Journey to the West, written in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty, is one of the Four Chinese Classics. The novel tells of the arduous quest of a monk who is escorted by his three magical disciples. They travel from China to India to obtain sacred Buddhist scriptures in order to save people out of the cycle of reincarnation.
At the start of this novel, the Monkey King becomes a cultivator of the Dao, learns the secrets of immortality, develops incredible strength and agility as well as supernormal abilities, including the ability to travel 108,000 li (54,000 kilometres) in one somersault, transform into 72 different animals and objects and instantly create doubles of himself to fight demons.
Monkey King’s mischievous nature however, led him to cause chaos in the seas and the heavens, where he angered several gods and dragon kings who reported him to the Jade Emperor. After he stole and consumed the sacred peaches of immortality, Lao Zi’s pills of longevity and the Jade Emperor’s royal wine, he was chased down by an army of 100,000 celestial warriors. All attempts at defeating the Monkey King failed. It was only when the authorities of Heaven appealed to the Buddha that the Monkey King was finally captured. The Buddha trapped him under the Five Elements Mountain for five centuries as punishment. After five centuries he was freed by Bodhisattva Guanyin under the condition that he mend his ways and escort the Tang Monk to India to fetch the Buddhist scriptures.
In this article we delve into a chapter where the Monkey King meets a formidable opponent that can transform itself into anyone at will, including the Monkey King himself. This becomes an issue for the monk as he cannot distinguish which is his disciple.
When the true and fake Monkey Kings first engage in a fierce battle, it seems that none can defeat the other. They fly to heaven where Bodhisattva Guanyin is unable to identify the real Monkey King. A magical mirror that is used to reflect a being’s true appearance was used, also to no avail. Flying back to the human dimension, they continue to battle it out in front of the monk. The monk is urged to recite a mantra by the other disciples which tightens the headband on the monkey, inflicting a paralyzing headache. Both Monkey Kings however, squirmed in pain as the monk chanted the mantra.
They then fly down to the netherworld where even the Deity in charge of the life-death registry has no way of distinguishing the true Monkey King from the fake. Fortunately they were advised by another deity: “The being who has become the fake Monkey King is a very rare type of being which I am unable to identify now. The Buddha’s Law is boundless, seek out the Buddha Law.” The real Monkey King realised his only chance of being identified was by visiting the Buddha.
Upon arrival before the Buddha, the Buddha advised: “There are four kinds of ape which cause confusion and which are not listed under the ten categories of species. The first is the intelligent stone monkey who can transform itself into anything at will. It understands the principles of Heaven and Earth and can manipulate the stars and constellations. The second kind is the red-rumped mandrill which is adept at the principles of Yin and Yang, human affairs and can get in and out of anywhere as well as avoid death. The third kind is the magic armed gibbon which can catch the sun and moon, shrink mountains and understand the factors behind favorable circumstances. The fourth kind is the six-eared macaque which has incredible hearing and perception. It can see into both past and present and understands all creatures.
These four kinds of ape are not among the ten categories of creatures that dwell between Heaven and Earth. I can see that the fake Monkey King is precisely the six-eared macaque. Wherever he stands he has the ability to know what is happening hundreds of miles away and hear everything that is said. That is why he has such incredible hearing, brilliant perception and understands the past, the future and all beings. It is such that he looks and sounds just like the real Monkey King – He is the six-eared macaque,” the Buddha said whilst pointing out the fake Monkey King.
As soon as the macaque realised the Buddha had identified him to be the fake Monkey King, he started trembling in fear and attempted to escape by leaping away. The Buddha commanded the guardian deities to capture the macaque. They all rushed forward to surround it, including the real Monkey King.
“Don’t hit him Monkey King,” said the Buddha. “I shall capture him for you.” The macaque’s fur stood on end as he realized that there would be no escape, so he shook himself and turned into a bee, attempting to escape by flying away, only to be captured when the Buddha threw his bowl over it. Everyone at the scene was concerned the macaque had escaped. “Silence”, said the Buddha with a smile. “The evil spirit has not escaped. He is under my bowl.” As the bowl was lifted everyone saw the six-eared macaque in its true form.
The real Monkey King could not restrain himself. Swinging his golden cudgel he killed the demon with a single blow to the head.
According to the three traditional religions of China, the sentimental human heart is fake, whereas a cultivator’s compassionate heart, or Buddha nature, is real. The Monkey King was finally able to defeat the fake Monkey King. That was indeed an important victory, for a cultivator’s ultimate goal is to assimilate to what is true by overcoming what is fake, eventually becoming a true being.