Lessons from Journey to the West

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One popular piece of Chinese literature many of us have often watched or read is Journey to the West, also known as Xīyǒujì (Saiyuki), considered one of the Four Great Classical novels of Chinese literature.

The other three are Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Raise the Red Lantern. Written by Wu Chen-en during the Ming Dynasty (1500–1582), Journey rivals Three Kingdoms in terms of popularity, having had hundreds of media adaptations and influencing pop culture.

The movie Forbidden Kingdom, which starred Jet Li and Jacky Chan, and the Japanese manga Dragon Ball Z are loosely based on Journey.

The protagonist in Dragon Ball, Son Goku, is actually the Japanese term for Sun Wu Kong. Journey follows the epic adventure of the Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong, and his master, the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, and two other disciples Zhu Bajie (Pigsty), and Sha Wujing (Sandy).

The three of them guard the monk, who was tasked by the Goddess Guan Yin to embark on a pilgrimage to India to receive Buddhist scriptures. These scriptures are needed to release countless souls trapped in hell.

This narrative is based on the journey of Buddhist monk Xuanzang who, in 629, traversed the hostile environment of the Silk Road to get to India.

He brought with him Buddhist scriptures and relics when he returned home.

Wukong was born from a magical stone. After a battle of bravery and wits among the monkeys, he was eventually voted their king. But Wukong longed for immortality so he sought the help of a Taoist priest. The priest helped him achieve immortality, along with other magical powers.

Now much more powerful, Wukong was able to grab hold of the ruyi bang, a magical staff that is indestructible, weighs thousands of pounds and, best of all, can grow or shrink according to Wukong’s wishes. It was the perfect weapon for an immortal creature.

But then, his feud with the gods started when he was brought to the underworld. As an immortal, Wukong was not to be subjected to the cycle of birth and death. He rebelled and defeated all the gods who tried to pacify him.

He proved too strong that there was no other recourse but to seek the help of the Buddha. Wukong was no match for him and was finally imprisoned.

Then 500 years later, in exchange for freedom, the Goddess Guanyin assigned Wukong to accompany the Buddhist monk Xuanzang to India to obtain the Buddhist scriptures that would set free the tormented souls in hell. He accepted the mission.

But Guanyin, to make sure that Wukong would be obedient to Xuanzang, put a golden headband on him. If Wukong becomes mischievous or rebellious, Xuanzang can just utter some magic words and the headband would crush Wukong’s head.

Guanyin recruited pig demon Zhu Bajie and water demon Sha Wujing. The triumvirate proved formidable against all sorts of demons who wanted to eat Xuanzang. The monk had cultivated 10 lifetimes and whoever ate his flesh would, basically, become immortal. All throughout the journey, Xuanzang rode the horse-reincarnation of the Dragon King, Bai Longma.

The group successfully completed their mission and brought back the scriptures from India. And the tormented souls were released from hell following a ceremony.

Xuanzang and Wukong were both rewarded with Buddha-hood. Sha Wujing became an arhat, a practitioner who has achieved certain enlightenment. Dragon King became a naga but, unfortunately, Zhu Bajie was only given the title altar cleaner.

4 Lessons
After the lengthy 100 chapters, we can pick up several leadership lessons from this novel. only given the title altar cleaner.

1. Individual differences do not matter as long as a team can work towards the same goal. Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing all had totally different personalities. The Monkey was witty but stubborn. The Pig, optimistic but lustful. Sha Wujing was weak but persistent. But the three did their tasks well and the mission of protecting their master Xuanzang throughout his journey was a success. only given the title altar cleaner.

2. Appropriate rewards should be given. For their effort and sacrifice, Wukong and Xuanzang attained Buddha-hood. Naturally since the two were the most faithful to their duties. Bajie, because he was so lusfull, was granted only the title of alter cleaner. Right leadership gives out equitable rewards. The harder you work, the greater your reward is. It wouldn’t be right if Bajie achieved Buddha-hood as well. only given the title altar cleaner.

3. Be master of your mind. Zen Buddhism teaches mastery over the mind and this is epitomized by the Monkey King. When channeled the right way, the mind is a powerful weapon and Wukong often outthinks and outwits his opponents to gain the upper hand. only given the title altar cleaner.

4. A leader should seek constant learning. Xuanzang, several times in the novel, falls prey to the schemes of the demon because of his ignorance. Models and paradigms enter dramatic shifts, and if a leader cannot keep up with changes through training, he will be ineffective. only given the title altar cleaner.

Journey to the West has endeared itself to people of all ages. Animation has helped its marketability. And we will likely see many more media adaptations influenced by pop culture. But the lessons imparted by the ancient story will remain the same.

Print ed: 10/12


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