As one can imagine, everything went perfectly for the noble monk, Xuanzang, on his Journey to the West. No danger or difficulty for him at all!

Journey to the West is a classic piece of literature that every person should read at least once. It’s incredible how modern and relevant a tale written in the 16th century can be today. There’s an energy and a sense of humor in the novel that folks unfamiliar with the work probably wouldn’t expect and, unsurprisingly, the work has exerted a powerful influence on other cultures, especially in Asia. So many of its hooks seem to have found their way into modern manga and anime.

The story draws upon the incredibly rich and vivid folklore and spiritual traditions present in China at the time of its writing. Its pages are filled with ogres, demons, dragons, and toaist symbolism resting cozily beside the more Indian concepts we see in Buddhism. At it’s heart, there is a spiritual message that points the reader toward the spiritual “truth” of the Buddhist philosophy and the power of enlightenment, but it does so in a uniquely Chinese way with an impressive array of bells and whistles. Journey to the West is, without a doubt, a novel and not a spiritual text representative of any particular philosophy, but it is deeply concerned with all things spiritual. On the flip side, the book is infinitely entertaining as well.

The story, if you’ve never read it, revolves around the journey made by the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, to India on his sacred duty to retrieve the sutras and bring enlightenment to the ignorant and sinful people of the south. Though Xuanzang is spiritually strong and a devout disciple following in the footsteps of the Buddha himself, he is not a physically tough or shrewd individual. The book paints a picture of him as a kind and fairly gentle person with a trusting nature. He makes frequent mistakes in judging the characters of those he meets and puts himself at considerable risk as a result, threatening the entire journey.

Luckily for Xuanzang, the Buddha sees fit to grant him strong and clever companions, chiefly the king of the monkeys, Sun Wukong. Wukong is such a powerful figure in the story that he actually overshadows everything else in the tale and, it can be argued that his particular journey (both in his physical travels with the monk and his spiritual growth) is far more important than anything else that happens. The monkey king is so hugely entertaining that he has become an icon, making appearances in movies, television series, comic books, video games, and theater.

Though they may be secondary to the legendary Wukong, the other companions chosen by Guanyin to escort the noble monk are seemingly just as silly. Rather than picking strong and brave companions, Guanyin makes some truly odd choices. We are introduced, fairly early on, to Zhu Bajie, or Pigsy, a strange pig-man with insatiable appetites for food and sex, though he is also a brave and loyal fighter. Soon after, the companions come across Sha Wujing (also known as Sandy) a man-eating ogre who is actually the most stable and dependent member of the group. The least important character is a strange horse that happens to be a transformed Dragon King, though he doesn’t have much of a role in the story since he does not speak.

While we can look at the story and laugh at how strange these choices seem, it results in a very Buddhist ending. It is the difficulties these fellows face and the suffering that they endure on their journey that leads all to enlightenment, a result they could not have hoped for on their own. There is a secondary (and more subtle) message that even though suffering happens and disaster may strike, it is all according to the will of the universe (or the Buddha) and that without facing these difficulties, one cannot hope to achieve spiritual knowledge.

If you’ve never read the story, I highly recommend it. There are many wonderful translations nowadays and it’s a fantastic read as well as a great introduction to Chinese folklore and mythology.