Remarks on "Requesting Gifts" in Record of a Journey to the West

Nan Shan

PureInsight | July 23, 2006

[] Record of a Journey to the West,
one of the best-known Chinese Classics, records the cultivation stories
of a man, three legendary creatures and a horse who experienced
eighty-one tribulations and obtained consummation. They used fourteen
years and experienced innumerable trials and hardships to reach the
Buddha world in the west. They had thought that they could acquire many
sutras of the Buddha school and bring them back to the Great Tang
Dynasty (618-907) of China. However, when they requested the sutras, to
their surprise, the arhat Ah- Nuo asked them for gifts. Monk Tang and
his disciples did not expect that they had to prepare gifts in exchange
for the sutras even in the Holy Land where the Buddha was, which was
pretty much the same as in the ordinary human beings' world. But monks
make their living through begging for alms and how can they have money?
Since Monk Tang and his disciples did not have money to give Ah-Nuo,
Ah-Nuo looked gloomy. Though these monks got sutras, it turned out that
these sutras were all white paper without any words on them. Monk Tang
and his disciples felt very upset and told the Buddha about what the
god Ah-Nuo had done. Sun Wukong, one of Monk Tang's disciples said,
"Buddha, Master and us disciples have been through thousands of
tribulations and hardships to come to here from the eastern land. With
your permission, we were about to bring the sutras back to the eastern
land of the Tang Dynasty. But Ah-Nuo and Qie Ye on purpose gave us
sutras of white papers on which there are no words, because they could
not get money from us. What can we do with the white no-word sutras? I
wish you would punish their wrong-doing."

But the Buddha laughed and said, "Don't shout. Actually I knew that
they asked you for gifts. But Buddha sutras should neither be passed on
casually, nor can they be obtained for nothing. In the past, when some
sacred monks took the sutras and came down from the mountain, they
lived in the house of an elderly man, Mr. Zhao in the state of Shewei.
At night, the monks chanted the sutras to the elderly Mr. Zhao, which
could keep the living beings in his family safe and help the dead ones
stay out of hell. These monks only got thirty-three liters of grains of
gold from the Zhao family. I think what the elderly Zhao gave was much
less than the price that he should offer, which will cause his later
generations to be very poor. Since you want to obtain the sutras by
spending nothing, you can only get no-character sutras. "

Normally, we think that the Buddha's Holy Land of the West should be
clean, pure and even have no dirt. How could it be necessary to spend
gold and silver in exchange for sutras? If the divine beings get the
gold and silver, what are they going to do with it? Furthermore,
cultivators must abandon their desires for fame and wealth in order to
achieve fruition. Since Ah-Nuo is an arhat, how could he seek wealth?
What is more difficult to understand is how could the Buddha praise
Ah-Nuo's conduct?

In my view, there must have been several purposes behind the issue of
"requesting gifts." First, this unexpected request can be used to
examine how steadfast Monk Tang and his disciples' faith in the Buddha
were. Second, it should be known that it is not easy to achieve the
true Sutras and the true Fa. How much gold and silver does it take to
buy the true Sutras in the ordinary people's world?

Monk Tang and disciples eventually passed the Buddha's test. Even
though they did not understand the Buddha's true intent, they dare not
doubt what the Buddha said. Monk Tang gave Ah-Nuo his only belonging- a
purple gold earthen bowl which the Emperor of the Tang Dynasty had
bestowed on him and, in the end, they acquired the true Sutras. Then
the Buddha ordered his Eight Warrior Attendants to send them back to
Chang'an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty by using their supernatural
abilities. After presenting the sutras to Tang Emperor Tai, the Eight
Warrior Attendants brought them back to the Holy Land in the west. Monk
Tang and his disciples all achieved their Fruition. Monk Tang and his
disciple Sun Wukong both cultivated into Buddhas. Wuneng was given the
rank of Envoy in a divine world and Wujing cultivated into an arhat.
What "human beings' gifts" can be used in exchange for consummation?

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