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The Monkey is one of the masterpieces of literature that contains the ethics, morality, religion, and culture of the Eastern world. In the tales about Monkey and his companions, the reader can notice the features of such religions as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, on which all the stories are built. However, the principles of Buddhism are more often and more prominently displayed in the main characters of the story. Each of them represents the shortcomings that Buddhism considers as obstacles to enlightenment and the virtues that are necessary to achieve Nirvana. This combination of vices that Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy need to overcome on the path of enlightenment and their merits that coincide with Buddhist ideals proves that the Monkey is an allegory of Buddhism.
The monkey appears in the story in the first chapter and is one of the central characters in fairy tales. In the beginning, the reader sees Monkey as a self-confident, strong leader who rules the flock and wants to self-develop. However, he is led by selfish desires to become immortal, to learn magic, and to be better than others, which demonstrates his inconstancy and fussiness (Wu, 1942/2015). The monkey represents the mental side of Buddhism with these traits since according to Buddhism, a person must master and direct his or her mind towards harmony to achieve enlightenment (Keown, 2017). Besides, according to Buddhist teachings, a person must renounce everything cruel, and find peace in his or her soul (Keown, 2017). However, at the beginning of the story, the reader discovers that Monkey kills the Six Robbers. Later he sees and wants to join the fight with words: “I am going off to have a bit fun with the creature” (Wu, 1942/2015, 38). Thus, Monkey is an allegory of the mental state of a person in Buddhism and one of the vices that he or she must overcome to comprehend Nirvana.
At the same time, Monkey also symbolizes the concept of vacuum, which underlies Buddhist teachings. One of the names of Monkey is “Aware-of-Vacuity”, that is, a person who knows absolute harmony, renunciation of desires, and identity (Wu, 1942/2015). In Buddhism, this concept is also reflected in the idea of “no-self,” which means the emptiness and absence of “myself,” since it interferes with the merging with Nirvana (Keown, 2017). Therefore, the name of Monkey and its journey is an allegory of this concept. Besides, at the end of the story, the reader sees that Monkey managed to settle his mind, overcome vices, and achieve enlightenment (Wu, 1942/2015). Thus, this character contains an allegory to one of the spiritual principles of people in Buddhism, the development of which leads to the achievement of Nirvana.
Tripitaka is a monk who, in the past, was a disciple of the Buddha and was punished because of his disobedience. He is a pilgrim who goes his way in search of redemption and enlightenment, and he takes Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy as his students (Wu, 1942/2015). He is the personification of the physical and material things that must be rejected to achieve Nirvana. Tripitaka is a monk, so he knows a lot of Buddhist teachings, and he does not forget to remind his companions. For him, the external observance of the rules is essential; however, he does not understand their deep meaning. Unlike Monkey, he renounces any violence, and it is easier for him to die than to fight his enemy. This fact is especially evident in the story of the battle of the Monkey with Six Robbers, whom he kills (Wu, 1942/2015). These Robbers are symbols of the six senses that a person must defeat to refuse desires and find enlightenment, according to Buddhism (Keown, 2017). However, Tripitaka accepts only the visible following of the rules, so he scolds Monkey for his act.
However, throughout the story, the reader can see Tripitaka’s empathy and compassion, as well as the progress he made. During the trip, he often assists his disciples with understanding and devotion, which helps him get rid of the physical dependence that prevented him at the beginning of the journey. As a result, he ultimately gets rid of the physical body to cross the river on the way to the Buddha Lands (Wu, 1942/2015). This denial of physical desires is also the basis for achieving enlightenment (Keown, 2017). Thus, the Tripitaka path is an allegory for the physical side, which Buddhists try to get rid of to comprehend Nirvana.
Pigsy and Sandy
Pigsy and Sandy, in this story, are the embodiment of vices that impede the attainment of enlightenment. Pigsy, who was punished for sexual misconduct towards the goddess in heaven, accidentally fell into the womb of a sow and now looks like a pig (Wu, 1942/2015). He embodies sins such as greed and gluttony, stealing, and sexual misconduct; however, at the same time, Pigsy is a vegetarian. Buddhism promotes the abandonment of the killing of animals and life in harmony with nature (Keown, 2017). For this reason, Sandy is the symbol of the opposite behavior; he kills all living beings, including humans, to eat their flesh (Wu, 1942/2015). Both characters are students of Tripitaka, who must go with him and fight with their evil virtues.
During the journey, Pigsy and Sandy gradually overcome their vices and purify karma with their actions. For example, Sandy creates a boat of nine skulls that he wears around his neck so that the pilgrims cross the river (Wu, 1942/2015). At the end of the journey, the reader feels that the characters changed and beat their bad habits, and although they have not yet reached enlightenment, they transformed into creatures of a higher level (Wu, 1942/2015). This fact coincides with Buddhist ideas about karma and reincarnation, according to which people reborn into their best or worst incarnation due to the actions of a past life (Keown, 2017). Thus, Pigsy and Sandy are an allegory of vices that interfere with the attainment of Nirvana and the successful path to their deliverance.
Therefore, the characters of the novel the Monkey are an allegory of Buddhist teachings since they embody the positive and negative qualities essential for achieving enlightenment. The adventures of the heroes symbolize the path that everyone walks on the way to understanding the truths of Buddhism and achieving complete harmony. Besides, such concepts as reincarnation, karma and the theory of “no-self” also coincide with the traditions and ideals of Buddhism. Thus, the main characters of the novel are an allegory of the basic principles of Buddhism, and their journey is a symbol of the search for enlightenment.
Keown, D. (2001). The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wu, C. (2015). Monkey: Journey to the West. (A. Waley, Trans.). Huddersfield, UK: Dalriada Books. (Original work published 1942).