Tang Monk from Journey to the West
Question: What do Tripitaka, Xuan Zang, and Tang Seng all have in common?
Answer: They are all names of the same person. We’ll just call him Tang Monk.
The Tang Dynasty was a time of great prosperity, military prowess, religious pluralism, and a flourishing of the arts and sciences—it is often considered China’s cultural golden age. Journey to the West’s sacred pilgrimage begins over thirteen hundred years ago, in the ancient Tang Dynasty capital known as Chang’an, meaning “eternal peace.”
And it is then that the great emperor Tang Taizong asks a young Buddhist monk to go on a dangerous journey. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to travel west across the mountains, to what is now known as India, collect sacred scriptures, and bring them back to China. The monk agrees.
This is actually based on a true story. It took the historical Tang Monk 17 years to complete the journey on foot, and he brought back with him 657 scriptures written in Sanskrit. He then spent the rest of his life translating them.
In the novel, as in history, the monk is a symbol of pious devotion. He overcomes 81 tribulations, which are metaphors for the trials a person encounters on a spiritual path.
At one point, for example, he receives an offer to marry a beautiful queen, and to rule a land inhabited only by women, enjoying riches and comfort the rest of his days. Tang Monk declines, and carries on with his journey.
As if things weren’t hard enough, different monsters and demons are constantly trying to eat him—one bite of his flesh is rumored to grant immortality.
Fortunately, he has a special group of bodyguards. Let’s meet them, starting with the greatest of all, the mischievous Monkey King.