A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 02-14-2023

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. 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 (see 02-14-23 update below). 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] in his hands. [4] The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

即於睡中夢一大神長數丈,執戟麾曰:「何不強行,而更臥也!」

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?


Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [5] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [6]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.


Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [7]

那怪攜著行者,一直行到洞裡深遠密閉之處。卻從口中吐出一件寶貝,有雞子大小,是一顆舍利子玲瓏內丹。行者心中暗喜道:「好東西耶。這件物不知打了多少坐工,煉了幾年磨難,配了幾轉雌雄,煉成這顆內丹舍利。今日大有緣法,遇著老孫。」

As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.


Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.


Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).

因我萬聖老龍生了一個女兒,就喚做萬聖公主。那公主花容月貌,有二十分人才。招得一個駙馬,喚做九頭駙馬,神通廣大。前年與龍王來此,顯大法力,下了一陣血雨,污了寶塔,偷了塔中的舍利子佛寶。公主又去大羅天上,靈霄殿前,偷了王母娘娘的九葉靈芝草,養在那潭底下,金光霞彩,晝夜光明。

This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.


Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel like I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.

Note:

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).

4) The translation also included “and a flag” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28), but the Chinese version I have access to does not mention a flag. I have therefore left it out.

5) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

6) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

7) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.

Source:

Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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

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

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

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.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Last updated: 11-04-2022

DEATH BATTLE! is a youtube show that pits famous fictional and (now) mythological characters against one another to see who is the strongest. The outcome of each fight, usually ending in death, is supposedly based on research comparing the combatants’ respective canonical strengths and weaknesses. There are in total nine seasons with 161 episodes. The 162nd episode (episode 7 of season 9) will feature a battle between the hero Hercules from Greco-Roman myth and Sun Wukong from the Chinese Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter) story cycle. I only learned about this upcoming fight a little over a week ago when I noticed via my website analytics that a DEATH BATTLE! staff member had linked to my research blog on their external site. Very little concrete information about the battle was released until a few days ago, so I’ve been scrambling to finish this article in preparation for the episode on June 20th, 2022. It can be watched here:

This may not seem very important to some of my followers and lurkers, but DEATH BATTLE! has 5.05 million subscribers, and their last video received 1.7 million views in just a week and the one before got 5 million in just 3 weeks! Therefore, the battle is likely to introduce many, many people to the Monkey King. For example, the primate hero’s fighter preview gained nearly 220,000 views in the first 24 hours, 260,000 as of June 18th, 2022. And as of the same date, Hercules’ fighter preview has 287,000 views.

Win or lose, the purpose of this article is to present accurate information about Sun Wukong. I will correct any mistakes that appear in the video. I will also present a list of surprising parallels shared between Hercules and Sun Wukong, suggesting that they might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. See also my articles comparing Monkey with the Water Margin hero Wu Song and the historical Buddha.

Before continuing, I want to note that I know the original name is Heracles (or Herakles), but I will use Hercules throughout as this is the name chosen by the staff of DEATH BATTLE!

1. Analysis

1.1. The Death Battle

It’s official, Sun Wukong WON the fight. I will add my comments and corrections (in blue) to the official battle transcript:

An ancient scroll unfurls onscreen as a painted mountain manifests. An unseen narrator begins his story.

1. This was an interesting concept.

Muse: Our tale begins up top a great mountain, where the mighty Heracles sought a gift from the Gods.

As narrated, the legendary demigod finishes his trek up the mountain and calls out to the nearby Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who is sitting atop his Nimbus cloud and holding a divine fruit in his hand.

2. Just a tiny nitpick: The Nimbus cloud is not from JTTW but the Dragon Ball franchise. The novel refers to this skill as the Cloud-Somersault.

Hercules: Ho there! I’m in need of that apple. Relinquish it.

Wukong turns to face the hero and explains his own need for it.

Sun Wukong: Sorry, I’m supposed to find my master some vegetarian food.

3. I really like that the fight starts over fruit. As I note below (sec. 2, #12), both characters steal supernatural fruit (golden apples vs immortal peaches) from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera vs the Queen Mother of the West). So this was a nice nod to both myths.

But in hindsight, Monkey stealing the golden apples to feed his master doesn’t make much sense considering: 1) they are located in a land that’s much further west than the scripture monk’s final western destination, India; and 2) I don’t recall reading that the golden apples were anything other than treasures. To my knowledge, none of the associated myths treat them as foodstuff. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

However, the explanation is ignored. His short temper kicking in, Hercules draws his sword from its scabbard and threatens Wukong.

Hercules: You’ll find it… elsewhere.

With a shrug and groan of annoyance, Wukong passes the apple to Hercules, who catches it.

Muse: But Heracles was not so easily fooled.

4. Legitimate question: Is Hercules known for having supernatural perception? Are there examples of him seeing through illusions in his original mythos? If anyone knows, please leave a comment.

The hero’s satisfaction turns to indignation as he crushes the illusory fruit in his hand, revealing it to merely be strands of Wukong’s hair. With his scheme discovered, the trickster god pulls out a miniaturized Ruyi Jingu Bang from his ear and enlarges it to its standard size. Laughing with glee, he leaps from his cloud and clashes with Hercules’ sword,

5. Another tiny nitpick: The “standard size” in the animation was not large enough. The novel states that Monkey fights with the staff when it’s around 12 feet (3.65 m) long [1] and the width of a bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135, for example). [2] This illustration (fig. 1) shows how big the staff should be in relation to Sun’s body size.

Fig. 1 – Monkey and his religious brothers on patrol (larger version). Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here). Image found here.

Muse: The Monkey King’s strike rang true, but he’d not so easily overwhelm the God of Strength.

Locked in a clash of weapons, Hercules slashes at Wukong, who dissipates into smoke. The monkey flies behind Hercules on his Nimbus and jabs the hero in the gut with his staff, sending him flying into a cliff below. The mighty demigod is hardly phased though and springs back with a powerful dropkick against the advancing Wukong, sending them down another level.

6. I personally thought Monkey relied far too much on turning into a puff of smoke. I think he instead would have preferred to meet Hercules head-on.

As they both land, Hercules attempts to slash him with his sword once again, but Sun Wukong disappears in a smoke cloud and strikes Hercules with his Ruyi Jingu Bang. As Hercules lies on the ground, the Monkey King extends the staff and brings it down on the hero, who raises his sword to block the strike, only for the blade to shatter. Quickly recovering, Hercules grabs the Ruyi Jingu Bang and pulls on it, bringing Sun Wukong down to him.

Hercules: I am Heracles!

With a single mighty punch to the jaw, Heracles sent the Monkey King soaring through the sky, hitting the edge of the scroll and forcing it to go higher up before landing on a nearby cloud. Before the Monkey King has time to even breathe, Hercules shoots an arrow at him, only narrowly missing.

Sun Wukong: Yikes!

As the hero continues his assault, Wukong begins to jump through the clouds in order to avoid all of his shots, and after beginning to fly with one of them, summons several clones with his hairs to try and reach Hercules. However, the God of Strength manages to shoot down almost all of the clones. One of them climbs onto the cloud Wukong is riding and grabs his tail. Wukong spins him around and launches himself and the clone at Hercules. The Wukongs turn into birds to reach Hercules faster, before turning into snakes to restrict his arms. Tired of the monkey’s shenanigans, Hercules breaks free and grabs his rattles.

7. Legitimate question: Does Hercules have unlimited arrows? Please let me know.

Regarding the transformations, this seemed so out of place during the battle as Monkey never uses animal forms offensively. He instead uses them for stealth or, most famously, to hide from from an opponent

Hercules: Die, demon!

The loud noise echoes through the skies, destroying every single Wukong clone. Reeling in pain from the noise, Wukong’s snake transformation comes undone as he tumbles down the mountain into the forest below.

Sun Wukong: Agony, agony!

8. Why would the rattles have any effect on Monkey? I don’t recall his ears being a weakness

Update: 06-24-22

A redditor explained the following: “It’s not so much that Wukong is weak to sound, more so that the krotalas [rattles] are so loud that the noise causes pain to whatever hears them…”

But the original sources don’t make this claim. For example, the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius reads: 

“For not even could Heracles, when he came to Arcadia, drive away with bow and arrow the birds that swam on the Stymphalian lake. I saw it myself. But he shook in his hand a rattle of bronze and made a loud clatter as he stood upon a lofty peak, and the birds fled far off, screeching in bewildered fear” (2.1052).

The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

“Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country round-about. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them” (4.13.2).

And Pausanias writes:

“There is a story current about the water of the Stymphalus, that at one time man-eating birds bred on it, which Heracles is said to have shot down. Peisander of Camira, however, says that Heracles did not kill the birds, but drove them away with the noise of rattles” (8.22.4).

As can be seen, no mention is made of the implements being painfully loud to anything other than the birds (please provide an example if you know otherwise). While uncertain of the true reason why the rattles appear in the story, Aston (2021) posits that they could reference cultic practices or even just the “noisy rattle[s] or clapper[s] … used by farmers to scare birds from their crops (p. 102).

I can understand the rattles working if Monkey was still in bird form, but the clone attacking Hercules had already transformed into a snake at the point. And the rattle subsequently affects all of the clones. This doesn’t make any sense.

The scroll unfurls further, revealing the spot where the Monkey King landed, as he begins to laugh.

Muse: The Monkey King fell into a strange forest, in awe of such a wondrous fight. But should he mistake his fear, he might lose his head.

Hercules comes crashing down, instantly crushing Wukong’s head with his club. But to his shock, the beheaded body of the Great Sage gets right back up.

9. Crushing Monkey’s head would not be possible with the olive club, for it would break over his adamantine crown like when Hercules broke the weapon over the Nemean Lion‘s head (sec. 2, #3). Sun’s crown is one of the hardest parts of his body, easily taking direct blows from even sharp weapons wielded by demons with no issue (sec. 1.2, #3).

It think it would have made more sense for both heroes to have, at some point, exchanged blows with their respective blunt weapons (sec. 2, #4). But, again, the club wouldn’t have lasted long. This brings me back to my previous question about the number of Hercules’ arrows. If he ran out, then he would be weaponless after both his sword and club are destroyed.

So, I think at this point Sun would have placed his staff in his ear and offered to have a boxing match with the Greek hero. Something similar happens twice in JTTW. In chapter two, Monkey confronts a demon that had been terrorizing his children during his quest for immortality. But when the monster sees that the primate is not only small but also unarmed, he offers to fight him barehanded in order to avoid criticism from other demon kings. Sun ends up beating him so badly that the monster rushes to defend himself with his sword (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). And in chapter 51, another demon uses a powerful treasure stolen from heaven to take away Monkey’s staff, leading the latter to challenge the monster to unarmed combat to show that he isn’t useless without his weapon. A poem describing the subsequent battle states that the combatants use real-world punching and kicking techniques, many of which are known and still practiced today. And while said poem claims that they are equally matched, all of the heavenly commanders agree that Monkey’s technique is faster and more polished (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-14)

Seeing Hercules and Sun duke it out, causing the earth to shake and mountains crumble, would be much more entertaining than the latter’s game of hopscotch among the clouds from the video.

Sun Wukong: I haven’t had such fun since I fought all of Heaven! Change!

Wukong transforms into a taller, three-headed and six-armed version of himself, with three separate Ruyi Jingu Bangs included.

Sun Wukong: Behold me, the Immortal Monkey King!

Hercules stares at his opponent’s transformation and laments his misfortune.

Hercules: Huh… Multiple heads. Of course.

10. A nice nod to the Lernean Hydra.

Both warriors begin to trade blows, Hercules managing to avoid a few of Wukong’s strikes before being disarmed of his club and becoming a victim of a staff combo before being kicked away. He shoots out three more arrows at the Monkey King, which seemingly manage to damage him, before his three-headed form dissipates into smoke, and the real Wukong jumps right back up to the clouds, before sending out his staff to hit Hercules once more. The hero merely watches before the staff suddenly grows into an enormous size mere inches away from his face.

11. Monkey does indeed use deceptive magic doubles in battle. One example happens in chapter 4 during his fight with Prince Nezha

“They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, ‘Change!’ It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind [Nezha] and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha] … heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

Hercules: Huh?

He is suddenly crushed underneath the Ruyi Jingu Bang as Wukong sits on top of it and laughs. But the staff suddenly begins to shake, as Hercules begins to lift it from underneath.

Hercules: You’ve had your fun, beast, but I’ve had enough!

Hercules throws the staff away, forcing Wukong to get off it before changing its size once more, and preparing to strike a finishing blow. Hercules sees this and charges towards the Monkey King, clashing with the staff with only his fist. But as the blows make contact, two blue, divine versions of the two warriors can be seen holding the scroll, before preparing their weapons for a clash of their own. The club of Hercules’ celestial body leaves a trail of constellations, while the celestial Ruyi Jingu Bang leaves a trail of names of Four Symbols written in Chinese in its wake.

Muse: The gods watched their earthbound selves, and so joined in battle. The God of Strength mustered the heart of Olympus, while the Great Sage harnessed power equal to Heaven! Thus…

The two celestial bodies swing at each other, with the force of the blows turning the screen a blinding white. Slowly, the light fades away to reveal that Hercules’ celestial body has been impaled by the Ruyi Jingu Bang. The scroll floats back into view, covering the screen once more.

12. I think I understand what the Death Battle staff was going for when they portrayed each character in their celestial form. But this contradicts their promise to not use the heroes’ post-apotheosic versions. Therefore, this also seemed extremely out of place during the fight.

Muse: The Monkey King emerged victorious!

Returning back inside the scroll, Wukong’s attack manages to overpower Hercules, and its might destroys the God of Strength leaving nothing behind.

Sun Wukong: Wow, would you look at that! I struck him so hard he was reduced to nothingness!

13. I think this would have only killed Hercules’ mortal half, releasing the god within and prolonging the fight. While sources vary on what caused his apotheosis (virtus vs the 12 Labors vs Gigantomachy deeds), it’s clear that the son of Zeus become a god upon his fiery death (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275).

Wukong laughs once more and grabs the apple, leaving the forest to rejoin his master.

Muse: With a formidable foe slain, stricken against the mountain’s breast, so ends our great tale of East and West.

14. I was honestly underwhelmed by the ending. It seemed like the staff ran out of time, money, or interest and decided to stop the episode prematurely. It should have gone on much longer since Hercules and Sun Wukong are the first two mythological characters to be featured. I also thought Hercules was splattered way too easily. I’m sure there could have been a different way to end the fight. It would have been more respectful to both pantheons if the heroes had simply come to a draw and, having developed a newfound respect for each other’s skills, parted as bond brothers.

But considering that the show is called “Death Battle!”, somebody needs to die (the fans would otherwise be upset). So, baring that in mind, I thought of an idea five days before the episode aired, but I must admit that it’s not very respectful to the Greek hero. In my scenario, Sun seemingly disappears, but he actually turns into an insect and flies into Hercules’ mouth and crawls into his stomach. There, Monkey beats him up from the inside using the iron staff or even his fists. Then he instantly takes on his 100,000 foot (30,480 m) tall cosmic form, causing Hercules’ mortal body to explode. This “attack from within” tactic appears in chapters 59, 75, and 82 of JTTW, [3] as well as chapter 11 of the late-13th-century version of the story cycle

Lasty, I didn’t think the sprite animation was appropriate for such a mythic showdown. I personally would have liked more dynamic, hand-drawn animation like that from the Omni-man vs Homelander episode.

Update: 06-24-22

The same redditor from above also explained that the show apparently has budgetary constraints on episode length and art style. This explains the seemingly abrupt ending and the sprite animation. Hand drawn animation is apparently only reserved for the very tip of the top-most requested matchups.

This still doesn’t change my opinion, though. This was their first battle between extremely famous mythological characters. The fight should have been more grand.

But this information still doesn’t change my opinion of the episode. Rooster Teeth should have allotted a larger budget and made the episode longer.

1.2. The Results

I will do the same for the official fight result transcript:

Boomstick: Talking about a herculean matchup.

Wiz: Heracles was among the greatest heroes in myth, but the Great Sage Equal to Heaven held many more advantages.

Boomstick: You’d think Sun might not measure up to the God of Strength… you know, strength, but he totally could. remember he carried Sumeru on his back, the mountain holding up the infinite celestial sky, like how Heracles held up the infinite celestial sphere.

1. The Death Battle researchers likely learned about this feat from my article. But nowhere do I write that the mountain upheld the sky. The Abhidharmakośa (Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century) contains an overview of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, and it states that the sun, moon, and stars orbit half way down the exposed portion of the mountain [4] in a whirlpool-like ring of wind (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 460; Sadakata, 1997, p. 38-40). But the source doesn’t associate this ring with any weight.

Conversely, native Chinese mythology views the sky as a solid object that must be propped up by mountains. And if one of these earthly pillars is damage, it will cause the sky to tilt and even tear, requiring divine repair. See, for example, the legend of Nuwa mending the sky (Birrell, 1999, pp. 69-72 and 96-97). But this has no baring on the discussion at hand as Journey to the West expressly describes the world according to Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography.

Therefore, Sun’s feat should be scaled accordingly. But I’m not sure how this would be possible as the Buddhist and Greek concepts of the sky appear to be fundamentally different. I’ll have to read more on the latter concept to be sure.

Update: 06-25-22

I was contacted by a reader who said that the episode’s Sun Wukong researcher responded to me on the Death Battle discord, stating:

“To clarify, the basis for what Sumeru supports comes from the Buddhist cosmology lectures sourced in the character sheet. Though the article Jim wrote was what made me initially take note of the feat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6agAavZTEK0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMQeFiwacbQ” (per a screenshot emailed to me). 

But I’ve watched the videos and they don’t contradict what I wrote. The problem is that the researcher didn’t make a distinction between the “sky” (as stated in the Death Battle video) and “heaven”. I’ve already described the wind ring in which the celestial bodies orbit the midpoint of Mt. Sumeru. So, now I will give a brief and very simplified overview of the Buddhist cosmos to help readers form a better picture of what I’m arguing. As the axis mundi, Mt. Sumeru is located at the center of our earthly realm, with a ring of seven smaller mountains circling it. This landmass is surrounded by four island-like continents, one for each face of Sumeru, that float in a great sea resting on a disc of golden earth (kāñcanamaṇḍala). This is then supported by a disc of water (jalamaṇḍala) and finally a disc of wind (vāyumaṇḍala), each layer generally becoming larger as one descends. This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (ākāśa) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 25-30), sometimes translated as “sky” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 26). There are indeed various layers of heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru, but they appear to be separate from this space/sky (fig. 2). The first two heavens, that of the Four Great Kings and the 33 Gods, are respectively located at the midpoint and summit of Mt. Sumeru. But the following four heavens float above it at varying heights (fig. 3) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 56-62). Therefore, by running with Mt. Sumeru on one shoulder (and Mt. Emei on the other), Monkey would have supported both the landmass and the two earthly heavens, a monumental task to be sure. But he doesn’t support the four floating heavens above or, most importantly, the space/sky that they are located in. 

Having written the above, I want to note that I’m not claiming Hercules’ feat is stronger by default. I just want to present accurate information. I will at some point post an update with info about ancient Greek concepts of the sky.

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk. It’s the most simplistic, eye-catching version I’ve seen. The column of red, blue, and purple rings on the bottom represent the various layers of Hell. Fig. 3 – A diagram of the various heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60.

Wiz: As befitting heroes of myth they were on par in that they were both incomprehensibly strong, however, Wukong’s healing abilities meant he could bounce back from Heracles deadliest blows, whereas Heracles did not have a similar option.

Boomstick: But Heracles did have one way of putting the Monkey King down, his arrows dipped in hydra poison.

Wiz: The hydra poison threatened even the gods of Olympus, similar to the scorpion sting. Whether or not it would be fatal is questionable but it could have incapacitated Wukong, similar to how it affected Heracles himself.

2. The novel presents concepts with elemental states beyond heaven and earth. A prime example is Red Boy‘s Samādhi fire, which is considered more powerful than normal or even divine flames. [5] Likewise, the scorpion’s “horse-felling poison” (daoma du, 倒馬毒) likely falls into this separate category, for it was able to hurt even the Buddha! The bodhisattva Guanyin explains:

“Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

The aforementioned monastery is located in the Western Paradise. This suggests that she might have been imbued with “dharma power” [6] over a certain period of time, making her a super powerful foe. Even the bodhisattva Guanyin fears her sting (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72). 

I conjecture that the scorpion’s sting may be stronger than the hydra’s heavenly poison. [7] Therefore, I question if the latter would have the same effect on the Monkey King.

Boomstick: But that is one very specific win condition and we’re looking at this with every possible option in mind.

Wiz: With his variety of clones, transformations and numerous other spells, Wukong’s arsenal was far more versatile.

Boomstick: Like, there was nothing stopping him from making thousands of clones of himself and just sitting back, while they beat up Herc for him. Unsporting been like? Sure. In character? Absolutely.

Wiz: Even then, those arrows would have to actually strike Wukong, which would be extremely difficult. Yes, in some depictions Heracles could potentially shoot the sun of Helios, his arrows flying 90 times the speed of light. However, in his contest with the Buddha, Wukong leap to the edge of the universe in a single second. To do so he had to be moving over 1.4 quintillion times faster than light.

3. But even if the hydra venom was equally potent, there is no guarantee that Hercules’ arrows could pierce Sun’s adamantine hide. The novel is clear that Monkey’s frame is nearly indestructible. For instance, upon his capture, heaven fails to execute him:

“They then slashed him with a scimitar, hewed him with an ax, stabbed him with a spear, and hacked him with a sword, but they could not hurt his body in any way. Next, the Star Spirit of the South Pole ordered the various deities of the Fire Department to burn him with fire, but that, too, had little effect. The gods of the Thunder Department were then ordered to strike him with thunderbolts [lei xie ding, 雷屑釘, lit: “nails of thunder”], but not a single one of his hairs was destroyed”. (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 188).

This invincibility follows him throughout the novel. For example, in chapter 75, Sun agrees to a demon lord’s offer to set the monk free if he can survive a blow to his head with a scimitar (fig. 4):

“‘When he heard this, Pilgrim smiled and said, ‘Fiend! If you have brush and paper in your cave, take them out and I’ll sign a contract with you. You can start delivering your blows from today until next year, and I won’t regard you seriously!’ Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

Fig. 4 – Page from a Journey to the West comic book showing Monkey’s hard head (larger version). Image found on Twitter.

Someone may argue that the scorpion’s sting pierced his face, but refer back to what I wrote about dharma power in comment #2, and see also note #6 below.

Also, the Death Battle crew lists astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated (I make the same critic of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog in my 06-19-22 update). These figures mean absolutely nothing without some sort of explanation.

But since the numbers are used in reference to Monkey’s feat of leaping out of the Buddha’s palm, I want to explain its significance for those who don’t understand (per this reddit post). Sadakata (1997) writes: “[Sun’s feat] reflects the world of the Flower Garland Sutra, where every phenomenon is located within the buddha-world” (p. 155). He goes on to discuss the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana, noting how Buddhist art from all over the world depicts the myriad Buddhas as his emanations. One Javanese example features images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas encircling a stupa dedicated to Vairochana, thereby “express[ing] the Mahayana idea that the buddhas emanate from Mahavairocana and penetrate the universe, that the ‘one’ is at the same time the ‘many'” (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 156-157). Therefore, in essence, the Buddha’s palm in the novel represents the universe.  

Update: 06-25-22

Another redditor wrote:

“[T]he Hydra venom doesn’t need to ‘pierce’ your body to make effect, it just needs to have skin contact, referring to the time Hercules died because he was tricked into using a robe with some hydra venom on it”.

I responded:

“I’m aware of how Hercules dies, but there’s still the question of whether or not the venom would be absorbed into Sun Wukong’s nearly indestructible skin. I don’t recall any similar episode where a substance is absorbed through his skin in JTTW. So assuming that it could is not the same as citing evidence that it would. I’m not trying to split hairs. I’m just a stickler for details”.

But I will concede that artistic license and the need to raise the stakes of the battle could warrant the venom effecting him even if the arrows can’t penetrate his skin. 

Boomstick: Making him way faster than Herc could ever hope to be.

Wiz: Heracles held might of mythic proportions, but barring a lucky shot. Sun Wukong’s versatile magic, similar strength and absolutely absurd speed overcame this foe fitting for heaven’s equal.

Boomstick: When fighting Sun Wukong, Heracles mythed his chance.

Wiz: The winner is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

2. List of Parallels

(As of 07-03-22, I’ve added more quotes and similarities. The total stands at 16.)

Here is a list of parallels shared by Hercules/Herakles and Sun Wukong. I noticed several of these myself, but I am also indebted to the similarities posted on the DEATH BATTLE! Wiki.

1) Origins – Both are born of masculine heavenly forces. Hercules is the half-human son of ZeusHesiod‘s Shield of Heracles reads:

But the father of men and gods [Zeus] wove another design in his mind, how he might fashion for gods and wheat-eating men a protector against disaster. He arose from Olympos by night, pondering a deception in his spirit, longing for sex with a fine-waisted woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonion, and from there Zeus the Counselor trod the peak of Mount Phikion. Taking his seat, he planned wondrous deeds in his heart. On that very night he slept with the slender-ankled daughter of Elektryon [Alkmene]; he fulfilled his desire […] She bore him [Herakles] by submitting to the son
of Kronos, lord of the dark clouds (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 153 and 154; see also Pache, 2021).

The Monkey King is born from a stone seeded by heavenly energies. Chapter one of JTTW reads:

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Hinsch (2011) explains that Chinese works as far back as the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (pp. 157-158).

2) Temper – Both are quick to anger. In his youth, Hercules killed his music teacher for punishing him. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

Linus [of Thrace] also, who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyras, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre (3.67.2; Pache, 2021, p. 10).

Sun pushes over a magical, one-of-a-kind Ginseng Tree (Renshen shu, 人參樹) in retaliation for verbal abuse at the hands of some immortal youths. Chapter 25 of JTTW reads:

When the immortal lads found out the truth, they became even more abusive in their language; the Great Sage became so enraged that he ground his steel-like teeth audibly and opened wide his fiery eyes. He gripped his golden-hooped rod again and again, struggling to restrain himself and saying to himself, “These malicious youths! They certainly know how to give people a lashing with their tongues! All right, so I have to take such abuse from them. Let me offer them in return a plan for eliminating posterity: and none of them will have any more fruit to eat!” Dear Pilgrim! He pulled off a strand of hair behind his head and blew on it with his magic breath, crying “Change!” It changed at once into a specious Pilgrim, standing by the Tang Monk, Wujing, and Wuneng to receive the scolding from the Daoist lads. His true spirit rose into the clouds, and with one leap he arrived at the ginseng garden. Whipping out his golden-hooped rod, he gave the tree a terrific blow, after which he used that mountain-moving divine strength of his to give it a mighty shove (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465-466).

3) Skins – Both wear the skins of big cats. Hercules wears the skin of the Nemean Lion. TheocritusIdylls (25) reads:

The fight ended, I fell to pondering how I could strip the shaggy hide from the dead brute’s limbs—a troublesome task indeed, for when I tried, I could not cut it either with iron or with stone or [otherhow]. But then some god put in my mind the thought to sever the lion’s skin with his own claws; and with these I flayed it speedily and wrapped it about my body to guard me from the rents and hurts of war (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 213; see also March, 2021).

Monkey wears the skin of a mountain tiger. Chapter 14 of JTTW reads:

He [Sun] pulled off one strand of hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a sharp, curved knife, with which he ripped open the tiger’s chest. Slitting the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece. He picked it up and tried it for size, and then said, “It’s a bit too large; one piece can be made into two.” He took the knife and cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

4) Weapons – Both are knowledgeable in multiple armaments but often wield blunt weapons in their adventures. Hercules uses an olive wood club (I’m unsure if it has an actual name). Theocritus’ Idylls (25) reads:

I set forth, taking my pliant bow, a hallow quiver filled with arrows, and in my other hand a club, made from a spreading wild olive, close-grained, with bark and pith intact, which I had found under holy Helicon and had pulled up entire with all it’s tangle of roots.

[…]

And I, holding in front of me with one hand my arrows … with the other raised my seasoned club over my head and brought it down on [the lion’s] skull; and full on the shaggy head of that invincible brute I broke the tough olive clean in two (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 209 and 211).

Sun uses a black iron staff. Chapter three of JTTW reads:

[After a magic iron pillar followed his wish to shrink] He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” [8] … See how he displayed his power now! He wielded the rod to make lunges and passes, engaging in mock combat all the way back to the Water-Crystal Palace. The old Dragon King was so terrified that he shook with fear, and the dragon princes were all panic-stricken (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135).

5) Strength – Both are immensely strong. Hercules (in one version of the myth) holds up the sky. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere<he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should> put a pad on his head [fig. 5]. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Fig. 5 – A lovely Olympian Temple of Zeus metopes portraying Hercules (middle) resting the uplifted sky on his cushioned back. Athena (left) aids him in this task. Atlas (right) is shown with the golden apples (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Monkey runs at great speed while bearing the weight of two mountains on his shoulders, one of which is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos and the abode of the gods. Chapter 33 of JTTW reads:

Knowing how to summon mountains, he [a demon being carried by Sun] resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

6) Submission – Both are subdued with a blow by deities. Hercules is knocked out with a rock by Athena during his murderous rage. EuripidesHeracles reads:

Then in wild gallop he starts to slay his aged father; but there came a phantom [Athena], as it seemed to us on-lookers, of Pallas, with plumed helm, brandishing a spear; and she hurled a rock against the breast of Heracles, which held him from his frenzied thirst for blood and plunged him into sleep (1000-1006).

Sun is dazed by Laozi‘s magic bracelet during his rebellion, allowing the primate to be captured by heaven. Chapter six of JTTW reads:

[Laozi] rolled up his sleeve and took down from his left arm an armlet, saying, “This is a weapon made of red steel, brought into existence during my preparation of elixir and fully charged with theurgical forces. It can be made to transform at will; indestructible by fire or water, it can entrap many things. It’s called the diamond cutter or the diamond snare … After saying this, Laozi hurled the snare down from the Heaven Gate; it went tumbling down into the battlefield at the Flower-Fruit Mountain and landed smack on the Monkey King’s head. The Monkey King was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Seven Sages and was completely unaware of this weapon, which had dropped from the sky and hit him on the crown of his head. No longer able to stand on his feet, he toppled over (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

7) Punishment – Both are given difficult tasks in order to atone for past transgressions. For killing his family, Hercules is tasked with serving King Eurystheus and completing the 12 Labors. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten [plus two] labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal (2.4.12; see also Hsu, 2021).

Monkey is directed to guard the Buddhist monk Tripitaka for rebelling against heaven. Chapter eight of JTTW reads:

Tathagata deceived me,” said the Great Sage, “and imprisoned me beneath this mountain. For over five hundred years already I have not been able to move. I implore the Bodhisattva to show a little mercy and rescue old Monkey!” “Your sinful karma is very deep,” said the Bodhisattva. “If I rescue you, I fear that you will again perpetrate violence, and that will be bad indeed.” “Now I know the meaning of penitence,” said the Great Sage. “So I entreat the Great Compassion to show me the proper path, for I am willing to practice cultivation.”

[…]

“If you have such a purpose, wait until I reach the Great Tang Nation in the Land of the East [China] and find the scripture pilgrim. He will be told to come and rescue you, and you can follow him as a disciple. You shall keep the teachings and hold the rosary to enter our gate of Buddha, so that you may again cultivate the fruits of righteousness. Will you do that?” ”I’m willing, I’m willing,” said the Great Sage repeatedly (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 215).

8) Heavenly aid – Both are aided by goddesses. Hercules is helped by Athena. For example, Homer‘s Illiad reads”

[B]ut my [Athena] father Zeus is mad with spleen, ever foiling me, ever headstrong and unjust. He forgets how often I saved his son [Hercules] when he was worn out by the labors Eurystheus had laid on him. He would weep till his cry came up to heaven, and then Zeus would send me down to help him; if I had had the sense to foresee all this, when Eurystheus sent him to the house of Hades, to fetch the hell-hound from Erebos, he would never have come back alive out of the deep waters of the river Styx (8.366; See also Deacy, 2021).

Sun is helped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin. For example, the goddess tells him the following in chapter 15 of JTTW:

If on your journey you should come across any danger that threatens your life, I give you permission to call on Heaven, and Heaven will respond; to call on Earth, and Earth will prove efficacious. In the event of extreme difficulty, I myself will come to rescue you. Come closer, and I shall endow you with one more means of power.” Plucking three leaves from her willow branch, the Bodhisattva placed them at the back of Pilgrim’s head, crying, “Change!” They changed at once into three hairs with lifesaving power. She said to him: “When you find yourself in a helpless and hopeless situation, you may use these according to your needs, and they will deliver you from your particular affliction.” After Pilgrim had heard all these kind words, he thanked the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy and Compassion. With scented wind and colored mists swirling around her, the Bodhisattva returned to Potalaka (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 328-329).

9) Enemies – Both face similar enemies: A) supernatural lions (Nemean Lion vs Lion demon); B) opponents that regrow their heads once severed but are eventually defeated with fire (Lernaean Hydra vs Bull Demon King); C) supernatural deer (Ceryneian Hind vs Great Immortal Deer Strength); D) supernatural boars (Erymanthian Boar vs Zhu Bajie); E) supernatural birds (Stymphalian birds vs Great Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles); and F) supernatural bulls (Cretan Bull vs Bull Demon King).

10) Horses – Both tame supernatural horses. Hercules tames the man-eating Mares of Diomedes. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding-troughs of those horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control (4.15.3; see also Ogden, 2021b).

Monkey serves as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. Chapter four of JTTW reads:

Never resting, the [Sun] oversaw the care of the horses, fussing with them by day and watching over them diligently by night. Those horses that wanted to sleep were stirred up and fed; those that wanted to gallop were caught and placed in the stalls. When the celestial horses saw him, they all behaved most properly and they were so well cared for that their flanks became swollen with fat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

11) Women lands – Both visit locations peopled entirely by women. Hercules visits the Amazons to get the heavenly war belt (zoster) of their Queen Hippolyte. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

The ninth labour he [Eurystheus] enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail …

[After taking part in a small war elsewhere, Hercules finally arrived at his destination]

… Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy (2.5.9; see also Mayor, 2021).

Monkey and the other pilgrims travel through the “Woman Kingdom of Western Liang” (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國) in chapter 53 on their way to India (both Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant from drinking magic water while there). In chapter 54, the group enters the capital in order to have their travel rescript signed by the queen, but she has other plans for the head monk:

The queen said, “This man from the Land of the East [China] is a royal brother of the Tang court. In our country, the rulers of various generations since the time when chaos divided had never seen a man come here. Now the royal brother of the Tang emperor has arrived, and he must be a gift from Heaven. We will use the wealth of an entire nation to ask this royal brother to be king; we are willing to be his queen. Such a sexual union will produce children and grandchildren, and the perpetuity of our kingdom will be assured (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 49).

Sun helps arrange the marriage with the veiled purpose of ensuring that their travel rescript is signed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 52-53).

12) Theft of fruit – Both steal supernatural fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses. Hercules (in one version of the myth) steals Queen Hera‘s Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Monkey steals the Queen Mother‘s immortal peaches. Chapter five of JTTW reads:

One day he saw that more than half of the peaches on the branches of the older trees had ripened, and he wanted very much to eat one and sample its novel taste. Closely followed, however, by the local spirit of the garden, the stewards, and the divine attendants of the Equal to Heaven Residence, he found it inconvenient to do so. He therefore devised a plan on the spur of the moment and said to them, “Why don’t you all wait for me outside and let me rest a while in this arbor?” The various immortals withdrew accordingly. That Monkey King then took off his cap and robe and climbed up onto a big tree. He selected the large peaches that were thoroughly ripened and, plucking many of them, ate to his heart’s content right on the branches. Only after he had his fill did he jump down from the tree. Pinning back his cap and donning his robe, he called for his train of followers to return to the residence. After two or three days, he used the same device to steal peaches to gratify himself once again (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162).

13) Underworld – Both travel to the land of the dead. Hercules goes to Hades to acquire Cerberus. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated … [He sought ritual purification for his past misdeeds] … And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it … [He fended off the empty attacks of shades, rescued Theseus, sated the various ghosts with blood, and won a wrestling match against Menoetes] …When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen … [A]nd Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades (2.5.12; see also Hanesworth, 2021).

Sun travels to the Land of Darkness at least twice. For instance, in chapter 97, he goes to the underworld to retrieve the spirit of a recently deceased benefactor:

With a series of cloud somersaults, that Great Sage went to the Region Below and crashed right into the Hall of Darkness … Pilgrim said, “Which one of you took away the soul of Kou Hong, the person who fed the monks in the Numinous Earth District of the Bronze Estrade Prefecture? Find out instantly and bring him to me.”

[…]

[After being led out] Kou Hong, who, on seeing Pilgrim, cried out, “Master! Master! Save me!” “You were kicked to death by a robber,” said Pilgrim. “This is the place of the Bodhisattva King Kṣitigarbha in the Region of Darkness. Old Monkey has come especially to take you back to the world of light so that you may give your testimony. The Bodhisattva is kind enough to release you and lengthen your age for another dozen years. Thereafter you’ll return here.” The squire bowed again and again.

Having thanked the Bodhisattva, Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave the house of darkness and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 338-339).

14) Heavenly war – Both take part in battles with heaven but on opposing sides. Hercules fights alongside the Olympian gods during the Gigantomachy. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet. They were born, as some say, in Phlegrae, but according to others in Pallene. And they darted rocks and burning oaks at the sky. Surpassing all the rest were Porphyrion and Alcyoneus, who was even immortal so long as he fought in the land of his birth. He also drove away the cows of the Sun from Erythia. Now the gods had an oracle that none of the giants could perish at the hand of gods, but that with the help of a mortal they would be made an end of. Learning of this, Earth sought for a simple to prevent the giants from being destroyed even by a mortal. But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, and by means of Athena summoned Hercules to his help. Hercules first shot Alcyoneus with an arrow, but when the giant fell on the ground he somewhat revived. However, at Athena’s advice Hercules dragged him outside Pallene, and so the giant died (1.6.1; see also Salowey, 2021).

Monkey fights against the Buddho-Daoist gods a few times. For instance, chapter four of JTTW reads:

Each displaying his divine powers, the Third Prince [Nezha] and Wukong battled for thirty rounds. The six weapons of that prince changed into a thousand and ten thousand pieces; the golden-hooped rod of Sun Wukong into ten thousand and a thousand. They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, “Change!” It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind Nata and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha], still performing his magic, heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain. Breaking off his magic and gathering up his six weapons, he returned to his camp in defeat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

15) Godhood – Both become deities at the end of their respective story cycles. Hercules joins the gods of Olympus after death. Reasons given for this apotheosis include his his 12 Labors, his Gigantomachy deeds, or simply his virtus (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275). One account from the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

… Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself [due to exposure to hydra venom], ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him too put torch to the pyre. And when no one had courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed.

After this, when the companions of Iolaus came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

[Description of the kinds of sacrifices that the various Greek states made to Heracles as a hero and god following his death/ascension]

We should add to what has been said about Heracles, that after his apotheosis Zeus persuaded Hera to adopt him as her son and henceforth for all time to cherish him with a mother’s love, and this adoption, they say, took place in the following manner. Hera lay upon a bed, and drawing Heracles close to her body then let him fall through her garments to the ground, imitating in this way the actual birth; and this ceremony is observed to this day by the barbarians whenever they wish to adopt a son. Hera, the myths relate, after she had adopted Heracles in this fashion, joined him in marriage to Hebe (4.38.4-4.392; see also Romero-Gonzalez, 2021).

Sun is elevated to Buddhahood at the journey’s end. The Buddha says the following to Monkey in chapter 100 of JTTW:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

16) Worship – Both are (were) worshiped. Hercules was worshiped by the ancient Greeks and Romans, while Sun is worshiped as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” in modern Chinese folk religion. It’s interesting to note that both deities are are believed to ward off evil.

These similarities might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. For example, the skin of big cats have symbolized strength in many cultures. Scholars have suggested that Hercules has ties to ancient heroes of the Near East (Ogden, 2021a, pp. xxiv-xxv), so perhaps the Indic practices that would come to influence the Monkey King’s iconography were also influenced by the same ancient Indo-European sources.

3. When heroes meet

Hercules and Sun Wukong have technically met before. In the 13th-century version of the story cycle, Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), changes a magic golden-ringed monk’s staff (Sk: khakkhara; Ch: xizhang, 錫杖) into a titanic, divine warrior while facing a white tiger spirit:

Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel [jiangmochu, 降魔杵]. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189).

The titan eventually crushes the spirit with his weapon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). His “demon-subduing cudgel” is another name for a pestle-like ritual weapon with pronged tips called the vajra (Sk: “diamond” or “thunderbolt”; Ch: jingang, 金剛), which represents “power, indestructibility, and immutability, especially in tantric Buddhism” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 952). The vajra is traditionally the weapon of Vajrapāni (Ch: Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩; lit: “Bodhisattva Holding the Vajra”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955; Huntington & Bangdel, 2003, pp. 197-199). So what does this have to do with Heracles?

Religious depictions of Vajrapāni as a muscular, club-wielding protector were influenced by depictions of Heracles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (modern Pakistan/Afghanistan) (Hsing & Crowell, 2005). In fact, some carvings even portray Heracles as a protector of the Buddha (fig. 6)!

Fig. 6 – A stone carving of Heracles protecting the Buddha, Gandhara, 2nd-century (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Also, Sun Wukong briefly interreacts with Vajra warriors based on Vajrapāni in the standard version of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 357, for example). So the above Death Battle is not a stretch at all. I’d like to see someone write a story where the divine Greek and Chinese heroes meet, perhaps some centuries after Zeus tasks Heracles/Vajrapāni with protecting the Buddha. After a brief fight, Heracles and Monkey become bond brothers. This would open the door to Monkey appearing in Greek tales!

In addition, Sun Wukong and Vajrapāni are associated with each other in Shaolin Monastery myth. The latter was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows that the deity’s vajra-club had been changed to a Chinese staff (fig. 7) (Shahar, 2008, p. 84). Vajrapāni’s Yaksha-like Nārāyana (Naluoyan(tian), 那羅延(天)) form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding “Kimnara Kings” from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to “Kimnara King” (Jinnaluo, 緊那羅) (Shahar, 2008, p. 87). One version of the story about his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan Dynasty‘s Red Turban Rebellion. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant tall enough to straddle both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi, which are five miles (8.046 km) apart. The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise (Shahar, 2008, pp. 87-88). Shahar (2008) suggests that mythical elements of the story were borrowed from the Monkey King’s adventures. He compares the worker’s transformation in the stove with Sun’s time in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace (Bagua lu, 八卦爐), their use of the staff, and the fact that Monkey and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions (Shahar, 2008, p. 109). [9]

Fig. 7 – The 1517 Shaolin stele showing a titanic Vajrapāni defending the monastery from rebels (larger version). From Shahar, 2008, p. 84.


Update: 06-19-22

I’ve been notified by several people that the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog has posted a prediction. This blog is independent from the actual content creators. In a 7 to 6 split, the blog predicts Hercules will win, explaining that he is stronger and faster. While seemingly thorough, portions of their analysis make no sense. For example, the section on speed reads:

As far as speed goes, the demigod also comes out on top. Taking into account Wukong growing his staff from Earth to the Underworld and the Heavens, then scaling that back to his speed, he could potentially move at 800 quadrillion times the speed of light. However, Heracles scaling to Zeus surpasses this by dozens of times, with him being able to send shockwaves across the entire firmament by simply nodding his head. Zeus nodding his head is an act that should have been done with extreme ease – at least more ease than Zeus actually wrestling Heracles – meaning that Heracles should reasonably scale. As the firmament and Olympus are on the outer sphere of the cosmos, which encircle each other, this would have had to cross the entire diameter, putting the feat at 29 quintillion times the speed of light, over 36 times faster than Wukong …

They scale Sun Wukong’s speed not by his Cloud-Somersault (a metaphor for instantaneous travel) or his ability to carry mountains with meteoric speed but by the magic growth of his staff into a pillar of heaven. Why? They also provide astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated, a very common problem with such versus discussions.

In addition, they wrongly state that the 72 Transformations grant Monkey immortality. He actually first attains immortality via Daoist elixir arts. Furthermore, they claim that Sun’s immortality can be taken away from him, referencing his turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace. While the extreme heat was meant to extract the elixir from his body, it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an “intended result” with an “actual result”. But even if the heat could complete the job, how exactly is Hercules going to defeat Sun’s immortality. Does he also carry around a heavenly furnace? This is never explained in the analysis.

I don’t have time to analyze the entire article. I will reserve this space for the actual fight results.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.


Update: 06-23-22

I have finished adding my comments to the official fight and result transcripts of the battle (sec. 1.1 and 1.2). If any new evidence comes to light, I will make sure to further update the page.

I’m thrilled to announce that the episode has 1.1 million views after only two days! 925,000 plus of those were in the first 24 hours! I knew this fight would attract a lot of attention. I hope more and more people will finally read the novel and fall in love with Monkey’s adventures like I did oh so long ago.


Update: 06-26-22

When I originally watched the video, I skipped the character analysis straight to the fight. I only just now got around to reading the official transcript for the beginning, and I’m sorry to report that Monkey’s section is riddled with errors. Whomever wrote it has definitely never read the book. It would be like me writing a Death Battle transcript about Harry Potter based on a very lazy read of Wikipedia. I tried correcting the mistakes onsite, but my edits were reverted and I was told that the transcript is off limits. Therefore, I’ve decided to add my corrections and comments here (in blue) like I did above.

But before continuing, I want to note that I’m upset because it appears that info from my research blog was likely used in the video and Death Battle wiki website without the specific articles being linked to. Sure, my general blog URL was added twice to an external site (here and here), but this is not the same as linking to the actual articles on the video/wiki so people can see where Death Battle got their information from. Make no mistake, this has little to do with publicity; my blog generates zero money for me. It’s just fair that my work be recognized if it’s being used, especially if it contributed to a video currently making money for its creators

4. Sun Wukong’s character analysis

Wiz: There once was a mighty monkey warrior, born of a mystic stone from the energy of the sun and moon. Upon birth, he graciously bowed to the cardinal directions and-

1. The stone was “nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 101). 

Boomstick: Shot lasers from his eyes! Strap in folks, this one’s a doozy.

2. This feat is likely based on the birth of the historical Buddha. See parallel #2 on this article.

Wiz: This monkey soon befriended a band of other primates and, rather narcissistically, named himself their handsome Monkey King.

3. Sun doesn’t just proclaim himself king, though the addition of “handsome” is pure ego on his part (he’s actually really ugly). He proves himself in a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall to discover a long-forgotten immortal’s grotto-heaven (see the opening of this article).

Boomstick: But after a few centuries of monkeying about, he got a taste of the dreaded… midlife crisis!

Wiz: You see, the Monkey King was fierce and brave, yet he feared death, so he ventured to new lands in search of immortality.

4. Brave? Yes. Fierce? Not yet a warrior.

Boomstick: Turns out, he’d find a lot of it.

Wiz: Training under the Taoist master, Puti, he earned his first method of immortality and a new name. He would be the Monkey Awakened to the Void, spoken as: Sun Wukong.

5. Subodhi is a Buddho-Daoist sage with heavy Buddhist associations despite his normal portrayal as an immortal.

Boomstick: He also learned a bunch of magic. He can ride clouds, make thousands of clones, heal from fatal wounds like decapitation, and transform into basically anything: a bird, some vapor, a pitchfork, even an incredible fighting temple!

Popup: Though this technique is called “72 Earthly Transformations”, the scope of Sun Wukong’s shapeshifting is limited only by his imagination. The number actually references a collection of stars that the power is associated with.

6. Example #1 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. And the actual name for the technique is the “Multitude of the Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu地煞數). [10]

Wiz: With his famous cloud somersault, he could traverse the world at incredibly high speed. At first, a single somersault could carry him 180,000 li [a typo for 108,000], li being a traditional Chinese unit equal to about 500 meters, making one somersault move 54,000 kilometers per second, fast enough to circle the entire Earth in one leap.

7. Example #2 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. I note this ability to encircle the earth in the opening paragraph here.

Boomstick: And he’d only get faster from there. Monkey would do whatever it took to prove he was the best of the best.

Wiz: When fighting the mighty deity Prince Nezha, his foe transformed into a more powerful visage with three heads and six arms.

8. This doesn’t happen until chapters later when Monkey first rebels. I’m not sure why they would introduce this fight so early.

Boomstick: But Sun was like, “Hey, I can do that too,” and then did just that.

Wiz: Sun Wukong eventually returned to his simian subjects and, with his newfound power, amassed a veritable army. However, he felt no weapon in their arsenal suited him.

Boomstick: So he barged into the Dragon King‘s palace and demanded he hand over a weapon worthy of a king who can match the power of Heaven. Yeah, Sun was pretty full of himself. But, he wound up taking a pillar, originally designed to measure the depths of the ocean.

Popup: Some translations claim this “golden-hooped rod” measured or held up the galaxy, but these are incorrect. It was originally used to gauge the depth of the Great Flood, a story regarding the rise of dynastic China.

9. Example #3 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. Here I discuss the error in translation that led to this common misconception.

Wiz: What seemed like a worthless rod to the Dragon King was actually the perfect weapon for Wukong. Weighing nearly eight tons, the Ruyi Jingu Bang can change size at his whim. It can shrink to the size of a needle or grow long enough to pierce the heavens.

10. The pillar was not “useless”. He considered it an item of great importance:

“‘That,’ said the Dragon King, ‘was the measure with which the Great Yu fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood. It’s a piece of magic iron, but of what use could it be to him [Monkey]?'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

And later, he even refers to it as a “divine treasure” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 142).

But the Dragon Queen suggests giving it to the rude and very powerful immortal anyway so that he will leave their kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

Also, the staff weighs nearly nine tons.

Boomstick: The same heavens that got pretty mad with Sun after he crossed his name out of the Ledger of Death, making himself double immortal! Wait, how does that work?

Wiz: And even more mad when he demanded to be formally acknowledged as “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven”.

11. This doesn’t happen until after serving as the Bimawen and subsequently rebelling. Again, they introduce something too early.

Boomstick: Okay, we got a headstrong goofball who quickly masters new powers and wants a fancy title. This is just Shonen anime!

Wiz: Now, the Monkey King may have lashed out, but it was because when he requested a place in Heaven, a place he truly believed he deserved, the Jade Emperor‘s court reduced him to a stable boy.

12. He didn’t request a place in heaven. The celestial bureaucracy just gave him a position to keep his unruly adventures in check (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 143). Monkey only later “lashes out” upon learning of his low rank (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

Boomstick: Beneath all his antics, what Sun wanted most was to prove himself.

Wiz: Even with all the shenanigans, the Jade Emperor remained cautious and willing to placate Wukong.

Boomstick: By making him the watchdog of the Garden of Immortal Peaches. He totally ate that shit, didn’t he, Wiz?

13. It’s only at this point when Monkey battles Nezha, and when he proves too powerful, heaven placates him with the aforementioned sagely title and the above position (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 155-159).

Wiz: Oh yeah, Wukong got hammered, ate most of the peaches, ran around the Jade Palace in a fit, and found five gourds of immortality pills… which he promptly swallowed. All of them.

Boomstick: Ok, so that makes… how many layers of immortality now?

Wiz: I’d say a few… hundred? Thousand? If you count each individual peach and pill. When he sobered up, he knew he was in serious trouble, so naturally… he prepared for war.

14. This glosses over the reason for why Sun was drunk in the first place. He crashes the long-awaited immortal peach banquet and drinks all of the heavenly wine. Only then does he drunkenly stumble into Laozi’s laboratory and eat all of the alchemical pills (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 165-166).

Boomstick: Wow, that escalated quickly! What are they gonna do? Kill him? So, the Monkey King proved too strong for Heaven. He battled all their best fighters, and even matched Erlang Shen blow-for-blow in an epic battle of transformations! He’s that guy with the third eye.

Wiz: And Heaven’s greatest holy warrior. Yet, no matter Erlang’s form, Wukong always had a counter. Until Laozi threw in a convenient plot MacGuffin that captured the monkey. But even with Wukong in chains, Heaven had a problem.

15. Sun has no problem fighting Erlang, that is until his beloved monkey army is routed. He thereafter loses heart and flees, using a number of animal/structural transformations to escape (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 181-184). This is obviously different from the scenario described above. See this article by my friend Irwen Wong over at Journey to the West Library to learn how Erlang wins the majority of their encounters. 

Also, Laozi’s Diamond snare doesn’t capture Monkey. It simply hits Sun on the head, dazing him long enough for heaven to capture him (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

We cut to Boomstick.

Boomstick: He just wouldn’t die! Lightning, fire, even Laozi’s de-immortalizing furnace just made the monkey stronger!

16. The purpose of the Eight Trigrams furnace is not to remove one’s immortality but to produce the intense heat needed to manufacture alchemical elixirs (see section III of this article). This is an important distinction.

Laozi suggests that the reason why Monkey has a nearly indestructible body is because all of the immortal peaches and alchemical pills were likely refined in his lower elixir field. He then offers a possible solution:

“It would be better, therefore, if [he is placed] in the Brazier of Eight Trigrams, where he will be smelted by high and low heat. When he is finally separated from my elixir, his body will certainly be reduced to ashes” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 188-189).

But as I note in my 06-19-22 critique of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog,

“…it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace. But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an ‘intended result’ with an ‘actual result'”.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.

Wiz: Now, Wukong is not invincible. He has been hurt by the Scorpion Demoness’ poison, which could even harm the Buddha, an awaken divine being liberated from the cycle of life and death entirely.

17. Please see what I wrote about the scorpion above (sec. 1.2, #2)

[Random skit removed for brevity]

Boomstick: Ugh… But even after all that, Sun had one more challenger to contend with; the Buddha himself!

Wiz: Buddha approached Wukong with a contest: leap out of his hand, and he could have the Jade Emperor’s throne for himself.

Boomstick: Having no impulse control, the monkey agreed, and in an instant, somersaulted to the very edge of Heaven.

Wiz: But he had already lost. Because Buddha achieved Nirvana, he transcended the world, literally holding all of existence. So even at the edge of the universe, Wukong technically never left his hand.

18. This matches what I wrote above about the Buddha and the universe (sec. 1.2, #3).

Boomstick: For his rebellion, Sun was put in time out, sealed under a mountain for 500 years.

19. This is an understandable mistake as the phrase “500 years” is thrown around a lot in the novel. But as I explain here, chapter 14 states that the mountain trapped Monkey during the rein of a historical usurper (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 306), revealing that his imprisonment actually lasts somewhere between 617 to 649 years.   

Wiz: But even Sun Wukong would find a chance at redemption. In his case, he was tasked with escorting and protecting a monk, Tang Sanzang, or Tripitaka, on a journey to the west.

Boomstick: With additional companions Pigsy and Sandy. The trip was a tough one, and Monkey abandoned it more than once. But through it all, he always returned to shine as the group’s powerhouse, saving Tripitaka’s life many, many times. Seriously, this guy could not stay out of trouble. It’s like Wiz on a blind date.

Wiz: Ahem. Wukong has cracked apart mountains, slayed hundreds of monsters, and survived the Yellow Wind Demon‘s storm that could destroy the universe. As in Heaven, Earth, the 18 layers of Hell, and more!

Popup: The storm is depicted differently across translations, but the original Chinese text uses “乾坤”, meaning “universe”, or more literally “every manifestation of nature”.

Boomstick: That’s cool and all, Wiz, but let’s answer the real question. Can he beat Goku?

Wiz: Um… maybe! During his journey, Wukong performed possibly his most legendary feat: holding up Mount Sumeru which, in traditional Mahayana Buddhism, is a mountain supporting the infinite cosmic sky.

Boomstick: And Sun just hauled it around on one shoulder. Just one! Because on his other shoulder… was a whole other mountain!

Popup: The other mountain was Mount Emei, one of the Sacred Mountain of China.

20. Example #4 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. This material of course comes from here.

Wiz: After 14 years of travel, the journey was complete, and Wukong had finally accomplished a truly great deed. For this, he was given his long-awaited place among the heavens.

Boomstick: As the Victorious Fighting Buddha! Now that’s got to be an anime.

Wiz: After so much time as a rebel, an outcast, and a truly unstoppable warrior, Sun Wukong had, at last, found his home.


Update: 06-28-22

I previously referenced Sun’s turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace but stated that this should not be used as an anti-feat since the flames never actually hurt him (due to taking shelter in a cooler portion of the brazier) (06-19-22 update & sec. 4, #16). I also referenced Red Boy’s spiritually-cultivated Samādhi fire, noting that it is more powerful than earthly or even heavenly fire (sec. 1.2, #2). Regarding the latter, remember that Monkey easily survives an attempted execution by this celestial flame (sec. 1.2, #3). But it’s important to highlight that, in chapter 41, the combination of Samādhi fire and intense smoke is shown to override Monkey’s famous fire-protection spell:

His whole body covered by flame and smoke, the Great Sage found the intense heat unbearable and he dove straight into the mountain stream to try to put out the fire. Little did he anticipate that the shock of the cold water [11] was so great that the heat caused by the fire was forced inward into his body and he fainted immediately (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 231).

And I was recently reminded of an additional episode where Sun has another brush with supernatural flames. In chapter 75, an ancient demon king places Monkey in a small, unassuming vase for execution, but the latter comments on the cool temperature inside. However, it turns out that this is an ultra powerful treasure “governed by the double primal forces of yin and yang” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368), and the second that he speaks, the vessel assaults Sun first with fire, then biting snakes, and finally fire dragons. The first round of fire has no effect on him (nor do the snakes) but the fire dragons produce flames so hot that they also override the fire-protection spell:

He had hardly finished speaking when he felt some pain on his shanks. Rubbing them hurriedly with his hand, he found his shanks were turning flaccid because of the fire. More and more anxious, he thought to himself, “What’s to become of me? Even my shanks are weakened by the fire. I’ll be reduced to a cripple!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369)

What’s interesting is that the vase’s various torments are said to be “activated by the seven jewels, the eight trigrams, and the twenty-four solar terms” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368) (emphasis mine). These are the same eight trigrams as Laozi’s furnace. So, this suggests that Sun’s time in the brazier would have actually hurt his body. While this might even destroy his form, the novel hints that, besides providing a surplus of extra heads, the 72 Transformations also grant Monkey extra lives just like a video game (see the 06-12-22 update here). But this “respawning” is never officially shown in the novel. So what would happen if Sun had been trapped inside the Eight Trigrams furnace in direct heat? Would he just keep regenerating over and over again until his extra lives were spent (or he escaped), or would the supernatural flames simply destroy his body once and for all? I’m not sure. Make of this what you will.

But my original point still stands: Hercules would not have been able to overcome Monkey’s immortality unless he was carrying around a heavenly furnace and managed to force and keep the primate hero inside for a given time.


Update: 07-01-22

I forgot to mention something regarding the various fire-related episodes in the last update: Sun Wukong’s abilities are presented inconsistently throughout the novel. This is best illustrated by two episodes. As mentioned above, in chapter 75, Monkey cries that he’ll be a cripple if the supernatural fire continues to burn his ankles. But he previously demonstrated the ability to heal using his immortal breath in Chapter 46:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).

Prior to this, he quoted a fun poem about his abilities:

Cut off my head and I still can speak,
Sever my arms, I still can beat you up!
My legs amputated, I still can walk.
My belly, ripped open, will heal again,
Smooth and snug as a wonton people make:
A tiny pinch and it’s completely formed.
To bathe in boiling oil is easier still;
Like warm liquid cleanse me of dirt it will (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 307).

This inconsistency is likely due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, it’s important to remember that Monkey is only as fast, strong, or invulnerable as the story calls for him to be. This serves to heighten the drama, making the story more compelling.


Update: 07-03-22

I’ve updated section three (“When heroes meet”) with new information. The section was more of an after thought when I was originally rushing to finish the article.


Update: 07-08-22

I’ve been thinking of more plausible ways in which the Monkey King and the original Greek Heracles might come into conflict. The two I have in mind require “what if” scenarios that change the original Journey to the West (1592) story in one way or another. The first involves Guanyin calling on Heracles/Vajrapāni instead of Erlang to deal with the primate immortal in chapter six. (As a dharma protector and embodiment of the Buddha’s power, Heracles/Vajrapāni would naturally be imbued with dharma power, the penultimate power in the novel’s cosmos. This means that he would eventually prevail over Monkey but come to respect Monkey’s strength and skill, especially since the primate only studied spiritual cultivation and martial arts for three years prior to his adventures.) This would make the reason for their fight more natural, but creating an extended narrative where the hero befriends Sun and introduces him to the Greek pantheon would be difficult as the journey—i.e. escorting the monk to India—still needs to take place.

The second involves the end of the novel when the Buddha orders the eight Vajra warriors to escort the pilgrims to China in chapter 100. Perhaps, in our version, Heracles/Vajrapāni is among them or he even replaces the eight. Knowing of Monkey’s great power, he might invite him to have a friendly sparring match. But this seems like a bad time to pick a fight, making their confrontation less natural. But considering that this happens at the end of the journey, it opens the door to introducing Sun to the Greek gods. This would naturally occur after Monkey achieves Buddhahood, removing any chance that he would struggle against a Grecian foe.

As I write this, I thought of a third that’s a mix of the two. Heracles/Vajrapāni is still called on to halt Sun’s rampage, and after the latter is promoted in spiritual rank, the Buddha charges the guardian with escorting the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” through the Greek world system—i.e. the Greek pantheon. I really like the idea of Heracles/Vajrapāni visiting his old pantheon as his Vajra weapon is analogous to Zeus’ thunderbolt. It serves the same function under the Hindu storm god Indra, who is sometimes associated with Zeus in Greco-Buddhist art.

The first Greeks arrived in India during the reign of Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) and later Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Just like American Gods, these merchants, artisans, farmers, and mercenaries would have brought their religion with them, allowing the Greek pantheon to learn of the Buddha. And just like the “Enlightened One” conversed with the Vedic gods atop Mt. Sumeru, he too might visit Olympus and talk with the Greek gods. This would lead Zeus assigning his son, the “god of strength”, to guard the Buddha, forming a link between the Greek and Buddhist pantheons.


Update: 11-04-22

According to a legend appearing in various Indian, Chinese, and Burmese translations, the ancient Indian king Ajatasatru (c. 492 to 460 BCE) had wooden, blade-wielding automatons constructed to guard the relics of the Buddha after his passing. They were known as “spirit movement machines” (Sk: bhuta vahana yanta). Some versions say they were built by a Vedic god, while another says they were based on secret plans stolen from the Romans (in a strange story of reincarnational espionage). The robots were apparently stored in a secret underground chamber beneath a stupa to await the coming of a future king (Ashoka). This brings to mind the Golden Army from Hellboy II.

While I first learned about the legend from this tweet, the info comes from Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (2018) by Adrienne Mayor (see pages 203-211). I have uploaded a PDF of the book to my research blog server. You can download it from here (please support the official release if you enjoy the digital copy).

Mayor notes that the automatons do not appear in any visual media. But she uses existing Buddhist art to suggest that they were likely modeled after the muscular dvarapala and yaksha shown protecting the Buddha. What’s even more interesting is that she highlights the fact that the Greek hero Heracles is depicted as one of these guardians in Greco-Buddhist art (as discussed above).

Can you imagine the Monkey King going up against a celestial robot powered by the godly spirit of Heracles?!?!

Notes:

1) JTTW uses two measurement units when referring to the staff, the chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese foot”; 12.52 in / 31.8 cm) and the zhang (丈; 1 = 10 chi) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). Monkey is said to fight with the staff at two lengths, “two zhang” (erzhang, 二丈, i.e. 20 chi) in chapter three and “12 or 13 chi” (丈二三) in chapter 88 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135; vol. 4, p. 196). But twenty is likely a typo for 12 (zhanger, 丈二, 3.82 m / 12.53 ft.) since the pillar was already close to the former size when Sun first saw it in the dragon treasury. Therefore, this correction agrees with the latter measurement.

2) Translation slightly altered. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) writes that it’s the size of a “rice bowl” (vol. 1, p. 135), but this doesn’t appear in the original Chinese.

3) In chatper 59, for example, he invades the stomach of his former bond brother‘s wife in an attempt to procure a magic weapon needed to clear his master’s path to the west:

“I’m now having a little fun in my esteemed Sister-in-law’s stomach! I am, as the saying goes, seeing right through you! I know how thirsty you must be, so let me send you a ‘sitting bowl’ to relieve your thirst” Suddenly he shoved his foot down hard and unbearable pain shot through Rākṣasī’s lower abdomen, sending her tumbling to the floor and moaning. “Please don’t refuse me, Sister-in-law,” said Pilgrim, “I’m presenting you with an added snack for your hunger.” He jerked his head upward, and unbearable pain coursed through Rākṣasī’s heart. She began to roll all over the ground, the pain turning her face yellow and her lips white. All she could do was to cry out, “Brother-in-law Sun, please spare my life!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129).

4) Mt. Sumeru is said to be 160,000 yojanas (1 yojana = roughly 8 miles/12.87 km) tall, with 80,000 below a great ocean and 80,000 exposed above (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 454).

5) Three lines from a poem in chapter 41 read: “It’s not fire from Heaven, / Nor is it a wildfire. / It’s the realized samādhi fire born of the demon’s self-cultivation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 225).

6) “Dharma power” (fali, 法力) is the strongest form of magic in Journey to the West. See this paper for an explanation of the novel’s Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy, which places Buddhist deities at the top.

7) The hydra is the nigh-immortal offspring of the Titanic monsters Typhon and Echidna (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 52).

8) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) uses “pounds” instead of the original jin (斤, a.k.a. catty) (vol. 1, p. 135). During the Ming dynasty when the novel was compiled, one jin equaled approximately 590 grams (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). I will therefore alter Yu’s translation to reflect more accurate measures.

9) Yes, this information comes from Wikipedia, but I’m the one who originally added it under the screenname “Ghostexorcist”. See this edit history, for example.

10) I follow the translation used in Meulenbeld (2019). Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) simply translates this as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude” (vol. 1, p. 122).

11) This sounds like a case of thermal shock.

Sources:

Aston, E. (2021). Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 95-106). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Deacy, S. (2021). Heracles between Hera and Athena. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 387-394). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hanesworth, P. (2021). Labor XII: Cerberus. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 165-180). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hesiod, & Powell, B. B. (2017). The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles. United States: University of California Press.

Hinsch, B. (2011). Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hsing, I.T., & Crowell, W. G. (2005). Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China. Asia Major, 18(2), 103–154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41649907

Hsu, K. L. (2021). The Madness and the Labors. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 13-25). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code: Da Ming Lü. United States: University of Washington Press.

March, J. (2021). Labor I: The Nemean Lion. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 29-44). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Mayor, A. (2021). The Girdle of the Amazon Hippolyte. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 124-134). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Meulenbeld. (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

Ogden, D. (2021a). Introduction. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. xxi-xxxi). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ogden, D. (2021b). Labor VIII: The Mares of Diomede (and Alcestis). In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 113-123). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Pache, C. (2021). Birth and Childhood. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 3-12). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Romero-Gonzalez, D. (2021). Deianeira, Death, and Apotheosis. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 266-280). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Sadakata, A. (1997). Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Japan: Kosei Publishing Company.

Salowey, C. (2021). The Gigantomachy. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 235-250). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Salapata, G. (2021). Labor XI: The Apples of Hesperides. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 149-164). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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

Theocritus, & Gow A. S. F. (1952). Theocritus (Vol. 1-2). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

Vasubandhu (2014). Abhidharmakosabhasyam of Vasubandhu (Vol. 2) (L. de La Vallee Poussin & L. M. Pruden, Trans.). United States: Jain Publishing Company.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

The Patriarch Subodhi: Sun Wukong’s First Master

Last updated: 03-13-2023

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, chengyu fojiao, 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 Enlightened By Emptiness”. This shows that Monkey’s name incapsulates his story arc: attaining divine longevity in the beginning and ascending to Buddhahood at the end. This, again, is an open reference to the highly influential Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (see section 2.3).

4.3. Tests of spiritual intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

4.4. Overtly stated curriculum and tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5. Mentioned in passing

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

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

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

4.6. Implied

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

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

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

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

5. Powers

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

5.1. Clairvoyance

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

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

5.2. Omniscience

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

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

5.3. Control of spirits and karmic results

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

5.4. Possible reason for expelling Monkey

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

6. Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-04-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-06-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-09-22

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-10-22

Monkey’s religious name Wukong (悟空), or “Awakened to Emptiness“, predates the 1592 and Zhu editions, appearing as early as an early-Ming zaju play. Therefore, I’d like to suggest that the historical Subhūti was chosen as the basis for a master worthy of bestowing this name because of his great knowledge of emptiness, as well as the large role that he plays in the Diamond Sutra (Sk: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra; Ch: 金剛般若波羅蜜多經, Jingang bore boluomiduo jing, a.k.a. Jingang jing金剛經). After all, the scripture “deals with the concept of emptiness” despite never once “employ[ing] the word for emptiness śūnyatā [Ch: kong, 空]” (Watson, 2010, p. 75). [17]  Alluding to the sutra makes sense as it was so overwhelmingly popular when Journey to the West was written that tales of its miracles 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.


Update: 03-13-23

I just learned that the uber popular cartoon Lego Monkie Kid has introduced Master Subodhi in the recent 4th season. The following clip shows him training the reincarnations of Tripitaka, Zhu Bajie, and the White Dragon Horse and apparently the original Sha Wujing (video 1).

Video 1 – Master Subodhi trains new students in Lego Monkie Kid season 4.

Notes:

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

2) Osto (2016) continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story Idea: The Reason for Sun Wukong’s Rebellion

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins. 

During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數). [1] It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:

The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).

They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)

Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).

Fig. 1 – The “72 Killer Deities” (Qi shi er Shashen, 七十二煞神) folk print from the Anne S. Goodrich Collection (larger version).

In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.

Notes:

1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).

Sources:

Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from https://ia800709.us.archive.org/2/items/researchesintoch03dor/researchesintoch03dor.pdf

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

Pas, J. F., & Leung, M. K. (1998). Historical Dictionary of Taoism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1993). Outlaws of the Marsh. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

When was the Monkey King Born?

Last updated: 04-02-2021

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen herehere, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I was recently contacted by someone writing a Journey to the West fanfiction and asked when the Monkey King was born from stone. I have therefore decided to write an entry for those interested in the subject. I will start at the end of the novel and work my way backwards. The years presented are guesstimates and should not be taken as wholly accurate considering that the novel does not follow a strict historical timeline.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with his religious birthday, which is variously celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the twenty-third (Fuzhou) or twenty-fifth day (Putian) of the second lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), and the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month (Taiwan) (see here).

Monkey’s birth from stone (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950).

 

I. Chapter 100

Upon the pilgrims’ return to China from India, Tang Emperor Taizong tells Tripitaka: “We have caused you the trouble of taking a long journey. This is now the twenty-seventh year of the Zhenguan period!” (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, p. 374). It should be noted that this era historically lasted from 627 to 650 CE (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). So the novel dates their return to 654 CE, adding four fictional years to the reign period.

The historical Xuanzang returned in 645 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

II. Chapter 13/14

In chapter fourteen, Tripitaka releases Sun Wukong from under the Mountain of Two Frontiers (a.k.a. Five Elements Mountain) a short time after leaving the confines of the Chinese empire. But prior to taking Monkey as a disciple, he is briefly guarded by the hunter Liu Boqin on his trek westward. Liu tells Tripitaka the history of the area during their journey across the mountain: “A few years ago, I heard from my elders that during the time when Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Han emperor, this mountain fell from Heaven with a divine monkey clamped beneath it” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 306). [1] The former Han official Wang Mang historically ruled from 9 BCE–23 CE (Bielenstein, 1986). I will return to this point below.

Chapter thirteen states Tripitaka leaves from Chang’an “on the third day before the fifteenth of the ninth month in the thirteenth year of the period Zhenguan” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 293). This dates his departure to the year 640 CE.

The historical Xuanzang left China in 627 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

III. Chapter 7/8

In the beginning of chapter eight, the Buddha says: “We do not know how much time has passed here since I subdued the wily monkey and pacified Heaven, but I suppose at least half a millennium has gone by in the worldly realm…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 203). But as noted above, Wukong is imprisoned during the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9 BCE–23 CE). Therefore, if he is discovered in 640 CE, this means Monkey’s imprisonment lasts anywhere from 617 to 649 years and not 500 as is commonly thought.

Prior to his wager with the Buddha in chapter seven, Wukong is placed into Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. The novel reads: “Truly time passed swiftly, and the forty-ninth day arrived imperceptibly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative previously revealed that “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years, starting between 40–26 BCE.

IV. Chapter 5

Following Monkey’s initial rebellion and being granted the empty title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, he is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves. He later flees back to earth after eating the life-prolonging fruits and wreaking havoc on the Queen Mother’s peach banquet. Upon his return, his commanders ask him: “The Great Sage has been living for over a century in Heaven. May we ask what appointment he actually received?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 166) (emphasis mine). [2] This dates his ascension to heaven somewhere below the range of 140–126 BCE (150–136 BCE?). I Obviously can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

V. Chapter 3/4

After Wukong bullies the Eastern Dragon King and the Judges of Hell, Heaven appoints him the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his unruly adventures in check. But upon learning that his position is the lowest in heaven, he returns home in rebellion. His children ask, “Having gone to the region above for more than ten years, you must be returning in success and glory” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150) (emphasis mine). [3] This dates his first ascension somewhere below the range 150–136 BCE (160–146 BCE?). Again, I can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Shotaro_Honda_1939 - Hell (small)
Monkey strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death in Hell (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

During his time in Hell, Monkey calls for the ledger containing his information. Under a heading marked “Soul 1350”, Wukong reads, “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140). [4] If we use 160–146 BCE as a conservative estimate for his first ascension, then this dates his birth to somewhere between 502–488 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). I think 500 BCE is a nice round number.

This means that Sun Wukong is roughly 1,100-years-old when he attains Buddhahood at the end of the novel.


Update: 07-08-2020

The novel suggests a two hour window for the time of Wukong’s birth. This takes place in chapter 61 when Monkey is preparing to battle the Bull Demon King over the palm-leaf fan. Our hero recites an emboldening poem, to which Zhu Bajie replies:

Yes! Yes! Yes!
Go! Go! Go!
Who cares if the Bull King says yes or no!
Wood’s born at Boar,
the hog’s its proper mate,
Who’ll lead back the Bull to return to earth.
Monkey is the metal born under shen [申]:
Peaceful and docile, how harmonious!
Use the palm-leaf
As water’s sign.
When flames are extinct, Completion’s attained.
In hard work we persist both night and day
And rush, merit done, to Ullambana Feast (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 154). (emphasis mine)

The monkey is one of twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, each corresponding to an earthly branch, an elemental phase, and a time period. The monkey is born under the shen (申) branch, which is associated with metal and the hours 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM.


Update: 04-02-2021

As I explain in this article, Wukong learns the 72 transformations in order to escape a trio of heaven-sent punishments scheduled to kill him for defying his fate and achieving immortality. The calamities of thunder, fire, and wind respectively come every 500 years (after the initial attainment of eternal life) to kill Daoist cultivators. Monkey becomes an immortal around his 342nd year when his soul is taken to Hell. He is immortal for over 160 years [5] at the time he’s imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. This means his 500th year of immortality, the year that the calamity of thunder would be scheduled to strike him, takes place during his imprisonment under the celestial mountain. But this is never described in the story. I assume this is just one of many inconsistencies born from oral storytelling. Although, one could argue that, within the fictional universe, the thunder calamity was voided since Wukong was undergoing punishment at the behest of the Buddha.

Notes:

1) I am indebted to Irwen Wong for bringing this passage to my attention.

2) Wukong, however, questions this estimate, saying: “I recall that it’s been but half a year…How can you talk of a century?’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 167). But, earlier in the novel, a wise member of Monkey’s tribe points out that one’s view of time is skewed while inhabiting the celestial realm: “You are not aware of time and seasons when you are in Heaven” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). Add to this the established fact that one heavenly day equals one solar year. Therefore, the Great Sage’s recollection of the passage of time is unreliable.

3) Monkey also questions this estimate: “I have been away for only half a month…How can it be more than ten years” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). But, again, his recollections are not reliable. See note #2.

4) These include three years as Subodhi’s student (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 121), seven as a junior monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117), and “more than ten years” searching the world for a master (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).

5) As previously mentioned, Wukong serves in heaven twice: first “for more than ten years” and second “for over a century” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 166). Then he is punished to 49 heavenly days/49 solar years in Laozi’s furnace (see above).

Sources:

Bielenstein, H. (1986). Wang Mang, the Restoration of the Han Dynasty, and Later Han. In D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Ed.). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220 (pp. 223-290). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

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

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

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

Zhang, Q. (2015). An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Belgium: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.