Last updated: 08-29-2023
A reader recently asked me why Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) associates Laozi (老子), a high god of Daoism, with the Tushita Heaven (Doushuai tian, 兜率天). It’s easy to understand why they might be confused, for this is a Buddhist heaven in which bodhisattvas are born prior to their final life and enlightenment as a Buddha (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 930). I’ve therefore decided to do a brief study.
I. What the novel says
Sun Wukong stumbles upon Laozi’s realm while in a drunken stupor. Chapter five reads:
Dear Great Sage! Reeling from side to side, he stumbled along solely on the strength of wine, and in a moment he lost his way. It was not the Equal to Heaven Residence that he went to, but the Tushita Palace. The moment he saw it, he realized his mistake. “The Tushita Palace is at the uppermost of the thirty-three Heavens,” he said, “the Separation’s Regret Heaven,  which is the home of the Most High Laozi. How did I get here? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 165-166).
This is also where the god’s famous alchemical furnace is located. Chapter seven reads:
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. He then ordered the Daoist who watched over the brazier and the page boy in charge of the fire to blow up a strong flame for the smelting process (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189).
Based on the above, Laozi and his furnace reside in the “Tushita Palace” (Doushuai gong, 兜率宮) of the “Separation’s Regret Heaven” (Lihen tian, 離恨天), which is said to be the highest of the “thirty-three heavens” (sanshisan tian, 三十三天). I will return to the Tushita Palace below.
II. The Buddhist Heavenly Realms
The twenty-fifth scroll of the Sūtra of the Foundations of Mindfulness of the True Law (Ch: Zhengfa nianchu jing, 正法念處經; Sk: Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra, 6th-century) lists thirty-three Buddhist heavenly realms.  These make up the heaven of the “Thirty-Three (Gods)” (Ch: Sanshisan tian, 三十三天; Daoli tian, 忉利天; Sk: Trāyastriṃśa, त्रायस्त्रिंश) (fig. 1). But Separation’s Regret is not mentioned among them, and the actual thirty-third realm is called the “Heaven of Purity” (Qingjing tian, 清淨天). So where does Laozi’s realm come from?
Fig. 1 – The thirty-three heavenly realms overlaid on a map of Buddhist cosmic geography (larger version). From the Establishment of the Dharma-Field with Illustrations (Fajie anli tu, 法界安立圖,17th-century).
III. Ties to Performance Arts
According to Johnson (2020), the Heaven of Separation’s Regret (Lihen tian, 離恨天) is a reoccurring trope in Yuan dynasty stage plays denoting the “[f]rustrations of love” (p. 136). Idema (Wang & Idema, 1995) further explains that it was considered “the home of thwarted lovers obligated to endure eternal separation” (p. 120, n. 24).
The Anthology of Yuan Music Dramas (Yuanqu xuan, 元曲選, 17th-century) contains several examples. One is Listening to a Zither from the Bamboo Thicket (Zhuwu tingqin, 竹塢聽琴, 13th-century) in which a character sings:
Separation’s Regret is the highest of the thirty-three heavenly realms. Of the four hundred and four illnesses,  lovesickness is the most bitter. This pining will kill me.
What’s important for my purposes is that the Yuan play Story of the Western Wing (Xixiangji, 西廂記) specifically mentions Separation’s Regret together with the Tushita Palace, the same palace from Journey to the West. While visiting a monastery, the male lead becomes entranced by a woman and longingly sings of her beauty. Part of the song reads:
Stunning knockouts—I’ve seen a million;
But a lovely face like this is rarely seen!
It dazzles a man’s eyes, stuns him speechless,
And makes his soul fly away into the heavens (emphasis added).
She there, without a thought of teasing, fragrant shoulders bare,
Simply twirls the flower, smiling.
This is Tushita Palace,
Don’t guess it to be the heaven of Separation’s Regret (emphasis added).
Ah, who would ever have thought that I would meet a divine sylph?
I see her spring-breeze face, fit for anger, fit for joy,
Just suited to those flowered pins pasted with kingfisher feathers (Wang & Idema, 1995, pp. 120-121).
When the male lead sings of the Tushita Palace, he is referring here to the “contentment” of the Buddhist Tushita heaven (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 930). That’s why he differentiates it from the Separation’s Regret heaven. After all, Tushita is higher than the traditional Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods (refer back to sec. II) in Buddhist cosmology (fig. 2) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 230-231).
This song (or others like it) might ultimately explain why Journey to the West associates the Tushita Palace with Separation’s Regret. But how does this connect to Laozi?
Fig. 2 – A diagram of the heavens above the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods atop Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60. Take note that the heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods is separated from Tushita by the Yama Heaven.
IV. The Daoist Heavens
The Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel (Yunji qiqian, 雲笈七籤, c. 1029), an encyclopedia of mostly Shangqing (上清) Daoist texts, states that the universe has thirty-six heavens. These comprise thirty-two lower heavens, then the three respective heavens of the “Three Pure Ones” (Sanqing, 三清), and a final grand heaven at the top called the “Great Canopy” (Daluo tian, 大羅天) (fig. 3) (here and here, for example; see also Miller, 2008c). The Cloudy Satchel lists the heavens of the Three Pure Ones from top to bottom, associating Laozi with the bottommost (i.e. the thirty-third heaven):
The realms of the Three Pure ones are Jade Clarity, Highest Clarity, and Grand Clarity.
The Lord of Divine Treasures (Laozi) lives in the Grand Clarity Realm, that is the Great Scarlet Heaven.
It is said that the Most High Lord Lao lives at the top of the thirty-third heaven in the Grand Ultimate Palace of the Great Clarity Realm.
As can be seen, Laozi’s heaven, the “Grand or Great Clarity Realm” (Tai / Daqing jing, 太/大清境), is said to be the thirty-third of thirty-six Daoist heavens. This likely explains how he was associated with the thirty-three Buddhist heavenly realms, Separation’s Regret, and thereby the Tushita Palace.
Fig. 3 – The various layers of the thirty-six Daoist heavens according to the Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel (c. 1029) (larger version). Adapted from Miller, 2008c, p. 850. The original source lists the thirty-sixth heaven as number one. I’ve numbered them according to how they are listed in the Cloudy Satchel.
V. Myth vs Religion
While there is an overlap between Chinese mythology and religion, this article shows that the cosmos of Journey to the West is not an accurate snapshot of religious beliefs. But the novel should not be looked upon solely as entertainment, as is commonly claimed. Like Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), Journey to the West helped spread the mythos of many gods still worshiped today. This is especially true for Sun Wukong because he never received royal patronage due to his literary penchant for rebelling against authority (Shahar, 1996).
The early chapters of Journey to the West state that Laozi and his furnace reside in the Tushita Palace of the Separation’s Regret Heaven, which is the highest of the thirty-three heavenly realms. These realms were borrowed from Buddhism, but Separation’s Regret does not appear among them. It is instead a trope from Yuan-era drama denoting the frustration of being separated from a lover. One Yuan play in particular mentions Separation’s Regret together with the Tushita Palace, a clear reference to the Buddhist heaven of the same name, showing how they might have been associated. And since Laozi’s realm is the thirty-third of thirty-six Daoist heavens, this likely explains why he came to be associated with the thirty-three Buddhist heavenly realms, Separation’s Regret, and thereby the Tushita Palace.
This article shows that Journey to the West is therefore not an accurate snapshot of Chinese religion. But the novel is important as it helped spread the mythos of many gods still worshiped today, including Sun Wukong.
It turns out that “Tushita Palace” (Doushuai(tian) gong, 兜率(天)宮) is used many times throughout Buddhist literature to refer to the Tushita Heaven (see here and here). For example, the Flower Garland Sutra (Huayan jing, 華嚴經, late-3rd to early-4th-century) reads:
Then the king of the Tushita heaven (emphasis added), having set up the throne for the Enlightened One, respectfully greeted the Buddha together with countless godlings of the Tushita heaven.
In the Tushita palace (emphasis added) a host of unspeakably many enlightening beings hovered in the air, and with diligence and single-mindedness produced offerings surpassing all the heavens and presented them to the Buddha, bowing respectfully, while countless forms of music played all at once (Cleary, 1993, pp. 504-505).
Famed Tang-era poet Li Bai / Bo (李白, 701-762) uses the phrase “Separation’s regret” (Lihen, 離恨), translated below as “Parting’s pain,” to describe the agony of being separated from his beloved winter time comforts:
“Parting from My Felt Curtain and Brazier” (Bie zhanzhang huolu, 別氈帳火爐)
I recall recently in late winter weather
the north wind and three feet of snow.
Getting old, I couldn’t stop feeling cold,
how was I to get through the long nights?
Luckily I had a green felt curtain,
I hung it up against the wind.
Also there was this red brazier
that warmed me up in the snow.
I was like a fish diving into deep water,
like a rabbit hiding deep in his hole.
Tender and gentle, the wintering scales revive,
poached in warmth, frozen flesh revitalized.
But then those dark and gloomy evenings
changed instantly to a time of balmy light.
It’s the seasons moving inevitably on—
of course my affection has not ceased.
The frizzy curtain is rolled up with the days,
the ashes die in the fragrant brazier.
Parting’s pain (emphasis added) belongs to springtime,
our tryst will be in the tenth month.
If only this body stays healthy,
we will not be parted for long (Owen, 2006, p. 52).
This shows that the phrase carried the same tortured meaning prior to being elevated to a metaphorical heaven during the Yuan.
On an unrelated note, Dario Virga reminded me that Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), a sort of prequel to Journey to the West, places Laozi in a different location. For instance, chapter 44 reads:
Chi Jingzi took his leave of the Elder Immortal of the South Pole and sailed on his auspicious cloud towards the Mysterious Metropolis, arriving at the immortal mountain in no time at all. This was the Mysterious Metropolis Cave of the Great Canopy heaven,  which was the residence of Laozi (emphasis added). Inside was the wonderland of the Eight Effulgences Palace … 
As mentioned above, the Great Canopy is the highest of the traditional thirty-six Daoist heavens (Miller, 2008c; refer back to fig. 3).
After a quick search, it appears that Journey to the West also makes use of the Great Canopy Heaven (Daluo tian, 大羅天). For example, chapter 35 associates it with Laozi’s Tushita Palace:
After receiving the five treasures, Laozi lifted the seals of the gourd and the vase and poured out two masses of divine ether. With one point of his finger he transformed the ether again into two youths, standing on his left and right. Ten thousand strands of propitious light appeared as
They all drifted toward the Tushita Palace;
Freely they went straight up to Great Canopy (emphasis added)(Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 146). 
But since Journey to the West closely associates the Tushita Palace with the thirty-third heaven of Separation’s Regret, I think the addition of Great Canopy is a clear cut case of a separate oral tradition making its way into the novel.
Lingbao (靈寶) Daoism recognizes thirty-two main heavens topped by the Great Canopy heaven, for a total of thirty-three (fig. 4). This shows that Buddhism came to influence Daoism’s cosmic geography (Miller, 2008b).
This means that the novel places Laozi’s realm in two different locations, but each is treated as the thirty-third heaven.
Fig. 4 – The Thirty-two cardinal Daoist heavens (larger version). Image from Miller, 2008b, p. 848.
I was surprised to learn recently that the Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on the Names of the Buddhas (Foshuo foming jing, 佛說佛名經, 6th-century) lists a certain “Separation’s Regret Buddha” (lihen fo, 離恨佛). I’m not sure if lihen (離恨) is a translation/transliteration of a foreign Indian Buddhist term. I doubt the deity is related to Laozi’s drama-inspired heaven, but it’s still interesting to see the term associated with a Buddha.
There are other examples showing that JTTW is not an accurate snapshot of Chinese religious beliefs. Another is the fact that the Tathagata is a combination of two Buddhas, Shakyamuni and Amitabha. A good indication of this appears in chapter seven:
The Buddha laughed, saying: “I am Shakyamuni, the Venerable One from the Western Region of Ultimate Bliss. Salutations to Amitabha Buddha!” (based on Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 193). 
My guess is that the storytellers and/or author-compilers who added this element did so to make the story more inclusive. After all, there are many different sects of Buddhism, and each one venerates a different Buddha.
1) Source slightly altered for accuracy. Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation originally reads “the Griefless heaven” (vol. 1, p. 166). See section III above for more context.
3) This is a concept borrowed from Buddhist medicine (Demiéville, 1985, p. 77).
4) The original Chinese reads “Daluo gong” (大羅宮), which can be translated as “Great Canopy Palace.” But I’ve already shown in my 03-02-23 update that gong (宮) can also refer to a heaven, and this is true of Great Canopy.
5) Translation by the author. The Eight Effulgences (Bajing, 八景) refer to planetary and stellar deities, internal alchemical practices, or divine chariots of the gods (Robinet, 2008).
6) Source altered slightly for conformity. Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation originally reads “Heaven’s Canopy” (vol. 3, p. 77)
7) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) skipped over the last sentence about Amitabha in his translation.
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