Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Patricia Locke on Journey to the West

August 3, 2021 | Story by Les Poling / Video by Hannah Loomis

Annapolis tutor Patricia Locke

Annapolis tutor Patricia Locke has taught at St. John’s since 1984, with a majority of that time spent in Annapolis and several years in Santa Fe. Prior to arriving at St. John’s, Locke received her bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga University and her master’s and PhD in philosophy from Boston College; she was also a teaching fellow at Boston College. In this interview, we spoke with Locke about Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West; watch the accompanying video, in which Locke reads from and comments on an episode from the text, translated by Anthony Yu.

To begin with, could you tell us a little bit about your academic background?

I originally studied philosophy at Boston College and got my PhD working on Hegel’s aesthetics. But over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate long novels more than anything else, and so I’m currently working on a phenomenological account of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, called “A Nighttime World of Marcel Proust.”

How did you originally find out about St. John’s and end up becoming a tutor?

I found out about St. John’s College because I was sent those Great Books posters; in those days it was physical material rather than a website. But I was very intrigued by the Program and especially the way of teaching at St. John’s—the way of learning together. I thought, in a kind of quixotic way, that I would love to know what Hegel knew, and I was sure that I would need other people to help me read Newton. So I came to St. John’s as a tutor—not as a student, but as a very novice learner.

You mentioned that the books you’re attracted to have changed throughout your life. Have you found that since you began as a tutor, your relationship with the texts on the Program has changed at all—or has surprisingly stayed the same?

I think my attitude towards the texts has changed with respect to having more of the books under my belt, so to speak. I have to take more of the relationships between the books into account when I’m reading, but I hope I’m still reading with a fresh eye.

Getting into the book we’re talking about today, which is not on the Program: Journey to the West. For those who are not familiar, could you give a brief overview of the book and the author, and any relevant context?

Well, Journey to the West is one of the four great Chinese classical novels. It was written during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century, in vernacular Chinese, and it follows the journey of a real-life Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who in the seventh century took a journey to the West (and by “West,” we mean going from China to India). And he was in search of original Buddhist texts that he then, like other monks in China, translated into Chinese with the thought that these pure texts would reform Buddhism in China. But the fantastical account that is Journey to the West, this great comic novel, spins off very quickly from that origin story and includes many supernatural disciples of the primary pilgrim. Their intention is not only to reform Buddhism, but to reform society, and to save the souls of the suffering people in the underworld. So it’s much more expansive, much more dramatic. I guess I would say it defies our usual understanding of space and time and what is possible. You have to suspend your ordinary assumptions to enter into this magical, comic cosmos.

When did you first come across the book, and what immediately drew you to it?

Well, I have also taught in the Eastern Classics in Santa Fe, so I was reading a lot of Buddhist sutras. I discovered that some of my students had watched either cartoon or live action Saturday-morning series about the Monkey King, who is one of the main protagonists of this novel. I was very curious about the way popular culture can introduce you to the concepts and the characters of a more grown-up version of these things. So I came to it through popular culture, watching lots of movies and series on Netflix—my students would send me the ones that they were most familiar with. I was trying to get more access into the relationship of Chinese culture to American culture.

Since you first came across the book, do you think that your relationship with the text has changed or is changing, either in looking at the parallels between Chinese culture and American culture or in a more personal, intellectual way?

Since it’s a massive, four-volume set, I think the first couple times that I read it, it was for sheer enjoyment. It’s absolutely hilarious. And at the same time, it has these other aspects of comedy: witty puns, which I really had limited access to through footnotes to understand the Chinese puns. And yet, it has this sense of comedy that throughout the difficult, tragic, horrific episodes of almost getting eaten alive, you somehow manage to be buoyant and survive all of that. As I’ve read it more often and more deeply and talked about it with colleagues and students, I come to see it more as a sort of syncretist text that combines Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. It’s made me start reading other books more carefully, because there are strands, threads from each of these major world religions that are woven together in Journey to the West.

Do you ever find yourself thinking about Journey to the West in the context of the undergraduate Program at St. John’s—whether you’re comparing it with other works or placing it in dialogue with contemporary or analogous texts?

I did a preceptorial already with undergraduates in Annapolis, and some with graduate students as well. I have been seeing how people who are not necessarily schooled in Buddhist philosophy can come directly to this text—although I have to admit that some of my students in Annapolis came with the added benefit of having watched a lot of Monkey King movies, so that was very enjoyable: to see this high art, very sophisticated, epic-length novel that incorporates beautiful, eloquent poetry in an episodic format with severe shenanigans: battles in mid-air with fantastical weapons. Still, everyone could get at this book just as profoundly, I think, as a first read can be.

Let me set the scene [for the reading]. This is chapter seven of volume one of a 100-chapter novel. So you get the sense that this one episode is a little taste of the novel as a whole. And it features the famous, handsome Monkey King, who is also given other titles; the title that appears in this episode is “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” which gives you an idea of his sense of himself. The other person that features in this episode is Buddha, who has come from the Western Paradise to help save heaven from the rebellious chaos that has been let loose by the handsome Monkey King. So the Jade Emperor has sent to the Western Paradise asking for Buddha’s help, because the Jade Emperor and all his deities have not been able to control this wild monkey spirit.

[The excerpt] is one tiny episode from one chapter of this hair-raising comic novel. I picked this particular episode because it has elements that many of the chapters seem to share in common. On the one hand, it is something that you can imagine being in a comic book—second graders love [the] part about monkey urine, it seems so disrespectful to Buddha.

At the same time, there are elements of political satire, because there is a threat to the Jade Emperor’s throne by forces of chaos. And in fact, this [episode] is a challenge to the attitude of “might makes right,” because Monkey stands there as chaotic might—power that even he can’t reach the end of. And yet, the Jade Emperor holds his throne legitimately because of his spiritual development. He has deep reason to be on the throne. The novel Journey to the West mocks bureaucracy throughout, but it still, in a Confucian manner, respects the legitimacy of political rule.

It turns out that in this story, especially, Buddha is more powerful than administrators or politicians of any kind. Why? He can alter our perception of space and time. He’s beyond mortality. And he’s able to physically control the Monkey King, pinning him underneath the mountains for 500 years. It seems kind of cruel, but it’s a beneficent response to someone who’s out of control. Monkey gets to calm down over the course of 500 years, and … [eventually] our [protagonist] monk—our naive, inexperienced, but very spiritually developed pilgrim—will find him on his way, and the Monkey King will turn his great power to good use in protecting the monk on his journey.

I guess I would say that, by creating these illusions throughout the book, [the text helps us] come to discover the truth that we’re not alone, that the universe is ordered, that the Buddha has us in the palm of his hand—even if fear, anxiety, self-importance, all these other things get in our way of seeing what is real. The novel takes a long time to get through our heads what is real; but in certain ways, I could think of Journey to the West as a skillful means for us to come to understand the nature of reality.