‘Journey to the West’ inspired poems

I had my World Literature undergraduate class write some poetry yesterday which I thought I’d share. But first to contextualise.. This week we were looking at Wu Cheng’en’s (1500-1582) Journey to the West (sometimes called just Monkey or Monkey King), which is considered one of the great classics of Chinese literature. It’s a greatly entertaining read, and unlike anything I’ve read before… part fantasy, folk lore, allegory, history, philosophy (Confucian and Buddhist) based on the great pilgrimage by the monk Xuan Zang (602-664) who travelled all over Asia to share Buddhist teachings. It tells of Tripitaka’s (the English name for the central character) journey to find enlightenment, after being instructed by Buddha to find the sacred scrolls and bring them back to China. Along the way he meets various other legendary figures, including Pigsy (a pig-faced outcast who represents primal urges), Sandy (a quiet and contemplative river ogre), and most notably of all the inimitable Monkey King. The Monkey King, or Sun Wu Kong (which means ‘awakened to emptiness’ – the Buddhist creed in essence), is an all-powerful simian trickster god who rejects heaven for its rigid, governmental structure (as well as simply for its being so unbearably boring). He is blessed with the ability to transform any single one of his copious bodily hairs into anything he can imagine on a whim, and is a symbol of the combined power of madness and genius within the novel. After many demon battles, hardships and glorious adventures, the group eventually retrieve the sacred scrolls, only to find that they are blank – symbolising this fundamental Buddhist idea of finding enlightenment by way of some deeper inner truth, inner acceptance, independence. In its original form the novel was written alongside a great many Buddhist poems: beautifully serene and tranquil fragments akin to meditations, which are fundamental to the philosophical underlay of the novel and evoking its true meaning. Here are a few examples:

‘One white rainbow arching
A thousand strands of flying snow
Unbroken by the sea winds
Still there under the moon …
A noble waterfall cascades
Hanging suspended like a curtain’

and more…

Emerald moss piled up in heaps of blue
White clouds like drifting jade
While the light flickered amongst wisps of mist
A quiet house with peaceful windows…
Exotic blooms all around

The most famous and still the most widely circulated English translation of Journey to the West, Arthur Waley’s 1942 translation, callously cuts out every one of these poems, neutering this so crucial aspect. Though forty years later a number of translators reintegrated the poems in a similar vein to the original. In class we’d been discussing these prose vs poetic form translations, and the idea more broadly, and so I decided it might work to test the act of poeticising parts of the novel. Time for my class to get in touch with their ‘Zen side’. I led the class outside under the shade of our big majestic tree in the central quad of our building, and we recreated some of the scenes of the novel in Zen Buddhist-style poetry. We also listened to a calming Zen soundtrack to set the mood and feel more at one with the world. Here are the poems:

A stone stood atop great spire
Shrouded in misty skies
Circumference visible to all
The great father rests
so tall as to touch the heavens
As earth revolves around his mount
He contemplates the cosmos.
At its summit, nine great palaces
Surrounded by glowing magic fungus,
Sweeping beds of orchids.
For all eternity the stone listens
Hearing whispers of truth
Watching the beauty upon the earth
Until the stone developed a womb
And from it came a stone egg


“Relinquish your fear
Leap into the waiting embrace
Of the lotus leaf”
That simian Great Sage
Divested of his weapon
Disappears in a streak of light.
Through Buddha’s wisened lens,
Who witnessed the Monkey King’s toil
Fruitful, and yet in vain,
Smiled that gentle, all-seeing smile…



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