Does the Buddha Lie in Journey to the West?

I was recently directed to an online Chinese article by Ye Zhiqiu (叶之秋) (n.d.) in which they claim that the Buddha makes “four grand, overarching lies” (sige mitian dahuang, 四個彌天大謊) throughout the course of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter). They believe this is because the literary version of the Enlightened One is a master strategist who uses lies in a calculated attempt to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. This is admittedly a fascinating idea but one that falls apart under careful analysis. Ye (n.d.) displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to twist details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. In this article, I will show that there are far more plausible reasons for the Buddha’s statements than lying.

I. First Lie

The Buddha states the following about the novel’s Hindo-Buddhist cosmos (ch. 8), which features four island-like continents floating in a great sea around a cosmic mountain (fig. 1) (see the 06-25-22 update in section 1.2 here for a slightly more detailed explanation):

I have watched the Four Great Continents, and the morality of their inhabitants varies from place to place. Those living on the East Pūrvavideha revere Heaven and Earth, and they are straightforward and peaceful. Those on the North Uttarakuru, though they love to destroy life, do so out of the necessity of making a livelihood. Moreover, they are rather dull of mind and lethargic in spirit, and they are not likely to do much harm. Those of our West Aparagodānīya are neither covetous nor prone to kill; they control their humor and temper their spirit. There is, to be sure, no illuminate of the first order, but everyone is certain to attain longevity. Those who reside in the South Jambūdvīpa, however, are prone to practice lechery and delight in evildoing, indulging in much slaughter and strife. Indeed, they are all caught in the treacherous field of tongue and mouth, in the wicked sea of slander and malice. However, I have three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 204-205).

我觀四大部洲,眾生善惡,各方不一:東勝神洲者,敬天禮地,心爽氣平;北俱盧洲者,雖好殺生,只因糊口,性拙情疏,無多作踐;我西牛賀洲者,不貪不殺,養氣潛靈,雖無上真,人人固壽;但那南贍部洲者,貪淫樂禍,多殺多爭,正所謂口舌兇場,是非惡海。我今有三藏真經,可以勸人為善。

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Enlightened One is lying because most of the monsters show up not in the supposedly evil continent of South Jambūdvīpa (the Land of the East, i.e. China) but in the Buddha’s home of West Aparagodānīya (India). They even provide a long list of monsters encountered there. Also, the writer theorizes that the planned scripture pilgrimage is just a ploy to spread the Buddha’s influence to the Land of the East, making him the ruler of two of four continents. The implication here is that he is slowly chipping away at the Jade Emperor’s domain.

However, the Buddha was likely referring to the people in those particular continents and not the monsters. And most importantly, his words appear to mirror the views of foreign Buddhist monks. When the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘; 602-664), on whom Tripitaka is based, planned to return home from India, his friends tried dissuading him by describing China in similarly negative terms. Brose (2021) comments:

For many of the monks he had befriended, the decision was hard to fathom. “India is the birthplace of the Buddha,” they reminded him. “Although the Great Sage is gone, his traces remain. To travel around and venerate them is enough to make one’s life content. Why would you want to give this up after having come here? China is a barbarian land where people are neglected, and the Dharma is despised. That is why no buddhas have ever been born there. The people have narrow aspirations and deep impurities, so sages do not go there. The air is cold and the land is dangerous. How can you think of returning there?” Xuanzang reportedly responded by quoting an exchange from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, where the noble layman Vimalakīrti asks Śāriputra, “Why does the sun come to Jambudvīpa?” The answer: “To illuminate it and eliminate the darkness.” If Xuanzang remained in India, the true Dharma might never be known in China (pp. 61-62).

Additionally, Xuanzang is known to have left China illegally when he first began his journey. Brose (2021) explains:

Xuanzang almost didn’t make it to India. Before setting out on his pilgrimage, his initial request for a travel permit was denied by the [Tang] court and, after traveling over five hundred miles from the capital to the westernmost Chinese city of Liangzhou, the local governor ordered him to turn back. Hiding during the day and traveling at night, Xuanzang quietly continued on to the desert outpost of Guazhou. There, he learned that the court had issued a warrant for his arrest. The local prefect, it turned out, was a pious Buddhist and urged Xuanzang to leave quickly… (p. 16).

Conversely, the monk in JTTW is portrayed as a loyal Confucian-type person. Therefore, in order to frame Tripitaka as a faithful, law-abiding citizen of China, the novel had to provide a reason for his pilgrimage, one that the Tang emperor would give his blessing to. [1]

Fig. 1 – A diagram of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk.

II. Second Lie

During Sun Wukong’s battle with the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 58) (fig. 2), the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathāgata [the Buddha], “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [2] who

Knows transformations,
Recognizes the seasons,
Discerns the advantages of earth,
And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang,
Understands human affairs,
Is adept in its daily life
And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon,
Shorten a thousand mountains,
Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious,
And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear,
Discernment of fundamental principles,
Knowledge of past and future,
And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

如來道:「第一是靈明石猴,通變化,識天時,知地利,移星換斗;第二是赤尻馬猴,曉陰陽,會人事,善出入,避死延生;第三是通臂猿猴,拿日月,縮千山,辨休咎,乾坤摩弄;第四是六耳獼猴,善聆音,能察理,知前後,萬物皆明。此四猴者,不入十類之種,不達兩間之名。我觀假悟空乃六耳獼猴也。此猴若立一處,能知千里外之事;凡人說話,亦能知之。

Ye (n.d.) claims the Buddha concocted the list of supernatural primates in order to hide the fact that Six Ears was an aspect of the Monkey King’s mind. They reason that the falsehood was used to avoid offending the Daoist hierarchy who couldn’t figure out the doppelganger’s true identity.

I think the author’s issue here is that the Daoist gods considered Six Ears a real figure, while the Buddha knew him to be an aspect of Sun’s mind. Something being real and illusory at the same time may seem like a big contradiction, but it’s not in the JTTW cosmos. Campany (1985) explains that, as physical threats, the monsters enable Monkey and his religious brothers to build Buddhist merit (zhenguo, 正果; lit: “right fruit”) by fighting them. At the same time, being illusory aspects of the mind, the monsters help the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, to understand that reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “Aware of Emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the journey.

Ye (n.d.) also points out that the listed powers of the Horse Monkey and Tongbi Gibbon don’t appear to be true, for they (under the guise of the commanders Ma and Liu and Beng and Ba – see section 2 here) are supposedly killed by Erlang’s forces in chapter six. They claim this proves that the two supernatural primates don’t actually exist. However, two things need to be said. One, the aforementioned underlings appear alive and well in chapter 28 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 32), meaning that they were not killed. And two, an irregularity in the story does not equate to a lie. The author hasn’t even come close to offering conclusive evidence of intent. Instead, I suggest that this is just an inconsistency born from the novel’s origin as individual oral tales that were eventually compiled, expanded, and published in book form. See, for instance, the 13th-century version of the story cycle. Therefore, irregularities are bound to pop up throughout the narrative.

But even if this lie was somehow true, how exactly does it further the Buddha’s supposed plan to take power from the Jade Emperor?

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and Six Ears battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

III. Third Lie

After the Buddha learns that the holy beasts of two bodhisattvas have escaped their respective mountain paradises and become man-eating demons on earth (ch. 77) (fig. 3), he has the following conversation with his disciples:

[…] Tathāgata left the lotus throne and went out of the monastery gate with the rest of the buddhas. There they saw Ānanda and Kāśyapa leading Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra [3] on their way to the monastery also.

As the two bodhisattvas bowed to him, Tathagata asked, “How long have your beasts of burden been gone from your mountains?” “Seven days,” replied Mañjuśrī. “Seven days in the mountain,” said Tathāgata, “are equivalent to several thousand years on earth. I wonder how many lives they have taken down there. You must follow me quickly if we are to retrieve them.” With one bodhisattva standing on each side of him, the Buddha and his followers rose into the air (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 29-30).

如來即下蓮臺,同諸佛眾,徑出山門。又見阿儺、迦葉引文殊、普賢來見,二菩薩對佛禮拜。如來道:「菩薩之獸,下山多少時了?」文殊道:「七日了。」如來道:「山中方七日,世上幾千年。不知在那廂傷了多少生靈,快隨我收他去。」二菩薩相隨左右,同眾飛空。

Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is lying about the corresponding time on earth in order to mask his guilt over not intervening sooner. As evidence, they cite the fact that the novel states “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). However, this could just be one of the aforementioned inconsistencies. One oral tradition may have said one day equals one year, while another said it equals one thousand years, and then both of these made it into the novel. But there is a more likely answer (see below).

They also claim that the respective Bodhisattvas’ mountain paradises are on earth, meaning they would be subject to the same time as the mortal world. This carries the implication that the beasts were eating people for at least a few hundred years and none of the Buddhist deities did anything to stop them. But the author clearly doesn’t understand earthly paradises like Mañjuśrī’s Mount Wutai (Wutai shan, 五臺山; lit: “Five Terrace/Platform Mountain”), which they mention by name in the article. Chou (2018) notes that a “central paradox of Mount Wutai” is that it is “both an earthly place and a Buddhist paradise (pure land)” (p. 142). Kōtatsu (Kōtatsu & Otowa, 1996) explains that Pure Lands (Jingtu, 净土) are “world[s] of another dimension” that are “temporally different from this one” (p. 45). Therefore, it seems more likely that the Enlightened One was referring to the time difference between Buddhist mountain paradises and the mortal realm. This is distinct from the Daoist heaven, which is expressly associated with the “one heavenly day = one earthly year” time dilation.

Additionally, Ye (n.d.) claims that Mañjuśrī is lying about the length of time his beast was absent because of a similar bout of guilt. It’s strange, though, that the writer’s answer for everything is “such and such Buddhist figure is being dishonest”. I’d be interested to read some of their other work to see if there’s a pattern of deconstructing Buddhism. JTTW clearly treats the religion with reverence, placing the Buddha and his disciples at the top of the novel’s cosmic hierarchy. Therefore, twisting details to support some agenda against Buddhism wouldn’t reflect positively on the author or their writing.

And again, I have to ask: How would this lie further the Buddha’s supposed plans? This is never explained.

Fig. 3 – Sun Wukong and his religious brothers battling the bird, elephant, and lion demons from Lion-Camel Cave (larger version). Artist unknown. Image found here. The elephant and lion are the missing holy beasts who became monsters on earth.

IV. Fourth Lie

After the Buddha captures the Great Peng (ch. 77) (fig. 4), the powerful bird demon submits to Buddhism but stubbornly refuses to stop eating meat. The Enlightened One thinks for a moment and then offers him the following solution:

“In the four great continents of my domain,” said Tathāgata, “there are countless worshippers. I shall ask those who wish to do good to sacrifice first to your mouth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 31).

我管四大部洲,無數眾生瞻仰,凡做好事,我教他先祭汝口。

Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha’s statement about the four continents is a lie since the Jade Emperor is the stated ruler of the cosmos. They also reason that it’s evidence of the Enlightened One wanting to govern all four continents. But it’s important to remember that, as mentioned above, the novel takes place in a world modeled after Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. The Daoist bureaucracy of JTTW is therefore a syncretic veil that has been draped over a pre-existing Buddhist structure. In the original system, the world is overseen by the Devarāja Śakra (Sk: Śakro devānāṃ indraḥ; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋) from the heaven of the thirty-three gods atop Mount Sumeru (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 739-740 and 921-922). (Interestingly, the novel hints that the Daoist bureaucracy is located in this very same heaven – see the material above figure two here). But despite the gods’ divine lifespans, as inhabitants of the Realm of Desire, they are still subject to death and therefore susceptible to the Wheel of Reincarnation (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233). Only the Buddha can help such beings escape from the endless rounds of rebirth by leading them to enlightenment. He does this within the confines of his own domain or “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹). Buswell and Lopez (2014) explain:

[W]hen a buddha achieves enlightenment, a “container” or “inanimate” world is produced in the form of a field where the buddha leads beings to enlightenment. The inhabitant of that world is the buddha endowed with all the [qualities of an Enlightened One]. Buddha-fields occur in various levels of purification, broadly divided between pure and impure. Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cakravāḍa), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe; here, ordinary sentient beings (including animals, ghosts, and hell beings) dwell, subject to the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Each Cakravāḍa is the domain of a specific buddha, who achieves enlightenment in that world system and works there toward the liberation of all sentient beings… (p. 153).

Therefore, the JTTW cosmos is the Enlightened One’s Buddha-Field.

Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of the Great Peng trapped above the Buddha’s head (larger version). Artist unknown.

V. Conclusion

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Buddha is a master strategist who makes “four grand, overarching lies” in a bid to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. But the writer demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to twist details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. I show that the supposed falsehoods are instead based on the viewpoints of historical foreign monks, are inconsistencies within the JTTW narrative, reference Buddhist views of time, and reflect the Buddhist world system.

Notes:

1) The ruler’s decision to allow said pilgrimage is associated with a subplot in chapters 11 and 12 where he learns of countless orphaned souls in the underworld and searches for a monk to release them from their torments via a grand Buddhist ceremony. Tripitaka is chosen to lead the ceremony but is later convinced by the Bodhisattva Guanyin to halt the ritual until he has retrieved more appropriate scriptures from India.

2) Source altered slightly.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) originally translates Puxian (普賢) as “Viśvabhadra” (vol. 4, pp. 29). I’ve changed it to “Samantabhadra” as this appears to be a more well-known version of the Bodhisattva’s name.

Sources:

Benjamin, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado : Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195.

Chou, W. (2018). Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Kōtatsu, F., & Otowa, R. (1996). The Origin of the Pure Land. The Eastern Buddhist, 29(1), 33–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44362148.

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

Ye, Z. (n.d.). Rulai fo sa de sige mitian dahuang [The Four Grand, Overarching Lies Cast by the Buddha]. Sohu. https://web.archive.org/web/20220731055723/https://m.sohu.com/n/474302290/.

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