Keep Calm and Carry On: Heroism as Process

JourneytotheWestBy Dick Mercer

The Chinese Chan (Zen) master Yunmen (c.860–949) was asked,  “What are the teachings of a lifetime?”  He replied, “An appropriate statement.”

Close to the end of Wu Cheng-en’s famous Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West (Hsi-yu Chi) the Buddhist monk Tripitaka and his four animal disciples–Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy–a dragon, and White Horse–are drawing close to India after a long, arduous, and dangerous journey from China.  The reason for their quest is to receive Mahayana scriptures from the Buddha, Shakyamuni, and return to China with them.

Each animal member of this dharma posse has committed to the quest as a means of gaining freedom from punishment for the misuse of an extraordinary, superhuman power.  Tripitaka, on the other hand, is no more than an ordinary Buddhist monk who has been given a very big job to do.

Having come a very long way, the Tang monk and his disciples, who fed on the wind and slept by the waters, one day find themselves before a tall mountain, yet another formidable obstacle to overcome.  Buddha-PrajnaparamitaTripitaka says they must be cautious as there might be danger here; Monkey responds, “Master, you should relax and not worry.”

What follows is a little argument about a very big Buddhist idea — prajnaparamita — the perfection of wisdom.  It ends when both Tripitaka and Monkey fall silent.  Pigsy collapses in laughter.  Obviously Monkey doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but Tripitaka corrects Pigsy.  Monkey’s silence is the true interpretation of prajnaparamita.   In fact, one of his epithets is Aware of Vacuity — emptiness, a crucial part of the perfection of wisdom.

They move on.  After crossing a wide river in a boat with no bottom, a paradoxical experience to be sure, the pilgrims are changed.  Exhibiting a decorous self-control unusual for them, they meet the Buddha, Shakyamuni, and receive 35 major dharma works comprising over 5,000 scrolls.  They set out on the journey back to China but before long a wind scatters all the scrolls on the ground.  Opening one of them they discover “it was snowy white; there was not so much as half a letter on it.”  In fact, all the scrolls are blank!

The posse returns to the Buddha who explains the blank scrolls are indeed the true scriptures, just as good as those with words, but because people are foolish and ignorant “there is nothing for it but to give them copies with some writing on.”  The paradox of the truth of perfect wisdom is that it is wordless, but this is too hard for people who need language and must talk.

The implicit lesson is that it is more important to cultivate a negative capability — the patient, mindful toleration of uncertainty and paradox — and to carry on with equanimity than to hold on to the idea of scriptural truth that’s written down.  Relax and don’t worry, as Monkey says.  img_8470So, freshly taught, the pilgrims set out again for China with the newly inscribed scrolls.

Meanwhile Kuan-yin, reviewing a summary of the dharma posse’s quest, discovers the pilgrims must experience one more crisis, the 81st, before returning home.  They find themselves stopped on the bank of a wide river they crossed on the way out to India.  The great white turtle that ferried them across earlier offers to help them again, but when Tripitaka reveals he forgot to follow through on a promise he made to the turtle, they are all dumped in the water as the turtle submerges and swims away.

The pilgrims manage to save themselves and the scrolls.  Tripitaka admits his careless mistake.  He should have taken more care.  Though they still have the scrolls, this fresh calamity makes clear that constant effort is required.  There’s always something else.  A hero’s work is never done.

They move on and are welcomed by friendly people they had earlier delivered from the terrible domination of a river demon.  In gratitude for what the posse had accomplished for them, the people make statues of Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy.  When the four view the figures they react with an unusual and charming humanity.

    ‘Yours is very like,’ said Pigsy nudging Monkey.  ‘I think yours

    is a wonderful likeness too,’ said Sandy to Pigsy, ‘but Master’s

    really makes him out a little too handsome.’  ‘I think it’s very good,’

    said Tripitaka.

It quickly becomes clear the people of the village have other honors ready for the pilgrims.  That evening Tripitaka tells Monkey the villagers know they have mastered the secrets of the Way.  We better creep away quickly he says, because “an adept does not reveal himself; if he reveals himself he is not an adept.”  They all agree.  Monkey controls his temper, Pigsy is no longer a fool, Sandy attains perfect discretion, Horse is well able to see the point of a discussion.

They move on.  Returning to Chang-an, the imperial capital, they are received by the emperor himself.  Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy attend the court despite their outlandish appearance.  They behave.  Tripitaka is seated next to the emperor and the scrolls are presented.  That evening the pilgrims go the Tripitaka’s old temple for lodging.

    Inside the temple, Pigsy did not shout for more food or create

    any disturbance.  Monkey and Sandy behaved with perfect

    decorum.  For all three were now illumined, and it cost them

    no pains to stay quiet.  When night came they all went to sleep.

All the pilgrims behave themselves with perfect mindfulness and self-control, qualities only recently acquired.  The flaws that caused their original confinement and suffering have been reduced to nothing.  They retain their powers, but they are now under control.

When morning comes the emperor reads a statement of thanks to Tripitaka for accomplishing his task.  After settling on the disposition of the scrolls, Tripitaka is asked to do a reading from them on a platform in front of the pagoda that will house them.  Shakyamuni_under_Bodhi_treeThe members of the dharma posse are attending him when he starts his recitation, but just as he begins, they are all miraculously lifted into the air and transported back to the presence of the Buddha in India where each is rewarded with an appropriate title. Perhaps best of all the terrible little migraine cap used to control Monkey when he gave in to bad temper and anger is removed.  It is no longer necessary.

The novel ends with a grand sense of accomplishment.  The journey is done, the goal is realized, rewards are handed down, but the balance of power and behavior all the pilgrims now enjoy is the real reward and conclusion.  This is a state of mind free of the suffering caused by the contamination of anger, sensuality,  carelessness, upsetting emotional attachment, short-sightedness, and other untransformed human weaknesses.

Certainly their journey is finished, but the lesson implicit in the circular, wandering movement of the quest and the oddly conceived requirement of another calamity, the 81st, is one of non-attainment.

In this view enlightenment is a continual process of coming to terms with oneself, of overcoming flaws.  Monkey’s original vision of the hero as a winner-take-all kind of strong guy is replaced by the idea of constantly repairing the disorder of the mind.  This isn’t done by any final achievement, though he achieves it.  This is a paradoxical conclusion like the mutual silence that ends the discussion between Tripitaka and Monkey about prajnaparamita — the perfection of wisdom.

Perhaps the sense of closure the novel ends with is an illustration of just what the  Buddha,  Shakyamuni, means when he says the blank scrolls, the empty scrolls, are the true scriptures, but people are too foolish and ignorant to realize this and they need something to hold on to.

The real issue, however,  is one of behavior, not words.  Left unstated at the end is that the end isn’t an end; the end is, indeed, a process of constantly maintaining mental focus and taming one’s monkey mind — making the appropriate response in the face of unending — often unexpected — change.

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s fifth analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

Heroes of Richmond: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue

Heroes of Richmond CoverIt has been hailed as a gorgeous river city blessed with abundant resources. It has also been called the city of “contradictions” and “crises” (Campbell, 2012), a city with a “complicated history” replete with “struggles and wounds” (Ayers, 2012; Schwartz, 2012). Richmond, Virginia, has been a magnet for heroism and villainy, a place where the best and worst of human nature have collided over several centuries.

This volume, Heroes of Richmond: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue, represents an attempt to capture the complex heroic history of a complex city. Authored by a group of outstanding students at the University of Richmond, this book provides coverage of Richmond’s heroes from the first European settlements in the early 1600s to the present day.

The book offers a review of heroism in Richmond across a wide variety of domains. The authors provide an analysis of social activists John Mitchell, Jr., and Oliver Hill; groundbreaking educators such as Maggie Walker, Virginia Randolph, and May Keller; political greats such as Patrick Henry, John Marshall, Douglas Wilder, and Mary Sue Terry; selfless heroes such as Mary Elizabeth Browser, E. Claiborne Robins, Lora Robins, and several unsung citizens; and iconic legends such as Pocahontas, William Byrd II, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Ashe.

Heroes of Richmond: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue is scheduled for publication in April of 2017.

“Superb scholarship about a stunning city of heroes.” – Dr. James K. Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville

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Table of Contents:

Heroes of Richmond: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue

Edited by Scott T. Allison

Mary Kelly Tate, University of Richmond


Richmond, Virginia: A Cultural and Historical Nexus of Heroism
Scott T. Allison, University of Richmond

Part 1
Iconic Heroes

Chapter 1. The Founding of Richmond: William Byrd II’s Heroic Odyssey
Jonathan Anthony Ohlmann, University of Richmond

Chapter 2. Pocahontas: The Unknown, Underestimated Hero of Central Virginia
Meghan N. Dillon, University of Richmond

Chapter 3. The Tell-Tale Hero: Edgar Allan Poe
Michael David Bonifonte, University of Richmond

Chapter 4. Arthur Ashe: A Hero On and Off the Court
Carlie Q. Blessing, University of Richmond

Part 2
Activist Heroes

Chapter 5. John Mitchell Jr: The Hero of Richmond Journalism and Social Change
Josh A. Trauberman, University of Richmond

Chapter 6. Waging War on Separate vs. Equal: Oliver Hill’s Journey From Small Town to the Highest Court
Kathryn K. Lynch, University of Richmond

Part 3
Educator Heroes

Chapter 7. Maggie Lena Walker: The Hero of the Harlem of the South
Brendan J. Griswold, University of Richmond

Chapter 8. Virginia E. Randolph: A Hero of African American Schooling in Virginia
Declan J. Horrigan, University of Richmond

Chapter 9. May Lansfield Keller: The Hero Who Defied All Odds
Aliya J Sultan, University of Richmond

Part 4
Political Heroes

Chapter 10. Patrick Henry: The Revolutionary Hero
Bailey A. Gillespy, University of Richmond

Chapter 11. John Marshall: The Supreme Hero of Justice
Emmalyn G. Dressel, University of Richmond

Chapter 12. Lawrence Douglas Wilder: The Black Pioneer
Janell M. Spigner, University of Richmond

Chapter 13. Mary Sue Terry: The Hero Who Defied the Double Bind
Thomas J. Villani, University of Richmond

Part 5
Selfless Heroes

Chapter 14. Mary Elizabeth Bowser: The Game-Changing Hero
Morgan E. Caron, University of Richmond

Chapter 15. E. Claiborne and Lora Robins: The Convergence of Two Selfless Heroes
Lauren J. Weingarten, University of Richmond

Chapter 16. Unsung Heroes of Richmond: The Extraordinary Feats of Elizabeth Van Lew, Gilbert Hunt, and Sally Tompkins
Mikaela R. Rosen, University of Richmond



Campbell, B. (2012). Richmond’s unhealed history. Richmond: Brandylane Publishers.

Griggs, W. S. (2012). Hidden history of Richmond. Charleston, SC: The History Press.

Williams, D. (2015). Spending two perfect days in Richmond, Virginia.

Heroes of Richmond Cover

Heroes of Richmond Cover

Heroes and Villains of the Millennial Generation

FRONT_finalThis book explores the heroes and villains of an entire generation of Americans — the Millennial generation, defined as people born between 1982 and 2000.

Authored by Millennials at the University of Richmond, Heroes and Villains of the Millennial Generation is based on a survey of 215 Millennials across the United States who were asked to list their heroes, and their villains.

To our surprise, a large number of people were listed as both heroes and villains.

These complex individuals are the focus of this book. They are: Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, parents, teachers, Edward Snowden, Batman, Lance Armstrong, Mother Teresa, Severus Snape, and Mark Zuckerberg.

The questions that interested us were:

  • In what ways are these individuals heroes?
  • In what ways are they also villains?
  • Why did these individuals appear on lists of heroes and also on lists of villains?
  • What psychological processes are involved in perceptions of good and evil?

Heroes and Villains of the Millennial Generation provides an analysis of Millennials’ views of heroism and villainy, drawing from current research on heroism science. The book is scheduled for release in April of 2017.

“A compelling analysis of the heroic values of an entire generation.”
– Professor Robert A. Giacalone, Bill Daniels Chair of Ethics, University of Denver

Here is the Table of Contents:

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Heroes and Villains of the Millennial Generation

Edited by Scott T. Allison


Brian R. Riches, Claremont Graduate University


Chapter 1. Millennials, Heroism, and Villainy: A Confluence of Moral Complexity

Scott T. Allison, University of Richmond

Part I


Chapter 2. Sacrificial Heroism: Media Martyrdom for Inspiration from Kanye West

Matt B. Vandini, University of Richmond

Chapter 3. The Queen of Redemption: Kim Kardashian From Sex Tape to Female Idol

Kana V. Rolett, University of Richmond

Chapter 4. The Double Life of Lance Armstrong

Alex T. Hahn, University of Richmond

Part II

Fictional Characters

Chapter 5. Batman as Caped Crusader: Gotham’s Savior or Undoing?

Alyssa Lynn Ross, University of Richmond

Chapter 6. Turn to Page 364: Deconstructing the Complex Heroism of Severus Snape

Madison M. Lawrence, University of Richmond

Part III

Social Categories

Chapter 7. Unconditional Love and Evil Stepmothers: How Parents are Heroes and Villains

Rebecca M. Fischer, University of Richmond

Chapter 8. Teachers as Heroes or Villains

R. B. Forsyth, University of Richmond

Part IV


Chapter 9. Hillary Clinton: A Controversial Lady of Firsts

Rebecca L. Nguyen, University of Richmond

Chapter 10. Donald Trump: Man of Charisma, Man of Insults

Sandy Yu, University of Richmond

Part V

Social Changers

Chapter 11. Mark Zuckerberg: Social Connector or Privacy Violator?

Zihao Liu, University of Richmond

Chapter 12. Mother Teresa’s Empire of Charity

Stephanie M. Ha , University of Richmond

Chapter 13. The Whistleblowing of Edward Snowden: Heroic Self-Sacrifice or Villainous Betrayal?

Arianna M. Guillard, University of Richmond






Jean Michel Basquiat: The Brilliant, Courageous Artist-as-Hero

homepage-imageBy Nelly Spigner

Art has saved lives. Whether it has been through writing, movies, or painting, many people have named art as a huge influence in their lives. So I always find it interesting that people don’t think of artists as heroes.

I might even go as far as saying that the art world is that of many unsung heroes. One such hero goes by the name of Jean Michel Basquiat. A well known name within the black community but not in the majority. So whats so great about a homeless graffiti artist from New York, who made it big time in the art world during the 80’s? Well, just about everything.

Basquiat was born to a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn, New York. A self-taught artist, Basquiat first attracted attention for his graffiti in New York City in the late 70s, under the name “SAMO,” standing for ‘same old shit.” He was homeless for sometime but to make ends meet, he sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets of his native New York. Soon though, his work and style received critical acclaim for fusing of words, symbols, stick figures, among other things. People began paying as much as $50,000 for a Basquiat original.

His story sounds like the classic “rags to riches” script but there is so much more complexity to his tale. Basquiat was born during the aftershock of the civil rights movement, during the time black at was still considered “street art” and street art was considered to be the equivalent to nothing. Of course Basquiat knew this, but more importantly Basquiat felt this and still pursued his dreams because he was part of something bigger. This time period during the late 70’s and early 80’s was also referred to as the “Black Arts Era” a movement in which called for a crown.jpg!Large-2complete liberation from the chains of the past, all the while producing a culture they could be proud of.

So not only did Basquiat’s paintings make it from the streets to institutions, they also carried with them meaning for the black youths during that age and for many years to follow.

Basquiat once said, “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.“ His work challenged the majority’s mindset but creating images that honored black men as kings and saints. With his signature recurring motif, the crown, he recognized the majesty of his black heroes including groundbreaking athletes, musicians and writers, all the while reminding other people of them and instilling pride in the black community.

Like many heroes, Basquiat had a fatal flaw, his drug abuse. Unfortunately, his life ended in his prime at the age of 27, in 1988. But even in his short lived life he made a giant impact, and that is heroic. He has a legacy shaped by his charisma, magnetism, and rebelliousness. He stood as an underdog who challenged assumptions, authorities, and agencies of the culture he was born into. He essentially said, I’m black hear me roar without having to say a word, and that message continues to resonate with people today. That’s why I deem Basquiat a hero. A  culturally queer hero for kings and queens who didn’t know they were royalty.

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Nelly Spigner is an undergraduate enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes and Villains First-Year Seminar at the University of Richmond. She composed this essay as part of her course requirement. Nelly and her classmates are contributing authors to the forthcoming book, Heroes of Richmond, Virginia: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue.

Jimmy Valvano: The Hero Who Taught Us How To Live

jim-valvano-07By Meghan Dillon

When James “Jimmy V” Valvano was seventeen years old, he wrote down his dreams on an index card. On that card, he wrote that he would play college basketball, become a head coach, win a game in Madison Square Garden and, finally, cut down the nets after winning a National Championship.

At age thirty-six, Jim Valvano could take that crumpled index card out of his pocket and cross off everything on the list. He had done it all.

Since I was little, Jimmy V has been my hero simply because his North Carolina State Wolfpack Men’s Basketball team is the greatest underdog story of all time. However, when delving deeper into the various taxonomies and exploring the definition of heroism, I have been able to identify that it is the classic come-from-behind story: someone who once walked among us, as an ordinary person, accomplishing what was deemed impossible.

Jimmy V can be identified as the classic, odds beater/underdog by three heroism scientists named Zeno Franco, Kathy Blau, and Phil Zimbardo. In 2011, these three scholars published a Situation-Based Taxonomy of Heroes. Jimmy V is a true underdog in the way his team won a championships it had no business winning, and in the way he fought cancer with bravery, dignity, and class.

Jimmy was born in Corona, Queens, New York to a middle class family. He would go on to marry his high school sweetheart, and be a loving father to three daughters. Despite his successful coaching career that would require him to be away from his family, his Italian upbringing provided the strong foundation from which jimmy-v-sports-illustrated-cover-315Jimmy V could live out his aspirations. One of the many reasons I see Jimmy V as a hero is that, along the way to accomplishing his dream of winning a national championship, he took on a personal ideology of living that would allow him, a seemingly ordinary man, accomplish things that we see as extraordinary. This ideology would help him to innumerable victories.

Sadly, Jimmy V would face an opponent that would be the most challenging of his life: cancer.

One of the features of the Joseph Campbell‘s hero’s journey is the return, in which the hero gives back and shares the knowledge learned from their transition from layperson to hero. Despite all of the incredible things he accomplished while healthy, it was all the things Jimmy V did while sick that solidified his heroism, in my eyes. During the final 10 months of his life, Jimmy V utilized his coaching platform, sharing personal anecdotes and vibrant insight into his life as a patient in hopes of spreading awareness of the disease that has taken so many.

Jimmy V did not shy away from the public eye, as showcased in his ten minute acceptance speech upon receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 1993 ESPY Awards. He was not afraid to show the world the truth about cancer: crying in interviews and struggling to walk. He knew he would lose his final battle in his life after winning so many, but his spirit, charisma, and genuine heart are things that will live on forever.

The best stories in sports are those that transcend the playing field or court. They are the stories of those who climb the latter of success, attaining achievement and, often times, in the most famed stories, coping with the agony of loss. The 1983 NC State Wolfpack has one of the most storied runs of all time. That run is nothing without my hero, Jim Valvano, who could be seen as falling shy of a hero because he lost his battle with cancer.

However, like Jimmy V said, “… That does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live”.

Below is a clip of Jimmy V’s inspired speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards.

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Meghan Dillon is an undergraduate enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes and Villains First-Year Seminar at the University of Richmond. She composed this essay as part of her course requirement. Meghan and her classmates are contributing authors to the forthcoming book, Heroes of Richmond, Virginia: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue.

Monkey Business: The Heroic Journey to the West of Hsuang-tsang

hsuan-tsangBy Dick Mercer

First published in 1582, The Journey to the West (Hsi-yu Chi) is one of the great classics of Chinese literature.  The fantastic tale takes as its core the real sixteen-year pilgrimage of the monk Hsuang-tsang (596-664) to India to collect and bring back to China Mahayana Buddhist commentaries and sutras.  Compiled and written most likely by Wu Ch’eng-en the 100 chapter novel comprises the adventures of the monk and his four animal disciples on their quest, a series of perilous adventures in which they overcome a variety of ogres, fiends, and monsters in dangerous and mysterious settings.

Throughout the story a question emerges–just who is the hero of this momentous journey, the monk Hsuan-tsang or his chief disciple Monkey? At the beginning of the novel Monkey is born from a stone egg; he bursts forth with great energy and is at once able to walk, run, leap about, and best of all enjoy life immensely.  Quickly he becomes the handsome monkey king of all the other monkeys in a wonderful cave behind a waterfall, but before long he becomes sorely troubled by the realization someday he will die.  He leaves his happy kingdom in search of immortality.  After traveling across the ocean he enters the school of the Taoist master Subodhi who gives him secret instruction and so Monkey gains huge powers.

With these powers come ambition and achievement and recklessness; he becomes a kind of Taoist Frankenstein.  Monkey ventures into the heavenly kingdom of the Jade Emperor where against all the rules he causes great disruption and even further adds to his potency, so much so that the heavenly ruler at the end of his rope can only call on the Buddha in India in hopes of controlling rebellious Monkey.  When they meet, Monkey explains himself to Shakyamuni the Buddha:

    Perfected in the many arts of ageless life,

    I learned to change in ways boundless and vast.

    Too narrow the space I found on that mortal earth;

    I set my mind to live in the Green Jade Sky.

    In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,

    For king may follow king in the reign of man.

    If might is honor, let him yield to me.

    Only he is hero who dares to fight and win!

This is Monkey’s grand declaration–his mission statement. The Buddha is unable to persuade Monkey of the wisdom that is self-control so he proposes a bet–just the sort of thing that would appeal to Monkey.  If Monkey can jump out of the Buddha’s hand, he can become king of heaven, if not he must accept the consequences.  Monkey gleefully takes the bet.  In a justly famous comic episode he fails and the Buddha drops a mountain on him.  The powerful, immortal “hero” is helpless under a immense mound of earth and stone.

monkeykingThe story of Hsuan-tsang is very different.  An orphan found floating in a basket down a river, he is taken in and raised as a Monk at Hung-Fu Buddhist temple in the imperial capital Ch’ang-an.  As was the case with the Jade Emperor of heaven struggling with Monkey, the mortal Tang emperor is embroiled in troubles that literally take him to hell and back burdened with a heavy obligation to sponsor a grand religious ceremony.  He selects Hsuan-tsang to celebrate these rites.

In the meantime the Buddha, returned to his distant home in India, decides things have come to such a pass that it is time to intervene.  He dispatches the great Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin to China to select a pilgrim to travel to India for scriptures and then return to Ch’ang-an as a dharma messenger.  On her way to China she encounters three monsters with super-powers being punished for misdeeds; if they will agree to join the quest they can gain their freedom.  She makes the same bargain with Monkey under his mountain.

With dharma-quest set as the key to freedom for these incarcerated super-heroes, it remains for Kuan-Yin to select the essential human pilgrim to make the journey to the west.  Without much difficulty she discovers Huang-tsang who agrees to set out for India in search of Mahayana scriptures.  To mark the importance of the journey the Tang emperor gives the monk a new name–Tripitaka, the term used to designate the complete Buddhist cannon of monastic rules, sutras, and learned commentaries.

From the outset it is clear things will not be easy.  On the first day Tripitaka’s two human companions are eaten up by monsters.  Suddenly all alone, he is saved by an old hunter who guides him near to the border where they hear Monkey cry out, “the master has come.”  Tripitaka releases Monkey from beneath the mountain and the two of them cross the frontier to begin their adventures in search of wisdom and liberation through the dharma.

Almost immediately they are surrounded by six robbers identified as eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.  For Monkey who is used to fighting fearsome ogres and heavenly armies, these six (allegorical) banditti are not much of a challenge.  He finishes them off in the blink of an eye, but to his dismay Tripitaka admonishes him.  He should bring them to a magistrate, not kill them.  Monkey loses his temper and storms off, leaving Tripitaka on his own again; this conflict between the human pilgrim and his rash, powerful disciple is played out again and again to the end of the novel.

Kuan-Yin, disguised as an old man, appears to the Monk and gives him a coat and a cap for Monkey, the means to control him.  When Monkey cools off and comes back, Tripitaka convinces him to put them on.  Monkey and Tripitaka are together again, but with a difference.  Monkey’s new headgear can’t be removed and if he acts out, Tripitaka, using a little mantra, can cause the cap to shrink and Monkey to suffer a terrible headache.  Pain replaces confinement as the bitter fruit of rashness and anger.

Tripitaka and Monkey now go on to form the complete dharma posse. This entails encountering the two dragons and the great pig who, like Monkey, have agreed with Shakyamuni_Buddha_Mantra1Kuan-Yin to join the pilgrimage in exchange for freedom from bondage.  It soon is obvious to the new members, however, that Monkey is by far the most powerful member of the group.  In fact, Pigsy asks Monkey why doesn’t he simply carry them all to India in an instant and so avoid all the hard work and dangers that surely lie in front of them.

Monkey says:

    It is required of Master to go through all these strange territories

    before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows. . . . 

    We cannot exempt him from these woes nor can we obtain the scriptures by ourselves.

The human component of the quest is just as important, if not more so, than the great powers of the four super-heroes who not only overcome great barriers and dangers, but who must help Tripitaka surmount his very real human weaknesses.

Shortly after Monkey emerges from under the mountain the two suffer a setback and Tripitaka for the first time–but not the last time–becomes confused and despondent.  Monkey reacts with characteristic energy:

    When (he) saw him crying, he was infuriated and began to shout: 

    Master, stop behaving like a namby-pamby! .  .  . 

    Bellowing like thunder he said,  “You’re a weakling!  Truly a weakling!”

Tripitaka may have the main goal of the quest in view, but it is Monkey, with regular, timely help from Kuan-Yin, who keeps the dharma posse on the road day to day, even in the face of petty and comical but potentially serious conflicts between the super-hero pilgrims themselves.

After many trials and close to their goal the pilgrims arrive on the bank of yet another river, this one over 20 leagues wide.  Soon they are met by a man rowing a boat, but Tripitaka has very serious misgivings; the boat has no bottom.  Seeing Tripitaka hesitate Monkey takes him by the scruff of neck and pushes him on board.  The others join him on the gunwales, and they set off.

Suddenly they saw a body in the water, drifting rapidly downstream.  Tripitaka stared at it in consternation.  Monkey laughed.

    ‘Don’t be frightened Master,’ he said. 

    ‘That’s you.’  And Pigsy said, ‘It’s you, it’s you.’ 

    Sandy clapped his hands.  ‘It’s you, it’s you,’ he cried. 

    The ferryman too joined in the chorus. 

    ‘There you go!’ he cried.  ‘My best congratulations.’

When they reach the other side, Tripitaka steps ashore with a strange feeling of lightness and exhilaration.  Freed from the domination of the six senses–mortal flesh and bone–a fundamental spirit of mutual caring emerges. At this time he begins thanking each one of the dharma posse for helping him to reach his goal, but Monkey interrupts:

    ‘Every one of us,‘ said Monkey, ‘is equally indebted to the other.

    ‘If the Master had not received our vows and accepted us as his

    disciples we should not have had the chance to do good works

    and win salvation.  If we had not protected the Master and mounted  

    guard over him, he would never have got rid of his mortal body.

Through a beautiful landscape they all set out for their meeting with the Buddha. After collecting the scriptures they have come for, they begin the return journey to China.  Along the way, however, they experience several further crises that indicate theirs is an unending quest.  The process is as important as the achievement, but there is a difference now.  Monkey controls his temper, Pigsy is no longer a fool, Sandy attains perfect discretion, Horse is well able to see the point of a discussion; Tripitaka becomes the Buddha of Great Merit.

To be a hero patient cooperation and watchful self-control are essential.  The Dhammapada, a very old collection of Buddhist proverbs, puts it this way:

    Just as the farmer irrigates a field,

    An arrowsmith fashions an arrow,

    And a carpenter shapes a piece of wood,

    So the sage tames himself.

At the very end of the novel when Monkey is named Buddha Victorious in Strife he asks Tripitaka why he must still wear the terrible little headache cap that he can’t take off.  Tripitaka explains it was put on Monkey’s head when he was impossible to control, but now that he has become a buddha it is no longer needed.  Monkey raises his hand to touch his head and indeed the migraine cap has vanished!

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s fourth analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.