Archive #28 – Tripitaka’s Reincarnation and its Connection to Ancient Greek and Egyptian Philosophy

The Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang) is depicted in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子) (fig. 1), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. This deity is banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time comes for him to build merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise. His crime of not paying attention to the Buddha’s lectures and subsequent exile to the mortal realm is encapsulated in part of a poem from chapter twelve:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Fig. 1 – A modern interpretation of Master Golden Cicada as a literal insect by Taylor-Denna (larger version). See here for the full version and the artist’s statement. Used with permission.

I. Similarities to Western philosophy

McEvilley‘s (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought reveals Tripitaka’s story is preceded by beliefs from Greek Orphic and ultimately Egyptian philosophy. For example, Empedocles (5th-c. BCE) wrote of gods being exiled from heaven for ten thousand years for the crime of murder or lying under oath. The fallen deity is believed to reincarnate into every creature of land, air, and sea (fig.3), and when their long punishment is up, they are reborn in their last life as a person of high culture, such as royalty, religious leaders, and scholars. They then return to their former heavenly station upon death (McEvilley, 2002, p. 106). [1] Plato (5th to 4th-c. BCE) specifically mentions the god undergoing ten reincarnations interspersed with thousand-year-long periods of afterlife reward or punishment (McEvilley, 2002, p. 108). [2] The multiples of ten mentioned here fascinate me as they relate to the number of Tripitaka’s incarnations.

image

Fig. 3 – A symbolic painting showing the course of life, death, and reincarnation (larger version). Artist unknown.

McEvilley (2002) continues by tracing these and related Greek and Indian beliefs to the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

The deceased must somehow be regarded as a king or prince before he is eligible to “get thee back to the heights of heaven.” Thus Ani declares, “I am crowned like unto the king of the gods, and I shall not die a second time in the underworld.” Again, the prayer is made, “May Osiris, the scribe Ani, be a prince … and may the meat offerings and the drink offerings of Osiris Ani, triumphant, be apportioned unto him.” “I am crowned,” Ani claims, “I am become a shining one, I am mighty, I am become holy among the gods.” “I am the prince of eternity.” “May it be granted that I pass on among the holy princes,” Ani prays, and he is reassured: “The god Tmu hath decreed that [Ani’s] course shall be among the holy princes.” “Horus,” the Book of the Dead says, “was like unto a prince of the sacred bark, and the throne of his father was given unto him.”

Something very like the doctrine of Empedocles is suggested, and possibly related to it as forerunner. The ba, which was once a god among the other gods, descends to earth, that is, into a body, in order to right some wrong it has done in the past; either it descended as a pharaoh or it has somehow been processed through nature for long ages until it has purified itself sufficiently to be reborn as a pharaoh; after its purification it is ready to return to the company of the gods in heaven, and this is signified by the status as pharaoh. Empedocles said the final incarnation was as a prince, a poet, or a healer. Plato said the last reincarnation was as a philosopher—but he meant philosophers to be kings. They both may be echoing an Egyptian idea either that gods are incarnated only as pharaohs or that the last incarnation is as a pharaoh. A parallel is found in the Hindu caste system, in the idea that only brahmans can attain moksa—that is, “become Osiris”; the soul must reincarnate upward through the castes before it is in position to get off the wheel.

The nature of the primal crime or ancient wrong which the soul “descended on to the earth” to set right is not clearly stated, as it is not in the Greek versions of the myth, where it is either left undefined or ambiguously declared to be either perjury or bloodshed. The Egyptian texts dwell repeatedly on this subject, but with an ambiguity not unlike that of the Greek texts. Various clues in the Greek tradition indicate that the crime which the Orphic was attempting to expiate was either the ancient war of the Titans against the gods, for which they were exiled from heaven and imprisoned in Tartarus, or their rending and devouring of Dionysus Zagreus, or both. (In the Greek tradition, as West says, “The Titans are by definition the banished gods, the gods who have gone out of this world.”) The Egyptian texts may foreshadow the Greek myth of the Titans when they refer to a primal rebellion of one group of gods against another. “O ye gods of the underworld,” Osiris Ani says, “who set yourselves up against me, and who resist the mighty ones …” Again, he says:

Hail, Thoth! What is it that hath happened unto the holy children of Nut? They have done battle, they have upheld strife, they have done evil, they have created the fiends, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble; in truth, in all their doings the mighty have worked against the weak …I am not one of those who work iniquity in their secret places; let not evil happen unto me.

The children of Nut include Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. When Ani claimed “before Isis I was,” he was dissociating himself from this contentious generation of deities in which the primal murder of Osiris by Set occurred, and claiming to have been one among the earlier generation, the “gods of the first time.” But there are also suggestions that the crime might be Set’s dismemberment of Osiris, whom Ani, in his role as Horus, avenger of his father, has to reconstitute to make reparation. Ani, in other words, might be expiating either or both of the Egyptian versions of the crimes of the Titans, and part of his strategy in doing so is to claim that he belongs to the earlier generation of gods (pp.131-133). [3]

So the crime of murderous rebellion or bearing a false oath became inattentiveness to the Buddha’s teachings in Journey to the West. And the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt became a son of Buddha punished to ten reincarnations as a mortal, his last one as a holy monk. This final point mirrors the concept of the last incarnation being a grand one as a king or holy person.

How these beliefs or related proto-beliefs came to China is unknown to me. If pressed, I would venture it involved some Buddhist text containing an ancient Indian arm of this philosophy.

II. Connection to the other pilgrims

I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention how this also relates to the other pilgrims, who are portrayed as former gods exiled from heaven for some offense. In place of several rounds of reincarnation, they are (among other punishments) forced to serve as Tripitaka’s guardians, protecting him from leagues of demons wanting to jump ahead in the cosmic hierarchy by eating the the monk’s flesh and gaining immortality. Marshal Tianpeng (Zhu Bajie) is banished for drunkenly forcing himself on the Moon goddess and reborn as a grotesque pig spirit (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212) (fig. 2). The Curtain-Raising General (Sha Wujing) is banished for breaking a treasure cup at a heavenly banquet and reborn as a monstrous water spirit plagued by a magic sword that stabs at him weekly (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 209-210). [4] The dragon prince, son of the Western Sea Dragon King Aorun, is banished for burning a heavenly pearl (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 213-214), but in place of execution, he agrees to transform into a dragon horse (a kind of rebirth) and serve as Tripitaka’s mount (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328). And even Sun Wukong is banished for his rebellion (the divine crime mentioned above) and punished to imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain. It’s interesting to note that one scholar suggests this punishment represents a symbolic death, leading to his eventual reincarnation (see Shao, 1997). (I’d like to add Sun’s additional punishment of eating a hellish diet of molten copper and hot iron balls speaks to a transitional period of afterlife punishment.) And once the pilgrims complete their penance (i.e. the journey), all are welcomed back into heaven, in this case the Buddha’s paradise

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – A Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess.

III. Archive

Below I present a PDF of McEvilley (2002). I converted it from an EPUB, meaning the page count is not the same as the physical edition cited above. I originally intended to just post chapter four, but I was afraid of breaking any internal links, so I instead posted the entire book. This is a very fascinating read. Just know that it is extremely dense and can be hard to follow at times if you lack deep knowledge in Western philosophical history and belief. 

Archive link:

Click to access The-Shape-of-Ancient-Thought-Comparative-Studies-in-Greek-and-Indian-Philosophies-2001.pdf

Disclaimer:

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

Notes:

1. This appears on page 206 of the PDF.

2. See pages 209-210 in the PDF.

3. See pages 247-249 in the PDF.

4) It could be argued that Zhu and Sha do not reincarnate but simply take on monstrous forms upon being banished to earth because they still retain their memories, weapons, and magical skills. But maybe, as immortals, they are able to affect their own rebirth by directing the final destination of their primal spirit, thereby bypassing the normal mode of reincarnation that results in the loss of memory. An example of this is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-c.), who is reborn several times and still has memories of his past and access to his holy weapons.

Sources:

McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth.

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

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

The Monkey King’s Children

Modern media occasionally depicts the Great Sage with children. Examples include the book series The Monkey King’s Daughter (2009-2011) and the DC Comics character the Monkey Prince (first appearing in 2021). The anime High School DxD (2012) even features a grandson some generations removed called Bikou. But the idea of Sun Wukong having children goes back centuries. Two late-Ming novels influenced by the original Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) reference multiple offspring. In this article, I will highlight these children and discuss their connection to Buddhism and Asian astrology.

Those interested in this subject may fancy learning about Sun’s brothers and sisters.

1. King PāramitāA Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640)

This novel is set between the end of chapter 61 and the beginning of chapter 62 of the original novel. It follows the Monkey King as he travels time seeking a magic weapon, while also striving to unmask the identity of a mysterious foreign king who has persuaded Tripitaka to give up the quest to India. The first reference to Sun’s children appears in chapter 13 when actors in a royal play describe an alternate timeline where our hero settled down: “His wife is so beautiful, his five sons so dashing. He started out as a monk, but came to such a good end! Such a very good end!” (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 114). Later, in chapter 15, Monkey meets one of these sons on the battlefield. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) (fig. 1) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. Pāramitā goes on to recount his family history, revealing that, although he’s never met his father, he’s the son of the Great Sage and Princess Iron Fan (Tie shan gongzhu, 鐵扇公主) (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, pp. 123-124). In addition, he suggests that he was conceived during an event from chapter 59 of the original:

[Sun Wukong] changed into a tiny insect and entered my mother’s belly. He stayed there a while and caused her no end of agony. When my mother could no longer bear the pain, she had no choice but to give the Banana-leaf Fan to my father, Monkey [1] … In the fifth month of the next year, my mother suddenly gave birth to me, King Pāramitā. Day by day I grew older and more intelligent. If you think about it, since my uncle [the Bull Demon King] and mother had never been together, [2] and I was born after my father, Monkey, had been inside my mother’s belly, the fact that I am his direct descendant is beyond dispute (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 124).

Fig. 1 – King Pāramitā leaps into battle (larger version). Detail from a modern manhua. Image found here.

1.2. Links to Buddhism

The translators of A Supplement to the Journey to the West explain King Pāramitā’s name serves as a pun:

In the Chinese transliteration for Pāramitā, the character used to render the syllable “mi” [蜜] has the intrinsic meaning of “honey,” while the character t’ang [唐] in T’ang dynasty is homophonous with the character meaning “sugar” [糖]. King Pāramitā is punning on these associations (Dong, Lin, & Schulz, 2000, p. 123 n. 2). [3]

However, the name also has deep connections with Buddhism. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism defines the Sanskrit term Pāramitā (“perfection”) as “a virtue or quality developed and practiced by a Bodhisattva on the path to becoming a buddha” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 624). Various traditions recognize six to ten perfections, with the latter including the former six plus an additional four. The Mahayana perfections, for example, include giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration, wisdom, method, vow, power, and knowledge. Bodhisattvas are believed to master these virtues in the listed order, compounding spiritual wisdom and merit over the course of their journey towards Buddhahood (Robert & David, 2013, p. 624).

2. Jidu, Luohou, and Yuebei XingJourney to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century)

The novel follows Manjusri‘s (Miao Jixiang, 妙吉祥) exile from the Western Paradise through several mischievous reincarnations. [5] As the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光), he works to end his mother’s demonic lust for flesh by procuring an immortal peach in chapter 17. He does this by transforming into Sun Wukong and stealing the magic fruit from heaven. The real Monkey King is subsequently accused of his double’s misdeeds, much like the Six-Eared Macaque episode of the original novel. The Jade Emperor threatens to remand him to the Buddha for punishment but is convinced to give Sun a month-long reprieve to find the true culprit.

Monkey returns to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, and it is here, among his people, that the story mentions three children, including sons Jidu (奇都, “Ketu”) and Luohou (羅猴, “Rahu”) and daughter Yuebei Xing (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”). [4] Sun eventually seeks out Guanyin, who reveals the troublemaker is none other than Huaguang. Returning home once more, Monkey’s news prompts his daughter to volunteer to battle the impostor. But her tribe simply pokes fun at her monstrous appearance. Yuebei Xing is said to have a crooked head with huge eyes and a broad mouth, coarse hands, a wide waist, and long feet with thunderous steps.

Sun travels with his daughter to Huaguang’s home of Mt. Lilou (Lilou shan, 離婁山) to provoke battle by chastising him for stealing the immortal peaches. Monkey strikes at him with his magic staff, causing Huaguang to deploy his heavenly treasure, a golden, triangular brick (sanjiao jinzhuan, 三角金磚). But Sun responds by creating untold numbers of clone monkeys that not only confiscate the weapon but also overwhelm the immortal. Huaguang is seemingly defeated at this point; however, he manages to deploy one last treasure, the Fire Elixir (Huodan, 火丹). This weapon engulfs the Great Sage in heavenly flame (akin to the Red Boy episode), causing him to flee to the Eastern Sea. Yuebei Xing then calls Huaguang’s name while holding her own magic treasure, a skull (kulou tou, 骷髏頭). The immortal is immediately stricken with a headache and stumbles back to his cave in a daze. Her weapon is said to be quite dangerous; anyone whose name is called will die within three days.

Fearing for his disciple’s life, the Flame King Buddha of Light (Huoyan wang guangfo, 火炎王光佛) intervenes on his behalf to sooth the situation between Huaguang and the Great Sage. He promises to bring the rogue immortal to justice on the condition that Yuebei Xing withdraws her deadly magic. In the end, all parties are pardoned by the Jade Emperor and Huaguang and Monkey become bond brothers (Yu, n.d.).

2.1. Links to Asian Astrology

All three of Sun’s children are named after planetary bodies associated with the moon in Asian astrology. [6] His sons Jidu and Luohou are respectively named after Ketu (Jidu, 奇都) and Rahu (Luohou, 羅睺), two of the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”) from Hindu astrology. [7] These two shadowy planetary deities represent the respective southern (descending) and northern (ascending) lunar nodes, or points where the moon crosses the earth’s orbit around the sun. As such, the pair are associated with eclipses, and sources sometimes depict them as the head (Rahu) and tail (Ketu) of a great eclipse serpent. Other interpretations include Rahu as a disembodied head and Ketu as the torso, or Ketu as a comet or emerging from a cloud of smoke (Gansten, 2009, p. 652-653; Kotyk, 2017, pp. 59-60).

Before continuing, there are two interesting things to note: 1) Sun Wukong singlehandedly battles and defeats the Nine Planets in chapter five of the original novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172). But the Ketu and Rahu in this group should be considered distinct from his sons; and 2) one of the original Chinese characters for Rahu (Luohou, 羅睺) was changed in Journey to the South to play on Luohou’s (羅猴) primate origins by using the homophonous word for “monkey” (hou, 猴).

The daughter Yuebei Xing is named after Yuebei (月孛, “Moon Comet”), a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee, or the furthest point in the moon’s orbit. They are counted among the “Eleven Luminaries” (Shiyi yao, 十一曜) (including the Nine Planets) of East Asian astrology. [8] Yuebei is sometimes depicted in Xixia art as a female or male character wielding a sword in one hand and, most importantly, a severed head in the other (Kotyk, 2017, p. 62). Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk was kind enough to direct me to two ancient examples (fig. 2 & 3). In addition, Kotyk (2017) notes that Yuebei appeared in an earlier Chinese novel, Drama of Yang Jiajiang (Yang Jiajiang yanyi, 楊家將演義, 16th-century), as a red-skinned figure “holding in her hand a sk[ull] (手執骷髏骨)” (p. 63). [9] So this likely influenced the portrayal of Monkey’s daughter wielding a skull in Journey to the South.

Fig. 2 – Yuebei as a woman (larger version). Take note of the severed head in her right hand. Detail from a 13th to 14th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum. Fig. 3 – Yuebei as a man (larger version). He holds a small head in his left hand. Detail from a 13th-century Xixia painting in the Hermitage Museum.

3. Honorable Mention: Sun Luzhen – Later Journey to the West (Hou Xiyouji, 後西遊記, 17th-century)

The novel is set two hundred years after the original and follows the adventures of Sun Wukong’s spiritual descendant Sun Luzhen (孫履真, “Monkey who Walks Reality”) (fig. 4). He too learns the secrets of immortality and causes havoc in heaven, before being tasked to protect the historical monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) on a similar journey to India. The two are accompanied by the son of Zhu Bajie, Zhu Yijie (豬一戒), and the disciple of Sha Wujing, Sha Zhihe (沙致和). I did not include Luzhen in the main list as he is born from a stone in the same fashion as the original Monkey King (see Liu, 1994).

Fig. 4 – “Small Sage Sun’s Havoc in the Heavenly Palace” (larger version). The cover to a modern manhua. Image found here.

4. Conclusion

The Monkey King has a total of eight children shared between two 17th-century novels, but only four are mentioned by name, and only two of these actually have parts in the respective stories. King Pāramitā is one of the Great Sage’s five sons born to Princess Iron Fan in A Supplement to the Journey to the West. He is portrayed as a handsome, sword-wielding general whom Sun faces on the battlefield. His name references the Pāramitās (“perfections”), or the wisdom and merit-building virtues that Bodhisattvas master in their quest for Buddhahood. Monkey has three children in Journey to the South, including sons Jidu and Luohou and daughter Yuebei Xing. The latter is depicted as a grotesque monster with a magic skull weapon cable of harming even celestials. She uses it to defeat the rogue immortal Huaguang. Jidu and Luohou are respectively named after the lunar nodes Ketu and Rahu, two of the Nine Planets from Hindu astrology. Yuebei is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee, which counts among the Eleven Luminaries of East Asian astrology. Ancient Xixia art sometimes depicts them as a woman or man bearing a sword and a severed head. The feminine iconography appears holding a skull in an earlier novel from the 16th-century. This likely influenced Monkey’s daughter in Journey to the South.

An honorable mention is Sun Luzhen from Later Journey to the West. He is a stone-bone monkey who follows in his spiritual ancestors footsteps by attaining immortality, causing havoc in heaven, and later protecting a holy monk on the journey to India.

Notes:

1) See Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129.

2) This statement of course overlooks the conception and birth of the couple’s son Red Boy (Hong haier, 紅孩兒). But King Paramita might be referring to the Bull Demon King’s long absence while living with his mistress.

3) This pun plays out in chapter 14 of Journey to the West when an old patron remarks on Monkey’s monstrous appearance:

“Though you [Tripitaka] may be a Tang man,” the old man said, “that nasty character is certainly no Tang man!” “Old fellow!” cried Wukong in a loud voice, “you really can’t see, can you? The Tang man is my master, and I am his disciple. Of course, I’m no sugar man or honey man! I am the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 312).

Thank you to Irwen Wong for reminding me of this passage.

4) I’m indebted to Jose Loayza for bringing this to my attention.

5) To my knowledge, the only English translation available is this amateur version by Panying Zhao. Thank you to Ronni Pinsler for bringing it to my attention.

6) Thank you to Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk for confirming the astrological connection.

7) Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Rahu, and Ketu (Gansten, 2009).

8) These include the aforementioned Nine Planets (see note #6 above), Yuebei, and another shadowy planet called Ziqi (紫氣/紫炁; “Purple Mist”) (Hart, 2010, p. 145 n. 43; Kotyk, 2017, p. 60).

Engravings of the Eleven Luminaries appear on Zhu Bajie’s battle rake (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 382). See also note #10 on the linked article.

9) The original source says “skeleton” (Kotyk, 2017, p. 63), but the “骷髏” in 骷髏骨 (kuluo gu) can also mean “skull”. This makes sense considering the planetary Yuebei is depicted with a head in Xixia art and the literary Yuebei from Journey to the South wields a skull.

Sources:

Dong, Y., Lin, S. F., & Schulz, L. J. (2000). The Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.

Hart, R. (2010). The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kotyk, J. (2017). Astrological Iconography of Planetary Deities in Tang China. Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 30, 33-88), Retrieved from https://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/previous_issues/jcbs3002_Kotyk(33-88)_e.pdf

Liu, X. (1994). The Odyssey of the Buddhist Mind: The Allegory of the Later Journey to the West. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

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

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

Yu, X. (n.d.). Nanyouji: Huaguang sanxia Fengdu [Journey to the South: Huaguang goes to the Underworld Three Times]. Retrieved from https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=506975&remap=gb#%E5%8D%8E%E5%85%89%E4%B8%89%E4%B8%8B%E9%85%86%E9%83%BD

Generals Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear

Last updated: 04/26/20

After Monkey’s birth from stone in chapter one, two beams of light shoot forth from his eyes, [1] alarming the Jade Emperor in heaven (fig. 1). The cosmic ruler then orders the personification of his eyes and ears, generals Thousand-Mile Eye (Qianliyan, 千里眼) and Fair-Wind Ear (Shunfenger, 順風耳), respectively, to trace the source:

At this command the two captains went out to the gate, and, having looked intently and listened clearly, they returned presently to report, “Your subjects, obeying your command to locate the beams, discovered that they came from the Flower-Fruit Mountain at the border of the small Aolai Country, which lies to the east of the East Pūrvavideha Continent. On this mountain is an immortal stone that has given birth to an egg. Exposed to the wind, it has been transformed into a monkey, who, when bowing to the four quarters, has flashed from his eyes those golden beams that reached the Palace of the Polestar. Now that he is taking some food and drink, the light is about to grow dim.” With compassionate mercy the Jade Emperor declared, “These creatures from the world below are born of the essences of Heaven and Earth, and they need not surprise us” (vol. 1, p. 102).

Monkey Lazer Eyes - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey’s laser eyes. From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939) (larger version). 

I. History

Today, these generals are celebrated as the guardians of Mazu (fig. 2), a popular sea goddess worshiped in Southern China, Macao, and Taiwan. Thousand-Mile Eye is commonly portrayed as a fierce, red warrior scanning the horizon with one hand shielding his eyes (fig. 3), while Fair-Wind Ear is green with one hand to his ear (fig. 4). According to Ruitenbeek (1999), the story of their subjugation is told in a series of circa 1880 mural paintings from the Temple of Divine Mercy (Lingcimiao, 靈慈廟) in Fengting village (楓停), Xianyou district (仙遊), Fujian.

Thousand-Miles Eye (in the murals called Jinxing yan [金星眼], “Venus-eye”), in the disguise of a lovely girl, lures men into a cave, and then dismembers and devours them. [2] When With-the-Wind Ear sees this, he starts a fight with Thousand-Miles Eye, but in the end the two monsters pledge to become sworn brothers. Guanyin, seated on Mount Potala, orders the Dragon’s Daughter to tell Mazu to subdue the monsters. In the first round of the battle, Mazu is forced to retreat. She then implores heavenly warriors to help her, and with their assistance is able to defeat the two monsters. Thereafter, Thousand-Miles Eye and With-the-Wind Ear become her loyal servants. First they help Mazu to fight a man-eating lion, thereafter they subdue the Evil Dragon Monster (p. 316).

Mazu with generals - small

Fig. 2 – Mazu with her generals (larger version). Fig. 3 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 4 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Original artist unknown.

I am unsure when the generals where first associated with Mazu. They are only alluded to in passing as subjugated planetary spirits in the goddess’ early 17th-century pious novel Record of the Miracles Performed by the Heavenly Princess (Tianfei xiansheng lu, 天妃顯聖錄) (Ruitenbeek, 1999, p. 319). However, it is clear from their appearance in Journey to the West that they were associated with the Jade Emperor during the late 16th-century. [3] This association stretches back to at least the Shaoxing (紹興, 1131–1162) period of Song Emperor Gaozong, for they appear with the cosmic monarch among the rock carvings of the Shimen Mountain Grotto (Shimen shan shiku, 石門山石窟), one of many sites making up the world famous Dazu rock carvings in Sichuan (fig. 5-7). [4]  

Qianliyan and Shunfeng'er with Jade Emperor - Shimen Mountain Grotto - Danzu Rock Carvings - Song Dynasty - For article (small)

Fig. 5 – Song-era statues of generals Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) guarding the Jade Emperor’s alcove (larger version). From the Shimen Mountain Grotto. Photo originally from this article. Fig. 6 – A detail of Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Photos originally from this article

Readers will notice that, apart from being dressed differently, neither statue is striking their characteristic pose. These poses came later and may have been influenced by earlier deities. For example, Nikaido (2011) writes that a Song-era sea god named Zhaobao Qilang (招寶七郎) is sometimes depicted shielding his eyes just like Thousand-Mile Eye, and so he cautiously suggests that, once the deity’s cult waned in popularity and yielded to Mazu, this trait may have been passed on to her general (pp. 89-90). Conversely, the poses could simply be based on postures used by the very sailors who worshiped such gods. After all, keen eyesight and hearing are skills needed to successfully navigate the open ocean.

II. Golden headbands

The generals are normally depicted wearing flowing clothing or open armor to show off their muscular physiques. Apart from their divine sashes, they are commonly shown wearing golden armbands, bracelets, and / or anklets, as well as a tiger skin at the waist. These traits appear to be consistent from all the examples that I’ve seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong. However, the statues in Taiwan stand out the most to me because they are often depicted wearing golden fillets on their heads just like Sun Wukong (fig. 8). This is because these headbands share a common origin.

Qianliyan and Shunfenger religious statues

Fig. 8 – Religious statues of Fair-Wind Ear (left) and Thousand-Mile Eye (right) (larger version). Take note of the headbands. Also refer back to figures 4 and 5. Photo originally found here

I explain in this article that the golden fillet can be traced to a list of prescribed ritual items worn by ancient Buddhist yogins in their worship of Hevajra / Heruka, a wrathful protector deity. These items appear in the 8th-century Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經):

The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62; Cf. Linrothe, 1999, p. 250).

You will notice that all of the items associated with the generals, including the headband, the rings on the arms, wrists, and ankles, and the tiger skin are listed here. This is because wrathful protector deities were often depicted in the same attire as their followers, leading to the fillet becoming a symbol of powerful Buddhist spirits. For instance, the Hevajra Tanta describes Hevajra / Heruka as a wrathful youth wearing such clothing:

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; Cf. Farrow & Menon, 2001, p. 44).

The Hevajra Tantra was translated into Tibetan and Chinese during the 11th-century (Bangdel & Huntington, 2003, p. 455), allowing this iconography to spread eastward. A prime example is the 13th-century Kaiyuan Temple Pagoda carving of Sun Wukong in Fujian. He is depicted with the headband, armbands, bracelets, anklets, and possibly even a tigerskin apron (fig. 9). 

Given the close cultural connection between Fujian and Taiwan, the generals’ depiction with fillets is likely based on previous examples from the southern Chinese province.

Better Kaiyuan Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 9 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

It’s interesting to note that Fair-Wind Ear’s statue from Shimen Mountain Grotto in Sichuan has the aforementioned body rings (refer back to fig. 6). His head is unfortunately damaged, though. I would be interested in analyzing similarly dressed guardian figures in the area to see if they wear a fillet.


Update: 04/22/20

Here is a lovely Dutch engraving of a Mazu temple from a 17th-century book by Olfert Dapper (fig. 10). The generals can be seen standing in their characteristic poses to the left (fig. 11) and right (fig. 12) of the main altar stage. Their attire includes the aforementioned body rings (and possibly tiger skin pants) but no headband.

Mazu temple with detials of generals, from Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische Maetschappye (1670) - small

Fig. 10 – Engraving from Memorable Mission of the Dutch East India Company up the Coast to China and into the Empire of Taising of China (Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Ooste-Indische Maetschappye, op de kuste en in het keizerrijk van Taising of Sina, 1670) (larger version). Image from the Clark Collection. Fig. 11 – A detail of General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 12 – A detail of General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version).


Update: 04/26/20

The Puji Temple (普濟寺) in Datong district (大同區), Taipei (near my home) includes door god paintings of the two generals (fig. 13-16). They are depicted with bejeweled headbands. These demonstrate the variability of fillet designs. 

Thousand-Mile Eye and Fair-Wind Ear (Puji Temple, Taipei) - For Article - small

Fig. 13 – General Fair-Wind Ear (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of his head (larger version). Fig. 15. General Thousand-Mile Eye (larger version). Fig. 16 – Detail of his head (larger version).

Notes:

1) This feat may be based on Daoist mind-training exercises where adepts try to expand their vision to the ends of the earth/cosmos. According to Robinet (1979), one source reads: “Consider that your two eyes radiate a single light which is like liquid fire and as brilliant as the stars; glowing red, it extends for ten thousand miles. The mountains, marshes, rivers, thickets and forests of the four directions are all resplendent with its light” (p. 55). 

2) Wukong states in chapter 27 that he used the same trick to eat humans:

When I was a monster back at the Water-Curtain Cave, I would act like this if I wanted to eat human flesh. I would change myself into gold or silver, a lonely building, a harmless drunk, or a beautiful woman. Anyone feeble-minded enough to be attracted by me I would lure back to the cave. There I would enjoy him as I pleased, by steaming or boiling. If I couldn’t finish him off in one meal, I would dry the leftovers in the sun to keep for rainy days (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).

3) The generals are associated with Huaguang Dadi (華光大帝) in Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-century). They are referred to as Li Lou (離婁) and Shi Kuang (師曠) (Nikaido, 2011, p. 90). They also make an appearance in Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620). Ruitenbeek (1999) writes:

[T]hey occur, without the context of Mazu, in the guise of the brothers Gao Ming and Gao Jue. In reality, these were a Peach-tree Spirit and a Willow-tree Ogre, who had availed themselves of the divine power of two clay statues of Qianli yan and Shunfeng er in the temple of Xuan Yuan in Qipanshan. Only after these statues were smashed to pieces did they lose their power. They were subsequently transformed into Shenshu and Yulei, better known as the Door Gods (p. 319).

4) See Zhao (n.d.). These carvings are described by Hu (1994). I unfortunately don’t have access to it at the time of this writing.

Sources:

Bangdel, D., & Huntington, J. C. (2003). The circle of bliss: Buddhist meditational art. Chicago, Ill: Serindia Publications.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Hu, W. (1994). Sichuan jiaodao fojiao shiku yishu [Taoist and Buddhist Sichuan rock cave art]. Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing.

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

Nikaido, Y. (2011). The transformation of gods in Chinese popular religion: The examples of Huaguang dadi and Zhaobao Qilang. A Selection of Essays on Oriental Studies of the Institute for Cultural Interaction Studies. Osaka: Kansai University, 85-92.

Robinet, I. (1979). Metamorphosis and deliverance from the corpse in Taoism. History of Religions, 19(1), 37-70.

Ruitenbeek, K. (1999). Mazu, the patroness of sailors, in Chinese pictorial art. Artibus Asia 58(3/4). 281-329. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3250021

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

Zhao, W. (n.d.). Yuhuang dadi jianglin Shimenshan [The Jade Emperor Descends to Shimen Mountain].  Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://chiculture.org.hk/tc/china-five-thousand-years/622