Guan Yin and the Monkey King

Guan Yin and the Monkey King

For weeks I have been watching Chinese Opera. It is highly symbolic and it gives a psychological view of how Chinese people see themselves. Chinese Opera is highly refined and requires real study and contemplation. One of the favorite themes of Chinese Opera is the story of the Monkey King embedded within the classic novel, Journey to the West written by Wu Chen-en during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century.

During World War II, Arthur Waley translated and published about a third of Journey to the West, calling it simply Monkey; it was very popular with the general public. The stories of Monkey have become part of the repertoire of the Chinese Opera, TV series, and comic books. Korean and Japanese children also know the Monkey story.

The stories function on the level of parables and can be understood on many levels. While it can simply be enjoyed as a fantasy and pseudo history it carries profound meaning. The Monkey king represents the ego of the preconscious stage. Victor Frankel identifies the Monkey King as the trickster, the first of four stages of ego development. His desire is to be immortal and fully human. Herein lies the clue to the deep psychological purpose of the story..

The tale of the Monkey King is and example of the individuation process identified by C G Jung as “the process by which a person becomes an individual, that is, a separate indivisible unity or whole.” As such the dauntless and irreverent Monkey King — a Trickster hero of truly archetypal proportions is an inspiration for classical Chinese opera.”

After causing considerable upheaval in the heavens, Monkey was imprisoned for his misdeeds. He was released through the intercession of Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, only on condition that he fulfill his destiny by accompanying the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (who is a real historical character of 7th c. Tang) to India to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China. To restrain his natural violence, Guan Yin put a band on his head that tightened on command, instantly giving him a splitting headache. At the end of his successful quest with companions (resembling some in Tokein’s the Fellowship of the Ring), Monkey was left with only one concern: to be rid of the head splitting ring that Guan Yin had put around his head. When Xuanzang asked him gently after a period of time if it bothered him, he raised his hand to his temples. Only then did he realize that it had disappeared of its own accord along with the last traces of his animal nature.

The “band” originally placed on Monkey’s head shares attributes with a “ring” in relation to power and control In its final transformation, the band recalls the halo around the heads of the holy. In various religions, East and West, halos are depicted as adorning circles of light denoting cosmic understanding and enlightenment. Similarly the ring or circle is the most ancient representation of the wholeness of the cosmos — seen, for example, in the pi’i discs of earliest Chinese art.

Monkey King (or Sunwukong) was born from a stone. He could transform himself into seventy-two different images such as a tree, a bird, a beast of prey, or a bug as small as a mosquito so as to sneak into an enemy’s belly to fight him or her inside out. Using clouds as a vehicle, he can travel 180,000 miles a single somersault.

He claimed to be king (ego) in defiance of the Great Emperor of Jade (Id). That act of high treason invited the relentless scourge of the Heavenly army. After many showdowns, the dove faction of the heavenly court persuaded the emperor to offer the monkey an official title to appease him. The monkey accepted this offer on a trial basis. However, he learned a few days later that he was cheated and being jeered all over the heavenly court: the position he held was nothing but a stable keeper. Enraged, he revolted, fighting his way back to earth to resume his own claim as a king.

Eventually, the heavenly army subdued him, only after many a battle, with the help of all the god warriors (social norms). However, all methods of execution failed. One attempt to kill him actually gave him a pair of fiery golden crystal eyes that can see through what people normally cannot.

At last, the emperor asked Buddha for help. The Buddha moved a great mountain known as the Mount of Five Fingers to fall upon him. Still, the tenacious monkey survived the enormous weight and pressure, except he could not move! Five hundred years later, there came to his rescue the monk Xuanzang. To insure that Xuanzang could make the journey to the West to get the Buddhist scriptures, Buddha had arranged for the Monkey King to become his disciple and escort him, along with two other disciples they later came across. There the four started their stormy journey west which was packed with actions and adventures.

Monkey, the monk, Pigsy, and Sandy work their way to the Western Paradise and the Buddhist sutras. Tall mountains, deep rushing rivers, and evil demons lie ahead. But Monkey is brave and smart, and he even learns to behave. They know this is an important mission. As many years pass, they learn to face challenges by working together. When a task is too hard, the goddess Guan Yin helps out. After traveling for 14 years and 108,000 miles, Monkey and his friends reach the Western Paradise. Buddha gives them the sacred sutras to take back to China. Buddha knows that the travelers suffered on the journey, but they also learned something new about themselves. Plus, they each earned merit for doing good deeds. Buddha rewards them for their loyalty and hard work—with immortal life and happiness.

This is a deep psychological story about maturation of individual consciousness  The lust for power, even over death must be destroyed in order to inherit life. The characters of the Monk (Xuanzang) represent the male Animus and the integrated authentic self. Guan Yin is the anima of divine feminine power. The battle over control of the Monkey King represents the process of integrating the self. The submission of the Monkey King to both Guan Yin and the Monk produce the emergence of individuation and the authentic human. The monkey disappears and the Monkey King becomes what he has always yearned to be.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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