1) Despite being associated with China, did you know that Sun Wukong does not come from the Middle Kingdom? His home, Flower Fruit Mountain, is described in the first chapter as being located in a vast ocean “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya (Aparagodaniya) continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four respective cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos and the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869)(fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India (i.e. the known world to the ancient people of South Asia) (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a Daoist master, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108).
I suggest the author supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the “known world” (in this case China) and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.
2) Did you know Sun studies Daoism in India? Failing to find a master to teach him how to prolong his life, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti (須菩提). Upon meeting the primate, the immortal asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). Sun then tells him of his decade long search across the world. Placing the immortal in India leads me to my next point.
Fig. 1 – A diagram of sacred Buddhist geography (adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of Subhuti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock).
3) Did you know Subhuti is based on a similarly named disciple of the Gautama Buddha? The historical Subhuti (fig. 2) was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). The sage was also known for contemplating emptiness, a subject with many textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Daoist master was named after the Buddhist sage “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to “emptiness” (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:
Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (p. 724).
Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Shao, P. (2006). “Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in Xiyou ji,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.