Tripitaka was the title taken by Hsuan Tsang (Xuanzang), the Buddhist monk who made a pilgrimage from China to India around 629 AD to fetch the 'Three Baskets' of Buddhist scriptures also known as the Tripitaka (or, in Pali, Tipitaka - see under that heading for a discussion of the scriptures). Up until that point Chinese Buddhists had only had a limited range of scriptures to work with, and doctrinal disputes were commonplace; Tripitaka went on a mission to India to collect the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, and hopefully clear up any misunderstandings. His writings about the journey remain some of the most important extant texts on India in that period.
His journey must have been a difficult one, and despite his own, relatively prosaic accounts of it, tall tales of the monk's exploits soon spread far and wide; the legend of the heroic boy-priest grew, as stories do, and somewhere down the line the priest came to be accompanied by a monkey - not just any monkey, but none other than the Monkey King, carved out rock by the elements, given life by the union of Heaven and Earth. Eventually, the monkey came to be more important in the stories than the priest himself. In the 16th Century a Chinese author by the name of Wu Ch'eng-En recorded Tripitaka's pilgrimage in the epic classic Journey to the West (Hsi Yu Chi), often known in the West as Monkey.
The stone monkey - Sun Wu Kung or just Monkey, who calls himself Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, is iconic in China and nearby countries, where kids read stories about the boy priest and his companions in the same way British kids read stories about Robin Hood. There is also an opera based on the epic. In the 1970s a successful Japanese TV series of the epic was made, by the name of Monkey Magic (or just Monkey). It combined frequent, fantastically schlocky fight scenes with ingenious, Seventies-style low-budget special effects and potted philosophy, paraphrased from Lao Tzu and the Buddha or just made up. While it was undeniably much sillier than the book, in many ways the series remained surprisingly close to both the spirit and the plot of the original. In the series, Tripitaka was confusingly played by a woman, and dubbed with a woman's voice. I am fairly sure she even wore lipstick sometimes. However, the dialogue makes it clear that she really is supposed to be male; the femininity is supposed to represent youth, I guess. Journey to the West also inspired the cartoon series Dragonball and Alakazam, and less obliquely two Steven Chow films, A Chinese Odyssey parts 1 and 2.
Monkey is assigned to be Tripitaka's bodyguard at the beginning of his adventure; when they first meet he has just been freed after five hundred years of imprisonment underneath a mountain as punishment for causing havoc in Heaven, having gone on the rampage when he found that he wasn't invited to the royal peach banquet. Monkey is a powerful immortal who rides about on a cloud and fights using the giant metal staff that was once used to pound the milky way into shape, which changes size at his command. He is ever-restless, always-playful, ingenious and dangerously quixotic; he is instructed to see that Tripitaka reaches the scrolls safely, a mission which will prove to be a deep spiritual journey for all involved as well as an excuse for a lot of really good fights and encounters with interesting dragons and spirits. When Monkey gets out of control, Tripitaka can stop him in his tracks by chanting the headache mantra at him to activate the magic band of pain around his head.
On the way they are joined by Pigsy - a pig-demon, who had been living on passing travellers ever since being expelled from Heaven for lechery; and Sandy, a water-monster who had likewise been living on a diet of unwary humans since being expelled from Heaven, in his case for breaking precious heavenly crockery whilst drunk. Pigsy is coarse and selfish, but a valuable warrior with his fighting rake. Sandy is rather thinly drawn, acting as a foil to Pigsy more than anything else. He is both smarter and more loyal than his fat friend, but even so it is hard not to feel a little sorry for the refined and avowedly pacifistic Tripitaka, accompanied by such uncouth bodyguards. While they generally do a good job of keeping the monk safe from harm, they also lead him into no end of trouble.
At the end of the book, as is to be expected, our heroes finally reach the scrolls and make it home safely. Hsuan Tsang in fact spent many years studying Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka, before returning to China and writing his own account of his journeys, the Ta-t'ang hsi-yu chi - a valuable historical resource on seventh-century India, decidedly more sober than Wu Ch'eng-En's mythical saga. He translated the scriptures he had brought back into Chinese, and went on to write the Ch'eng wei-shih lun, in which he synthesised ten major Yogachara texts together with his own commentary. He became renowned as a Buddhist scholar, with his wisdom much in demand by the rulers of his day. By the time he died, Tripitaka had made around seventy-five significant and well-regarded translations, including one of the Lao Tzu, and played a major part in establishing a Chinese vocabulary for talking about Buddhist concepts. He remains one of the most important and celebrated figures in the history of Chinese Buddhism.
Sources: Arthur Waley's classic (if heavily abridged) translation of Journey to the West, published as Monkey
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