ready wit and a keen sense of the ridiculous, there is scope for a great deal of humour, intentional or otherwise.

    In one memorable scene, Sandy and Pigsy are tied up by demons, and are shortly to be put to death. 'Another fine mess you've got us into,' Sandy says. The Japanese translator has obviously seen his share of Laurel and Hardy movies.



  1. Well how do you expect anyone to be able to comment on this gorgeous and fine topic with holiday brain? You can't expect Pigsy to suddenly speak as Tripitaka or even the Equal of Heaven :)

    with pleasure,
    Julie M xx

    1. Ha ha! I never thought of you as a Pigsy [and never will]. You just enjoy the time, which I remember was one of the best for the year in academia. I do hope you don't have a pile of unmarked essays sitting there looking accusingly at you. Ignore them.

      Tripitaka would lecture you about the Middle Way. So enjoy what you're doing. ☝

  2. Pigsy appeals on a real level...laughter, joy, lust and naughtiness.
    Sandy appeals on an intellectual level...thoughtful and studious.
    Monkey will protect.
    Tripitaka is attractive on an androgenous level and confuses and annoys all at once.
    All in all loyalty, humour and commitment to your personal aim is enough.

    I have so enjoyed this series of your writings, Denis. Thank you.

    1. My pleasure! There is no way kids could get some of Sandy's humour, I'm sure.


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