The Monk and the Poet: Meet the Rebels behind the Legendary “Journey to the West”

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A painting depicting a scene from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West. The painting shows the four heros of the story, left to right: Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, Zhu Wuneng, and Sha Wujing. The painting is a decoration on the Long Corridor in the Summer Palace in Beijing, China.

The Monk and the Poet: Meet the Rebels behind the Legendary “Journey to the West”

Hsi-yu chi, or Journey to the West, is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. The novel adds elements from a bewildering array of Asian cultural lore, as well as from the three major religious traditions of China (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). Adding elements of the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist teachings which are still reflective of some religious attitudes today, the story is considered so relevant that it becomes the basis of many retellings, movies, video games and animes.

Although Journey to the West may be considered as a pleasant introduction to the calm and gentle Buddhist philosophy, behind this story is in fact a real journey by a Buddhist monk ten centuries earlier who defied his emperor and became a fugitive questing his way to India. Also behind this story is a passionate poet who broke China’s literary tradition and wrote something for the common man at the expense of his own reputation.

The Journey of a Monk and His Divine Protectors 

The story of The Journey to the West follows one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s disciples who was banished from the heavenly paradise for slighting the Buddhist precepts. He was sent to the human world and forced to spend ten lifetimes practicing religious self-cultivation in order to atone for his sins.

In the Tang Dynasty, (and now in his tenth lifetime) the disciple reincarnates as a monk named Xuanzang (also known as Tang Monk and Tripitaka). The emperor orders Xuanzang to travel west and bring the holy Mahayana Buddhist scriptures back to China. After being inspired by a vision from the goddess Guanyin, he accepts the mission and sets off on the quest.

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