Musings on Journey to the West and my new Great Sage Tattoo

I was a big fan of mythology as a child, particularly enjoying the adventures of the Greek and Norse pantheons. Then, one day, my mother bought me a book on world mythology and I read about a certain Sun Wukong, a monkey deity that reminded me of my favorite anime hero Son Goku from the Dragon Ball franchise. In my naivety, I thought this monkey was a knockoff of my believed Saiyan. For instance, both have monkey features, fly on clouds, and wield extending staves. But I was humbled to learn years later that the flow of influence actually went in the opposite direction.

I don’t remember exactly howperhaps reading about it on the internetbut I confirmed the connection between both characters around 2001 while serving in the US Army 82nd Airborne Division. I shortly thereafter purchased the W.J.F. Jenner four-volume green box set edition of Journey to the West to learn more about Sun Wukong. I immediately fell in love with the character, especially during the first seven chapters in which he comes to rebel against heaven. What’s not to love about a little stone monkey who, through his own hard work and determination, gains the power to bring the heavenly hierarchy to its knees? The fear that he continues to instill in gods even after his fall from grace and redemption, as well as the tit-for-tat relationship with his religious brother Zhu Bajie, still makes me laugh to this very day.

Journey to the West has been an integral part of my life for nearly 20 years. My foray into research did not happen until the latter part of college. This blog stands as a testament of my continued dedication to the novel. My love for the work grows deeper and deeper as I learn new things to share with my readers. This is especially true as the Anthony C. Yu 2012 revised edition has so much juicy background information. I often use it as a stepping stone to discover new concepts overlooked by previous scholarship.

I’ve wanted to get a Monkey King tattoo for years but never liked anything I saw, not even my own novel accurate designs. I finally accepted that I would never find the bright, flashy piece that agreed with my strict standards of authenticity. I instead opted to start simple by getting the characters for “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) because I felt it accurately reflected my interests. I chose Seal Script because I wanted the piece to have an ancient feel, something that is, if only briefly, arcane to even modern native readers like those in Taiwan where I live. I can’t wait to show it to some of my friends in Tainan who actively worship the Great Sage.

The piece was done by Judy Chang of the Red Room in Banqiao District, New Taipei City, Taiwan.

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Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of tens of thousands of arms. [1] He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

I. Explanation

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this pattern to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the Big Dipper pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping, three pace-style walking pattern. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.

(Note 06/15/19: Feng Dajian of Nankai University notified me via Twitter that he disagrees with Anthony C. Yu’s 2012 revised translation (cited above) associating the “True Sayings” with the Buddhist Dharani. This is because he feels the ritual is overtly Daoist, noting that the religion also has its own True Sayings.)


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hard-won “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of hours or minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few hours or minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.

II. Conclusion

This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few hours or minutes.

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods and sages through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known colloquially as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.


1) The original English translation says “a thousand arms”, but the Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation has been corrected

2) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.