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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|
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.
|The Buddha's lesson|
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 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|
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: http://www.greatsage.net