Invitation to World Literature
Journey to the West Journey to the West – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- If Monkey is a novel version of the story of Tripitaka and his wondrous journey, why is the first part of the novel all about the Stone Monkey King, and why does he continue to dominate the story even after the journey to the West has begun?
- Why is the hero a monkey? Do you feel there is some special significance to making this animal the lead character?
- If you read Monkey as an allegory, where Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy each represent a part of human nature, what do you think each character represents?
- Tripitaka receives or experiences enlightenment in Chapter 28, as the travelers cross the great river. “He had discarded his earthly body, he was cleansed from the corruption of the senses… his was now the transcendent wisdom that leads to the Further Shore, the mastery that knows no bounds.” Does Tripitaka seem different from this point, the moment all Buddhists aspire to? How so, or why not?
- At the end of the book, Monkey is made a Buddha — Buddha Victorious in Strife. Do you think his fighting and tricking days are truly over?
- Who are some of your favorite characters in the story?
- Do the challenges and adventures the four travelers have on their journey to India move the plot forward, or simply provide entertainment for the reader?
- Knowing the importance of the cycle of birth and rebirth to Buddhism, explain why it is so important that Tripitaka’s father saved the golden carp — to him, to the carp, and eventually to Tripitaka.
- What are some of your favorite adventures?
- One of the teachings of Buddhism is that no action is accidental — all actions come from an intent in the mind, even an unconscious one. How does this explain the situations of Pigsy and Sandy?
- What is the cause of almost all the misfortune that people and other creatures experience in the book? What might this mean? Do you view this differently from the way you imagine the first readers might have?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- Tripitaka is pure in spirit, which is a quality that protects him from some dangers but not all. He could not have made the journey to India without the brute strength of his disciples to help him, and he is very fearful and prone to despair, often crying when dangers or challenges appear. Do you accept Tripitaka as a hero? Why or why not?
- What do you think of the blank pieces of parchment that Ananda and Kaspaya, Buddha’s servants, give Tripitaka in place of the real scriptures he came for? Do they symbolize the Buddhist embrace of emptiness that comes with putting aside all desire, or is it just another test of Tripitaka’s worthiness?
- What do you think is Monkey’s most important quality — his strength and supernatural powers, his pride, or his desire for illumination?
- How does reading Monkey change or inform your view of Chinese culture and society?
- Why do so many human and supernatural beings rely on trickery? Was it perhaps the poor person’s only weapon in a strict class society, or a sign of intelligence, or ambition? Or was it a way to change one’s destiny and cycle of rebirths?
- Monkey is a trickster, a character type found in the literature of many cultures. Are there other tricksters in the works in this series? Could Odysseus in The Odyssey be considered a trickster? How about characters in Popol Vuh? Why do such characters find their way into stories?
- Who would you consider the hero of this work: Monkey or Tripitaka? Odysseus is hero of The Odyssey but is he most akin to the monk or the monkey?
Video Transcript: Journey to the West
Invitation to World Literature: Journey to the West Video Transcript
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.