Journey to the West: Pinpointing Spiritual Themes

A good way into Journey of the West, we are not yet able to analyze the novel as a whole, but there is much that can be discussed. One main topic that continues to arise is the one of the roles of Buddhism and Taoism, as related to each other, in the story. We have noticed as a class that many things hint to Buddhism being favored over Taoism, as many Buddhist characters appear to be more powerful, and there seems to be a general shift towards Buddhism as the story progresses. One point to mention when speaking of how this appears in the novel, is The Monkey King’s story before he meets Sanzang. After being introduced to Monkey at the story’s opening, the reader sees him acquire immense powers. In discussions with Professor Shao, we learned that these powers were rooted in Taoism. With these powers, Monkey begins to wreak havoc on earth, stirring up conflict wherever he goes. Many characters–who also have powers characterized as Taoist– try to defeat him, including some of the most powerful warriors from the upper levels of heaven. Even they prove to be inadequate when facing The Monkey King. Finally, those trying to defeat monkey call on a great Buddha, who in turn, defeats monkey. If anything, this passage at least suggests that the powers of Buddhism are greater than those of Taoism. Especially when considering how easily the Buddha subdued The Monkey King. Another hint that suggests the idea of Buddhism being favored in the story is Sanzang’s (the main character) seemingly Buddhist spiritual progression, symbolized through his disciples. As a class, we came to find that there was an analysis in which Sun Wukong symbolizes Sanzang’s mind, and Piggy symbolizes his desires. As the novel progresses, Sun Wukong (another name for The Monkey King) defeats several monsters along the Journey, including one who in turn, became Piggy. The monsters can be interpreted as obstacles blocking Sanzang from reaching enlightenment, and Sun Wukong’s constant battles with said monsters can indicate Sanzang’s mind struggling to overcome said obstacles. Specifically, In the case of Piggy, when Sun defeats him for the first time, he begins the battle to gain control over desire. Another key indicator of this theory is Sun Wukong’s conversion to Buddhism after he is freed by Sanzang from the Five ELements mountain. This is especially potent as an example when you look at the fact that chronologically speaking, he converts after he is subdued by the Buddha, illustrating a strong Taoist figure’s defeat by, and submission to, Buddhism.