The Monkey King’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy

Last updated: 09-22-23

Did you know that Monkey’s early spiritual training is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? In chapter one, after becoming a student of the Patriarch Subodhi in the Western Cattle-Gift Continent (India), Sun receives a private lesson in which his master reveals the secret of immortality in a poem chocked full of esoteric Daoist imagery:

This bold, secret saying that’s wondrous and true:
Spare, nurse nature and life—there’s nothing else.
All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these securely lest there be a leak.
Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive.
Hold fast oral formulas so useful and keen
To purge concupiscence, to reach pure cool;
To pure cool
Where the light is bright.
You’ll face the elixir platform, enjoying the moon.
The moon holds the jade rabbit, the sun, the crow;
The tortoise and snake are now tightly entwined.
Tightly entwined,
Nature and life are strong.
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).


The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subodhi warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak,” he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178).

“You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace (fig. 2). The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal “spirit embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 3) (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179).

The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the “Heavenly Gate” (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Fig. 1 (top left) – A sage combining jing, qi, and shen (精炁/氣神, lit: “semen, pneumatic energy, and spirit”; a.k.a. the “Three Treasures,” Sanbao, 三寶) (larger version). Image from the Anthology of Immortals of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen qunxian ji, 全真群仙集). Fig. 2 (top right) – A visualized lotus in the cinnabar field (larger version). Fig. 3 (bottom) – A sage nurturing his spirit embryo with inhaled qi energy (larger version). Image from the Anthology of Immortals.

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180) (fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Various facets of the aforementioned Song-era practices, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. While JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (i.e. after noon and before midnight) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121), the hours are switched in historical practice. The Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄, 4th-century; Wonderous Record hereafter) explains:

“[A]lways practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).

So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to fuel his immortality.

Update: 08-18-23

Above, I described how the cultivation of an immortal spirit involved refining cosmic energies in the dantian (丹田) into a seed-like pearl, then a lotus, and finally a “spirit embryo” (聖胎). Well, thanks to a tumblr post by user ruibaozha, I now have a better understanding of how Buddhist “lotus births” influenced this imagery. Shahar (2015) explains:

As early as the first centuries CE, redemption in Amitabha‘s Pure Land has been imagined in floral terms. Those who trust in the Buddha’s grace are resurrected from divine lotus blooms. Flower-like beings, they emerge from the sacred lotus blossoms into a realm of purity and happiness:

When beings of this [superior] type are about to die, the Buddha of Measureless Light [Amitabha] appears before them, accompanied by a great crowd of attendants. Then, these beings follow this Buddha and go to be reborn in his land. They are reborn naturally and miraculously in the center of a lotus made of the seven precious substances, and they dwell in the state from which there is no falling back. They come to possess wisdom and courage, supernormal powers and spiritual mastery.

Floral regeneration became a favorite topic of Buddhist art across Asia. Redeemed souls were visually rendered as newborns wrapped in lotus blooms. Some artists faithfully followed a given Pure Land text. The ca. fifth-century Amitabha Visualization Sutra enumerated nine ranks of rebirth in the paradise of the west, from “the upper birth of the upper rank,” through “the middle birth of the upper rank,” downward to the “lower birth of the lower rank.” A seventh-century Dunhuang mural depicted them all in the form of babies emanating from nine lotus blossoms. Other artists focused on the process by which the flower is transformed into a divine being. They created a series of images recording the mysterious metamorphosis of the lotus. Dating from as early as the fifth century CE, the Yun’gang and Longmen caves include numerous examples of these pictorial narratives, showing first a newborn’s head peeping from inside the corolla, then the gradual transformation of the petals into the limbs, and finally the release of a full-blown ethereal being, the divinity of which is indicated by a [halo] [fig. 4] (pp. 143-144). 

Fig. 4 – “Lotus rebirth as rendered at the fifth-century Yun’gang Caves. From Yoshmura Rei, Tianren dansheng tu (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 2009), p. 23” (larger version) (Shahar, 2015, p. 144).

If viewed through a Daoist lens, this image could represent the fledgling spirit embryo emerging from the lotus, being nurtured to fruition, and then freed to live out an eternity in blissful freedom.

Update: 09-22-23

Above, I quoted Kohn’s (2008) heavily edited translation of the Wonderous Record, which noted the prescribed times for the ingestion of qi energy. This source was apparently cited in the “Inner Chapters” (Neipian, 內篇) of Ge Hong’s Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi, 抱朴子, 4th-century). A longer quote appearing in Campany (2002) mentions the aforementioned time-based practices, lists the types of resulting spiritual powers, and warns of this path’s difficulty:

Now the circulation of pneumas should be done during the hours of live pneumas (shengqi 生氣[/炁]), not during the hours of dead pneumas (siqi 死氣[/炁]). This is why it is said that “transcendents ingest the six pneumas.” In one day and night there are twelve double-hours. The six double-hours from midnight to noon are those of live pneumas; the six from noon to midnight are those of dead pneumas. During the period of dead pneumas, circulating pneumas is of no benefit.

One who is adept at using pneumas can blow on water and it will flow against its own current for several paces; blow on fire, and it will be extinguished; blow at tigers or wolves, and they will crouch down and not be able to move; blow at serpents, and they will coil up and be unable to flee. If someone is wounded by a weapon, blow on the wound, and the bleeding will stop. If you hear of someone who has suffered a poisonous insect bite, even if you are not in his presence, you can, from a distance, blow and say an incantation over your own hand (males on the left hand, females on the right), and the person will at once be healed even if more than a hundred li away. And if you yourself are struck by a sudden illness, you have merely to swallow pneumas in three series of nine, and you will immediately recover.

However, people by nature are restless, and few are able to maintain the quietude to cultivate this way. Furthermore, to practice the most essential methods of circulating pneumas one must avoid eating very much, or eating flesh vegetables and meats, for these cause the breath to become strong and thus hard to shut off. Also one must avoid rage, for if one has much rage, then the breath becomes disordered, and if it is unable to spill over, then it will cause a fit of coughing.

Few are those, therefore, who can practice breath circulation! (p. 21)



Campany, R. F. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. United Kingdom: University of California Press.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Shahar, M. (2015). Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and His Indian Origins. Germany: University of Hawaii Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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