The Future of Power

Bainard Cowan, Ph.D.

Introduction: a visit to the bookstore

My topic tonight is the future of power. Before we go to the future, however, we should take a trip to the store-the bookstore, in fact, where close to the front we see the latest best-selling titles on how to succeed in business: The 48 Laws of PowerSecrets of Power NegotiatingPower TalkThe Power of Indirect Influence, The Power of Focus, The Power of Simplicity, The Power of Nice. Up a notch from these power-trippers lie titles following a more cultured trend. Business and management authors are looking increasingly to cultural sources to deal with the complex environments their readership faces. There are books on the management and leadership wisdom of Machiavelli, as might be expected, but also of Elizabeth I, of the Japanese samurai, of Robert E. Lee, and of Eastern classics such as The Art of War and the Dao De Jing. The wisdom of the West is not to be left out, however, and recently a business school professor has teamed with a literature and theater authority and written Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management. The authors (John O. Whitney and Tina Packer) write that “the one subject [Shakespeare] returns to again and again is leadership.” They have taught a Columbia Business School course on Shakespeare and Leadership.

Dallas Institute Fellow James Hillman has written one of the better business books on power, titled Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses, and in its opening he offers his theory of why MBA types are turning to the Great Books and, in turn, humanities types are becoming interested in business: “Business,” he maintains,

as defined by the ideas of Western capitalism, has become the fundamental force in human society and, in the manner of any monotheism, promulgates a fundamentalist faith in its basic tenets. Business has defeated everything in its path. Its last enemies are the oldest; it is still defied by the ancient Gods of blood revenge, territorial tribalism and … the untamed divinities of nature … the old pagan nature Gods have not been altogether subdued by the world unification plans of god, the Economy. (3-4)

No more than a soupçon of sardonic rue flavors the broth of Realpolitik in this perspective. Hillman considers himself on familiar ground in discussing business, for it, too, is peopled with mythic figures. “Business too has heroic ghosts,” he says,

continuing to live in its ideas and ancestral figures on which it relies for inspiration and whom it emulates in ambition, for these giants could turn things around and get things done. They changed the world, much as the legendary heroes like Hercules, who diverted whole rivers to clean up old messes; like Marduk, who drained the sucking swamps; like Moses, who freed his people and drowned their pursuers. These are take-charge figures of command and control. Whatever stands in the way can be met by fixing or fighting. (27-28)

Business has been the prime presence in our time to offer consistently the figure of the sovereign individual as a myth to live by. Marduk and Moses, Elizabeth and Lee are their mythic images, and the mere power-talkers and power-nice can only stand and gape in awe at their magnificence.

Yet ultimately these hero-figures, he says, if they avoid being shallow and false, are headed for tragic grief-for abandonment on hillside or rock, for crucifixion. Hillman’s aim is to explore the depth of the myth of power, and he goes on to analyze twenty different kinds of power, including control, ambition, leadership, tyranny, charisma, veto, and prestige. The supreme ideals of growth and efficiency, he says, should share the limelight with the goals of service and maintenance. Moreover, he recommends focusing not just on growth but on deepening, pointing out that “organic models insist that things can’t grow upward unless they grow downward at the same time, like most plants” (50); and on emptying, maintaining that “emptiness has an invisible power that plays a determining role in what appears” (60). Hillman goes on to warn, “If our national notion of growth remains tied to the archetypal perspective of the child and therefore blinded to more complex sophisticated kinds of growth, then . . . [it will remain] incompatible with the actualities of America’s demographic, social and psychological conditions.” (63, 65)

Further back in the bookstore lie a few philosophical treatments of power, often written by thinkers who subscribe ostensibly to quite other myths. There, more in the shadows, we see Max Weber on Power and Social Stratification; Power: A Radical ViewCulture/Power/History: A ReaderDiscourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault; Foucault’s New Domains; and the third volume of Michel Foucault’s own posthumousOeuvres, titled simply Power. Foucault is concerned with the core agenda of Western political culture-medicine, psychiatry, prisons; with the power to define madness, criminality, and sexuality. A trenchant critic, Foucault’s work is not without his prophetic side as well, and in it he insists that top-down unilateral command based on secrets is inevitably going to give way to bottom-up multicultural decision-making by the people, based on open sources evenly shared across networks.

Modern philosophy and social thought are working with quite different assumptions from the more prominent book trade in business. Yet increasingly the same refrain is being heard on both sides of the political spectrum: power is going to be distributed as never before, and in so doing the new technologies that enable this transformation are fulfilling the true nature of power, for power fluidly courses through the whole social terrain; it grows as it incorporates more participants, grows and transforms as it encompasses greater diversity of forms, and grows and offers itself peacefully as its users enter into cooperation with each other.

Power as the desire to control outcomes is slowly giving way to the acknowledgement of power as allowing things to grow-to truly “become what they are” and to transform themselves responsively and responsibly. Testimonies to the importance of this transformation abound in technology theory (see Kevin Kelly’s books, for instance) and business theory (Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is a good example).

The Sovereign Individual

The magic that has brought us this new, higher understanding, of course, is electronic information technology. Even the ongoing perils of Wall Street are not likely to damp our enthusiasm for long. A writer for the New Yorker expresses the dizzying dreams of this new horizon together with his misgivings. He reports:

The current system will eventually turn into the “Evernet”-available to us anytime, anywhere (through wireless connections), and capable of offering instant transmission of material from any one point in the world to another. We will download “The Godfather” in a few seconds and in a few seconds more send Trollope to Kazakhstan and the grand library of sixteenth-century Timbuktu to Tampa; we will transfer a corporation’s billing records to Bombay and send three-dimensional architectural designs to Madrid; we will routinely gaze at the faces of our sons and daughters when we telephone them at college. In general, we will accomplish tasks so quickly that we will create enormous new wealth. That’s for starters. The revolution will end by changing the nature of time itself, thereby altering the way we live, work, seek pleasure, and gather together. We shall achieve simultaneity, ending the gap between desire and fulfillment; we shall no longer wait. -David Denby, “The Speed of Light,” New Yorker (Nov. 27, 2000): 133.

He quotes the rhapsodizing high-tech guru George Gilder’s pronouncement: “the telecosm launches us beyond the fuzzy electrons and frozen pathways of the microcosm to a boundless realm of infinite undulations… [The new technology] makes men into bandwidth angels. But our New Yorker critic wonders, “Are we truly standing on the edge of greater freedom and personal control? Or are we unwittingly putting ourselves in thrall to a system that will dazzle us with choices yet dislocate us, pull us apart, even consume us?”

My worries run in a somewhat different direction. The new world of seemingly unlimited power proffered by the Internet/Evernet is actually not so much a new kind of power that will turn women and men into angels as it is a new level of organization on the planet, following and superimposed on the levels the human race has evolved over its entire past, in sequence: culture, society, civilization, and the industrial order of modernity. The dizzying notions of total freedom-of the sovereign individual-have not yet confronted the flaws in human nature that will make necessary a struggle for order in the information economy world. A pop motto for this consciousness that awaits us might be: In cyberspace no one can hear you scream. There are no neighbors, no good Samaritans, no officials to come to your aid. New tyrannies await, to be forged by ourselves-the human race in its new extension, the web.

Already we have an inkling that more and better laws protecting consumers from e-fraud, and users from each other, are needed than are in place, and that such laws require a new configuration of order that must be hammered out in determining the contours of this new arrangement. Ultimately the kinds of power that must be brought to bear in making this new order a good order are the kinds of which civilization has been aware since its early beginnings.

As Virginia Arbery noted in her inaugural lecture in this series, Power becomes dangerous when it is notowned. The demonic is what comes in when no one owns power. Romano Guardini warned of the danger of the “nameless” in The End of the Modern World and in Power and Responsibility. We must shape our technology–the need to step forward and to claim power–to “own” it–or the demonic will set in, the balancing counterpart to Gilder’s bandwidth angels, waiting in the wings. Some years ago C. G. Jung already predicted this future well with the following admonition:

Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to the nature around and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature will destroy him. (Collected Works 11)

New Challenges Loom

And now new challenges loom that will awaken us from our current narcissistic fascination with our powers: the Earth itself is in revolt. The official report this year by the IPCC, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declares that global warming is not only real but is man-made and that it will produce floods, epidemics, and millions of “environmental refugees.” This newest forecast is backed by data from myriad satellites, weather balloons, ships at sea, and weather stations, and by immense computer models of the global climate system. Scientists have moved toward consensus on the inevitability of global warming. The IPCC report predicts pestilence, wildfires, exaggerated flooding and drought cycles that will deplete the land, and sea levels that may rise by as much as three feet by the end of the century. By 2015, they warn, three billion people will be living in areas without enough water. Atmospheric changes already underway may take hundreds of years to change.

How are we to exercise power over a monster we cannot see, who moves too slowly for us to take notice until it is too late, who cannot be seen because she is everywhere? First of all, the notion of fighting a monster will not solve this problem for us. From Humbaba in Gilgamesh to Grendel in Beowulf to the great white whale Moby Dick, earth with its fearsome powers has been imagined as something threatening the human power to be, and it has been opposed with supreme might and determination. Already in 1851 Melville’s novel suggests a profound shift with its mythic enactment of the recognition that the earth fights only those who fight her, and those who fight her will perish.

Our dreams of power in the future will have to come to terms with serious challenges, and this may be the most enduring and dangerous one, for global warming will not go away; it is not today’s fad; and it will drive disasters to make the plagues of Egypt pale, including famine and the wars and struggles for power that will ensue over water and food, over electricity and utility power. The technically impressive but dramatically inept movie Independence Day saw this challenge in terms of the primary metaphor of our popular unconscious these days–as an alien invasion–always a transparent figure for the arrival of the new. To meet this challenge, as even this movie showed, we must act as a unified global people. We cannot do business as usual–do whatever is profitable and learn from our mistakes. The feedback loop is too massive and too slow. Not only must we be concerted in our efforts, they must proceed from a new imagination, one that does not see nature as instrumental, or linear; we must arise out of our own wilful stupidity toward nature. We will either learn to see ourselves no longer as the center of everything–the end of humanism–or it will be the end of humanity. In place of the sovereign individual, we must become deepened individuals, individuals on a quest through cooperation and a deep respect for the planetary order that makes our life possible. We can meet this challenge–with Athena’s help, and with the powers of Odysseus, who is “andra”–man. This will be a time for heroism, and like all such times it will call on the powers of technê-both technical and intellectual-but it will depend in the last analysis on resolve, courage, and an unending will to give of ourselves.

The King as Poetic Image

But the notion of the sovereign individual has much about it that is compelling, and I don’t mean merely to scare it off the stage by images of cataclysm. If the future holds for us the new idea of the “sovereign individual,” what does the wisdom of the past tell us? How indeed is it likely to hold any advice for us in the future, if this brave new world into which our technology is destined to carry us has never been experienced before? How can poetry and thought from the past millennia of kings and commoners advise us on how each of us can assume supreme command of our worlds? The myth-bedecked governor of my considerably mythical state of Louisiana once declared that every man is to be a king. But what happens when king meets king, as Shakespeare’s vision of chaos has it, “when degree is shak’d . . . each thing meets in mere oppugnancy”?

As Hegel noted in the Philosophy of History, the ancient ages of the past so arranged their orders that oneman was to be free; the classical ages, including the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, so that some could be free; the modern age so that all could be free. By this reasoning, then, the king is a symbolic and imaginary model of the whole human being, his perfect freedom enabling him to grasp all the powers at his behest. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that history should read for us as a storybook, the deeds and demeanors of kings now transformed into lessons to democratic mankind on how to compose ourselves. Emerson writes:

That popular fable of the sot who was picked up dead drunk in the street, carried to the duke’s house, washed and dressed and laid in the duke’s bed, and, on his waking, treated with all obsequious ceremony like the duke, and assured that he had been insane,-owes its popularity to the fact, that it symbolizes so well the state of man, who is in the world a sort of sot, but now and then wakes up, exercises his reason, and finds himself a true prince. (“Self-Reliance”)

He goes on to say:

The world has indeed been instructed by its kings, who have so magnetized the eyes of nations. It has been taught by this colossal symbol the mutual reverence that is due from man to man. The joyful loyalty with which men have every where suffered the king, the noble, or the great proprietor to walk among them by a law of his own, make his own scale of men and things, and reverse theirs, pay for benefits not with money but with honor, and represent the Law in his person, was the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness of their own right and comeliness, the right of every man. (“Self-Reliance”)

History at last becomes myth: the figures of power in the past, whether they are great or merely ordinary, enact a poetic fable of the qualities we both desire in our hearts and need to live up to: respect, largesse, assurance, and the embodiment of a higher law. These qualities need to be rehabilitated in new guise after two and a half centuries of needed democratic rhetoric, which sometimes has had the side effect of damning kingly qualities by their association with those who deserved to be chased out, kings and nobles who held the office but not the qualities. Our current postmodern scholars of culture, had they the wit, would point out that kingship is a symbolic construction fashioned out of the imaginary of all the people. One must seem a king to be one.

If we really desire to know the wisdom of the Western tradition on power, we should consider Shakespeare, and not just his “power plays” with lessons on leadership and management, but on power in its full panoply, in his final work, The Tempest. There he provides a crash course in kinds of power: Machiavellian power in Prospero’s brother; the power of the tempest (yet the tempest is virtual, a human creation indistinguishable from nature); Ariel’s power as creativity of pattern; Caliban’s as force and intuition. Prospero provides a consciousness, memory and law, for both. Prospero began as a modern, a specialist, forsaking the care of the state-a capsule of the modern era. By doing so he lost power. He regains it within, as Virginia arbery has argued Telemachus does in The Odyssey, by recounting his story for someone to whom he is devoted-his daughter, Miranda. Ariel and Caliban together represent the concerted powers of spirit and soul–yet they become themselves only through Prospero, even as they teach and empower him. Prospero on the island is guided not by revenge (though this tempts him) but by love–a desire to create a good future for his daughter. To his daughter he becomes teacher, strict rulegiving father, to others enchanter, jailer, and the power who pardons, finally fulfilling the role envisioned in his earlier sonnet “They that have power to hurt and will do none.”

The Four Varnas

The wisdom of great poetry is all the more relevant to the human future because of the full set of human possibilities it has imagined, for our technology is busy all the time possibilizing our lives. Yet the figure of the king-or the duke, as in Prospero, Duke of Milan-is only one of the models of human power that classic poetry has given us. I could cite Mark Twain here as a source of savage parody on kings and dukes, but for more serious analysis I prefer to turn to the wisdom of the East, for we will need the traditions of the entire human race to accede to the kind of power of which our newfound possibilities will make us capable and will demand from us. Indeed, such wisdom with ts magnificent figures should confer humility on us as well.

The Rigveda, the book of wisdom for the ancient Vedic culture in India, recounts the myth of Purusha, the primal cosmic man. I will read a drastically cut translation and then explain the terms used.

A thousand heads hath Purusha, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.

On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

This Purusha is all that yet hath been and all that is to be . . .

So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusha. . . .

When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering . . .

They balmed as victim on the grass Purusha born in earliest time. . . .

When they divided Purusha how may portions did they make?

What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made,

His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the shudra was produced.

Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim: these were the earliest holy ordinances.

Purusha is glossed as embodied spirit, or humanity personified and regarded as the soul and original source of the universe, the personal and life-giving principle in all animated beings. As the Universal Soul he pervades the universe, but as the Individual Soul he is enclosed in a space ten fingers wide, namely the region of the human heart, where the soul resides. He is eternal and precedes the gods, yet the gods offer him up as sacrifice-it is unstated to whom the offering is made, but the Vedic religion is centered in sacrifice, the chief means of conferring sacredness. His body becomes the primal structure of the human race, and classical India used this scripture to determine the classes of Hindu society. This system remains today, and its rigidity has brought misery to millions of Indians; Gandhi fought against it. Suffice it to say that poetry is of such a nature that it frees the human soul if it is read as poetry, but it enslaves if it is taken literally. The Brahman are the priestly class, keepers of the holy word and of the sacred doctrines of the Hindus, and thus the mouth of the Universal Soul. The Rajanya, usually called Kshatriya, are the warrior class, defenders of the people’s safety and of order; kings or rajas came from this class. The arms of Purusha become the prince and soldier who wield the sword and spear. His thighs, the srongest parts of his body, become the Vaishya, the farmers, tradesmen, and merchants, the support of society. Finally, his feet become the shudra, the servant class, laboring man, on whose toil and industry everything in society ultimately rests.

What I have found is that these four varnas, or the four divisions of the human race, when considered as poetic and mythic images, are not so distant from our Western democratic way of life. They match up perfectly with what organization theory has been teaching for fifty years in American business schools on the types of power that may motivate organizations.

The brahmana-the priestly caste–represent the power of ideals: not just intellectual power in general, but the power exercised by the idea of the good and its teaching, in schools, churches, and in the rhetoric of the public and of organizations.

The kshatriya-the warrior and ruler caste-constitutes the motivational power of force–the appeal to that fear of disobedience that constitutes what political theory has come to think of exclusively when it analyzes power. As Virginia Arbery reminded us last week, Thomas Hobbes reduced power to this single dimension. The great sociologist Max Weber, following Hegel, spoke of the “monopoly on violence” possessed by the modern state and its laws. When we think of force, the American tabloid imagination that manipulates us so successfully is likely to envision the small brutal tyrannies of force: spousal abuse, child abuse, rape and torture-the types catalogued in the movie Pulp Fiction. But force answers to force, and the power of the warrior is the power of the law even more than of the lawless. It is here that our images of king and hero most often reside.

The vaishya corresponds to the motivational power of remuneration, and these strong thighs are what has driven our democratic capitalism and spread an electronic web over the globe.

The shudra, the servant caste-not allowed to participate in the great religious rituals, not allowed to be “twice born” into Hinduism-are here paralleled by the final and yet most surprising insight of contemporary organization theory: what is called servant leadership. Originated as a rationale for nonprofit organizations, the motivation of action by the desire to serve others has become a keystone of success not only in what we call the service economy but in any notion of work in the world that is designed to encourage cooperation, mutual problem-solving, and prosperity. The one who serves is the one who leads, and vice versa.  This of course is a respected teaching in the West as well.

As always, of course, theory has advanced to levels of enlightenment while practice lags miles behind; and I’m sure I don’t need to provide examples here.

We are called to be all of these today; the myth of Purusha is reenacted in reverse, and he is reassembled in our time. Yet all depend on this last: power must be to serve others, to aid them toward what they truly want-to help them become who they are. Guardini discerned that power in the future will have less the character of sovereignty and more of obedience, service. And this takes us beyond the clichés of the service economy and to the shores of a poetic myth that places all human power in humble perspective and coordination.

The Journey to the West

The Rigveda is wonderful and mysterious. If we go in search of a classic poetic work that activates all these levels, however, in a great fable that brings about the coordination of the human powers of motivation, we might find it best in another key work in the Eastern tradition, not out of India but within the historic umbrella of Buddhism spreading outward from India to China and thus imbued, if distantly, with the mythology of classical India. I am referring to the Chinese novel The Journey to the West, which also came to be known as Monkey, is probably the most popular book in all of East Asia. Thought to be written by Wu Ch’eng-en in the sixteenth century, near the beginning of the decadence of the Ming dynasty, Journey to the West depicts a journey to India and thus to sacred origins. It is based on an actual journey taken in the seventh century AD by the heroic monk Hsuan-tsang. If it is part historical epic, however, it is equally a riotous comic adventure with a large helping of social satire. In other words, it is a genuine novel, although written outside the development of the European novel and ultimately displaying a quite different flavor than the thoroughly secular nature of the Western novel. The characters in this epic-comic-satiric quest are a monkey and a monk. It is the story of the adventures of the rogue-trickster Monkey-and his encounters with a bizarre cast of demons, spirits, gods, and bodhisattvas-as he and his companions travel to India with the Buddhist pilgrim Hsüan-tsang, a historic figure of the seventh century. Chinese Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian writers have all commented on its rich allegorical and symbolic content. The entire journey can be seen as a spiritual allegory of the struggles of self-cultivation on the spiritual path. Probably the most extraordinary quality of this classic is that it succeeds so wonderfully on both levels, as a profound allegory of the religious quest and as a picaresque adventure novel.

The novel begins telling the story of a magical monkey who is born out of a rock that has been worked on by the elements from the beginning of time. From the outset this monkey king asserts his own right to be, his natural leadership, and from the first moment he displays equally his thirst for something more, for immortality. Uneducated, uncultured, he storms heaven in search of this answer. He wreaks enormous havoc in heaven, challenging and defeating all powers that oppose him and that would keep him mortal. Yet his quest proves to be only destructive. The Buddha himself must trap him in a divine paradox, and this most sovereign of individuals, this Prometheus of apes, winds up imprisoned, immobile, hemmed in by a mountain dropped on top of him, to await his true calling. For five hundred years he must wait.

Monkey has a talent for seeking beyond the limits. In an early episode, he suggests to his fellow monkeys that they follow a mountain stream to its source. There they find a waterfall. Monkey jumps through the waterfall in one great bound and there discovers a bridge bearing the inscription that it leads to heaven, and near the bridge a stone house. A natural leader of his companion monkeys, he leads them all to this grand new home, and thus the Stone Monkey acquires the name of Handsome Monkey King.

Yet after several hundred years of peaceful living in this land by the bridge to heaven, Monkey’s yearning for the transcendent sets upon him in more intense fashion. He comes to realize one day he will die, and he seeks a way to avoid this terrible fate and “live forever among the people of the sky.” So he sets out on a great quest into the unknown, crossing the ocean until he comes to the mountain of the Patriarch Subodhi. The Patriarch recognizes Monkey’s singularity and estimates his considerable powers, and in a marvelous dialogue covering in humorous fashion the history of Eastern religions Monkey convinces the Patriarch that his desire is not for mediated forms of learning and adeptness but for immortality. Here he quite resembles Dr. Faustus, unsatisfied with the philosophies, the sciences, and the arts, for they will not save him when the wind of death blows upon him. The Patriarch rebuffs him, but eventually he teaches Monkey the Secret of Long Life and the seventy-two transformations, by which he gains the power of leaping great distances through the sky-on what is called the Cloud-Trapeze. Yet the Patriarch warns him: “What you have learnt will preserve your youthful appearance and increase the length of your life; but after five hundred years Heaven will send down lightning which will finish you off, unless you have the sagacity to avoid it” (Waley trans. 24). And again: “Nothing in the world is difficult . . . it is only our own thoughts that make them seem so” (26). Monkey learns this last lesson well: as a clever monkey he never lets his thoughts hold him back from what he desires to do. At the end of his Zen-like training he is given a new name: Aware-of-Emptiness-a Buddhist concept, but one that Monkey takes to mean mostly the emptiness and insubstantiality of all things and principles that might oppose and hinder him. But very soon the Patriarch catches Monkey entertaining the other disciples by changing into a pine tree, and asks him “What were you doing, playing with your spiritual powers . . .? Did you think I taught you in order that you might show off in front of other people?” Monkey has learned power without learning devotion to anything greater, and the Patriarch sends him away.

Monkey demonstrates his awareness of the emptiness not only of bureaucratic decrees, but of the protocols of heaven and even of the rule that death itself exercises. I have called him a Prometheus figure, for he is a culture hero to his own simian people, his subjects. He is a self-made man-ape, and like Oedipus he achieves his status by the power of his wits. Where does this get him, however? Heaven has become increasingly alarmed at his reckless powers. The Jade Emperor, chief administrator of Heaven, is wary of attacking him outright, and instead he invites Monkey to join Heaven. There Monkey finds he is placed at the bottom of the heavenly bureaucracy as a stable cleaner and guard of the grounds, where The Queen of Heaven is going to hold a Peach Banquet. Unimpressed by the joys of service, Monkey would be the last person to say “In His will is our peace” in heaven. He is unable to restrain himself and breaks into the peach orchard and eats all the peaches; he is both ashamed and defensive about what he has done and tries in vain to hide it. When guards come to punish him, he says, “Have those scoundrels no manners! . . . I’ve never interfered with them. Why should they come here worrying me?” (60). He has power, but he does not understand power. Complication piles on complication, and finally Monkey causes such wreckage as to threaten all Heaven, spurred by his innocent but boundless self-esteem and his instinct of self-preservation. Lao-tzu himself, the chief deity of Daoism, is drawn into the fight and vanquished, and finally there is no hope for the Daoist heaven but to send an emergency message to the Buddha of the Western Paradise.

Monkey may be taken by modern readers as a wonderful mythic image of the “ugly American,” unimpressed by unfamiliar protocols, unimpeded by any prudence which might have been learned through art and philosophy, drawn to religion but not understanding it, always desiring life more abundant but unable to conceive of it for anyone but himself and his own, and able to think of it only in terms of the bottom line-which for him is not money but immortality. And the bottom line simplifies everything-he is “aware of emptiness.” He is armed with powers that stagger the imagination but he uses them chaotically, not understanding how his actions threaten the lives of others. For magic of course we may read cyberspace, that unbounded territory that seems to promise endless boons for us brave citizens of the new world. Daring to disturb the universe through his boldness, naively he is going to bring about the destruction of heaven and earth, until a truly transcendent power brings about his early demise.

The Buddha is able to subdue Monkey and imprisons him under a mountain, where he is held so tightly that he cannot move. Buddha announces: “When the days of his penance are fulfilled, there will be one who will come to rescue him'” (77). And with these words the entire story is changed; it is no longer just about one monkey but is transformed into a story of the conversion and dedication of a great simian sinner to a grand holy project to save civilization. When he is released from the mountain half a millennium later, the power that frees him is divine: it is the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, the figure of supreme compassion who in China is a woman, her form and iconography drawn from an ancient Chinese Queen of Heaven. Like the Blessed Virgin Mary she is dedicated to the salvation of all humanity. In India this most renowned of bodhisattvas was a man, whose name, Avalokiteshvara, means Lord-Looking-Down, and Buddhist tradition prays to him or her alike to look down upon lowly mankind with compassion and to lead all to salvation. InThe Journey to the West her traditional identity is not denied, but in addition she is given several attributes of the Greek goddess Athena, those very powers exercised in the Odyssey that figured prominently in Dr. Virginia Arbery’s address last week: she is a special guardian of heroes, she has the power of flight between heaven and earth, and she chides and encourages her heroes to keep their supreme task in mind, not to desert it out of wrath or spirited self-assertion or dispiritedness or fear.

Kuan-yin frees Monkey on condition that he will become the protector and traveling companion of Hsuan-tsang, the historic and legendary monk who took the arduous journey from China to India to bring the sacred Buddhist scriptures to China so that all his countrymen and countrywomen could be saved. Hsuan-tsang as envisioned in The Journey to the West has become a curious paragon. He is an upright man, a Confucian gentleman and an idealist, supreme in official ritual, a righteous monk of the Buddhist sangha, who follows perfectly the Buddha’s supreme command of ahimsa: to cause no harm to any sentient being. He is chosen for a hero; yet on meeting the very first challenge of the wilderness he is terrified and completely unmanned. Trembling and in tears he is ready to give up. Throughout the journey this holy man remains comically petulant, fearful, and distrustful.

Separate, then, these heroes, Monkey and Hsuan-tsang, are powerfully chaotic and destructive on the one hand, and sublimely serene in vision but impotent to act on the other. They are brought together through the design and encouragement of the heavenly power, who has secretly planned the route these pilgrims are to take.

Two other, lesser but indispensable characters join them, and whenever this story is depicted in Asian art all four journeyers are together. The first is Pigsy, a monstrous pig-human whose chief concern is his appetite, but who is converted to Buddhism and who carries the luggage of all four travelers on this sacred journey. The second is Sandy, or the Sand Monster, who was once an alchemist so proficient that he was summoned to Heaven by the Jade Emperor to serve him as Marshal of the Hosts of Heaven, until, as he tells it, “one day, at a celestial banquet, my hand slipped and I broke a crystal cup. The Jade Emperor was furious.” Sandy was readied for execution but spared at the last moment-the most powerful gesture of power, Elias Canetti tells us-and banished to the River of Flowing Sands, where Kuan-yin finds him and enlists him in the Scripture quest.

It is clear from their functions and descriptions that Hsuan-Tsang represents the power of ideals: he is the bearer of the truths of Buddhism and its training, yet his greatest task is mastery over himself, a task to which he is not equal. Fortunately, his fellow journeyers are supremely dedicated to him and save him from many scrapes; so, in hindsight, he did motivate them, but more by who he was and what he stood for than what he did. Monkey is the power of force, responsible for the master’s safety, and prodigious is his struggle to discipline himself and learn to attack only those who imperil the journey and not any monster that comes along. Monkey is also ingenuity, and many impossible obstacles are solved by his magic and quick thinking. Pigsy is the power of remuneration and is anxious for the journey to be at an end so that he may be heaped with rewards; he is the greatest complainer and is jealous of Monkey who carries no luggage. Sandy is the power of service, and quite often, though equally blessed with heroic strength, he prefers simply to sit back and let others take the lead.

David Kherdian writes of the pilgrims in this story:

What all of them had in common was a wish, but standing between each one and that wish was his dual nature. This produced conflict between the heart-the place where the wish was buried-and the needs of the lower nature, which often forgot what the spirit yearned for. . . . Instead of facing the conflict in themselves, however, the companions often fought with one another. (Kherdian, Monkey143)

And yet the comic vision of Wu Ch’eng-en creates a story in which they are all called on by the Buddha himself to combine their powers in friendship and cooperation to achieve a journey that would be impossible for any one of them. Through his artistry the author shows them remaining their old selves, with their old faults, and yet building faithfulness and dedication.

And thus they are not without powerful advantages. The bodhisattva Kuan-yin leads them through various lands where they right wrongs, free the oppressed from tyranny, and other incidental matters, always surely but tacitly guided by Kuan-yin to arrive at the courts of the Buddha of the Western Paradise, so that they may return to China with their cargo of salvation, the “triple basket” of scriptures.

The scriptures may be enlarged to be understood as our classics of the world’s great poetry, philosophy, and religious writing. Going on a pilgrimage to bring them back means studying them with a view to enter their wisdom into our lives-perhaps by action, but more consistently by simply deepening our understanding of, our orientation toward and our commitment to this created living world.

In the end, as I have said, they are ultimately successful. Indeed, history tells us that they have to be successful, because it is in the days of the historical Hsuan-tsang that all China is converted to Buddhism and the most glorious expression of Buddhism in a complex and powerful civilization begins to come into being in the T’ang dynasty. Throughout their journey, however, the sense prevails that they are rewarded with success because they cared so much rather than because they figured out and executed a supremely effective plan. In this way East meets West and yet differently and not as a mirror image. Devotion trumps ingenuity.


What does Monkey teach us? Power, as defined in physics, is the capacity to do work, to change things. The advent of a dazzling new technology together with an awesome revelation about information-its nature, plenitude, and power-threatens to seduce us into a belief that it can do what external power can never do: give us power over ourselves. This brave new world into which we are to enter-this Western Paradise?-will allow us to gain access more readily to our spiritual resources; but it will require us to face more directly those limitations that are in ourselves. What we cannot accomplish as sovereign individuals we can face bravely together in community with other limited selves, in dedication to the call to go beyond ourselves, and possibly to save civilization.

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