Book Review: The Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong
Note to the reader: I’ve been planning to do reviews of dharma books for some time now and never quite got around to doing so. But recently I was sent a copy of this book to read with a request for my impressions about it, and that seemed like a sign to start. This is the first in a series that will proceed in no particular order and will cover everything from core texts (I plan to dive into the Visuddhimagga at some point) to far less traditional texts (expect reviews of lots of sci-fi). I say all this to make this point: I take requests. If you have a dharma (or somewhat dharma) book that you would like my take on, let me know. If you are really eager for me to review it, you can send it to me. Contact me directly for more information.
A scene from the Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong stands out as emblematic of the book. Ji, a Chinese Zen monk with a fondness for rice wine and trouble, is about to be jumped by a gang of Chinese officials who are furious at him for thwarting a scheme they were cooking up. They pounce on him and start pummeling away only to find a minute later that they are beating one of their own. Ji is off to one side. He’s drunk (all the stories involve a lot of wine) and says something impetuous, so they jump him again and once again find that he is resting nearby while they’ve been beating each other. Soon the whole gang of angry bureaucrats (who must have had very different jobs in ancient China compared to today’s paper-pushers) are dazed and bloodied, having taught themselves a good lesson. Ji never swings a punch. In the end he goes off with them willingly to meet the big boss, and his next adventure takes off from there.
This scene shows so much of what makes Ji fun to read about: he is an enlightened monk who breaks all the rules, dives right into the thick of samsara, and somehow watches it all from a distance, coming away clean while seeming to go along with it all, going from one adventure to the next.
Until I read this book I’d never heard of Ji Gong, but I knew about him, because he’s become an archetype in Buddhist literature. He’s one of the original Zen mad monks, and his legend has created a whole style of Buddhist story that survives to this day: the dharma bums of ages past. There is little that is known about the historical Ji Gong, the actual man who was born sometime around 1130 CE, and the tales about him have clearly been honed and stylized over time to be as entertaining and thought-provoking as possible, but I’d like to think that the real monk was something like the mad monk in the tales.
The history of the actual (and fictional) Ji goes like this: he studied in one of the largest monasteries in China, the Lingyin (which is still around), but he basically flunked out. His monastic sect was spartan and orderly, and Ji just couldn’t get it together under the pressure. His teachers gave up on him, expelled him from the order, and he, in modern parlance, became a free agent. Monks like him made a living in ancient China mostly by doing what we would now call magic. They cast spells, banished ghosts, created special magic items, granted special wishes, and so on. Ji started wandering from town to town, plying his trade, and this is where the story of the real Ji fades into the legend and little is known beyond the adventures we have preserved today, which are pretty fun. They’ve even been made into a Chinese movie, which I hope to find a translation of soon.
You’d think that with a setup like this, the story of Ji would follow the ancient formula found in so many Buddhist stories and he would become a kind of superhero monk. Discovering his powers and enlightening everyone while saving kittens stuck in trees, and being perfect in every way (I’m joking, but just barely). But according to the legend, Ji spent most of his time getting drunk and rowdy in wine shops and the seedier parts of ancient chinese towns. Unexpectedly, this does little to get in the way of his awakening, because outside of the confines of a rigid monastic system he flourishes, becomes enlightened, and begins dispensing wisdom in the most unexpected places. He eats meat (a scandal at the time), drinks wine (did I mention he likes wine?), and gets involved in contemporary politics in a big way, but all the while it’s clear that this monk, kicked out of a formal lineage and seemingly far off the path, is actually teaching people how to let go and transcend their normal cares. Mostly he does this by getting them to demonstrate how harmful their attachments are by goosing them to carry them out to absurd ends, which is is really entertaining.
One of the things I love most about Ji is that he so deliberately wrecks expectations about what an enlightened person is supposed to be like. The people in the stories are clearly expecting an enlightened person to act in the stereotypical ways that many modern people think enlightened people should behave: be sweet, nice, uninterested in worldly affairs, exude peacefulness, be sanitized of anger and other “bad” emotions, avoid indulgent behavior like enjoying a hearty meal or drinking wine, and pretty much make everyone feel good about themselves. But Ji unsettles everyone. He disrupts their expectations at every opportunity and upends every convention he comes across. It is fascinating to me that the same stereotypes of awakened people existed in Ji’s time as exist today, and that people today would be just as shocked by his behavior as they were in his time.
Of course not everyone today views awakening so narrowly, but many still do, and it shows how little our understanding of awakening has matured over the centuries. Many people still hold on to ancient hagiographic wishes about awakened people that no actual human being can fulfill. And those who try to put on the part and fulfill the wish for the perfectly sanitized awakened master often come away looking more foolish than an honest monk like Ji. Any review of the modern scandals in meditation centers can reveal that. So while the stories are a window into another culture and time, the primary themes are very relevant for modern meditators interested in awakening. The truth is, awakened people are more like Ji than many novice meditators would like to think.
Despite challenging expectations, Ji still fulfills them in some ways that can be disappointing, though understandable given the cultural context. The focus on magic and the paranormal is interesting from a historical point of view, but furthers the notion that awakened people are magical – a notion that has doggedly persisted into modern times (see videos of Sai Baba and the like, for examples of this). I wish we could put this one to bed for good.
Also, while Ji is always in the eye of the samsaric storm, he comes away untouched. While this makes for a good story, this just isn’t the way it is in reality, though some people persist in thinking that awakened people sail through life with no difficulties because, you know, they’re now protected by some unseen force. This is another notion about awakening that we should put on display in the museum of bad ideas about enlightenment.
Reading about Ji I’m reminded of the section in Daniel Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha in which he reviews the different notions about enlightenment, that it is perpetual bliss, perfect sanitized emotions, perfect behavior, inability to make a mistake, psychic powers, etc., and basically dismantles them all. In some ways, Ji and ancient stories of mad monks were early attempts to dismantle immature understandings of awakening. They invite the reader to think about awakening as something more nuanced and unexpected, and in this way, they are radical for their time, and in some ways, for our own.
Some general notes about the book. The Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong published by Tuttle, is the first english book to contain all the Ji Gong stories. This is pretty amazing, because the stories run from one into the next, with characters and plot twists carrying over. Each story is brief, around three to ten pages, and stands on its own despite having intersecting characters and themes in other stories. Reading a bunch of them at once reminds me uncannily of binge-watching a great TV series. If you love rowdy adventure stories, and Zen Buddhist history, this is worth a look.