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The journey to enlightenment proceeds along a very slippery path. According to many unimpeachable sources, if you think too much about how to approach the destination then you’re sure to end up wide of the mark. Indirection may be all-important and yet too much stratagem may likewise lead you astray.

One time hiking in the woods I came upon a man who was crouching behind a giant boulder not far from a fresh mountain stream. He motioned for me to be quiet as I approached. I whispered to him, asking what he was doing. “I’m fishing,” he explained, and for the first time I noticed a rod lying by his side on the ground, untouched. “There’s an old fish in that pool so crafty it takes forever to creep up on him,” the fisherman continued in a hushed tone.

This is the way I have come to think about the pursuit of enlightenment. The wisest folks don’t seem to drop their lines directly into the pool. They lay their equipment aside and sit in stillness. Forward motion may be all but imperceptible for the longest time. Indirection is perhaps the only route forward.

Monkey King’s birth.

Here is the way the journey to enlightenment has been summarized by Wu Cheng En, the brilliant 16th century fabulist, who is credited as the author of the magisterial epic The Journey to the West.

Just ask the monks

Sitting for so long

Cross-legged in Chan

How pursuing the Infinite

In this lifetime

Frequently leads one

To reach old age

Empty handed

With nothing to show for it

Any more than grinding bricks

Will make clear the glass

Or sustenance may be gleaned

From a diet of snow

Thus so many young acolytes

End up completely lost

Along life’s way

And yet such are

The great mysteries —

How a feather can absorb

An entire ocean or

A tiny mustard seed may

Expand across a vast

Mountain range

And the Golden Headed One

(Blessed be He)

Takes all in stride

With a beatific smile

In the very moment

Of Enlightenment

Thus superseding all Ten Stages

And the Three Vehicles combined

Beyond the Four Gateways of Birth

To the Six Levels of Incarnation besides

Just remember that

Whoever sits and listens

Facing the Cliff of Forgetfulness

Underneath the Shadowless Tree

Will hear the cuckoo’s call

Announcing the arrival of spring

And no matter how perilous

The road to Cao Xi may be

When we reach those cloud shrouded

Mountain peaks

There we’ll hear

The call of the Ancients

As it resounds again and again

Down the vast icy precipice

Extending 10,000 feet

Forever outspreading

Just like the five pronged

Lotus leaf

And pushing into

The ancient temple’s

Innermost sanctum

Passing through

The low-hanging pendants

Along the festival hallways

Full of fragrance and grace

Pushing on further still

Until at last we penetrate to the very

Origin and source of the Great Mystery

Where suddenly there

Appears before us

The mighty Dragon King

Together with Buddha’s

Three precious gems

I love this poem. For me it encapsulates much of the genius of The Journey to the West –Wu Cheng En’s extended narrative account of the long arduous journey to enlightenment. It represents an apotheosis of the Chan tradition, as it first emerged in China during the Tang Dynasty and continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries in China, Korea and Japan – a remarkable blending of Daoism and Buddhism, or as the poet describes it, the mighty Dragon King coming together with the Buddha’s three precious gems. 

For those of you interested in reading a further account of the Chan journey to enlightenment, I have published a new translation of The Adventures of Monkey King, which comprises the first seven chapters of Wu Cheng En’s Journey to the West saga. My goal in doing so has been to make the story more accessible and familiar to a western audience – to bring the journey to enlightenment a bit closer in reach, if such a thing is possible. In order to better convey the story’s many fantastical qualities I chose to retell it as an epic poem.

The first chapter of Monkey King’s adventures begins this way:

I sing of Monkey King

Who from a rock outcropping

Standing forth for

Ten thousand kalpas before

The beginning of time

In a place near

The Dragon Gods’ home

Was given shape

Through unceasing attack

Of wind and rain

And twenty four times

By lightning bolts ripped and blasted

Until finally primed

For giving birth via

That certain stone egg

Which cracked open

And first presented

On the world stage

The most storied simian

About the Author
Joe Lamport

Joe Lamport

I’m a poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry. Reading classical poetry, translating it and writing my own poetry in response have all developed into being integral parts of my creative and spiritual practice. My translations of Chinese poetry have been published in a variety of places online, including in Translation. You can also read more of my work on the website Lampoetry.

The Adventures of Monkey King. If you’re interested in reading more of Monkey King’s adventures along the path to enlightenment, as well as a full poetic account of the development of Monkey Mind, take a moment to visit my Indiegogo campaign where you can order a copy of the first edition printing.
The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng En, in three volumes.

Illustration by Marcelo Zissu.

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