NOTE: THIS IS MY 100TH BLOG POST.
Last updated: 09-11-2023
The Monkey King is elevated in spiritual rank at the end of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) for his service in protecting the monk Tripitaka throughout the quest to India. Gautama Buddha enfeoffs him as the “Buddha Victorious in Strife” or “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛). Many readers may be surprised to learn that this is actually an established Buddhist deity and not just the creation of author-compiler Wu Cheng’en. In this article, I would like to briefly explore the Buddha’s religious background, iconography, purpose, and relationship to the worship of Sun Wukong.
1. Literary enlightenment
The Gautama Buddha explains:
“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).
2. Religious background
Journey to the West closes by “submitting” or “prostrating” (namo, 南無) to a long list of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats. The Buddha Victorious in Strife is placed at the end of 47 Buddhas and ahead of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. A section of the list reads:
I submit to the Buddha of the Gift of Light.
I submit to the Buddha of Candana Merit.
I submit to the Buddha Victorious in Strife (emphasis added).
I submit to the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin.
I submit to the Bodhisattva, Great Power-Coming
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 385).
Many of the Buddhas from the novel’s list appear in assorted real world canonical lists, including the 88 Buddhas (Bashiba fo, 八十八佛) from the Great Repentance Text of the Eighty-Eight Buddhas (Ch: Bashiba fo da chanhui wen, 八十八佛大懺悔文).  This group is comprised of the 53 Buddhas (Ch: Wushisan fo, 五十三佛) and the 35 Confession Buddhas (Ch: Sanshiwu fo chan, 三十五佛懺) (fig. 1).
The Buddha Victorious in Strife (Sk: Yuddhajaya, युद्धजय) is the 31st of the 35 Confession Buddhas, who are individually called upon during a confessional prayer to absolve oneself of sins. They appear in a number of sources, such as The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Ethical Downfalls (Ch: Pusa duochan / Pusa chanhui wen, 菩薩墮懺 / 菩薩懺悔文) from the Three Heaps Sutra (Sk: Trīskhandhadharmasūtra; Ch: Sanyun jing, 三蘊經) and the Names of the Thirty-Five Buddhas Spoken by the Buddha (Ch: Foshuo sanshiwu foming lichan wen, 佛說三十五佛名禮懺文).
The Buddha Victorious in Strife is depicted in Buddhist art with the traditional features of a Buddha (i.e. ūrṇā, uṣṇīṣa, long ear lobes, robes, etc.), but he is also shown holding a suit of armor and a sword (fig. 2):
Yuddhajaya Buddha — (Skt.: aka Yuddhajaya) (Chin.: Tou-chan-sheng fo; Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba, rGyal-ba-gYul-lasr-Gyal-ba) A Sanskrit variant for the Jina Yuddhajaya. One of the Buddha images found in the Pao Hsiang Lou [寶相樓] temple of the Forbidden City, Beijing, and one of the thirty-five “Buddhas of Confession.” Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: holding a cuirass up to his chest; body: monastic robes; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; vahana: lotus throne.
— (2) — (Mon.: Bayildugan-i masids darugci; Tib.: gYul-las-sin-tu-rnam-par-rgyal-ba) One of the Buddhas of Confession pictured in the Mongolian Kanjur (Mon.: Monggol ganjur-un) (1717-1720) Face: one, calm, urna, usnisa, long ear-lobes; arms/hands: two, right hand holds sword (khadga, ral-gri), left hand holds coat of mail (khrab); body: monastic robes, right shoulder uncovered; legs: two; asana: vajrasana; attributes: 32 major and 80 minor signs; vahana: lotus throne (Bunce, 1994, Vol. 1, p. 629). 
Neither the name Buddha Victorious in Strife nor the sword and armor are a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess. According to Lai (2016), the Buddha “defeat[s] the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings. He is victorious over cyclic existence and thus able to lead all sentient beings to liberation. He purifies the negative karma of actions committed out of pride”.
His name and accoutrements, therefore, symbolize the means by which he subjugates the negative emotions or actions that would otherwise keep man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra.
3. Relationship to Sun Wukong’s worship
The Monkey King is worshiped in southern China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam as a great exorcist and protector of children. But it may come as a surprise to learn that he is rarely worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife. Instead, Wukong is almost exclusively revered as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖), and even when he is called a Buddha, the name usually includes some reference to the rebellious title. For example, when I attended the Monkey King’s birthday (sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month) in Hong Kong in 2018, I saw an incense pot labeled “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) (fig. 3).
So why isn’t Sun widely worshiped as the Buddha Victorious in Strife? I think the simplest answer is that the Buddha already had a long-established following and therefore couldn’t be subsumed under the late-blooming cult of a cultural hero, even one as popular as the Monkey King.
Fig. 3 – An incense pot reading “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖) (larger version). Taken by the author in Kowloon, Hongkong (Sept. 24, 2018).
4. Precedent for spiritual promotion
The author-compiler likely connected Sun Wukong to the Buddha Victorious in Strife because of the Enlightened One’s war-like iconography (recall the sword and armor mentioned above). After all, Monkey is an armor-wearing martial deity wielding his magic staff to protect Tripitaka from untold numbers of demons and spirits.
But the choice to elevate Monkey in rank was likely influenced by previous media. For example, Wukong’s literary antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), receives a promotion at the end of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a late-13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. The story ends thus: “Tang Taizong later enfeoffed Monkey Pilgrim as ‘Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones'” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1207). 
At the end of Journey to the West, the Buddha promotes Sun Wukong to the “Buddha Victorious in Strife” or “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛). This is the Chinese name of Yuddhajaya (Sk: युद्धजय), the 31st of the 35 Confession Buddhas called upon during a confessional prayer to absolve oneself of sins. He is generally portrayed as a robe-wearing Buddha holding a sword and suit of armor. This is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess, however. Instead, his name and accoutrements symbolize the means by which he subjugates the negative emotions or actions that would otherwise keep man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra.
Instead of being universally revered as the Buddha Victorious in Strife, the Monkey King is far more widely worshiped in East and Southeast Asia as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) or a variant like “Great Sage Buddha Patriarch” (Dasheng fozu, 大聖佛祖). This discrepancy is probably due to the original Yuddhajaya already having a long-established following. There’s no way that he could ever be subsumed under Sun Wukong’s late-blooming cult.
Wu Cheng’en likely connected Monkey to the Buddha Victorious in Strife because both have martial iconography. Sun is commonly depicted wearing armor and wielding an iron staff, while Yuddhajaya is shown holding a sword and armor. But the concept of Sun receiving an elevation in spiritual rank goes back centuries. The Monkey Pilgrim, his literary antecedent from The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (late-13th-century), is deified by the Tang emperor as “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖).
If you type “Buddha Victorious in Strife”, “Victorious Fighting Buddha”, “鬥戰勝佛” or “斗战胜佛” into google images, you’ll notice that these terms are almost exclusively associated with Sun Wukong. Most results are fan-made drawings of Monkey wearing his armor. Very few depict him as a Buddha. The only appearance of the latter in popular media that I’m aware is the Victorious Fighting Buddha from the manga / anime High School DxD.
The character is depicted as a jovial old dwarf with long, shaggy brown hair, bushy eyebrows that fall over a cyberpunk-style black visor, no mustache, a long beard, a floor-length, dark gray coat over a red robe, and monkey feet. He wears his famous golden fillet and a set of chunky brown and red prayer beads. In his left hand he holds a smoking pipe, while the right holds his magic staff, which is depicted as red and gold (fig. 4).
Fig. 4 – The Victorious Fighting Buddha from High School DxD (larger version).
The Victorious Fighting Buddha inhabits a universe where various factions of Western and Eastern gods, devils, and heroes battle one another. According to the story, upon ascending to Buddhahood, he steps down as the Monkey King, handing the title to a young descendant, and serves as the vanguard of the Hindu god Indra, during which time he protects the cosmos from a faction of devils and fallen angels. He later takes on the role of sub-leader and mentor to a new faction of young heroes whom he trains to battle god-tier opponents.
High School DxD portrays the Victorious Fighting Buddha as very powerful. For example, season four, episode six (minute 13:35) of the anime shows him effortlessly blocking the “True Longinus” spear with his index finger. This is quite a feat as this weapon is the same one used to pierce the side of Christ, thereby giving it the power to kill other gods.
I visited “Sage Buddha Hall” (Shengfo Tang, 聖佛堂), a Great Sage temple in Beigang, Yunlin, Taiwan and saw a few items labeled the “Fighting Sage Buddha” (Dou zhan sheng fo, 鬥戰聖佛) in place of the Buddha Victorious in Strife/Victorious Fighting Buddha. One such item was a paper fan (fig. 5). As noted above, Buddha Victorious in Strife/Victorious Fighting Buddha is not a reference to the deity’s fighting prowess, but his ability to “defeat the inner enemies of afflictive emotions and negative actions of sentient beings.” So it appears that this temple takes his martial skill at face value.
Fig. 5 – The “Fighting Sage Buddha” fan (larger version).
As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment. Buswell and Lopez (2014) explain:
[W]hen a buddha achieves enlightenment, a “container” or “inanimate” world is produced in the form of a field where the buddha leads beings to enlightenment. The inhabitant of that world is the buddha endowed with all the [qualities of an Enlightened One]. Buddha-fields occur in various levels of purification, broadly divided between pure and impure. Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cakravāḍa), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe; here, ordinary sentient beings (including animals, ghosts, and hell beings) dwell, subject to the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Each Cakravāḍa is the domain of a specific buddha, who achieves enlightenment in that world system and works there toward the liberation of all sentient beings… (p. 153).
Chandra (1999) includes a lovely black and white line drawing of Yuddhajaya (fig. 6) (p. 94).
Fig. 6 – A traditional Tibetan drawing of Yuddhajaya (larger version). Image from Chandra, 1999, p. 94.
I commissioned NinjaHaku21 (Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr) to draw Sun Wukong using Yuddhajaya’s traditional iconography (fig. 7), and the results are stunning! It is based on the design from figure two above.
I have written a companion piece to this article about Tripitaka’s Buddha title.
[B]aby monkeys think Grandpa’s lotus throne is for playing.
I think Wukong got back to his mountain to take care of his monkeys. He does visit sometimes. He takes his favourite monkeys along for the ride. I don’t think it is much of a problem in Western Heaven in Buddha’s domain, because if you are enlightened the antics of little animals won’t really bother you. He’s told not to bring monkeys along next time as per formality. He does anyway. It’s not like anyone minds. He takes the monkeys along when he visits Jade Emperors domain. There monkeys are treated as nuisance and chased around, but no one actually dares to harm them, as they fear to incur his anger. He probably takes more troublesome monkeys too. On purpose.
I love the baby monkeys, as well as Wukong’s flower-like halo.
Fig. 8 – @darkfalcon-z’s Monkey Buddha (larger version). Used with permission.
2) I am grateful to Joris Baeyens of Ghent University Library for providing me with scans of Bunce (1994).
3) Source slightly altered.
Bunce, F. W. (1994). An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints and Demons: With Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes (Vols.1-2). New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.
Chandra, L. (1999). Buddhist Iconography: Compact Edition. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture & Aditya Prakashan.
Lai, D. (2016, September 3). 35 Confessional Buddhas. Retrieved from www.davidlai.me/2016/09/03/35-confessional-buddhas/.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.