In order to determine whether a novel is religious or not, the parameters defining a religious text must first be established. There are many ways to define a religious story or novel. Anything that a religious group considers sacred or important is considered religious because it is a key component of the faith. Alternatively, a religious novel can be one that includes terms or figures that are significant in a religion in some way. A Journey to the West is a religious novel because it contains numerous examples of religious characters and terms from Buddhism and Daoism.
The novel A Journey to the West referred to numerous Buddhist figures throughout the text; this is a main reason why the novel is considered a religious book. One of the major characters in Kherdian’s story was the Buddha. The Buddha was the first individual who was able to outwit and outsmart Monkey. In Buddhism, the Buddha is arguably the most important aspect of the religion, and his presence in A Journey to the West is enough to consider it a religious novel. The Buddha was born in present-day Nepal. After witnessing suffering and death with his own eyes, the Buddha made an important discovery. He realized that he had the potential to help others end the suffering associated with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and soon was on the path to enlightenment. After achieving Nirvana and enlightenment, the Buddha spent the remainder of his life travelling to teach others about becoming enlightened; as a result, the Buddha was considered the founder of Buddhism. The Buddha is so central to the Buddhist religion that any novel that includes him as a main character can be considered religious.
In the end of the novel, after Monkey and the others had successfully transported the scriptures to China, “Tripitaka and his disciples were… motioned forward to the throne of the Buddha to receive their Heavenly ranks” (Kherdian 207). Pigsy, Sandy and the dragon horse were promoted to Cleanser of the Altars, arhat and heavenly dragon, respectively. The Buddha then awarded Tripitaka and Monkey buddha status. A buddha is someone who realizes the nature of the world and discovers the way to enlightenment on his or her own. An arhat is considered one level below buddha status, but is still a prestigious and important position. According to Mahayana Buddhism, everyone has the potential to become a buddha, or has buddha-nature. Buddhism teaches that an individual must control the way that they think and act to gain enlightenment and become a buddha or an arhat. Buddhists have a great deal of respect for buddhas and arhats because they have been able to sculpt their bodies into religious machines. The desire to become a buddha or an arhat is a huge factor in many Buddhists’ lives, and the concept of a buddha is very important to the religion. A Journey to the West could be considered a religious novel because it told the story of Tripitaka and Monkey becoming buddhas, and the other disciples gaining religious recognition as well.
Similarly, the presence of a Bodhisattva in the story supports the idea that it is a religious novel. The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin was another major character in A Journey to the West. Kuan-yin was the Bodhisattva of compassion in the story; she helped everyone, including Monkey, even after he had acted so selfishly and impulsively. Bodhisattvas are significant characters in the Buddhist religion, although they do not possess the same status as the Buddha. A Bodhisattva is an individual who made a vow to seek enlightenment and develop wisdom and compassion. The ultimate goal for a Bodhisattva is to teach others and help lead them to Nirvana. Bodhisattvas are significant in Buddhism, and A Journey to the West can be considered a religious novel because the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin is a key character in the story.
The importance of religious texts was stressed in A Journey to the West; Tripitaka and his disciples embarked on a journey across thousands of miles and were forced to overcome countless barriers to bring Buddhist scriptures from India to China in order to spread Buddhism. This story was based off of a true one about a man named Xuanzang who brought scriptures to China, then spent most of the remainder of his life translating them. Buddhism began in India and the religion’s expansion to China is a very important piece of religious history. The story of A Journey to the West was closely related to the real story about the introduction of Buddhism to China, and in turn, the novel can be considered religious because it is rich in the history of the Buddhist religion.
Not only does the novel A Journey to the West contain Buddhist context, but also Taoist. In the novel, Monkey’s primary teacher in the beginning was the Patriarch Subodhi, who was a Taoist individual. Although the later portions of the novel contained quite a few references to Buddhism, Monkey actually learned his powers and gained much of his knowledge from a Taoist teacher. Daoism is similar to Buddhism in that teachers are vital to the continuation of the religion because they are committed to spreading the word of the religion and teaching others about the benefits. This novel can be considered religious because it reflects the importance of religious teachings and teachers.
Heaven was an enormously important component of the novel. Throughout the text, Monkey and others travelled back and forth between Earth and Heaven, which was under the control of the Jade Emperor. Buddhists, Christians and individuals from other religions believe strongly in the idea of Heaven (although the idea of Heaven differs somewhat in Buddhism from the Heaven that it presented in A Journey to the West). Heaven is a fundamental religious idea, and effectively influences peoples’ actions in many cases. The fact that such a huge portion of the novel was focused on Heaven is a great reason to consider A Journey to the West a religious novel.
David Kherdian’s version of Monkey: A Journey to the West is a perfect example of a religious novel, and there is overwhelming evidence in the text to support this. A religious novel must be used by a religious group, or it must refer to religious terms or characters; A Journey to the West definitely fulfills these parameters. A large portion of the novel was written about Buddhist individuals, such as the Buddha and the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin. The novel also contained traces of Daoism in the passages about the teacher Patriarch Subodhi, and references to common religious ideas like Heaven. There is overwhelming evidence that Monkey: A Journey to the West is a religious novel because it contains so many elements from different Asian religions.