A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 10-10-2022

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru (see section 1, #1 here). The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another. This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).


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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

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

What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).


The tribute references elements that would later appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his hands (which are missing) are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A detail of the detail showing a close up of the people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

5. Conclusion



1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).


Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.

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.


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).


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]


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”).]


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 were 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.


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).


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).


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.

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).


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).


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


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.


Tripitaka and the Golden Cicada

Last updated: 04-03-2022

Journey to the West depicts the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; lit: “Three Baskets of the Tang Dynasty“; a.k.a. Xuanzang) as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. The monk’s background is first hinted at in chapter eight when, after receiving instructions to find a scripture pilgrim, the Bodhisattva Guanyin exclaims, “Lo, this one journey will result in a Buddha son returning to keep his primal vow. The Gold Cicada Elder will clasp the candana” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. I, p. 207). Chapter twelve contains a poem introducing Tripitaka as the chosen scripture pilgrim and reveals his heavenly origin. The first part reads:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Details about the extent of the former celestial’s punishment is revealed throughout the book. For instance, in chapter 33 a demon explains the source of Tripitaka’s heavenly aura: “That Tang Monk is actually the incarnation of the Elder Gold Cicada, a virtuous man who has practiced austerities for ten existences” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105). Furthermore, in chapter 100 the Buddha remarks that his former disciple was “banished to find another incarnation in the Land of the East” and that “by remaining faithful to the religion [Buddhism], succeeded in acquiring the True Scriptures” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 381). So we learn the Golden Cicada was banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time came for him to gain merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise.

Yu (2008) alludes to chapter 99 explaining the source of the name Golden Cicada (p. 110). I can’t find such an overt explanation. But the chapter does mention the monk miraculously surviving drowning after being dumped into a heavenly river, along with his disciples and the hard-won scriptures, by a disgruntled river turtle spirit. [1] Guanyin exclaims: “Ah! It was fortunate that the Tang Monk had cast off his mortal frame and attained the way. If he were like the person he had been before, he would have sunk straight to the bottom” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 363). The “cast[ing] off of his body” (tuotai, 脫胎) is reminiscent of the way in which the real life insect sloughs off its shell (fig. 1). If this is what Yu was referring to, I think this is but one part of the puzzle.

maxresdefault - small

Fig. 1 – A newly formed cicada clinging to its shell (larger version).

I suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West chose the imagery of the cicada for the symbolic nature of its life cycle. Munsterberg (1972) describes the insect’s role in ancient Chinese religion: “Cicadas carved in jade are frequently found in graves of the Han period [fig. 2]. Since the cicada hatches above ground, spends a long period underground, and finally emerges as if in rebirth, these burial tokens were probably intended to induce resurrection by sympathetic magic” (p. 32). The Golden Cicada’s life follows this cycle very closely. The celestial being resides above in the Western Paradise, is banished below for an extended period of time, and is only allowed back into the celestial realms after a metamorphosis.

cicada - small

Fig. 2 – A stylized Han-era jade cicada (larger version). Photo by the Asian Art Museum.

The lifesaving transformation previously referred to by Guanyin takes place in chapter 98 when Tripitaka and his disciples are ferried across a heavenly river in a bottomless boat on their way to the Western Paradise:

All at once they saw a corpse floating [fig. 3] … upstream, the sight of which filled the elder [Tripitaka] with terror.

“Don’t be afraid, Master,” said Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], laughing. “It’s actually you!”

“It’s you! It’s you!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] also.

Clapping his hands, Sha Monk also said, “It’s you! It’s you!”

Adding his voice to the chorus, the boatman also said, “That’s you! Congratulations! Congratulations!” Then the three disciples repeated this chanting in unison as the boat was punted across the water. In no time at all, they crossed the Divine Cloud-Transcending Ferry [Lingyun du, 凌雲渡] all safe and sound. Only then did Tripitaka turn and skip lightly onto the shore. We have here a testimonial poem, which says:

Delivered from their mortal flesh and bone,
A primal spirit of mutual love has grown.
Their work done, they become Buddhas this day,
Free of their former six-six senses sway (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 345-346). [2]

Here, we see Tripitaka has shed his mortal form to become a buddha just like the cicada sheds its shell to grow wings and fly. The monk has freed himself from the endless cycle of birth and death to achieve nirvana.

Tripitaka shedding his body, from Mr. Li Zhuwu's Criticism of Journey to the West (16th-c.) - small

Fig. 3 – A woodblock print detail showing the shedding of Tripitaka’s mortal body (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late-16th to early-17th century).

It’s interesting to note that the early Ming zaju play Journey to the West (c. 15th-century) depicts Tripitaka as the reincarnation of an arhat named Pulujia (毗廬伽尊者). Dudbridge (1970) translates this as Vairocana (p. 193), which is the name of a major Buddha. This shows Tripitaka was associated with heavenly personages even before the final 1592 novel was published. Therefore, the author-compiler of the novel no doubt fashioned the tribulations of the Golden Cicada around preexisting folklore.

Update: 05-27-2018

The Thirty-Six Stratagems (Sanshiliu ji, 三十六計, c. 5th-6th-cent.), a collection of military, political, and civil tactics, contains a plan known as “The Golden Cicada Sheds its Shell” (Jinchan tuoke, 金蟬脫殼), which entails leaving a decoy that distracts the enemy while the losing force is retreating. I’m not sure if this directly influenced the celestial’s title, but it at least shows the name was known long before Journey to the West was published.

The strategy is actually used by a tiger demon in chapter 20:

Whipping out the iron rod, Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] shouted, “Catch him!” Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie] at once attacked with even greater ferocity, and the monster fled in defeat. “Don’t spare him,” yelled Pilgrim. “We must catch him!” Wielding rod and rake, the two of them gave chase down the mountain. In panic, the monster resorted to the trick of the gold cicada casting its shell: he rolled on the ground and changed back into the form of a tiger. Pilgrim and Eight Rules would not let up. Closing in on the tiger, they intended to dispose of him once and for all. When the monster saw them approaching, he again stripped himself of his own hide and threw the skin over a large piece of rock, while his true form changed into a violent gust of wind heading back the way he had come. (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 401). (emphasis mine)

Update: 12-08-2018

I would like to suggest the name Golden Cicada Elder (Jīn chán zi, 金蟬子) might have been chosen to serve as a pun for “child or student of Chan” (chánzǐ, 禪子) (fig. 4). While the historical Xuanzang was the patriarch of the Yogacara school of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016), the novel closely associates him with Chan:

The depiction of the novelistic Xuanzang surely and constantly associates him and his entourage with Chan. Revealing examples can readily be found in both narrative content and such titular couplets as “Tripitaka does not forget his origin; / The Four Sages test the Chan Mind” (chapter 24); “The Child’s tricky transformations confuse the Chan Mind; / Ape, Horse, Spatula, and Wood Mother-all are lost” (chapter 40); “The Chan Lord, taking food, has demonic conception; / Yellow Dame brings water to dissolve perverse pregnancy” (chapter 53); “Rescuing Tuoluo, Chan Nature is secure; / Escaping defilement, the Mind of Dao is pure” (chapter 67); “Mind Monkey envies Wood Mother; / The demon lord plots to devour Chan” (chapter 85); and “Chan, reaching Jade-Flower, convenes an assembly; / Mind Monkey, Wood, and Earth take in disciples” (chapter 88) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 64-65).

If true, this would mean the cicada-like spiritual transformation was based around a pun.

Chanzi - Cicada Zen Tripitaka Connection

Fig. 4 – The similarities in form and pronunciation of chanzi (larger version). 

This seems like such an obvious connection that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else beat me to the conclusion by decades or even centuries.

Update: 08-29-2020

Art historian Jin Xu posted a picture of a 6th-century stone bodhisattva statue to his twitter, and I was interested to see a cicada adorning the headdress (fig. 5 & 6). One essay about the statue suggests it was commissioned by an aristocratic layman since cicadas are known to have decorated the caps of high-ranking officials:

Another noteworthy characteristic of this superb sculpture is the cicada-shaped decoration on the front of the crown. To date, there are no other known Chinese Buddhist sculptural examples of this kind. However, cicada images can be found on gold mountain-shaped crown plaques that also are embellished with thin gold wire and granulation; these have been excavated from the tomb of Ping Sufu of the Northern Yan period (A.D. 409-436), and seated Buddha images were molded onto the back face of these crown ornaments. These excavated materials would have been made some one hundred years before the present image and suggest that there were members of the aristocracy who revered Buddhism and hid Buddha images on the backs of their crowns. This suggests the possibility that the Shumei bodhisattva, with a cicada in place of a Buddha image, was created at the request of a member of the aristocracy who revered Buddhism and believed in the philosophy that the Emperor is the living Buddha, which may have dated back to the Northern court (Standing Bodhisattva, n.d.).

The sculpture didn’t influence Tripitaka’s title as the Golden Cicada Elder. But it’s still fascinating to see a real world connection between the insect and a bodhisattva.

Fig. 5 – The Sixth-century Bodhisattva statue with a cicada decorating the crown (larger version). From Qingzhou Museum in Shandong province, China. Fig. 6 – A detail of the insect (larger version).

Update: 09-13-2020

Deviantart user Taylor-Denna has drawn a beautiful depiction of Tripitaka’s former incarnation as a literal cicada (fig. 6). It is quite unique as I’ve never seen any other artist portray the former Bodhisattva in such a way. The image makes one think of an insect who acquired magic powers through spiritual cultivation and rose through the Buddho-Daoist hierarchy to become the Buddha’s disciple. The idea would make a good prequel story.

Fig. 6 – A cropped detail of the Golden Cicada Elder by Taylor-Denna (larger version). Click here for the full version and artist’s statement. Used with permission.

Update: 12-01-21

I’ve archived a book that shows how Tripitaka’s exile from heaven is similar to ancient Greek and Egyptian beliefs.

Archive #28 – Tripitaka’s Reincarnation and its Connection to Ancient Greek and Egyptian Philosophy

Update: 04-03-22

I’ve posted an entry discussing the characterization of Tripitaka as a Confucian in the novel.

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


1) The turtle had previously helped the pilgrims cross the same river in chapter 34, and in return they agreed to ask the Buddha when the terrapin would be allowed to achieve human form (for all creatures strive for such an attainment). But Tripitaka forgot to ask the Enlightenment One while visiting the Western paradise, so the turtle dumped them into the river upon their return.

2) The six-six senses (liuliu chen, 六六塵) are “the intensified form of the six gunas, the six impure qualities engendered by the objects and organs of sense: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and idea” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 405 n. 7)


Munsterberg, H. (1972). The Arts of China. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co.

Standing Bodhisattva. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.miho.or.jp/booth/html/artcon/00001542e.htm

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

Yu, A. C. (2008). Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West. NY: Columbia University Press.