How Monkey Made Me A Better Person

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When I was a young lad growing up, we only had two channels of TV to choose from.

Back then – just as video cassettes were becoming popular – you had to be physically sitting in front of the TV at the correct time if you wanted to watch something.

One show I never missed was Monkey. It’s often called Monkey Magic, but that’s the name of the theme song, not the show.

It’s a live-action retelling of a classic Japanese story known as ‘Journey To The West’. Monkey is told through the eyes of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, as he’s forced to protect a Buddhist priest who’s travelling to India to collect some religious scriptures.

That’s not really doing the story justice, of course. That’s like describing Avatar: The Last Airbender as ‘some random show about a magical windy boi’, or Among Us as ‘The Thing, but on a spaceship’.

I’m not sure I can explain the impact that Monkey had on me as a child, but that won’t stop me from trying.

Monkey: No Violence!

Without going into too much detail, I was raised in a time when toxic male traits (such as getting angry instead of staying calm) were valued, and most of the media at the time served to support that viewpoint.

But when I watched Monkey, it gave me a different viewpoint.

For those who don’t know, King Monkey (AKA Sun Wukong) was very beastlike. He didn’t value wisdom as much as power, and his kingdom relied on his power. If his tribe though he was going soft, they’d overthrow him.

Fortunately for Monkey, he was as strong as any mortal had ever been. His staff, which could change size, was as heavy as the moon, but he normally kept it, shrunken, inside his ear.

He eventually realised that The Jade Palace (which is basically Heaven) was full of immortals, so he waged war on them, so he’d always have a conflict to win, so he could always keep his tribe in line.

Heaven soon tired of this, and decided to hire him (because destroying him would tip the universe out of balance). Monkey soon realized that Heaven was just giving him basic tasks to keep him out of trouble, and he soon started making trouble again. Heaven said they’d give him the most important task of all: Guarding the peaches of immortality.

Monkey ate some of the peaches, and this made him immortal. Now, Heaven couldn’t destroy him even if they wanted to. They could, however, kick him out and punish him by forcing him to live hundreds of years under a cursed rock.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Monkey: A Rock and a Hard Place

Let’s examine that from Monkey’s point of view: He needs to look after his tribe, so he picks a fight with Heaven. Heaven shows him no respect at all, even though he’s doing his best – there’s just no place for him, because that’s how Heaven works. Then, when he finally does what it takes to be equal in Heaven, they punish him for doing it because of a bunch of rules they never bothered letting him know about.

That last paragraph could accurately describe my experience at school: Being told you’re not good enough, and then being punished for applying yourself because people think it’s an attack on them personally.

And sure, he was told not to eat the peaches, but who told him this? The same morons who’d been lying to him this whole time, that’s who. If they weren’t right about the first stuff, why would he think they’re right this time?

After all, trust and respect should be earned, not given freely.

Monkey: Redemption Is Possible

Eventually, a young priest called with the title Tripitaka (which basically means ‘enlightened one’) was able to free Monkey on one condition: Monkey would accompany the priest on a very long journey.

The priest, having sworn a vow of non-violence, would need protection.

I must admit that landed wrong when I watched it as a child: Oh, I have to be MORE angry so that others don’t need to be angry AT ALL.

But that didn’t work for me, so I realized that the true message was: There’s more than one way to solve a problem.

To stop Monkey being violent, Tripitaka has a golden circlet put on Monkey’s head. There’s a certain spell that Tripitaka can invoke that will cause Monkey to have a headache. Sometimes Tripitaka uses this ethically, other times he’s clearly in the wrong to use it, it’s just an easy path for him. Sometimes he even punishes Monkey for doing the right thing, such as when Monkey spots a demon that Tripitaka thought was an ordinary person.

The case could be argued, quite easily I think, that Tripitaka’s behaviour actually qualifies as a form of violence – he’s definitely removing Monkey’s bodily autonomy. But being a pacifist doesn’t mean not using violence at all – it means not being violent unless there’s a DAMN good reason, and I hate to admit it but I think that ‘Monkey is an immortal and uncontrollable rage machine’ probably qualifies Tripitaka’s actions.

So eventually, forced to use other methods, Monkey realizes that violence isn’t the only option – and that’s the epiphany the show gave me as well.

Sometimes we need to use violence, such as chopping wood or opening a door that’s stuck shut. But, in ordinary circumstances, using it on another person should never be our first option.

It reminds me of Season 3 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang (the titular Airbender) knows that he has to defeat the most powerful enemy on the planet. However he doesn’t want to kill him, so Aang spends a lot of time trying to find another way to stop him from being a threat.

That’s what’s required, that’s humanity at its best. Finding alternatives to violence is the mark of a true hero. Perhaps Monkey wasn’t punished for being violent. Perhaps he was being punished for not being creative enough.

It takes a lot of mental effort to be empathetic, especially if you were raised like I was. But, like Monkey, I learned that being violent isn’t a solution, it’s just trading the problem off for a bigger problem.

Or, as Jason from The Good Place says: ‘I’m telling you, Molotov cocktails work. Anytime I had a problem and I threw a Molotov cocktail, boom! Right away, I had a different problem.

And sure, changing habits is hard, and it’s tough to know when to stand up for yourself (or others).

But all you have to do is ask yourself: ‘Is violence REALLY the answer here?’

I think you’ll find the answer is ‘no’ more often than you’d think.

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