A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 01-04-2023

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 (see section 1, #1 here). 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. 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] in his hands. [4] The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

即於睡中夢一大神長數丈,執戟麾曰:「何不強行,而更臥也!」

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, [5] 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).)

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. [6]

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). [7]

那怪攜著行者,一直行到洞裡深遠密閉之處。卻從口中吐出一件寶貝,有雞子大小,是一顆舍利子玲瓏內丹。行者心中暗喜道:「好東西耶。這件物不知打了多少坐工,煉了幾年磨難,配了幾轉雌雄,煉成這顆內丹舍利。今日大有緣法,遇著老孫。」

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)

This would certainly make Monkey a powerful foe during his rebellion.

Note:

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) The translation also included “and a flag” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28), but the Chinese version I have access to does not mention a flag. I have therefore left it out.

5) 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).

6) 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.

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

Source:

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.

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.

The Patriarch Subodhi: Sun Wukong’s First Master

Last updated: 06-10-2022

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

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

1. Origins

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

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

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

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

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

2. The literary teacher

2.1. His story

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

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

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

2.2. Allusions to Buddhist masters

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

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

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

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

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

2.3. His description

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

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

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

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

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

2.4. Ancient depiction

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

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

3. Mountain home

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

3.1. Mountain description

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

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

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

3.2. Cave description

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

3.3. Buddho-Daoist metaphor

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

heart calligraphy

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

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

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

3.4. References in later chapters

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

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

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

3.5. Location

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

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

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

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

4. School

4.1. Uniform

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

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

4.2. Student names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.3. Tests of spiritual intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

4.4. Overtly stated curriculum and tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5. Mentioned in passing

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

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

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

4.6. Implied

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

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

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

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

5. Powers

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

5.1. Clairvoyance

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

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

5.2. Omniscience

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

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

5.3. Control of spirits and karmic results

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

5.4. Possible reason for expelling Monkey

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

6. Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-04-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-06-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-09-22

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: 06-10-22

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

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

Notes:

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

2) Osto (2016) continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story Idea: The REAL Reason Sun Wukong is Expelled from Subodhi’s School

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

Last Updated: 05-24-2022

Sun Wukong is kicked out of Patriarch Subodhi‘s (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) school in chapter two of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) for showing off his transformation skills to his less-accomplished religious brothers. Upon their request, he changes into a perfect pine tree that’s completely indistinguishable from a real one. The subsequent applause greatly disturbs the Master, who reprimands and expels the Monkey King under the pretense of saving his life from those who would harm him to learn his heavenly secrets (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 123-125). [1]

This event is a turning point in Sun’s life, for he transitions from an inward pursuit of spiritual cultivation to an external quest for power, ending with an attempt to unseat the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang shangdi, 玉皇上帝). This ultimately leads to the Buddha imprisoning the seditious primate beneath Five Elements Mountain and punishing him to a hellish diet for 600 plus years.

Here, I would like to prepose a different reason, one that makes more sense and better aligns with some of my previous story ideas.

I. The story so far

Last year I posted a story prompt to reddit to inspire writers looking for a Xianxia (仙俠, “immortal hero”) plot. It serves as a good summation of my past ideas:

The novel briefly mentions that Sun Wukong lives for ten years in the mountain home of the Buddho-Daoist sage Master Subodhi. The first seven are spent as a junior Daoist monk doing menial tasks and learning basic religious or life skills. However, the last three years are spent as a close disciple of Subodhi, learning elixir arts, magic, and combat skills. The novel glosses over his early cultivation in order to jump directly into the action. But imagine a Xianxia story focusing on those three years.

Drama with fellow disciples could arise from Monkey’s supernatural aptitude for quickly learning and mastering a skill. After all, it only takes him three years to go from a mere stone monkey to a powerful immortal capable of going toe-to-toe with gods and demons with millennia of cultivation and combat experience. Think of the resulting battles between our hero and his jealous senior religious brothers and sisters frustrated with his great progress.

In addition, given Sun’s demonstrated knowledge in boxing, weapons, and troop movement, I came up with the story idea that Subodhi’s school is the training ground for an immortal monastic army akin to the famous Shaolin temple. Shaolin was mobilized by the Chinese government during the 16th-century to battle pirates attacking the coast. Records indicate that one historical Shaolin monk was made the leader, and he was later forced to singlehandedly defend himself against eight individuals vying for his position. Likewise, I imagine heaven calls up Subodhi’s army to battle some demonic evil, and Monkey might quickly rise through the ranks. This would naturally lead to more tension with his fellow disciples, causing him to defend his position. All of these challenges, plus any action seen by the monastic army in heavenly battles, would explain how Sun Wukong became such a seasoned fighter in such a short time.

Plus, there is the added bonus of Subodhi’s army being called upon to fight Sun during his rebellion against heaven. He might have far surpassed his religious brothers and sisters in skill at this point.

II. Additions

In chapter one, Subodhi is shown to have 12 generation names (zibei, 字輩) used to name the students of his religious lineage, three of which were historically used by Daoism. [2]

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

Monkey is part of the tenth generation (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 115). This means that all of Subodhi’s students taken in around the same time would all have Wu (悟) in their name. Perhaps Sun trains with his fellow Wu cohort but quickly moves on to older generations as his skill rapidly progresses.

This leads me to my next point. Above, I mentioned that Subodhi’s army might be called to bear against Monkey during his rebellion. But wouldn’t they recognize him? This feeds into a common question asked around the internet:

Why doesn’t Wukong run into any fellow disciples on the journey?

Well, the simple answer is that this isn’t important to the plot. But I’ve considered two ideas to work around this: One, his younger religious brothers are likely still studying under the Master. And two, the older generations⁠—the ones serving in the monastic army⁠—probably don’t know what Monkey looks like because advanced disciples, within the present story, are made to wear a host of fierce, multi-colored masks (fig. 1) as a way to forsake their identity and subsume the self into deep spiritual and martial cultivation. They would represent the negative thoughts and emotions that keep humans trapped in the illusionary world of Saṃsāra and chained to the wheel of rebirth. Perhaps the face becomes more human and peaceful-looking as the students progress through their training. 

Monk in dharmapala mask performs a mystery dance of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism  on Cham Dance Festival Photograph by Oleg Ivanov

Fig. 1  – “Monk in dharmapala mask performs a mystery dance of Tantric Tibetan Buddhism on Cham Dance Festival” (larger version). Photo by Oleg Ivanov. Image found here.

Also, in my version of the story universe, all immortals and deities attain a halo upon achieving divine status. Here, for example, is a photomanipulation of a haloed Sun Wukong by Elijah McTaggart and myself. Take note of the fiery aureola engulfing the halo. This will come into play shortly (fig. 2). I imagine that these halos/aureolas respectively spin and shine brighter when a divinity’s spiritual power is used.

Fig. 2 – The Monkey King with a halo (larger version). As seen on deviantart. Based on my original photomanipulation.

III. Why he is really kicked out

The reason I’ve devised is connected to one of the aforementioned fights between Monkey and his older religious brothers or sisters. Perhaps Sun is attacked by multiple powerful assailants at once (just like the historical Shaolin monk), and when they start to overwhelm him, his anger ignites his halo, which begins to furiously spin and produce a radiant splendor. Instantly, he takes on a titanic cosmic form, growing 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall and stomping on his assailants. At the same time, his docile-looking mask cracks and reverts to it’s original, fierce form. This, combined with a fiery aureola, gives him the appearance of a giant Dharmapala (Ch: Fahu, 法護), a wrathful “Protector of the Dharma” (Buddhist Law) (fig. 3) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 249-250). This display of raw, untamed spiritual power frightens his older religious brethren. Subodhi himself is also taken aback as Monkey exhibits a great, fiery anger, while also manifesting advanced cultivation techniques that haven’t even been taught to him yet⁠—a testament to his great spiritual intelligence. The Master fears that this rage, combined with Monkey’s demonstrated talent for exponential spiritual growth and perhaps a problem with controlling this power (given Sun’s short years of study), will lead him down the path to villainy. 

This brings us back to the pine tree incident. Perhaps the fight causes Subodhi to uncharacteristically allow Monkey a chance to visit his generational cohort. And when Sun acquiesces to their requests to see his transformation powers, the Master uses this as an opportunity to expel his student.  

Fig. 3 – A modern thangka of the Six-Armed Mahakala dharmapala (larger version). Image found here.

IV. My thoughts

I like this idea because it foreshadows Sun’s cosmic transformations throughout the novel (ch. 3, 6, 61, and 97). It also foreshadows his later mischief throughout the cosmos and eventual rebellion. 


Update: 05-16-22

I imagine Master Subodhi’s mask-wearing monastic army would have an ominous feel to them just like the stylized Persian “immortals” from the film 300 (2006) (fig. 4). 

Fig. 4 – The Persian Immortals from 300 (2006) (larger version).


Update: 05-20-22

On second thought, a better mask would emulate the six paths of reincarnation in Buddhist cosmology:

As before, each would indicate the level of a disciple’s spiritual attainment. Perhaps Master Subodhi’s army would have different units of each category, each one being more powerful than the last.


Update: 05-24-22

Some readers might question why I’ve included so many Buddhist elements if Master Subodhi is a Daoist immortal. While this is true, I choose instead to refer to him as a “Buddho-Daoist Sage” as he preaches aspects of both religions in his lectures: 

With words so florid and eloquent
That gold lotus sprang from the ground.
The doctrine of three vehicles he subtly rehearsed,
Including even the laws’ minutest tittle.
The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance:
His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven.
For a while he lectured on Dao;
For a while he spoke on
Chan
To harmonize the Three Parties is a natural thing.
One word’s elucidation filled with truth
Points to the birthless showing nature’s mystery (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 122) (emphasis mine).

He even advocates for his students to become Buddhas. For example, the poem that Subodhi uses to reveal the secret of immortality to Monkey ends with: “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

It’s also important to remember that Master Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha.

Notes:

1) I quote the scene of his expulsion below:

“You, Wukong, come over here! I ask you what sort of exhibition were you putting on, changing into a pine tree? This ability you now possess, is it just for showing off to people? Suppose you saw someone with this ability. Wouldn’t you ask him at once how he acquired it? So when others see that you are in possession of it, they’ll come begging. If you’re afraid to refuse them, you will give away the secret; if you don’t, they may hurt you. You are actually placing your life in grave jeopardy.” “I beseech the master to forgive me,” Wukong said, kowtowing. “I won’t condemn you,” said the Patriarch, “but you must leave this place.” When Wukong heard this, tears fell from his eyes. “Where am I to go, Teacher?” he asked. “From wherever you came,” the Patriarch said, “you should go back there.” “I came from the East Purvavideha Continent,” Wukong said, his memory jolted by the Patriarch, “from the Water-Curtain Cave of the Flower-Fruit Mountain in the Aolai Country.” “Go back there quickly and save your life,” the Patriarch said. “You cannot possibly remain here!” “Allow me to inform my esteemed teacher,” said Wukong, properly penitent, “I have been away from home for twenty years, and I certainly long to see my subjects and followers of bygone days again. But I keep thinking that my master’s profound kindness to me has not yet been repaid. I, therefore, dare not leave.” “There’s nothing to be repaid,” said the Patriarch. “See that you don’t get into trouble and involve me: that’s all I ask.” Seeing that there was no other alternative, Wukong had to bow to the Patriarch and take leave of the congregation. “Once you leave,” the Patriarch said, “you’re bound to end up evildoing. I don’t care what kind of villainy and violence you engage in, but I forbid you ever to mention that you are my disciple. For if you but utter half the word, I’ll know about it; you can be assured, wretched monkey, that you’ll be skinned alive. I will break all your bones and banish your soul to the Place of Ninefold Darkness [Jiuyou zhi chu, 九幽之處], from which you will not be released even after ten thousand afflictions!” “I will never dare mention my master,” said Wukong. “I’ll say that I’ve learned this all by myself.” Having thanked the Patriarch, Wukong turned away, made the magic sign, pulled himself up, and performed the cloud-somersault (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 124-125).

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

How Tall is the Monkey King? – A Debate

This was originally posted as a 03-03-2022 update to an existing article, but I decided to make it a standalone piece.

Last updated: 03-08-2022

In “What Does Sun Wukong Look Like?” I highlighted several sentences pointing to the Monkey King’s small stature (fig. 1 & 2). For example, one monster comments:

The old monster took a careful look and saw the diminutive figure of Pilgrim [Monkey]—less than four Chinese feet [buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m] in fact—and his sallow cheeks. He said with a laugh: “Too bad! Too bad! I thought you were some kind of invincible hero. But you are only a sickly ghost, with nothing more than your skeleton left!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408).

This information was later used in the making of a youtube video called “10 Facts About Sun Wukong the Monkey King“. Fact number seven was that “He’s really short”, and I ended the section by saying: “That’s right! The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, the conqueror of the heavenly army … is the size of a child”. A Chinese viewer later left a thought-provoking comment on the video stating that I was wrong about Monkey’s size.

Fig. 1 – An accurate Monkey King (larger version). Drawn by my friend Alexandre Palheta Coelho (instagram and deviantart). Slightly modified by me to match what I’ve written here. For the original version, see here. Fig. 2 – A size chart comparing Sun to a six-foot human (larger version).

The Debate

Here, I will present the comment in full but interspersed with my responses:

Hello! I am a Wukong fan from China. I really enjoyed your video! I would like to say that the height of the Monkey King has been very controversial on the internet in China. The data and appearance depictions in classical Chinese novels can be somewhat exaggerated. Journey to the West is a mythological novel is even more so. For example, seventy-two transformations, a somersault that can travel one hundred thousand eight hundred thousand li respectively refer to infinite changes and fly extremely fast. Seventy-two and one hundred and eighty thousand are not exact numbers, so relying solely on data is not reliable. Besides, in addition to four feet, Wukong has also appeared other height data. For example, the earliest version of the Journey to the West, “世德堂本”, Chapter 21. “大圣公然不惧。那怪果打一下来,他把腰躬一躬,足长了三尺,有一丈长短。” “Our Great Sage was not in the least frightened. When the monster struck him once, he stretched his waist and at once grew three chi, attaining the height of one zhang altogether.”

This PDF scan (page 258) shows the original version of the novel did indeed read “grow three chi” (changle sanchi, 長了三尺) and not six like in the modern version (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 408). I was surprised when this was brought to my attention.

One zhang minus three chi equals seven chi. In other words, the height of the Monkey King here was seven chi (Since the height unit in Chinese classical novels is based on the ancient system, 7 chi is around 5.5 feet). But in later versions and translations, “grew three chi” was changed to six chi. This has always been a point of contention. The figure of four feet (four chi) appears twice, both from the perspective of other monsters, such as the Monstrous King, who is three zhangs tall (around 24 feet). It may be possible that Sun Wukong is short in his eyes in comparison.

For those unfamiliar with ancient Chinese measurements, one zhang () equals ten chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese feet”) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). The passage in question does imply that Monkey is seven chi tall. However, there are two problems. First, during the Ming (1368-1644) when the novel was published, one chi equaled approximately 12.52 inches (31.8 cm) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). This would make Sun a whopping 7.3 feet (2.22 m) tall! I must admit that the chi varied at the local level, but I doubt the variations would lead to a nearly two-foot (60.96 cm) difference. Additionally, if we use the measures for the Tang (618-907 CE), when the story is set, a chi was 11.57 inches (29.4 cm), making Monkey 6.75 feet (2.06 m) tall. There was, however, a “small chi” (xiaochi, 小尺) at this time, which was 9.66 inches (24.6 cm) (Nienhauser, 2016, p. 405 n. 40). This would only make him 5.65 feet (1.72 m) tall. But I would question if the common folk reading the novel during the Ming were aware of and still using this truncated measure. Second, as written above, the figure for “not even four chi” (buman sichi, 不滿四尺, 4.17 ft or 1.27 m) appears twice. But it’s important to note that this estimate is made by two different characters at two different locations and times. The first is spoken in chapter two by the Monstrous King of Havoc (Hunshi mowang, 混世魔王) in the Water Belly Cave (Shuizang dong, 水臟洞) of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (east of the Eastern Purvavideha Continent) (PDF page 36; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). This takes place over 100 years before Sun’s initial rebellion during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). And the second is spoken in chapter 21  by Great King Yellow Wind (Huangfeng dawang, 黃風大王) in the Yellow Wind Cave (Huangfeng dong, 黃風洞) of Yellow Wind Ridge (Huangfeng ling, 黃風嶺) somewhere in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent (PDF page 258; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 408). This takes place sometime after his release from his 600-plus-year punishment under Five Elements Mountain during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Therefore, this seems like a more reliable measure—given the distance between themthan the ten minus three argument. I suggest the latter was actually a typo that later editions tried to amend by changing three to six. 

Another reason is that the author may be deliberately blurring the height of the Monkey King. Because at least in the story, the author describes Wukong according to the height of normal people. For example: Before Wukong learned Magic skills, when he could not change his height, he had robbed ordinary people’s clothes to wear. If Wukong was the height of a child, the clothes would hardly fit. When Wukong set out on his journey to the west, he once wore the clothes of Tang Monk. Wukong could carry the Taoist priest changed by the Silver Horned King (if he was a child height this would be very difficult).

These are good points, but a 7.3-foot tall Monkey wouldn’t be able to wear the clothing of the aforementioned people either. Conversely, tucking in or rolling up clothing wouldn’t be out of the question. And carrying a priest wouldn’t be a problem for a small-statured hero capable of hoisting the weight of two cosmic mountains while running at meteoric speeds.

In the same chapter, the Tang monk sitting on the horse can pull Wukong’s tiger skin skirt. Wukong can easily grab Eight Rules’ ear. In the Bhikṣu Kingdom, Wukong once exchanged clothes with Tang monk, etc.

Horses are tall animals, so the Tang Monk would’ve probably fallen off before even grabbing the skirt of an adult-sized Sun Wukong. I look at this as something that sounds good on paper until it’s tried in real life.

I think even a 5.5-foot tall Monkey would have problems grabbing the ear of Zhu Bajie, who is likely 10 feet (3.05 m) tall or more given his three chi (3.13 ft / 95.4 cm) snout (PDF page 108; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 4, p. 149) and giant body that “causes even the wind to rise when he walks” (PDF page 367; Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51). Either way, jumping would be involved, making this irrelevant.

And just because Sun might be smaller doesn’t mean he wears child-sized clothing. I believe the first instance of sharing clothes happens in chapter 14: “Pilgrim … noticed that Tripitaka had taken off a [robe] made of white cloth and had not put it on again after his bath. Pilgrim grabbed it and put it on himself” (PDF page 174; Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 313). He seems to wear whatever is available to him.

In China, there is another speculation about Wukong’s height: monkeys are usually hunched over. Wukong is four chi tall when bent over and seven chi tall when standing upright.

I studied primates in college. Monkeys usually walk on their palms (palmigrade) (fig. 3) and only stand when foraging, fighting, or carrying things. But I don’t recall the novel ever mentioning Sun traveling on all fours (please correct me if I’m wrong). Therefore, he likely walks on two legs. In this case, as stated, monkeys have a hunched posture when standing. They can’t stand straight because of mechanical limitations in their skull, spine, hips, legs, and feet (my previous essay on hominids applies to monkeys as well). One could argue that Monkey can overcome these limitations with his immortal body, but this definitely wouldn’t give him three more chi of height. For example, here’s a macaque standing at full height (fig. 4). As can be seen, straightening the head, spine, and legs would only give a handful of inches or centimeters.

Fig. 3 – A macaque skeleton in its natural posture (larger version). Fig. 4 – A young macaque male standing (larger version).

And as stated in this article, Sun shares all of the hallmarks of a macaque, including a “furry, joweless face with fiery eyes, a broken or flat nose, a beak-like mouth with protruding fangs, and forked ears”. This likely includes a smaller stature.

Of course, there is no doubt that he is very thin, and is definitely the shortest one in the scripture takers, but at least, his height is more like that of a shorter adult than a child. The role of Sun Wukong is a combination of human nature, monkey nature, and divinity. The author may be deliberately obscuring his height. Therefore, when describing daily life, Wukong is the same height as normal people, but in the eyes of other demons, he is more prominent in the shape of the monkey. And he has the divine power to change his height at will. Sorry for my bad English, really enjoyed your video!

I will concede that four chi is a rough estimate, so he might be slightly shorter or even taller than this. Either way, he’d be far below average human height.


Update: 03-06-22

Chapter 20 includes a scene where Monkey refers to his stature: “A person like me, old Monkey, may be small but tough, like the skin around a ball of ligaments!” (PDF page 246; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 395).


Update: 03-08-22

Above, I suggested that the ten minus three argument was a typo. But there might be a numerological explanation. Qing-era scholar Wang Xiangxu (汪象旭, fl.1605-1668) borrowed from the Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?-1082) by applying his “three fives equal one” (sanwuyi, 三五一) five elements concept (fig. 5) to numbers appearing in the novel. As Shao (1997) explains:

One set of five consists of wood (3) and fire (2). Wood in the east produces fire in the south. The second set is that of metal (4) and water (1). Metal in the west produces water in the north. The third is earth in the center whose number is five. The whole business of the “gold elixir” is to integrate all three sets of five to produce one—the gold elixir (pp. 16-17).

Shao (1997) goes on to explain the numeric significance of the dharma vessel constructed from Sha Wujing’s 9-skull necklace and the heavenly gourd in chapter 22: 

Wang Xiangxu shows a keen eye for the “one” gourd and “nine” skulls which make a perfect “ten”—the number for the completion of earth. However, it is not the numbers that attract him, but what they indicate—that the gold elixir is creation—a process that involves the integration of all the five elements—not unlike the creation of the universe (p. 18).

Therefore, three (wood) and seven (fire) may be a reference to the completion of ten (the golden elixir) in Daoist numerology. If this is true, even the later switch from three to six still matches this (refer to fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – A chart explaining the three fives (larger version). From Shao, 1997, p. 17.

Sources:

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code / Da Ming Lu. University of Washington Press.

Nienhauser, W. H. (2016). Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader. Singapore: World Scientific.

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. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Monkey King’s Magic Staff: A Complete Guide

I’ve written many articles on the origins of the Monkey King’s staff over the years. Therefore, I’ve decided to combine all of the information in one location for the benefit of people wishing to learn more about the weapon and its history. This will no doubt be interesting to fans of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592; JTTW hereafter), as well as those of modern franchises like Dragon Ball and Lego Monkie Kid (fig. 1). Citations can be found in the articles linked below.

Fig. 1 – The Lego Monkie Kid character “MK” wielding the Monkey King’s magic staff (larger version). Copyright Lego.

1. The Literary Weapon

1.1. Staff Background

The staff first appears in chapter three of the original novel when the Monkey King goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional weapons offered to him fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun Wukong “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The weapon is said to be a “divine treasure iron” originally used to set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe ding di de shenzhen tie, 天河定底的神珍鐵) by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythic Chinese emperor and demigod.

The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron or bin steel more than 20 feet in height and as wide as a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun notices that the weapon is decorated with a golden ring on each end, as well as an inscription along the body reading: “The ‘As-You-Will’ Gold-Banded Cudgel. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” (Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤). The inscription indicates that the staff is immensely heavy, weighing 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg).

Apart from the above information, a poem in chapter 75 (see section 2.3 here) highlights another name, “Rod of Numinous Yang” (Lingyang bang, 靈陽棒). In addition, the poem describes the staff being covered in “tracks of planets and stars” (i.e. astronomical charts) and esoteric “dragon and phoenix scripts” (longwen yu fengzhuan, 龍紋與鳳篆).

The novel provides two contradictory origins for the staff. The chapter 75 poem notes that it “[w]as forged in the stove by Laozi himself”. Laozi is of course the high god of Daoism. Chapter 88 instead states that it was “forged at Creation’s dawn / By Yu the Great himself, the god-man of old”.

Contrary to popular images of the Monkey King holding a regular-sized staff, his literary counterpart wields a massive weapon in battle. It is said to be 20 feet long (likely an error for 12), [1] with the width of a bowl (erzhang changduan, wankou cuxi, 二丈長短,碗口粗細) (fig. 2). I did a cursory search of bowls during the Ming (when the standard edition of JTTW was published) and found that they have a radius of between 4 to 6 inches (10.16 to 15.25 cm).

Fig. 2 – An accurate depiction of the size of Monkey’s staff (larger version). Images found here. Artwork by @真·迪绝人.

1.2. Staff Powers

The staff is shown to have multiple powers.

  1. Size manipulation – This is the weapon’s most well-known ability, growing as big or as small as Monkey wishes.
  2. Controlling the oceans –  The aforementioned poem from chapter 88 writes: “The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes / Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod. / Having bored through mountains and conquered floods, / It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas…”
  3. Astral entanglement – Monkey’s soul is able to use the staff in Hell despite the physical weapon being with his body in the world of the living.
  4. Multiplication – He can multiply his staff in the hundreds of thousands.
  5. Lock-Picking – He can open any door just by pointing it at the lock.
  6. Transformation – He can change it into tools like a straight razor or a drill.
  7. Sentience – The weapon glows in anticipation of Monkey’s arrival (fig. 3), responds to his touch, and follows his commands, denoting a certain level of sentience.

Fig. 3 – Monkey pointing to the luminous iron pillar (larger version). From the Qing-Era Painted, Complete Edition Journey to the West (Qing caihui quanben Xiyouji, 清彩繪全本西遊記).

2. Origins

2.1. Literary Precursors

The staff found in the standard Ming edition of JTTW is actually based on two weapons from a 17-chapter storytelling prompt called The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procured the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late 13th-century). Sun Wukong’s precursor, an ageless immortal called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), magically transports Tripitaka and his entourage to heaven. There, the supreme god, the Mahābrahmā Devarāja (Dafan tianwang, 大梵天王; i.e. Vaiśravana), gives the monk a cap of invisibility, a khakkhara (ringed monk’s staff) (fig. 4), and a begging bowl. Tripitaka and the Monkey Pilgrim take turns using these items throughout the journey. The staff is shown capable of shooting destructive beams of light, as well as transforming into magical creatures like an iron dragon or a giant, club-wielding Yaksha. Later, the Monkey Pilgrim also borrows an iron staff from heaven to fight a dragon.

The two staves from this tale were eventually combined by later storytellers. The rings from the first weapon were added to the ends of the second.

Fig. 4 – A beautiful, modern monk’s staff with six rings (larger version).

2.2. Influence from Religion

The Monkey Pilgrim’s magic ringed staff and begging bowl were directly influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the historical Buddha. One particular 9th to 10th-century story notes that the Saint uses the staff to unlock the gates of hell in order to save his mother (fig. 5). This is where Sun Wukong’s weapon from JTTW gets the power to open locks.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

The ringed and metal staves used by the Monkey Pilgrim are based on those historically carried by Buddhist monks in ancient China. The aforementioned ringed variety, called “tin staves” (xizhang, 錫杖) where used by religious monks and decorated with six to twelve metal rings (see fig. 4). These rings were designed to make a clanging noise to not only scare away animals on the road but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence.

Martial monks charged with protecting monasteries or deployed by the Chinese government against pirates wielded wooden or iron staves (fig. 6). The former were chosen for their diminished capacity for fatal injuries, while the latter were explicitly used for killing during times of war. Sun Wukong wielding the iron variety makes sense as he’s a martial monk charged with protecting Tripitaka from monsters and spirits.

Fig. 6 – A martial monk practicing a drunken staff-fighting form (larger version).

The term “As-you-will” (ruyi, 如意) from Monkey’s staff (mentioned above) is connected with a scepter used in ancient China as a symbol of religious debate and authority and, to a lesser extent, as a weapon. While it can be traced to a Hindo-Buddhist tradition in India, the scepter came to be associated with the highest gods of Daoism thanks to being decorated with a “numinous mushroom” (lingzhi, 靈芝), a real world fungi believed to bestow immortality. This mushroom scepter was at some point associated with the Buddhist Cintamani (Ruyi zhu, 如意珠), or “As-you-will jewel”. This was believed to grant any wish that one might desire. This explains why Monkey’s As-you-will staff grows or shrinks according to his commands. It’s interesting to note that some religious images of the scepter depict it with a syncretic mix of the Daoist mushroom and the Buddhist jewel (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – An enhanced detail of the Celestial Worthy’s mushroom scepter with a flaming as-you-will jewel (larger version). See here for a fuller version of the deity.

2.3. Influence from Popular literature

The weapon’s portrayal in JTTW as an iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom comes from old stories about the immortal Xu Xun (許遜), a historical Daoist master and minor government official from Jiangsu province. Popular tales describe him as a Chinese St. Patrick who traveled southern China ridding the land of flood dragons. One 17th-century version titled “An Iron Tree at Jingyang Palace Drives Away Evil” (Jingyang gong tieshu zhenyao旌陽宮鐵樹鎮妖) describes how he chained the flood dragon patriarch to an iron tree (tieshu, 鐵樹) and submerged it in a well, thus preventing the serpent’s children from leaving their subterranean aquatic realm and causing trouble. Pre-JTTW versions of this tale depict the tree as an actual iron pillar (fig. 8). Chinese Five Elements Theory dictates that metal produces water, and as its creator, holds dominion over it. Therefore, an iron pillar would be the perfect item to ward off creatures entrenched in the aquatic environment.

Fig. 8 – A Ming Dynasty woodblock print depicting the immortal Xu overseeing the creation of the iron pillar in a furnace (right) and it’s placement the well (left). Dated 1444-1445 (larger version).

As previously noted, the staff weighs 17,560 lbs. (7,965 kg). This is likely based on an episode from chapter 27 of the Chinese novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). It involves the bandit Wu Song lifting a heavy stone block said to weigh 300 to 500 catties (san wu bai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs./177-295 kg) (fig. 9). This scene and the one from JTTW where Monkey lifts the iron pillar are quite similar. Both involve a hero (Wu Song vs. Sun Wukong) asking someone (Shi En vs. Ao Guang) to show them a heavy object that cannot be moved (stone block vs. iron pillar). Both heroes then adjust their clothing before easily lifting the object with both hands. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the weight of each object (三五百斤 vs. 一萬三千五百斤) are similar. The only difference is the addition of “10,000” (yiwan, 一萬) and “1,000” (qian, 千), respectively. And given the close historical and cultural ties between the two heroes, I believe the author-compiler of JTTW embellished the Water Margin episode to portray Sun as a hero like no other, a divine immortal that can lift weights far beyond even Wu Song himself.

Fig. 9 – Wu Song lifts the stone block (larger version). Image found here.

Note:

1) Irwen Wong of the Journey to the West Library blog has suggested that the length is likely an error for 12 feet (zhanger, 丈二) since the staff was already near 20 feet when Monkey first acquired it, and he later asked it to shrink to a more manageable size.