Myth and Historical Truth


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.


Tang Monk

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 three disciples.