The Patriarch Subodhi: Sun Wukong’s First Master

Last updated: 06-10-2022

If you were to ask someone to name Sun Wukong‘s master, those familiar with Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) would probably say the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏). But many forget that the cleric is actually his second master. His first, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師; a.k.a. “Patriarch Puti / Bodhi“, Puti zushi, 菩提祖師), is rarely brought up in conversation. But this wise old man / elderly martial arts master archetype is the source of the Monkey King’s divine longevity, magical skills, and fighting prowess. He therefore deserves his own article. I’ve already written several pieces mentioning him, so I’ve decided to combine everything (including new material) onto a single page.

This article describes his origins, story in the novel, and description; the location, description, and the meaning of the name of his mountain home; his school uniform; how he names his students and why the Monkey King is called Sun Wukong; his religious, magical, and martial arts curriculum, including tests of spiritual intelligence; and his spiritual powers. Despite his common portrayal as a Daoist immortal (xian, 仙), the novel stresses a connection to Buddhism. I ultimately suggest that the Patriarch Subodhi is in reality a bodhisattva (pusa, 菩薩), albeit one with Daoist leanings.

1. Origins

Subodhi is based on Subhūti (Xuputi, 須扶提 / 須浮帝 / 蘇補底 / 蘇部底) (fig. 1), [1] one of the ten principle disciples of the Gautama Buddha. He plays an understated role in the original Pāli canon of Theravāda Buddhism, being recognized by the Buddha as the most accomplished in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pāli: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 861-862; Osto, 2016, pp. 126-127). On the contrary, Subhūti plays a much larger role in Prajñāpāramitā texts of Mahāyāna Buddhism in which he is famed for contemplating “emptiness” (Pāli: suññatā; Sk: śūnyatā; Ch: kong, 空), a subject with textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to realizing the truth of the illusionary nature of Saṃsāra (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 872; Osto, 2016, p. 126). Because of this, he is also known in Chinese as the “One who expounded vacuity [emptiness]” (Kongsheng, 空生) (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2014, p. 277). In fact, Osto (2016) suggests that Subhūti was secretly a bodhisattva, reasoning: “How else would he have the necessary insight to understand the profound and paradoxical philosophy of emptiness (śūnyatā) as it is found in these texts?” (p. 128). [2]

Fig. 1 – A detail of Subhūti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock).

Shao (2006) suggests that Subodhi was modeled on the historical disciple “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to ’emptiness’ … that the Chan [Zen] Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (Shao, 2006, p. 724).

It should be noted that the complete Chinese name Xuputi (須菩提) is only used once in the novel to refer to the Patriarch (see here), while Puti (菩提) is used at least three times (see here). This is interesting as the latter term is a transliteration of bodhi (Pāli / Sk: “awakening” or “enlightenment”), an important concept in Buddhism in which one discovers the Four Noble Truths, thereby achieving enlightenment and freeing themself from the cycle of rebirth (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 129). Therefore, the novel positions the Patriarch as a means to or even embodiment of enlightenment. This is fitting given Osto’s (2016) suggestion above that the historical Subhūti was a bodhisattva, “a ‘being’ (sattva) intent on awakening (bodhi) who has aroused the aspiration to achieve buddhahood” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 129). More on this below.

2. The literary teacher

2.1. His story

Subodhi is introduced by name in chapter one when a woodcutter tells the Monkey King about the sage and the location of his mountain home. He learns that the Patriarch “has already sent out innumerable disciples” and that at present “there are thirty or forty persons who are practicing austerities with him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 112). After a quick exchange with an immortal lad at the front door, the Stone Monkey is led to a hall where Subodhi is lecturing to a group of “lesser immortals” (xiaoxian, 小仙). The Patriarch asks for his name and the location of his home but becomes upset as he believes Monkey is lying about his ten year journey from afar. However, after being assured of the truth and hearing of the miraculous stone birth, Subodhi officially accepts the primate as a disciple, giving him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, “Monkey Awakened to Emptiness”).

In the opening of chapter two, the Patriarch has his immortal students tutor Monkey in menial tasks like fetching firewood and water, tending the garden, and cleaning the monastery grounds, as well as provide lessons on human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and minor ritual procedures like incense burning. Seven years later, Subodhi notices Sun jumping around in excitement as the primate listens to his lecture. He thereafter offers to teach Monkey a number of skills, but the latter refuses multiple times since they won’t lead to immortality. This rejection makes the Patriarch visually upset, leading him to strike Sun on the head three times with a ruler and then walk away with his hands behind his back. His senior religious brothers chastise him for angering their master, but, due to his spiritual intelligence, Sun knows that the admonishment was really secret code. He later enters Subodhi’s room at the third watch (three hits) using a back door (hands behind back), and it is there where the teacher reveals the secret of immortality in a flowery poem.

After Monkey successfully attains eternal life three years later, the Patriarch teaches him the 72 transformations in order to hide from heaven-sent punishment slated to destroy him. In addition, he teaches the cloud-somersault, a method of super fast flight. Sun’s religious brothers are amazed at his attainments and request that he display his power of transformation by changing into a pine tree. The resulting applause greatly disturbs Subodhi, who sends the others away before reprimanding and expelling his disciple under the pretense of saving Monkey’s life from those who would harm him to learn his heavenly secrets. But before Sun has a chance to leave, his master threatens him with everlasting torment in the underworld if he ever reveals that the Patriarch had been his tutor. Monkey promises never to speak his name. This is the last time that Subodhi is seen in the story, but he is referenced two more times in later chapters (see section 3.4 below).

2.2. Allusions to Buddhist masters

Shao (1997) writes that Subodhi hitting Monkey on the head three times—a coded message for receiving secret teachings in the Master’s room at the third watch—is likely based on two episodes from the life of Huineng (惠能, 638-713), the Sixth Chan (Zen) Patriarch:

According to [the Platform Sutra], Huineng was pounding grain when Hongren [the 5th Chan Patriarch] came in, “hit on the mortar three times with his stick and then left” (以杖击碓三下而去). The non-verbal message occurred to the young man as a piece of intuition. By the third watch he arrived dutifully at the master’s chamber where Hongren passed the secret Dharma by way of enlightening him on [the Diamond Sutra], behind a raised cassock used to protect them from the intrusion of prying eyes. The other source is Caoxi dashi biezhuan 曹溪大师别传 (An Alternative Biography of the Great Master From Caoxi) in which Huineng hit Shenhui … a few times, seemingly annoyed by the insolence of his disciple’s clever repartee. But it was to none other than Shenhui that he imparted the secret Dharma—in the middle of the night, and with a similar group of dumb disciples who had seen nothing but impudence in Shenhui (pp. 60-61).

The allusion to Hongren and his use of the Diamond Sutra is apt as the historical Subhūti plays a large part in the scripture. His questions fuel the lesson, with the “Buddha’s reply constitut[ing] the body of the sutra” (Watson, 2010, p. 72).

Therefore, the aforementioned episodes associate the Patriarch with two enlightened Chan masters and their secret, unorthodox transmission of the Dharma, supporting his connection to Buddhism.

The novel includes a third allusion to Huineng. This will be discussed in section 4.3 below.

2.3. His description

The novel never gives an overt description of Subodhi’s features or dress. This ambiguity makes him a blank slate onto which anyone’s personal vision can be written. But there are a few references to his stately, awe-inspiring presence. A poem in chapter one reads:

A Golden Immortal of Great Awareness and of great ken and purest mien,
Master Bodhi, whose wondrous appearance like the West
Had no end or birth by work of the Double Three.
His whole spirit and breath were with mercy filled.
Empty, spontaneous, it could change at will,
His Buddha-nature able to do all things.
The same age as Heaven had his majestic frame.
Fully tried and enlightened was this grand priest (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114). [4]

Numerous elements from this poem require explanation. “Golden Immortal of Great Awareness” (Dajue jinxian, 大覺金仙) was a title bestowed on the Buddha by Song Emperor Huizong in 1119 in order to bring Buddhism under the banner of Daoism (Eskildsen, 2008, p. 43). “Wonderous appearance like the West” (Xifang miaoxiang, 西方妙相) compares the splendor of his person to the Western Pure Land (Sk: Sukhāvatī; Ch: Xifang jingtu, 西方淨土) of the Amitābha Buddha. “No end and no birth” (busheng bumie, 不生不滅) refers to his eternal life free from the wheel of reincarnation, which is thanks to his mastery of the “Double Three” (Sansan xing, 三三行). Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) explains that this term likely refers to the “three samādhis“, a high-level meditation technique which focuses on the Buddhist philosophical concepts of emptiness, no appearance, and no desires (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 507 n. 16). “Empty” (kong, 空) in the next line of course refers to Subodhi’s constant meditations on emptiness. “Buddha-nature” (Sk: tathāgatagarbha, lit: “womb of the tathāgata“; Ch: Zhenru benxing, 真如本性; a.k.a. Rulai zang, 如來藏) is “the potential to achieve buddhahood that, according to some Mahāyāna schools, is inherent in all sentient beings” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 897). This is an open reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Southern Quanzhen School Patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid to late-980s-1082), which greatly influenced Journey to the West. He believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (Shao, 1997; 2006). This dual achievement thus signifies that Subodhi is a celestial of the highest order. His “majestic” (or stately) body (zhuangyan ti, 莊嚴體) is said to have the “same age as heaven” (yutian tongshou, 與天同壽), a phrase used in the novel to denote the endless longevity of such divine beings (see here). The last line notes that he is a fully “enlightened” (mingxin, 明心; lit: “illuminous heart-mind”) master. Taken together, the allusions to Buddhas, the Western paradise, emptiness, and enlightenment speak to Subodhi’s identity as a Buddhist deity. And given his association with bodhi (awakening), I suggest that he is in fact a bodhisattva like his namesake, albeit one with Daoist leanings.

A Daoist bodhisattva may seem paradoxical, but this concept comfortably fits into the syncretic worldview espoused in late-Ming literature. For example, three well-known bodhisattvas are depicted as former high-ranking immortals in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620). These include Guanyin (觀音) as “Person of the Way, Compassionate Ferry” (Cihang daoren, 慈航道人) (fig. 2), Mañjuśrī (Wenshu, 文殊) as the “Dharma-Spreading Heavenly Master of Outstanding Culture” (Wenshu guangfa tianzun, 文殊廣法天尊), and Samantabhadra (Puxian, 普賢) as the “Perfected Man of Universal Virtue” (Puxian zhenren, 普賢真人). Together, they later convert to Buddhism and become disciples of the Buddha (hou xing shimen, cheng, 後興釋門,成于佛教) at the end of chapter 83. [3]

Fig. 2 – A modern idol of Guanyin’s Daoist persona Person of the Way, Compassionate Ferry (larger version).

2.4. Ancient depiction

The standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West was originally published with a series of quaint woodblock prints. One features an image of the Patriarch, depicting him as a robed master holding a palace fan while seated in an ornate chair. He wears a guan-cap and has a kind face with airy whiskers and hints of large-lobed ears (fig. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3 – A woodblock of Monkey meeting the Patriarch for the first time (larger version). From the standard 1592 edition of the novel. Fig. 4 – A detail of Subodhi (larger version).

3. Mountain home

Subodhi’s home is located in a place with the literal name “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on Spirit Tower and Square Inch Mountain” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong靈臺方寸山,斜月三星洞).

3.1. Mountain description

The novel remarks on the beauty of the mountain as Monkey walks through a forest to the school’s front entrance:

Mist and smoke in diffusive brilliance,
Flashing lights from the sun and moon,
A thousand stalks of old cypress,
Ten thousand stems of tall bamboo.
A thousand stalks of old cypress
Draped in rain half fill the air with tender green;
Ten thousand stems of tall bamboo
Held in smoke will paint the glen chartreuse.
Strange flowers spread brocades before the door.
Jadelike grass emits fragrance beside the bridge.
On ridges protruding grow moist green lichens;
On hanging cliffs cling the long blue mosses.
The cries of immortal cranes are often heard.
Once in a while a phoenix soars overhead.
When the cranes cry,
Their sounds reach through the marsh to the distant sky.
When the phoenix soars up,
Its plume with five bright colors embroiders the clouds.
Black apes and white deer may come or hide;
Gold lions and jade elephants may leave or bide.
A Blessed Land [Fudi, 福地] to be seen in spirit:
It has the true semblance of Paradise (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 112-113).

“Blessed lands” (Fudi, 福地) are thought to be “earthly paradises that do not suffer from floods, wars, epidemics, illnesses, old age or death” (Miura, 2008, p. 368). Daoism recognizes 72 Blessed Lands, each with their own documented name and location (Miura, 2008, p. 371).

3.2. Cave description

Once Sun is invited inside, the cave is described as having “rows and rows of lofty towers and huge alcoves, of pearly chambers and carved arches”, as well as “innumerable quiet chambers and empty studios” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114). The hall where Subodhi gives his lessons is said to be centered around his “green jade platform” (yaotai, 瑤臺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114). This kind of terrace is often associated with the immortal lands of Mount Kunlun (Santangelo, 2013, p. 604 n. 5).

3.3. Buddho-Daoist metaphor

The names of the cave and mountain reference the philosophical concept of the “heart-mind” (xin, 心), the center of spiritual intellect, no less than three times. As I explain in this article, the name “slanted moon and three stars” is a literal description of the Chinese character for the heart-mind (fig. 5). “Spirit Tower/platform” (lingtai, 靈臺) is used in Daoist literature to refer to the heart-mind, more specifically the middle elixir field (zhong dantian, 中丹田) around the heart, which is considered the seat of the spirit. During internal alchemical meditation, the spirit is directed from here, along with other energetic substances from elsewhere, into the “square inch” (fangcun, 方寸). This too is a Daoist reference to the heart-mind, more specifically the lower elixir field (xia dantian, 下丹田) around the abdomen, the storehouse of vital energies. The synergy of these energies is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. Therefore, a more accurate translation of Patriarch Subodhi’s home, which takes into account the veiled Daoist meanings, would be “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Elixir Mind”.

heart calligraphy

Fig. 5 – The Chinese character for heart-mind (xin) literally looks like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars. Original image found here.

At the same time, this triple emphasis on the heart-mind references Monkey’s role in the novel as the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddhist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Saṃsāra. Evidence for this includes the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). Also, a poem in chapter seven reads: “An ape’s body of Dao weds the human mind. / Mind is a monkey—this meaning’s profound” (yuanhou dao ti renxin / xin ji yuanhou yisi shen, 猿猴道體配人心 / 心即猿猴意思深) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 190). [5]

Therefore, the name of the Patriarch’s mountain home is a double metaphor for Daoist alchemical and Buddhist philosophical concepts.

3.4. References in later chapters

Monkey references Subodhi and his mountain home twice in the novel. He recites a biographical poem in chapter 17 in which he states:

Seedlings of herbs I plucked on Spirit Tower Mountain. / There was in that mountain an old immortal. / His age: one hundred and eight thousand years! / He became my master most solemnly / And showed me the way to longevity (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 352). [6]

In another biographical poem from chapter 67, he states: “I bowed to the Patriarch of Spirit Tower and Square Inch / and perfected with him the martial arts” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243). These statements are veiled admissions of studying alchemical and combat arts under the Sage, thereby not revealing his true master’s identity (as promised in chapter two).

3.5. Location

The location of this mountain is revealed in the first conversation between Monkey and Subodhi. After hearing of Sun’s travels, the Patriarch asks:

[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).

The world of Journey to the West is modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which places the Eastern Purvavideha Continent (Sk: “Surpassing the body”; Ch: Dongsheng shenzhou, 東勝神洲), the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (Sk: “Rose-Apple”; Ch: Nanshan buzhou, 南贍部洲), the Western Godaniya Continent (Sk: “Using Cattle”; Ch: Xiniu hezhou, 西牛賀洲), the Northern Uttarakuru Continent (Sk: “Unpleasant Sound”; Ch: Beiju luzhou, 北俱盧洲) around the four respective faces of Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山), a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos, as well as the abode of assorted gods and sages (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 869) (fig. 6). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India, or the known world to the ancient people of South Asia (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” (Dongtu, 東土) (i.e. China) within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Therefore, Subodhi’s mountain is located in India, further strengthening his link with Buddhism.

Fig. 6 – A diagram showing a bird’s-eye view of Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography as presented in Journey to the West. Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxix (larger version).

4. School

4.1. Uniform

Upon returning to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit from Subodhi’s school in chapter two, the novel describes Sun Wukong’s uniform through the voice of a monster imp: “He is bare-headed, wears a red robe [hongse yi, 紅色衣] with a yellow sash [huang tao, 黃絛], and has a pair of black boots [wu xue, 烏靴] on” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 127). The “red robe” is vague, but a poem in chapter one states that the immortal lad who invited Monkey into the cave was wearing “[a] wide robe with two sleeves of wind” (kuanpao liangxiao feng, 寬袍兩袖風). This probably references the large, open arms of the zhiduo robe (直裰; a.k.a. haiqing, 海青), which is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – A zhiduo robe with large sleeves (larger version). Image found here. Imagine this robe red, with a yellow sash at the waist.

4.2. Student names

Subodhi is shown to have 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the generational cohorts of his religious lineage.

  1. Guang (廣)
  2. Da (大)
  3. Zhi (智)
  4. Hui (慧)
  5. Zhen (真)
  6. Ru (如)
  7. Xing (性)
  8. Hai (海)
  9. Ying (穎)
  10. Wu (悟)
  11. Yuan (圓)
  12. Jue (覺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

Three of the listed names, Zhi (智), Yuan (圓), and Jue (覺), were historically used in Daoism. [7]

Monkey is part of the tenth generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name.

The novel explains in detail why Subodhi names his primate disciple Sun Wukong, tying it to Buddho-Daoist philosophy:

The Patriarch laughed and said, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun [猢猻]). This gives me the idea of taking a surname for you from your appearance. I intended to call you by the name Hu [猢]. If I drop the animal radical [犭] from this word, what’s left is a compound made up of the two characters, gu [古] and yue [月]. Gu means aged and yue [“moon”] denotes feminine yin energy [陰], but aged yin cannot reproduce. Therefore, it is better to give you the surname of Sun [猻]. If I drop the animal radical from this word, what we have left is the compound of zi [子] and xi [系]. Zi means a boy and xi means a baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy [Ying’er zhi benlun, 嬰兒之本論]. So your surname will be ‘Sun.'”

[After explaining the generational names] “You will hence be given the religious name ‘Aware of Emptiness’ (wukong [悟空]). All right?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115).

Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) explains: “The Baby Boy is none other than the ‘holy embryo or shengtai 聖胎,’ the avatar of the realized state of immortality in the adept’s body” (p. 86). Daoist doctrine dictates that the “Three Treasures” (Sanbao, 三寶) of semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spirit (shen, 神) be combined to create a holy embryo. The third stage of this internal alchemical process involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (Tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (Kohn, 2008, pp. 179-180). Therefore, Sun (孫) not only references the primate disciple’s appearance but also his Daoist immortality.

“Wukong” (悟空) combines “Emptiness” (Kong, 空) with “Awakening”, Wu (悟) being “one of the common Chinese translations for the Sanskrit term bodhi (awakening)” (i.e. the bodhi of Subodhi) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 998). Awakening takes two forms in Chan Buddhism: “instant” (dunwu, 頓悟) and “gradual” (jianwu, 漸悟). The former involves the sudden manifestation of inherent Buddha-nature (see section 2.3), while the latter involves compounding realization, often over a long period of purification (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 998; see also pp. 273 and 384-385). As explained in section 1, bodhi involves realizing the Four Noble Truths, thereby achieving enlightenment and freeing oneself from the cycle of rebirth. Therefore, Wukong references said enlightenment.

Given the above information, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This shows that Monkey’s name incapsulates his story arc: attaining divine longevity in the beginning and ascending to Buddhahood at the end. This, again, is an open reference to the highly influential Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (see section 2.3).

4.3. Tests of spiritual intelligence

The Patriarch first offers to teach Monkey a selection of skills from the 360 “Side Gates” (bangmen, 傍門; a.k.a. pangmen, 旁門), noting that they will “result in illumination” (zhengguo, 正果; lit: “right fruit”) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117). The skills include:

  • Method gate (Shuzi menzhong, 術字門中) – “[C]onsists of summoning immortals and working the planchette, of divination by manipulating yarrow stalks, and of learning the secrets of pursuing good and avoiding evil” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117).
  • Dissemination gate (Liuzi menzhong, 流字門中) – “[I]ncludes the Confucians, the Buddhists, the Daoists, the Dualists, the Mohists, and the Physicians. They read scriptures or recite prayers; they interview priests or conjure up saints and the like” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117).
  • Silence gate (Jingzi menzhong, 靜字門中) – “To cultivate fasting and abstinence … quiescence and inactivity, meditation and the art of cross-legged sitting, restraint of language, and a vegetarian diet. There are also the practices of yoga, exercises standing or prostrate, entrance into complete stillness, contemplation in solitary confinement, and the like” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 117-118).
  • Action gate (Dongzi menzhong, 動字門中) – “[G]athering the yin to nourish the yang, bending the bow and treading the arrow, and rubbing the navel to pass breath. There are also experimentation with alchemical formulas, burning rushes and forging cauldrons, taking red lead, making autumn stone, and drinking bride’s milk and the like” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 118).

However, the Side Gates, which number 3,600 in Daoist literature, were historically considered “unorthodox training methods of limited benefit” (Eskildsen, 2019, p. 43). This shows that Subodhi is testing his disciple to see if he will fall for studying lesser arts. But Sun passes by refusing to learn them.

Another test takes place when Monkey visits his master’s room at the third watch to receive secret teachings. Shao (2006) explains that, once again, the novel alludes to the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng:

[Monkey] sets the stage for a striking display of his unusually profound insight when he announces his intentions to become an immortal. This provokes Subhuti to issue him a challenge by refusing to teach him, for he is “some what different from other people.” Monkey may not realize that the master is trying to gauge his spiritual power, but he rises to the occasion with a genuine clarity of vision: “I have a round head pointing to Heaven, and square feet walking on Earth. Similarly, I have nine apertures and four limbs, entrails and cavities. In what way am I different from other people?”

[…]

[W]e may look to Huineng’s story from which Monkey garners meaning. No doubt, Monkey’s inspired cleverness is modeled on Huineng’s reply to Hongren, the fifth patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism, in Huineng’s Tanjing (The Platform Sutra). When Huineng announces his intentions to become a Buddha, Hongren pounces upon him with a poignant reminder that he is “from Lingnan,” a “barbarian,” and therefore cannot become a Buddha. Huineng refuses to be intimidated, however. He holds his own with an unparalleled depth of insight about Buddha-nature: There may be “northern and southern men,” but “the Buddha nature fundamentally has no north or south.” Surely Monkey’s phrasing, his unusual insightfulness, and the quickness and aplomb with which he rises to the challenge are reminiscent of Huineng… (pp. 719-720).

Monkey clearly passes this test, for his insightful reply convinces the Patriarch to teach him the secret of eternal life.

Subodhi no doubt uses such examinations to filter out unsuitable candidates, allowing only the brightest individuals to become his inner disciples.

4.4. Overtly stated curriculum and tools

The novel specifically mentions Subodhi offering or teaching Monkey the following concepts:

1) Chinese philosophy – A poem describes one of these lectures with esoteric imagery. Most importantly, a section states: “For a while he lectured on Dao [道] / For a while he spoke on Chan [禪] / To harmonize the Three Parties [Sanjia, 三家] is a natural thing” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 116).

The “Three Parties” refer to the Ming syncretic philosophy of the “Three Teachings” (Sanjiao, 三教), which combines elements from Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. This shows that his disciples are given a well-rounded religious education, which explains why Sun is competent even in Buddhist scripture. [9]

Also, during his lectures on philosophy, Subodhi is said to wield a “Precepts ruler” (jiechi, 戒尺), which he uses to admonish his students (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 118). Such a device figures among the tools of Buddhism (Leong, 2001, p. 49).

2) Secret of Immortality – Breathing exercises designed to absorb yang energy during prescribed times (after midnight and before noon), the retention of chaste semen and transformation into qi energy, and the purification and circulation of the resulting spiritual energy throughout the body.

These internal methods are passed onto Monkey in secret via a flowery poem chocked full of alchemical imagery. It ends with the line, “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 120). Combined with his syncretic philosophy, this suggests that the Patriarch offers his students more than one spiritual path to divinity.

3) Transformations – A series of oral formulas that allow the user to change their body into any person, animal, or object. Two forms are offered: the 72 changes of the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數) and the 36 changes of the “Multitude of the Heavenly Rectifiers” (Tiangang shu, 天罡數) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). [8]

Subodhi teaches this skill to Monkey with the expressed purpose of helping him hide from three calamities of cosmic lightning, fire, and wind sent by heaven to destroy immortals for defying fate and achieving eternal life. But beyond the power of metamorphosis, the novel implies that the ability also grants the user multiple lives (similar to a video game), which might serve as a buffer against the calamities. For example, in chapter 41, after Sun passes out from Red Boy‘s fiery attack, Zhu Bajie reassures everyone by saying: “If he is capable of seventy-two transformations, he has seventy-two lives” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 232). Also, in chapter 46, Monkey magically regrows his head after being non-fatally beheaded in a contest of magical skill. Sha Wujing remarks: “If he knows seventy-two ways of transformation, … he may have altogether seventy-two heads!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 308). In addition, while not directly related to the primate hero, the Bull Demon King is said in chapter 61 to also know the 72 changes (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 148). He uses the extra lives to survive being beheaded by Prince Nezha a number of times:

[Nezha] leaped onto the bull’s back and brought his monster-cleaving sword down on the bull’s neck: the bull was beheaded at once. Putting away his scimitar, the devaraja was about to greet [Sun Wukong] when another head emerged from the torso of the bull, his mouth belching black air and his eyes beaming golden rays. [Nezha] lifted his sword once more and cut off the bull’s head; as soon as it dropped to the ground, another head came out. It went on like this more than ten times. At last, [Nezha] took out his fiery wheel and hung it on the Bull’s horn. The wheel at once started a great blaze of true immortal fire, which burned so fiercely that the bull began to growl and roar madly, shaking his head and wagging his tail (Wu & Yu, vol. 3, p. 160). [10]

This agrees with the connection between transformation and immortality in Daoism. Robinet (1979) explains that gods and saints are portrayed in Daoist literature as being in constant flux, changing with the seasons, taking on different guises and titles, disappearing and reappearing, never remaining the same, thereby living eternally.

4) Flight – A method of flying through the sky on divine clouds. Two types are offered: “cloud-soaring” (jiayun, 駕雲), the most common method used by celestials throughout the cosmos. It involves stamping the foot to summon clouds (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123); and “cloud-somersaulting” (jindou yun, 筋斗雲), the method chosen by Sun (fig. 8). It involves simultaneously “mak[ing] the magic sign, recit[ing] the spell, clench[ing] the fist tightly, shak[ing] the body” and then jumping into the sky, leaping from cloud to cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). The latter method is by far the fastest, enabling the user to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km) in a single instant.

Shao (2006) states that the latter skill is based on a philosophical metaphor from Huineng’s Platform Sutra. The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism (see section III here). Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise (Shao, 2006, p. 718; Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27). Therefore, Subodhi teaches a skill that’s a metaphor for instant enlightenment, further supporting his connection to Buddhism.

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Fig. 8 – Monkey soaring on his cloud (larger version). Drawing by Funzee on deviantart.

4.5. Mentioned in passing

As noted in section 3.3, Sun states: “I bowed to the Patriarch of Spirit Tower and Square Inch / and perfected with him the martial arts [wuyi, 武藝]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243). [11]

5) Military arts – Monkey demonstrates knowledge in troop movement, weapons (swords, spears, axes, bows and arrows, staves, etc.), and unarmed boxing. His preferred method is “Short Fist” (Duan quan, 短拳), which is known for compact, short-ranged attacks. This is likely just one of many boxing styles taught by Subodhi.

Shahar (2008) explains that the martials arts of the famed Chan Buddhist Shaolin Monastery developed during the Ming-Qing transition from a synthesis of Daoist gymnastics (stretching and breathing exercises), religious rituals, and fist techniques. This new form of spiritual cultivation ushered in the era of so-called “internal martial arts“, Taiji boxing being the most famous among them. Journey to the West was published during the late-Ming when this synthesis was in full swing. Therefore, the study of martial arts in a religious institution is an accurate snapshot of one facet of 16th-century monastic life.

4.6. Implied

Although not directly stated, the following skills are likely learned while studying under the Patriarch.

6) General magic – Monkey is shown capable of calling forth gods and spirits, growing or shrinking to any size, parting fire and water, creating impassable barriers, conjuring wind storms, casting illusions, freezing people in place, making endless doubles of himself, unlocking any lock, bestowing superhuman strength, bringing the dead back to life, etc.

7) Traditional Chinese Medicine – Monkey knows how to analyze a patient’s pulse and then concoct individualized medicine from a number of raw ingredients.

This makes sense as a knowledge of harming and healing often goes hand in hand in traditional Chinese martial arts. A prime example is the folk hero Wong Fei-Hung (黃飛鴻, 1847-1925), a Hung Ga boxer and physician from Qing-era Guangdong.

5. Powers

The breadth of skills taught to Monkey speaks to the Patriarch’s own vast array of religious, magical, and martial abilities. But he displays (or at least hints at having) the following three powers.

5.1. Clairvoyance

Subodhi demonstrates the ability to see peoples, events, and times beyond his person in chapter one when Monkey first arrives at his home. An immortal lad opens the door and tells the primate:

“My master … has just left his couch to give a lecture on the platform. Before even announcing his theme, however, he told me to go out and open the door, saying, ‘There is someone outside who wants to practice austerities. You may go and receive him'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 113-114).

5.2. Omniscience

At the end of chapter two, Subodhi makes a statement suggesting that he is aware of all things:

I forbid you ever to mention that you are my disciple. For if you but utter half the word, I’ll know about it; you can be assured, wretched monkey, that you’ll be skinned alive (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 125).

5.3. Control of spirits and karmic results

He continues: “I will break all your bones and banish your soul to the Place of Ninefold Darkness [Jiuyou zhi chu, 九幽之處], from which you will not be released even after ten thousand afflictions!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 125). This latter ability implies that he has some control over souls and their karmic punishment in the afterlife.

5.4. Possible reason for expelling Monkey

The aforementioned powers bring up the following question: “If Subodhi has these abilities, why would he take Sun as a disciple knowing full well that he would later expel him for simply displaying his newly cultivated powers?” Someone might say showing off is a sign of ego and the need for validation, qualities unbecoming of a spiritual cultivator. But there is a better answer. Being a bodhisattva with the power of foresight, the Patriarch would no doubt foresee Monkey’s later attainment of Buddhahood, realizing that the trials and tribulations of protecting the Tang Monk on the journey to India would be the price that he needs to pay to gradually awaken (jianwu, 漸悟) his enlightenment. Therefore, expelling Sun would ignite the chain of events leading to his eventual Buddhahood. This makes Subodhi an agent of Dharma, one who uses whatever methods necessary to bring about the enlightenment of his disciples.

6. Conclusion

The Patriarch Subodhi finds his origins in Subhūti, one of the ten principle disciples of the historical Buddha known for his knowledge of “emptiness”. The literary figure’s connection to Buddhism is not in name only, however. The Chinese name used most in the novel to refer to Subodhi is Puti, a transliteration for bodhi (“awakening” or “enlightenment”). His story in Journey to the West is partly based on events from the lives of the respective Fifth and Sixth Chan (Zen) Patriarchs and their transmission of the Dharma. A poem in chapter one even compares him to the Buddha and the splendor of the Western paradise, as well as further ties him to emptiness and enlightenment.

The name of Subodhi’s home, Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Elixir Mind, serves as a double metaphor for Daoist internal alchemical practices and Buddhist concepts of the mind. It is described as a mountain paradise, and the cave therein is said to be filled with grand architecture, which is centered around the Patriarch’s green jade lecture platform. The mountain is located in the Western Godaniya Continent of Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, placing it squarely in India, home of the historical Subhūti.

Subodhi’s students likely wear a red robe with large, open sleeves, a yellow sash, and black boots, and they are named according to a twelve generation character list. His choice for the Monkey King’s religious name, Sun Wukong, is packed full of philosophical significance related to the formation of a Daoist immortal spirit embryo and the manifestation of enlightenment. As for the Patriarch’s curriculum, he teaches Buddho-Daoist philosophy, the secret of eternal life, transformations, flight via cloud, armed and unarmed military arts, general magic, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Tests of spiritual intelligence appear to be used to permit only the brightest into his inner circle.

Subodhi exhibits (or hints at having) clairvoyance, omniscience, and control over souls and karmic results. His power of foresight might then explain why he accepted Monkey as a student, only to later expel him. This was likely done to ignite the chain of events that would eventually lead to Sun’s achievement of Buddhahood, thereby completing the last of Zhang Boduan’s two-step process towards Buddo-Daoist transcendence.

Journey to the West stresses the Patriarch’s status as a Buddhist deity, albeit one with Daoist leanings. Therefore, I suggest that he is a bodhisattva like (as one scholar has proposed) the historical Subhūti. A Daoist bodhisattva, however, is not a paradox as such figures appear in late-Ming syncretic popular literature. Examples include the former high-ranking immortals-turned-bodhisattvas Guanyin, Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra from Investiture of the Gods (c. 1620).


Update: 06-04-22

Above I mentioned that Puti (菩提) is used at least three times to refer to Subodhi, thus stressing the Patriarch’s connection to the Buddhist concept of bodhi (Pāli / Sk: “awakening” or “enlightenment”). There’s actually a fourth usage, appearing in the title of chapter two: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title serves as a double reference to the end of Prince Siddhārtha‘s path to enlightenment. (I explain in this article that the author-compiler of the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West likely based Monkey’s early life on the Buddha to make his spiritual journey more familiar to the reader.) As part of the Prince’s meditative journey inward to discover hidden truths, he faces off against the army of the heavenly demon Māra (Mo, 魔), the ruler of the illusionary world of Saṃsāra. But these evil forces are rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality. He shortly thereafter achieves enlightenment (a.k.a. bodhi) (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Likewise, thanks to [Su]Bodhi’s guidance, Sun Wukong is able to also stop Mara and achieve immortality.

This free association between Buddhist (bodhi/Mara/returning to the root) and Daoist (primal spirit) concepts was common place in Ming-era religious literature. Darga (2008) explains:

Comparing the development of the embryo to the revelation of Buddhahood is typical of neidan texts of the Ming period. For instance, the Xingming guizhi (Principles of Balanced Cultivation of Inner Nature and Vital Force) uses Body of the Law (fashen 法身, dharmakāya) as a synonym for shengtai. The birth of the embryo represents the appearance of the original spirit (yuanshen 元神) or Buddhahood and is understood as enlightenment (p. 884).

Therefore, the Monkey King’s immortality is synonymous with the Buddha’s enlightenment. And since Subodhi is key to Sun’s spiritual achievement, and given the Patriarch’s demonstrated connection to Buddhism in the novel, I’d like to further suggest that the character is the original disciple Subhūti. After all, he still lives in India like his namesake.

Despite all of the overwhelming evidence for the Patriarch’s connection to Buddhism, someone might point out that the novel refers to him as a “Spirit Immortal” (shenxian, 神仙) (for example). The Anthology of the Transmission of the Dao from Zhongli Quan to Lü Dongbin (Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji, 鐘呂傳道集, c. late-Tang) explains that this is the fourth of five kinds of transcendents [12] who has cast off the mortal body (per the methods outlined above) to enjoy a life free from the dust of the world (Wong, 2000, p. 29; see also here). But making this distinction in the face of Ming syncretism amounts to little more than arguing semantics. As we’ve seen, this philosophy equates achieving immortality with enlightenment. And Subodhi’s description above as having “no end and no birth” (busheng bumie, 不生不滅) embodies that, for he has both the Daoist elixir and the Buddha-mind and has thus broken free of the wheel of rebirth.

Taking a page from the Daoist Bodhisattvas of Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), perhaps Subodhi/Subhūti was an immortal recruited by the Buddha, or the Buddhist disciple trained under the former high-ranking immortals-turned-bodhisattvas Guanyin, Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra. Knowing different paths to divinity would make him a more affective teacher and bodhisattva.

Here is a welcoming, modern image of Subhūti (fig. 9). The top line reads “The Honored Monk Subhūti’s Understanding of Emptiness is Number One” (Xuputi zunzhe jiekong diyi, 须菩提尊者解空第一). I love the golden halo.

Fig. 9 – A modern ink on paper drawing of Subhūti (larger version). Image found here.


Update: 06-06-22

Subodhi is alluded to in Investiture of the Gods (c. 1620). It reproduces a poem about the sage from chapter one of Journey to the West (section 2.3). The original reads:

A Golden Immortal of Great Awareness and of great ken and purest mien,
Master Bodhi, whose wondrous appearance like the West
Had no end or birth by work of the Double Three.
His whole spirit and breath were with mercy filled.
Empty, spontaneous, it could change at will,
His Buddha-nature able to do all things.
The same age as Heaven had his majestic frame.
Fully tried and enlightened was this grand priest (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).

大覺金仙沒垢姿,西方妙相祖菩提。不生不滅三三行,全氣全神萬萬慈。空寂自然隨變化,真如本性任為之。與天同壽莊嚴體,歷劫明心大法師。

Chapter 61 of Investiture of the Gods reproduces the poem with only minor changes (indicated in red):

A Golden Immortal of Great Awareness and timelessness, [13]
Dharma Master Bodhi of the wondrous West
Had no end or birth by work of the Double Three.
His whole spirit and breath were with mercy filled.
Empty, spontaneous, it could change at will,
His Buddha-nature able to do all things.
The same age as Heaven had his majestic frame.
Fully tried and enlightened was this grand priest (emphasis mine). [14]

大覺金仙不二時,西方妙祖菩提。不生不滅三三行,全氣全神萬萬慈。空寂自然隨變化,真如本性任為之。與天同壽莊嚴體,歷劫明心大法師。

It goes on to associate the poem with a Buddhist deity known as “Person of the Way, Cundī (Zhunti daoren, 準提道人) (fig. 10). This figure is traditionally considered a multi-armed, female bodhisattva with a strong connection to the Cundā Dhāraṇī, a power-bestowing mantra (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 204). Therefore, it appears that the author was trying to provide an origin for Subodhi (likely based on “提” (ti) appearing in both character’s names). Afterall, the novel is often considered a sequel to Journey to the West because it reveals the origins of many secondary characters (Li Jing, Nezha, Muzha, Erlang, etc.). However, it’s important to remember that Investiture of the Gods is still a separate novel by a different author. So, any events therein should NOT be considered canon for Journey to the West. Besides, the latter work clearly establishes a link between Subodhi and the historical Subhūti.

Fig. 10 – Person of the Way, Cundī (top right) fighting against a rogue immortal (lower left) (larger version). From a modern manhua comic book. Image found here.


Update: 06-09-22

It turns out that Subodhi is not the invention of the author-compiler [15] of the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West. He appears in the earlier “Zhu edition” of the novel, a.k.a. Chronicle of Deliverances in Tang Sanzang’s Journey to the West (Tang Sanzang Xiyou shi e zhuan, 唐三藏西遊释厄傳) by Zhu Dingchen (朱鼎臣). [16] The following quote indicates the differences between the Zhu edition (red) with the 1592 edition (black):

With solemnity the Monkey King set his clothes in order and followed the boy into the depths of the cave. They passed rows and rows of lofty towers and huge alcoves, of pearly chambers and carved arches. After walking through innumerable quiet chambers and empty studios, they finally reached the base of the green jade platform. Patriarch Subodhi was seen seated solemnly on the platform, with thirty lesser immortals standing below in rows. He [It] was truly a realm of immortals. Let’s listen to the explanation in the next chapter. (emphasis mine)

[Poem describing Master Subodhi. See above for translation. The Zhu version has a typo in the line “Grand priest” (“大師” instead of “大法師”).]

這猴王整衣端,隨童子徑入洞天深處觀看:一層層深閣瓊樓,一進進珠宮貝闕,說不盡那靜室幽居,直至瑤台之下。見那菩提祖師端坐在台上,兩邊有三十個小仙侍立台下。果然是座仙境。且聽下回分解

大覺金仙沒垢姿,西方妙相祖菩提,不生不滅三三行,全氣全神萬萬慈。空寂自然隨變化,真如本性任為之, 與天同壽莊嚴體,歷劫明心大法 (原作“”) 師。

The Zhu version is comprised of ten scrolls (juan, 卷) with three to ten subsections each. These subsections differ from the chapter layout of the 1592 edition. For example, subsections one to three and four to five respectively correspond to chapters one and two of the 1592 edition (Koss, 1981, pp. 14-15). It’s interesting to note that the above poem caps the first subsection of scroll one. This is why it ends with: “Let’s listen to the explanation in the next chapter” (qieting xiahua fenjie, 且聽下回分解).


Update: 06-10-22

Monkey’s religious name Wukong (悟空), or “Awakened to Emptiness“, predates the 1592 and Zhu editions, appearing as early as an early-Ming zaju play. Therefore, I’d like to suggest that the historical Subhūti was chosen as the basis for a master worthy of bestowing this name because of his great knowledge of emptiness, as well as the large role that he plays in the Diamond Sutra (Sk: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra; Ch: 金剛般若波羅蜜多經, Jingang bore boluomiduo jing, a.k.a. Jingang jing金剛經). After all, the scripture “deals with the concept of emptiness” despite never once “employ[ing] the word for emptiness śūnyatā [Ch: kong, 空]” (Watson, 2010, p. 75). [17]  Alluding to the sutra makes sense as it was so overwhelmingly popular when Journey to the West was written that tales of its miracles where eventually compiled during the late-Ming and Qing dynasties (Ho, 2019). So, the people reading the novel would have no doubt recognized Subodhi as an allusion to Subhūti from the scripture.

The late-13th-century version of the Journey to the West story cycle already presents Monkey as an ancient Daoist immortal with magic powers from the very beginning. Therefore, this element likely played a role in draping the Buddhist master in a thin veil of Daoism to create the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi.

Notes:

1) The list of Xuputi variations comes from Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2014, p. 394.

2) Osto (2016) continues:

This conception that certain disciples of the Buddha were actually crypto-bodhisattvas fits in well with the Prajñāpāramitā idea … that a true bodhisattva does not maintain the idea that ‘I am a bodhisattva‘. Though these bodhisattva-disciples are actually bodhisattvas in guise of disciples, as true bodhisattvas, they would never admit to being bodhisattvas, because the false conception of ‘bodhisattva‘ as a truly existent dharma with ‘own-being’ never occurs in their minds (p. 128).

3) The English translation glosses over this, choosing instead to state how the three “not long thereafter” became the aforementioned bodhisattvas (Gu, 2000, p. 1737).

4) Source slightly altered. I’ve made the translation more accurate. I will do this with the rest of Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation where necessary.

5) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) suggests that this poem is related to the Buddha’s statement that Sun is “only a monkey who happened to become a spirit, … merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation” (p. 70). This alludes to a Confucian hierarchical scale present in the novel where animals are able to attain human qualities through spiritual cultivation. So Monkey’s training under Subodhi allows him to wed his monkey form to the human heart-mind.

6) Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.

7) Ter Haar (2021) provides a list of such generational names:

Table 1. The use affiliation characters by People of the Way

Dao 道 (Huzhou, Jiaxing, Taizhou, Suzhou) (13 cases) – The Way
Zhi 智 (Huzhou, Jiaxing) (6 cases) – Wisdom
Yuan 圓 (Huzhou, Jiaxing, Taizhou) (5 cases) – Complete
Pu 普 (Taicang, Taizhou, Huating) (4 cases) – Universal
Miao 妙 (Deqing, Jiaxing) (3 cases) – Wondrous
Jue 覺 (Huating) (1 case) – Awareness (p. 39)

8) An example of the Monkey King’s knowledge of Buddhist scripture happens in chapter 93:

“Disciple,” said the Tang Monk, “it may be true that the land of Buddha is not far away. But remember what the temple priests told us the other day: the distance to the capital of the Kingdom of lndia is still some two thousand miles. I wonder how far have we gone already.”

“Master,” said Pilgrim, “could it be that you have quite forgotten again the Heart Sūtra [Xinjing, 心經] of the Crow’s Nest Chan Master?”

Tripitaka said, “That Prajñā-pāramitā is like a cassock or an alms bowl that accompanies my very body. Since it was taught me by that Crow’s Nest Chan Master, has there been a day that I didn’t recite it? Indeed, has there been a single hour that I didn’t have it in mind? I could recite the piece backward! How could I have forgotten it?”

“Master, you may be able to recite it,” said Pilgrim, “but you haven’t begged that Chan Master for its proper interpretation.”

“Ape-head!” snapped Tripitaka. “How dare you say that I don’t know its interpretation! Do you?”

“Yes, I know its interpretation!” replied Pilgrim. After that exchange, neither Tripitaka nor Pilgrim uttered another word. At their sides, Eight Rules nearly collapsed with giggles and Sha Monk almost broke up with amusement.

“What brassiness!” said Eight Rules. “Like me, he began his career as a monster-spirit. He wasn’t an acolyte who had heard lectures on the sūtras, nor was he a seminarian who had seen the law expounded. It’s sheer flimflam and pettifoggery to say that he knows how to interpret the sutra! Hey, why is he silent now? Let’s hear the lecture! Please give us the interpretation!”

“Second Elder Brother,” said Sha Monk, “do you believe him? Big Brother is giving us a nice tall tale, just to egg Master on his journey. He may know how to play with a rod. He doesn’t know anything about explaining a sūtra!”

“Wuneng and Wujing,” said Tripitaka, “stop this claptrap! Wukong’s interpretation is made in a speechless language. That’s true interpretation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 264-265)

9) These methods are named after a set of 108 stellar deities from Chinese astrology and popular literature. Sources describe the 72 stars as malevolent, while the 36 are more helpful. I follow the translation of these names from Meulenbeld (2019).

10) Thanks again to Irwen Wong for bringing these examples to my attention.

11) The term wuyi has been used as far back as the third-century CE to refer to Chinese martial arts. It predates the more familiar wushu (武術) by some three centuries (Lorge, 2012, p. 10).

12) The Anthology of the Transmission of the Dao from Zhongli Quan to Lü Dongbin (Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji, 鐘呂傳道集, c. late-Tang) states:

The three paths of cultivation are the Lesser Path, the Middle Path, and the Great Path. The five classes of immortals are ghost immortal, human immortal, earth immortal, spirit immortal, and celestial immortal (Wong, 2000, p. 29).

法有三成者,小成、中成、大成之不同也。仙有五等者,鬼仙、人仙、地仙、神仙、天仙

13) The original Chinese characters that I chose to translate as “timelessness” are “不二時” (bu ershi). Soothill and Hodous (1937/2014) define the phrase “二時” (ershi) as: “The two times or periods—morning and evening. Also 迦羅 kāla, a regular or fixed hour for meals, and 三昧那 samaya, irregular or unfixed hours or times” (p. 25). They further define kāla as: “a definite time, a division of time; the time of work, study, etc., as opposed to leisure time” (Soothill and Hodous, 1937/2014,p. 316). Therefore, the Investiture of the Gods poem might be suggesting that the intended character is beyond time.

14) The English version doesn’t even translate the poem (Gu, 2000, pp. 1248 and 1249).

15) The question of Wu Cheng’en‘s authorship is beyond the scope of this article.

16) Koss (1981) performs an in-depth analysis of the standard 1592, Zhu, and Yang editions of the Ming-era Journey to the West, showing that the 1592 edition is an expansion of Zhu and Yang is a later abridgement of the former. Zhu being the oldest, with portions likely predating 1450, is based on its earlier style phrasing and chapter structure; the use of vernacular language with simplistic two-person dialogue and fewer and less literary poems, suggesting a reliance on oral literature; and Zhu illustrations serving as the basis for many pictures from the 1592 edition.

17) The Diamond Sutra uses an “A is not-A” structure to negate anything and everything that might lead to physical or spiritual clinging. For example, one passage reads:

“Subhūti, [if a bodhisattva] were to say, ‘I am going to save a countless number of living beings,’ then one could not call that person a bodhisattva. Why? Because, Subhūti, there is no such dharma called a bodhisattva. Therefore, the Buddha teaches that, with regard to all dharmas, there is no self, no being, no living creature, no individual.”

“Subhūti, if a bodhisattva were to say, ‘I will adorn the buddha lands,’ he cannot be called a bodhisattva. Why? Because the Buddha teaches that to adorn the buddha lands is not to adorn them. This is called adorning. Subhūti, if the bodhisattvas thoroughly understand that there is no such thing as a self, then the [Tathāgata] declares that they are truly worthy to be called bodhisattvas” (Watson, 2010, p. 90).

“Adorning the Buddha land” refers to the treasure-like splendor of the heavenly paradises created for those saved by bodhisattvas (Watson, 2010, p. 83 n. 20).

Sources:

Beal, S. (Trans.). (1883). The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king: A Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/foshohingtsankin00asva/mode/2up

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

Darga, M. (2008) Shengtai. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 1-2) (pp. 883-884). Longdon: Routledge.

Eskildsen, S. (2008). Do Immortals Kill?: The Controversy Surrounding Lü Dongbin. Journal of Daoist Studies 1, 28-66. doi:10.1353/dao.2008.0001.

Eskildsen, S. (2019). Daoist Theories on Sexual Body Alteration. In A. Cuffel, A. Echevarria, & G. T. Halkias (Eds.), Religious Boundaries for Sex, Gender, and Corporeality (pp. 33-47). London: Routledge.

Gu, Z. (2000). Creation of the Gods (Vol. 4). Beijing: New World Press.

Ho, C. H. (2019). Diamond Sutra Narratives: Textual Production and Lay Religiosity in Medieval China. Netherlands: Brill.

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.

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Koss, N. (1981). The Xiyou ji in Its Formative Stages: The Late Ming Editions (Vol. 1-2). (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 8112445)

Leong, H. (2001). Ritual Implements, Tools & Objects of Chinese Buddhism. Taiwan: Yuan guang Buddhist Publications.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Meulenbeld, M. (2019). Vernacular “Fiction” and Celestial Script: A Daoist Manual for the Use of Water Margin. Religions10(9), 518. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rel10090518.

Miura, K. (2008). Dongtian and Fudi. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism (Vol. 1-2) (pp. 368-373). Longdon: Routledge.

Osto, D. (2016). Orality, Authority, and Conservatism in the Prajnaparamita Sutras. In B. Black & L. Patton (Eds.), Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Traditions (pp. 115-136). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

Robinet, I. (1993). Taoist Meditation: The Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Santangelo, P. (2013). Zibuyu, “What The Master Would Not Discuss”, According to Yuan Mei (1716 – 1798): A Collection of Supernatural Stories (2 Vols). Netherlands: Brill.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/25076127.

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2014). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1937)

Ter Haar, B. (2021). The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Netherlands: Brill.

Watson, B. (2010). The Diamond Sutra. The Eastern Buddhist, 41(1), 67–100. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/26289589.

Wong, E. (2000). Tao of Health, Longevity, and Immortality: The Teachings of Immortals Chung and Lü. United States: Shambhala.

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

The Monkey King’s Worship in Thailand

Last updated: 06-07-2022

I first learned of Great Sage worship in Thailand when Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project showed me a Monkey King statue on a Thai Facebook group. Since then, I’ve noticed an explosion in social media posts (mainly on Facebook and Instagram) highlighting his veneration in the “Land of Smiles”. Here, I’d like to record what I’ve learned so far.

Please revisit the page for future updates.

I. Names for the Monkey King

  1. เห้งเจีย (Hêng jiia, or just “Heng Jia/Chia” = Xingzhe, 行者, “Pilgrim”). [1] This appears to be the most popular of his Thai names. This should come as no surprise, though, as Xingzhe (行者) is used FAR more to refer to Monkey in Journey to the West (4,335 times) than Wukong (悟空) (512 times). [2]
  2. ซุนหงอคง (Sun ngŏr kong, or just “Sun Ngokong” = Sun Wukong, 孫悟空) (see here).
  3. ฉีเทียนต้าเชิ่ง (Chĕe tiian dtâa chêrng = Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖, “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”)
  4. ฉีเทียนต้าเซิน (Chĕe tiian dtâa sern = same as above)
  5. โต้วจั้นเชิ่งโฝ (Dtôh wá jân chêrng fŏh = Douzhan shengfo, 鬥戰勝佛, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”)
  6. ต้าเชิ่งโฝจู่ (Dtâa chêrng fŏh jòo = Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖, “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch”
  7. ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว (Dtâi sìia húk-jôh, or just “Tai Sia Huk Chou/Zhou/Jow” = same as above)

II. Statuary

Various Thai Facebook groups post pictures of the same kinds of monkey god statues found in East and Southeast Asia. These range from armored warriors wielding the magic staff to serene buddhas on lotus thrones (consult the third paragraph after video one here for a description of Monkey’s traditional iconography). But I’ve noticed that one flavor of Thai Great Sage statue is almost entirely gilded (or draped with gold cloth) except for a pink/red mask around the eyes, the latter being similar to his Chinese opera depictions. Said statues tend to feature a golden headband with very tall curlicues (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – An example of a golden Thai monkey statue with a pink mask and a high curlicue headband (larger version). Originally posted here.

I’ve also noticed an abundance of Dizang-like Monkey Buddha statues, similar to those found in Singapore (I haven’t seen many such depictions in Taiwan). This may be of Fujian influence (see here). He is sometimes portrayed wearing an ornate crown (with or without the golden headband) and monk’s robes and seated on a lotus throne. One hand is held in a mudra, while the other clasps a ruyi scepter (or more rarely a fly whisk). I recently purchased such a statue with an amulet pressed in the bottom (fig. 2 and video #1).

Fig. 2 – My 20cm colored resin Thai Monkey Buddha statue (larger version). Take note that the lotus throne sits on a pile of gold coins and ingots. Picture by the original seller.

Video #1 – Video by the original seller.

III. Amulets

Buddhist amulets (Th: prá krêuuang, พระเครื่อง) are immensely important to Thai devotees. Marcus (2018) explains that they are believed to “endow wearers with supernatural faculties”. He continues: “Some amulets are thought to bring success and happiness. Others are believed to protect the wearer against disease, witchcraft, and misfortune” (Marcus, 2018). It’s no different for worshipers of the Monkey King. I’ve seen countless examples on Facebook ranging from Monkey Buddhas to Monkey warriors. See four examples below (fig. 3-6).

Fig. 3 – An amulet listing him as the “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 4 – A multi-armed Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 5 – An armored, flying Buddha Patriarch (larger version). Originally posted here. Fig. 6 – Another armored example (larger version). Originally posted here.

IV. Spirit-Mediumship

Like East and Southeast Asia, Thailand also has Great Sage spirit-mediums (Ch: Jitong, 乩童; Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; lit: “Divining Child”) (consult the paragraph after figure six here for more information about these ritual specialists). One temple medium seen on the ไปดีมาดี Channel1928 YouTube channel employs white, black, and gold headbands with the aforementioned high curlicue design. The color used appears to depend on which monkey god takes over the medium. I can’t comment on any rituals particular to the Thai religious sphere. But I have seen the medium perform self-mortification in order to create paper talismans (video #2). This is a normal function of spirit-mediums even in East and Southeast Asia. See my twitter post for pictures of a similar Taiwanese ritual.

I’m hoping to gather more information on Thai Great Sage spirit-mediumship in the future.

Video #2 –  HEADPHONE WARNING!!! The Thai Great Sage medium cuts his tongue to create paper talismans.


Update: 04-20-22

I just learned from this webpage that there is a Thai language book about the history of the Monkey King. Here’s the citation:

จรัสศรี จิรภาส. เห้งเจีย (ฉีเทียนต้าเสิ้ง) ลิงในวรรณกรรมที่กลายเป็นเทพเจ้า. กรุงเทพฯ : มติชน, 2547.

Jaratsri Jirapas. Heng Jia (Chi Tian Da Sheng), a Literary Monkey who has become a God. Bangkok: Matichon, 2004.

This online book seller has pictures of the cover (fig. 7) and some of the internal pages.

Fig. 7 – The cover of the Heng Jia book (larger version).

Also, I’ve learned the name and location of a small monkey god temple in Bangkok, Thailand (fig. 8-10 and video #3). It is claimed to be at least 200 years old(!), suggesting that Heng Jia has been worshiped by Chinese-Thai for several centuries:

ศาลเจ้าพ่อเห้งเจีย (Săan-jâo-pôr Hêng-jiia) – “Shrine of Heng Jia”

66 Rama IV Rd, Talat Noi, Samphanthawong, Bangkok 10500, Thailand

+66 2 221 9018

Fig. 8 – The main altar statue, behind which are two gold Monkey Buddha statues with pink masks (larger version). Fig. 9 – The left Monkey Buddha (larger version). Fig. 10 – The right Monkey Buddha (larger version). Pictures by KittyBinny’s Journey on Blockdit.

Video #3 – An episode about the temple on the MY CHANNEL – OFFICIAL YouTube Channel.


Update: 04-21-21

A fellow member of the Taoism Singapore and the Local Gods and their Legends Facebook groups was kind enough to let me post pictures of a Thai Monkey God amulet that he received in San Francisco around the year 2000. The top notes that it’s from the Tanglai Temple (Tanglai gong, 唐來宮), the first two characters being a term used in Journey to the West to indicate that the pilgrims have “come from China” in the east. The characters on the left and right sides combine to read “I submit to the Buddha Amitabha” (Namo Amituofo, 南無阿彌陀佛). The Thai at the bottom reads “Reverend Monk Heng Jia” (lŭuang bpòo hêng-jiia, หลวงปู่เห้งเจีย) (fig. 11). The reverse depicts the eight trigrams encircling a Taiju symbol (fig. 12), indicating that the amulet is Buddho-Daoist.

Fig. 11 – The front of the Monkey God amulet (larger version). Fig. 12 – The backside (larger version). 


Update: 04-22-22

Ellis (2017) mentions a “monument” to Heng Jia in Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (ศาลเจ้าพ่อเขาใหญ่) (p. 86). Mr. Ellis told me in a personal communication that the cave “is on Ko Si Chang island off the coast of Pattaya“. The address is:

5R94+7MM, Tha Thewawong, Ko Sichang District, Chon Buri 20120, Thailand

The small Monkey shrine is located in the interior, and it is surrounded by a forest of red prayer sheets (fig. 13). See here for a video touring the cave. The section featuring Heng Jia starts around minute 3:16.

Munier (1998) notes that this cave is the “only one” dedicated to Monkey in Thailand (p. 170). A big thank you to Mr. Ellis for providing this information. Please check out his blog.

Fig. 13 – The Heng Jia shrine at Chao Pho Khao Yai cave (larger version). Original photo posted here. See here for a wider shot of the shrine.


Update: 04-23-22

A fellow member of a Monkey King group that I belong to posted this article of seven Thai Heng Jia shrines, including the ones I’ve mentioned above.

https://travel.trueid.net/detail/m0gr288wBPQx

Also, here’s a Thai prayer to Hengjia (video #4). It’s called “Prayer to the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Bòt sùuat mon dtâi sìia húk-jôh, บทสวดมนต์ไต้เสี่ยฮุกโจ้ว), and the video labels it in Chinese as “Scripture of the Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu jing, 大聖佛祖經).

Video #4 – The prayer to Hengjia.

Here’s a transcription of the prayer:

ไต่เสี่ยฮุกโจวเก็ง
ไต่ เสี่ย จู เสี่ยง กิ๋ง
บ่อ เสียง กิก เซี้ยง จูง
ก่วย ขื่อ อี ซิว เจ่ง
หลี่ ไอ่ เถี่ยว สี่ กัง
ซุ้ย ชื้อ สี่ เกียง เอ๋า
เหลี่ยง เมี่ยง จู คุ่ง อู๋
ห่วย ซิง เทียง ตง จู้
ปัก เก๊ก ฉิก อ้วง จูง
หู่ เพียก กั่ง ข่วง อ๋วย
จู๋ ไจ้ อี บ่วง ลุ้ย
เสียง ไจ่ เส็ก เกีย ซือ
อุ่ย เจ่ง กู่ ซวง ส่วย
อั้ว เต้ง กิม อี บุ๋ง
ง่วง ก้วง อี ม้วก สี่
หยู่ สี เก็ง กง เต็ก
คิ่ว ฮุก จิ่ง ซวง เอี้ยง
ไต่ เสี่ย ฮุก โจ้ว เก็ง
ยื่อ ซี้ ฮุก เก่า ไต๋ เจ่ง
เยียก อู๋ เสียง น้ำ สิ่ง นึ่ง ยิ้ง
ม้วย ยิก จี่ ซิม เหนี่ยม เจ็ก กึ้ง
หยู่ จ้วง กิม กัง เก็ง ซา จับ บ่วง กิ้ง
อิ่ว ติก สิ่ง เม้ง เกีย หู
เจ่ง ซิ้ง ที หี
ตี่ หุย ไจ เทียง ตี๋
อู่ นั่ง อ่วย เสี้ย เจ็ก ปึ้ง
อื้อ นั้ง หลิ่ว ท้วง
กง เต็ก เกา หยู่ ซู หนี่ ซัว
ชิม หยู่ ไต่ ไห้
บ่อ เหลียง กง เต็ก
ย่ง สี่ ปุก ตะ ตี่ เง็ก มิ้ง
ฉู่ ฉู่ หลั่ง สั่ว
เทีย ตัก มอ อิ้ง ซา ผ่อ ฮอ


Update: 04-24-22

This page mentions the benefits of worshiping Heng Jia (based on Google Translate):

If anyone worships Lord Tai Sia Huk Zhou, it will make everything smooth, turning bad into good, making it possible to do anything without obstacles. This includes family and friends, doing business, selling progress, keeping anything bad from coming into our lives. The believer must behave well, think positively, and never think ill of others. All blessings will bear fruit. Life will be truly happy and business will progress more and more.

[…]

If worshipers are free from evil and have health, intelligence, tact, and courage, they will be able to always find a solution to their problems. Therefore, [Heng Jia’s faith] is very popular among business operators that need to find a solution to every obstacle and problem.


Update: 05-21-22

A Thai temple is raising funds by selling Monkey King statues in different postures, each with their own benefits (fig. 14-16). Here is a translation by a friend:

1. Clairvoyant posture = worship this for blessing of import/export trading.
2. Success posture = worship this for blessing of wealth.
3. Meditation posture = worship this for blessing of wisdom.

Fig. 14 – The “Clairvoyant posture” (larger version). Fig. 15 – The “Success posture” (larger version). Fig. 16 – The “Meditation posture” (larger version).


Update: 06-07-22

My friend posted a picture of a Thai Great Sage shrine to Facebook. It shows a stone monkey statue, behind which is a large silver and gold staff. Whereas the literary weapon is “如意金箍棒” (Ruyi jingu bang), the “As-you-will Gold-Banded Staff”, the shrine version is labeled “如意金剛榜” (Ruyi jingang bang), “As-you-will Vajra staff” (fig. 17 and 18). [3] The Vajra (jingang, 金剛) is a heavenly weapon closely associated with the Buddhist guardian deity Vajrapāni (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩, lit: “The Vajra-Bearing Bodhisattva”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955). Therefore, the name change strengthens Sun Wukong’s association with Buddhism.

Fig. 17 – The Great Sage shrine with a stone monkey statue and the silver and gold staff (larger version). Fig. 18 – Detail of the Chinese characters on the staff (larger version).

Note:

1) See section III of this article for more info on the name “Pilgrim”.

2) Thank you to Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog for bringing this to my attention.

3) 榜 (bang) should be 棒 (bang).

Source:

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

Ellis, M. (2017). The Caves of Eastern Thailand. (n.p.): Lulu.com.

Marcus, D. (2018, May 5). Featured Object: Thai Buddhist Amulet. Spurlock Museum of World Cultures Blog. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://www.spurlock.illinois.edu/blog/p/featured-object-thai/263.

Munier, C. (1998). Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand. Thailand: White Lotus.

Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations

Last updated: 04-10-2022

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) happens in chapter six when heaven sends Erlang to confront Sun Wukong during his rebellion. After a prolonged, indecisive battle between the two immortals in their respective humanoid and cosmic giant forms, Monkey loses heart when his children are captured, causing him to flee. He tries to hide in the guise of a sparrow but is soon spotted by Erlang. This leads to an epic battle of magical transformations (video 1):

[…] Erlang at once discovered that the Great Sage had changed into a small sparrow perched on a tree. He changed out of his magic form and took off his pellet bow. With a shake of his body, he changed into a sparrow hawk with outstretched wings, ready to attack its prey. When the Great Sage saw this, he darted up with a flutter of his wings; changing himself into a cormorant, he headed straight for the open sky. When Erlang saw this, he quickly shook his feathers and changed into a huge ocean crane, which could penetrate the clouds to strike with its bill. The Great Sage therefore lowered his direction, changed into a small fish, and dove into a stream with a splash. Erlang rushed to the edge of the water but could see no trace of him. He thought to himself, “This simian must have gone into the water and changed himself into a fish, a shrimp, or the like. I’ll change again to catch him.” He duly changed into a fish hawk and skimmed downstream over the waves. After a while, the fish into which the Great Sage had changed was swimming along with the current. Suddenly he saw a bird that looked like a green kite though its feathers were not entirely green, like an egret though it had small feathers, and like an old crane though its feet were not red. “That must be the transformed Erlang waiting for me,” he thought to himself. He swiftly turned around and swam away after releasing a few bubbles. When Erlang saw this, he said, “The fish that released the bubbles looks like a carp though its tail is not red, like a perch though there are no patterns on its scales, like a snake fish though there are no stars on its head, like a bream though its gills have no bristles. Why does it move away the moment it sees me? It must be the transformed monkey himself!” He swooped toward the fish and snapped at it with his beak. The Great Sage shot out of the water and changed at once into a water snake; he swam toward shore and wriggled into the grass along the bank. When Erlang saw that he had snapped in vain and that a snake had darted away in the water with a splash, he knew that the Great Sage had changed again. Turning around quickly, he changed into a scarlet-topped gray crane, which extended its heel like sharp iron pincers to devour the snake. With a bounce, the snake changed again into a spotted bustard standing by itself rather stupidly amid the water pepper along the bank. When Erlang saw that the monkey had changed into such a vulgar creature-for the spotted bustard is the basest and most promiscuous of birds, mating indiscriminately with phoenixes, hawks, or crows-he refused to approach him. Changing back into his true form, he went and stretched his bow to the fullest. With one pellet he sent the bird hurtling […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-183).

Video 1 – A light-hearted, animated version of the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

My friend Irwen Wong over at the Journey to the West Library blog has analyzed this fight, showing that Erlang’s changes are always a stronger response to the Monkey King’s transformations.

[…] 1.3. Round 3

Type: Transformation
Monkey turns himself into a sparrow and flees by flying away. Erlang notices this transformation and turns himself into a sparrow hawk to attack.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.4. Round 4

Type: Transformation
When Monkey now changes into a cormorant to be able to fly higher, out of Erlang’s hawk’s reach. Erlang was aware of this and transforms into an ocean crane to give chase.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.5. Round 5

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey was afraid of Erlang’s powerful transformations and turns himself into a small fish to hide in a stream. Erlang changes into a fish hawk and scans the stream for Monkey’s trace. He cleverly identifies the fish that was Monkey and attempts to catch it.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.6. Round 6

Type: Transformation
Monkey immediately darts out of the water when he sees Erlang and changes into a water snake. Erlang transforms into a grey crane to catch the water snake.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.7. Round 7

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey sees that Erlang had turned into a crane to chase him, so he wittily transformed into a spotted bustard to oppose Erlang’s crane.
Result: Monkey wins – Erlang as a crane did not dare approach the bustard.

1.8. Round 8

Type: Transformation & combat
When Monkey changed into a bustard, Erlang was afraid to approach it. Instead, Erlang reverted to his original form and took out his pellet bow. With the bow, he aimed at Monkey’s bustard and succeeded with a strong direct hit.
Result: Erlang wins.
[…]

This magical battle is actually related to an ancient mythic motif involving two warring supernatural beings.

I. Antecedents of the motif

Ioannis M. Konstantakos’ (2016) paper “The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition” explains that the motif can be traced to the Near East of the late-3rd millennium BCE. However, the oldest variants instead depict the combatants transforming objects and not their physical bodies in battle. But the outcome is still the same: one competitor produces stronger responses to the other’s initial attack. For example, the Sumerian tale Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana (c. early-2nd millennium BCE) depicts the two titular characters engaged in a magical battle over the fate of their respective homelands. Konstantakos (2016) writes:

The competition of Sağburu and Urğirnuna consists precisely in the magical fabrication of various animals. Each one of the adversaries throws a certain object of witchcraft into the river and draws out a magically produced creature (or group of creatures). Every time, however, Sağburu’s creations are bigger, stronger, and wilder than those of Urğirnuna, which they seize and lacerate as a result. Specifically, the foreign sorcerer produces in sequence: 1) a big carp; 2) a ewe with its lamb; 3) a cow with its calf; 4) an ibex and a wild sheep; and 5) a young gazelle. The wise witch, on the other hand, counters these creations correspondingly with 1) an eagle; 2) a wolf; 3) a lion; 4) a mountain leopard; and 5) a tiger and another kind of lion. In this way, all of Urğirnuna’s creatures are eliminated, and Sağburu wins the contest (p. 210).

This finds parallels with ancient Egyptian stories and even an event from the book of Exodus (7.8-12) (Konstantakos, 2016, pp. 210-213).

The more familiar version of the motif, which sees competitors transforming their bodies, is found in ancient Greek drama. Konstantakos (2016) describes one such tale involving the lustful adventures of Zeus:

The Cypria offers the most expanded and detailed form of the saga. Zeus was amorously chasing [his daughter] Nemesis, but she was averse to his sexual intentions and ran away. In the course of her flight, Nemesis took the form of various beasts; she became a fish in the sea and swam through the Ocean’s stream; then she changed herself into many kinds of animals on the land, in order to escape. In the end, the goddess was transformed into a bird, the species of which is variously given in the ancient sources. … Zeus assimilated himself to the same species of bird, becoming respectively a gander in the former version and a male swan in the latter one. In this form, the great god finally managed to mate with the metamorphosed and bird-like Nemesis (pp. 213-214).

The body transforming motif came to influence later European stories, many involving a battle between a magician and his arrogant pupil (folklore index no. 325) (Konstantakos, 2016, p. 208).

The Greek version is very similar to the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong, for both feature a character fleeing under different magical disguises while being chased by an assailant who undergoes stronger transformations in response. Given the link between Greek and Indian philosophy, I’d wager that there’s some ancient South Asian version of this motif that came to influence Journey to the West. I’m just happy that Monkey wasn’t handled like Nemesis in the final product. That would have been awkward for everyone!

II. Archive

Below, I archive Konstantakos (2016). The first half of the paper is fascinating, while the second is quite repetitive. It takes up a great deal of space analyzing a Near Eastern-influenced version of the motif in the Greek Alexander Romance. Please keep this in mind.

Archive link:

Click to access The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_t.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


Update: 04-10-22

I’ve mentioned in this article (section 3) that the Bull Demon King‘s story arc shares many similarities with Sun Wukong’s. He too has a battle of transformations, but instead of Erlang, his opponent is the Monkey King. Chapter 61 reads:

[…] Unable to enter the cave, the old Bull turned swiftly and saw Eight Rules and Pilgrim rushing toward him. He became so flustered that he abandoned his armor and his iron rod; with one shake of his body, he changed into a swan and flew into the air.

[…]

Putting away his golden-hooped rod, the Great Sage shook his body and changed into a Manchurian vulture, which spread its wings and darted up to a hole in the clouds. It then hurtled down and dropped onto the swan, seeking to seize its neck and peck at the eyes. Knowing also that this was a transformation of Pilgrim Sun, the Bull King hurriedly flapped his wings and changed himself into a yellow eagle to attack the vulture. At once Pilgrim changed himself into a black phoenix, the special foe of the yellow eagle. Recognizing him, the Bull King changed next into a white crane which, after a long cry, flew toward the south. Pilgrim stood still, and shaking his feathers, changed into a scarlet phoenix that uttered a resounding call. Since the phoenix was the ruler of all the birds and fowl, the white crane dared not touch him. Spreading wide his wings, he dived instead down the cliff and changed with one shake of the body into a musk deer, grazing rather timorously before the slope. Recognizing him, Pilgrim flew down also and changed into a hungry tiger which, with wagging tail and flying paws, went after the deer for food. Greatly flustered, the demon king then changed into a huge spotted leopard to attack the tiger. When Pilgrim saw him, he faced the wind and, with one shake of his head, changed into a golden-eyed Asian lion, with a voice like thunder and a head of bronze, which pounced on the huge leopard. Growing even more anxious, the Bull King changed into a large bear, which extended his paws to try to seize the lion. Rolling on the ground, Pilgrim at once turned himself into a scabby elephant, with a trunk like a python and tusks like bamboo shoots. Whipping up his trunk, he tried to catch hold of the bear (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157).

This fight shows that Sun Wukong learned a lot from his encounter with Erlang, for his transformations are far more fierce in comparison.

Sources:

Konstantakos, I. (2016). The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition. Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, 26, 207-234. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/25983449/_The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_the_Ancient_Storytelling_Tradition_Cuadernos_de_Filolog%C3%ADa_Cl%C3%A1sica_Estudios_griegos_e_indoeuropeos_26_2016_207_234.

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

Archive #35 – The Tang Monk Tripitaka as a Confucian in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2022

I’ve already posted three entries on the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang). The first discusses his former incarnation as Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple; the second discusses how chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version published in 1592; and the third discusses the connection between his exile from heaven to ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophy.  Here, I’d like present information that describes the monk’s characterization throughout the story. I’m quoting several pages from Yu’s (2008) paper “The Formation of Fiction in the ‘Journey to the West’“. He shows that, instead of a being a model Buddhist, the literary monk is cast as a Confucian.

I. Relevant pages

However that kind of textual contradiction is to be resolved, what no reader of the full-length novel can fail to notice is how deeply in Xuanzang’s consciousness is imprinted the magnitude of the imperial favor and charge bestowed on him. The historical pilgrim’s dedication to visit the Western region was motivated by the quest for doctrinal clarification (Fashizhuan 法師傳 I: “The Master of the Law … thus vowed to tour the region of the West so as to inquire about the perplexities (of his faith) 法師 … 乃誓遊西方以問所惑”), and this commitment would make him risk even death for defying “the laws of the state 國法” (Xingzhuang 行狀). In sharp contrast, the fictive priest, when promoted to be the emperor’s bond-brother for the willingness to serve as the scripture-seeker, said to his ruler: “Your Majesty, what ability and what virtue does your poor monk possess that he should merit such affection from your Heavenly Grace? I shall not spare myself in this journey, but I shall proceed with all diligence until I reach the Western Heaven. If I did not attain my goal, or the true scriptures, I would not dare return to our land even if I were to die. May I fall into eternal perdition in Hell. 陛下, 貧僧有何德何能, 敢蒙天恩眷顧如此? 我這一去, 定要捐軀努力, 直至西天; 如不到西天, 不得真經, 即死也不敢回國, 永墮沉淪地獄.” 

Whereas the historical pilgrim, upon his successful return to China with scriptures, felt compelled to seek imperial pardon for “braving to transgress the authoritative statutes and departing for India on one’s own authority 冒越憲章私往天竺” through both written memorial and direct oral petition (Fashizhuan 6), the fictive priest would be welcomed by a faithful and expectant ruler who had even built a Scripture-Anticipation Tower 望經樓 to wait anxiously for his envoy for eleven more years (chapter 100). This portrait of the pilgrimage’s imperial sponsorship, intervention (most notably in the travel rescript bearing the imperial seal administered by the emperor himself), and reception helps explain why the fictive priest would consider his religious mission to be, in fact, his obligated service to his lord and state, and that the mission’s success must enact not merely the fulfilment of a vow to Buddha but equally one to a human emperor. As the lead-in poem that inaugurates the priest’s formal journey at the beginning of chapter 13 puts it: “The rich Tang ruler issued a decree/Deputing Xuanzang to seek the source of Zen 大有唐王降敕封/欽差玄奘問禪宗.”

The fact that the fictive pilgrim was sent on his way by the highest human authority with tokens of imperial favor thus also changes fundamentally Xuanzang’s identity and its mode of disclosure. In sharp contrast to the historical figure who, deciding to defy the court’s proscription to travel in the western regions, “dared not show himself in public but rested during the day and journeyed only at night 不敢公出, 乃畫伏夜行” (Fashizhuan 1), the novelistic Xuanzang had no difficulty or hesitation in telling the first stranger he met that he was an imperial envoy sent by the Tang emperor to seek scriptures from Buddha in the Western Heaven. The words, uttered by both master and disciples, would become a formulaic announcement throughout the priest’s journey to every conceivable audience – whether divine, demonic or human – much as the imperial travel rescript authorizing his undertaking would be signed and stamped with royal seals of all the states and kingdoms the pilgrims visited, and from where they had gained permitted passage (chapter 100). The “Shengjiao xu 聖教序 (Preface to the Holy Religion”) bestowed by the historical Taizong on the repatriated Xuanzang, transcribed nearly verbatim in chapter 100 of the novel, had declared unambiguously that the journey was the monk’s solitary expedition 承危達邁, 策杖孤征. In this ex post facto encomium bequeathed to a cleric newly pardoned for a seventeen-year-old crime against the state, not even the emperor could claim credit for authorizing or assisting the project in any manner. On the other hand, the invented rescript, in poignant irony, would not allow the readers to forget for one minute that imperial charge and enablement were as needed as the assistance of the gods.

Throughout the novel’s lengthy course, therefore, there are quite a few examples in which Xuanzang frets about his inability to fulfill the decreed wish of his human lord 旨意 as much as the dreaded failure to reach and see Buddha. Fearing contracted illness might prove fatal during the episode of the Sea-Pacifying Monastery in chapter 81, a tearful Tripitaka would write a poem that he wants Monkey to take back to the Tang court, to inform his Sage Lord 聖君 of his precarious health and request another pilgrim be sent instead. Captured by a leopard monster in chapter 85, Tripitaka explains to a fellow prisoner that “If I lose my life here, would that not have dashed the expectation of the emperor and the high hopes of his ministers? 今若喪命, 可不盼殺那君王, 辜負那臣子?” When told by his interlocutor, a stereotypical wood-cutter who is the sole supporter of an old widowed mother (compare with the one who spoke to Monkey in chapter 1), the priest breaks into loud wailing, crying:

How pitiful! How pitiful! 可憐 可憐
If even a rustic has longings for his kin, Has not this poor priest chanted sūtras in vain?
To serve the ruler or to serve one’s parents follows the same
principle. You live by the kindness of your parents, and I live by the kindness of my ruler. 山人尚有思親意, 空教貧僧會念經, 事君事親, 皆同一理, 你為親恩, 我爲君恩.

Tripitaka’s emotional outburst not only places his sentiments squarely within the most familiar discourse of historical Confucian teachings, but also echoes his parting address to his monastic community at the Temple of Great Blessings 洪福寺 on the eve of his journey: “I have already made a great vow and a profound promise, that if I do not acquire the true scriptures, I shall fall into eternal perdition in Hell. Since I have received such grace and favor from the king, I have no alternative but to requite my country to the limit of loyalty. 我已發了弘誓大願, 不取真經, 永墮沉淪地獄, 大底是受王恩寵, 不得不盡忠以報國耳.” That remark, in turn, even more pointedly repeats a similar confession spoken by the Xuanzang of the twenty-four-act zaju: “Honored viewers, attend to the single statement by this lowly monk: a subject must reach the limit of loyalty, much as son must reach the limit of filial piety. There is no other means of requital than the perfection of both loyalty and filial piety. 眾官, 聽小僧一句言語: 為臣盡忠, 為子盡孝, 忠孝兩全, 餘無所報.” Words such as these may seem hackneyed and platitudinous to modern ears, to say the least, but this portrait of the novelistic Xuanzang cannot be ignored. Built consistently on the tradition of antecedent legend, but with important innovative additions apparently supplied by the Shidetang author, his characterization seems to fit precisely the mold of a stereotype – the traditional Confucian scholar-official.

If the full-length novel seems to indicate a presumption of the Three-Religions-in-One ideology 三教歸一 (or, 三教合一) for both its content and context, who among the five fictive pilgrims is more appropriate than the human monk to live to the limits of political loyalism and filial piety, especially when all four of the other disciples have only such tenuous relations to human culture and lineage? The historical Xuanzang was unquestionably a hero of religion, aptly turning his back on family and court in his youth to face appalling dangers with nary a regret, and without doubt a master of literary Sinitic and of scriptural styles shaped by difficult encounters with Indic languages. His biography, compiled by two disciples and touched with hagiography, duly recorded serial visitations to various states of Central Asia and India beset by encounters with gods and demons, physical perils and privations, triumphal religious proselytism, and royal hospitality in many locales. Nonetheless, could a faithful replica of this character who began his famed journey as a treasonous subject be expected to amuse and entertain in the popular imagination? The novelistic figure, by contrast, is timid, ethically fastidious, occasionally dogmatic and heedful of slander, and prone to partiality – mundane traits not uncommon to other male leads typed in Ming drama or vernacular fiction. Most interestingly, although this pilgrim, consistent with his vocational vow of celibacy, may display intractable resistance to sexual temptations in all circumstances (chapters 24, 54-55, 82-83), he is also so fond of poetry that he would discuss poetics with tree monsters (chapter 64) and compose quatrains in a region near India (chapter 94). Perhaps in parody of filial piety blended with the religious notion of reverting to the source and origin 反本還原 extolled in both Daoism and Buddhism, the narrative shows him to be so attached to his mother (when he is not thinking about the emperor) that an ordeal is almost conveniently structured right in his path nearing its goal that would reenact the fated marriage of his parents – the chance selection of the father by the mother’s thrown embroidered ball (chapters 93-95). In this episode on the Kingdom of India, where to the Tang Monk’s chauvinistic eyes the clothing, utensils, manner of speech, and behavior of the people completely resemble those of the Great Tang, the pilgrim’s persistent invocation of maternal experience also justly invites Monkey’s teasing about his master’s “longing for the past 慕古之意.” Is not such a person, dwelling in the religiously syncretic world of the full-length novel, a fit representative of Confucianism, at least as known and imagined by the vast populace? (Yu, 2008, pp. 22-26).

Disclaimer:

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.

II. My thoughts

So having read the above, we know that the change from the heroic historical monk to the cowardly literary figure was likely done for entertainment purposes, as well as to interject a bit of Confucianism in honor of syncretic Ming philosophy. But I can’t help but think that this was also meant to fuel the constant bickering between Tripitaka and Sun Wukong. After all, Confucianism and Buddhism were bitter enemies throughout the centuries. While Confucianism also critiqued Daoism, Buddhism was an easier target due to (among other objections) its foreign origins. [1] Ming-era scholar Wang Shouren (王守仁, 1472-1529), for instance, faulted the religion for “ignoring canonical human relations, abandoning affairs and things [of the world] …, and fostering selfishness and self-benefit” (Wang, 1992, as cited in Yu, 2012, p. 72). In addition, the Monkey King is often cast as the voice of reason, while the monk remains blind to reality (a prime example being the white bone spirit episode). This dynamic may have been intended to lampoon Confucianism. If true, this would mean the author-compiler, be it Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩, c. 1500-1582) or some other scholar-official, was likely poking fun at himself and those in his social circle.


Update: 04-29-22

Here’s a great example of Monkey being the voice of reason by chastising the monk for being too worldly:

 Pilgrim said, “Old Master, you have forgotten the one about ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind: Those of us who have left the family should see no form with our eyes, should hear no sound with our ears, should smell no smell with our noses, should taste no taste with our tongues; our bodies should have no knowledge of heat or cold, and our minds should gather no vain thoughts. This is called the extermination of the Six Robbers. But look at you now! Though you may be on your way to seek scriptures, your mind is full of vain thoughts: fearing the demons you are unwilling to risk your life; desiring vegetarian food you arouse your tongue; loving fragrance and sweetness you provoke your nose; listening to sounds you disturb your ears; looking at things and events you fix your eyes. You have, in sum, assembled all the Six Robbers together. How could you possibly get to the Western Heaven to see Buddha?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).

Note:

1) For a detailed discussion of all the various points raised by Confucians against Buddhism, please see Langlais (1972).

Sources:

Langlais, J. M. (1972). Early Neo-Confucian Criticism of Chinese Buddhism [Unpublished master’s dissertation, McMaster University]. Retrieved from https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/9287/1/fulltext.pdf

Yu, A. C. (2008). The Formation of Fiction in the “Journey to the West.” Asia Major21(1), 15-44.

Yu, A. C. (2012). Introduction. In C. Wu and A. C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (pp. 1-100). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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

 

The Monkey King and the “Three-Teachings” (三教) Trinity of Southeast Asia

Last updated: 04-01-2022

Ronni Pinsler of the BOXS project recently introduced me to the Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) [1] folk religion sect of Malaysia and Singapore. It features an intriguing trinity with the Monkey King as the Great Sage Patriarch (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) in the center, the aforementioned deity to his left, and the Most High Elder Lord (Taishang laojun, 太上老君; a.k.a. Laozi, 老子) to his right. Combined, they respectively represent Confucianism, Buddhism, and DaoismThis is shocking as Sun Wukong replaces the Buddha himself as a representative of the “Three Teachings” (sanjiao, 三教). Needless to say, his inclusion here elevates the Monkey King from a mid-tier god to a supreme one.

I. History?

There doesn’t appear to be any concrete information about when the trinity first appeared. The oldest photograph (fig. 1) that I can find hails from 1970s Singapore (per an informant). But this page states that Chee Chung Temple (慈忠庙), followers of the sect, was founded in 1960, showing that it was flourishing as early as this time. However, an informant tells me that the sect is more rare in Singapore these days. Conversely, Ronni notes it’s more common in Malaysia and that the trinity from the photograph looks similar to “twenty or thirty examples” he’s seen while visiting temples in the south. 

Fig. 1 – The 1970s photograph (larger version). Image in a private Malaysian collection.

I’d like to add that the three-person grouping follows precedent in Chinese religion, with examples including the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清) of Daoism and the “Three Bodies” (Sk: Trikaya; Ch: Sanshen, 三身) of Buddhism. These likely influenced the trinity (see below).

I’ll update this section as new information becomes available.

II. Iconography

The Great Sage Patriarch is portrayed with a small guan cap (xiao guan, 小冠) crowning a furry, simian head, and the face is sometimes painted similar to his Chinese opera depictions. He wears a (sometimes golden) suit of armor and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed and his hands on his legs. One hand loosely cups the handle of an “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) scepter, with the mushroom head resting near his shoulder. As noted here, this scepter is a symbol of some Buddhist and Daoist gods, most notably the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao tianzun, 靈寶天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, and Guanyin (觀音). 

The Immortal Master Yellow Elder is portrayed with a small guan cap crowning a smiling, elderly man with drawn back white hair and a long, white beard and mustache. He wears bagua robes (of various colors) and sits in a kingly fashion with knees splayed. And he either holds a fly whisk or command flag in one hand, while the other is sometimes held in a mudra.

The Most High Elder Lord is quite similar to the former (including the guan cap, hair and beard, and bagua clothing), but he’s instead seated cross-legged on a lotus throne. One hand holds a traditional palace fan (gong shan, 宮扇), while the other might delicately hold a pearl.

All three are sometimes depicted in a cave-like alcove over which hangs a sign reading “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (Zhong xian dong, 眾/衆仙洞) or “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (Xian fo dong, 仙佛洞) (fig. 2 & 3).

Fig. 2 – The “Multitude of Immortals Cave” (larger version). This is likely a painting of the idols from figure one. Found on Facebook. Fig. 3 – The “Immortals and Buddhas Cave” (larger version). Found on Facebook.

The trinity appears to have borrowed from depictions of the Three Pure Ones. Take for example this painting (fig. 4). Two of the three figures include the As-you-will scepter and the palace fan.

Fig. 4 – A print of the Three Pure Ones from Werner, 1922, p. 124 (larger version).

III. The Immortal Master Yellow Elder

This is not a common deity, so I’ve chosen to quote the BOXS article on the subject. I’ve changed the Wade Giles to pinyin. The information was gathered by Keith Stevens:

[…] His images have been seen on altars in Singapore in Balestier Road, also in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, in Seremban and Muar, and in southern Thailand, where in each temple he is known as one of the Supreme Trinity .

In Kuala Lumpur where he is regarded as a deity who possesses the spirit mediums of his cult, the Huang jiao [黃教], he is known as an avatar of Laozi. He is said to have first appeared and became popular during the Han dynasty as the Governor of the World but without interfering with its day to day running. […] He was identified as Huang Shigong [黃石公], a patron of Zhang Liang [張良] who in about 200 BC was a trusted counsellor of Liu Bang [劉邦] and is said to have written a work on military tactics, the Sanlue [三略, “Three Strategies”].

Zhang Liang was one of the Three Heroes of China, said to have been a governor of a province during the Han, and according to Taoist legend was one day crossing a bridge of a river when a poor old man on a mule passed by. One of the old man’s sandals fell off into the river and in one version Zhang picked up the sandal of his own volition whilst in another, told by devotees, the old man asked him to pick it up. Zhang feeling a great sense of indignity but moved by pity for the old man picked it up. Then, after several tests Zhang Liang was told by the old man that with the book he had just given to Zhang he would become an adviser to the king. In years to come it came about exactly as foretold, and the old man on the mule turned out to be Huang Lao xianshi.

In these temples Huang Lao xianshi’s annual festival is celebrated on the double sixth [i.e. 6th day of the 6th lunar month]. His image has not been noted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.

In most temples he is revered for his healing powers, with one sip of water blessed by him curing sickness; it also provides stamina and nerve, and wrestlers and boxers visit his altars to drink his tonic before their matches.

Huang is also known as:

Huang Lao zushi [黃老祖師]

Huang Lao jun [黃老君] (RefNo. W3015).

The article goes on to suggest a possible connection to the Yellow Emperor-Elder Master (Huang Lao, 黃老) school of philosophy.

The Huang Lao school combines the teachings of Huang Di, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Buddhist[s], as well as Confucian[s], developed over the centuries into its own particular form (RefNo. W3015).

This philosophical connection is interesting as one scholar suggests that the Sanlue “was written around the end of the Former Han dynasty, probably by a reclusive adherent of the Huang-Lao school who had expert knowledge of military affairs” (Sawyer & Sawyer, 2007, p. 283). This would explain why the Yellow Elder’s story is associated with Huang Shigong (“Old Man Yellowstone”). Also, his name might imply that he’s considered an embodiment of this philosophy.

One thing not noted in the BOXS article is that some statues alternatively spell his name as 黃老先師 (Huang Lao xianshi), meaning the “First Teacher Yellow Elder” (see the third section on this page). The term 先師 is a reference to one of Confucius‘ titles (Chin, 2007, p. 13).


Update: 04-01-22

Ronni shared with me a source explaining the birth of Master Yellow Elder’s sect. One webpage claims it came about in 1937 at No. 38 Beer Village of Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, Peninsular Malaysia (马来西亚半岛森美兰州马口三十八啤农村). This might explain why the sect is more popular in Malaysia than Singapore:

At that time, Liao Jun [廖俊] was alone in the hall near the Daoist altar when he became curious about learning spirit-mediumship and spirit-writing. All of a sudden, a spirit entered his body, causing him to sit solemnly while stroking his whiskers and mumbling incomprehensively. He didn’t know what spirit had taken hold of his body or what was being said. Afterwards, Liao woke up but didn’t know anything. After that he requested the spirit to descend everyday but wasn’t able to speak. Later, Mr. Dai Zhao [Dai Zhao xiansheng, 戴招先生], the original owner of the Daoist temple, consecrated him as a new spirit-medium with a seal. He was then able to write messages and finally speak. Until that day when Liao Jun called the spirit, he opened his mouth and preached with strict principles and profound meaning. He said that the Immortal Master came to teach disciples in order to help the world. But he did not reveal his origin.

After a period of Liao calling down the spirit, the gathered crowd questioned the deity. He finally revealed that the Immortal Master Yellow Elder was actually Oldman Yellowstone [Huang shigong, 黃石公], known from legends passed down through the generations. According to the Jade Emperor’s decree, he was to open the dharma gate [famen, 法门] by preaching his teachings for the universal deliverance of the people.

Those who wish to enter the dharma gate first have to fast for 30 days and then complete the dharma hall ceremony to become a formal disciple. This dharma transforms according to one’s heart and can be used as one desires. Only when it is used in the right way (zhengdao, 正道) will it be effective. One cannot harbor any evil desires.

All of Immortal Master Yellow Elder’s disciples can worship at home by arranging their own shrine. A memorial tablet [paiwei, 牌位] must be set up in the center, and the following words must be written: mercy [ci, 慈], loyalty [zhong, 忠], faith [xin, 信], righteousness [yi, 义], rituals [li, 礼], relationships [lun, 伦], continence [jie,节], filial piety [xiao, 孝], honesty [lian, 廉], and right virtue [de 德]. A sign on the left side must say, “Obey the Way of Heaven with Loyalty” [Shuntian xingdao zhong, 顺天行道忠], and on the right, “From the Earth Return to Ceremony” [Congdi fu liyi, 从地復礼仪].

Apart from the aforementioned ten precepts [shi xundao, 十训道], the disciples of the Immortal Master can also draw talismans [fu, 符] to exorcise evil spirits from residences. At the same time, they can practice a boxing method to protect oneself in case of emergency.

At that time, more than 40 people were attracted to join. They worshiped the Immortal Master Yellow Elder and were diligent in practicing the dharma and martial arts. Later, the number of disciples increased. After the Immortal Master made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. After the Immortal Master Yellow Elder made his holy presence known, some disciples suggested that a temple be built. And after they went before him and asked for instructions, he ordered that the first temple be built in Malacca. Because Malacca is a holy place of Buddhist temples, the sect spread throughout Malaysia and into Singapore (source).

This passage is interesting because it mixes Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist terminology. Examples include “dharma gate” and “right way”; the list of the ten precepts, which are similar to the Four Cardinal Principles and Eight Virtues; and the evil-warding talismans.

It still amazes me, though, that the Great Sage is given such a prominent position in the center when he’s not even the main focus of the sect.

Note:

1) The BOXS catalog explains that there’s actually some confusion between two similarity named deities in different versions of the trinity. One is the aforementioned Immortal Master Yellow Elder (Huang Lao xianshi, 黃老仙師) and the other is the Immortal Master Kingly Elder (Wang Lao xianshi, 王老仙師). This is because Huang (黃) and Wang (王) “are almost homophones” (RefNo. W6675 & W3015).

Sources:

Chin, A. (2007). Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. United Kingdom: Yale University Press.

Sawyer, R. D., & Sawyer, M. (2007). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Werner, E. T. C. (1922). Myths & Legends of China. New York: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.