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The Monkey and the Monk
An Abridgment of The Journey to the West
Translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu
University of Chicago Press, QPB $20.00, 497 pages
Published: November 2006

This is a distillation of Yu’s faithful translation of the 100-chapter, 4-volume The Journey to the West, the part historical, part mythical epic of Chinese literature which has been the basis for numerous movies, animes. and memes.  The essential first eight chapters of the original, which tell how Monkey becomes a force to be reckoned with, are condensed to seven; most of the trimming comes after the divine monk Tripitaka Tang sets out to bring Buddhist scriptures from India back to China, since his encounters with obstacles become a bit repetitive in the long version.

The monk is actually the incarnation of a Heavenly being who volunteered to suffer human birth in order to bring the means of enlightenment to the people of the East. But once he is mortal he will lose his divine perceptions and be vulnerable to illusions, deceptions, and wrong thinking, so he is assigned four assistants, all of them immortals who have fallen into disgrace one way or another. (Don’t drop a teacup or set fire to Heavenly curtains, and especially don’t steal all the peaches.) Their task is to transport him safely, thereby winning their freedom to return to their former estates. This assignment is made difficult by several factors. At least two of the disciples loathe each other and are forever squabbling and fighting. Pigsy is lazy and wants to go back to eating meat and having sex; Monkey wants to go back to being King of the Flower Fruit Mountain. Only the gold fillets that act like 16th-century tasers keep the unruly disciples from rebellion. Thieves and politicians bar their way. The major difficulty, however, is that every monster who wants a short cut to immortality, bypassing all that tedious self-cultivation, wants to devour the monk, for it is widely known that even one mouthful of Tripitaka’s flesh will prolong life, and making a meal of him will bestow longevity. Time and time again Monkey exerts himself on the monk’s behalf, saving Tripitaka from hungry monsters who disguise themselves as damsels in distress or feeble patriarchs, when they don’t simply capture the travelers by a frontal assault.

The story is magnificent adventure, incorporating poetry, allusions to esoteric medicine and meditation practices, breathtaking descriptions of travel, ferocious fight sequences, and braggadocio exchanges between combatants. It is so refreshing to encounter a classic that isn’t inherently a tragedy based on war or lust for power, thirst for revenge. Instead, this epic centers around a quest to benefit all of creation by promoting enlightenment.

From a mountain stone egg is born
The Mind Monkey. This one studies the Tao,
Masters transformations and defeats the lords of death,
Devours immortal peaches and Heavenly feasts,
Challenges the divine champions,
Defeating all — all but one.
Only Quanyin’s intercession
Frees Monkey to pursue once again
The Way as a Heavenly monk’s disciple,
One of four magical beings who serve and guard
Tripitaka Tang on his quest for scriptures.
Not always willingly.
Pigsy loves earthy pleasures,
Monkey resorts to violence.
Over mountains and across rivers,
Eluding traps and subduing demons,
The five companions refine their spirits.
Who will find the Way within the way?

 ~~ Chris Wozney

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