The Monkey King’s Magic Staff: A Complete Guide

I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.

Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.

1. The Literary Weapon

1.1. Staff Background

The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.

The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).

Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).

The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.

Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12), [1] with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短,碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).

Fig. 2 – An accurate depiction of the size of Monkey’s staff (larger version). Images found here. Artwork by @真·迪绝人.

1.2. Staff Powers

The staff is shown to have multiple powers.

  1. Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
  2. Controlling the oceans –  The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
  3. Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
  4. Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
  5. Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
  6. Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
  7. Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.

Fig. 3 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

2. Origins

2.1. Literary Precursors

The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.

The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.

Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).

2.2. Influence from Religion

The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.

Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.

Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).

The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – An enhanced detail of the Celestial Worthy’s mushroom scepter with a flaming as-you-will jewel (larger version). See here for a fuller version of the deity.

2.3. Influence from Popular literature

The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).

As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.

Fig. 9 – Wu Song lifts the stone block (larger version). Image found here.

Note:

1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Last updated: 01-27-2022

Sun Wukong‘s golden headband (jingguquan, 金箍圈) (fig. 1) is an instantly recognizable part of his popular iconography. Anyone who’s read Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) will know that it painfully tightens around our hero’s skull to correct any unsavory behavior. “What kind of behavior?” someone might ask. Well, mass murder, of course! In chapter 56, for example, Monkey’s Buddhist master Tripitaka recites the spell to punish him for beating a group of bandits to death with his magic staff and beheading one of them with a blade (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 89).

Fig. 1 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden headband (larger version).

This spell is first revealed to the monk by Guanyin in chapter 14:

I have a spell which is called the True Words for Controlling the Mind [dingxin zhenyan, 定心真言], or the Tight-Fillet Spell [jingu er zhou, 緊箍兒咒]. You must memorize it secretly; commit it firmly to your memory, and don’t let anyone learn of it […] When [Sun Wukong] returns, give him…the cap [containing the headband] to wear; and if he again refuses to obey you, recite the spell silently. He will not dare do violence or leave you again” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 317).

You can see the exact words are never revealed. This is not surprising, though, as the spell is one of the few things in the entire Buddho-Daoist cosmos that can control Sun Wukong. Tripitaka’s life would be in danger and the journey would be doomed if any villains got ahold of this secret. But … what if … we could guess the spell, just for fun? I’d like to suggest a mantra based on historical religious beliefs and iconography. This thought experiment was written for the benefit of artists and fanfiction writers looking to create more accurate portrayals of the novel and its characters.

I. The Band’s Religious Background

As I note in this article, the golden fillet is based on a ritual headband worn by Buddhist ascetics in ancient India. The Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, 8th-c.) states yogins must wear the band and a list of other prescribed ritual items in their worship of the wrathful protector deity Heruka (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Most importantly, the tantra states the band symbolizes the Buddha Akshobhya (Ch: Achu, 阿閦; Budong, 不動; lit: “Immovable”) (fig. 2), who gained enlightenment through moralistic practices of right speech and action (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251; Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 27).

Fig. 2 – A depiction of Akshobhya (larger version). [1] Artist unknown.

Akshobhya and the other esoteric Wisdom Buddhas are sometimes depicted as small figures or colored jewels in the headdress of the Manjusri Bodhisattva (and other Buddhist personages) (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 37; Vessantara, 1993, p. 155). Akshobhya is symbolized by the color blue (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36). A cursory Google image search shows the blue jewel is often set in the top most position over Manjusri’s forehead (fig. 3).

This might suggest a more religiously accurate version of Sun Wukong’s golden headband would include a figure or jewel representing Akshobhya.

Fig. 3 – A modern painting of Manjusri by Ben Christian (larger version). Image found here

II. The Mantra

Given the above information, I’d like to suggest the tightening spell for Monkey’s headband—within the context of our thought experiment—is the Akshobhya Mantra! There are two kinds. I’ll leave it up to you which one you like best. The first is a short recitation of the buddha’s name: O a kṣo bhya hūṃ (fig. 4). This can be very roughly translated as “Praise to the Immovable One!”. Om and Hum are both holy syllables invoking spiritual power and enlightenment, respectively. They also appear in the more well-known Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ (Ch: An mo ni ba mi hong, 唵嘛呢叭咪吽). One Chinese version of the name mantra appears to be “An a bie zha zhi ga hong hong” (唵 阿別炸枝嘎 吽吽).

Fig. 4 – The Siddham and Uchen script versions of the short mantra (larger version). Based on information found here. Fig. 5 – A version of the longer chant with Uchen script, as well as English and Chinese transliterations (larger version). Based on an image found here.

The second is a longer chant, again called the “Mantra of Akshobhya” (Achu fo xinzhou, 阿閦佛心咒) (fig. 5 and video 1). It’s interesting to note that the historical Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based) is known to have translated a version of this mantra. [2]

Reciting this to rein in Sun Wukong not only references the band’s historical and religious connection to Akshobhya but also serves as a physical reminder of right speech and action (how the deity gained buddhahood). It’s Tripitaka’s way of screaming, “Stop murdering everyone within arm’s reach!”

Video 1 – A chant of the long mantra.


Update: 01-24-22

The DC Comics’ story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” presents the spell as the Nianfo (fig. 6).

Fig. 6 – Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie) reciting “Amituofo” to activate the golden headband on the Monkey Prince, son of the original Monkey King (larger version). From Yang, 2021, p. 80. Copyright DC Comics.


Update: 01-25-22

The case for Akshobhya’s mantra being the tight-fillet spell is strengthened—again, within the context of our thought experiment—by the fact that he has power over strong negative emotions. According to Bangdel and Huntington (2003): “The transcendental insight represented by Akshobhya is mirrorlike wisdom (adarsha jnana), which…is the antidote to the poison of anger, or hatred” (p. 91). The monk Tripitaka assuages these emotions by activating the golden headband, once again reminding Wukong of right speech and action.

In addition, Akshobhya and Gautama have matching iconography: both are shown seated with the left hand palm up on the lap and the right reaching down to touch the earth. Hinayana Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia worship Gautama in this form, but Mahayana worships Akshobhya as such (see note #1). This is important as Gautama gives the three golden headbands to Guanyin in order to pacify any demons that she might encounter during her search for the scripture pilgrim (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 206-207). This shows there is a connection between the two Buddhas, and it also explains why Gautama would gift a headband associated with Akshobhya.


Update: 01-27-22

Various online sources and adaptations sometimes refer to the spell as the “Headache Sutra” (for example). But to my knowledge it’s never explicitly called this in the novel. The pain associated with the spell is generally used as a threat. For example, in chapter 16, Tripitaka exclaims: “Monkey! Aren’t you afraid of your headache [ni toutong, 你頭痛]? Do you still want to behave badly? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 347) (emphasis mine).

Chapter 25 provides two more names for the spell:

There is, moreover, the Tight-Fillet Spell or the Tight-Fillet Sutra [jingu er jing, 緊箍兒經]. It’s also [Tripitaka’s] “Old Saying Sutra” [jiuhua er jing, 舊話兒經]. [3] The moment he recites that, I’ll have a terrible headache, for it’s the magic trick designed to give me a hard time (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 468).

Note:

1) Akshobhya’s iconography is as follows:

[He] is represented seated, like all the Dhyani-Buddhas, with the legs locked and both feet apparent. There are often wheels marked on the soles of his feet, or a protuberance like a button, resembling the urna on the forehead. His left hand lies on his lap in ‘meditation’ mudra. His right touches the earth with the tips of the outstretched fingers, the palm turned inward. This is called the bhumisparsa or ‘witness’ mudra.

The Hinayana Buddhists in Ceylon, Java, Burma, and Siam worship Gautama Buddha under this form, while those of the Mahayana school look upon it as Akshobhya; for, with but rare exceptions, the historic Buddha is only appealed to by the Northern Buddhists in his ethereal form of Amitabha.

Akshobhya may also take in Tibet another form of Gautama Buddha called ‘Vajrasana’ (diamond throne). The attitude is the same as the above, but before him on the lotus throne lies a vajra, or it may be balanced in the palm of the left hand lying in ‘meditation’ mudra on his lap (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36).

2) The Chinese source refers to Akshobhya as the “Immovable Buddha” (Budong rulai, 不動如來).

3) I’ve added an extra sentence from the Chinese original glossed over in the translation. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the spell as the “Old-Time Sutra” in a previous sentence (vol. 1, p. 468).

Sources:

Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. United Kingdom: Serindia Publications.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Getty, A. (1988). The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History, Iconography and Progressive Evolution through the Northern Buddhist Countries. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Original work published 1914)

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Vessantara. (1993). Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. United Kingdom: Windhorse Publications.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Yang, G. L. (2021). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ