Pilgrims on a Journey

I’ve been thinking about the many ways we use the word “journey” today. Once it meant a day’s work or a day’s travel (it comes from journée in French, which in turn came from the Latin diurnus, meaning “daily.”) In the craft-guild system during the Middle Ages, a “journeyman” was a craftsman who had graduated from his apprenticeship, but was not yet himself a master, which meant he traveled from town to town, hiring himself out to various masters in order to perfect his craft, and charged for his work by the day.

More recently, the word “journey” has taken on some of the resonance of a whole life — as in a life’s journey — and when used this way is often colored by the notion of an ordeal or a quest. And, since almost every person’s life involves at least some trial and tribulation, we could consider ourselves — all of us — pilgrims on a journey.

In the Chinese novel Journey to the West — The Pilgrims Tang Monk, Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, & Horsey — each had very full and colorful lives before joining together to make the trek from Central China to India, in order to fetch holy scriptures from the Buddha.

Illustration of the Tang Monk with his white horse.

Tang Monk & Horsey.

The Tang Monk’s name was Xuanzang, and one of his epithets is Tripitaka, a Sanskrit word meaning “Three Baskets.” The Three Baskets refer to the three kinds of texts in early Buddhism: sermons of the Buddha, interpretations of Buddhist doctrine, and the rules of monastic life. These were originally written on scrolls that were carried in three baskets. The Chinese form of Tripitaka is sanzang — which makes our hero Xuanzang, the Tang Sanzang!

(By the way, the word for scripture that Xuanzang would have used is the Sanskrit sutra — pronounced “SOO-trah” — which originally meant something stitched together, coming from the verb that means to sew, and this in turn comes from the practice of “binding” sacred texts written on palm leaves with thread. To Western ears, it sounds like suture, which means sort of the same thing, though the two words don’t seem to be related etymologically.)

The original 7th-century monk Xuanzang was an adventurous and independent soul, who left Tang China alone at a time when the Emperor had forbidden his subjects, on penalty of death, to leave the boundaries of the empire. Xuanzang’s account says nothing about Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, or Horsey — these figures from Chinese folklore and legend were added to the story during the nearly 1000 years that intervened between the real Xuanzang’s journey and the appearance of the novel in the late 16th century. Departing the capital in 629, he followed the path of the ancient Silk Road through what are today Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, arriving in India after more than a year’s travel. He spent the next 13 years making pilgrimage to various Buddhist holy places, and studied for a time at Nalanda University, where the greatest scholars and holy men argued matters of Buddhist doctrine. At last setting off for home in 643, Xuanzang was welcomed back by the Chinese emperor — who had apparently had a complete change of heart, for he supported the monk for the rest of his life and funded the translation of the 600 + scriptures he had brought back from India.

The monk in Wu Cheng’en’s 100-chapter Journey to the West is quite a different character: first, he is the reincarnation of the Buddha’s disciple Golden Cicada; rather than being an intrepid explorer on a quest, he’s a withdrawn and timid bookworm who is commanded by the Emperor to go to India and bring back the scriptures; he’s kind of a scairdy-cat and a crybaby about the 81 ordeals he has to undergo along the way; and one of the main reasons the pilgrims are so harried by monsters and demons is that the monk has remained celibate for 10 reincarnations, thus representing, in the words of critic David Lattimore, “a concentration of ‘primal yang’ that is enormously tempting to monsters, male and female, who stand to gain greater power, the males by devouring him, the females by seducing him.”

Needless to say, our presentation of the Tang Monk won’t get into this aspect very much, but he will have plenty of adventures before his ordeal is through.

Next time, I’ll have more to say about the demi-gods who were ostensibly contracted to protect him on the journey…


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