Myth and Truth .:. The Tang Monk
Myth and Truth
It's important for the reader to under stand that the novel does have its basis in
historical truth. There were actually many monks that traveled from China to India
to retrieve and translate Buddhist Scriptures. The most famous is the one that our
infamous Tang Monk is based on; however, the two bear little resemblance beyond that as
will be discussed later.
China is also a country of many mountains; it is conceivable that the original
Scripture Pilgrims would have had to cross over many mountains and through many
forests. Tigers and wolves were a very real threat and could definitely have
attacked unwary travelers if they seemed to pose a threat. These aspects of the
novel were based in part in truth.
I may have confused many readers already. I've stated that Monkey is a hero from
Chinese Mythology and a character from a Novel. The story of Monkey and a holy monk
going to India are both fixtures of Chinese Mythology. They appear in different
forms but are instantly recgonizable. The author of Journey to the West
had access to a great store of myths and legends on which he based his novel.
The story of the Great Monkey King is often quoted in other novels written both before
and after Wu wrote his 100 chapter novel. He is mentioned once in the Dream
of the Red Chamber and as Wu Cheng'en shows us, there are several poems written in his
testimony before the novel was written. Monkey was a myth and a story before the
novel was written, but the novel collected Monkey's stories into one place and gave his
quest form. In this way, Monkey is both myth and a created character.
The name Triptaka refers to the Buddhist cannon, and he is also called SanZhang, which
means "three baskets" and refers the the three kinds of scriptures that the real
Tang Monk brought back from India. The monk's real name was Hsuan Tsang. The
Tang Monk portrayed in the book is actually very different from his historical
counterpart. The Tang Monk of the book can barely take two steps without running
smack into trouble and being generally helpless to get out of it. He constantly
complains about the hardships of the road. Condsidering that the book Monk had grown
up in a comfortable monastery and then had spent time in the palace. He was pictured
as fat and handsome and very learned. The picture painted by the author is a
caricature of a rich Buddhist monk. Let the reader be comforted that the Tang Monk
of history was actually a seasoned traveler courageous enough to leave China without
Imperial Permission, an act nearly as bad as treason. The real Tang Monk was a man
of true bravery and devotion. He probably did most of his traveling alone and at
several points he wrote that he lost hope. He had no heavenly disciples to protect
him from tigers and bandits and certaintly no horse to ride.
So why is the Tang Monk of the novel such a wuss? He's a caricature of a saintly
monk, made to prove both an alchemical and a Buddhist point. The Tang Monk achieves
buddhahood at the end of the novel precisely because he did not actively pursue that goal.
In alchemical terms the Tang Monk was refined by his journey with the help of his