Inventing the art of Buddhist exquisite corpsing… (say what now?)

Before you read any further I want to clarify that this post is (unfortunately) not about those shrivelled little monk corpses you often hear about… as fascinating as they are. No, this is a post about a class I taught yesterday.. and something I invented in that class.. but let me contextualise. I teach a class of undergraduates on a World Literature module and 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, unlike anything I’ve read before… part fantasy and adventure novel, part philosophical treatise (esp Confucian and Buddhist), part real-life history (based on the great pilgrimage by the monk Xuan Zang (602-664) who travelled all over Asia to share Buddhist teachings), part folk-lore and ancient mythology, part political, religious and societal satire/allegory. 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, aka 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, cuts out every one of these poems (booooooo), neutering this so crucial aspect. Though forty years later a number of translators reintegrated the poems in a similar vein to the original.

So anyway, we’d been discussing these prose vs poetic form translations, and the idea more broadly, and I decided it was time for my class to get in touch with their ‘Zen side’… and so, to their horror, I led them outside under the shade of our big majestic tree in the central quad of our Literature depnt building, and told them we would try to recreate some of the scenes of the novel in Zen Buddhist-style poetry… So this is where the ‘exquisite corpsing’ part of the deal comes in (I like to integrate elements of art into my seminars somehow). An exquisite corpse was a technique used by the surrealists which involved a number of artists contributing to form a ‘serendipitous’ artwork. Each artist would draw a small portion of an image, then fold the paper so as to hide it from the next artist, who would then continue to form the next part of the image, before hiding their own part and then handing it on to the next, before then… [etc etc.] until finally the paper was unfolded and the hybrid image revealed.. as with the one shown below:

an exquisite corpse composed by Yves Tanguy, Max Morise, Joan Miro and Man Ray in 1927

So I decided to do something similar, only with poetry. I printed the students a copy of 2 fragments from the novel and they each read a sentence of prose, formed their own line or few lines of poetry from that sentence, then folded it over so that the next person could not see it, and passed it along (they also crossed out the sentence so the next person knew which they were to poeticise). As they read the text and formed their Buddhist poems under the shade of the tree, with a calming Zen (youtube) soundtrack playing softly in the background, I felt at one with the world… I felt serene in the extreme… Okay maybe I went a little far. But anyway, directly below is the piece of writing that the students originally read (i.e. Wu Cheng’en’s), and below that is the students’ poetic, exquisite corpse rendition of it. The first scene is from the very opening of the novel where the Monkey King is born from a stone egg, the second is from a scene in which the Monkey King is challenged by Buddha to leap accross the earth in one bound… but he only makes it as far as the Buddha’s middle finger (lol#):::


‘There was once a magic stone on the top of this mountain which was thirty-six feet five inches high and twenty-four feet round. It was thirty-six feet five inches high to correspond with the 365 degrees of the heavens, and twenty-four feet round to match the twenty-four divisions of the solar calendar. On top of it were nine apertures and eight holes, for the Nine Palaces and the Eight Trigrams. There were no trees around it to give shade, but magic fungus and orchids clung to its sides. Ever since Creation began it had been receiving the truth of Heaven, the beauty of Earth, the essence of the Sun and the splendour of the Moon; and as it had been influenced by them for so long it had miraculous powers. It developed a magic womb, which burst open one day to produce a stone egg about the size of a ball.”


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



“Yes, yes,” the Buddha replied, and he stretched out his right hand, which seemed to be about the size of a lotus leaf. Putting away his As-You-Will cudgel, the Great Sage summoned up all his divine powers, jumped into the palm of the Buddha’s hand, and said, “I’m off.” Watch him as he goes like a streak of light and disappears completely. The Buddha, who was watching him with his wise eyes, saw the Monkey King whirling forward like a windmill and not stopping until he saw five flesh-pink pillars topped by dark vapours.

“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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