MONKEY: A Journey to the West
Retold by David Kherdian.
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1992. 184 pp. $10.00 (paperback).
JANWILLEM VAN DE WETERING
GOOD THINGS aren't as hard to come by as our current economic gloom may suggest. A beautiful retelling of Monkey, the remarkable sixteenth-century Chinese fable, can be had virtually for the price of a movie ticket. The most familiar version of the tale is Arthur Waley's translation, published in 1942 (although there have been at least three other recent English versions), and this is the version David Kherdian starts with as the basis for his own masterful yarn. Kherdian is wellsuited to the task: he is an advanced Gurdjieffian, the recipient of three prestigious prizes, and the author of thirty books. When he takes on this time-honored classic, he doesn't kid around. But his hero does.
Tricksters, as the story points out, are necessary to humanity. Europe has the fox, West Africans the spider, Native Americans prefer the coyote, and the Chinese choose the ape. In the Central Empire, the monkey became a helpful demon, representing intelligence. In the folklore all demons are aspects of monk Tripitaka, an antique Everyman questing for enlightenment who, like Don Quixote, is a fool. Tripitaka trips over any straw, falls into any pit, gobbles up any bait, and swallows any scam. He squanders talent, wastes time, cherishes praise, shuns blame. Clearly, he needs help.
From A Japanese edition, 1833
But Tripitaka eventually manages to extinguish his self centered foolishness with the help of demons who (painfully) peel off layer after layer of self until there's nothing—yet still something—left. And it's this teaching that he carries back to China.
But even Buddha tricks Tripitaka. After all that terrible trouble, the monk goes in search of teachings to the Compassionate One. What the Buddha gives him is three baskets filled with blank paper. For once, he realizes that he's carrying blanks, and finds out that he's been taken. Enraged, he rushes back to Holy Mountain and demands a printed teaching. But then the Buddha calls him back and lets him in on the secret, saying, "You know that first lot, all the blank stuff? That was better."
Kherdian gives us the happy end that belongs to all well-told tales. And just in time—the other versions are now out of print (including, lamentably, the Italian comic strip by Milo Manara). While interpretation of any allegory lies with the reader's own samsaric point of view, Monkey turns samsara inside out.
Janwillem van de Wetering is the author of Empty Mirror and Glimpse of Nothingness. He is currently at work on AfterZen.