Last updated: 02-28-2023
According to Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), the Buddha’s realm (fig. 1) is located in the Western Cattle-Gift Continent (i.e. India) atop “Vulture Peak.” For example, in chapter 98, an immortal tells Tripitaka:
Anthony C. Yu Translation
“Sage Monk, look at the spot halfway up the sky, shrouded by auspicious luminosity of five colors and a thousand folds of hallowed mists. That’s the tall Spirit Vulture Peak, the holy region of the Buddhist Patriarch” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 343).
W. J. F. Jenner Translation
“Holy monk, do you see the auspicious light of many colors and the richly textured aura in the sky? That is the summit of Vulture Peak, the holy territory of the Lord Buddha” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 4, p. 2250).
Fig. 1 – The Buddha’s realm (larger version). Found randomly on the internet. Artist unknown.
1. Various Names
The novel provides several Chinese names for this hallowed place:
- Jiufeng (鷲峰) – “Vulture Peak”
- Jiuling (鷲嶺) – “Vulture Ridge”
- Lingjiu xianshan (靈鷲仙山) – “Immortal Mountain of the Spirit Vulture” (the fanciest in my opinion)
- Lingjiu feng (靈鷲峰) – “Peak of the Spirit Vulture”
- Lingjiu gaofeng (靈鷲高峰) – “Tall Peak of the Spirit Vulture”
2. Real World Location
Vulture Peak (Sk: Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata, गृद्धकूट; Ch: Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山; Qidujue shan, 耆闍崛山) is a Buddhist holy site located around the ancient city of Rājagṛaha (modern day Nalanda District, Bihar, India) (fig. 2). It was often visited by the historical Buddha and his disciples. Various traditions believe it to be the site from which the Enlightened One delivered some of his most important teachings, including those from the Nikāyas and Āgamas (Theravāda), as well as the Heart Sūtra and the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras (Mahāyāna). The Japanese Nichiren-shū sect even considers it a Buddhist paradise (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 327).
Fig. 2 – A modern day picture of Vulture Peak (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.
3. Religious Etymology
So where does the strange name come from? Lopez (1988) explains that the original Sanskrit, Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata, means “mass of vultures peak” (p. 36). The commentary to the Section of the Suttas says that the place was so named “because vultures lived on its peaks [fig. 3], or because the peaks looked like vultures.”  The commentary also alludes to story no. 536 from a famous 5th-century Indian collection of birth stories in which Ānanda is presented as the “king of the vultures, with a following of ten thousand vultures [that] dwelt upon Vulture Peak” (Cowell, 1895, p. 224; Bodhi & Buddhaghosa, 2017, p. 839).
The association of Ānanda with vultures is interesting as the Biography of the Eminent Monk Faxian (Gaoseng Faxian zhuan, 高僧法顯傳, c. 5th-century) gives a related supernatural reason:
Three [li] before you reach the top, there is a cavern in the rocks, facing the south, in which Buddha sat in meditation. Thirty paces to the north-west there is another, where Ânanda was sitting in meditation, when the deva Mâra Piśuna,  having assumed the form of a large vulture, took his place in front of the cavern, and frightened the disciple. Then Buddha, by his mysterious, supernatural power, made a cleft in the rock, introduced his hand, and stroked Ânanda’s shoulder, so that his fear immediately passed away [fig. 4]. The footprints of the bird and the cleft for (Buddha’s) hand are still there, and hence comes the name of ‘The Hill of the Vulture Cavern’ (Faxian & Legge, 1886/1965, p. 83).
Barring the location’s supposed bird-like appearance, the original Sanskrit name and surveyed Buddhist sources give the impression that the peak was home to large numbers of vultures. This association appears to have been embellished in Buddhist stories to include a connection to Ānanda.
Fig. 3 – (Right) An Indian Vulture (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia. Fig. 4 – (Center) Detail of a relief sculpture depicting the Buddha reaching his hand through the rock to calm Ānanda. Take note of the vulture on the top left. (Right) A line drawing of the scene (larger version). From Yungang Cave no. 38, 6th-century. Adapted from Wang, 2005, p. 197.
Journey to the West depicts the Buddha’s realm atop “Vulture Peak” in the western continent. The novel provides several Chinese names, the fanciest of which is “Immortal Mountain of the Spirit Vulture.” This place is in fact a real world holy site in Bihar, India considered a place from which the Enlightened One taught important Buddhist doctrine. The original Sanskrit name and Buddhist sources suggest that the mountain is named for the large number of vultures who supposedly resided there. Buddhist stories would come to associate these birds with Ānanda. For example, one 5th-century Indian source depicts him, in a past life, as the king of 10,000 vultures living on Vulture Peak. A 5th-century Chinese source states that he was terrified by a deva-turned-vulture in order to interrupt his meditation. But he was saved by the reassuring hand of the Buddha.
I was curious as to when the Chinese translation of Gṛdhrakūṭaparvata first appeared. Wang (2005) notes it was used as far back as Dharmarakṣa‘s 286 CE translation of the Lotus Sūtra (p. 194). The holy site is referred to as “Mountain of the Spirit Vulture” (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) at least five times.  I’d like to know if “spirit vulture” is a reference to Māra’s transformation from the story cycle mentioned by Faxian.
I’ve written an article about the location of Laozi’s realm.
1) Bodhi & Buddhaghosa, 2017, p. 903. Lopez (1988) also cites two commentators with the same respective views (p. 36).
2) Legge (Faxian & Legge, 1886/1965) explains: “Piśuna is a name given to Mâra, and signifies ‘sinful just'” (p. 83, n. 2).
3) However, Wang (2005) says that the term appears six times (p. 194).
Bodhi, B., & Buddhaghosa, B. (2017). The Suttanipāta: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries Paramatthajotikā II and Excerpts from the Niddessa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Buswell, R. E. , & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.
Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (Vol. 5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/cu31924072231545/page/n243/mode/2up
Faxian, & Legge, J. (1965). A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fâ-Hien of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1886)
Lopez, D. S. (1988). The Heart Sūtra explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press.
Wang, E. Y. (2005). Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press.
Wu, C. & Jenner, W. J. F. (2020). Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.