The Buddhist Monkey King

(Note: I originally wrote this in late 2020 but just now got around to cleaning it up and posting it.)

Following his birth, the Stone Monkey (Shi hou, 石猴) comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The Stone Monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious:

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] [fig. 1] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

In this article, I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as a primate monarch is based on “The Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka; Ch: Houwang bensheng, 猴王本生, “Birth Story of the Monkey King”; “The Great Monkey” hereafter), an ancient story about the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, which appears in various collections of moralistic birth tales (Sk: jakata; Ch: bensheng jing, 本生經) in Buddhist literature. After summarizing the tale, I will briefly discuss 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art depicting the story at important religious sites, thereby showing its intense popularity. Next, I will demonstrate that the tale traveled the Silk Road to China, where it was represented in Buddhist art and literature. Finally, I will highlight similarities between “The Great Monkey” and a 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as similarities with the standard 1592 edition of the novel.

Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).

1. Story of the Great Monkey

Buddhist literature contains different versions of the tale. I will describe two of them here. The first is story no. 27 in the Garland of Birth Stories (Sk: Jatakamala, 4th-century) by the monk Arya Sura. [1] The tale opens with the following epigraph: “Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies” (Khoroche, 1989, p. 186). According to the story, the bodhisattva was born a virtuous monkey king in the verdant paradise of the Himalayas, which abounded in fruits and flowers, crystal clear streams, and choirs of singing birds. He and his tribe lived near an unnamed river and ate from a mountainous banyan tree that produced figs larger than palmyra nuts. The monkey king feared that the fruit would cause trouble for his people, so he gave instructions to regularly clear them from a branch overlooking the river. However, one season a fig escaped the monkeys’ attention and it grew to maturation, dropping into the water, drifting downstream, and lodging in the fence of a pool where an unnamed human king played with his consorts. The smell and color of the fruit entranced the women, and after the king tasted it, he became obsessed with its flavor and led an army in search of the tree. The ruler and his entourage cut a path upstream and followed a sweet scent directly to the massive banyan, which rose high above all the surrounding trees like the lord of the forest. When he saw the monkeys eating figs, the enraged ruler ordered his men to shoot them down with arrows, spears, and rocks. Seeing the dire situation of his tribe, the monkey king made a tremendous leap to the summit of a nearby mountain, a feat that would have required any other monkey a series of jumps. On the mountain, he found a strong-rooted cane of the appropriate length needed to span the gap and tied it to his feet. But his return jump to the tree was hampered by the binding, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch and use his body as a bridge so that his tribe could escape. But the monkey king was mortally wounded as throngs of the panicked primates clawed their way across his body to safety. The human king took note of this selfless deed and ordered his men to relieve the suspended monkey by placing a canopy beneath him and simultaneously shooting the branch and cane. After his wounds were tended and he regained consciousness, the monkey king spent the last few moments of his life teaching the human king the virtue of putting his people’s needs before his own (Khoroche, 1989, pp. 186-192).

The second is story no. 407 [2] in Commentary on the Birth Stories (Pali: Jatakatthakatha, a.k.a. Jatakatthavannana, 5th-century), which is attributed to the monk Buddhagosa. The narrative opens with the Enlightened One talking to a large assembly of monks in Jetavana. He tells them of a previous life when he helped his relatives. Here, the story is quite similar to the first, with slight differences in certain details, such as the monkey king leading a specified number of 80,000 primates, the river is the Ganges, the fruit is water pot-sized mangoes, the specimen that floats downstream is caught in a fisherman’s net, and the human ruler is named King Brahmadatta of Benares. [3] Instead of leaping to a nearby mountain, the monkey king jumps one hundred bow lengths across the Ganges. The cane is tied to his waste instead of his feet, and the cause of falling short on the return jump is not hindrance but miscalculating the length of cane needed to span the gap. And instead of being seriously injured by his people during their escape, a rival of the king—a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta—mortally wounds his heart by jumping onto his back from a high branch. Brahmadatta instructs his men to build a tower so that he can retrieve the primate and tend to his wounds in his last few moments of life. And just like before, the monkey king teaches the human monarch the value of his people’s needs prior to dying. But this time the discussion is much shorter, being presented as a poem of seven stanzas. Brahmadatta then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king and worships the skull as a religious relic. In the end, the Buddha reveals that the ruler was the past incarnation of his disciple Ananda, the 80,000 monkeys were incarnations of the assembled monks, and the monkey king was himself (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, pp. 225-227).

2. The tale in Indian and Chinese Buddhist art

This birth story is over 2,000 years old as it appears among the stone carvings of the Bharhut Stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (fig. 2 and 3) and the western torana (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 3 and 4) (Marshall, Foucher, Majumdar, 1902, vol. 1, pp. 224-225, vol. 2, plate 64). I should note that the story is one of 547 such tales appearing in the Pali canon (Robert & David, 2013, p. 381). So the fact that it was one of only a few past life narratives chosen to appear at these religious sites speaks volumes to its popularity. This explains why the story spread beyond India.

Fig. 2 – “The Great Monkey” medallion from Bharhut stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – Key: A) The monkey king leaps and grasps a banyan tree, making a bridge with his body; B) attendants hold a canopy to catch the injured monkey; and C) The human king sits with the monkey discussing the actions of a good ruler prior to the latter’s death (larger version). Fig. 4 – “The Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 5 – Key: A) Brahmadatta travels with a retinue to the tree; B) he orders his archer(s) to shoot the monkeys; C) He watches as the monkey king leaps across the Ganges and grasps a banyan tree to make a bridge with his body; and D) Brahmadatta’s discussion with the monkey king (larger version).

The tale is known to have traveled east to China along the northern silk road. This is demonstrated by murals appearing in the Kizil cave complex (5th to 7th-century), one of the earliest and most popular Buddhist centers in Kucha, in what is now Xinjiang, China. Zhu (2012) describes the murals, noting that they lack the detail of their Indian counterparts and are therefore more mnemonic than narrative:

[I]n Kizil Cave 38 [fig. 5], a very large monkey is depicted in the center, stretching his body and holding a tree on the other side of a river. Two other smaller monkeys are stepping on his body to cross the river. In the foreground, a kneeling archer is shooting at them. In Kizil Cave 17 [fig. 6] this story is represented even more simply, with the archer omitted. However the stretching monkey, the river, and the trees are enough for anyone who knows the story to recognize it […] Compared to the Indian representations that are more explicitly narrative, the Kizil paintings are more like a reminder of the story. They communicate with the viewers as if they already know the story well” (pp. 59-60).

Fig. 5 – The Kizil cave no. 38 mural (larger version). Found here. Fig. 6 – Kizil cave no. 17 mural (larger version). Found here. Both are circa 5th to 7th-century. Zhu, 2012, p. 61 includes black and white line drawings of the murals.

3. The tale in Chinese Buddhist literature

The Kizil murals are predated by a brief story appearing in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century, The Collection hereafter), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). [4] The 56th story in this collection is an adaptation of the original Indian version with several noticeable differences: The Bodhisattva was formerly a monkey king (mihou wang, 獼猴王) who frolicked with 500 primates. At that time a drought made the various kinds of fruit scarce. Only a river separated their mountain from a nearby kingdom, so the monkey king led his tribe to eat fruit in the royal garden. The human king ordered that they be secretly captured, but the monkey called for his tribe to gather cane to make a rope. One end was tied to a tree and the other to the king, who leaped from a branch across the river. Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch on the other side and create a bridge with his body. After the 500 monkeys crossed to the other side, the king’s body split in two under the strain. When the human king came upon the scene, the dying primate begged that his tribe not be hurt and offered up his own flesh as payment for his bad judgment. However, the king admired the monkey’s superior, sage-like virtue and questioned his own willingness to sacrifice his body for his people. He then issued a proclamation that all monkeys were to be fed throughout the kingdom, and those who refused would be punished as thieves. Upon his return to the palace, the king recounted the events to his queen, touting the monkey’s kindness and comparing it to the height of Mt. Kunlun. She then suggested that the monkeys be fed and the king confirmed that he had already given the order. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the monkey king was himself, the human king was Ananda, and the 500 monkeys were the monks at the assembly (CBETA, 2016a). [5]

Instead of the original 80,000 monkeys, this version reduces the number to only 500. Instead of the king traveling to the banyan/mango tree in the monkey’s mountain territory, the monkeys travel from their mountain to the royal fruit garden in the king’s territory. Instead of being trampled by his people/a rival, the monkey king’s body breaks in two from the strain. And instead of giving the monkey royal funeral rights and worshiping his skull as a relic, the king enacts a law that all monkeys should be fed.

This version is different enough from the originals to suggest a separate Chinese tradition, one that had circulated for some time. This fits with Chavannes’ (1910) suggestion that The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas is not an original Indian text but one compiled in China by Kang Senghui, who likely selected and edited the stories himself (vol. 1, p. 1 n. 1).

Story no. 56 finds parallels with another tale from Chinese Buddhist literature. [6] It appears in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century), which was translated into Chinese by the monk Tan Yao (曇曜). According to the 12th story in this collection: The Buddha was in Rajagrha when the monks commented on the woes faced by those who rely on Devadatta, while celebrating the happiness, positive rebirth, and eventual deliverance of those who rely on the Enlightened One. The Buddha confirmed this by telling a brief tale about two monkeys, each with 500 members in their tribe. A prince of Kashi (a.k.a. Benares) was on a hunting excursion when he surrounded the monkeys. The good monkey (shan mihou, 善獼猴) suggested that they cross the river to escape, but the evil monkey (e’mihou, 惡獼猴) wavered. The good monkey instructed his tribe to cross by using the long branches of a nearby tree. But the evil monkey and his tribe were captured due to inaction. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the good monkey was himself and Devadatta was the evil monkey. He used this story to advocate following the virtuous over the evil, for the former would lead others to safety and happiness, while the latter would lead others to suffering over numerous incarnations (CBETA, 2016b). [7]

This version does away with the fruit element altogether. The monkeys are in danger not because a king is protecting his fruit but because a prince is out hunting. The most noticeable difference here is the addition of a second monkey, one who is labeled as “evil” (e, 惡) (no connection to the Six-Eared Macaque). But like story no. 56, the monkey king is said to lead 500 primates.

It is clear that both Chinese tales were influenced by the later Indian version, story no. 407 from Commentary on the Birth Stories, as they specify a number for the troupe size (500 vs. 80,000), state the monkey king leaps over a river (as opposed to jumping to a nearby mountain top), and characters are revealed in the end to have been the past lives of Buddhist personages (the Buddha, Ananda, Devadatta, monks, etc.). Story no. 12 even opens in a city associated with the Enlightened One’s historical lectures (Rajagrha vs. Jetavana), where he discusses philosophical matters with monks; and an unnamed prince who poses a threat to the monkey king and his people is said to hail from Kashi, another name for Benares, the seat of King Brahmadatta.

4. The Chinese Monkey King

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is 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), a 17 chapter storytelling prompt that predates the Ming Journey to the West by 300 years. In chapter two, our hero’s literary antecedent, a white-clad scholar called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), meets the Tang monk Tripitaka on the road to the west and warns the monk that his two previous incarnations have died trying to procure the Buddhist scriptures. When asked how he knows events of the past, the scholar replies: “I am none other than the bronze-headed, iron-browed [8] king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. I have come to help the reverend monk procure the scriptures” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).

The Story‘s depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim was influenced by Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana) (fig. 7), 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. For example, both are depicted with occult powers enabling them to fly between heaven and earth (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098); both visit a realm ruled by a deity named Brahma, the Mahabrahma devaraja Vaisravana in the case of Monkey and Brahma in the case of Mulian (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, p. 1098); both are bestowed magic weapons by heaven, a golden-ringed monk staff and alms bowl for Monkey and a matching staff for Mulian (he enchants his own alms bowl) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); the power of said weapons are tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name, Vaisravana and the Buddha, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); and both use said weapons with the expressed purpose of saving someone important, Tripitaka and Mulian’s mother, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example; Mair, 1994).

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 7 – A painting depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

If The Story borrows from Mulian’s tale, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it also appropriated material from other Buddhist tales, including “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the massive, fruit-bearing banyan/mango tree. Additionally, both The Story and the “The Great Monkey” describe the respective monkey kings leading a similar number of primates, 84,000 in the former and 80,000 in the latter. [9] While the Chinese variants drastically reduce the number to 500, it’s interesting that both tales would display such similar counts. This is because said numbers are significant to Buddhism. For example, 84,000 generally denotes a very large number, hence the belief that the body contains this many atoms. Other examples include the 84,000 stupas of Asoka, the 84,000 bodily relics of the Buddha, the Amitabha‘s 84,000 rays of illumination, the 84,000 bodily signs of a Buddha, the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, etc. In addition, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) can be shorthand for 84,000. It can also refer to separate Buddhist concepts, such as the “bodhisattva’s 80,000 duties” (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2006, p. 39). It’s certainly possible that both stories independently chose similar numbers due to their demonstrated connection to Buddhism. But maybe the storytellers who developed The Story had access to some non-Chinese version of the tale, perhaps by way of Buddhist monks, for Buddhism has a long history of proselytizing through oral literature. [10]

Furthermore, in chapter 11 of The Story, the pilgrims enter the earthly paradise of the Daoist goddess Queen Mother of the West, home to the famed peaches of immortality. Tripitaka asks Monkey to steal the group a few fruits, but the latter refuses, stating:

Because I stole ten peaches to eat when I was eight hundred years old, I was captured by the Queen Mother and given eight hundred blows on my left side and three thousand blows on the right with an iron cudgel. Then I was exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. Even today my sides hurt and now I definitely don’t dare to steal any more peaches!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195).

This event was surely influenced by the fabled meeting of Emperor Wu and the Queen mother, during which she reveals his jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔), formerly the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), was exiled from heaven for stealing her peaches (Campany, 2009, p. 126). However, a monkey king running afoul of an earthbound monarch for raiding their imperial fruit garden mirrors story no. 56 in The Collection. As mentioned above, the tale recalls the Buddhist monkey king leading his tribe out of the mountains to eat fruit in a human sovereign’s garden during a time of drought. The ruler orders the primates captured, leading to the monkey king’s sacrifice. Therefore, this portion of The Story could be a combination of Buddhist and Daoist sources.

“The Great Monkey” could have also influenced the 1592 edition. In chapter one, the monkeys following the stream to find its source in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is reminiscent of the human king’s trek up the Ganges to find the source of the fruit in the Himalayas. Also, recall that the Indian and Chinese versions place great emphasis on the monkey king leaping over a river. For example, story no. 407 reads: “[H]e ascended a branch that rose up straight, went along another branch that stretched towards the Ganges, and springing from the end of it, he passed a hundred bow-lengths and lighted on a bush on the [other] bank” (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, p. 226). This could have influenced the competition to leap through the waterfall. It’s interesting that Wukong alone is successful in the jump, leading to his kinghood:

The monkeys said to each other, “We don’t know where this water comes from. Since we have nothing to do today, let us follow the stream up to its source to have some fun.” With a shriek of joy, they dragged along males and females, calling out to brothers and sisters, and scrambled up the mountain alongside the stream. Reaching its source, they found a great waterfall.


All the monkeys clapped their hands in acclaim: “Marvelous water! Marvelous water! So this waterfall is distantly connected with the stream at the base of the mountain, and flows directly out, even to the great ocean.” They said also, “If any of us had the ability to penetrate the curtain and find out where the water comes from without hurting himself, we would honor him as king.” They gave the call three times, when suddenly the stone monkey leaped out from the crowd. He answered the challenge with a loud voice, “I’ll go in! I’ll go in!” 


Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 103-104).

This takes us back to where we started from in the introduction.

5. Conclusion

I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as the Monkey King is based on the “The Great Monkey”, a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a primate monarch, which appears in various Indian Buddhist sources, such as the 4th-century Garland of Birth Stories (no. 27) and the 5th-century Commentary on the Birth Stories (no. 407). The tale describes the monkey king’s efforts to save his tribe from a human monarch who seeks to claim a massive banyan/mango tree in the Himalayas by killing all of the monkeys inhabiting it. After leaping to a mountain top or over the Ganges River to retrieve a length of cane needed to span the gap, his return jump is hindered, forcing him to make a bridge with his body. He is mortally wounded in the process, though, when throngs of clambering monkeys run across his back or a rival primate assaults him from a high branch. In the end, the human monarch takes note of this selfless act and learns from him the value of putting the needs of his people first moments prior to the monkey king’s death.

The popularity of the tale, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas, explains why it spread beyond Bharata and traveled the Silk Road to the Middle Kingdom, where it was represented in Chinese Buddhist literature and art. Simplistic mnemonic depictions of the tale in Xinjiang’s Kizil Cave complex (no. 17 and 38) (5th to 7th-century) are predated by stories in the 3rd-century Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (no. 56) and the mid-5th-century Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (no. 12). The first tells how the monkey king leads his people down from the mountain to raid an imperial fruit garden and ultimately sacrifices his life so the tribe can escape punishment. The second involves the decisions of two monkey kings, one good and one evil, whether or not to cross a river to escape capture at the hands of a prince on a hunting trip. It serves as a parable warning of the consequences of putting one’s faith in those of evil character.

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is the late-13th-century tale The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This story borrows from the Mulian story cycle, so it’s possible that it selected from other Buddhist tales, including Indian and Chinese versions of the “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the banyan/mango tree. The 84,000 primates led by the Chinese Monkey King could be based on the 80,000 from an Indian version. Likewise, Monkey stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West in chapter 11 could be based on the Chinese version in which the monkey king and his people raid an imperial fruit garden. In addition, the emphasis on leaping over a river in the various versions of “The Great Monkey” could have influenced the waterfall jumping contest in the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West.


1) Little is known about Arya Sura’s life. Based on various Indian and Chinese sources, the monk has been estimated to have lived somewhere between the 2nd to the 5th-century, with the 4th-century being the best guess (Khoroche, 1989, pp. xi-xiii).

2) This should not be confused with the similarly named Mahakapi jataka (no. 516). See Cowell, 1895, vol. 5, pp. 37-42.

3) This page (see #3) explains Brahmadatta is the name of several kings from jataka tales.

4) See Nattier, 2008, pp. 149-155 for more information about Kang Shenghui and his work, including the Liudu jijing.

5) See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 1, pp. 216-218 for a French translation of the story. Click here for an English translation by Edward P. Butler (@EPButler).

6) Thank you to Eric Greene of Yale university for bringing this story to my attention.

7) See Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, 1994, pp. 40-41 for a full English translation. As of 03/02/21 the book can be downloaded here for free. See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 3, p. 13 for a partial French translation.

8) According to Mair (1989), “‘Bronze-headed, iron-browed’ is a conventional Chinese epithet for boldness and bravery” (p. 701).

9) Interestingly, the number of primates led by Wukong in the final Ming edition of the novel is 47,000 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). I don’t know if this number holds any significance.

10) Mair (1988) explains Indian Buddhist prosimetric oral literature was very popular in China during the Tang but rapidly became secularized and Sinicized during Song (when The Story was published) due to past anti-Buddhist pogroms, Muslim incursions in Central Asia cutting off fresh Buddhist material, and the reemergence of Confucianism as a state power. But I suggest material that influenced The Story may predate this shift. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim appears with Xuanzang in an 11th-century (Western Xia) mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province (see this article). Xuanzang is shown worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while our hero stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The fact that Monkey appears in religious art at an important stop along the Silk Road shows his association with Xuanzang’s journey was well-known even during this early period. And since story cycles take time to form and become cemented in the public psyche, it’s not a stretch to suggest Monkey’s tale goes back to the previous century or even before the Song. Therefore, it’s possible that these earlier storytellers may have had access to some non-Chinese version of “The Great Monkey”.


Campany, R. F. (2009). Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. University of Hawaii Press.

Chavannes, E. (1910). Cinq Cents Contes et Apologues, Extraits du Tripitaka Chinois et Traduits en Français: Tome 1 [Five Hundred Tales and Apologues: Extracts from the Chinese Tripitaka Translated into French: Vol. 1]. Paris: E. Leroux.

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016a). T03n0152_006 六度集經 第6卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitās, scroll no. 6]. Retrieved from

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016b). T04n0203_002 雜寶藏經 第2卷 [Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures, scroll no. 2]. Retrieved from

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births: Vol. 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Khoroche, P. (Trans.). (1989). Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mair, V. H. (1988). The Buddhist Tradition of Prosimetric Oral Narrative in Chinese Literature. Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 106-21. Retrieved from

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: Academia Sinica.

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.

Marshall, J., Foucher, A., & Majumdar, N. G. (1902). The Monuments of Sāñchī: Vol. 1-3. Bhopal: Indra Publishing House.

Nattier, J. (2008). A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han 東漢 and Three Kingdoms 三國 Periods. Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

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

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, X. (1994). The Storehouse of Sundry Valuables (C. Willemen, Trans.). Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

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, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Zhu, T. (2012). Reshaping the Jātaka Stories: from Jātakas to Avadānas and Praṇidhānas in Paintings at Kucha and Turfan. Buddhist Studies Review, 29(1), 57-83. Retrieved from

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.

The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures: The Literary Precursor of Journey to the West

Last updated: 09-14-19

The great Chinese classic Journey to the West (西遊記, Xiyouji) was anonymously publish in 1592 and has since then enjoyed the adoration of readers for the last four centuries. But not many people know that an earlier version of the novel exists that predates the popular narrative by some three hundred years. Titled The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century), this seventeen chapter novelette likely served as a prompt for oral storytellers, [1] and given it’s age, contains material that differs greatly from the final 16th-century version. For example, the disciple Zhu Bajie doesn’t even appear in the story, and a precursor of Sha Wujing only makes a brief cameo as a monster that Monkey battles. The novelette is also known as the “Kozanji  version” as two editions are mentioned in a 1633 catalog held by the titular Japanese Buddhist temple. The Chinese scholars Wang Guowei (王國維, 1877-1927) and Luo Zhenyu (羅振玉, 1866-1940) first identified the earlier of the two editions as a work of the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). [2] This article will summarize each short chapter, as well as discuss the similarities and differences between it and the final Ming version of Journey to the West. I rely heavily on the English translation by Charles S. Wivell (1994).



Chapter Two: En Route They Encounter the Monkey Pilgrim

Tripitaka and five other monks happen upon a white-clad scholar on their way to India. The figure warns the Sutra Master that his two previous incarnations have died on such a journey, and he will die a thousand times more unless he has protection. The scholar reveals himself to be “the bronze-headed, iron-browed king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” (Huaguoshan ziyundong bawan siqian tongtou tie’e mihou wang, 花果山紫雲洞八萬四千銅頭鐵額獼猴王) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182). Tripitaka accepts his help and rejoices that Karma is uniting the past, present, and future to benefit the people of China. Tripitaka gives him the name “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者).


1) Tripitaka initially sets out with a retinue of monks, but they are all eventually killed by monsters and tigers in chapters 13 and 14.
2) He starts referring to Monkey by the name Pilgrim Sun (Sun Xingzhe, 孫行者) in chapter 14.


1) Triptaka happens upon Monkey at the base of Five Elements Mountain, where he has been imprisoned for the last five hundred years. He removes a magic talisman from the top of the mountain, allowing the immortal to break free. See chapter 14.
2) The name Sun Wukong does not appear in the novelette. He is given the name by the immortal Subodhi in chapter one.

Chapter Three: Entering the Palace of Mahābrahmā Devarāja

Pilgrim tells the monks he is so old that he has seen the Yellow River dry up nine different times over thousands of generations. Since the immortal has knowledge of the celestial realms, Tripitaka asks Monkey to fly the group to heaven to attend the Buddhist feast being held by Vaiśravana, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王), in the Crystal Palace. There, the devas ask the monk to give a lecture on the Lotus Sutra. Knowing that a monster, the “Spirit of the Deep Sand” (Shensha shen, 深沙神), had twice devoured Tripitaka in the past, the Devarāja bestows on Monkey three magic weapons to aid in his defense. These include a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed monk’s staff, and a begging bowl. In addition, Vaiśravana tells them to call his name so that they may be delivered from any danger they face on the journey.


1) Monkey travels to and from heaven as he pleases.
2) He interacts with Vaiśravana on several occasions (see below).
3) The Bodhisattva Guanyin bestows Tripitaka with a golden-ringed monk’s staff and a cassock in chapter 12.


1) Monkey is roughly 1,100 hundred years old when he first meets Tripitaka.
2) He never uses his magic to transport the monk by cloud because the impure nature of mortal bodies makes them far too heavy. See chapter 22.
3) The August Jade Emperor is the ruler of heaven in the final version.
4) Vaiśravana makes several appearances as the Pagoda-Bearing Heavenly King Li Jing, father of the child god, Prince Nezha. [3] Monkey battles Li Jing and Prince Nezha during his rebellion in heaven. See chapter 4, for example.
5) Tripitaka is not eaten over and over again. He was originally the Golden Cicada Bodhisattva, who was exiled from heaven for falling asleep during one of the Buddha’s lectures. He goes through nine pious incarnations before he is reborn as the Sutra Master.
6) Monkey fights with an iron cudgel, which he retrieved from the underwater treasury of Ao Guang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. See chapter 3.
7) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Four: Entry in Incense Mountain Temple

The group travels to the land of the “Thousand-Armed Thousand-Eyed Bodhisattva” (Qian shou qian yan pusa, 千手千眼菩薩), or the Bodhisattva Guanyin (Wivell, 1994, p. 1185). They come upon the Incense Mountain Temple, which is lorded over by statues of fierce guardian deities. Inside, Tripitaka is dismayed to find the holy place has fallen into complete disrepair. Monkey reminds him that the worst is yet to come; the road to the west is full of foreign people with strange languages, wild animals, and unspeakable monsters.

They travel further and enter the Country of Snakes, which is populated by massive serpents that bellow miasmic clouds. However, despite their terrible appearance, the snakes respect the Buddha and let the pilgrims pass through unharmed.


1) Guanyin lives on Mount Potalaka, an island in the Eastern Ocean.
2) The giant serpents do not appear in the final version.

Chapter Five: Passing the Lion Wood and the Country of Tree People

The seven monks travel to the Lion Wood country where they are greeted by countless unicorns and lions with flowers in their mouths. Upon entering the Country of the Tree People, the group finds an inn to spend the night, and in the morning, a young monk is sent to fetch breakfast. However, hours pass without the little disciple returning, so Monkey searches the local village and finds that the monk has been transformed into a donkey by a sorcerer. Pilgrim uses his powers to turn the man’s wife into a bale of grass to feed her to the donkey as revenge. Horrified, the sorcerer then recalls his magic by spitting a mouthful of water on the animal. Monkey does the same and threatens to “mow down all the grass of [his] house” (i.e., kill his wife and anyone else he loves) if the man misuses his powers again (Wivell, 1994, p. 1187). The sorcerer promises to let the group pass through the country unharmed.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Six: Passing Long Ditch and Great Serpent Peak

The monks travel to the valley of the fire-spitting white tiger spirit and encounter a large ditch through which they cannot pass. Pointing the ringed staff towards the heavens, Tripitaka calls the name of Vaiśravana and a ray of light issues forth from the rod that destroys the ditch. Next, the group passes through a fiery pit in which Ming Huang, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, “changed his bones” and deposited them “like snow on a mountain” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1188). [4] Finally, the Sutra Master calls on the Devarāja once more and uses his alms bowl to extinguish a great prairie fire.

Pilgrim warns Tripitaka that they are passing through the territory of a white tiger spirit who can assume the form of any person. She appears out of the mist wearing white clothing and riding a white pony. Monkey confronts her, causing the spirit to forsake her beautiful façade and take on a demonic white tiger form. He then: “…transform[s] his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touche[s] the sky and whose feet straddle the earth. In his hands he grasp[s] a demon-subduing cudgel. His body [is] blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam sh[oots] forth a hundred yards long” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). She refuses to submit, so Pilgrim uses his magic to make her vomit up countless monkeys without end. When she still refuses to surrender, he takes the form of an ever-growing stone in her stomach, causing it to explode. The spirit is finally destroyed when Monkey orders the Yakşa to crush her with his cudgel.


1) The prairie fire may be a precursor to the Fiery Mountain that Monkey extinguishes in chapter 59.
2) The mention of bones and a white-clad demon likely resulted in the White Bone Demon (Baigujing, 白骨精) from chapter 27.
3) Monkey’s staff from the final version has the ability to grow, shrink, and take on different forms.
4) Pilgrim defeats several monsters by invading their stomach. See, for example, chapters 59, 75, and 82.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Seven: Entering Nine Dragon Pond

The group enters the territory of the Nine Dragon Pond, home to nine-headed dragons that cause devastating floods. Nine of the beasts leap from the water intent on taking Tripitaka’s life, but Pilgrim intervenes by blanketing the sky in darkness with a cloak created from the cap of invisibility, and enveloping thousands of miles of water with the alms bowl. He then transforms the ringed staff into a great iron dragon and engages the creatures in a two day long battle. Fighting them to exhaustion, Monkey rips out their spinal sinews as punishment and weaves them into a magical belt that gives Tripitaka the ability to travel at great speeds. In addition, he subjects each creature to eight hundred blows with an iron cudgel.


1) Monkey battles a dragon who eats and eventually replaces Tripitaka’s horse in chapter 15.
2) The iron staff is a precursor of Monkey’s weapon from the final version.


1) Monkey only battles with a single staff.
2) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Eight: TITLE MISSING


[After blocking the group’s passage through a quicksand-like desert,] The Spirit of the Deep Sand reveals: “I am the one who devoured you twice before, monk. Slung from my neck are all your dry bones!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). The monster only helps the monks cross the “Deep Sands” (Shensha, 深沙) via a magical golden bridge once he is threatened with heavily retribution. Memorial poems note that Tripitaka releases the Spirit from a five hundred-year-long curse, and Pilgrim promises to speak highly of him when they meet the Buddha.


1) The Spirit of the Deep Sand is the literary precursor of Sha Wujing from the final version.
2) The bones of Tripitaka mentioned here are similar to the nine monk skulls hanging from Wujing’s neck.
3) The monster-turned-disciple helps Tripitaka pass through the “Flowing Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) by turning the nine skulls into a makeshift raft. See chapter 22.

Chapter Nine: Entering the Country of Hārītī

The seven monks travel to a sparsely populated country peopled mainly by unattended three-year-old children. The few adults who can be found do not bother to interact with the group when spoken to. They eventually meet a king who throws them a lavish vegetarian banquet and reveals that they have entered the Country of Hārītī (Guizi mu, 鬼子母), or the “Mother of Ghostly Children”. Tripitaka is shocked to learn that they have been interacting with disembodied spirits during their stay. The King sends them off with bushels of rice, gold, pearls, and embroidered cloth to help pay for their journey. A memorial poem notes that the monks will repay their debt of gratitude by obtaining the scriptures.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Ten: Passing Through the Country of Women

The group travels for some time before Tripitaka calls on the Devarāja once more to help them bypass a raging flood. They pass through several uninhabited territories before they enter the Country of Women, where the Queen offers them a Buddhist feast. They decline to eat, however, as the food is full of sand, but offer to send the country much needed grains upon their return to the East.

The Queen invites Tripitaka and his retinue to remain as permanent residents and even offers to build them their own temple. Furthermore, she offers them any number of beautiful women as prospective brides. But true to their vow, the monks decline in order to continue their journey to India. The Queen sends them off with pearls and a white horse.


1) Tripitaka and his disciples pass through the Country of Women in chapter 54.
2) The Queen attempts to entice them to stay.

Chapter Eleven: Entering the Pool of the Queen Mother

Tripitaka asks Pilgrim to steal some immortal peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, a primordial goddess, in order to quell his great thirst. Monkey, however, hesitates as he was originally beaten with an iron club and exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for stealing her peaches when he was just eight hundred years old. He remarks that his shanks are still sore even at twenty-seven thousand years of age. They eventually enter the Queen Mother’s realm and look up high above a cliff to see the immortal peach trees laden with fruit. Monkey explains: “These peach trees sprout a thousand years after planting. They blossom in three thousand years and produce a fruit in ten thousand years. The fruit requires ten thousand more years to ripen. He who eats one gains three thousand years of life” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1196).

Several of the ripe fruits fall from the trees into the pond below. Pilgrim raps the golden-ringed monk’s staff on the ground three, five, and seven times, each time summoning a different immortal child to the surface of the water. The first and second children respectively claim to be three thousand and five thousand years old. The third child, who claims to be seven thousand years old, is pulled from the water and quickly devoured in the form of a jujube, or Chinese date. [5] The story mentions in passing that, upon their return to China, Monkey spits out the pit in Sichuan province, thus explaining the origin of ginseng in the area.


1) Pilgrim steals peaches from the Queen Mother’s immortal peach grove in chapter 5. The chapter notes that there are three classes of immortal peaches, each taking thousands upon thousands of years to ripen.
2) He is punished for his transgressions against heaven. See chapters 6 and 7.
3) Tripitaka and his disciples eat baby-shaped ginseng fruit that bestows on them forty-seven thousand years of life. The fruits are harvested from a magical tree with a golden rod. See chapter 24 through 26.


1) Monkey is born on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits in chapter one.
2) He is imprisoned under the Five Elements Mountain for trying to usurp the throne of heaven.
3) Again, he is roughly 1,100 hundred years old.
4) Tripitaka would never ask Pilgrim to steal anything for him.
5) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Twelve: Entering the Country of Heavy Scent

They travel to an unpopulated country full of large, ancient trees.

Chapter Thirteen: Entering the Country of Vara

The monks travel through Vara, a paradise on earth, complete with beautiful women, neatly kept homes, playful children, and lions and dragons who chant the Buddha’s name.

Chapter Fourteen: Entering the Country of Utpala

They travel through Utpala, a flower-filled extension of the Buddha’s paradise in which the inhabitants live for countless ages and never want for food. [6]


1) These brief episodes do not appear in the final version.

Chapter Fifteen: Entering India and Crossing the Sea

The group finally arrives in India and seeks lodging in the Prosperous Immortals Temple. After a vegetarian meal, the temple monks engage Tripitaka in a sarcastic conversation about the purpose of his quest, noting that they themselves have no need to seek the Buddha’s law any further since they already have copies of the sutras. They warn Tripitaka that endless miles of oceans and mountains separate him from Chicken Foot Mountain, home of the Buddha. Furthermore, they claim that, even if his group could surmount such a vast distance, the scriptures themselves are unattainable as they are kept in the Buddha’s residence high atop a sheer cliff accessible only to holy men with the gift of flight. The Sutra Master is disheartened at first, but Monkey suggests that the group gather the following morning to pray wholeheartedly to the Buddha. Their beautiful chanting causes the sky to go black and resound with thunder and lightning. When the darkness subsides, they are delighted to find that a near complete Buddhist canon has appeared before them. Only the Heart Sutra is missing from among the scriptures.


1) Tripitaka and his disciples actually travel to Vulture Peak, where the Buddha gives them the Buddhist canon. See chapter 98.
2) The sutras that they initially receive are destroyed in an accident linked to karmic retribution. But they eventually get new copies. See chapter 99.
3) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Sixteen: Returning They Arrive at the Fragrant Grove Temple and Receive the Heart Sutra

On their return trip home, the monks seek lodging in the Fragrant Grove Temple in the Country of Pan Lu. Tripitaka dreams a heavenly envoy announces that he will be given the Heart Sutra. The group awakens to a defining noise and rises to see the Buddha emerge from colorful clouds in the form of a young, beautiful monk carrying a golden-ringed staff. He reaches into his sleeve and retrieves a scroll, noting that its power should not be shared with the unworthy because: “As soon as this sutra is opened, bright lights will flash, ghosts will weep and spirits will howl, winds and waves will quiet of themselves, and the sun and moon will cease to shine!” (p. 1201).

Additionally, the Buddha orders Tripitaka to have Tang Emperor Xuanzong build Buddhist temples, initiate monks, and promote the Buddhist Law throughout China.

The Enlightened One only gives the monks three months to complete the task of escorting the sutras back to China, for a “Lotus-Plucking Barge” will be arriving at a particular place and time to transport them to paradise (Wivell, 1994, p. 1202).


1) The Buddha tells Vajra guardians to transport the monk and his disciples to paradise once they have completed their mission. See chapter 98.


1) The Buddha is portrayed as a huge, towering figure with a golden body. See chapter 98.
2) Tripitaka, his disciples, and the sutras are magically transported back to China by eight Vajra guardians. See chapter 100.
3) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Chapter Seventeen: They Reach Shensi, Where the Wife of the Householder Wang Kills His Son

The householder Wang (Wang zhangzhe, 王長者) leaves his second wife, whose maiden name is Meng (孟), to care for her step-son Daffy (Chi na, 癡那) while he is away trading goods in foreign lands. Half a year goes by when she receives a letter from Wang dictating that all of their money should go to Daffy if anything were to happen to him. This greatly enrages Meng since Stay-Put (Ju na, 居那), her son from a previous marriage, would miss out on any inheritance. Meng then conspires with her maid Spring Willow (Chunliu, 春柳) to kill Daffy before Wang’s return. They respectively boil him in a pot, rip out his tongue, and starve him, but each time he is magically saved by some unseen supernatural force. For instance, after four days of boiling in the pot, Daffy emerges unscathed and claims: “[T]he iron caldron changed into a lily pad on which I sat, surrounded by the cool waters of a pond. I could sleep or just sit there. It was very comfortable” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1203). Finally, they push Daffy into a tumultuous river and he is swept away. Word of the boy’s death soon spreads to his father, who returns home in tears. Wang holds a Buddhist feast to honor the memory of his son. [7]

Upon their return to China, Tripitaka and the monks stop to attend the feast. The Sutra Master refuses to eat any of the food, however, on the grounds that he is too drunk and needs fish broth to sober up. Following the monk’s instructions, Wang buys the largest specimen that he can find and sets it before Tripitaka. He slices the stomach open with a knife and Daffy emerges unharmed. In the end, father and son are reunited and the treachery of Madame Meng and Spring Willow is exposed.

The monks travel onto the capital where Buddhist feasts are held in their honor. Emperor Xuanzong personally accepts the Heart Sutra and has seven statues of the Buddha commissioned. Soon, the appointed day arrives and “the seven [pilgrims] boarded the barge and, looking due west, they ascended into the heavens and became immortals” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1206). Tang Taizong later honors Monkey with the name “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207).


1) The child emerging from the boiling pot unharmed recalls Monkey’s time in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. See chapter 7.
2) Tripitaka and his disciples are granted Buddhahood and Arhatship after returning to the Western Paradise. See chapter 100.
3) Monkey’s new name recalls his title “Great Sage Equally Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) from chapter 4.
4) This also recalls Sun receiving the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) upon attaining Buddhahood in chapter 100.


1) This episode does not appear in the final version.

Update: 09-14-19

I have written an article discussing the influence of the Buddhist saint Mulian on the Monkey Pilgrim from the story prompt.


1) The term shihua (詩話) at the end of the tale’s Chinese name is synonymous with huaben (話本), a genre of vernacular oral literature.
2) Stories dealing with the adventures of the monk Tripitaka and Sun Wukong appeared as early as the 11th-century, as evidenced by cave art from that time. Such tales were originally created and told by professional storytellers in busy market places, much like the famed Yangzhou storytellers of today. Standardized repertoires were eventually collected and published during the late Song Dynasty. See Dudbridge (1970) for more information.
3) Li Jing (李靖, 571-649) was a historical Tang dynasty general who won many battles in China and Central Asia. Shahar (2013) notes Li was deified after his death, and that the cult centered around him existed into the Song Dynasty. Most importantly, “The general [was] celebrated in a large body of oral and written fiction, which gradually associated him with the Indian god [Vaiśravana]”. He continues, “Storytellers and playwrights [eventually] merged the Tang general with the martial Heavenly King” (p. 28). This merging may have happened as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (Shahar & Kieschnick, 2013, p. 224 n. 18).
4) This changing of bones most likely refers to some type of realized spiritual cultivation that resulted in a new, pure body for the future emperor.
5) It would seem the immortal fruit takes on the form of children upon entering the pool.
6) The land of Utpala sounds very much like Tao Quan’s famous tale the “Peach Blossom Spring” (421), which tells the story of how a fisherman stumbles upon a garden paradise where the inhabitants never age (Barnhart, 1983, pp. 13-16).
7) This portion of the story is very similar to the late 9th- to early 10th-century “Transformation Text on the Boy Shun’s Extreme Filial Piety”. For a comparative analysis, see Mair (1987). For a complete English translation of the tale, see Bodman (1994).


Barnhart, R. M., & Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) (1983). Peach blossom spring: Gardens and flowers in Chinese paintings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bodman, R.W. (1994). The transformation text on the boy Shun’s extreme filial piety. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1128-1134). New York: Columbia University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge, England: University Press.

Mair, V. H. (1987). Parallels between some Tun-Huang manuscripts and the 17th chapter of the Kozanji Journey to the West. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 3, 41-53.

Shahar, M., & Kieschnick, J. (2013). India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shahar, M. (2013). Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krshna. In Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick. India in the Chinese imagination: Myth, religion, and thought (pp. 21-45). University of Pennsylvania Press.

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.