The Patriarch Subodhi: Sun Wukong’s First Master

Last updated: 06-10-2022

If you were to ask someone to name Sun Wukong‘s master, those familiar with Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) would probably say the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏). But many forget that the cleric is actually his second master. His first, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師; a.k.a. “Patriarch Puti / Bodhi“, Puti zushi, 菩提祖師), is rarely brought up in conversation. But this wise old man / elderly martial arts master archetype is the source of the Monkey King’s divine longevity, magical skills, and fighting prowess. He therefore deserves his own article. I’ve already written several pieces mentioning him, so I’ve decided to combine everything (including new material) onto a single page.

This article describes his origins, story in the novel, and description; the location, description, and the meaning of the name of his mountain home; his school uniform; how he names his students and why the Monkey King is called Sun Wukong; his religious, magical, and martial arts curriculum, including tests of spiritual intelligence; and his spiritual powers. Despite his common portrayal as a Daoist immortal (xian, 仙), the novel stresses a connection to Buddhism. I ultimately suggest that the Patriarch Subodhi is in reality a bodhisattva (pusa, 菩薩), albeit one with Daoist leanings.

1. Origins

Subodhi is based on Subhūti (Xuputi, 須扶提 / 須浮帝 / 蘇補底 / 蘇部底) (fig. 1), [1] one of the ten principle disciples of the Gautama Buddha. He plays an understated role in the original Pāli canon of Theravāda Buddhism, being recognized by the Buddha as the most accomplished in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pāli: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 861-862; Osto, 2016, pp. 126-127). On the contrary, Subhūti plays a much larger role in Prajñāpāramitā texts of Mahāyāna Buddhism in which he is famed for contemplating “emptiness” (Pāli: suññatā; Sk: śūnyatā; Ch: kong, 空), a subject with textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to realizing the truth of the illusionary nature of Saṃsāra (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 872; Osto, 2016, p. 126). Because of this, he is also known in Chinese as the “One who expounded vacuity [emptiness]” (Kongsheng, 空生) (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2014, p. 277). In fact, Osto (2016) suggests that Subhūti was secretly a bodhisattva, reasoning: “How else would he have the necessary insight to understand the profound and paradoxical philosophy of emptiness (śūnyatā) as it is found in these texts?” (p. 128). [2]

Fig. 1 – A detail of Subhūti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock).

Shao (2006) suggests that Subodhi was modeled on the historical disciple “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to ’emptiness’ … that the Chan [Zen] Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (Shao, 2006, p. 724).

It should be noted that the complete Chinese name Xuputi (須菩提) is only used once in the novel to refer to the Patriarch (see here), while Puti (菩提) is used at least three times (see here). This is interesting as the latter term is a transliteration of bodhi (Pāli / Sk: “awakening” or “enlightenment”), an important concept in Buddhism in which one discovers the Four Noble Truths, thereby achieving enlightenment and freeing themself from the cycle of rebirth (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 129). Therefore, the novel positions the Patriarch as a means to or even embodiment of enlightenment. This is fitting given Osto’s (2016) suggestion above that the historical Subhūti was a bodhisattva, “a ‘being’ (sattva) intent on awakening (bodhi) who has aroused the aspiration to achieve buddhahood” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 129). More on this below.

2. The literary teacher

2.1. His story

Subodhi is introduced by name in chapter one when a woodcutter tells the Monkey King about the sage and the location of his mountain home. He learns that the Patriarch “has already sent out innumerable disciples” and that at present “there are thirty or forty persons who are practicing austerities with him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 112). After a quick exchange with an immortal lad at the front door, the Stone Monkey is led to a hall where Subodhi is lecturing to a group of “lesser immortals” (xiaoxian, 小仙). The Patriarch asks for his name and the location of his home but becomes upset as he believes Monkey is lying about his ten year journey from afar. However, after being assured of the truth and hearing of the miraculous stone birth, Subodhi officially accepts the primate as a disciple, giving him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, “Monkey Awakened to Emptiness”).

In the opening of chapter two, the Patriarch has his immortal students tutor Monkey in menial tasks like fetching firewood and water, tending the garden, and cleaning the monastery grounds, as well as provide lessons on human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and minor ritual procedures like incense burning. Seven years later, Subodhi notices Sun jumping around in excitement as the primate listens to his lecture. He thereafter offers to teach Monkey a number of skills, but the latter refuses multiple times since they won’t lead to immortality. This rejection makes the Patriarch visually upset, leading him to strike Sun on the head three times with a ruler and then walk away with his hands behind his back. His senior religious brothers chastise him for angering their master, but, due to his spiritual intelligence, Sun knows that the admonishment was really secret code. He later enters Subodhi’s room at the third watch (three hits) using a back door (hands behind back), and it is there where the teacher reveals the secret of immortality in a flowery poem.

After Monkey successfully attains eternal life three years later, the Patriarch teaches him the 72 transformations in order to hide from heaven-sent punishment slated to destroy him. In addition, he teaches the cloud-somersault, a method of super fast flight. Sun’s religious brothers are amazed at his attainments and request that he display his power of transformation by changing into a pine tree. The resulting applause greatly disturbs Subodhi, who sends the others away before reprimanding and expelling his disciple under the pretense of saving Monkey’s life from those who would harm him to learn his heavenly secrets. But before Sun has a chance to leave, his master threatens him with everlasting torment in the underworld if he ever reveals that the Patriarch had been his tutor. Monkey promises never to speak his name. This is the last time that Subodhi is seen in the story, but he is referenced two more times in later chapters (see section 3.4 below).

2.2. Allusions to Buddhist masters

Shao (1997) writes that Subodhi hitting Monkey on the head three times—a coded message for receiving secret teachings in the Master’s room at the third watch—is likely based on two episodes from the life of Huineng (惠能, 638-713), the Sixth Chan (Zen) Patriarch:

According to [the Platform Sutra], Huineng was pounding grain when Hongren [the 5th Chan Patriarch] came in, “hit on the mortar three times with his stick and then left” (以杖击碓三下而去). The non-verbal message occurred to the young man as a piece of intuition. By the third watch he arrived dutifully at the master’s chamber where Hongren passed the secret Dharma by way of enlightening him on [the Diamond Sutra], behind a raised cassock used to protect them from the intrusion of prying eyes. The other source is Caoxi dashi biezhuan 曹溪大师别传 (An Alternative Biography of the Great Master From Caoxi) in which Huineng hit Shenhui … a few times, seemingly annoyed by the insolence of his disciple’s clever repartee. But it was to none other than Shenhui that he imparted the secret Dharma—in the middle of the night, and with a similar group of dumb disciples who had seen nothing but impudence in Shenhui (pp. 60-61).

The allusion to Hongren and his use of the Diamond Sutra is apt as the historical Subhūti plays a large part in the scripture. His questions fuel the lesson, with the “Buddha’s reply constitut[ing] the body of the sutra” (Watson, 2010, p. 72).

Therefore, the aforementioned episodes associate the Patriarch with two enlightened Chan masters and their secret, unorthodox transmission of the Dharma, supporting his connection to Buddhism.

The novel includes a third allusion to Huineng. This will be discussed in section 4.3 below.

2.3. His description

The novel never gives an overt description of Subodhi’s features or dress. This ambiguity makes him a blank slate onto which anyone’s personal vision can be written. But there are a few references to his stately, awe-inspiring presence. A poem in chapter one reads:

A Golden Immortal of Great Awareness and of great ken and purest mien,
Master Bodhi, whose wondrous appearance like the West
Had no end or birth by work of the Double Three.
His whole spirit and breath were with mercy filled.
Empty, spontaneous, it could change at will,
His Buddha-nature able to do all things.
The same age as Heaven had his majestic frame.
Fully tried and enlightened was this grand priest (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114). [4]

Numerous elements from this poem require explanation. “Golden Immortal of Great Awareness” (Dajue jinxian, 大覺金仙) was a title bestowed on the Buddha by Song Emperor Huizong in 1119 in order to bring Buddhism under the banner of Daoism (Eskildsen, 2008, p. 43). “Wonderous appearance like the West” (Xifang miaoxiang, 西方妙相) compares the splendor of his person to the Western Pure Land (Sk: Sukhāvatī; Ch: Xifang jingtu, 西方淨土) of the Amitābha Buddha. “No end and no birth” (busheng bumie, 不生不滅) refers to his eternal life free from the wheel of reincarnation, which is thanks to his mastery of the “Double Three” (Sansan xing, 三三行). Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) explains that this term likely refers to the “three samādhis“, a high-level meditation technique which focuses on the Buddhist philosophical concepts of emptiness, no appearance, and no desires (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 507 n. 16). “Empty” (kong, 空) in the next line of course refers to Subodhi’s constant meditations on emptiness. “Buddha-nature” (Sk: tathāgatagarbha, lit: “womb of the tathāgata“; Ch: Zhenru benxing, 真如本性; a.k.a. Rulai zang, 如來藏) is “the potential to achieve buddhahood that, according to some Mahāyāna schools, is inherent in all sentient beings” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 897). This is an open reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Southern Quanzhen School Patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid to late-980s-1082), which greatly influenced Journey to the West. He believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (Shao, 1997; 2006). This dual achievement thus signifies that Subodhi is a celestial of the highest order. His “majestic” (or stately) body (zhuangyan ti, 莊嚴體) is said to have the “same age as heaven” (yutian tongshou, 與天同壽), a phrase used in the novel to denote the endless longevity of such divine beings (see here). The last line notes that he is a fully “enlightened” (mingxin, 明心; lit: “illuminous heart-mind”) master. Taken together, the allusions to Buddhas, the Western paradise, emptiness, and enlightenment speak to Subodhi’s identity as a Buddhist deity. And given his association with bodhi (awakening), I suggest that he is in fact a bodhisattva like his namesake, albeit one with Daoist leanings.

A Daoist bodhisattva may seem paradoxical, but this concept comfortably fits into the syncretic worldview espoused in late-Ming literature. For example, three well-known bodhisattvas are depicted as former high-ranking immortals in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620). These include Guanyin (觀音) as “Person of the Way, Compassionate Ferry” (Cihang daoren, 慈航道人) (fig. 2), Mañjuśrī (Wenshu, 文殊) as the “Dharma-Spreading Heavenly Master of Outstanding Culture” (Wenshu guangfa tianzun, 文殊廣法天尊), and Samantabhadra (Puxian, 普賢) as the “Perfected Man of Universal Virtue” (Puxian zhenren, 普賢真人). Together, they later convert to Buddhism and become disciples of the Buddha (hou xing shimen, cheng, 後興釋門,成于佛教) at the end of chapter 83. [3]

Fig. 2 – A modern idol of Guanyin’s Daoist persona Person of the Way, Compassionate Ferry (larger version).

2.4. Ancient depiction

The standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West was originally published with a series of quaint woodblock prints. One features an image of the Patriarch, depicting him as a robed master holding a palace fan while seated in an ornate chair. He wears a guan-cap and has a kind face with airy whiskers and hints of large-lobed ears (fig. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3 – A woodblock of Monkey meeting the Patriarch for the first time (larger version). From the standard 1592 edition of the novel. Fig. 4 – A detail of Subodhi (larger version).

3. Mountain home

Subodhi’s home is located in a place with the literal name “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on Spirit Tower and Square Inch Mountain” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong靈臺方寸山,斜月三星洞).

3.1. Mountain description

The novel remarks on the beauty of the mountain as Monkey walks through a forest to the school’s front entrance:

Mist and smoke in diffusive brilliance,
Flashing lights from the sun and moon,
A thousand stalks of old cypress,
Ten thousand stems of tall bamboo.
A thousand stalks of old cypress
Draped in rain half fill the air with tender green;
Ten thousand stems of tall bamboo
Held in smoke will paint the glen chartreuse.
Strange flowers spread brocades before the door.
Jadelike grass emits fragrance beside the bridge.
On ridges protruding grow moist green lichens;
On hanging cliffs cling the long blue mosses.
The cries of immortal cranes are often heard.
Once in a while a phoenix soars overhead.
When the cranes cry,
Their sounds reach through the marsh to the distant sky.
When the phoenix soars up,
Its plume with five bright colors embroiders the clouds.
Black apes and white deer may come or hide;
Gold lions and jade elephants may leave or bide.
A Blessed Land [Fudi, 福地] to be seen in spirit:
It has the true semblance of Paradise (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 112-113).

“Blessed lands” (Fudi, 福地) are thought to be “earthly paradises that do not suffer from floods, wars, epidemics, illnesses, old age or death” (Miura, 2008, p. 368). Daoism recognizes 72 Blessed Lands, each with their own documented name and location (Miura, 2008, p. 371).

3.2. Cave description

Once Sun is invited inside, the cave is described as having “rows and rows of lofty towers and huge alcoves, of pearly chambers and carved arches”, as well as “innumerable quiet chambers and empty studios” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114). The hall where Subodhi gives his lessons is said to be centered around his “green jade platform” (yaotai, 瑤臺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114). This kind of terrace is often associated with the immortal lands of Mount Kunlun (Santangelo, 2013, p. 604 n. 5).

3.3. Buddho-Daoist metaphor

The names of the cave and mountain reference the philosophical concept of the “heart-mind” (xin, 心), the center of spiritual intellect, no less than three times. As I explain in this article, the name “slanted moon and three stars” is a literal description of the Chinese character for the heart-mind (fig. 5). “Spirit Tower/platform” (lingtai, 靈臺) is used in Daoist literature to refer to the heart-mind, more specifically the middle elixir field (zhong dantian, 中丹田) around the heart, which is considered the seat of the spirit. During internal alchemical meditation, the spirit is directed from here, along with other energetic substances from elsewhere, into the “square inch” (fangcun, 方寸). This too is a Daoist reference to the heart-mind, more specifically the lower elixir field (xia dantian, 下丹田) around the abdomen, the storehouse of vital energies. The synergy of these energies is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. Therefore, a more accurate translation of Patriarch Subodhi’s home, which takes into account the veiled Daoist meanings, would be “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Elixir Mind”.

heart calligraphy

Fig. 5 – The Chinese character for heart-mind (xin) literally looks like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars. Original image found here.

At the same time, this triple emphasis on the heart-mind references Monkey’s role in the novel as the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddhist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Saṃsāra. Evidence for this includes the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). Also, a poem in chapter seven reads: “An ape’s body of Dao weds the human mind. / Mind is a monkey—this meaning’s profound” (yuanhou dao ti renxin / xin ji yuanhou yisi shen, 猿猴道體配人心 / 心即猿猴意思深) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 190). [5]

Therefore, the name of the Patriarch’s mountain home is a double metaphor for Daoist alchemical and Buddhist philosophical concepts.

3.4. References in later chapters

Monkey references Subodhi and his mountain home twice in the novel. He recites a biographical poem in chapter 17 in which he states:

Seedlings of herbs I plucked on Spirit Tower Mountain. / There was in that mountain an old immortal. / His age: one hundred and eight thousand years! / He became my master most solemnly / And showed me the way to longevity (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 352). [6]

In another biographical poem from chapter 67, he states: “I bowed to the Patriarch of Spirit Tower and Square Inch / and perfected with him the martial arts” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243). These statements are veiled admissions of studying alchemical and combat arts under the Sage, thereby not revealing his true master’s identity (as promised in chapter two).

3.5. Location

The location of this mountain is revealed in the first conversation between Monkey and Subodhi. After hearing of Sun’s travels, the Patriarch asks:

[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).

The world of Journey to the West is modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which places the Eastern Purvavideha Continent (Sk: “Surpassing the body”; Ch: Dongsheng shenzhou, 東勝神洲), the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (Sk: “Rose-Apple”; Ch: Nanshan buzhou, 南贍部洲), the Western Godaniya Continent (Sk: “Using Cattle”; Ch: Xiniu hezhou, 西牛賀洲), the Northern Uttarakuru Continent (Sk: “Unpleasant Sound”; Ch: Beiju luzhou, 北俱盧洲) around the four respective faces of Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山), a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos, as well as the abode of assorted gods and sages (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 869) (fig. 6). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India, or the known world to the ancient people of South Asia (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” (Dongtu, 東土) (i.e. China) within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Therefore, Subodhi’s mountain is located in India, further strengthening his link with Buddhism.

Fig. 6 – A diagram showing a bird’s-eye view of Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography as presented in Journey to the West. Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxix (larger version).

4. School

4.1. Uniform

Upon returning to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit from Subodhi’s school in chapter two, the novel describes Sun Wukong’s uniform through the voice of a monster imp: “He is bare-headed, wears a red robe [hongse yi, 紅色衣] with a yellow sash [huang tao, 黃絛], and has a pair of black boots [wu xue, 烏靴] on” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 127). The “red robe” is vague, but a poem in chapter one states that the immortal lad who invited Monkey into the cave was wearing “[a] wide robe with two sleeves of wind” (kuanpao liangxiao feng, 寬袍兩袖風). This probably references the large, open arms of the zhiduo robe (直裰; a.k.a. haiqing, 海青), which is known colloquially in English as “Buddhist monk” or “Taoist monk” robes (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – A zhiduo robe with large sleeves (larger version). Image found here. Imagine this robe red, with a yellow sash at the waist.

4.2. Student names

Subodhi is shown to have 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the generational cohorts of his religious lineage.

  1. Guang (廣)
  2. Da (大)
  3. Zhi (智)
  4. Hui (慧)
  5. Zhen (真)
  6. Ru (如)
  7. Xing (性)
  8. Hai (海)
  9. Ying (穎)
  10. Wu (悟)
  11. Yuan (圓)
  12. Jue (覺) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115).

Three of the listed names, Zhi (智), Yuan (圓), and Jue (覺), were historically used in Daoism. [7]

Monkey is part of the tenth generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name.

The novel explains in detail why Subodhi names his primate disciple Sun Wukong, tying it to Buddho-Daoist philosophy:

The Patriarch laughed and said, “Though your features are not the most attractive, you do resemble a pignolia-eating monkey (husun [猢猻]). This gives me the idea of taking a surname for you from your appearance. I intended to call you by the name Hu [猢]. If I drop the animal radical [犭] from this word, what’s left is a compound made up of the two characters, gu [古] and yue [月]. Gu means aged and yue [“moon”] denotes feminine yin energy [陰], but aged yin cannot reproduce. Therefore, it is better to give you the surname of Sun [猻]. If I drop the animal radical from this word, what we have left is the compound of zi [子] and xi [系]. Zi means a boy and xi means a baby, and that name exactly accords with the fundamental Doctrine of the Baby Boy [Ying’er zhi benlun, 嬰兒之本論]. So your surname will be ‘Sun.'”

[After explaining the generational names] “You will hence be given the religious name ‘Aware of Emptiness’ (wukong [悟空]). All right?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 115).

Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) explains: “The Baby Boy is none other than the ‘holy embryo or shengtai 聖胎,’ the avatar of the realized state of immortality in the adept’s body” (p. 86). Daoist doctrine dictates that the “Three Treasures” (Sanbao, 三寶) of semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spirit (shen, 神) be combined to create a holy embryo. The third stage of this internal alchemical process involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (Tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (Kohn, 2008, pp. 179-180). Therefore, Sun (孫) not only references the primate disciple’s appearance but also his Daoist immortality.

“Wukong” (悟空) combines “Emptiness” (Kong, 空) with “Awakening”, Wu (悟) being “one of the common Chinese translations for the Sanskrit term bodhi (awakening)” (i.e. the bodhi of Subodhi) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 998). Awakening takes two forms in Chan Buddhism: “instant” (dunwu, 頓悟) and “gradual” (jianwu, 漸悟). The former involves the sudden manifestation of inherent Buddha-nature (see section 2.3), while the latter involves compounding realization, often over a long period of purification (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 998; see also pp. 273 and 384-385). As explained in section 1, bodhi involves realizing the Four Noble Truths, thereby achieving enlightenment and freeing oneself from the cycle of rebirth. Therefore, Wukong references said enlightenment.

Given the above information, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This shows that Monkey’s name incapsulates his story arc: attaining divine longevity in the beginning and ascending to Buddhahood at the end. This, again, is an open reference to the highly influential Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (see section 2.3).

4.3. Tests of spiritual intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

4.4. Overtly stated curriculum and tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5. Mentioned in passing

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

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

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

4.6. Implied

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

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

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

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

5. Powers

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

5.1. Clairvoyance

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

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

5.2. Omniscience

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

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

5.3. Control of spirits and karmic results

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

5.4. Possible reason for expelling Monkey

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

6. Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-04-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-06-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-09-22

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-10-22

Monkey’s religious name Wukong (悟空), or “Awakened to Emptiness“, predates the 1592 and Zhu editions, appearing as early as an early-Ming zaju play. Therefore, I’d like to suggest that the historical Subhūti was chosen as the basis for a master worthy of bestowing this name because of his great knowledge of emptiness, as well as the large role that he plays in the Diamond Sutra (Sk: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra; Ch: 金剛般若波羅蜜多經, Jingang bore boluomiduo jing, a.k.a. Jingang jing金剛經). After all, the scripture “deals with the concept of emptiness” despite never once “employ[ing] the word for emptiness śūnyatā [Ch: kong, 空]” (Watson, 2010, p. 75). [17]  Alluding to the sutra makes sense as it was so overwhelmingly popular when Journey to the West was written that tales of its miracles were eventually compiled during the late-Ming and Qing dynasties (Ho, 2019). So, the people reading the novel would have no doubt recognized Subodhi as an allusion to Subhūti from the scripture.

The late-13th-century version of the Journey to the West story cycle already presents Monkey as an ancient Daoist immortal with magic powers from the very beginning. Therefore, this element likely played a role in draping the Buddhist master in a thin veil of Daoism to create the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi.

Notes:

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

2) Osto (2016) continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parallels Between the Monkey King and the Buddha

Last updated: 06-18-2022

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 6th- to 5th-century BCE Indian philosopher and an immortal monkey spirit from Ming-era Chinese literature 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, produce a radiant splendor upon emerging from the womb, 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. These similarities suggest that the author-compiler of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) may have borrowed from the Buddha’s story to make Sun Wukong’s early life more familiar to readers.

For details about the Awakened One’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fo suoxing 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 the novel.

The Parallels

1. 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… (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 split stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth category.

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.

2. Radiant splendor

Upon his birth, the Buddha is said to have “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” (fig. 3) (Beal, 1883, p. 3). The source continues to describe this light, as well as the Bodhisattva’s first few moments outside the womb:

His body, nevertheless, was effulgent with light, and like the sun which eclipses the shining of the lamp, so the true gold-like beauty of the Bodhisattva shone forth and was diffused everywhere. / Upright and firm and unconfused in mind, he deliberately took seven steps, the soles of his feet resting evenly upon the ground as he went, his footmarks remained bright as seven stars. / Moving like the lion, king of beasts, and looking earnestly towards the four quarters, penetrating to the centre the principles of truth, he spake thus…” (Beal, 1883, pp. 4-5).

The historical Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based) notes in his travelogue that the Buddha even walks towards the cardinal directions: “After he had been born the Bodhisattva walked seven steps unaided to each of the four quarters … [u]nder each step a large lotus flower sprang up from the earth” (Xuanzang, 1996/2016, p. 158).

Wukong too produces a great light in every direction: “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. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Therefore, both shine their lights in the four cardinal directions.

Fig. 3 – Baby Buddha producing a radiant splendor upon his birth (larger version). Artist unknown. Found on this article. Fig. 4 – Bright beams of light shine from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

3. Royal years

Prince Siddhartha (fig. 5) 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. 6]. 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!

Fig. 5 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 6 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

4. Shock at impermanence

One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his sheltered 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. 7) (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 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. 8) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).

Fig. 7 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 8 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

5. 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. 9). 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 Subodhi (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 10). 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, [2] 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. 9 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 10 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

6. 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). [3] 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, respectively. 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. 11),

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 Subodhi 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 Subodhi’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. 12). [4] 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! [5] 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.

[Note: See the update below for a seventh parallel.]

Fig. 11 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 12 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

A borrowed story?

So did the author-compiler (AC) of Journey to the West base Monkey’s early life on the Buddha’s story? The many similarities discussed above are very suggestive, but if only there was documented evidence of borrowing from other Buddhist personages. And that’s exactly what is found in chapter two. Shao (2006) explains that Wukong’s spiritual intelligence is based on the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638-713):

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

[…]

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

Therefore, if the AC borrowed from the life of Huineng, a Buddhist patriarch, then he certainly could have borrowed from the life of the Buddha. I suggest this was done to make Wukong’s early life more familiar to the reader. 

Conclusion

Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share six similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mother 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 produce a radiant splendor upon their birth. Siddhartha’s body shines as he looks or walks to the four quarters, while beams shoot from Sun’s eyes as he bows to the four quarters. Third, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Fourth, 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. Fifth, 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 Subodhi. Sixth, 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. And since the AC borrowed from the life of the Sixth Chan patriarch Huineng, he likely modeled the Monkey King’s early life on the Buddha to make his story more familiar.


Update: 06-12-22

I’ve noticed another parallel while reading two modern biographies of the Buddha. 

7. Prodigies 

The Prince is said to have had a great aptitude for learning in his youth: “And now he was brought to learn the useful arts, when lo! once instructed (at one hearing) he surpassed his teachers” (Beal, 1883, p. 24). [6] Wukong has the same talent. When Subodhi teaches him the method for the 72 Transformations, he masters them very quickly:

[T]his Monkey King was someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred! He immediately learned the oral formulas and, after working at them and practicing them himself, he mastered all seventy-two transformations (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 122). 


Update: 06-18-22

I’ve written an article that lists a number of surprising parallels shared by Monkey and the Greco-Roman hero Heracles (see section 2).

Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Notes:

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

2) 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).

3) 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).

4) 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.

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

Suddenly he [Subodhi] 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).

6) Nakamura (2000) offers an extremely wordy translation of the above sentence: “When he had passed beyond childhood, he in due time received the initiation ceremony. He mastered in only a few days the various sciences suitable to his standing that [ordinary people] took many years to learn” (p. 90).

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.

Nakamura, H. (2000). Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts (G. Sekimori, Trans.). Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co.

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.

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.

Xuanzang (2016). The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions (2nd ed., R. Li, trans.). California: BDK AMerica, Inc. (Original work published 1996)

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 Subodhi:

[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).

37e2fc9cebe000bb1c76c73e7ad2963a-d5oas0h

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, Subodhi 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. Popular Culture

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 Subodhi 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.

VI. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subodhi. 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.

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