From Monkey King to Buddha:  Change Is Never Easy for the Powerful - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

From Monkey King to Buddha:  

Change Is Never Easy for the Powerful

Armstrong State University

Power can be a fruitful attribute or a destructive one, depending on the way it is utilized. The fruitful facet of power exhibits fair and humble actions, whereas the destructive aspect displays exploitation. The one who holds power has greater responsibility as well because they are leaders, commonly influencing others actions. Monkey: A Journey to the West presents a wonderful example, Monkey, who possesses great power and highlights its duality. Monkey’s journey reveals the affects power has on one’s decisions and is a warning for those with power. Monkey abuses his power for numerous years, but through harsh imprisonment and coercion he repents and becomes a Buddha.

The Monkey King supresses
White bone spirit,
woodblock print, 17th cen.

Monkey’s desire for power was ingrained in him from the beginning. Monkey’s opportunity to be King of the monkeys forced him to jump through the water curtain. Moreover, Monkey’s realization of death, something that had power over him, stirred him to seek immortality. The hunt for immortality led him to a Taoist Master who taught him immortality and transformations only after Monkey’s pleading and perseverance. It is obvious that Monkey strived to earn the power that he achieved, yet that did not grant him the abuse and arrogance that followed.

Monkey misused his power countless times before his punishment, carefree of his actions and believing he was untouchable. Monkey’s first abuse occurred quickly after his acquiring of power, where he was enticed by fellow students to “Turn yourself into a pine tree” (23). Monkey could not pass up the opportunity to gloat, but this led to Monkey’s exile from the establishment and a scolding from the master, “Don’t you realize that by turning tricks you will encourage others to wish to do the same” (25). Copious examples of Monkey’s abuse are strewn about the text: stealing weapons from another kingdom, acquiring the “iron cudgel” and “martial apparel,” impersonating the “Barefoot Immortal,” disrupting heaven and battling divinities. All of these examples highlight Monkey’s desire to be the supreme ruler and his apathy for other’s authority. Monkey’s disruptive behavior and pride directed him to his well-deserved punishment. The Buddha imprisoned Monkey under a mountain for five hundred years allowing “iron pills when he was hungry and to give him molten verdigris to drink when he was thirsty” (84). This sentence led to Monkey’s penitence, yet a grueling one.

The Monkey King giving a toast
to his generals in Mt.Flowers
Fruits, woodblock print, 17th cen.

Even though Monkey’s imprisonment guided him to humility, this was not an easy task for Monkey. Monkey’s exploitation of power was so habitual that even after liberation, he disregarded Tripitaka’s scolding and fled his duties. Monkey was so unruly that it took a magical cap to initiate his imperative change of conduct. This magic cap granted Tripitaka the power over monkey through force, the only language that monkey understood. Since Monkey was humbled, he commenced the process of amending his actions, slow at first, but in the right direction. Monkey’s conventional response to gain conflict resolution was brute force, but he began to follow humble decorum when his interactions with people started with requests, rather than fists; highlighted in the response to the old man, “I am not a freak but a disciple of a T’ang monk who has been sent by imperial commission to seek scriptures in the West” (146). Expanding further on Monkey’s almost unbelievable transformation, one must note when Monkey returned the Iron fan to the princess, even after the chaos that occurred, because “if I didn’t return your fan, people would say that I was incapable of keeping my word” (188). This demonstrates Monkey’s change from a disorderly, power hungry fiend, to a fair and steadfast servant.

Monkey’s journey provides one with a superb look at the effects of perverted power and well-executed power. One who gloats and coerces others to submission abuses their authority greatly. On the contrary, one who utilizes their power justly and selflessly receives reward. Monkey’s faithful service to Tripitaka and the mission of the scriptures earned him the title of Buddha, because without the use of Monkey’s power this could not have been fulfilled. When Monkey focused his power on something other than himself goodness occurred, whereas abused power led to Monkey’s destruction. Without Monkey’s repentance there would be no need for a story, because the greatness of the story lies in how far Monkey strayed and his conversion to “Buddha Victorious in Strife.”

About the author

Charles Halton Thomson, a fourth year student in the History Department of Armstrong State University. He is a member of Phi Alpha Theta.

Recommended citation

Charles Halton Thomson, “Change Is Never Easy for the Powerful: A Reading of the Monkey,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.2 (Summer 2011).


David Kherdian. Monkey, A Journey to the West. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

© 2014 Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, Online ISSN 2163-8551
A special initiative of the Department of History,
Armstrong State University, a University System of Georgia Institution