The idea of embarking on journeys has stood the test of time - early man explored uncharted territories, while modern citizens jump at the chance to have an overseas experience. Are we truly concerned with materialistic experiences, or are we seeking to expand our horizons ? The term pilgrimage itself suggests a journey to a geographical location of spiritual importance. However, journey in this case may not solely be categorized as physical travel but also as the voyage of soul development.
Tripitaka's pilgrimage is more likely a spiritual journey to enlightenment than a mission to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from the West. Tripitaka in the story bears little resemblance to the historical monk. Historically, XuanZang's travels took him to many kingdoms, and his initiative to seek out the rulers of each of them suggests that his pilgrimage had also diplomatic intentions.
By contrast , the pilgrimage of Tripitaka, the story’s fictional equivalent to XuanZang, was set up to be an ideal case of spiritual journey.
Gold Cicada was his former name
As heedless he was of the Buddha's talk
He had to suffer in this world of dust...
....dedicated wholly to the pursuit of Nirvana (Vol.1, P.263)
Tripitaka was formerly a disciple of Buddha, but when he fell asleep during a lecture, he was reincarnated specifically to undergo this journey to redeem himself and obtain enlightenment after 81 tribulations.
To start off , the pilgrimage can be regarded as an penitential journey - all of the characters are flawed individuals who have committed offence against the community that they were in and were tasked by the Bodhisattva of Mercy to escort Tripitaka for redemption. Wukong, with his brazen and destructive nature, was in custody under the mountains for creating disturbance in the heavenly court (Vol.1, Ch.8, P.196). The lustful advancements of former Marshall Tian Peng on Chang E, a moon maiden, resulted in his banishment to the earthly realm as Wuneng (Vol.1, Ch.8, P192). Wujing was a curtain raising general, who upon accidentally smashing a crystal dish, was exiled to the mortal world and became a man devouring demon until the Bodhisattva offered him a path of salvation (Vol.1, Ch.8, P.190).
An element in the pilgrimage is also Wukong and Tripitaka's journey of self cultivation. Similar to how Buddhism coexists in harmony with Taoism in the Chinese culture, the Taoist concept of Yin-Yang, where seemingly opposing forces are in reality complimentary, is introduced as the key to success of the pilgrimage. In the initial part of the journey, Wukong's undoubtedly great abilities and discernment made him confident to the point of arrogance. His actions were nonnegotiable and aggressive. Against the White-Bone Spirit, he repeatedly attacked her despite Tripitaka's pleas not to. (Vol.2, Ch.27, P.25)
Tripitaka on the other hand represented the kind yet naive and whimsical part of human nature. He was ridden with fear, lacked faith. (Vol.2, Ch.29, P.43) and blindly and obstinately believed in whatever physical manifestations that were presented to him (Vol.2, Ch.25, P.26) throughout his journey. Each embodies a contrasting side of human nature, the yin and yang. Through the pilgrimage, they each come to realise that the way to
enlightenment was to embrace the nature of the other. Whenever the integrity of the group is compromised , the success of the pilgrimage is threatened. Dismissal of Monkey by Tripitaka (Vol.2, Ch.27, P.27) almost got him killed on several occasions(Vol.2, Ch.30, P.62). At the end of the pilgrimage, Wukong's address shows his appreciation of the Master-Disciple relationship that keeps each other in check.
Everyone of us...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...