Monkey | Chapter 13
Stories Retold: Journey to the West
In this episode the monk Tripitaka sets out on his long journey to retrieve the lost Buddhist texts but what will the naïve monk do when he comes face to face with the horrible dangers he was warned about?
Tripitaka sets out for India – and receives two invitations to dinner
It was a long day’s travel along the dry and dusty road. Tripitaka – which was Hsuan-tsang’s new name, bestowed upon him by the Emperor – and his two followers were somewhat overawed at what lay ahead, after so many years shut up in the cloister. However, they were buoyed by great thoughts about the mission to bring the Mahayana sutras back from India.
Their first stop was the Temple of the Law Cloud, where they were to stay the night. Word had preceded them, so they were met as honoured guests; the usual strict timetable was relaxed so that all the monks could come see these visitors who had embarked upon such an important mission.
Travelling far was not something people did very much in those days. It was considered very dangerous to stray too far from home. So, the monks were full of stories they had heard, wild travellers’ tales more suitable for taverns and for inducing awe in children.
“What will you do when you encounter tigers?”
“What about the demons that are well known to live the mountains?”
“Aren’t you frightened of being eaten by the barbarians who live in other countries?”
The two followers looked at each other and tried to laugh it all off, despite feeling rather unsettled. However, Tripitaka merely kept pointing to his heart, and finally replied: “The heart overcomes all obstacles.”
The following morning, they set off bright and early, still in high spirits. By the early afternoon they had reached the mountains, and the three priests began labouring on account of the steep incline. Only the pack mule seemed to be taking it all in stride. As the afternoon wore on, the path began to run out; by twilight, they were feeling their way along a precipitous edge.
Turning a corner, they came to a plateau that they could just make out, covered in some scrub. Looking around, they agreed that they had better set up camp for the night. Seeing a promising spot, they made their way towards it – when the ground beneath them gave way. The three priests, followed by the mule, fell into a pit.
Hardly had they recovered from the short fall when they looked up and saw several horrible faces staring down at them. These were mountain ogres, who had been out hunting and setting traps all day.
The three men were quickly hauled out, trussed up and taken to the cave the ogres shared, where their king – known as “The Hermit” – had been tending the fire over which to cook dinner. He prodded the priests, and was quite pleased with the two followers in particular, as they had a good deal of flesh on them. Unlike the scrawny farmers from the area who rarely ate three meals a day, these two, living in the temple, had been well tended to. Only Tripitaka, who was more pious and, therefore, more used to austerity as part of his spiritual practice, was a bit on the lean side.
As it happened, the king was entertaining a visiting general named Yin. “I’m glad you are here to help me with this feast,” said the king. “I couldn’t manage all three of them by myself.”
“Well, it is a pleasure to be here, my Lord Hermit,” replied General Yin. “Why don’t we start with those two plump ones, and if we are still a bit peckish then we can cook up the scrawny one, or perhaps have him for breakfast?”
The king thought it an excellent idea, and both unfortunate followers were brought forward kicking and screaming, bashed over the head with a cudgel and dropped into the pot that rested over the fire.
After the king and the general had devoured the best cuts, the leftovers were distributed to the other ogres. When they had all eaten their fill, they quickly fell asleep.
Tripitaka had fainted in horror at the fate of his companions, but was now woken up by the loud snoring of the ogres – just in time to see a beam of light shining from the sky. Down this beam travelled an old man with a bald head and a long, white beard. He wore a simple, white, full-length robe, and carried a travelling staff. Walking noiselessly over to Tripitaka, the old man tapped the ropes holding him, which fell to the ground. Taking Tripitaka by the shoulder, he pulled him up and motioned that they should both be silent. Then he led him out of the cave to a place at some distance away, where they would be safe for the time being.
The old man spoke first, pressing his palms together and bowing to Tripitaka, who stuttered his thanks and his relief, while mourning the death of his companions.
The old man introduced himself as the Spirit of the Planet Venus, and told Tripitaka: “Know that, because of the importance of your mission, you will be aided by all manner of spiritual beings along your journey. I am sorry for your companions, but karma is karma – and we are all subject to it. Your journey will be difficult, but you are not alone.” With that, the beam of light reappeared. The old man stepped into it and zipped away, up into the sky.
All alone again, Tripitaka’s relief soon melted away. Looking to the East, he could see the faint glow of dawn; then, hearing a noise behind him, he felt wet breath on his neck – and nearly leaped ten li into the air! Expecting the worst, he turned and fell to his knees, about to beg humbly for his life. But he looked up and saw his faithful mule. Overcome with joy, he wrapped his arms around the long-suffering animal’s neck, and together they began their trek out of the mountain pass.
It seemed like a long time ago since he had been enveloped in the warmth and safety of the Temple of the Law Cloud, and he recalled the warnings the monks had given him. They had been true after all. He also remembered what his response had been; so, trusting his heart, he found some courage with which to proceed.
All the same, it was not long before he faced another trial.
Two tigers stood before him now; as he turned, he saw serpents bringing up the rear. On his left were scorpions, and to his right, a creature of indeterminate identity. Tripitaka’s heart fell again. Was this how it was to be?!
Into this scrimmage came his second rescuer in as many days: a great hunter with a three-pronged spear, who quickly despatched one of the tigers. The other creatures appeared to recognise him, and they all beat a retreat.
The hunter was delighted to meet a Buddhist priest. He related that it was the anniversary of his father’s death; would he please accompany him and say the necessary prayers?
How could Tripitaka refuse? They went back to the hunter’s home, where he lived with his widowed mother and two other hunters. The vanquished tiger was skinned and butchered, and the mother prepared a breakfast of braised tiger meat for all of them. Seated at the table, Tripitaka looked at the plate of meat stew before him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, appearing somewhat at a loss, “I’ve lived in the temple since I was a boy, and I’ve never eaten meat.”
The hunters looked at him, amazed; but the mother, realising the mistake, apologised and immediately set about preparing him a vegetarian meal. The others refrained from starting their own meals until their guest’s was ready.
Before long, a steaming bowl of rice and vegetables was placed before Tripitaka, and the hunters hastily picked up their chopsticks to start; but Tripitaka had placed his palms together and begun chanting the grace before meals. The hunters looked at one another, but waited all the same.
“You do have some strange habits,” one said as Tripitaka finished.
After the meal, preparations were made, and Tripitaka began conducting the rite for the dead. He recited the prayers for purification, burned incense at the family shrine to their ancestors and recited passages from the Diamond and Lotus sutras as well as the sutra of Kwan-yin.
It took most of the day, so no one went out, and they ate their evening meal from the stores they kept for rainy days.
That night, the spirit of the father appeared to everyone in the family in their dreams, and declared that because of the prayers, Yama, Judge of the Dead, had released him from Hell; he was now awaiting rebirth into a wealthy family.
The following morning, the hunter and his family could not thank Tripitaka enough. Refusing their offer of gold and silver, he simply asked that the hunter who had rescued him accompany him on the next leg of his journey. This, the man did.
By late afternoon, they reached another very high mountain, which marked the border between China and the Land of the Tatars. Here the hunter bade Tripitaka farewell, but the priest begged him to continue on with him, as he was afraid; but the hunter pointed out that he had no jurisdiction outside his own province, and could not, therefore, go any further even if he wanted to.
At that moment, out of the mountain, boomed a great voice that said: “The Master has come!”
To learn whose voice that was, you must read the next chapter.
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