Archive #9 – PDF of Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey

Last updated: 05-14-2022

I previously posted a paper that explores the evidence connecting Sun Wukong with the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Here, I present a wonderful book that explores Hanuman’s origins, worship, and popular image.


This book offers a comprehensive introduction to one of the most beloved and widely worshiped of Hindu deities: the “monkey-god” Hanuman. It details the historical expansion of Hanuman’s religious status beyond his role as helper to Rama and Sita, the divine hero and heroine of the ancient Ramayana storytelling tradition. Additionally, it surveys contemporary popular literature and folklore through which Hanuman’s mythological biography is celebrated, and describes a range of religious sites and practices that highlight different aspects of his persona. Emphasizing Hanuman’s role as a “liminal” deity who combines animal, human, and divine qualities, and as a “middle-class” god within the Hindu pantheon, the book argues that such mediatory status has made Hanuman especially appealing to upwardly-mobile social groups as well as to Hindus of many sectarian persuasions.

Archive Link:

Hanuman's tale

Update: 05-14-22

I’d like to update this page with two additional sources, this time written by Arshia Sattar. The first is her Master’s thesis titled A Structural Analysis of Hanuman as a Mythological Figure (Sattar, 1987).


This thesis traces the career of Hanumān in Valmiki’s Rāmāyana, Tulsidās’ Rāmcaritmānas, and the Hanumān Calīsa. In each of these texts, Hanumān is presented in a different light and thus performs a different function. Hanumān is analyzed in terms of the various aspects of his personality, and his antecedents and heritage.

The thesis finds that in making his leap to Lanka in the Rāmāyana, Hanumān changes from a superior monkey into a bhakta. He also sets up the bhakti universe. Hanumān enters the Rāmcaritmānas a bhakta, and is here presented as the model for Tulsi’s creed of Rāma-bhakti. In the Hanumān Cālīsa, he reaches the pinnacle of his career. He has the status of a demi-god, a result of his devotion to Rāma. The thesis includes a translation of the Hanumān Cālīsa and a brief commentary on the text.

Archive Link

Click to access A-Structural-Analysis-of-Hanuman-as-a-Mythological-Figure-1987.pdf

The second is her doctorial thesis titled Hanuman in the Ramayana of Valmiki: A Study in Ambiguity (Sattar, 1990).

Info from the Introduction:

This dissertation will look closely at the monkey Hanumān primarily as he appears in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyana (henceforth VR). Hanumān appears in many texts in the Hindu tradition, both Rāmāyana-s, as well as texts outside the Rāmāyana tradition. The other appearances Hanumān makes will not be the focus of this project, though many of them will be referred to en passant.

The present work will discuss the major feats that Hanumān performs in the VR–his birth, his leap to the sun as an infant, his later leap to Lanka as an adult monkey, and his meeting with Sītā. It will employ theoretical frameworks that are based in the narrative structure of the VR, with an intensive focus on those acts for which Hanumān is best known. This method will make possible an understand of Hanumān in the VR that is not based on Rāma’s divinity or lack thereof, but rather is more solidly related to Hanumān’s status as a mythological figure and a monkey. It will also provide construct that will illuminate the way in which Hanumān’s depiction in the later tradition is dependent on and circumscribed by the role that he plays and the abilities that he has in the VR.

The main organizational principle of the present work will be the analysis of Hanumān in terms of his miscegenated birth and its consequences. Hanumān’s parents, the apsaras Anjana and the Wind-god Vayu, do not belong to the same category of being. This mixed parentage bestows a categorical ambiguity on the monkey: he can appear as more than one thing, or as something other than what he appears to be.


Despite exceptions, it is reasonable to postulate that miscegenated creatures carry the ability to change form as a mark of their mixed parentage and are also categorically ambiguous. In fact, the ability to appear as something else and/or more than one thing at the same time (as shall be demonstrated in the case of Hanumān) is a wonderfully graphic representation of categorical ambiguity.

Archive link:

Click to access Hanuman-in-the-Ramayana-of-Valmiki-A-Study-in-Ambiguity-1990.pdf


These have been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sattar, A. (1987). A Structural Analysis of Hanuman as a Mythological Figure (Publication No. 1332031) [Master’s dissertation, The American University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Sattar, A. (1990). Hanuman in the Ramayana of Valmiki: A Study in Ambiguity (Publication No. T31149) [Doctoral dissertation, The University of Chicago]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Archive #2 – Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate

Last updated: 01-18-2019

I have finally tracked down a digital version of Victor Mair’s often quoted summary of the scholarly debate on the possible connection between Sun Wukong (fig. 1) and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (fig. 2). This paper is extremely hard to find, so I am archiving it here to aid both amateur and professional scholars who may not yet have access to it.

Sammy Torres Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – Sun Wukong from birth to the Great Sage. This marvelous sequential drawing is by Sammy Torres on twitter. The full drawing can be seen here.

Info from the Introduction:

The chief aim of this article is to restore the debate to its original scholarly intent, namely to determine whether H [Hanuman], the redoubtable simian devotee of Prince Rama in his quest to recover Sita from Lanka, had anything to do with the formation of the character of SWK [Sun Wukong], Tripitaka’s formidable Monkey-disciple during his pilgrimage to India to retrieve scriptures. This can only be achieved by remaining as impartial and objective as possible while presenting the pertinent evidence. A clinically dispassionate examination of the widely varying opinions of authorities concerning the apparent affinity between SWK and H is also required if the present impasse is to be broken. Hence, this article is necessarily as much an investigation of scholarly methods and attitudes as it is about the origins of SWK. Accordingly, it is divided into two main divisions, “Evidence” and “Authorities and Interpretations.” These are further subdivided into a number of sections, “Evidence” by geographical area and “Authorities and Interpretations” by a chronological listing of major participants in the debate.

Archive link:

Click to access suen-wu-kung-or-hanumat.pdf

Fig. 2 – A religious portrait of Hanuman (larger version). Artist unknown.


This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.

Update: 01-18-19

I’ve archived a scholarly book about the origins, worship, and depictions of Hanuman in pop culture.

Archive #9 – PDF of Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey


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.

Why the Monkey King Wears a Tiger Skin Loincloth and How it Ties Him to Supreme Esoteric Buddhist Guardian Deities

Last updated: 06-07-2018

After being released from his mountain prison in chapter fourteen, Sun Wukong effortlessly kills a tiger with his iron staff and uses a magic hair-turned-knife to skin the beast. He cuts a large square from the fur and uses half to create a loincloth to cover his naked body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 309-310). This tiger skin clothing is a highly recognizable element of Monkey’s iconography (fig. 1). But did you know it has a connection to the Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles (Sanskrit: krodha-vighnantaka), [1] a class of supreme guardian deities in Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism?

Before I continue, some historical background is needed. Esoteric Buddhism first developed in India as an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism during the sixth-century CE. Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles (WDO, hereafter) appear in three recognized iconographic phases stretching from the sixth to the twelfth-century. The first and longest phase (6th-12th cent.) depicts the WDO as a dwarfish attendant to a full-size Bodhisattva. [2] He serves as the personification of his master’s wisdom and abilities. The second phase (8th-10 cent.) represents the WDO as an independent deity with his own attendants. He serves as the personification of the attributes of the five esoteric Buddhas. The third phase (late 10th-12th cent.) represents the WDO as the equal of Buddhas (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 11-14).

Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are often depicted as fierce, multi-armed figures bearing weapons and, most importantly, wearing tiger skin loincloths (Sanskrit: Vyaghracarma-nivasana). For example, the Manjusrimulakalpa, an eighth-century esoteric text, dictates the prescribed iconography of Manjusri’s WDO guardian Yamantaka (“the Destroyer of Yama, god of death”):

Six faces, six arms and feet/Black in color, with a big belly / Bearing a skull, his hair flaring out in anger / A tiger skin wrapped around the hips / Holding all kinds of implements and weapons” (fig. 2) (Linrothe, 1999, p. 66). (emphasis mine)

The Hevajra Tantra, another eighth-century esoteric work, ties tiger skin clothing to Yogin practices. The text instructs them on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping the WDO Heruka:

The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears the bone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin… (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, it describes how each of the ritual adornments and implements used in the ceremony represent each of the five esoteric Buddhas, as well as other religio-philosophical elements:

Aksobhya is symbolized by the circlet, Amitabha by the ear-rings, Ratnesa by the necklace, and Vairocana (by the rings) upon the wrists. Amogha is symbolized by the girdle. Wisdom by the khatvanga [staff] and Means by the drum, while the yogin represents the Wrathful One himself [Heruka]. Song symbolizes mantra, dance symbolizes meditation, and so singing and dancing the yogin always acts (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251).

Van Kooij (as cited in Linrothe, 1999) comments, “Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the … yogin himself” (p. 251). This suggests the WDO are dressed according to what is worn by the very Yogin ascetics who worship them. But I would like to take this one step further. It is important to note that many of these elements, such as the earrings, bracelets, arm bangles, bone necklace, tiger skin dress, khatvanga staff, drum, and dancing, are all attributes of the Hindu God Shiva. He is considered the yogin par excellence, as well as a wrathful deity in his own right (Elgood, 1999, pp. 44-54). I therefore suggest the practice of wearing tiger skin was just one of many elements that esoteric Buddhism borrowed from Hindu asceticism.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Center) A 13th-century Japanese depiction of the Wrathful Destroyer of  Obstacles Yamantaka (larger version). Fig. 3 – (Right) A modern depiction of the Hindu god Shiva (larger version).

Shiva is often depicted as wearing a tiger skin and/or using it as a meditation mat (Skt: Asana) (fig. 3). This skin has two interpretations: 1) it represents his power over nature; 2) it represents him killing the personified “tiger of desire” (Elgood, 1999, p. 52; Beer, 2003, p. 65). When viewed from a Buddhist context, it seems only natural that Buddhist ascetics and deities would use the skin to represent the cessation of desire. It should also be noted that tigers and their skin were symbols of strength in ancient India. For instance, the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata (circa 4th-cent. BCE), describes the martial feats or attributes of many powerful warriors and kings as being tiger-like (Śarmā, 1988, p. 66). In addition, during the royal consecration ceremony (Skt: Rajasuya), newly appointed Vedic kings would step on a tiger skin to gain the animal’s strength (MacDonell & Keith, 1995, p. 337). I therefore suggest the WDO tiger skin loincloth serves a secondary function as a symbol of the WDOs spiritual or physical strength.

There are numerous classes of Buddhist deities that share similarities with the WDO, such as having a wrathful appearance and serving a protective function, but do not rank as high in the esoteric pantheon. These include the Heavenly Kings (天王, tianwang; Skt: Lokapala) (fig. 4), who protect righteous kingdoms and monasteries; Gate Guardians (門神, Menshen; Skt: Dvarapala), who protect the doorways of monasteries and temples; the Protector of Fields (Skt: Ksetrapala), who protect plots of land; the Guardians of the Directions (Skt: Dikpala), former Hindu gods who protect the eight directions; and the Dharma Protectors (Skt: Dharmapala), who protect the Buddha’s teachings. The WDO are high-level members of the latter group (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 20-22).

Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles stand high above other guardians because they are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These barriers include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). [3] And they have the power to subdue even supreme devas. For example, the Compendium of the Truth of All Buddhas (Skt: Savra-tathagata-tattva-samgraha, late 7th-cent.) tells of the Cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana ordering the WDO Trailokyavijaya (the wrathful form of Vajrapani) to conquer Mahesvara (a.k.a., Shiva), king of the gods and master of the three realms. After being subdued, the fallen god asks the Buddha: “[H]ow it can be that Vajrapani, whom in anger [I]…called a mere Yaksa, can be so strong, stronger even than the Tathagata as Lord of the Trikaya[?]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 26). [4]

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 4 – (Left) Statues of the Four Heavenly Kings located in Beihai Park, Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 5 – (Right) A modern toy depicting Monkey’s fearsome three-headed, six-armed form (larger version).

Many of Sun Wukong’s attributes and abilities align with those mentioned above, I would therefore like to argue that he is a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles. First, he wears the tiger skin loincloth, which ties him to the same spiritual tradition represented by WDOs and Yogin ascetics. Second, he has a wrathful appearance (Skt: krodha). During his war with heaven, he takes on a fearsome form with three heads and six arms and multiplies his iron staff to defeat wave after wave of celestial opponents (fig. 5) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 157 and 191). This is similar to the multiple heads, arms, and weapons of the WDO Yamantaka, as well as other such deities (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 188, 268-269 and 279-280, for example). Third, he serves as a destroyer of obstacles (Skt: vighnantaka). By vanquishing the various monsters, spirits, and fallen stars that threaten the life of his master Tripitaka, Sun clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment. Thanks to his help Tripitaka becomes an enlightened Buddha at the end of the novel (Wu & Yu (Vol. 4), 2012, p. 381). Fourth, Sun serves as the guardian and strong-arm of a Bodhisattva, per phase one of the recognized WDO iconography. Tripitaka is after all the Golden Cicada Bodhisattva reborn on earth. Fifth, Monkey is so powerful that he poses a threat to the August Jade Emperor of Heaven, just like the WDO Trailokyavijaya did for the supreme deva Mahesvara. This ultimately explains why the celestial army is no match for Sun and why other guardian deities, like the Heavenly Kings, fear and respect him. [5] Identifying the Great Sage as a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles helps locate his position in the novel’s Buddhist pantheon prior to his elevation to Buddhahood. This means Monkey is no longer the Buddho-Daoist “wild card” that doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere.

The author-compiler of Journey to the West would have had plenty of esoteric material to influence his depiction of Monkey. Esoteric Buddhism filtered into China by the early Tang Dynasty (618-907) and continued into the Song (960-1279) thanks to royal patronage. People of the neighboring foreign Khitan Liao (907-1125), Tangut Western Xia (1038-1227), and Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, all of whom conquered northern China at one time or another, adopted the religion. The Mongols, another foreign ruler of the Middle Kingdom, were great adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), which ensured the continued presence of esoteric imagery in China. And during the Ming (1368-1644), when Journey to the West was first published, the Yongle (r. 1402-1424) and Zhengde (r. 1505-1521) emperors, as well as other elite members of society, patronized and/or practiced the religion (Stoddard, 2008; Orzech, Sorensen, & Payne, 2011).

Update: 12-16-2017

My new article expands on the WDO connection by highlighting Monkey’s association with the circlet mentioned above as one of the ritual items worn by yogis. This shows Sun’s trademark headband can be traced to Esoteric Buddhism.

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Golden Fillet

Update: 06-07-2018

A stone carving of Sun Wukong from one of the Kaiyuan temple’s stone pagodas (erected in 1237) portrays him wearing nearly all of the aforementioned ritual items, further solidifying his image as a WDO.

The Sun Wukong Stone Relief of Kaiyuan Temple


1) The krodha-vighnantaka term was coined by Rob Linrothe (1999) since the names traditionally given to said wrathful deities over the centuries are not appropriate to cover all three historical phases of their existence (pp. 19-20).

2) The first artists to represent WDOs drew on previous depictions of semi-divine Yaksa spirits, the dwarf-like Gana attendants of Shiva, and the humanoid personification of divine Hindu weapons (Skt: ayudhapurusa) (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 12-13).

3) The three poisons are stupidity, greed/lust, and anger. These are often depicted in the center of Buddhist Wheel of Life art as a boar, a snake, and a rooster, each biting the others tail, forming a circle.

4) Linrothe (1999) writes that Shiva in this case represents the conquering of ego instead of “a Hinduism which must be humiliated” (p. 26).

5) During the Great Sage’s rebellion, the August Jade Emperor is forced to ask the Buddha to intervene because Sun Wukong is too strong (Wu and Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, p. 191-192). Monkey defeats the celestial army, along with the Heavenly Kings, prior to being subdued (Wu and Yu (Vol. 1), 2012, p. 172). And later the guardians “ben[d] low to bow to him and dare not bar his way” when he visits heaven some centuries after his rebellion (Wu and Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 118).


Beer, R. (2003). The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Chicago, Illinois: Shambhala.

Elgood, H. (1999). Hinduism and the religious arts. London, u.a.: Cassell.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Orzech, C. D., Sorensen, H. H., & Payne, R. K. (2011). Esoteric Buddhism and the tantras in East Asia. Leiden: Brill.

MacDonell, A. A., & Keith, A. B. (1995). Vedic index of names and subjects. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Stoddard, H. (2008). Early Sino-Tibetan art. Bangkok: Orchid Press.

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

The Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and the Cosmic Geography of Journey to the West

Note: This page used to have historical information about the origin of Monkey’s first master, but I have moved it to a new article.

Last updated: 03-07-2023

The Monkey King’s home, the “Mountain of Flowers and Fruit” or “Flower-Fruit Mountain” (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is commonly assumed to be located in China. In fact, a mountain with the same name in Jiangsu province is even touted as the home of Sun Wukong. However, this is not the case within the novel’s narrative. It’s important to remember that Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) is set in a world that is nothing like our Earth.

In this article, I will explain the location of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, showing that Sun Wukong’s home is in fact an island east of what would be considered China. This opens the door to interesting interpretations by those wanting to place the story within a real world context. Second, I will explain the ancient Buddhist disc world system as presented in the book. My hope is that this will give readers a better understanding of the cosmic geography in which the story happens. 

1. Religious background

Note: I will alternate between Wu & Jenner (2020) and Wu & Yu (2012), using one or the other depending on who I think has done a better job of translating certain passages.

Chapter one opens by describing the world in which the story is set:

The world was then divided into four great continents: The Eastern Continent of Superior Body, the Western Continent of Cattle-Gift, the Southern Continent of Jambu and the Northern Continent of Kuru (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 3).

… 世界之間,遂分為四大部洲:曰東勝神洲,曰西牛賀洲,曰南贍部洲,曰北俱蘆洲。

Yu’s (Wu & Yu, 2012) translation provides romanization of the Sanskrit names (vol. 1, p. 100). I’ve listed them below, along with the original Sanskrit, an alternative English translation, and the Chinese for the reader’s reference:

  • East Pūrvavideha (Sk: पूर्वविदेह, “Surpassing the Body”; Ch: Dong shengshen zhou, 東勝神洲)
  • West Aparagodānīya (Sk: अपरगोदानीय, “Enjoyer of Cattle”; Ch: Xi niuhe zhou, 西牛賀洲)
  • North Uttarakuru (Sk: उत्तरकुरु, “Unpleasant Sound”; Ch: Bei julu zhou, 北俱盧洲)
  • South Jambudvīpa (Sk: जम्बुद्वीप, “Rose-Apple”; Ch: Nan shanbu zhou, 南贍部洲)

The Abhidharmakośa (Sk: अभिधर्मकोशभास्य; Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century), a text describing the Buddhist universe, states that the four continents each have two intermediate continents, and that all twelve are set afloat in a great ocean surrounding the four respective sides of Mt. Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山). This is a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos, as well as the abode of assorted gods and sages. It is surrounded by seven golden mountains of lesser height, as well as a final iron mountain around the outside rim of the ocean, which keeps the water from draining over the edge (fig. 1 & 2) (Vasubandhu, La Vallée-Poussin, & Pruden, 1991, pp. 452-456).

This system is supported by a series of elemental discs, each one becoming larger as one descends. The highest is kāñcanamaṇḍala, a disc of gold. The middle is jalamaṇḍala, a disc of water. And the lowest is vāyumaṇḍala, a disc of wind (fig. 3). This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (Vasubandhu, La Vallée-Poussin, & Pruden, 1991, pp. 451-452). 

Fig. 1 (top) – A top view of the Buddhist disc world system (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – A side view of the system (larger version). Images from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxii-xxxi. Fig. 3 (bottom) – A diagram showing the elemental discs supporting the world (larger version). Take note of the “wind circle” (light blue), the “water circle” (dark blue), and the “Golden earth layer” (gold). Adapted from Sadakata, 1997, p. 27.

2. Location of the Mountain

Chapter one continues:

Beyond the seas there is a country called Aolai [Aolai guo, 傲來國]. This country is next to an ocean, and in the middle of the ocean is a famous island called the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This mountain is the ancestral artery of the Ten Continents, the origin of the Three Islands; [1] it was formed when the clear and impure were separated and the Enormous Vagueness was divided (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 3; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 100). 


Two deities shortly thereafter give a more precise location for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit:

“We found that at the edge of the country of Aolai, which is east of the ocean belonging to the Eastern Continent of Superior Body, there is an island called the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit …” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 3; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 102). 


Later, in chapter three, Sun Wukong’s advisors note the distance between Aolai and their island home:

The four monkeys replied, “East of our mountain, across two hundred [li] of water, is the boundary of the Aolai Country (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 131; c.f. Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 1, p. 50).


All of this information tells us that the mountain is an island located 200 li (62 miles / 100 km) east of Eastern Superior Body (East Pūrvavideha).

3. The Novel’s Version of the Buddhist Disc World System

Buddhism traditionally associates Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa) with India (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 377), but the novel shifts this structure a quarter turn clockwise (fig. 4). For example, in chapter eight, the Buddha associates his home (India) with the western continent and the southern continent with the “eastern lands” (dongtu, 東土), the Chinese Buddhist term for China (Tan, 1998, p. 137):

“… Our Western Continent of Cattle-Gift has people who neither covet nor kill. They nourish the vital essence and submerge the spirit; and although they produce no saints of the highest order, they all live to a ripe old age. But in the Southern Jambu Continent they are greedy and lecherous and delight in the sufferings of others; they go in for a great deal of killing and quarrelling. That continent can with truth be called a vicious field of tongues and mouths, an evil sea of disputation. [But I have] Three Stores of True Scriptures with which they can be persuaded to be good” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol.1, p. 165; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 205).



“I want to send them to the eastern lands because it is intolerable that the beings of that quarter should all be such stupid wretches who slander and defame the true word, do not understand the gist of my Law, and have lapsed from the orthodox Yogacara Sect…” (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol.1, p. 165; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 205).


Additional evidence comes from chapter 29 when the chosen scripture pilgrim‘s travel rescript is reproduced. The opening line expressly connects China with the southern continent by way of the Chinese Tang dynasty

The travel rescript of the Tang Son of Heaven, who succeeds under the guidance of Heaven to the throne of the Great Tang Empire in the South Jambudvīpa Continent. … (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 48; cf. Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol. 2, p. 661).


This means that when Sun first sails to Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa) to find a means of escaping death (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, vol.1, p. 16; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 108), he travels to the novel’s version of China. This further solidifies the fact that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is not located in China.

Fig. 4 – A top view of the Buddhist disc world system according to Journey to the West (larger version). The Mountain of Flowers and Fruit would be to the east of Eastern Superior Body (East Pūrvavideha). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxxii.

4. Reason for the Change

I suggest that the author-compiler of Journey to the West replaced the traditional cosmic geography for two reasons. First, both China and (part of) ancient India were referred to as the “Middle Kingdom” (Ch: Zhongguo, 中國; Sk: Madhyadeśa, मध्यदेश) (Wilkinson, 2000, p. 132; Lamotte, 1988, pp. 8-9). For example, the travelogue of the noted 4th to 5th-century Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (法顯) reads:

Central India is known as the “Middle Kingdom” [Zhongguo, 中國]. The food and clothing of the common people are the same as the “Middle Kingdom” [i.e. China].


This would naturally make it easier to associate China with Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa).

Second, since India is west of China, it would make sense for the country to be associated with Western Cattle-Gift (West Aparagodānīya).

Update: 10-01-17

A poem in chapter one states that the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is the center of the universe. This obviously conflicts with Mt. Sumeru being the axis mundi.

Flower Fruit Mountain as the Center of the Universe

Update: 02-06-23

I have drastically rewritten the article to include more detailed information about the Buddhist disc world system. I would also like to add material here from a previous article since it is related to the novel’s changes to the pre-existing structure.

Originally, the top of Mt. Sumeru supported the Buddhist heaven of the “Thirty-Three (Gods)” (Sk: Trāyastriṃśa, त्रायस्त्रिंश; Ch: Sanshisan tian, 三十三天; Daoli tian, 忉利天) (fig. 5), which is ruled by Śakra (Sk: शक्र; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋), king of the gods (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 921-922). However, the novel replaces this realm with the Daoist heaven, which is ruled by the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang shang/dadi, 玉皇上/大帝) (Clart, 2008, pp. 1197-1198). This is hinted at in chapter four when Monkey is invited to serve as the keeper of the heavenly horses. Part of a poem describing what he sees reads:

In this heaven are thirty-three heavenly palaces (emphasis added):
The Palace of Clouds Dispersed, the Vaisravana Palace, the [P]alace of Five Lores, the Sun Palace, the Palace of Flowery Bliss
[…] (Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, p. 73; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 146).

這天上有三十三座天宮,乃遣雲宮、毘沙宮、五明宮、太陽宮、花樂宮 …

The “thirty-three” palaces are references to the homes of the thirty three gods. This change is therefore a prime example of the kind of Buddho-Daoist religious syncretism featured in Journey to the West.

Fig. 5 – The Heaven of the Thirty-Three atop Mt. Sumeru is indicated in red (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. xxxii.

Update: 02-08-23

Despite the four Buddhist disc world continents appearing in the story, Journey to the West hints that its world is a globe. For instance, when the Monkey King first sets out from his home in chapter one, he sails SE to reach the NW side of Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa):

He had chosen just the right time for his journey. After he boarded his raft the southeasterly wind blew hard for days on end and bore him to the northwestern shore of the southern continent (Wu & Jenner, 2020, vol.1, p. 16; cf. Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 108).


I thought maybe SE and NW were typos since heading SW would have taken him to the NE shore of the southern continent (refer back to fig. 4). However, in chapter two, Sun tells his children:

“The year I left you all,” Wukong said, “I drifted with the waves across the Great Eastern Ocean and reached the West Aparagodānīya Continent. I then arrived at the South Jambudvīpa Continent, where I learned human ways, wearing this garment and these shoes. I swaggered along with the clouds for eight or nine years, but I had yet to learn the Great Art. I then crossed the Great Western Ocean and reached the West Aparagodānīya Continent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129; cf. Wu & Jenner, 1993/2020, p. 47).


So it appears that he sailed from the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit to Western Cattle-Gift (West Aparagodānīya), similar to traveling from Japan in the East to the United States in the West. Then, he sailed from there to Southern Jambu (South Jambudvīpa), similar to traveling from the US to Africa. Lastly, he sailed back to Western Cattle-Gift (West Aparagodānīya). This might mean that the world of Journey to the West is a combination of a spherical planet and the Buddhist disc world system.

If true, I suggest that the nonsensical, roundabout way that Monkey comes to study with Subodhi in the western continent could be a physical representation of his unsettled “monkey mind” (xinyuan, 心猿).

However, it’s important to point out that even Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) considers the aforementioned route to be “[a]n inconsistency in the text” (vol. 1, p. 509, n. 17). So, I’ll leave it up to the reader as to which version of the world they ultimately want to accept.

Update: 02-09-23

I found a lovely overhead Chinese map of the Buddhist disc world system (fig. 6). The teeth-like structures around the perimeter are actually the iron mountain that contains the ocean. Also Mt. Sumeru in the center is topped by a building representing the Buddhist heaven of the “Thirty-Three (Gods)” (Ch: Daoli tian, 忉利天) (refer back to fig. 5).

Fig. 6 – An early-20th-century Chinese map of the Buddhist disc world system (larger version). Image found on Wikimedia Commons.

Update: 02-11-23

I have posted an article that discusses the Buddha’s realm in Western Cattle-Gift (West Aparagodānīya).

The Buddha’s Vulture Peak and Journey to the West

Update: 03-07-23

In my 02-06-23 update, I noted how the “thirty-three mansions” alluded to the Buddhist heaven of the thirty-three gods (sanshisan tian, 三十三天), thereby showing that the Daoist heaven was inserted into the Buddhist cosmological structure. Well, I had completely forgotten that the novel overtly mentions this heaven numerous times. This is important in regards to the location of Laozi‘s (老子) residence. 

Journey to the West states that the deva and his alchemical furnace are located in the “Tushita Palace” (Doushuai gong兜率宮), which is said to be either in the “Separation’s Regret Heaven” (Lihen tian離恨天) or the “Great Canopy Heaven” (Daluo tian, 大羅天). Both are treated as the highest of the thirty-three heavens. For more information, see my article: 

Laozi’s Realm in Journey to the West


1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) explains, “These islets and islands were famous abodes of gods or immortals” (vol. 1, p. 506, n. 6).


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Tan, C. (1998). A Sino-Indian Perspective for India-China Understanding. In C. Tan (Ed.), Across the Himalayan Gap: An Indian Quest for Understanding China (pp. 133-147). New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

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Wilkinson, E. P. (2000). Chinese History: A Manual (Rev. and Enl). Published by the Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute : Distributed by Harvard University Press.

Wu, C. & Jenner, W. J. F. (2020). Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1993)

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