Chapters 44 to 46 of Journey to the West sees the pilgrims enter the Cart-Slow Kingdom (Chechi guo, 車遲國) where they find Buddhist monks have been enslaved by local Daoists to haul a cart full of materials up an impossibly narrow, steep, spine-like ridge in order to construct buildings behind an abbey. After some investigation, Sun Wukong discovers their enslavement is a royal punishment for losing a rain-making competition some years prior to three mysterious Daoist priests, Tiger Strength Great Immortal (Huli daxian, 虎力大仙), Deer Strength Great Immortal (Luli daxian, 鹿力大仙), and Goat Strength Great Immortal (Yangli daxian, 羊力大仙) (fig. 1). (For their victory in saving the country during a time of drought, the three priests are bestowed the royal titles “Precepts of State” (Guoshi, 國師).) Monkey and his brothers break into the abbey and trick the three priests, under the guise of the Three Pure Ones, into thinking their urine is heavenly elixir. The enraged priests then gain permission from the country’s ruler to engage our heroes in a series of magical competitions in order to defend their dignity. After aiding Tripitaka in contests of meditation and clairvoyance, the Great Sage personally faces each of the three priests in contests of surviving corporal punishment, namely beheading (vs Tiger Strength), evisceration (vs Deer Strength), and being boiled in oil (vs Goat Strength). Each priest dies as a result of having lesser magical skills born from heretical practices, and in the end they are revealed to have been animal spirits (a tiger, a deer, and a goat) in disguise. The country’s ruler releases the monks from their bondage and our pilgrims continue their journey to India.
Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the three animal priests (larger version). Artist unknown.
Oldstone-Moore’s (1998) paper “Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode” explores the history and hidden meaning of the three chapters. She reveals certain aspects of the episode serve as allegories for internal alchemical processes. For background she explains Daoism sometimes presents the body as a microcosmic mountain landscape. In the case of the story, the ridge represents the spine and the building material being hauled by the monks represents unrefined qi, seminal essence, and spiritual energies that, when purified via circulation up the spine and down the front of the body numerous times, bolster the body and aids in the attainment of immortality. The cart itself represents a meditation technique used in the Quanzhen school of Daoism to transport the aforementioned energies up the spine. Interestingly, one Zhong-Lü scripture  notes this “River Cart” (heche, 河車) is pulled by a number of animals, including an oxen, a deer, and a goat. Therefore, Deer Strength and Goat Strength likely represent these animals. Oldstone-Moore (1998) suggests Tiger Strength is based on Uncle Eyes Great Immortal (Boyan daxian, 伯眼大仙), a tiger spirit appearing in an earlier version of the Slow-Cart Kingdom episode recorded in a 14th-century Korean primer on colloquial Chinese. Additionally, she highlights the conflict between orthodox and heretical practices in the episode. Sun Wukong is shown to have stronger magic because his early Daoist cultivation was guided by a teacher. This differs from the three priests, whose lesser abilities are the result of self study. So taken together, the episode is a warning that esoteric alchemical cultivation should only be pursued under the guidance of an initiated teacher.
Fig. 2 – A 14th-century painting of the Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (larger version). Image from Wikipedia.
Oldstone-Moore (1998) also mentions the rain-making competition between Buddhist and Daoists at the beginning of the episode is based on historical events. This is laid out by Yu (1987), who suggests it is based on Tang-era magic competitions between the Indo-Sogdian Buddhist monk Amoghavajra (Bukong, 不空) (fig. 2) and the Daoist Luo Gongyuan (羅公遠). What’s interesting is that, just like the three priests, Luo was also a Precept of State.
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Oldstone-Moore, J. (1998). Alchemy and Journey to the West: The Cart-Slow Kingdom Episode. Journal of Chinese Religions, 26(1), 51-66, DOI: 10.1179/073776998805306930
Yu, A. C. (1987). Religion and literature in China: The ‘Obscure Way’ in The Journey to the West In C. Tu (Ed.), Tradition and creativity: Essays on East Asian civilization (pp. 122-24). Publisher City, State: Publisher.