"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Pride in Monkey

I am currently taking a world literature class. (Who would have guessed.) Anyway, I am. Despite my early fears that its primarily non-western selection of readings would make for a terrible class, I have been pleasantly surprised. We read a few chapters from a long Chinese novel. (At a few thousand pages, longer than a Russian novel even.) I don't think "novel" is even the best way to describe it; it is more like an epic or something. Journey to the West or Monkey as it is more often called, chronicles the journey of a Buddhist priest named Tripitaka from China who is commissioned to find "scriptures" in India. Along the way he picks up a number of helpers or "disciples" to assist him. The first and most important of these is the title character: Monkey.

The story is definitely fantastic (I mean like a fantasy, but it's pretty good too). Monkey really is a monkey, and along with him a whole host of other talking monsters make their appearance in the tale. My class is an on-line course so for this 16th century story by Wu Ch'eng-en we were asked to examine the flaws in Monkey's character. The thing that most struck me and that relates to my last post on C.S.Lewis is how Monkey is consumed by pride and a desire to show off. He says himself: “I only care for fame” (56). This leads him into conflict with supposed monsters rather than stating his mission as he was ordered. If he had done everything right, things would have gone better for the pilgrims but, of course, we also would not have much of a story to read.

Monkey's pride is his greatest fault. At the very beginning he wishes to elevate himself over all the other monkeys and be their king(12). It is a desire to “show off his own powers” that goads him to many of his actions, as the heavenly buddha Kuan-yin points out (27). It is his pride that makes him leave Tripitaka in a huff when rebuked for killing the robbers and for pursuing his own will in so many other episodes. But what shows this better than anything else is what Monkey calls himself: “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven.” The arrogance of this is stunning. Monkey is basically saying that he (remember, a monkey) is on the same footing as all the deities of heaven. Was not this the same over-weaning pride of Satan when he set himself up in opposition to God? For this sin, of which we only get a flashback of because it happens before the opening of the story, Monkey is imprisoned and later put on probation to learn humility under the care of Tripitaka, a common buddhist priest.

The fact that Monkey acknowledges Tripitaka as his “master” is a sign that Monkey is on the right path to learning humility. Before he “had no master and indeed refused obedience to any power in heaven or earth” (26). The examples above, however, along with many other illustrations of his actions, show that he still has a long way to go. The Dragon King admonishes: “You must learn to control yourself and submit to the will of others, if you are not to spoil all your chances (22). We only read a few chapter from the start of the tale so I only got to see an itty-bitty improvement in Monkey but supposedly by the end (and remember it's a long story) he does indeed learn to control his pride and, in Buddhist fashion, reach "enlightenment." There is a dual quest in Monkey that makes it worthwhile reading; the outward exciting journey to India for "scriptures" and the inward delineation of a character on a personal journey.

Wu Ch'eng-en. Monkey (Journey to the West). The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume D: 1650-1800. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. New York: W.W.Norton and Co, 2002. 2nd ed.


Aaron said...

Good post. I envy you the chance to experience in some depth such a broad spectrum of literature.

Monkey does sound like a Lucifer-type character. Granting preeminence to the self is the quintessence of sin; all sin originates from an inordinate love of self. In characters as diverse as Monkey, Satan, the evil spider Ungoliant of The Siilmarillion, or the White Witch of Narnia, we see the familiar pattern of pride, rebellion, and a lust for power and "God-likeness".

That was the Serpent's sales pitch to Eve: you will be like God. And people are still buying it every day. I still buy it, every time I do something selfishly. Yet Jesus says, "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me." Put yourself aside; accept pain and difficulty; submit yourself to a higher authority. Christianity is the crucifixion of self and the resurrection of love.

Brian Carpentier said...

Spot on. The good thing for Monkey is that, after a five hundred year captivity for his sins, he is on the road to recovery. Of course, as Christians we know it is ultimately the wrong road, but I find it interesting that Buddhists have so perceptively recognized the problem with us and created characters and a story that are so like the examples you cite. I think it is a powerful witness to our falleness and our need for a saviour, not in Buddha, but in Christ.

Aaron said...

Some people are disconcerted when they see parallels to the Christian story or Christian doctrine in the literature of other cultures or religions. Lewis writes in God In The Dock about how he believes that the similarity of some pagan myths to the Christian story actually adds to the credibility of the Faith rather than detracts from it. I don't remember the name of the essay, and our copy of the book is packed away in Jessica's luggage right now.