Parallels Between the Monkey King and the Buddha

I’ve previously written about the similarities between Sun Wukong and the Water Margin bandit Wu Song. In this article, I would like to explore the similarities shared by the Monkey King and the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Ch: Xidaduo Qiaodamo, 悉達多 喬達摩). I know readers are now collectively scratching their heads in confusion and asking, “How in the world are a 5th- to 6th-century BCE Nepalese philosopher and an immortal monkey from Ming-era Chinese fiction similar?” It’s true that the particulars of their stories are different, but I will show that Wukong and the Buddha follow a similar trajectory in their early lives. Both experience a supernatural birth, spend early years as royalty, feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life, set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death, and, finally, achieve this goal through spiritual practices. For details about the Buddha’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fosuoxing za, 佛所行讚, 2nd-century), a full-length biographical poem that survives thanks to its translation into Chinese from the original Sanskrit (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 150). Information about Monkey will of course come from the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記).

I. Supernatural birth

On the day of his birth, the bodhisattva’s mother, Queen Maya, feels the urge to go to the garden of Lumbini. There, following the tradition of sage-kings, the young prince Siddhartha is born from her right side (fig. 1):

Whilst she (thus) religiously observed the rules of a pure discipline, Bodhisattva was born from her right side, (come) to deliver the world, constrained by great pity, without causing his mother pain or anguish. / As king Yu-liu [Aurva] was born from the thigh, as king Pi-t’au [Pruthu] was born from the hand, as king Man-to [Mandhatri] was born from the top of the head, as king Kia-k’ha [Kakshivat] was born from the arm-pit, / So also was Bodhisattva on the day of his birth produced from the right side; gradually emerging from the womb, he shed in every direction the rays of his glory (Beal, 1883, pp. 2-3).

Chapter one of Journey to the West describes how an immortal stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) splits open and gives birth to a stone egg, which is transformed into a stone monkey (shi hou, 石猴) by the elements (fig. 2):

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

As I’ve previously written, Wukong’s birth is likely based on the sage-king Yu the Great (大禹) and his son Qi (啟, “open”) of Xia, who are stated in various sources to have been born from stone. For example, one 4th-century tale states Yu’s pregnant wife transformed into stone out of shame for having seen her husband’s shamanic metamorphosis into a bear. Yu ordered the stone to release his son, and it split open to give birth to Qi (Birrell, 1999, p. 123). The emphasis on the stone splitting open is related to ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, [1] much like the Buddha is born from Queen Maya’s side. For instance, the Genealogical Annals of the Emperors and Kings (Diwang shiji, 帝王世紀, 3rd -century) writes:

“While traveling up in the mountains she [Yu’s mother] saw a falling star piercing the Mao region (of the sky). Then in a dream, she received and felt it, so upon swallowing a divine pearl and Job’s Tears, her chest split open and she gave birth to Yu at Stone Knob” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101).

While Yu’s mother is not a stone in this case, his birth is effected by a pearl (a type of stone) and happens in a place named after stone. Such tales establish a link between split births and stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth cycle.

Also, just like the Buddha “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” upon his birth, Wukong too produces a great light: “Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar” (fig. 3) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Fig. 1 – A stone carving depicting the birth of Siddhartha from Queen Maya’s side (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century) (larger version on Wikipedia). Fig. 2 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article. Fig. 3 – The bright light shines from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

II. Royal years

Prince Siddhartha (fig. 4) is born into the royal Shakya clan ruled by his father, King Suddhodana (Beal, 1883, p. 1). Shortly after his son’s birth, the king is told by two sages that the new heir is fated to be either a universal monarch or a cosmic sage (Beal, 1883, pp. 8-18). Suddhodana attempts to defy the latter fate by surrounding his son with royal luxury and even finding him a wife with which to have his own son:

‘My son, the prince, having a son born to him, / ‘The affairs of the empire will be handed down in succession, and there will be no end to its righteous government; the prince having begotten a son, will love his son as I love him, / ‘And no longer think about leaving his home as an ascetic, but devote himself to the practice of virtue […] Would that this might lead my son (he prayed) to love his child and not forsake his home; the kings of all countries, whose sons have not yet grown up, / Have prevented them exercising authority in the empire, in order to give their minds relaxation, and for this purpose have provided them with worldly indulgences, so that they may perpetuate the royal seed; / So now the king, having begotten a royal son, indulged him in every sort of pleasure; desiring that he might enjoy these worldly delights, and not wish to wander from his home in search of wisdom (Beal, 1883, pp. 28 and 29).

Following his birth, the stone monkey 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 the “Cave Heaven of Water-Curtain Cave” (Shuiliandong dongtian, 水簾洞洞天), 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] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

The prince is born into a royal clan and yet never rules, while Wukong achieves kinghood through a test of bravery and leads his tribe for over three hundred years (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105). Siddhartha’s lack of authority is of course due to his father’s wish that he indulge in worldly pleasures and forget about leaving to become a sage. But birth tales (Sk: jataka) of the Buddha’s past lives do include several incarnations as rulers, even as a monkey king! [2]

Fig. 4 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

III. Shock at impermanence

One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his life. Not wanting his son to see anything unpleasant, King Suddhodana has the path cleared of the old, sick, and poor and decorated with beautiful canopies, banners, and curtains (Beal, 1883, pp. 30-32). But a deva raja intervenes to initiate the first of the “four signs” (Sk: caturnimitta; Ch: sixiang, 四相; i.e. old age, sickness, death, and monasticism) to cause the future Buddha to pursue a spiritual path that will ultimately lead to his enlightenment (fig. 6) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 171-172). The deva raja transforms into an extremely elderly man, and upon seeing the sight, Siddhartha is shaken when his chariot driver reveals that he too will suffer this fate:

The prince greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, ‘Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?’ / The charioteer again replied and said, ‘Your highness also inherits this lot, as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance: / ‘The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot’. Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, / Broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood up right. / Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle; so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed (Beal, 1883, p. 33).

After seeing the sign of sickness (Beal, 1883, pp. 34-35), the prince witnesses the sign of death:

(Once more) he asked, ‘What is this they carry? With streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.’ / And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, ‘This is a “dead man,” all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; / ‘His spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, / ‘Now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch (tomb).’ The prince hearing the name of death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, / He asked, ‘Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?’ Replying thus he said, ‘All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; / ‘The strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay (and die).’ The prince now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, / With bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, ‘Oh worldly men! How fatally deluded! Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; / ‘The heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not “all is vanishing!” (Beal, 1883, pp. 36-37).

After the Monkey King rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for more than three centuries, he tells his children:

Though we are not subject to the laws of man today, nor need we be threatened by the rule of any bird or beast, old age and physical decay in the future will disclose the secret sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld. If we die, shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the Heavenly beings? (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 106).

The “shock” felt by Prince Siddhartha and the Monkey King upon realizing the impermanence of life is known in Buddhism as Samvega (Ch: yanli, 厭離) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, n.d.). It’s interesting to me that Siddhartha is led to the reality of impermanence, while Monkey comes to the conclusion by himself. This is no doubt due to the differences in their lives. King Suddhodana ensures that his son lives a protected life, one free from the woes of the outside world, by surrounding him with luxury and young, beautiful palace attendants. However, Monkey rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for over three hundred years, no doubt witnessing the decline and death of many of his companions, as well as the waning of his own youth. After all, the thought of impermanence would weigh heavy on anyone nearing the end of their life. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, when his soul is taken to hell in chapter three, Monkey learns from the ledgers of life and death that he was fated to die at 342 years old (fig. 7) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150).

Fig. 6 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 7 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

IV. Quest to overcome impermanence

Siddhartha is wracked by constant, obsessive thoughts on the dangers of old age, sickness, and death. After venturing out once more and witnessing poor farmers toiling away in the fields, he proclaims on the spot that he will find some way to oppose life’s suffering. At that exact moment, a deva affects the fourth sign by transforming into a monk (sk: bhikshu), who tells the prince:

Depressed and sad at [the] thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue, but everywhere I find old age, disease, and death, all (things) hasten to decay and there is no permanency; / ‘Therefore I search for the happiness of some thing that decays not, that never perishes, that never knows beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty, / ‘The happiness of one who finds repose alone in solitude, in some unfrequented dell, free from molestation, all thoughts about the world destroyed, dwelling in some lonely hermitage…’ (Beal, 1883, pp. 49-50).

This influences Siddhartha to forsake his royal life to become an ascetic and search for a means of escape from the evils of old age, sickness, and death. Cutting off his topknot, thus severing his royal ties, the future Buddha sets out into the world (Beal, 1883, p. 68). Siddhartha travels the land studying meditation (Sk: dhyana; Ch: chan, 禪) under various sages, pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood for years, and even practicing severe austerities that result in the emaciation of his body (fig. 8). But he eventually forsakes these extreme practices, recovering his bodily strength and vowing to achieve perfect enlightenment via meditation beneath a banyan tree (Beal, 1883, pp. 131-147).

When the Monkey King opines the injustice of impermanence, one of his advisors tells him that only three beings live beyond the reach of Yama:

There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages [shensheng, 神聖]; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).  

Monkey then pledges to find these great men and women and learn their secret means of escape from Yama’s grasp:

“Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the corners of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).

He sets sail in a makeshift raft and wonders the world for more than ten years, searching the towns and cities of the Jambudvipa continent before sailing to the Western Aparagodaniya continent. There, he is directed to the Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山, 斜月三星洞), an immortal hermitage lorded over by the great Buddho-Daoist Sage Subhuti (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 9). The sage accepts him as a student and gives him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or “Monkey Awakened to the Void” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 108-115).

Both tales show that Siddhartha and Monkey set out on their respective quests thanks to outside influences. The devas intervene numerous times to guide the future Buddha’s path to enlightenment, [3] proving that the heavenly realm has a vested interest in his fate. Wukong’s journey is instead influenced by the words of his mortal advisor. In this case, the gods have no interest in the fate of such “creatures from the world below” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). This of course changes once Monkey starts causing havoc throughout the cosmos.

Fig. 8 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

V. Achieving a means of escape

The heavenly demon Mara (Mo, 魔) fears that Siddhartha will achieve enlightenment and help mankind break free from his domain, the illusionary world of Samsara, and so he leads a monstrous army against the great rishi. But the army is rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality (Beal, 1883, pp. 147-156). [4] Continuing his meditation further, the rishi perceives his myriad past lives, as well as the karmic punishment of those who covet or perform bad deeds, being tortured in hell or reborn into lower levels of existence. He then comprehends that suffering arises from clinging, clinging from desire, desire from sensation, sensation from contact, contact from the six senses, and the senses from consciousness. Finally, Siddhartha comes to the realization that breaking each link (e.g. cessation of clinging will end suffering) will stop old age, sickness, and death and ultimately destroy the endless chain of rebirths (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Having achieved perfect enlightenment (fig. 10),

the Buddha then devised for the world’s benefit the eightfold path, right sight, and so on, the only true path for the world to tread. / Thus did he complete the end (destruction) of ‘self,’ as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge; / He finished thus the first great lesson (paramartha); entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared; light coming on, perfectly silent, all at rest, / He reached at last the exhaustless source of truth (dharma); lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth (Beal, 1883, p. 163).

Journey to the West chapter two tells how Wukong serves as a junior monk for seven years before Subhuti takes him as a close disciple. One night, the sage recites him a poem full of flowery esoteric imagery revealing the secret to Daoist immortality and Buddhahood is the cultivation of chaste semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spiritual energy (shen, 神). The poem has a profound effect on Monkey, for the novel states: “At that moment, the very origin was disclosed to Wukong, whose mind became spiritualized as blessedness came to him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120). Following Subhuti’s instructions, Monkey performs breathing exercises after midnight (zi, 子) and before noon (wu, 午), resulting in immortality after three years of dedicated practice (fig. 11). [5] I should note that the book borrows from real Daoist practices but leaves much of the process up to the reader’s imagination. As I explain here, historical methods combined the aforementioned breathing exercises with the circulation of chaste semen and spiritual energy to create a spirit embryo (shengtai, 聖胎), or an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell. But in the case of the novel, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.

Interestingly, the title of chapter two also refers to Monkey overcoming Mara. It reads: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li / Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title freely associates Buddhist and Daoist concepts, such as Mara and the primal spirit. This synthesis is explained by Darga (2008):

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

The Buddha’s biography goes on for pages about deep philosophical concepts on the self, suffering, and reality, showing that the means of his liberation was of the utmost importance. By contrast, as noted above, Journey to the West leaves little space for Wukong’s method of immortality. In fact, the hard won moment that he breaks free of Yama’s grasp is not even mentioned in the novel! [6] So the author-compiler no doubt felt Monkey’s subsequent adventures were far more important. This is understandable considering that, in material as far back as the Song dynasty, Monkey is already an ancient immortal at the beginning of the story.

Fig. 10 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 11 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). By the author.

VI. Conclusion

Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share five similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mater in the same fashion as ancient Chinese sage-kings. Siddhartha emerges from the side of Queen Maya and Wukong forms from a stone egg birthed by a split rock. Second, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Third, they feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life. Siddhartha is exposed to the evils of old age, sickness, and death via the “four signs” initiated by heaven. Wukong instead comprehends the fearsome hand of Yama through his observation of time. Fourth, they set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death. The prince travels the land studying meditation and pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood. Monkey searches the world for over a decade before he is taken in by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subhuti. Fifth, they achieve their goal through spiritual practices. Siddhartha defeats Mara and achieves perfect enlightenment via intense meditation. Wukong breaks free from Yama/Mara and achieves immortality via Daoist elixir arts.

Having discussed the similarities, the question now arises: Did the story of the Buddha influence the Monkey King? It’s certainly possible that the author compiler of Journey to the West drew upon events from Siddhartha’s life to make Wukong’s journey more familiar or compelling. But I can’t say for certain without further research linking specific Buddhist literature with the novel. Some of the similarities could just as easily be tropes borrowed from Daoist hagiography.

Notes:

1) See Cook and Luo (2017) chapter five for more examples of split-births.

2) The “Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka, no. 407), or sometimes just the “Monkey King”, tells how the bodhisattva is reborn as a monkey who rules over eighty-thousand primates high in the Himalayas. He and his tribe live near the Ganges and eat from a large mango tree that produces succulent, water pot-sized fruits. A human monarch attempts to take the tree by force, calling on his archers to shoot the monkeys. However, the king leaps across the Ganges to the tree with a makeshift rope around his waist and makes a bridge with his body so that all eighty-thousand monkeys can escape. However, he is mortally wounded when a rival stabs him in the back with a branch. The monarch takes note of the monkey’s good deed and personally tends to him in his last few moments of life. Before dying, the monkey teaches him a valuable lesson about putting his people’s needs before his own. The monarch then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king (Cowell, 1895, pp. 225-227).

3) Other than the “Four Signs”, another example of the devas intervening in Siddhartha’s life takes place shortly after he forsakes the extreme austerities that emaciate his body. He bathes in a holy river but can’t leave the water due to weakness from malnourishment. That’s when a deva pushes down a tree branch, allowing Siddhartha to pull himself to safety (Beal, 1883, p. 144).

4) For example, one passage reads: “Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, p. 153).

5) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi [子, midnight] and after the hour of Wu [午, noon]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). However, this is likely a transcription error as Daoist sources cite the opposite, after midnight and before noon (Kohn, 2008, p. 84, for example). Therefore, I have corrected the information.

6) The moment that Monkey achieves immortality is only alluded to in passing:

Suddenly he [Subhuti] asked, “Where’s Wukong?” Wukong drew near and knelt down. “Your pupil’s here,” he said. “What sort of art have you been practicing lately?” the Patriarch asked. “Recently,” Wukong said, “your pupil has begun to apprehend the nature of all things and my foundational knowledge has become firmly established.” “If you have penetrated to the dharma nature to apprehend the origin,” said the Patriarch, “you have, in fact, entered into the divine substance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121).

Sources:

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

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

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

Cook, C. A., & Luo, X. (2017). Birth in Ancient China: A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or stories of the Buddhas former births: Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/cu31924072231073/page/n249/mode/2up

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

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

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (n.d.). Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada. Retrieved from https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/NobleStrategy/Section0004.html

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

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘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 li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.

[…]

Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).

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Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing 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. 5). One passage from the tale 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). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.

Notes:

1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.

Sources:

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

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

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

Mair, V. (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.

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

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307