Star of stage, screen and scroll, MONKEY is the true hero of Journey To The West (Xiyou Ji) — the amazing novel of frivolity and profundity written by Wu Cheng’en in the sixteenth century. (It’s one of China’s Four Great Novels, and we highly recommend it to anyone seeking enlightenment or entertainment.)
From the beginning of time, a certain rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers had been soaking up the goodness of nature and QI energy. One day this pregnant rock released a stone egg, and from it hatched a Stone Ape, who solemnly bowed to the Four Corners of the Earth — then jumped off to have fun.
This was MONKEY. He was high-spirited, egotistical and full of mischievous pranks. He was soon having a wonderful time as King of the Apes. But a niggling worry began to gnaw at him — one which would change his life. The Monkey King feared Death.
To find immortality, MONKEY became the disciple of Father Subodhi, a rather dour DAOist sage. The sage, unimpressed with his simian tricks, gave the Monkey King a new title: ‘Disciple Aware of Emptiness’. MONKEY was very pleased with this epithet, not realizing it referred to the vacuum in his head. After much haggling, Father Subodhi uttered the words of Illumination, explained the process of Cloud-Flying — and also revealed the secret of the Seventy-Two Transformations. Which, thought MONKEY, was extremely good value for money.
Returning home to his monkey subjects, he discovered they were under siege by a fearsome monster. Magic tricks were no good — what he needed was a weapon. So he whizzed off to the Dragon King AO-KUANG and cajoled his way into the Treasury. There he found the great Magic Wishing Staff, a huge rod of black iron which Heaven had used to flatten the bed of the Milky Way. It weighed 13,000 pounds but could expand to fill the Universe or shrink to the size of a needle. MONKEY was delighted with this Weapon of Mass Destruction and used it to bludgeon many a demon thereafter.
It wasn’t long before reports of MONKEY’s tricks started to reach the austere ears of the JADE-EMPEROR. First the LONG-WANG Ocean Dragons complained of rudeness and theft. Then YEN-LO-WANG, the God of Death, lodged a formal protest. "That intolerable ape has just vandalized my filing system and made monkeys immortal. What are you going to do about it?"
Not wishing to shed needless karma, the JADE-EMPEROR invited MONKEY to Heaven and gave him a job. Without pay, of course. This plan to keep the peace was amazingly successful for an entire day. Then MONKEY discovered that his post as Keeper of the Heavenly Stables was so lowly, even the horse manure ranked higher than him.
Insulted beyond belief, MONKEY ran amok, burst into the JADE-EMPEROR’s court and dared to threaten his august person. The Ruler of the Universe sighed, consulted his advisors and bestowed a new title upon him: Great Sage, Equal Of Heaven. "That’s much better," said MONKEY, impressed.
But by his very nature the Great Sage was irrepressibly naughty. He just couldn’t help it. He gobbled up LAO-ZI’s Longevity Pills, stuffed his face with the precious Peaches of Immortality, gatecrashed official parties and made insulting gestures to all and sundry. Finally he left Heaven in disgust, claiming it wasn’t good enough for him.
Now the JADE-EMPEROR finally lost his esteemed cool. He sent the Heavenly army to obliterate MONKEY once and for all. Nothing could withstand this mighty force... But the Great Stone Ape — immortal, spiritually illumined and filled with Heavenly essences — was not only indestructible but also pretty handy in a fight. The forces of Heaven made an embarrassing display and slunk off in defeat. There was nothing for it — the Ruler of Heaven called for BUDDHA.
Now BUDDHA, in his infinite wisdom, knew better than to subdue MONKEY by force. Instead he offered him a wager. "If you’re so clever, jump off the palm of my hand. If you can do that, I’ll demote the Emperor and give Heaven to you. But if you can’t, I’ll expect a full apology and penance."
The Monkey King laughed. He could travel thousands of miles in a single leap. The bet was on. BUDDHA stretched out his hand and MONKEY jumped...
Several thousand miles later, the Great Sage landed in a desolate plain with great columns reaching up the sky. "These must be the Five Pillars of Wisdom at the end of the Universe", he thought. "That BUDDHA is just plain stupid to make such a silly bet." And, to show his disrespect, he pissed all over the nearest pillar and jumped back to claim his reward.
"Is the Emperor packing his bags yet?" asked MONKEY as he landed. The Holy One raised a sublime eyebrow. "I don’t know why you’re grinning," he said, "you’ve been on my palm the whole time." An astonished MONKEY rubbed his eyes and stared at the five familiar-looking pink pillars of BUDDHA’s hand. Then he smelt the stench of monkey pee and trembled.
The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground with a mountain on top of him. And there he stayed for five hundred long years, being fed molten copper and iron pills by an attendant demon while the moss grew in his ears. By the time GUAN-YIN came along, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven was a thoroughly humble creature.
As told in Journey To The West, GUAN-YIN enlisted MONKEY as chief disciple of the young Buddhist monk TRIPITAKA. Together with SANDY and PIGSY, he protected the boy on his quest to India, battling demons and righting wrongs along the way. His natural monkey trickery now had a holy purpose which he unleashed with much enthusiasm — and his uncontrollable ego was kept firmly in place by a little device of GUAN-YIN’s devising: a head-band made of gold.
The unsuspecting Great Sage was not prepared for the terrible torture of the Headache Sutra! Whenever MONKEY misbehaved, TRIPITAKA recited the Sutra and the golden fillet squeezed until his very eyeballs felt like bursting. Try as he might, he could not remove it. There was no defense except submission, and pretty soon MONKEY was the most humble disciple the world has ever known. Usually.
After many many many many adventures, the travelers fulfilled their quest. MONKEY was rewarded for all his efforts with the title ‘Buddha Victorious Against Disaster’ and finally made his peace with Heaven. We don’t know what the Great Sage gets up to nowadays, but presumably he keeps himself occupied.