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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

A Banquet for the Swine God

Updated: May 2


Sometimes, Tripitaka wished the demons would just eat him.


After they pounced on him in a swirl of fangs and horns and yellow eyes, he would usually wake in a cave foul with damp rot, a sack over his slurred head and his hands and feet seared by tight ropes.


They might hang him from the ceiling, and his shoulders would wheeze and crack.


They might lock him in a chest, and his joints would yell, while his mouth gulped for air like a fish.


They could even invite him to dine, and offer power and pleasure along with chunks of roasted human flesh, if he only abandoned his quest.


They talked enough about eating him. Tripitaka had heard the spiel a hundred times. “This monk is the reincarnation of the Buddha’s disciple Golden Cicada, sworn brother to the great Chinese Emperor Taizong, on a journey from China to India to fetch 3 baskets of religious scrolls written by the Buddha! One taste of his flesh will give you a thousand years of life!”


But they never just ate him. They argued over whether he would taste better boiled, fried, or pickled. They discussed the banquet invitations they needed to send out, to make sure that an important grasshopper or crawfish uncle got first taste. Or they plotted to keep him alive to outfox the monk’s fearsome disciples.


These demons had hung him upside down and tied a bag over his head, leaving Tripitaka groggy from the qi pooling in his triple energiser meridian. They ranted about their plan to mince him as filling for a gigantic spring roll, just as soon as they recaptured the sacred horsetail whisk from the wandering juggler that had tricked it away from their elder brother.


At these moments, helpless in the den of chittering monsters, Tripitaka wondered if there could be a Buddha redeemer, in a world so mad.


Just then, a fly buzzed under the bag on his head and landed on his nose.


It spoke.


“Master, it’s me! Monkey! I’ve used a shape-changing spell to turn into a fly, and slipped into the demon’s cave to rescue you! Remember I left you at the boiling lake? I went to Heaven to find the official responsible for the lake, to make them turn off the heat for us to cross! I was just about to submit the green form that gave me access to the purple form for new policy proposals, when the Gold Star of Venus told me you were in trouble! Silly master, you’re always getting yourself captured! It’s OK, master, I’ve got a plan. I’ve spoken to the Four Heavenly Kings, they owe me some favours from when I was the celestial Master of Horses. They’re going to grab the four corners of the earth and give it a tilt to pour all the demons out of this cave! So you hold on tight and be careful not to hit your head! When you’re free I’ll tell you how I also tricked them out of this magic horsetail whisk that makes plants grow!”


From the entrance of the cave, there were terrified shouts, and stomach-twisting wet noises. The long and dangerous journey had cut that squelch into Tripitaka’s soul. It was the sound of a 9-toothed rake shredding demon flesh.


Pigsy.


The fly vanished, and the echoes of gleeful massacre doubled. Tripitaka chanted the heart sutra over and over, trying to blot out insistent phantasms of severed heads and spilling guts.


Monkey could talk you in circles, but he always understood what you said, even if just to twist your meaning later. And if he wouldn’t obey, the monk could punish him by reciting the prayer that tightened the golden headband jammed on Monkey’s head. After years of travel together, the monk rarely needed to go that far, for Monkey knew how much he could get away with and still dodge physical chastisement. With profound weariness, Tripitaka had also learned that it was usually safer to trust Monkey’s cunning judgement.


But Pigsy? He didn’t understand instructions or commands. The only voice he listened to came from his belly. If you admonished the swine demon he would only squeal, grumble, make mischief, and then repeat tedious sins of gluttony and violence. Worse, his rashness encouraged Monkey, and where the swings of Pigsy’s rake were slow and floundering, Monkey’s enormous staff was capable of havoc far more nimble and calamitous. Monkey’s feverish brain always had a too-clever plan to trick any demons they encountered, but from the moment the pig got involved every skirmish became a brute force massacre. Why hadn’t the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin also given the monk a golden band for Pigsy’s bristled and empty head?


Tripitaka felt the cave shake, and his body flopped onto slimy cold rock. The world churned, and the cave disintegrated into screams like those of the souls tortured in the Hell of Needles. Terrified, the monk shouted out the horror-banishing syllables of the heart sutra.


Later, in the field outside the cave, Monkey removed the bag from the monk’s head and snapped the ropes binding him. In the blinding glare of the sun, the smudge in front of the monk swirled into the grinning face of Monkey, smug at another rescue of his master. Off to the side a scowling Pigsy yanked up clumps of grass and tossed them aside.


“Master, that sacred whisk I tricked out of the demons, who do you think it belonged to?”


“Monkey, it doesn’t matter, it never matters.”


“Go on, guess!”


“Oh… Lao-Tzu?”


“Oh ho ho not a bad guess, but wrong! Guess again!”


“The Jade Emperor?”


“Master, you’re not even trying!”


“Oh just tell me then, you chattering ape!”


“Fine! Master Zhang, the Taoist sage! He came down from his mountain to take it back! He uses it to nourish the yang in spring! Oh, and the demons turned back into red pandas when we killed them! More long-lived animals changed to greedy demons!”


Tripitaka, his stomach taking a bold step into the unknown, resolved not to look behind, too able to imagine what he might see. The monk had never so much as tasted meat, yet their journey was paced in so many footprints of blood.


A short way off, the third disciple Sandy was in seated meditation in front of the horse. Sandy stayed away from the fights, unless Monkey and Pigsy were captured. Tripitaka was grateful to have one disciple at least who took his monk’s vows seriously, and put his faith in Buddha to protect them all.


Sandy stood up, which was like watching an avalanche of snow fall up a mountain. Eight feet tall, with blue skin and a necklace of human skulls, this man-eating water ogre had embraced the journey’s offer of redemption with patient, oceanic faith.


The ogre bowed.


“My master, I was leading the horse in meditation, on whether he is a dragon dreaming he is a horse, or a horse dreaming he is a dragon.”


The horse whinnied and clopped its hooves, as always impatient to resume their journey.


Tripitaka mounted the horse, and told Monkey to lead the way. Monkey danced ahead, squinting off into the distance and muttering calculations to himself. Sandy effortlessly hoisted their equipment onto his shoulder. As monks, they were not allowed to own food or money, but Sandy carried their begging bowls and some coarse bedding.


Only Pigsy refused to budge.


“I haven’t been fed! You can’t expect me to march now, after all the thirsty work of fighting those demons! You haven’t even offered me a single noodle or dumpling! No gratitude! Hard-hearted monks!”


Monkey darted back and rapped him on the skull with his staff. “Move it, you useless oil sack, Master orders it! Get moving or I’ll make you into pork crackling!” A few more firm head taps from Monkey and Pigsy began to trudge along with them.


Triptaka could remember how elated he had been to be chosen by Guanyin for this mission, to receive the sacred treasures that would aid him, and to meet the powerful disciples who would protect him on the way.


Only when Monkey with light heart executed the first group of human bandits to accost them, did he realise how long this journey would truly be.


Pigsy grumbled all the way to the next town - about his aching bones, about how monkey made fun of him, about how he missed the wife he had given up to join the pilgrimage, about how Tripitaka didn’t appreciate his hard work. He occasionally mumbled, “Save me, Guanyin!”


The more Pigsy complained, the more Tripitaka reflected on the dangers he had blundered the group into… The time they were bound in webs by hungry spider women, how he had convinced the monk to drive off Monkey after their encounter with the white bone demon, even that shameful episode where they drank water that made them pregnant…


They didn’t need Pigsy. Monkey and Sandy together were strong enough to protect Tripitaka. They would travel faster without Pigsy’s sluggishness and complaining. Pigsy would be happier free from the monk’s life, able to eat and drink and woo as he pleased. Once they had the sutras from Buddha, that gospel would surely be enough to redeem Pigsy, if the demon was truly capable of salvation.


And so Tripitaka resolved to release his disciple from service.


It would be best for everyone.


They lurched into a small town late in the afternoon. Tripitaka’s throat was beginning to feel sore, but he did not tell his disciples. They found a shrine where they could rest under the eaves. His breathing became harder. He sent the disciples to go out with their begging bowls to find food. His head began to pound, his thoughts clumping like mud. It began to rain.


Tripitaka collapsed on the stairs of the temple.


Clumsy hands lifted him, and Tripitaka found himself in the soft bed of an inn. He tried to roll out of bed, but there was no strength left in his body. Warm soup touched his lips, with a saltiness and richness he could feel even in his hands and feet.


Tripitaka dreamed of a skeleton at the bottom of a well, shining white bone crowned in muck, begging to walk the earth again.


The next morning the world was crisp once more, even if Tripitaka’s body felt like imps had tapped every pressure point with tiny hammers. His voice weak, he called for his disciples.


Monkey and Sandy were there in a shake of a dusty cassock. They explained that Pigsy could not be roused. Tripitaka could hear faint, familiar snoring from the floor below.


“No wonder you get sick,” laughed Monkey, “Hanging out in wet caves as much as you do! Try better, master!”


Tripitaka could not even scold Monkey, too full of self-reproach. To travel for so many years, and face so many perils, to almost die on the cusp of reaching their destination. Tripitaka asked how he came to the inn, and who fed him.


Monkey hopped between feet and told him it wasn’t important, better for him to rest and for them to get moving again soon. Tripitaka insisted, and so Sandy told him.


Pigsy had come back early, too lazy to go far looking for food, and hoping to cadge morsels from the others. When he saw that Tripitaka had collapsed, he took him to the inn and hired a room. The pig had been hiding a string of coins in his sock, in defiance of their rules against money. He paid the innkeeper to slaughter a chicken, and cook it up for the monk as soup. Sandy explained that they had tried to stop Pigsy, remembering their vegetarian vows, but Pigsy threatened to bash them, and they dared not risk trading blows with the master unwell.


The monk was shocked, ashamed to break this vow. Not only his vow, but the very first precept of the Buddha, to refrain from killing. The chicken that had died to feed him had a life no less sacred than his own. Whether one mouthful or a lifetime of gluttony, the sin was the same.


Worse - the taste had been incredible. A gentle sweetness that soothed the mind, with a robustness that could strengthen a failing heart, and an aromatic tickle of herbs that made the monk feel young again. From days famishing in a dark cave as prisoner of demons, to tucked in a cosy bed with a full belly. Never before had he felt so one with the world, for all its endless suffering and temptations, a place of unexpected delights.


Tripitaka remembered a question one of his teachers had asked him, “Should a monk eat a meat dumpling if it is dropped in their bowl?” For Tripitaka, the answer had been simple. A monk should not kill, or enjoy that which came from killing.


But what if the meat dumpling was dropped in your bowl by Buddha?


Tripitaka told the disciples his plan. Sandy nodded, placid as ever. Monkey was angry at first, but the monk flattered him that only his brilliance could achieve it, and he then became enthusiastic. Finally, the monk told them to let Pigsy sleep today, while they worked.


That night, Pigsy’s nose twitched at the smell of sizzling onions and garlic. He bounced out of bed, determined to not miss any meal that smelt so delectable. Briefly, he wondered why Monkey hadn’t prodded him awake like always. Then he wondered if the master was angry with him for feeding him meat last night, or for keeping money in secret. But visions of fluffy rice and juicy mushrooms pushed those thoughts away. 


Pigsy burst into the inn’s dining room, and saw a feast laid out on the table, a bounty unimaginable after so many nights on the road with thin rations.


Barley gruel decorated with chunks of onion, carrot, cabbage and cucumber. Mushroom soups swimming with chestnuts and lotus roots. Wok-fried noodles lathered in soy sauce. Buns glazed with honey and topped with sesame seeds. Tofu. Sliced radish. Rice. Dumplings. Tea.


And standing behind the bounty, Tripitaka, Monkey, and Sandy


“Pigsy,” Tripitaka said. “This banquet is for you, in appreciation of everything you have done to see us safe to Buddha. This is a modest meal, but when we return to Chang’an, I will ask the Emperor to prepare you the most wonderful meal you have ever seen.”


Tripitaka, Monkey and Sandy bowed. But Pigsy was already eating. 


The tofu went first, then the mushroom soup. The barley gruel followed, with huge helpings of rice and radish. He popped the dumplings into his mouth, and sucked up the noodles. He chewed up the buns, and then sat on the ground, sipping tea.


“Master,” Pigsy declared, starting to weep, “I’m full!”


The next day, early in the morning, Tripitaka could hear the clop of his horse’s hooves, always eager to be on the road.


He said farewell to the innkeeper, collected his monk’s hat, cassock and staff, and mounted his horse.


The road to India had been busy, full of merchants carrying exotic goods, keen to share a meal and a bed in return for stories of China. He had defied the Emperor to make this journey, but it had been worth it to see Buddha’s Bodhi tree, branches reaching to the sky like hands in prayer. Before long he would reach Nalanda monastery, where he could learn scripture firsthand from the monks. On his return, he would borrow packhorses, to take back as many baskets of scriptures as they could carry.


By the side of the road, he saw a vendor selling steamed buns.


As a monk, he knew that he should avoid desire, for it was the source of suffering. But the smell was divine. And he was only human.


This, too, was Buddha.

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