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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chinese twist to the Monkey tale (3)

continued from here

The Monkey King
To be a monkey in Hindu-Buddhist mythology is no insult.  On the contrary, the monkey is a powerful figure, protector and friend of epic heroes. 

   Monkey as King Monkey in this story is an intriguing character – strong, resourceful, brave, obstinate, violent and presumptuous, though his vices are tempered by a streak of compassion and a sense of humour. With enormous pride (far too much!) he calls himself by his full grand title, "King Monkey, Great Sage, Equal of Heaven".

Monkey and the Buddha

Chinese vision of Buddha
With arrogance like this, it comes as no surprise that he is irreverent to all forms of authority, and even the Buddha is no exception. When he gets angry, he curses the Buddha, argues with him and shows no respect whatsoever, for which he often pays the penalty exacted of those whose pride is equal only to their ignorance. 'Hey Buddha, I'm coming to see you. Put the kettle on!' he shouts from his remarkable cloud-chariot, and the Buddha obligingly manifests himself (or is it herself?) – without the kettle – wafting in gigantic form above the clouds, and generally gives Monkey good advice, or teaches him a well-deserved lesson. 

    The Buddha manifests himself in the Chinese form of the goddess Kuan Yin – hence the ambivalence over the gender.  This is a perfect example of the mixture of Buddhism and Chinese folklore that reflected the state of Chinese Buddhism at the time. It is why the real Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang, set out for India in the first place – to translate the original Buddhist Pali texts into Chinese.

    On one memorable occasion in the TV version, Monkey challenges the supremacy of the Buddha by saying that he can cloud-fly to the outer limits of the universe, where no-one has ever been before, and where the five pillars of wisdom stand. 

    He eventually reaches the pillars, writes some graffiti on one of them and returns triumphantly to the Buddha, after a long journey. Claiming his victory, he sits on the Buddha's outstretched palm and awaits acknowledgment of his accomplishment. The Buddha smiles knowingly, and of course compassionately, and invites Monkey to study the fingers of the Buddha's hand. 

The Buddha's lesson
    There is Monkey's graffiti, on one of the fingers. The lesson to Monkey is a stunning one. The universe is not outward but within; indeed, no further away than one's fingertips. The arduous trip of which Monkey was so proud has been in vain; a product of ignorance and pride. If only one understands, the universe reveals itself.

    So, for Monkey, there is nowhere to which he can take the easy way out and fly anywhere meaningful, and no magic which has the power to enlighten. The trip to India is going to be on foot, one weary step after the other. It is a trip through the experiences of life, and after this lesson, Monkey returns to his companions, chastened and a little wiser.

Monkey's Mission

Monkey's task is to protect Tripitaka, but he has a serious problem. He's not supposed to use magic, or to kill the demons and other wicked characters who constantly cross their path in order to abort the mission. 

The fearsome Golden Horn Demon
    Nevertheless, he does use his tricks wherever possible, and he does manage to despatch more than his share of demons and villains, and this is one of the few unresolved, or only partially resolved conflicts in the story. Tri-Pitaka can pull him into line when necessary by reciting the headache sutra, which causes the golden crown on Monkey's head to induce a violent pain, so terrible that even Monkey must submit. It is an interesting demonstration of the power of prayer!

    In another memorable scene, Monkey goes to the Buddha and asks to be relieved of the crown, which he cannot remove by his own efforts. The Buddha simply tells him to take it off, which Monkey finds, to his surprise, that he can easily do, and Monkey is thus released from his task of guarding Tripitaka.

    But after a little while, Monkey finds that life without his master is meaningless, and he voluntarily replaces the golden crown and resumes his duty as bodyguard.

    The message is simple and powerful. The Buddhist path, represented by the crown, has its own headaches. That is the price the disciple has to pay. Suffering is the inevitable result of doing what we know in our hearts to be wrong. The 'crown' can be removed if that is our desire, simply by an act of will, but then life has no meaning or purpose.

    Resuming the crown means accepting the discipline necessary to follow the pathway to salvation. Every branch of Buddhism makes no secret of this truth, and the message is familiar enough to followers of western religions as well.

*Modified. Unmodified illustration source:



  1. Good Grief, Denis. I just got it. After all these years of living in a state of 'suffering' I realise that being a mother, a wife is a life of 'suffering'. My children, having children is automatically suffering if you care and love and want for them. Living with a husband with medical problems and having 'nearly' died three times the suffering feels 'interminable' feels forever, having loved so strong, so long, forever.

    I will not NOT take off the 'crown'. I have and will forever be there for my children and my husband because that is what love means.

    I do not believe in 'the Buddha' as he seems to say 'work to take away suffering' ...or to be a female is not so good. ( A 'certain type of Buddhism, perhaps, that says; you have to be male to reach "Nirvana"?).

    IN any case; this is my lot. To love so much so hard so 'forever' that it is my 'crown'.

    'Tis enough.

    Thanks again.

    1. I don't know if you have seen other blog entries, but this one may interest you.

      In Buddhism, the word "suffering" [in Sanskrit, dukkha, has multiple shades of meaning. Sometimes it means true agony and at others it means something more vague; frustration, off-centredness, dissatisfaction. All these things apply to life, and one of the hardest for everyone concerned is chronic illness. The primary carer and parent in these cases has a duty from which there is little escape while they are needed.

      I don't believe people in general have much idea of how difficult this is until or if they are placed in this position, especially that of primary carer. I confess that I had no real idea while not involved; in my case as the one to be cared for. I thought I did, but empathy is never understanding.

      So many people wear this 'crown', but for some, the difficulties they face are worse than for others. I'm sorry your crown is a heavy one.

      The Buddha, if we understand his fundamental message, would have been pleased to know that you don't believe in him, because he wanted people to learn how to believe in themselves. Concessions were made in the chauvinistic society of the Buddha's time and after he died, and in virtually all societies [until the dents being made in chauvinism now], to one of inferior status for women, but modern Buddhist philosophy does not accept these restrictions. As you note, that misogyny still remains in some traditional Buddhist orders and sects.


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