A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 02-14-2023

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru. The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another (see 02-14-23 update below). This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).

Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).


After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Update: 12-17-22

Journey to the West characterizes the Buddha as having a corporeal form. This is revealed in chapter 55 when a Scorpion Spirit (Xiezi jing, 蝎子精) stings and hurts him:

Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable! (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

他前者在雷音寺聽佛談經,如來見了,不合用手推他一把,他就轉過鉤子,把如來左手中拇指上扎了一下。如來也疼難禁 …

I take this to mean that the Scorpion Spirit was imbued with “dharma power” (fali, 法力) while listening to the Enlightened One’s lectures. This makes sense as Campany (1985) explains that this is the penultimate power in the novel’s Buddho-Daoist universe.

(Baring a discrepancy in chapter six, [4] the Scorpion Spirit is the only figure in all of Journey to the West shown capable of piercing the Monkey King’s adamantine hide (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 65). She does so with her “horse-felling poison stake” (daoma du zhuang, 倒馬毒樁), which is actually her stinger (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).)

But since this article focuses on a real world journey set over a 1,000 years after the Enlightened One’s death, I would like to suggest that similar exposure to the spiritual power of the Buddha might give other demons or spirits a similar boost. In this case, the items granting this power would be relics associated with Shakyamuni.

Strong (2004) notes that there are three main types of Buddha relics: 1) those of the body left over from his cremation (hair, teeth, nails, bones, and Śarīra beads); 2) those that he used (walking staff, alms bowl, robes, etc.); and 3) those that he taught (i.e. lessons from scripture) (p. 8). I think the first and second categories would be perfect for our story, especially the Śarīra (Sheli/zi, 舍利/子). These pearl-like beads were associated with the wish-fulfilling Cintāmaṇi (Ruyi baozhu, 如意寶組) jewel in East Asia (Strong, 2004, p. 10), so I could see them granting spirits power. [5]

Evil forces might sneak into monasteries to retrieve such items in a bid to gain extra power in order to fuel their nefarious machinations, assert their will on the surrounding populous, and/or to defeat Monkey and his religious brothers, thereby allowing them to gain immortality by eating the Tang Monk. Protecting the relics would, therefore, be one reason to keep the demon disciples busy during Xuanzang’s long years of study.

Update: 12-29-22

It turns out that Journey to the West has śarīra beads. In fact, they are mentioned at least 18 times throughout the novel. One example is a treasure belonging to the Yellow-Robed Demon (Huangpao guai, 黃袍怪). Chapter 31 reads:

Leading Pilgrim [Sun Wukong], the fiend [Yellow Robe] took his companion into the murky depth of the cave before spitting out from his mouth a treasure having the size of a chicken egg. It was a śarīra [shelizi, 舍利子] of exquisite internal elixir. Secretly delighted, Pilgrim said to himself, “Marvelous thing! It’s unknown how many sedentary exercises had been performed, how many years of trials and sufferings had elapsed, how many times the union of male and female forces had taken place before this śarīra of internal elixir was formed. What great affinity it has today that it should encounter old Monkey!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 80-81). [6]


As can be seen, Yellow Robe’s śarīra is portrayed as the hard-won product of spiritual cultivation. This agrees with Strong’s (2004) statement that Buddhists believed such beads were “brought on not only by the fire of cremation but also by the perfections of the saint (in this case the Buddha) (emphasis added) whose body they re-present” (p. 12).

But in our realistic retelling, Yellow Robes could have stolen the treasure from a monastery or stupa.

Update: 01-04-2023

I mentioned in the original post that Sun Wukong would study Hindo-Buddhist arts and become a talented rishi. The Saṃyutta Nikāya notes that such cultivators develop a host of supernatural powers once they master the four mental qualities (Pali: Iddhipāda):

  1. Multiplying the body
  2. Vanishing and reappearing
  3. Passing through solid objects (walls, ramparts, mountains, etc.)
  4. Diving into the earth like water
  5. Walking on water like earth
  6. Traveling through space
  7. Touching the sun and moon
  8. Hearing all sounds, both human and divine
  9. Knowing the minds of others
  10. Having memories of all of one’s past lives
  11. Knowing the future rebirths (and their causes) of all beings
  12. Liberation from the filth of the world through supreme wisdom (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1727-1728)

Monkey already exhibits several of these powers in the original narrative.

Update: 01-29-23

Here’s another example of the śarīra beads appearing in Journey to the West. Chapter 62 reads:

This all came about because our All Saints Old Dragon once gave birth to a daughter by the name of Princess All Saints, who was blessed with the loveliest features and the most extraordinary talents. She took in a husband by the name of Nine-Heads, who also had vast magic powers. Year before last, he came here with the Dragon King and, exerting great divine strength, sent down a rainstorm of blood to have the treasure pagoda defiled. Then he stole the sarira Buddhist treasure from the building. Thereafter the princess also went up to the great Heaven where she stole the nine-leaved agaric, which the Lady Queen Mother planted before the Hall of Divine Mists. The plant and the Buddhist treasure are both kept now at the bottom of the lagoon, lighting up the place with their golden beams and colored hues night and day (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 172).


This supports the idea of evil attacking monasteries, and raining down blood would be one method of deconsecrating said locations.

Update: 02-14-23

Above, I mentioned that Japan or Taiwan would be good candidates for the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, but I now feel like I didn’t give enough context. As I explain in this article (and briefly in sec. 1.1 above), Buddhist cosmic geography portrays the world as four cardinal continents surrounding a great mountain. Journey to the West changes the original system by associating China with the southern continent and moving India to the western continent. If we continue this trend by associating the other two continents with real countries, the north would be Russia or Mongolia and the east would be Korea (fig. 8). And since the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is said to be an island east of the eastern most continent, Japan would be the best choice (fig. 9). This means Sun would be a Snow Macaque.

 Fig. 9 – A top view of Buddhist cosmic geography overlaid with the names of real world countries (larger version). Adapted from Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. xxxi. Fig 10 – Detail from a map of East Asia (larger version). Map found here.


1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

4) Chapter six reads: “They bound him with ropes and punctured his breastbone with a knife, so that he could transform no further” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186). But this is not stated or implied to be a form of physical punishment. It serves only to keep Monkey in his base form. The blade is mentioned again in chapter seven: “Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the Brazier of Eight Trigrams” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189).

5) I guess the beads would be swallowed or kept close to the body. Their holy power would surely kill lesser devils but empower cultivator-demon kings.

6) Source altered slightly. I’ve made it more accurate.


Bodhi, B. (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya; Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

Strong, J. S. (2004). Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Archive #29 – Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1999)

I consider one of my greatest accomplishments on this blog to be discovering the origin of Sun Wukong’s golden headband. This would not have been possible without reading about the Hevajra Tantra (8th-century) in Robert Nelson Linrothe’s (1999) Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. This amazing study analyzes Esoteric Buddhist statues and texts to trace the evolution of these guardians from mere dwarf attendants to mighty warrior gods endowed with the power of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. This is a great resource for anyone researching religious art involving wrathful guardians in Buddhism, Daoism, and of course Chinese folk religion, for the iconography of these divine warriors spread far and wide.

I am sharing a PDF of the book found on libgen for the benefit of other scholars. The black and white portions of the book appear to be based on a xeroxed copy. However, there are full color plates in the back.

Book description:

Buddhists believe that the wrathful spirits represent inherent qualities of our own, and that meditating on them can transmute the otherwise malevolent sides of our own natures into positive qualities and actions. The wrathful deities also provide precious clues as to the early development of esoteric Buddhism in India, about which few early texts survive. Through careful examination of a large body of images as well as Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Indic texts, this lavishly illustrated volume traces the evolution of the forms and the unfolding significance of the wrathful deity in esoteric Buddhist sculpture.

Archive link:

Click to access Ruthless-Compassion-Wrathful-Deities-in-Early-Indo-Tibetan-Esoteric-Buddhist-Art-1999.pdf


This work has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you enjoyed the digital version, please support the official release.


Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. London: Serindia Publ.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Last updated: 07-25-2022

Sun Wukong‘s golden headband (jingguquan, 金箍圈) (fig. 1) is an instantly recognizable part of his popular iconography. Anyone who’s read Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) will know that it painfully tightens around our hero’s skull to correct any unsavory behavior. “What kind of behavior?” someone might ask. Well, mass murder, of course! In chapter 56, for example, Monkey’s Buddhist master Tripitaka recites the spell to punish him for beating a group of bandits to death with his magic staff and beheading one of them with a blade (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 89).

Fig. 1 – A modern replica of Monkey’s golden headband (larger version).

This spell is first revealed to the monk by Guanyin in chapter 14:

I have a spell which is called the True Words for Controlling the Mind [dingxin zhenyan, 定心真言], or the Tight-Fillet Spell [jingu er zhou, 緊箍兒咒]. You must memorize it secretly; commit it firmly to your memory, and don’t let anyone learn of it […] When [Sun Wukong] returns, give him…the cap [containing the headband] to wear; and if he again refuses to obey you, recite the spell silently. He will not dare do violence or leave you again” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 317).

You can see the exact words are never revealed. This is not surprising, though, as the spell is one of the few things in the entire Buddho-Daoist cosmos that can control Sun Wukong. Tripitaka’s life would be in danger and the journey would be doomed if any villains got ahold of this secret. But … what if … we could guess the spell, just for fun? I’d like to suggest a mantra based on historical religious beliefs and iconography. This thought experiment was written for the benefit of artists and fanfiction writers looking to create more accurate portrayals of the novel and its characters.

I. The Band’s Religious Background

As I note in this article, the golden fillet is based on a ritual headband worn by Buddhist ascetics in ancient India. The Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, 8th-c.) states yogins must wear the band and a list of other prescribed ritual items in their worship of the wrathful protector deity Heruka (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Most importantly, the tantra states the band symbolizes the Buddha Akshobhya (Ch: Achu, 阿閦; Budong, 不動; lit: “Immovable”) (fig. 2), who gained enlightenment through moralistic practices of right speech and action (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251; Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 27).

Fig. 2 – A depiction of Akshobhya (larger version). [1] Artist unknown.

Akshobhya and the other esoteric Wisdom Buddhas are sometimes depicted as small figures or colored jewels in the headdress of the Manjusri Bodhisattva (and other Buddhist personages) (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 37; Vessantara, 1993, p. 155). Akshobhya is symbolized by the color blue (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36). A cursory Google image search shows the blue jewel is often set in the top most position over Manjusri’s forehead (fig. 3).

This might suggest a more religiously accurate version of Sun Wukong’s golden headband would include a figure or jewel representing Akshobhya.

Fig. 3 – A modern painting of Manjusri by Ben Christian (larger version). Image found here

II. The Mantra

Given the above information, I’d like to suggest the tightening spell for Monkey’s headband—within the context of our thought experiment—is the Akshobhya Mantra! There are two kinds. I’ll leave it up to you which one you like best. The first is a short recitation of the buddha’s name: O a kṣo bhya hūṃ (fig. 4). This can be very roughly translated as “Praise to the Immovable One!”. Om and Hum are both holy syllables invoking spiritual power and enlightenment, respectively. They also appear in the more well-known Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ (Ch: An mo ni ba mi hong, 唵嘛呢叭咪吽). One Chinese version of the name mantra appears to be “An a bie zha zhi ga hong hong” (唵 阿別炸枝嘎 吽吽).

Fig. 4 – The Siddham and Uchen script versions of the short mantra (larger version). Based on information found here. Fig. 5 – A version of the longer chant with Uchen script, as well as English and Chinese transliterations (larger version). Based on an image found here.

The second is a longer chant, again called the “Mantra of Akshobhya” (Achu fo xinzhou, 阿閦佛心咒) (fig. 5 and video 1). It’s interesting to note that the historical Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based) is known to have translated a version of this mantra. [2]

Reciting this to rein in Sun Wukong not only references the band’s historical and religious connection to Akshobhya but also serves as a physical reminder of right speech and action (how the deity gained buddhahood). It’s Tripitaka’s way of screaming, “Stop murdering everyone within arm’s reach!”

Video 1 – A chant of the long mantra.

Update: 01-24-22

The DC Comics’ story “The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” presents the spell as the Nianfo (fig. 6).

Fig. 6 – Shifu Pigsy (a.k.a. Zhu Bajie) reciting “Amituofo” to activate the golden headband on the Monkey Prince, son of the original Monkey King (larger version). From Yang, 2021, p. 80. Copyright DC Comics.

Update: 01-25-22

The case for Akshobhya’s mantra being the tight-fillet spell is strengthened—again, within the context of our thought experiment—by the fact that he has power over strong negative emotions. According to Bangdel and Huntington (2003): “The transcendental insight represented by Akshobhya is mirrorlike wisdom (adarsha jnana), which…is the antidote to the poison of anger, or hatred” (p. 91). The monk Tripitaka assuages these emotions by activating the golden headband, once again reminding Wukong of right speech and action.

In addition, Akshobhya and Gautama have matching iconography: both are shown seated with the left hand palm up on the lap and the right reaching down to touch the earth. Hinayana Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia worship Gautama in this form, but Mahayana worships Akshobhya as such (see note #1). This is important as Gautama gives the three golden headbands to Guanyin in order to pacify any demons that she might encounter during her search for the scripture pilgrim (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 206-207). This shows there is a connection between the two Buddhas, and it also explains why Gautama would gift a headband associated with Akshobhya.

Update: 01-27-22

Various online sources and adaptations sometimes refer to the spell as the “Headache Sutra” (for example). But to my knowledge it’s never explicitly called this in the novel. The pain associated with the spell is generally used as a threat. For example, in chapter 16, Tripitaka exclaims: “Monkey! Aren’t you afraid of your headache [ni toutong, 你頭痛]? Do you still want to behave badly? (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 347) (emphasis mine).

Chapter 25 provides two more names for the spell:

There is, moreover, the Tight-Fillet Spell or the Tight-Fillet Sutra [jingu er jing, 緊箍兒經]. It’s also [Tripitaka’s] “Old Saying Sutra” [jiuhua er jing, 舊話兒經]. [3] The moment he recites that, I’ll have a terrible headache, for it’s the magic trick designed to give me a hard time (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 468).

Update: 07-25-22

I’ve written an article that explains the origins of the “crescent-style” headband.

The Monkey King’s Crescent-Style Headband


1) Akshobhya’s iconography is as follows:

[He] is represented seated, like all the Dhyani-Buddhas, with the legs locked and both feet apparent. There are often wheels marked on the soles of his feet, or a protuberance like a button, resembling the urna on the forehead. His left hand lies on his lap in ‘meditation’ mudra. His right touches the earth with the tips of the outstretched fingers, the palm turned inward. This is called the bhumisparsa or ‘witness’ mudra.

The Hinayana Buddhists in Ceylon, Java, Burma, and Siam worship Gautama Buddha under this form, while those of the Mahayana school look upon it as Akshobhya; for, with but rare exceptions, the historic Buddha is only appealed to by the Northern Buddhists in his ethereal form of Amitabha.

Akshobhya may also take in Tibet another form of Gautama Buddha called ‘Vajrasana’ (diamond throne). The attitude is the same as the above, but before him on the lotus throne lies a vajra, or it may be balanced in the palm of the left hand lying in ‘meditation’ mudra on his lap (Getty, 1914/1988, p. 36).

2) The Chinese source refers to Akshobhya as the “Immovable Buddha” (Budong rulai, 不動如來).

3) I’ve added an extra sentence from the Chinese original glossed over in the translation. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the spell as the “Old-Time Sutra” in a previous sentence (vol. 1, p. 468).


Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. United Kingdom: Serindia Publications.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Getty, A. (1988). The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History, Iconography and Progressive Evolution through the Northern Buddhist Countries. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Original work published 1914)

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Vessantara. (1993). Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. United Kingdom: Windhorse Publications.

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

Yang, G. L. (2021). The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes. In Jessica Chen (Ed.). DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (pp. 70-82) [Google Play]. New York, NY: DC Comics. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Minh_Le_DC_Festival_of_Heroes_The_Asian_Superhero?id=qXUrEAAAQBAJ

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Last updated: 07-25-2022

The golden headband or fillet (金箍圈, jingu quan) is one of the Monkey King’s most recognizable iconographic elements appearing in visual media based on the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). It is generally portrayed as a ringlet of gold with blunt ends that meet in the middle of the forehead and curl upwards like scowling eyebrows (type one) (fig. 1). A different version is a single band adorned with an upturned crescent shape in the center (type two) (fig. 2). Another still is a simple band devoid of decoration (type three) (fig. 3). Sun first earns the headband as punishment for killing six thieves shortly after being released from his five hundred-year-long imprisonment. The circlet is a heaven-sent magic treasure designed to reign in the immortal’s unruly, rebellious nature. Since Sun Wukong is a personification of the Buddhist concept of the “Monkey of the Mind” (心猿, xinyuan,), or the disquieted mind that bars humanity from enlightenment, the fillet serves as a not so subtle reminder of Buddhist restraint. Few scholars have attempted to analyze the treasure’s history. In this paper I present textual and visual evidence from India, China, and Japan that suggests it is ultimately based on a ritual headband worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. I also show how such fillets became the emblem of some weapon-bearing protector deities in China, as well as military monks in Chinese opera.

1. The Headband’s Literary Origin and Purpose

The headband is first mentioned in chapter eight when three such “tightening fillets” are given to the Bodhisattva Guanyin by the Buddha in order to conquer any demons that she may come across while searching for a monk who will bring sutras back to China from India. The “Enlightened One” explains their purpose: “If [the monster] is disobedient, this fillet may be put on his head, and it will strike root the moment it comes into contact with the flesh. Recite the particular spell which belongs to the fillet and it will cause the head to swell and ache so painfully that he will think his brains are bursting. That will persuade him to come within our fold” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 206-207). He notes that there are different spells for each piece, including “the Golden, the Constrictive, and the Prohibitive Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 206).

Sun Wukong earns the “Constrictive” band in chapter fourteen after brutally murdering six thieves who accost his master Tripitaka, the chosen scripture seeker, on the road to the west. [1] The killings cause the two to part ways, and it is during Monkey’s absence when Guanyin gives the monk a brocade hat containing the fillet and teaches him the “True Words for Controlling the Mind, or the Tight-Fillet Spell” (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 317). Sun is eventually persuaded to return and tricked into wearing the hat under the guise of gaining the ability to recite scripture without rote memorization. It soon takes root, and the powerful immortal is brought under control through the application of pain. He then promises to behave and to protect Tripitaka during their long journey to the Western Paradise. [2]

The remaining two fillets are used by Guanyin to conquer other monsters in later chapters. She throws the “Prohibitive” band onto the head of a black bear demon in chapter seventeen and, after reciting the spell, he agrees to become the rear entrance guard of her Potalaka island paradise (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), p. 365). The “Golden” band is split into five rings—one each for the head, wrists, and ankles—and used to subdue Red Boy (紅孩兒, Hong hai’er), the fire-spewing son of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan, at the end of chapter forty-two and the beginning of forty-three (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 251-252). The child demon becomes her disciple and eventually takes the religious name Sudhana. [3]

Monkey is forced to wear the fillet until he attains Buddhahood in chapter one hundred, causing it to vanish (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 4), p. 383). The band’s disappearance at the end of the novel denotes Sun’s internalization of self-control. But the treasure doesn’t disappear forever. It appears once more in the Later Journey to the West (後西游記, Hou Xiyouji, 17th-cent.), a sequel set 200 years after the original. The story follows a similar trajectory with Monkey’s descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真, “Monkey who Walks Reality”) attaining immortality and causing havoc in heaven. But this time the macaque Buddha is called in to quell the demon. Monkey quickly disarms the “Small Sage Equaling Heaven” of his iron staff and pacifies him not with trickery but with an enlightening Buddhist koan. He then places the band on Luzhen’s head to teach him restraint (see Liu, 1994).

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A type one fillet from the comedy A Chinese Odyssey 2 (1995). Fig. 2 – (Center) A type two fillet from the 1986 TV show. Fig. 3 – (Right) A  type three fillet from an 11th-century painting in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in Gansu Province, China.

2. Past Research

It appears very few scholars writing in English have attempted to trace the origins of the golden fillet. Wang Tuancheng theorizes that the idea for the headband came from two sources. First, the historical journal of Xuanzang (602-664 CE), the Tang Dynasty monk on whom Tripitaka is loosely based, details how he was challenged to a religious debate by a man in a foreign kingdom who offered his own head as the price of defeat. Xuanzang won, but instead of collecting his prize, the monk took the man as his servant. Second, Wang notes that slaves during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) wore a metal collar around their neck shaped like the Chinese character for twenty (廿, nian). He goes on to explain: “…the author transformed the metal hoop that the non-Buddhist might have worn to Sun Wukong’s headband” (Wang, 2006, p. 67). I’m not particularly persuaded by this argument since Wang doesn’t offer any evidence as to why a Han-era slave implement would still be in use during the Tang (618-907 CE) four to five hundred years later; nor does he suggest a reason for why such a collar would be moved from the neck to the head. Besides, there exists religious art featuring the fillet (see below) that predates the novel by some three centuries, meaning it wasn’t the sole invention of the author/compiler of the novel.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the 13th-century precursor of the novel, The Story of Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, does not mention the fillet at all (this is just one of many differences between it and the final 16th-century version). Monkey is simply portrayed as a concerned individual who purposely seeks out Tripitaka to ensure his safety, as the monk’s two previous incarnations have perished on the journey to India. In other words, he comes as a willing participant, which negates the need for positive punishment via the ringlet. [4] But at least two works coinciding with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) depict Monkey wearing a band, which, again, excludes the treasure being a later invention.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 13th-century stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and, most importantly, a type one fillet on the forehead (Fig. 4). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet “recalls the band around the head of representations of Andira, the simian guardian of Avalokitesvara” (the Indian counterpart to Guanyin) (Walker, 1998, p. 70). He goes on to list similarities between the stone relief and depictions of Andira, while also suggesting said depictions are based on south and southeast Asian representations of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman:

Identical earrings (these are key iconographic features of H[anuman] in many Southeast Asian R[ama saga]s), comparable tilt of the head… which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair… flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on the forearm and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H[anuman]. (Walker, 1998, p. 70).

So as it stands, the 13th-century appears to be the furthest that the motif has been reliably traced.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 4 (Left) – The 13th-century stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China (larger version). Fig. 5 – (Center) A portion of the 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two (larger version). Fig. 6 – (Right) The 12th-century Japanese painting “Aka-Fudo” (赤不動) (larger version).

3. My Findings

While Mair suggests a Southeast Asian Hindo-Buddhist influence, I know of at least one 11th-century example from northeastern China that suggests an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist influence. The Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (東千佛洞, Dong qianfo dong) in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Xixia dynasty (1038-1227) wall painting of Xuanzang worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank. Monkey stands behind him tending to a brown horse. He is portrayed with a type three circlet on his head, waist length hair, and light blue-green robes with brown pants (fig. 3 and 5). This painting was completed during a time when China was seeing an influx of monks fleeing the inevitable fall of India’s Buddhist-led Pala Dynasty (750-1174) from the 10th to the 12th-century. They brought with them the highly influential Pala Buddhist art style and Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism. The MET (2010) writes:

A mixture of Chinese-style and Vajrayana traditions and imagery was employed in the Tangut Xixia Kingdom …  which was based in Ningxia, Gansu, and parts of Shanxi … It is difficult to imagine that this “new” type of Buddhism, which not only was flourishing in Tibet in the late tenth century but was also found in the neighboring Xixia Kingdom and may have been practiced by Tibetans based in the Hexi Corridor region of Gansu Province, was completely unknown in central China until the advent of the Mongols (p. 19).

The painting of Monkey and Tripitaka was surely created by an Indian/Tibetan Buddhist monk (or at the very least a fellow Tangut/Chinese practitioner) living in the area. This suggests the imagery within the painting, such as the fillet, could have an esoteric Buddhist pedigree, and textual evidence shows such headbands were indeed worn in some esoteric rituals. For example, the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-cent.) instructs adherents on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka, a Wrathful Destroyer of Obstacles:

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) (the emphasis is mine).

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

Aksobhya is symbolized by the circletAmitabha 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) (the emphasis is mine).

As can be seen, the circlet represents Aksobhya (Sk: “Immovable”; Ch: 阿閦如来, Achurulai). This deity is known for his adamantine vow to attain buddhahood through the practice of Sila, or “morality”, the aim of which “is to restrain nonvirtuous deeds of body and speech, often in conjunction with the keeping of precepts” (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, pp. 27 and 821). So the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making it the best candidate for the origin of Monkey’s fillet. Sun is after all the representation of the “Monkey of the Mind” (as noted in the introduction), so his inclusion in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave painting was probably meant to convey the taming of this Buddhist concept via the circlet (apart from referencing the popular tale itself).

The Hevajra Tantra, the text in which the circlet appears, was first translated into Tibetan by Drogmi (993-1074) and adopted during the 11th-century as a central text by the respective founders of the Kagyu and Sakya sects, two of the six major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Various members of the Sakya sect were invited by Mongol royalty to initiate them into the text’s esoteric teachings during the 13th-century. These include Sakya Pandita and his nephew Chogyal Phagpa, who respectively tutored Genghis Khan’s grandson Prince Goden in 1244 and Kublai Khan in 1253. The meeting between Kublai and Chogyal resulted in Vajrayana Buddhism becoming the state religion of Mongolia. The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Chinese by the Indian monk Dharmapala (963-1058 CE) in 1055 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The text, however, did not become popular within the Chinese Buddhist community like it would with the Mongols in the 13th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455). But this evidence shows how the concept of the 8th-century ritual circlet could have traveled from India to East Asia to influence depictions of Sun Wukong in the 11th-century. And the relatively unknown status of the text in China might ultimately explain why there are so very few depictions of Chinese deities wearing the fillet, or why it does not appear in the 13th-century version of Journey to the West.

While the Xixia painting (fig. 5) lacks many of the ritual adornments (apart from the fillet) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, the Quanzhou stone relief (fig. 3) includes the band, earrings, necklace, bangles, and possibly even a tiger skin apron, suggesting it too has an esoteric origin (most likely based on Chinese source material). [5] The band’s connection to esoteric Buddhism is further strengthened by a 12th-century painting from Japan. Titled Aka-Fudo (赤不動), or “Red Fudo [Myoo]”, it depicts the wrathful esoteric god seated in a kingly fashion, holding a fiery, serpent-wrapped Vajra sword in one hand and a lasso in the other (fig. 6). He wears a golden, three-linked headband (similar to the curls of type one), which stands out against his deep red body and flaming aureola. Biswas (2010) notes: “…the headband on his forehead … indicate[s], according to some, a relation to the habit of groups of ascetics who were among the strong supporters of Acalanatha” (112). His supporters were no doubt yogin practitioners in the same vein as those who worshipped Heraku and other such wrathful protector deities.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 7 – (Left) Huang Ji’s “Sharpening a Sword” (early 15th-century) (larger version). Fig. 8 – (Center) An image of the hero Wu Song wearing a jiegu (戒箍) fillet from a Water Margin TV show. Fig. 9 – (Right) A late Ming woodblock of the warrior monk Lu Zhishen with a crescent staff (larger version).

3.1. The Fillet as a Symbol of Martial Deities and Warrior Monks

It’s important to note that Monkey was not the only cultural hero of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to wear a golden fillet. Another example is Li Tieguai (李鐵拐), or “Iron Crutch Li”, the oldest of the Eight Immortals.[6] Li is generally portrayed as a crippled beggar leaning on a cane. Legend has it that his original body was cremated prematurely by a disciple while the immortal traveled in spirit to answer a summons from Lord Laozi, the high god of Daoism. Li’s spirit returned a day later to find only ashes, thus forcing him to inhabit the body of a recently deceased cripple. According to Allen and Philips (2012), “Laozi gave him in recompense a golden headband and the crutch that was to become his symbol” (p. 108). Some depictions of Li wearing the fillet predate Journey to the West. The most striking example is Huang Ji’s Sharpening a Sword (early 15th-century) (Fig. 7), which portrays the immortal wearing a type three band and sharpening a double-edged blade on a stone while staring menacingly at the viewer. [7] One theory suggests Li’s martial visage identifies him as a “spirit-guardian of the [Ming] state” (Little, 2000, p. 333). Both Monkey and Li are therefore portrayed as brutish, weapon-bearing, golden headband-wearing immortals who serve as protectors. This shows the fillet was associated with certain warrior deities during the Ming.

The fillet’s connection to religion and martial attributes culminated in the Jiegu (戒箍, “ring to forget desires”), a type two band worn by Military Monks (武僧, Wuseng) in Chinese opera to show that they have taken a vow of abstinence (fig. 8). Such monks are depicted as wearing a Jiegu over long hair (Bonds, 2008, pp. 177-178 and 328), which contrasts with the bald heads of religious monks.[8] I would like to suggest the band’s half-moon shape may have some connection to a Ming-era woodblock print motif in which martial monks are shown wielding staves tipped with a crescent (fig. 9). The exact reason for the shape is still unknown (Shahar, 2008, pp. 97-98), but the association between the crescent and martial monks seems obvious. The use of the fillet in Chinese opera led to it being worn by Sun Wukong in the highly popular 1986 live-action tv show adaptation of the novel (fig. 2).[9]

4. Conclusion

Examples of past research into the origins of the golden fillet respectively point to a slave collar from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and circa 13th-century South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman as possible precursors. However, the first isn’t credible, and the second, while on the right track, doesn’t go back far enough. An 11th-century painting in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave complex depicts Sun Wukong wearing a type three fillet with possible ties to a ritual circlet worn by Esoteric Buddhist Yogin ascetics in 8th-century India. The Hevajra Tantra, the esoteric text that mentions the band, associates it with the Aksobhya Buddha and thereby his moralistic, self-restraining practices. The text was transmitted from india to Tibet, China, and Mongolia from the 11th to the 13th-centuries, showing a clear path for such imagery to appear in East Asia. A 12th-century Japanese Buddhist painting of the guardian deity Fudo Myoo with a fillet suggests the practice of wearing circlets in esoteric rituals continued for centuries. Other non-Buddhist deities became associated with the fillet during the Ming Dynasty. A 15th-century painting of the immortal Li Tieguai, for example, depicts him as a type one circlet-wearing, sword-wielding guardian of the Ming dynasty. All of this suggests the band became a symbol of weapon-bearing protector deities. The association between the fillet and religion and martial attributes led to its use as the symbol of military monks in Chinese opera.

Update: 12-23-17

I’ve been wondering what the 8th-century version of the circlet (along with the other ritual implements) mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra might have looked like. While I have yet to find a contemporary sculpture or painting, I have found an 11th to 12th-century interpretation from Tibet. Titled The Buddhist Deity Hevajra (fig. 10), this copper alloy statue somewhat follows the prescribed iconography of the god as laid out in the aforementioned text:

Dark blue and like the sun in colour with reddened and extended eyes, his yellow hair twisted upwards, and adorned with the five symbolic adornments,/ the circlet, the ear-rings and necklace, the bracelets and belt. These five symbols are well known for the purificatory power of the Five Buddhas./ He has the form of a sixteen-year-old youth and is clad in a tiger-skin. His gaze is wrathful. In his left hand he holds a vajra-skull, and a khatvahga [staff] likewise in his left, while in his right is a vajra of [a] dark hue…(Linrothe, 1999, p. 256)

Fig. 10 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 11 – Detail of the circlet.

The circlet here is depicted as a fitted band with crescent trim and a teardrop-shaped adornment (a conch?) (fig. 11). The statue’s iconography more closely follows that from the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries. The following information probably derives from the later part of this period:

He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).

Our statue has many of these features but lacks the image of the Buddha in his hair. This suggests the knob visible in the coif (fig. 10) once carried such a figure. So once again we see the importance of the Aksobhya Buddha. The statue is similar to 10th and 11th-century stone statues from India.[10]

While this doesn’t get us any closer to what the original circlet looked like, this statue adds to the mutability of the fillet imagery. The Hevajra Tantra is vague in its description, and so it is no surprise that so many variations have appeared over the centuries. The original sanskrit text uses the word cakri (circle) to refer to the band (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62). This might explain the simple type three fillet worn by Monkey in the Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave two painting (fig. 2).

Update: 08-16-20

I have written an article suggesting an origin for the type one headband, or as I now call it, the “curlicue headband”.

Sun Wukong’s Curlicue-Style Headband

Update: 12-12-21

One thing I figured out a while ago but never explained here was the reason why the Japanese Buddhist protector deity Aka-Fudo (赤不動) (fig. 6) is depicted with a headband. I believe this is a visual representation of the fillet’s association with the Aksobhya Buddha. This is because the fudo (Ch: budong, 不動) of Aka-Fudo and the Sanskrit meaning of Aksobhya respectively mean “immovable”. So the image of Aka-Fudo is encapsulating both his position as a protector deity and the Buddha represented by the headband. 


Update: 01-23-22

I’ve written an article suggesting a mantra for the secret spell that causes the golden fillet to tighten.

The Tightening Spell of Sun Wukong’s Golden Headband

Update: 07-25-22

I’ve written an article that explains the origins of the “crescent-style” headband.

The Monkey King’s Crescent-Style Headband


1) The type of band that is given to particular characters is explained in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 251.
2) For the entire episode, see Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 1), pp. 314-320.
3) The child first speaks his new name in Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), p. 354. The name Sudhana originates from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Wu & Yu, 2012 (Vol. 2), pp. 386-387 n. 3).
4) For a complete English translation, see Wivell (1994).
5) This is just one of many relief carvings that grace the pagoda. It includes other guardian-type figures with esoteric elements but rendered in the Chinese style. See Ecke and Demiéville (1935).
6) The Eight Immortals are Daoist saints who came to be worshipped as a group starting sometime in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) (Little 2000: 319).
7) The sword is usually a symbol of the immortal Lu Dongbin, but, as noted above, it is used to identify Li Tieguai as a Ming guardian (Little 2000: 333).
8) Shahar (2008) discusses the historical differences between religious and military monks in ancient China.
9) The actor who played Monkey, Liu Xiao Ling Tong (Born Zhang Jinlai 章金萊, 1959), comes from a family who has specialized in playing Sun Wukong in Chinese opera for generations (Ye, 2016).
10) See the Heruka chapter in Linrothe (1999). He includes our statue in his study, but other sources describe it as Tibetan instead of India (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 458).


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