Journey to the West is one of the four great epics known throughout the Chinese–speaking world. Attributed to Wu ChengEn in the sixteenth century and based on the actual historical journeys of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, it recounts the poignant and humorous adventures of the impetuous, all powerful Monkey King a/k/a Sun Wukong (monkey awake to emptiness) whose concerns are himself, and the pure–hearted determined Tang Priest, who wants to help others. Together they struggle not only with demons and ogres, but with one another, as they travel from China to norther India to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures.
In her own adaptation of the epic, and with unexpected movement and song, Diane Wolkstein sought to break open the text, encouraging the audience to question the path of goodness (the Tang Priest) vs. the path of power (Monkey King) and how they might be integrated then — and now.
What follows is some of the material that was archived from the original Monkey King Epic website, which is no longer online. We hope that Dianes words and images will provide some of the necessary insight into what attracted her to the epic.
The sixteenth century epic of Monkey King: Journey to the West is known to every Chinese person, in Mainland China, Taiwan, and the diaspora. Monkey King, born from a 356 foot round stone, sets out in search of immortality. Fourteen years of apprenticeship bring Monkey King the skill of cloud somersaulting and an impenetrable body. He then tries to take over heaven but is defeated by Buddha. Five hundred years later, Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, releases Monkey King from his captivity so he might accompany a young monk to India to bring back the Buddhist scriptures. En route in this great rollicking tale they have adventure upon adventure, encounters with robbers, fiends, monsters, tigers, ogres, and lusty women who would steal their powers.
On the surface, the epic is a great adventure tale with the immortal Monkey King, whose supernatural powers put him in a league with Superman™ or Batman™. With the support of his compliance rod, he defeats tyrants, liberates the oppressed, and helps the needy. He also loses his temper at the slightest insult and has great difficulty obeying orders. His companion, The Tang Monk, is a pure soul, ignorant in worldly matters, trembling before each tall mountain, tiger and brigand they meet.
Diane’s presentation of Monkey King offers the excitement of the journey, while also focusing on the inner adventures of the protagonists. Monkey King has gained immortal powers from studying with the Taoists; his first instincts are to triumph, to prevail. However, in his role as the monk’s protector, he runs into constant difficulties, for the Tang Monk, cannot see the difference between fiend and friend and his loving heart would care for all, even those who would destroy them. Taoism (enlightenment of the self), and Buddhism (care for others), struggle toward integration during the journey. Equally relevant to our times is the struggle and eventual integration of the magician and the “saint”. The assertive, spontaneous magician Monkey King, has great technical powers and would happily take over the world, while the submissive, pure Monk journeys with the intention of ending the suffering of all beings.
In our times, we have great technical knowledge, we know how to split the atom and clone; we also want to care for the whole planet. How do we integrate such matters?
A brief excerpt from Dianes version of the text
Heaven watched life’s ten thousand beings,
each one carried the potential to move
Telling the secrets to the wrong person
leaves the mouth dry and thirsty.
Treasure and cultivate the vital forces:
the energy, the breath, the spirit.
Guard them well; do not let them escape.
If you truly understand the origin of the universe,
heaven and earth, the sun, and the moon will be envious.
When the mind is not stable, the elixir cannot cook.
When we stop grasping, our pure mind rejoices.
What calamity is greater than no contentment?
Journey East: In Search of Monkey King
A special 1034 featurette in which Diane was joined by Sat Hon on an exploration through Taiwan to research her Monkey King Epic project.