Archive #12 – Huineng, Subhuti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”

I present an archived copy of Ping Shao’s (2006) wonderful paper exploring the origin of Sun Wukong’s characterization and how it effects his story cycle. [1] Shao presents a three-fold objective: first, highlight Daoist and Buddhist concepts in chapters one and two that have previously been overlooked or not given enough weight, showing that they serve a function and are not just expendable story elements; second, provide a unified religious vision based on the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Daoist southern lineage patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?–1082); and 3) demonstrate that Zhang’s philosophy dictates the course of Sun’s story cycle from unruly immortal to enlightened Buddha. 

Shao (2006) suggests Monkey’s portrayal in the first two chapters is influenced by the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638–713), founder of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Buddhism. [2] For example, Sun’s quick-wittedness, demonstrated by his deciphering of his teacher, Subhuti’s, chastisement for refusing to learn certain Daoist skills in chapter two as secret code to receive a private lesson at night, [3] is based on a similar episode involving Huineng and the previous patriarch Hongren. Additionally, Monkey’s 108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km)-spanning somersault cloud (fig. 1) is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. [4] Only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping there instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years. Shao provides further examples, but I feel these suffice.


Monkey flying on clouds. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The unified religious vision is demonstrated by Sun Wukong’s name, which contains both Daoist and Buddhist elements. When broken into its individual components, the surname Sun (孫) refers to an immortality spirit embryo brought about via Daoist cultivation exercises. The given name Wukong (悟空) refers to a vacuous state of mind needed for attaining Buddha-nature. Here, Shao (2006) notes the literary Subhuti is based on a historical disciple of the Buddha who was known for meditating on emptiness and having a superior grasp of the Enlightened One’s teachings. In later chapters, Sun himself shows a grasp of scripture far surpassing even that of Tripitaka. Therefore, an additional influence on Monkey was likely the historical monk. Shao (2006) contextualizes this information by comparing it to Zhang Boduan’s Buddho-Daoist philosophy. Zhang believed Daoists must first attain the elixir (i.e. a method increasing one’s lifespan) and then attain Buddha-nature to truly become an enlightened transcendent. Conversely, he warned Buddhists that achieving Buddha-Nature alone wouldn’t help them escape the wheel of reincarnation. 

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong becoming a Buddha (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

Shao (2006) illustrates how Zhang’s views are played out in the novel. Sun achieves immortality and is even invited to heaven like the hagiographies of famous transcendents, but his unruly nature symbolizes his lack of true spiritual attainment, causing him to wage war against the realm above. He remains a “deviant” or “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙) until the journey proper, the tribulations serving to temper his mind. Moreover, when the pilgrims arrive in the Buddha’s paradise, they must first pass through a Daoist temple (referring again to Zhang’s philosophy). In the end, Sun is bestowed Buddhahood (fig. 2)—thereby Buddha-nature—completing the second step of Zhang’s two-part path to true transcendence.

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This paper has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


1) The paper is copied almost verbatim from chapter three of Shao’s doctoral thesis Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (1997). I am currently reading this and may add an update later.

2) In this article, I discuss how the “Monkey Pilgrim”, Sun Wukong’s precursor from Song Dynasty material, is based on the monk Mulian (Sk. Maudgalyayana), another of the Buddha’s disciples. 

[3] The particular passage reads:

When the Patriarch heard this, he uttered a cry and jumped down from the high platform. He pointed the ruler he held in his hands at Wukong and said to him: “What a mischievous monkey you are! You won’t learn this and you won’t learn that! Just what is it that you are waiting for?” Moving forward, he hit Wukong three times on the head. Then he folded his arms behind his back and walked inside, closing the main doors behind him and leaving the congregation stranded outside […] But Wukong was not angered in the least and only replied with a broad grin. For the Monkey King, in fact, had already solved secretly, as it were, the riddle in the pot; he therefore did not quarrel with the other people but patiently held his tongue. He reasoned that the master, by hitting him three times, was telling him to prepare himself for the third watch; and by folding his arms behind his back, walking inside, and closing the main doors, was telling him to enter by the back door so that he might receive instruction in secret (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 118-119).

4) Huineng explains in the Platform Sutra:

This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person […] Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling ten [thousand li]. Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand [li]. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

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

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