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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282

The Journey to the West meanders through Chinese history and mythology, but is loosely composed of four sections. The first is the story of Sun Wukong, or "Monkey King." A sentient monkey who hatches out of a rock, he is charged with learning Taoist philosophy, the central philosophy in Chinese...

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The Journey to the West meanders through Chinese history and mythology, but is loosely composed of four sections. The first is the story of Sun Wukong, or "Monkey King." A sentient monkey who hatches out of a rock, he is charged with learning Taoist philosophy, the central philosophy in Chinese religious life. The story tells of his long path to Taoist enlightenment, in which he painstakingly masters combat and tries to learn how to become immortal. At the end of the story, the Buddha traps Sun Wukong under a mountain for 500 years.

Part two briefly introduces the protagonist Tang Sanzang, a Buddhist monk. It gives a historical account of sacred texts that the Buddha hid away in the West. The Buddha stated that someone worthy would eventually journey to recover them for China. This context serves to foreshadow Tang Sanzang's journey.

In part three, Tang Sanzang goes on an epic and meandering journey to recover the Buddha's scriptures. Taking Asia's famous trading route, the Silk Road, he searches for an Indian temple called Vulture Peak. Along the way, Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, protects him with various followers, most notably the Monkey King. The path is full of peril, infested by demons and malicious magicians, and further complicated by environmental dangers such as explosive mountains of fire. Tang Sanzang is repeatedly saved; he obtains the texts, and in return his protectors earn salvation.

Part four, the shortest section, shows the journey back to the East and its aftermath. Upon returning the texts to China, Tang Sanzang, the Monkey King, and the more minor companions are rewarded with enlightenment. Tang Sanzang and the Monkey King reach buddhahood and take up spots in heaven.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421

In the beginning there is a rock. The rock gives birth to a stone egg, and the egg develops into the shape of a monkey. The monkey becomes alive and plays with other monkeys. He is made their king.

One day, troubled by the thought of death, he bids farewell to the monkey tribe and sets out on a journey to seek immortality. He becomes a pupil of the Patriarch Subodhi, from whom he learns seventy-two transformations and the cloud trapeze. When he shows off his newly learned magic of transformation by changing into a pine tree, this public display of magic enrages his master, who disowns him. Monkey goes back to his cave, but now he does not have to travel over mountains and rivers. One leap carries him head over heels for 108,000 leagues.

He kills the demon who molested his “little ones” during his absence. He gets the magic iron staff from the Sea Treasury of the Dragon King. The weapon can shrink, at his will, to the size of an embroidery needle. Despite all of these powers, however, his allotted life span of 342 years comes to an end. In a dream he is taken to the Land of Darkness. Furiously, he crosses out his name in the Registers of Death, together with whatever names of other monkeys he can find.

His meddling at the Palace of the Dragon King and the Court of Death is reported to the Jade Emperor. Monkey is summoned to Heaven so that he can be constantly watched. At first he is happy to have an appointment from the emperor, but upon learning how humble his position as groom in the heavenly stables really is, he returns to his monkeys.

As a rebel, he calls himself “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven,” and he defeats the heavenly hosts sent off to arrest him. The Jade Emperor consents to appoint him to the rank he wishes. Then he crashes the Peach Banquet, to which he was not invited. By the joint effort of the gods he is caught and imprisoned in the crucible of Lao Tzu, where for forty-nine days he is burned with alchemical fire before he escapes. It seems that nothing can stop him until the Buddha comes to help the heavenly powers. Monkey is placed under a five-peaked mountain, originally the five fingers of the Buddha’s hand, where he is to serve his penance.

The Buddha wishes that some believer from sinful China would come to the Western Continent to fetch the True Scriptures. Kuan-yin volunteers to help someone accomplish this. The someone is Hsüan Tsang. His father, a young scholar, was murdered while on his way to take up his duties as governor of Chiang-chou. The murderer, a ferryman, assumes the dead man’s name and takes his wife and office. The wife would have committed suicide were it not for her unborn child. Immediately after the boy is born, she ties him to a plank with a letter written in blood tucked to his breast and pushes the plank into the river. The child is picked up by the abbot of a temple, who learns the tragic story of the boy’s birth from the blood letter.

Hsüan Tsang is brought up as a monk. He does not know of his parentage until he is eighteen years old; then he meets his mother and makes plans to avenge his father. The false governor is executed, on the spot where he committed his evil deed. Suddenly a body comes floating up through the water. It is Hsüan Tsang’s father, whom everyone thought dead but who was saved by the Dragon King of the River. Thus the family is reunited. Hsüan Tsang chooses to remain a monk.

Emperor T’ai Tsung of T’ang makes a visit to the World of Darkness. He promises to celebrate a great mass for the salvation of the hungry ghosts, and Hsüan Tsang is chosen to preside over the ceremonies. Kuan-yin, appearing in the disguise of a ragged priest, interrupts the service by pointing out that there are Three Baskets (or Tripitaka) of Mahayana scriptures for a pilgrim to bring from India. Then she reveals herself in her glory and vanishes. Hsüan Tsang volunteers to undertake the quest in spite of the length and perils of the journey. His request is granted, and he is given a new name, Tripitaka.

He passes several dangers before he arrives at the mountain where Monkey was imprisoned for five hundred years, waiting for the man who, according to Kuan-yin, will release him and whom he is to follow, to protect, and to obey as his master. When Tripitaka says a prayer, the seal of the prison is lifted into the air, and Monkey is freed.

Three other monsters receive similar instructions from Kuan-yin to wait for the priest of T’ang at three different places. They do not know what the man looks like, so they have to be defeated in battle before they can be convinced to join the pilgrimage. A young dragon devours Tripitaka’s horse, but, learning his mistake, he allows himself to be changed into a horse to serve the priest. Pigsy, a banished marshal of the heavenly hosts, now reincarnated in the shape of a pig, is driven away from his human wife and father-in-law. The last to join is Sandy, a man-eating monster with red hair and a blue face, also a banished heavenly marshal.

Monkey and Pigsy sometimes create trouble. Pigsy is cowardly, lazy, self-indulgent, clumsily shrewd, and jealous of the much more powerful Monkey. Nevertheless, he seems to be Tripitaka’s favorite. The brilliant Monkey cannot be a paragon of obedience, and on several occasions, he quarrels with his master. The priest, however, needs only to say a certain spell, and the fillet on the monkey’s head begins to hurt him by becoming tighter. He was tricked into wearing the cap with the fillet, and now he cannot take it off. This is the only control Tripitaka, with Kuan-yin’s help, holds over the unruly Monkey.

The travelers pass the kingdom of Crow-cock, where a Lion Demon murdered the king and, disguised as the monarch, usurped the throne. The ghost of the dead king asks help from Tripitaka. After the king is fished up from a well and miraculously revived, the usurper is forced to flee. He turns out to be the gelded lion in the service of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. The travelers also come to Cart-slow Kingdom, where Taoists are the privileged class and Buddhists are persecuted. Monkey challenges three Taoist magicians, who won the full confidence of the king, to a contest of miracles. The first magician cannot recover his head, chopped off in the contest, and he falls dead, leaving the corpse of a headless tiger. The second magician is found to be only a white deer, now dead, since he is not able to close his ripped-open belly. The third is fried to death in boiling oil, leaving in the cauldron the bones of a ram. Monkey survives every one of the ordeals.

Monkey and Pigsy change into a boy and a girl for the Great King of Miracles, who demands annual human sacrifice. Although the monster proves no match for Tripitaka’s disciples, he captures the priest and brings him down to the River That Leads to Heaven. There the monster, caught at last in Kuan-Yin’s basket, turns out to be a golden fish. A big turtle carries Tripitaka across the river. The turtle was perfecting himself for more than one thousand years, but he is worried because he cannot yet achieve human form. Tripitaka promises to ask the Buddha about the turtle’s wish.

The travelers finally arrive in the Blessed Region of the Buddha, find the scriptures, and begin to carry them to China. Tripitaka, however, forgets to ask about the turtle’s prospects. Annoyed, the turtle makes a dive, leaving the pilgrims, who are riding on his back to recross the river, and the scriptures in the water. The pilgrims are all saved, but a part of the scriptures is lost. This is the “eighty-first calamity.”

Carried back to paradise after completing their mission, Tripitaka and Monkey are both made Buddhas, and Pigsy is promoted to be Cleanser of the Altar. Sandy, Golden-Bodied Arhat, and the white horse, who also aided Tripitaka, are set among the eight senior Heavenly Dragons. Buddhism prospers in China.

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