The Journey to the West

by Wu Cheng'en

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How does the journey to the west change Xuanzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing in The Journey to the West?

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Xuangzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing are changed by the journey to the west when Gunayin, bodhisattva of compassion, intervenes in the four pilgrims' lives not simply in order to retrieve the sacred scriptures, but just as importantly to show each character the way of its personal path to enlightenment. Xuan Zang and Sun Wukong achieve buddhahood and Sha becomes an arhat, a lesser divinity. Zhu is the exception and still has moral flaws he must work to overcome.

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The measure of change the characters have undergone is evident in how well they have learned the lessons needed for their individual illuminations and thus by the status awarded each by the Buddha upon the group’s successful return.

While Monkey is a morally ambiguous and unpredictable character, he has also...

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always been a seeker of truth and knowledge, and his faithful protection of Xuan Zang earns him buddhahood. While it’s not clear if Monkey's rebellious nature has altered, he does in the end express reverence for all three traditions (Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism) whose coexistence he recognizes as essential to the empire's strength.

The monk Xuan Zang is able to make up for the sins of his previous existence and gets rewarded with buddhahood. Presumably, his path to illumination and elevation was not as long as the other characters’, and he had the added virtue of not seeking immortality for himself.

Similarly, Sha Wujing is able to receive salvation from his monstrous rebirth due to his contributions to the mission’s success. While he is relatively weak and unintelligent compared to the others, he proves his worthiness sufficiently to become an arhat, an enlightened being that is not yet a buddha.

The outlier is Zhu Bajie, whose foolishness and lust were his downfall from heaven and persisted throughout his grotesque rebirth. Like the others, he is given a chance to regain his place in heaven, but instead of becoming an arhat or buddha, Zhu Bajie is chosen to serve as “cleanser of the altar” and dispose of all the leftover food offerings. This is indeed a heavenly job for the gluttonous pig-man , but also shows that Zhu still has some faults of karma left to work off before he is elevated.

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Xuanzang, Monkey, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing are changed by their journey as pilgrims to the West in accordance with their varying capacities for illumination. The four pilgrims are designed to serve as spiritual types, denoting different stages of Buddhist enlightenment. The relevant measure of illumination or enlightenment is selflessness, which entails detachment from worldly, physical goods and bodily attachments in favor of devotion to the Way of enlightenment. The text uses the literary device of the conferment of titles by the Buddha to signify the final attainment of transformation in keeping with each character's individual karma, or fate.

As represented in Journey to the West, the spiritual journey towards illumination has the structure of a quest narrative, with the classic stages of separation from the "ordinary" human world (in this case, the East), followed by a journey through a "foreign" land of challenges and obstacles, and the culminating entrance into a promised land. The final steps are the return to the East in order to deliver the Buddhist scriptures so that others who are not yet enlightened may be saved, and, ultimately, the celebration and conferral of titles by the Buddha amongst the saints in heaven.

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In this classic 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, there are four primary characters:  Xuanzang, Sun Wukong, Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie.

Xuanzang, the main character, is a monk who is sent on a pilgrimage.  At the end of his journey, he achieves Buddhahood, which would be described as the perfection of knowledge and wisdom.

Sun Wukong, is a disciple in the form of a monkey.  His reward for his part in the journey is an arhat, which is an acknowledgement of worthiness.  It is one step below Buddhahood.

Sha Wujing is a river ogre who must gain atonement for his transgression. His final outcome is to become a deity known as naga.  Commonly, naga is represented as a great snake or cobra.

Finally, there is Zhu Bajie, a creature of great lusts and appetites.  He is represented as a pig.  Fittingly, his reward is to become an altar cleanser.  He is responsible for cleaning up excess offerings left at Buddha’s altar.

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