Notice how this promotional ad of Zhang Jizhong’s 2011 TV adaptation series for Journey to the West portrays Xuanzang in the back, behind his disciples, a subtle indication of his plot-insignificance and his passivity.
For modern-day western readers, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Wu Cheng’en’s “Journey to the West” is the utter lack of traditional heroism in the protagonist, Xuanzang, and nowhere is his passivity made more abundantly clear than in his last and final “ordeal.”(1) (Yu, 481)
Following Tripitaka’s(2) recovery of the sacred texts, Bodhisattva Guanyin deems that though “the sage monk has undergone eighty ordeals… because one…is still lacking” he must endure one more trial that he might complete the Buddhist tradition of withstanding “nine times nine” afflictions to “return to immortality.” (Yu, 481)
However, in the final trial, just as in trials before, Tripitaka literally does nothing to solve the problem imposed by the Bodhisattva and the Guardians. Instead, when the old turtle who should have been ferrying our protagonist’s motley crew across the Heaven-Reaching River plunged into the depths of the waters with the hopes of drowning the monk, Pilgrim Sun once again saved the day.
And yet Tripitaka is rewarded?
By virtue of reaching Buddhahood at the end of his quest, it is clear that Xuanzang’s earthly performance was pleasing to Tathāgata, the Buddhist Patriarch, and yet his utter passivity is exceedingly disappointing to the western reader.
So why was he rewarded?
Ultimately, I believe, this is a matter of perspective.
The essence of traditional western heroism is courage, strength, cunning, and most of all, action. Esteemed western heroes, particularly from the epic genre, manifest their bravery in confrontation.
Take for instance, Odysseus, who battled cyclops, felled foul beasts, journeyed through Hades, and valiantly returned home. Though Odysseus’ success was attributable in part to the help of divine beings, his victory was largely the fruit of his own labors.
Conversely, Tripitaka’s success was absolutely not his own doing. His salvation from each trial was through the cunning of his disciples and the favor of the Bodhisattvas. He exhibited little to no confrontation, battled no beasts, and returned home only by the grace of divine and/or supernatural beings.
But Xuanzang was not unduly rewarded for his valiance (or rather, lack thereof); he was rewarded for his faith. Ultimately, he did not “succeed in acquiring the true scriptures” through courage or skill, but “by remaining faithful to [Buddhist] teaching” (Yu, 492).
Yes, time after time, in the face of earthly troubles, Tripitaka overcame problems not in the physical sense of the term, but in the spiritual. Though he struggled with anxiety during trials (Yu, 460, 468, and 476)(3) , Xuanzang defeated the mental beasts of fear and doubt that would otherwise prevent him from Buddhist enlightenment. His heroism was not in conquering external foes, but in conquering the inner soul. And in this regard, Tripitaka was certainly not passive.
“His heroism was not in conquering external foes, but in conquering the inner soul.”
Furthermore, Xuanzang’s dependence on his disciples was not a display of weakness, but rather a display of faith that fiercely convicted him that his karma and the grace of Buddha would sustain him in the end. His Buddhahood victory was not a memorialization of what we might consider valiance, but rather a celebration of his “magnificent merit” (Yu, 492).
Ultimately, then, for the western reader, Xuanzang serves as a foil to our preconceived notion of heroism. Though passive in action, his merit in adhering to “the true scriptures” serves as a poignant reminder that the western hero trope is lacking in the development of the soul. Tripitaka’s character is a testament to a diverse type of hero: one who is not justified by his physical might, but rather one who is justified by faith.
1.) All direct quotes are from the following source: Yu, Anthony, trans. Journey to the West. Ed. Martin Puchner. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 424-96. Print.
2.) Xuanzang was given the additional name Tripitaka in chapter 12.
3.) Specifically, he “paled with fright” upon learning he was pregnant, he was “worried” at the thought of marrying and ultimately consummating a marriage with the queen of Western Liang, and he “hesitated” (as well as exhibited other, less explicit signs of fear) to enter the bottomless boat.