|A Japanese painting of Sun Wukong|
People sometimes get hung up on this interpretation because they believe that these sorts of teaching allegories have to be totally universal, or else they aren't real. They point at the characters of the Dragon horse and Sandy and ask what they are supposed to "represent". But the fact is that Journey to the West is primarily an piece of entertaining fiction, not a book of Daoist theory. It needn't be completely allegorical, all the time---it just needs to be so once in a while.
Another complaint is that since Xuanzang is a Buddhist monk and the journey is to the Western Buddhist heaven to get Buddhist scriptures, it "obviously" cannot have anything to do with Daoism. Well, this misses the constant refrain in the book that "all religions are one", the way Daoist teachers are often referenced, and, the many, many allusions to arcane aspects of Daoist teachings---all of which would be missed by the casual reader of a bad translation.
One of the ways to see this is to understand the group travelling to the Western heaven as one entity with each character representing one particular part of the human psyche. Pigsy represents the instinctual drives of the human beings. Xuanzang is the higher intellect that attempts to control the other elements of the human being. And Monkey is the "mind ape" that is the well-spring of mental activity that gives human beings their ability to think their way through the problems of life.
The part of human beings that Monkey represents is that bubbling well-spring of creativity that goes on in our mind and allows us to think of solutions to the endless problems that life throws our way. As such, it is essential to life. That is why Sun Wukong is the protector of Xuanzang in Journey to the West---because our "monkey mind" is what has allowed human beings to survive and prosper. But the problem with this bubbling well is that if we don't exert some control over it, it creates havoc in our lives. The well can create ungrounded fears that eat us alive. Or it can develop weird prejudices that alienate us from the community we need to survive. Or it can create strange obsessions that cause us to waste away our lives pursuing absurd delusions. All these problems are represented in the start of the book by the crazy havoc that Monkey creates in Heaven.
|10th century Northern Chinese wooden Guanyin|
The problem is that most of us live our lives with a constant internal voice burning through out minds that says all sorts of destructive things like "you're too fat", "what's wrong with you?", "what if I run out of money?", "what if I lose my job?", "who the Hell do they think they are to tell me what to do?", etc. This voice can get louder and louder until they take over our life entirely. Repeating some phrase over and over again---which is what saying a mantra really is all about---literally drowns this voice out and allows our intellect to regain control of our thought processes. Contrary to what some people may tell you, it doesn't really matter what the mantra is. You can repeat "om mani padme hum", "da do run run, da do run run", or, whatever. My first meditation teacher said if I wanted, I could repeat "cocksucker, cocksucker cocksucker" over and over again if it made sense to me. But the point is to be able to "clamp down" on that monkey mind and stop it from becoming so loud that it overwhelms your consciousness.
People often go into great detail about the various and sundry ways there are to meditate. But ultimately, meditation is a very simple process. It is looking at the way your mind operates, deciding what is the ideal way for it to be, and, finding out ways that you can learn to control it. In the case that I've mentioned from Journey to the West, I've identified one of the easiest---using a mantra. But there are other mechanisms too.
|The traditional Daoist |
map of the body
Being a modern Westerner, I would much rather say that through a process of dissecting my body with my consciousness, I've learned to identify different elements of my bodily awareness. This allows me to loosen my lower abdomen and chest region. This has allowed me to dramatically improve my bodily posture. It also allows me to become aware of the subtle ways in which my visual, auditory, and, bodily awareness interact with my consciousness to influence my thought processes. Frankly, I find this sort of language a lot more useful than saying that "my qi moves" from one place to another. But I do think that I am describing the same thing as the old Daoists.
And the upshot is that I can control my "monkey mind" by focusing my consciousness on the subtle feelings in my body. One part of this is feeling my feet come into contact with the floor beneath my feet when I walk. The experience is somewhat like what I expect walking on my hands would feel like. The heel makes contact, I can feel my weight rippling through my (pitifully collapsed) arch, and then each of my individual toes engages with the floor and then rolls off. At the same time, I consciously "drop" my shoulders and chest, counter-acting my genetic predisposition to "hunch" my shoulders into a "scholar's hump". At the same time, I consciously try to look through both of my eyes, giving each equal weight of attention instead of allowing one or the other to dominate. Together with these and other conscious activities, I create a calm and peace of mind that results in a feeling of something coming up my spine and manifesting itself in between my brows and on the top of my head. (At the same time, I am acutely aware of the almost constant throbbing of my chronically infected sinus cavities and ear canals---I get a lot of virus infections at work, plus I am very allergic to dust.)
This "hyper awareness" has the same effect as repeating a mantra constantly. It overwhelms the chattering monkey mind and allows the intellect to assert control over the random creative impulses that the mind spews at us like a fire hose. As a side effect, for me the hyper awareness technique has added benefits lacking from the mantra method. For one thing, it helps improve my physical health. I suffer from many complaints: arthritis, tendonitis, tennis elbow, chronic sinusitis, etc. (Most are the result of a hard life doing physical labour, inheriting some bad genes---such as very, very flat feet--- and being exposed to thousands of teenagers from all over the world every day at work. Without taijiquan and other neidan practices, I'd be a mess.)
I was asked recently why it is that I write about this stuff and do all the things I do. After all, I walk a very narrow path. Traditional religious Daoists have sometimes attacked me very angrily for being a Western "innovator" who they feel "spits on the tradition". At the same time, I often meet Westerners who can barely hide their contempt for me because they think that I am an apologist for "New Age super-naturalism". But the point is that we all suffer greatly from the delusions that our monkey minds create for us. In fact, I don't think that there could be a greater gift that a man could give another than to help them tame the dumb notions that befog their minds.
Zen Buddhism is the "first cousin" of Daoism and there is a story about a Japanese Zen hermit named Ryōkan.
One evening a thief visited Ryōkan's hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon." (From Wikipedia.)The point is that Ryōkan had something that was absolutely priceless: insight into how his mind operated and the ability to unify his consciousness. Ryōkan would have dearly loved to be able to give this insight to everyone, including the thief. Yet the thief not only didn't want it, he didn't even know the value of this gift or that Ryōkan could give it to him. That is the point of Ryōkan wishing he could give the thief the moon. That is the dilemma that anyone who has gained any realisation faces---almost no one knows enough to even want it. Yet, we have to keep on trying. That's because once in a while someone actually does want the moon---.
|Sculpture of Ryōkan|
by Dready at Wiki Commons