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How to translate emptiness? The empty scriptures in "Journey to the West"

- James Farquharson

'Monkey' (Sun Wukong) and Tripitaka engaging in a trial of wits; Japanese print (Wikimedia Commons)


The 16th Century Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West has always lived a vibrant life beyond its pages. Whether through the media of Peking Opera, a kung-fu television series, or the various translations available to anglophone readers, its cultural importance has been such that the work could not just be left in its original magnificence, as if carved into jade. Ever since its emergence into the Ming literary scene in 1592, the tale has been subject to endless re-interpretations and spin-offs that have meant the novel has never been perceived with a stamp of finality. Though recent scholarship has affirmed that the novel’s main underpinning comes from Chan Buddhism, it contains such an array of religious influences that many critics have instead regarded it as the epitome of Chinese religious syncretism. Put otherwise, the intermingling of concepts drawn from Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism seems to affirm the imperial state orthodoxy of ‘the unity of the three religions’ (sanjiaoguiyi 三教歸一).


Given the protean nature of the novel and its constantly evolving interpretations, it is perhaps ironic that the driving force of the novel plot is a pilgrimage to obtain a set of Buddhist texts that are supposed to present a set of final and definite truths. The assumption that lies behind the revering of any group of documents, such as the texts that make up the Bible or the Quran, as the basis of a religion is that they contain within them such a complete set of truths. This picture is naturally complicated by the interference of patently non-divine beings in the compilation and translation of these works, but any translator of a sacred text is motivated by the urge to present a true account of the original divine words in another language. The initial raison d’être of the pilgrimage in Journey to the West fits this linear view of 'translation', a term which narrowly defined means ‘the action of converting from one language to another’. Xuanzang was, of course, well-known for his translation of sutras into Chinese. Yet 'Translation' also has a broader and more literal meaning, present in its Latin etymological root translatio, of ‘the action of transferring, conveying, or moving a person or thing from one place, position, or person to another.’ The latter meaning was commonly used in Medieval Europe to describe the transferral of holy relics from one sight to another, either legitimately or as the result of theft and forgery.


In contrast to these acts of unsanctioned relic-hunting, the quest for translating the sacred documents in Journey to the West receives its legitimacy from the get-go. In chapter eight it is ordained by the Buddha that the bodhisattva Guanyin make a journey to the South Continent (where ordinary mortals dwell), to select a suitable pilgrim for making the journey to the West Continent and retrieving the three baskets of sacred texts (one each for vanaya, sastras and sutras). Guanyin selects the Buddhist monk Tripitaka to perform the quest who, after setting off from the Chinese capital Chang’an, encounters three disciples along the way, among which are the inimitable ‘Monkey’ (Sun Wukong), ‘Pigsy’ (Zhu Bajie) and ‘Sandy’ (Sha Wujing) - I am indebted to the early sinologist Arthur Waley for these charming renditions of their names into English. All of them are in some sense fallen from grace. Having committed some unpardonable offense against the court of the celestial Jade Emperor, they have been disfigured into demons who terrorise passers-by, until they are offered a chance of salvation through joining the quest. Thus, the novel becomes structured into a linear soteriological framework, with the prospect of ultimate Buddhist enlightenment attainable through the transl(oc)ation of these documents lying constantly ahead.

'Translation' also has a broader and more literal meaning, present in its Latin etymological root 'translatio', of ‘the action of transferring, conveying, or moving a person or thing from one place, position, or person to another.’

One of the actors from the iconic 1987 TV adaptation of Journey to the West making an appearance on the Chinese television show Star Reunion


Appropriately for a novel that has inspired such a range of cultural responses, it is itself embedded in the textual tradition surrounding the travels of the monk Xuanzang to India in 627-645, upon whom the figure of Tripitaka is based. Xuanzang lived at a time when Buddhism in China was still in the process of early development, and though it had received state support from as early as the Northern Wei in the 5th Century, it was still necessary for it to be harmonised with the indigenous religious traditions of Daoism and Confucianism. As such, this was a time of great intellectual ferment for Buddhism in China, and Xuanzang was particularly vexed over the issue of whether ‘Buddha nature’ (foxing 佛性) existed in everybody or only a select few possessed the characteristics necessary for attaining Buddhahood. Only by going to India, he believed, and obtaining the ‘true scriptures’ (zhenjing 真經), could the tap-root of Buddhism be accessed and the debate over this question finally resolved. Xuanzang thus decided to circumvent the travel ban instituted by the Tang emperor Taizong, and embarked on an 18-year exhibition to obtain the true scriptures.


On his return to Chang’an, he devoted the rest of his life to translation of the sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese, among which his translation of the Heart Sutra is still the definitive translation used in East Asian Buddhist sects. The process by which the histories of Xuanzang’s travels coalesced with other aspects of Chinese folklore into the epic of Journey to the West is well-substantiated but historically convoluted, so it is not necessary to examine it here. However, one direct legacy in the novel of the real Xuanzang’s travels is necessary to mention here, which is the recurrence of the Heart Sutra throughout the novel. The pilgrims actually obtain it relatively early on in the novel, in chapter nineteen, and it becomes both a tool for repelling the monsters that assail them on the journey, and a philosophical touchstone for the novel’s meditations on language and emptiness.


Illustration of the original pilgrim to the west, early-Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang (Wikimedia Commons)


The kernel of the Heart Sutra, if a kernel of truth can be said to exist within a text which embraces the elusiveness of truth, is the phrase ‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.’ Within the novel, and Chinese culture in general, language is depicted as possessing form, often inscribed as memorials upon rocks, so the nondualism between form and emptiness could also be reformulated as between language and emptiness. This interpretation fits with several events in the novel which underscore the sceptical attitude that it holds towards meaning being contained, enwrapped like a kernel, within sacred texts. When, in chapter ninety-eight, the pilgrims reach their destination at the Buddha’s dwelling on Spirit Vulture Peak and are given the sacred texts, it only dawns on them once they are a fair way down the road back that these texts are in fact bound-up stacks of blank paper.

The kernel of the Heart Sutra, if a kernel of truth can be said to exist within a text which embraces the elusiveness of truth, is the phrase ‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.’

As the pilgrims soon discover, the reason for this was that the two vajra guardians who had been instructed by the Buddha to give them the texts had taken umbrage at the insolence of the pilgrims in not bringing any gifts. Hence, they decided to play a trick on them by bestowing unto them empty texts. The Buddha becomes aware of this and sends a gust of wind to scatter the texts from the pilgrim’s horse and alert them to the swindle, not because the empty texts possess less value than complete and unabridged texts, but because ‘[m]ost of the priests in the Land of the East are so stupid and blind that they will not recognise the value of these wordless scriptures.’ As such, their travels would have been in vain. The pilgrims do indeed return and are granted the ‘true scriptures’ by the slightly amused Buddha, who tells them that ‘these blank texts are actually true, wordless scriptures (wuzi zhenjing 無字真經), and they are just as good as those with words.’ Such a pronouncement, equating the wordless texts with the complete texts, would seem to undermine the whole rationale for the pilgrimage and the pursuit of the true scriptures.


An understanding of the basic tenets of Mahayana Buddhism, and more particularly, the Sinicised version of this school as embodied in the doctrines of Chan (or Zen) Buddhism that form the philosophical underpinnings of the novel, help to clarify this paradox. Central to Mahayana Buddhism is the idea of ‘skilful means’ (rendered in Chinese as fangbian 方便), whereby there is no prescriptive pathway to enlightenment. To elaborate, whatever vehicle is skilfully employed by Bodhisattvas to help mortals achieve enlightenment is justified by its ultimate success rather than its adherence to a set pathway. Hence, schools of Mahayana Buddhism generally opened the pathway to enlightenment to a greater range of disciples than esoteric schools, which focus on strenuous practices and the reciting of mantras (zhenyan 真言), which require intensive study and self-discipline.


Chan Buddhism took the Mahayana Buddhist distancing from the idea of a singular ‘truth’ (zhen 真) embodied in mantras or scriptures a step further, by creating a discursive form of religious practice. Chan monastic life is structured around the setting up of ‘case’ (gongan 公案), a few words presented by the patriarch of the monastery to his students, which is then meditated upon for a certain period of time before they return to their master with their developed thought. This pursuit of enlightenment outside of the strict bounds of a given sutra is given voice by some of the phrasing used during the Song Dynasty to characterise Chan practice, in the idea that the teachings are ‘not established upon language or words’ (buli wenzi 不立文字). Therefore, the role of texts is not to transfer knowledge from within themselves but to illuminate meaning so that the student may discover it within themselves.


Since many of the first converts to Buddhism in China were Daoists, it is likely that Chan Buddhism took many of its beliefs regarding nonduality and the impermanence of textual meaning from Daoist epistemology. The idea just discussed, that texts facilitate the discovery of meaning rather than actually contain meaning, is also present in the thought of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who writes:


‘A fish-trap is for catching fish; once you have caught the fish, forget about the trap. A snare is for catching rabbits; once you have caught the rabbit, forget about the snare. Words are for catching ideas; once you have caught the idea, forget about the words.’


Zhuangzi fishing for ideas (Wikimedia Commons)

Only when enlightenment is reached can the vehicle in which one reached it be understood as illusory and language dissolve into the ether.

The use of parallel metaphors here is a common occurrence in Daoist writings, as if the writer is trying to sketch out the terrain wherein the truth of the pronouncement exists, rather than pin-point it with precise language. Words are for capturing ideas but they are messy and imprecise, and should be discarded once the idea has been located. The Chan belief that words and texts are just one of the many skilful means through which the unfortunates trapped in the wheel of samsara can realise their own liberation, rather than containing the source of this liberation, has strong resonance with this tradition of scepticism towards texts.


Returning to the Journey to the West in light of these philosophical-religious influences, we can see that the nondualistic equation of the ‘true, wordless texts’ with the complete texts can be understood in terms of the wideness of the avenue to enlightenment and the plurality of different vehicles all trundling along to the same destination. Words have no intrinsic worth, but gain their value in what they illuminate for the reader. Therefore, for someone already advanced in the way to enlightenment, the empty texts may be commensurate to the true texts, but for the ‘stupid and blind’ priests of the South Continent who have not grasped the interchangeability of emptiness and form, it needs to be spelled out in language.


Only when enlightenment is reached can the vehicle in which one reached it be understood as illusory and language dissolve into the ether. One scene in the novel which illustrates this is one in chapter ninety-eight where the pilgrims are crossing the river that separates them at the final stage from their destination, where the boat which carries them is ‘bottomless.’ Not only this, but when they have reached the other bank and turn around, they find that ‘the boatman and even the bottomless boat had disappeared.’ Once the pilgrims have reached the locus of enlightenment, the means of transferring themselves to this locus are no longer important.

I do not expect my article to be the source of much enlightenment, but maybe in its own small way it can serve as a "skilful means" through which the reader may be inspired to approach more closely to the source of the wisdom in Journey to the West.

Now, the astute reader may have started wondering by this late stage at the absurdity of my having taken up so many words to unfold an argument about the insufficiency of language. Yet just as language is redeemed in Journey to the West by its usefulness as a skilful means through which the unfortunates can be helped to realise their own enlightenment, I shall seek to justify my poor reader’s effort here. My answer is that the purpose of my essay is not to convey a particular message or piece of information, but rather to serve as a kind of desk-lamp whereby the reader can clarify their own thoughts on matters directly or indirectly related to its subject matter. I do not expect my essay to be the source of much enlightenment, but maybe in its own small way it can serve as a "skilful means" through which the reader may be inspired to approach more closely to the source of the wisdom in Journey to the West. Perhaps the reader, not quite satisfied with my offering but nonetheless intrigued, may even seek to further narrow the gulf dividing them from understanding the original 16th Century Chinese text and engage with one of the many translations on offer. As a means for approaching the original’s pullulating density, none is more skilful than Anthony Yu’s four-volume translation of the novel. Yet as I suspect this would be too taxing a pilgrimage for even the most curious explorer, better by far to read Julia Lovell’s recent abridged translation of the novel, ‘Monkey King: Journey to the West’ (Penguin Clothbound Classics).



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