3. Epistemology (i): Buddha and the Monkey King

Among the heroes in the pantheon of Chinese mythology, the Monkey King takes a prominent position. Monkey King originated from the novel Journey to the West, in which he, together with an anthropomorphic pig (Chinese=豬八戒) and a fallen-from-grace celestial general (Chinese=沙悟淨), accompanied the monk Tang Sanzang’s (Chinese=唐三藏) journey to the west in search of Buddhist sutras to be brought back to China and be translated. While his three companions are fictitious, the monk, Tang Sanzang, is real. After his seventeen-year journey, he returned with “over six hundred Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha, and more than a hundred sarira relics.”

Indeed, monk Tang Sanzang contributed immensely to the spread and understanding of Buddhism in China. For his efforts, the Emperor awarded him the last name Tang, the name of the dynasty that then existed.

The mythological Monkey King was said to have been born from a rock and acquired supernatural powers through practicing Taoism. Believing himself to be so powerful, he rebelled against the celestial king with the hope of dethroning him so he could become the next celestial king himself. Indeed, he was so powerful that he wreaked havoc in the celestial palace as he attacked. In his despair, the celestial king sought help from Buddha.

So, Buddha confronted the Monkey King and said,” I am Buddha. I understand that you are wreaking havoc in the celestial palace. Why are you so arrogant and overbearing?” The Monkey King has no idea who Buddha is, pays no attention to what Buddha says, and boasts, “I am Monkey King. I am powerful, and l like to sit on the celestial throne for a while.” Upon hearing what the money king said, Buddha smiled gently, extended his arm toward Monkey King, opened his hand, and challenged him, “I will make you a bet. If you can fly far enough to escape my hand, I will ask the celestial king to step down so you can take over his place. How about that?” Upon hearing Buddha, Monkey King jumps onto Buddha’s palm and retorts, “In that case, I am sure to win. Make sure not to cheat after I accomplish the task.”

Immediately after saying that, Monkey King somersaulted from Buddha’s palm and started to somersault, somersault, and somersault…After somersaulting for so long, the monkey king was sure he was far enough to be out of Buddha’s hand. He looked around and found five skin-colored pillars nearby. He was convinced these pillars supported the celestial kingdom and marked its territory. He pulled out a hair and blew gently on it, thus transforming it into a brush. With the brush, the Monkey King wrote the following on the third pillar, “The Great Celestial-King-Equalling Sage traveled here (Chinese=齊天大聖到此一游),” in case Buddha did not believe in his ability. Before leaving, he marked the territory and urinated around the first pillar after ensuring no one was nearby.

Feeling satisfied, the Monkey King flew back to Buddha and said to him, “I win. Tell the celestial king to abdicate so I can take over his throne.” Again, Buddha smiles gently and says, “What are you saying? You have not somersaulted out of my palm yet. If you do not believe me, turn around and look.” Confused, the Monkey King turned around to take a look. Sure enough, on the palm of Buddha’s middle finger is written, “The Great Celestial-King-Equalling Sage traveled here.” There is also the smell of urine around Buddha’s thumb. Surprised, the Monkey King could not believe what he saw as he wondered, “I am sure I wrote the words on the celestial pillars; why do they appear on Buddha’s fingers? I don’t believe it. I am going to take another look at it,” and tried to somersault away.

However, Buddha did not want to give the Monkey King another chance to cheat. He closed his hand around Money King and forced him to fall to earth. Furthermore, Buddha formed his fingers like the five mountain peaks and restrained the Monkey King under the mountain. There, Monkey King stayed for five hundred years until monk Tang Sanzang saved him by asking him to accompany him on his journey west.

However, Monk Tang Sanzang, in addition to freeing the Monkey King, also gave him a new name: Wu Kong (Chinese=悟空 ), meaning “Awaken to Emptiness.” Herein lies the moral of the story.

By naming him “Awaken to Emptiness,” Monk Tang Sanzang wants the Monkey King to realize this potential. The Monkey King may think himself already so mighty, having wreaked havoc in the celestial kingdom and being able to somersault for long and far, but he does not realize that his true potential has yet to be realized. Therefore, he must first understand the limits of his prowess and be willing to improve to realize his true potential.

The moral of Monkey King’s story also applies to humanity’s use of means of knowledge. Throughout its history, humanity has relied on using spoken words or written texts to transmit knowledge and understand the world in which it lives. Buddha, however, teaches that word-based knowledge only allows humans to know reality as it appears, i.e., the phenomenal world. However, Buddha teaches that considering the phenomenal world real is a delusional misunderstanding of reality and the root cause of humanity’s existential suffering. Only when humans understand things as they are can they be liberated from their existential suffering. However, understanding how things stand in themselves requires empirical fact rather than word-based knowledge.

As the Monkey King has the potential to jump out of Buddha’s hand, humans have the potential to understand the empirical facts nature has to offer. In the Epistemology Category, with the help of a fascinating discussion on the topic “How Do We Know What We know” between the host of Closer to Truth, Dr. Lawrence Kuhn and the world-renowned philosopher, Dr. Menachem Fisch, we will discuss the quality of knowledge from word-based vocabulary vs. empirical facts, the difference between “knowing” and “knowing for sure,” and how liberation from existential suffering ends when the epistemological origin of the phenomenal universe is understood.

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