Monday, September 7, 2009

R&R Challenge: The Monkey King by Wu Cheng-En

mjmbecky's rejuvenate and renew challenge

The Rejuvenate and Renew Reading Challenge is hosted by Becky at One Literature Nut.  The challenge is to read three non-fiction books this summer!  Quite a challenge for me, but I gave it a go.  First I read Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson; and I started, but wasn't able to finish, Reading Egyptian Art (also by Wilkinson). 

A few weeks ago, I read on writer Jeff Markowitz's blog that his first novel was about Buddhism.  Since I've been wanting to read more about Buddhism for a while now, I asked him if he could recommend any books on the subject.  Jeff's recommendation surprised me:  Monkey King by Wu Cheng-En.  Jeff assured me it was the best introduction to the subject of Buddhism he could think of.

the monkey king page one

The Monkey King tells the story of a Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang who walked from China to India and back again to bring Buddhist scriptures to his country.  But you'll forget all about that when you read it:  beautifully illustrated, it's a fable and adventure story whose protagonist is a monkey made out of stone.  The monkey leads all the other monkeys into a cave behind a waterfall, where they like to sleep; and because of his bravery, they make him their king.

As the monkey ages, however, he starts to get nervous about dying.  He doesn't want to leave the earth where he's having so much fun (can you say mid-life crisis?).  Someone tells him that a person can achieve immortality through the study of Buddhism; so he travels to the Cave of the Slanting Moon and Three Stars and devotes himself humbly to religious study.  His teacher releases him after many years, asking only that the Monkey King not use his newfound abilities to cause trouble.  Clearly this teacher knows NOTHING about monkeys, because the first thing the Monkey King does when he gets home is start to build an army.

The Monkey King is a very quick, enjoyable read, and it can definitely be read purely for pleasure.  But it also contains many layers of deeper historical and religious significance.  Since I was reading it as an introduction to Buddhism, here is what I learned:
  • Buddhism is the shizzle:  You can become immortal and gain mad fighting skillz.  Awesome.
  • Reality is all in the mind:  The Monkey King can bend reality and objects to his will, changing the size of the weapons, along with the size and number of himself.  He's definitely not constricted by reality as normal people experience it, and uses its bendable nature--along with his cleverness--to beat his foes.
  • The Buddha is inescapable:  The only person the Monkey isn't able to defeat or trick is Buddha himself, whom the Monkey King meets.  He can somersault around the world, but he can't jump out of the Buddha's hand.
  • Buddhism challenges authority:  The Monkey King mostly uses his powers to unseat, trick, and defeat powerful kings; which seems to suggest Buddhism was something of a subversive religion when it came to China.

Whether you're interested in Buddhism or not, I definitely recommend The Monkey King.  It's a fun story, and it's free to read online.

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