Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 02/06/21

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.


Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.

Update: 12/28/19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.

Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.


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

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

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

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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sun Wukong’s Hellish Punishment

At the end of chapter seven, the Monkey King is crushed under Five Elements Mountain for 600-plus-years as punishment for attempting to usurp the throne of heaven. I’ve previously written that this sentence is based on Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasty tales of the Sage King and demigod Yu the Great subduing an aquatic monkey demon under a mountain. Sun Wukong’s time pinned by the mountain has been portrayed numerous times in movies and television. But modern media often forgets that this was only part of his punishment, the other half being a hellish diet:

Moved by compassion, he [the Buddha] recited a divine spell and called together a local spirit and the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters to stand watch over the Five-Phases Mountain [fig. 1]. They were told to feed the prisoner [Monkey] with iron pellets [tie wanzi, 鐵丸子] when he was hungry and to give him melted copper [ronghua de tong zhi, 溶化的銅汁] to drink when he was thirsty. When the time of his chastisement was fulfilled, they were told, someone would be coming to deliver him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 199).

Monkey imprisoned, Son Goku (1939) - small

Fig. 1 – One of the guards charged with watching over Monkey (larger version). From the children’s book Son Goku (1939).

I. The Origin

This punishment comes directly from Buddhist doctrine describing the torture of sinners in hell (Sk: Naraka; Ch: Diyu, 地獄). For example, the Dirghagama (Ch: Chang Ahun Jing, 長阿含經; “The Collection of Long Scriptures”), which survived thanks to a Chinese translation from the original Sanskrit in 413 CE (Robert & David, 2013, p. 246), describes two realms in hell in which the damned are fed such a horrific diet:

[…] Terrified they run out, seeking safety and refuge, but they arrive at the Hell of Hunger [Ji, 飢].

The wardens come to ask them: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are hungry”. The wardens then seize them and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with iron hooks the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open; they put iron pellets into them [fig. 2]. The pellets burn their lips and tongues, from the throats down to their stomachs. The pellets penetrate through the sinners; there is nothing but burning. The horrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since their punishment is not yet completed, the sinners do not perish. After having suffered for a long time, they leave the Hell of Hunger. Frightened they run away, looking for relief and safety, until they arrive to the Hell of Thirst [Ke, 渴].

The wardens come to them and ask: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are thirsty.” The wardens thereupon seize the sinners and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with hot iron hooks, the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open. They pour down molten copper [fig. 3]. It burns their mouth, lips and tongue; from their throats it reaches their stomachs. It penetrates down and goes through them; there is nothing but burning. The terrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since the remaining transgressions have not yet been atoned, they do not perish. After having been subjected to this punishment for a long time, they leave the Hell of Thirst (Howard, 1986, p. 131).

Soul being forced to eat iron pellets

Fig. 2 – A damned soul being force-fed red hot iron pellets (larger version); Fig. 3 – Souls being forced to drink molten copper (larger version). Images from the 20th-century.

The same source explains the hells of hunger and thirst are the respective fourth and fifth of sixteen minor hells (xiao yu, 小獄) making up one of the eight greater purgatories (Da diyu, 大地獄) called the hell of Consciousness (xiang, 想). Sinners reborn into this labyrinth of pain are full of anger and lash out at each other with scythe-like claws and swords and daggers. They remain conscious through endless rounds of dismemberment and resurrection via a magical wind. They then wander into each successive minor hell, enduring everything from grinding by hot millstones to their flesh and bones being shattered by blistering cold. Again, each sinner remains conscious and resurrects between each purgatory (Howard, 1986, pp. 129-134).

Another name for the greater hell of Consciousness is the Sanskrit term Samjiva (Ch: deng huo, 等活), meaning “revival” or “repetition”. These might refer to the cyclical resurrection of the sinner, or to their karmic punishment mirroring what they did to others in life (Robert & David, 2013, p. 754).

It should be noted that, unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, rebirth in the Buddhist hell is not forever. For some it may last eons, but the torture serves to cleanse the spirit of past sins gained in life. Once the karmic debt has been repaid, the soul will be reborn into one of the other six realms of existence (hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, asura, and deva). Sometimes souls have to work their way back up to human status if they have particularly heavy karmic baggage.

Monkey’s punishment is essentially hell on earth. The Five Elements mountain pins him down so the chosen guards can torture him with hot iron pellets and molten copper just like those in the subterranean hells of hunger and thirst. He is not capable of dying, so his immortality serves a similar function to the magic wind that continually resurrects the damned. The finite length of his sentence (600-plus-years) is similar to the way a soul will only stay in the hell realm until they have repaid their karmic debt. And Tripitaka delivering him from his torments is like a soul being reborn into a new life. After all, Monkey’s life drastically changes after his release; he goes from being a rebellious, power-hungry demon, to a Buddhist monk devoted to the protection of his master.

II. Other Damned Celestials

Sun Wukong is not the only celestial to be damned to drink molten copper. Readers may be surprised to learn that this same heavenly punishment also afflicts King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), the greatest of the Ten Judges of Hell. The aforementioned Dirghagama reads:

Buddha said to the bhiksus: “South of Jambudvipa, in the interior of the great Diamond Mountain, lies the palace of King Yama. The realm he governs extends for six thousand yojanas in both directions. His city has seven rows of ramparts, with seven nets and seven rows of trees … Day and night, three times a day, a huge copper cauldron automatically places itself in front of him. If the huge cauldron emerges in the interior of the palace, the king, upon seeing it, rushes out of the palace stricken by horror and fright. But then, if the cauldron emerges outside the palace, the king, upon seeing it, reenters the palace stricken by horror and fright. Giant hell wardens grab King Yama and have him lie down on hot irons. With iron hooks, they split his mouth open and force molten copper down. It burns his lips and tongue; from the throat, it reaches his stomach. It spreads down below and passes through [his body] so that no place is left unburnt. The punishment continues [in this fashion] until its completion. Afterwards, King Yama returns to seek amusement with all his ladies. Many great state[s]men, who possessed riches, are also punished in this way” (Howard, 1986, p. 141).

So Yama inhabits an odd position where he is both a member of the heavenly hierarchy working to judge the fate of the dead and a damned soul repaying a karmic debt through torture.


Howard, A. F. (1986). The Imagery of the Cosmological Buddha. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Robert, E. B. J., & David, S. L. J. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press.

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