The Buddhist Monkey King

(Note: I originally wrote this in late 2020 but just now got around to cleaning it up and posting it.)

Following his birth, the Stone Monkey (Shi hou, 石猴) comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The Stone Monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious:

Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 5]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] [fig. 1] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

In this article, I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as a primate monarch is based on “The Story of the Great Monkey” (Sk: Mahakapi jataka; Ch: Houwang bensheng, 猴王本生, “Birth Story of the Monkey King”; “The Great Monkey” hereafter), an ancient story about the Buddha’s past life as a monkey king, which appears in various collections of moralistic birth tales (Sk: jakata; Ch: bensheng jing, 本生經) in Buddhist literature. After summarizing the tale, I will briefly discuss 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art depicting the story at important religious sites, thereby showing its intense popularity. Next, I will demonstrate that the tale traveled the Silk Road to China, where it was represented in Buddhist art and literature. Finally, I will highlight similarities between “The Great Monkey” and a 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as similarities with the standard 1592 edition of the novel.

Fig. 5 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).

1. Story of the Great Monkey

Buddhist literature contains different versions of the tale. I will describe two of them here. The first is story no. 27 in the Garland of Birth Stories (Sk: Jatakamala, 4th-century) by the monk Arya Sura. [1] The tale opens with the following epigraph: “Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies” (Khoroche, 1989, p. 186). According to the story, the bodhisattva was born a virtuous monkey king in the verdant paradise of the Himalayas, which abounded in fruits and flowers, crystal clear streams, and choirs of singing birds. He and his tribe lived near an unnamed river and ate from a mountainous banyan tree that produced figs larger than palmyra nuts. The monkey king feared that the fruit would cause trouble for his people, so he gave instructions to regularly clear them from a branch overlooking the river. However, one season a fig escaped the monkeys’ attention and it grew to maturation, dropping into the water, drifting downstream, and lodging in the fence of a pool where an unnamed human king played with his consorts. The smell and color of the fruit entranced the women, and after the king tasted it, he became obsessed with its flavor and led an army in search of the tree. The ruler and his entourage cut a path upstream and followed a sweet scent directly to the massive banyan, which rose high above all the surrounding trees like the lord of the forest. When he saw the monkeys eating figs, the enraged ruler ordered his men to shoot them down with arrows, spears, and rocks. Seeing the dire situation of his tribe, the monkey king made a tremendous leap to the summit of a nearby mountain, a feat that would have required any other monkey a series of jumps. On the mountain, he found a strong-rooted cane of the appropriate length needed to span the gap and tied it to his feet. But his return jump to the tree was hampered by the binding, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch and use his body as a bridge so that his tribe could escape. But the monkey king was mortally wounded as throngs of the panicked primates clawed their way across his body to safety. The human king took note of this selfless deed and ordered his men to relieve the suspended monkey by placing a canopy beneath him and simultaneously shooting the branch and cane. After his wounds were tended and he regained consciousness, the monkey king spent the last few moments of his life teaching the human king the virtue of putting his people’s needs before his own (Khoroche, 1989, pp. 186-192).

The second is story no. 407 [2] in Commentary on the Birth Stories (Pali: Jatakatthakatha, a.k.a. Jatakatthavannana, 5th-century), which is attributed to the monk Buddhagosa. The narrative opens with the Enlightened One talking to a large assembly of monks in Jetavana. He tells them of a previous life when he helped his relatives. Here, the story is quite similar to the first, with slight differences in certain details, such as the monkey king leading a specified number of 80,000 primates, the river is the Ganges, the fruit is water pot-sized mangoes, the specimen that floats downstream is caught in a fisherman’s net, and the human ruler is named King Brahmadatta of Benares. [3] Instead of leaping to a nearby mountain, the monkey king jumps one hundred bow lengths across the Ganges. The cane is tied to his waste instead of his feet, and the cause of falling short on the return jump is not hindrance but miscalculating the length of cane needed to span the gap. And instead of being seriously injured by his people during their escape, a rival of the king—a previous incarnation of the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta—mortally wounds his heart by jumping onto his back from a high branch. Brahmadatta instructs his men to build a tower so that he can retrieve the primate and tend to his wounds in his last few moments of life. And just like before, the monkey king teaches the human monarch the value of his people’s needs prior to dying. But this time the discussion is much shorter, being presented as a poem of seven stanzas. Brahmadatta then honors the monkey with funeral rites befitting a king and worships the skull as a religious relic. In the end, the Buddha reveals that the ruler was the past incarnation of his disciple Ananda, the 80,000 monkeys were incarnations of the assembled monks, and the monkey king was himself (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, pp. 225-227).

2. The tale in Indian and Chinese Buddhist art

This birth story is over 2,000 years old as it appears among the stone carvings of the Bharhut Stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (fig. 2 and 3) and the western torana (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 3 and 4) (Marshall, Foucher, Majumdar, 1902, vol. 1, pp. 224-225, vol. 2, plate 64). I should note that the story is one of 547 such tales appearing in the Pali canon (Robert & David, 2013, p. 381). So the fact that it was one of only a few past life narratives chosen to appear at these religious sites speaks volumes to its popularity. This explains why the story spread beyond India.

Fig. 2 – “The Great Monkey” medallion from Bharhut stupa (c. 2nd-century BCE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 3 – Key: A) The monkey king leaps and grasps a banyan tree, making a bridge with his body; B) attendants hold a canopy to catch the injured monkey; and C) The human king sits with the monkey discussing the actions of a good ruler prior to the latter’s death (larger version). Fig. 4 – “The Great Monkey” carving from the western torana at Sanchi (c. 1st-century BCE/CE) (larger version). Picture adapted from Wikipedia. Fig. 5 – Key: A) Brahmadatta travels with a retinue to the tree; B) he orders his archer(s) to shoot the monkeys; C) He watches as the monkey king leaps across the Ganges and grasps a banyan tree to make a bridge with his body; and D) Brahmadatta’s discussion with the monkey king (larger version).

The tale is known to have traveled east to China along the northern silk road. This is demonstrated by murals appearing in the Kizil cave complex (5th to 7th-century), one of the earliest and most popular Buddhist centers in Kucha, in what is now Xinjiang, China. Zhu (2012) describes the murals, noting that they lack the detail of their Indian counterparts and are therefore more mnemonic than narrative:

[I]n Kizil Cave 38 [fig. 5], a very large monkey is depicted in the center, stretching his body and holding a tree on the other side of a river. Two other smaller monkeys are stepping on his body to cross the river. In the foreground, a kneeling archer is shooting at them. In Kizil Cave 17 [fig. 6] this story is represented even more simply, with the archer omitted. However the stretching monkey, the river, and the trees are enough for anyone who knows the story to recognize it […] Compared to the Indian representations that are more explicitly narrative, the Kizil paintings are more like a reminder of the story. They communicate with the viewers as if they already know the story well” (pp. 59-60).

Fig. 5 – The Kizil cave no. 38 mural (larger version). Found here. Fig. 6 – Kizil cave no. 17 mural (larger version). Found here. Both are circa 5th to 7th-century. Zhu, 2012, p. 61 includes black and white line drawings of the murals.

3. The tale in Chinese Buddhist literature

The Kizil murals are predated by a brief story appearing in The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (Liudu jijing, 六度集經, 3rd-century, The Collection hereafter), a compilation of karmic merit tales (Sk: avadana) translated into Chinese by the Sogdian Buddhist monk Kang Senghui (康僧會, d. 280). [4] The 56th story in this collection is an adaptation of the original Indian version with several noticeable differences: The Bodhisattva was formerly a monkey king (mihou wang, 獼猴王) who frolicked with 500 primates. At that time a drought made the various kinds of fruit scarce. Only a river separated their mountain from a nearby kingdom, so the monkey king led his tribe to eat fruit in the royal garden. The human king ordered that they be secretly captured, but the monkey called for his tribe to gather cane to make a rope. One end was tied to a tree and the other to the king, who leaped from a branch across the river. Unfortunately, the rope wasn’t long enough, and so he came up short, forcing him to grab a branch on the other side and create a bridge with his body. After the 500 monkeys crossed to the other side, the king’s body split in two under the strain. When the human king came upon the scene, the dying primate begged that his tribe not be hurt and offered up his own flesh as payment for his bad judgment. However, the king admired the monkey’s superior, sage-like virtue and questioned his own willingness to sacrifice his body for his people. He then issued a proclamation that all monkeys were to be fed throughout the kingdom, and those who refused would be punished as thieves. Upon his return to the palace, the king recounted the events to his queen, touting the monkey’s kindness and comparing it to the height of Mt. Kunlun. She then suggested that the monkeys be fed and the king confirmed that he had already given the order. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the monkey king was himself, the human king was Ananda, and the 500 monkeys were the monks at the assembly (CBETA, 2016a). [5]

Instead of the original 80,000 monkeys, this version reduces the number to only 500. Instead of the king traveling to the banyan/mango tree in the monkey’s mountain territory, the monkeys travel from their mountain to the royal fruit garden in the king’s territory. Instead of being trampled by his people/a rival, the monkey king’s body breaks in two from the strain. And instead of giving the monkey royal funeral rights and worshiping his skull as a relic, the king enacts a law that all monkeys should be fed.

This version is different enough from the originals to suggest a separate Chinese tradition, one that had circulated for some time. This fits with Chavannes’ (1910) suggestion that The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas is not an original Indian text but one compiled in China by Kang Senghui, who likely selected and edited the stories himself (vol. 1, p. 1 n. 1).

Story no. 56 finds parallels with another tale from Chinese Buddhist literature. [6] It appears in the Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (Za baozang jing, 雜寶藏經, mid-5th-century), which was translated into Chinese by the monk Tan Yao (曇曜). According to the 12th story in this collection: The Buddha was in Rajagrha when the monks commented on the woes faced by those who rely on Devadatta, while celebrating the happiness, positive rebirth, and eventual deliverance of those who rely on the Enlightened One. The Buddha confirmed this by telling a brief tale about two monkeys, each with 500 members in their tribe. A prince of Kashi (a.k.a. Benares) was on a hunting excursion when he surrounded the monkeys. The good monkey (shan mihou, 善獼猴) suggested that they cross the river to escape, but the evil monkey (e’mihou, 惡獼猴) wavered. The good monkey instructed his tribe to cross by using the long branches of a nearby tree. But the evil monkey and his tribe were captured due to inaction. In the end, the Buddha revealed that the good monkey was himself and Devadatta was the evil monkey. He used this story to advocate following the virtuous over the evil, for the former would lead others to safety and happiness, while the latter would lead others to suffering over numerous incarnations (CBETA, 2016b). [7]

This version does away with the fruit element altogether. The monkeys are in danger not because a king is protecting his fruit but because a prince is out hunting. The most noticeable difference here is the addition of a second monkey, one who is labeled as “evil” (e, 惡) (no connection to the Six-Eared Macaque). But like story no. 56, the monkey king is said to lead 500 primates.

It is clear that both Chinese tales were influenced by the later Indian version, story no. 407 from Commentary on the Birth Stories, as they specify a number for the troupe size (500 vs. 80,000), state the monkey king leaps over a river (as opposed to jumping to a nearby mountain top), and characters are revealed in the end to have been the past lives of Buddhist personages (the Buddha, Ananda, Devadatta, monks, etc.). Story no. 12 even opens in a city associated with the Enlightened One’s historical lectures (Rajagrha vs. Jetavana), where he discusses philosophical matters with monks; and an unnamed prince who poses a threat to the monkey king and his people is said to hail from Kashi, another name for Benares, the seat of King Brahmadatta.

4. The Chinese Monkey King

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is 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, late 13th-century, The Story hereafter), a 17 chapter storytelling prompt that predates the Ming Journey to the West by 300 years. In chapter two, our hero’s literary antecedent, a white-clad scholar called the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), meets the Tang monk Tripitaka on the road to the west and warns the monk that his two previous incarnations have died trying to procure the Buddhist scriptures. When asked how he knows events of the past, the scholar replies: “I am none other than the bronze-headed, iron-browed [8] king of the eighty-four thousand monkeys of the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. I have come to help the reverend monk procure the scriptures” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1182).

The Story‘s depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim was influenced by Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana) (fig. 7), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late-9th to early-10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment. For example, both are depicted with occult powers enabling them to fly between heaven and earth (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098); both visit a realm ruled by a deity named Brahma, the Mahabrahma devaraja Vaisravana in the case of Monkey and Brahma in the case of Mulian (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183; Mair, 1994, p. 1098); both are bestowed magic weapons by heaven, a golden-ringed monk staff and alms bowl for Monkey and a matching staff for Mulian (he enchants his own alms bowl) (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); the power of said weapons are tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name, Vaisravana and the Buddha, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184; Mair, 1994, p. 1111); and both use said weapons with the expressed purpose of saving someone important, Tripitaka and Mulian’s mother, respectively (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189, for example; Mair, 1994).

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 7 – A painting depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

If The Story borrows from Mulian’s tale, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it also appropriated material from other Buddhist tales, including “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the massive, fruit-bearing banyan/mango tree. Additionally, both The Story and the “The Great Monkey” describe the respective monkey kings leading a similar number of primates, 84,000 in the former and 80,000 in the latter. [9] While the Chinese variants drastically reduce the number to 500, it’s interesting that both tales would display such similar counts. This is because said numbers are significant to Buddhism. For example, 84,000 generally denotes a very large number, hence the belief that the body contains this many atoms. Other examples include the 84,000 stupas of Asoka, the 84,000 bodily relics of the Buddha, the Amitabha‘s 84,000 rays of illumination, the 84,000 bodily signs of a Buddha, the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, etc. In addition, the Chinese term for 80,000 (bawan, 八萬) can be shorthand for 84,000. It can also refer to separate Buddhist concepts, such as the “bodhisattva’s 80,000 duties” (Soothill & Hodous, 1937/2006, p. 39). It’s certainly possible that both stories independently chose similar numbers due to their demonstrated connection to Buddhism. But maybe the storytellers who developed The Story had access to some non-Chinese version of the tale, perhaps by way of Buddhist monks, for Buddhism has a long history of proselytizing through oral literature. [10]

Furthermore, in chapter 11 of The Story, the pilgrims enter the earthly paradise of the Daoist goddess Queen Mother of the West, home to the famed peaches of immortality. Tripitaka asks Monkey to steal the group a few fruits, but the latter refuses, stating:

Because I stole ten peaches to eat when I was eight hundred years old, I was captured by the Queen Mother and given eight hundred blows on my left side and three thousand blows on the right with an iron cudgel. Then I was exiled to the Purple Cloud Grotto on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits. Even today my sides hurt and now I definitely don’t dare to steal any more peaches!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1195).

This event was surely influenced by the fabled meeting of Emperor Wu and the Queen mother, during which she reveals his jester Dongfang Shuo (東方朔), formerly the planet Jupiter (Sui, 歲), was exiled from heaven for stealing her peaches (Campany, 2009, p. 126). However, a monkey king running afoul of an earthbound monarch for raiding their imperial fruit garden mirrors story no. 56 in The Collection. As mentioned above, the tale recalls the Buddhist monkey king leading his tribe out of the mountains to eat fruit in a human sovereign’s garden during a time of drought. The ruler orders the primates captured, leading to the monkey king’s sacrifice. Therefore, this portion of The Story could be a combination of Buddhist and Daoist sources.

“The Great Monkey” could have also influenced the 1592 edition. In chapter one, the monkeys following the stream to find its source in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit is reminiscent of the human king’s trek up the Ganges to find the source of the fruit in the Himalayas. Also, recall that the Indian and Chinese versions place great emphasis on the monkey king leaping over a river. For example, story no. 407 reads: “[H]e ascended a branch that rose up straight, went along another branch that stretched towards the Ganges, and springing from the end of it, he passed a hundred bow-lengths and lighted on a bush on the [other] bank” (Cowell, 1895, vol. 3, p. 226). This could have influenced the competition to leap through the waterfall. It’s interesting that Wukong alone is successful in the jump, leading to his kinghood:

The monkeys said to each other, “We don’t know where this water comes from. Since we have nothing to do today, let us follow the stream up to its source to have some fun.” With a shriek of joy, they dragged along males and females, calling out to brothers and sisters, and scrambled up the mountain alongside the stream. Reaching its source, they found a great waterfall.

[…]  

All the monkeys clapped their hands in acclaim: “Marvelous water! Marvelous water! So this waterfall is distantly connected with the stream at the base of the mountain, and flows directly out, even to the great ocean.” They said also, “If any of us had the ability to penetrate the curtain and find out where the water comes from without hurting himself, we would honor him as king.” They gave the call three times, when suddenly the stone monkey leaped out from the crowd. He answered the challenge with a loud voice, “I’ll go in! I’ll go in!” 

[…]

Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 103-104).

This takes us back to where we started from in the introduction.

5. Conclusion

I suggest Sun Wukong’s position as the Monkey King is based on the “The Great Monkey”, a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a primate monarch, which appears in various Indian Buddhist sources, such as the 4th-century Garland of Birth Stories (no. 27) and the 5th-century Commentary on the Birth Stories (no. 407). The tale describes the monkey king’s efforts to save his tribe from a human monarch who seeks to claim a massive banyan/mango tree in the Himalayas by killing all of the monkeys inhabiting it. After leaping to a mountain top or over the Ganges River to retrieve a length of cane needed to span the gap, his return jump is hindered, forcing him to make a bridge with his body. He is mortally wounded in the process, though, when throngs of clambering monkeys run across his back or a rival primate assaults him from a high branch. In the end, the human monarch takes note of this selfless act and learns from him the value of putting the needs of his people first moments prior to the monkey king’s death.

The popularity of the tale, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old Indian Buddhist art at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas, explains why it spread beyond Bharata and traveled the Silk Road to the Middle Kingdom, where it was represented in Chinese Buddhist literature and art. Simplistic mnemonic depictions of the tale in Xinjiang’s Kizil Cave complex (no. 17 and 38) (5th to 7th-century) are predated by stories in the 3rd-century Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitas (no. 56) and the mid-5th-century Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures (no. 12). The first tells how the monkey king leads his people down from the mountain to raid an imperial fruit garden and ultimately sacrifices his life so the tribe can escape punishment. The second involves the decisions of two monkey kings, one good and one evil, whether or not to cross a river to escape capture at the hands of a prince on a hunting trip. It serves as a parable warning of the consequences of putting one’s faith in those of evil character.

The oldest Chinese source mentioning Sun Wukong as a king of monkeys is the late-13th-century tale The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures. This story borrows from the Mulian story cycle, so it’s possible that it selected from other Buddhist tales, including Indian and Chinese versions of the “The Great Monkey”. For example, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit could be based on the Himalayas and the banyan/mango tree. The 84,000 primates led by the Chinese Monkey King could be based on the 80,000 from an Indian version. Likewise, Monkey stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West in chapter 11 could be based on the Chinese version in which the monkey king and his people raid an imperial fruit garden. In addition, the emphasis on leaping over a river in the various versions of “The Great Monkey” could have influenced the waterfall jumping contest in the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West.

Notes:

1) Little is known about Arya Sura’s life. Based on various Indian and Chinese sources, the monk has been estimated to have lived somewhere between the 2nd to the 5th-century, with the 4th-century being the best guess (Khoroche, 1989, pp. xi-xiii).

2) This should not be confused with the similarly named Mahakapi jataka (no. 516). See Cowell, 1895, vol. 5, pp. 37-42.

3) This page (see #3) explains Brahmadatta is the name of several kings from jataka tales.

4) See Nattier, 2008, pp. 149-155 for more information about Kang Shenghui and his work, including the Liudu jijing.

5) See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 1, pp. 216-218 for a French translation of the story. Click here for an English translation by Edward P. Butler (@EPButler).

6) Thank you to Eric Greene of Yale university for bringing this story to my attention.

7) See Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, 1994, pp. 40-41 for a full English translation. As of 03/02/21 the book can be downloaded here for free. See Chavannes, 1910, vol. 3, p. 13 for a partial French translation.

8) According to Mair (1989), “‘Bronze-headed, iron-browed’ is a conventional Chinese epithet for boldness and bravery” (p. 701).

9) Interestingly, the number of primates led by Wukong in the final Ming edition of the novel is 47,000 (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 133). I don’t know if this number holds any significance.

10) Mair (1988) explains Indian Buddhist prosimetric oral literature was very popular in China during the Tang but rapidly became secularized and Sinicized during Song (when The Story was published) due to past anti-Buddhist pogroms, Muslim incursions in Central Asia cutting off fresh Buddhist material, and the reemergence of Confucianism as a state power. But I suggest material that influenced The Story may predate this shift. For example, the Monkey Pilgrim appears with Xuanzang in an 11th-century (Western Xia) mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province (see this article). Xuanzang is shown worshiping Guanyin from a riverbank, while our hero stands behind him tending to a brown horse. The fact that Monkey appears in religious art at an important stop along the Silk Road shows his association with Xuanzang’s journey was well-known even during this early period. And since story cycles take time to form and become cemented in the public psyche, it’s not a stretch to suggest Monkey’s tale goes back to the previous century or even before the Song. Therefore, it’s possible that these earlier storytellers may have had access to some non-Chinese version of “The Great Monkey”.

Sources:

Campany, R. F. (2009). Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. University of Hawaii Press.

Chavannes, E. (1910). Cinq Cents Contes et Apologues, Extraits du Tripitaka Chinois et Traduits en Français: Tome 1 [Five Hundred Tales and Apologues: Extracts from the Chinese Tripitaka Translated into French: Vol. 1]. Paris: E. Leroux.

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016a). T03n0152_006 六度集經 第6卷 [The Collection of Sutras on the Six Paramitās, scroll no. 6]. Retrieved from http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T03n0152_006

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (Ed.). (2016b). T04n0203_002 雜寶藏經 第2卷 [Scripture on the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures, scroll no. 2]. Retrieved from http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T04n0203_002

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births: Vol. 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/cu31924072231073/page/n249/mode/2up

Khoroche, P. (Trans.). (1989). Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mair, V. H. (1988). The Buddhist Tradition of Prosimetric Oral Narrative in Chinese Literature. Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 106-21. Retrieved from https://journal.oraltradition.org/wp-content/uploads/files/articles/3i-ii/6_mair.pdf

Mair, V. H. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

Marshall, J., Foucher, A., & Majumdar, N. G. (1902). The Monuments of Sāñchī: Vol. 1-3. Bhopal: Indra Publishing House.

Nattier, J. (2008). A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations: Texts from the Eastern Han 東漢 and Three Kingdoms 三國 Periods. Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

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

Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (2006). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms: With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1937)

Tanyao, Kikkāya, & Liu, X. (1994). The Storehouse of Sundry Valuables (C. Willemen, Trans.). Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras. In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Zhu, T. (2012). Reshaping the Jātaka Stories: from Jātakas to Avadānas and Praṇidhānas in Paintings at Kucha and Turfan. Buddhist Studies Review, 29(1), 57-83. Retrieved from https://journals.equinoxpub.com/index.php/BSR/article/view/14021/pdf

The Origin of Sun Wukong’s Cloud Somersault

The Monkey King is famous for utilizing a vast arsenal of magic powers to protect the monk Tripitaka on the journey to India, chief among them being immortality, shape-shifting, hair clones, super strength, and flight via the cloud somersault (jindou yun, 筋斗雲). The latter is a powerful skill because it enables him to travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), [1] or one and one-third the circumference of our Earth, in a single leap. [2] Perhaps the most famous episode involving the somersault appears in chapter seven when the Buddha bets Wukong that he’ll give the rebellious monkey the throne of heaven if he can leap clear of the Enlightened One’s palm. Sun gleefully accepts, certain of his success: “What a fool this Tathagata is! A single somersault of mine can carry old Monkey one hundred and eight thousand li, yet his palm is not even one foot across. How could I possibly not jump clear of it?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 194). But of course lovers of the novel know how this wager ends, with a desecrated finger and our hero trapped beneath Five Elements Mountain

I. Literary description

While Sun is traditionally portrayed in visual media riding a single cloud (fig. 1), the very name “somersault” points to Monkey leaping from cloud to cloud. And in fact this is demonstrated in chapter 97 when it requires “a series of cloud somersaults” for him to retrieve the soul of an elderly benefactor from the underworld (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 338). However, the magic skill’s attributes are not always portrayed consistently throughout the novel. For example, it is sometimes shown capable of transporting passengers, such as the “thirty or fifty” of Monkey’s children rescued from captivity in chapter two, thereby implying a single cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 129). But other times, like in chapter 22, it can’t lift even a single person because the impure nature of mortals renders them “as heavy as the Tai Mountain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). Interestingly, the somersault is portrayed as much faster than the clouds of other immortals (see section three below). 

Kubo Son Goku, 18th-c. - small

Fig. 1 – Detail of an 1812 calendar print by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman depicting Son Goku (Sun Wukong) flying on his cloud somersault (larger version). A full size scan of the calendar can be seen here.  

II. Ties to Daoist immortals 

Sun Wukong first learns to perform his cloud somersault in chapter two while studying Daoist cultivation under his first master, the Sage Subhuti:

[T]he Patriarch gave him an oral formula, saying, ‘Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand li … Throughout the night … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom [xiaoyao, 逍遙], blissfully enjoying his state of long life'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123). (emphasis mine)

Elements of this passage reference the long tradition of cloud-borne transcendents in Daoist literature. For example, Kirkova (2016) highlights a poem by the first Cao Wei emperor Cao Pi describing the great speed of their travel: “Lightened you’ll soar, mount the floating clouds, / in a blink you’ll travel millions of li” (p. 105). She explains the ability to traverse vast distances in a flash “is a primary sign of the immortals’ mastery over space and time and is an important topos in their hagiographies” (Kirkova, 2016, p. 106). Furthermore, Kirkova (2016) points out the term used to denote their great freedom of movement, xiaoyao (逍遙/消搖), emphasized above, appears in works as old as the Huananzi and Zhuangzi (p. 104).

III. Ties to Chan Buddhist Philosophy

Despite the cloud’s apparent ties to Daoism, it has a strong symbolic connection to Buddhism. For example, the distance that a single somersault covers just so happens to correspond to the expanse separating Tripitaka from the Buddha’s paradise. This fact is revealed in chapter 14 by Guanyin while disguised as an old woman: “The Buddha of the West … lives in the Great Temple of Thunderclap in the territory of India, and the journey there is one hundred and eight thousand li long” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 316). Shao (2006) explains the measure is taken directly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism (p. 718). The particular passage reads:

The governor also asked,

I often see clergy and laity invoking Amitabha Buddha in hopes of rebirth in the [Pure Land of the] West. Please explain this to me. Can we attain rebirth there? Please resolve this doubt for me.

The Master said,

Listen clearly, Governor, and I will explain it to you. When the World Honored One was in the city of Sravasti, he spoke of the Western Pure Land as a teaching device. Scripture is clear that “it is not far from here,” but treatises say it is “108,000 li away.” This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in the one’s person. This says it is far away. Saying it is far away is for people of lesser faculties. Saying it is near is for people of better faculties.

[…]

Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling one hundred thousand li. [3] Then get rid of the eight wrongs; that is the equivalent of crossing eight thousand li. See essential nature in every moment, always acting with impartial directness, and you will arrive in a finger-snap and see Amitabha Buddha (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, pp. 26-27).

As can be seen, the number 108,000 is symbolic of two sets of spiritual hindrances. The “ten evils” (shi’e, 惡) are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, greed, hatred, delusion, foul language, lying, harsh speech, and slander. The “eight wrongs” (baxie, 八邪) are opposites of the eight fold path (Huineng, Hsuan, & Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2002, p. 183). Ridding oneself of these piecemeal gets you many li closer to paradise. But only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This means the cloud somersault can be read as a Chan metaphor for instant enlightenment. After all, Monkey can travel to the Buddha’s heaven in a flash, whereas Tripitaka is fated to journey thousands of miles over many years “before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 436). This is because, as suggested by Shao (2006), the demons encountered on the journey embody the “ten evils and eight wrongs” that must be defeated before the monk can enter paradise (p. 719).

37e2fc9cebe000bb1c76c73e7ad2963a-d5oas0h

Fig. 2 – Monkey soaring on his cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

This connection to Buddhism may then explain why the novel differentiates Monkey’s somersault (fig. 2) from the clouds of other immortals. As Sun explains in chapter 22: “My cloud somersault is essentially like cloud soaring [jiayun, 駕雲] … the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 427). In light of the Chan evidence, the difference in speed could be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism. 

IV. Other influences?

Going back to the early days of Sun’s flight training, Subhuti observes our hero using an unorthodox method for propelling himself into the sky: jumping. This differs from other immortals, so the Sage teaches him a different method:

The Patriarch said, “When the various immortals want to soar on the clouds, they all rise by stamping their feet. But you’re not like them. When I saw you leave just now, you had to pull yourself up by jumping. What I’ll do now is to teach you the cloud-somersault in accordance with your form” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 123).

Zhou (1994) suggests this method is likely based on “the novelist’s personal observation” of trained monkey street performances “in the late Ming marketplace” (fig. 3 and 4) (p. 71). He points to an episode in chapter 28 when Wukong returns home to learn his children are regularly captured to perform tricks in the human world:

Those of us who were caught by the net or the trap would be led away live; they would be taught to skip ropes, to act, to somersault, and to do cartwheels. They would have to … perform every kind of trick to entertain humans (Zhou, 1994, p. 71; Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 31). 

Anyone who has viewed monkeys in a zoo or in the wild knows that they are naturally gifted acrobats. Therefore, Zhou’s proposal is certainly an alluring possibility, one that mixes the naturalistic and historical with Daoist tales of cloud-borne immortals. 

Trained monkeys - pic for blog

Fig. 3 – A Qing-era trainer and his performing monkey (larger version). Original image found here. Fig. 4 – A monkey performer dressed as Sun Wukong (larger version). Original image found here

Scholars favoring a foreign origin for Sun sometimes point to the somersault as evidence for his connection to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the epic Ramayana (4th/5th-century BCE). For example, Mi (as cited in Mair, 1989) notes similarities in which Sun and the god propel themselves by leaping:

In typical Chinese legends, the spirits and immortals mount on clouds and ride them; they stand on top of the clouds. Sun Wukong, however is different … Rather, he leaps through the air from a crouching position in the same fashion as Hanuman … This proves Sun Wukong’s supernatural abilities were adopted from Hanuman. (pp. 712-713).

Walker (1998) champions this view by citing a passage from the Ramayana in which Hanuman’s mighty leap across the sea from India to Lanka rips trees away from a mountain:

Hanuman, the foremost of monkeys, without pausing for breath … sprang into the air and, such was the force of his leap, that the trees growing on the mountain, tossing their branches, were sent spinning on every side.

In his rapid flight, Hanuman bore away those trees with their flowering boughs filled with lapwings intoxicated with love … Carried away by the impetus of his tremendous bound, those trees followed in his wake, like an army its leader (p. 10).

However, I’m inclined to believe any similarities in propulsion are simply the product of common behavioral traits among monkeys (refer back to my statement above about their gift for acrobatics). If Wukong’s jumping is indeed based on the somersaulting monkeys of vaudevillian street performances in China, then Hanuman’s jumping prowess no doubt has a real world counterpart in India. A prime example is the Gray Langur, which is capable of spectacular leaps (video 1). 

Video 1 – A Langur takes a mighty jump. Watch from minute 0:43.

Given the somersault’s symbolic connection to Chan Buddhism, it’s possible Monkey’s jumping has ties to the religion as well. Like immortals, Buddhist saints are also portrayed in Chinese literature as having the power of flight. One example is Maudgalyayana (Ch: Mulian, 目連), a disciple of the Buddha, who is famous for appearing in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 5). One passage from the tale reads: 

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
[…]
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098). (emphasis mine)

Like Monkey, Maudgalyayana is depicted leaping into the heavens to freely roam the cosmos at blinding speeds, the only difference being that he stands astride a magic alms bowl (fig. 6) and not a cloud. It’s important to note that the saint’s tale influenced the 13th-century precursor of the Ming Journey to the West. As I show in this article, Sun’s antecedent, the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), serves as a proxy for the saint because he wields magic weapons based on those used by Maudgalyayana, namely a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an alms bowl. The ringed staff would come to influence Sun’s signature weapon in Journey to the West, including its ability to change size and pick locks. Therefore, it’s possible the saint may have also influenced Monkey’s jumping.

Buddhist alms bowl - small

Fig. 5 – A scroll or mural depicting Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here. Fig. 6 – A metal alms bowl (larger version). 

V. Popular Culture

It’s interesting to note that the cloud somersault was adapted in the world famous Dragon Ball franchise. In episode three of the Dragonball anime, the lead character Son Goku, himself based on Sun Wukong, is gifted the yellow, fluffy Kinto’un (筋斗雲) by his would-be martial arts teacher, Master Roshi. [4] This is an obvious reference to Subhuti teaching the somersault skill to Monkey. But before Goku officially takes possession, Roshi gives him a warning: “People with impure thoughts can’t ride on it. In other words, you have to be a good person” (video 2). The master thereafter attempts to stand on it but quickly falls through due to his perverted nature. Goku then leaps up and successfully lands on the cloud, proving his worth. This exchange is no doubt a reference to Sun’s inability to carry passengers on his cloud because the impure nature of mortals renders them too heavy (see section one). 

Video 2 – Roshi gives Goku his cloud. Watch from minute 1:50.

VI. Conclusion

The Monkey King first learns the cloud somersault during the early days of his Daoist training under the Sage Subhuti. It enables him to travel 108,000 li in a single leap, making him much faster than the cloud soaring of other transcendents. While this skill shares affinities with the fleet clouds of immortals from Daoist hagiography, Sun’s somersault has a deep connection to Chan Buddhism. The vast distance that it travels is symbolic of the “ten evils and eight wrongs”, two sets of spiritual hindrances from the Platform Sutra said to keep the Buddha’s paradise out of reach. Only those who cleanse themselves of these obstacles can achieve enlightenment and arrive there in a flash, thus making Wukong’s cloud an apt metaphor for instant enlightenment. This suggests the greater speed of the somersault can be read as a further metaphor for the potency of Buddhism over Daoism.

Wukong’s habit of jumping into the heavens differs from the way other immortals rise by stamping their feet. This unorthodox method may have naturalistic or even religious influences. The suggestion that it is based on somersaulting monkeys from Chinese vaudevillian street performances is alluring given their natural gift for acrobatics. Some scholars champion a foreign origin by pointing to the leaping prowess of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. But this could simply be a passing similarity based on common behavioral traits among monkeys. The jumping may also have ties to the Buddhist saint Maudgalyayana, who is portrayed in a famed 9th/10th-century tale leaping into the air to ride his magic alms bowl between heaven and hell. Elements from his story would come to influence the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, as well as the Ming edition of the novel, adding support for his possible influence.

Notes:

1) The li (里) is a Chinese measure equaling roughly one-third of a mile. All cited English translations presented here use “mile” instead of the original li. I have therefore changed them accordingly.

2) Of course the magic world in which Monkey lives is not our own. It is much, much larger.

3) The English translation originally says “ten myriad”, myriad being 10,000. The original Chinese reads shiwan (十萬; 10 x 10,000), or 100,000. I have changed the source to make this more explicit.

4) The cloud is called the “Flying Nimbus” in the English dub.

Sources:

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.

Huineng, Hsuan, H., & Buddhist Text Translation Society. (2002). The sixth patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra: With the commentary of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the beyond: Representations of Xian immortality in early medieval Chinese verse. Leiden: Brill.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Mair, V. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

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

Zhou, Z. (1994). Carnivalization in The Journey to the West: Cultural Dialogism in Fictional Festivity. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 16, 69-92. doi:10.2307/495307

Sun Wukong and the Buddhist Saint Mulian

Last updated: 02/06/21

Sun Wukong first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), in 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, late 13th-century) (The Story, hereafter), the earliest known printed version of the Journey to the West story cycle. He is described as an immortal punished by heaven for stealing peaches from the Queen Mother of the West, and after being banished to earth, he becomes the ruler of the 84,000 monkeys of Flower Fruit Mountain. He enters the story as a white-clad scholar and a willing participant in the journey who actively seeks out the monk Tripitaka and his retinue of travel companions on their quest to India. The Monkey Pilgrim then uses his magical abilities, aided by treasures from heaven, to protect the monks from all manner of demons, wizards, and dragons. In the end, he is bestowed the title “Great Sage Bronze Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) (Wivell, 1994).

The Monkey Pilgrim’s heavenly treasures are based on those used by the famed Buddhist saint and hero Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, who appears in a late 9th to early 10th-century Bianwen (變文) text in which he travels to the underworld to release his mother from karmic torment (fig. 1). Originally discovered in the oasis of Dunhuang, the text serves as the foundation for the Ghost Festival, which is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In this article, I will discuss the treasures of both Mulian and the Monkey Pilgrim, as well as the saint’s influences on Sun Wukong from the Ming Journey to the West.

Mulian saves his mother, scroll - small

Fig. 1 – A scroll or mural depicting Mulian rescuing his mother from the underworld (larger version). Originally found here.

I. The Staff

Sun Wukong’s signature magic staff is an amalgam of two weapons used by the Monkey Pilgrim, the first being a golden-ringed monk’s staff (fig. 2) and the second an iron staff. The former is capable of shooting destruction rays of light and changing into living beings, including a giant, club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188, 1189, and 1190), while the latter is capable of beating nine-headed serpents into submission (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). Elements of each were eventually combined in the following centuries; the golden rings from the monk’s staff were transposed to the ends of the iron staff, creating a weapon capable of growing, shrinking, and multiplying according to the user’s wishes.

ringed monks staff - small

Fig. 2 – The head of a ringed monk’s staff (larger version). Originally found here.

The Monkey Pilgrim receives the golden-ringed monk’s staff, an alms bowl, and a cap of invisibility from the supreme deity Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma devaraja, to aid in his protection of Tripitaka. The staff and alms bowl were historically two of the eighteen requirements (Ch: suoyi, 所依; Sk: nisraya) of a Buddhist monk, and both were often carried by itinerant monks preaching and begging on the road (Robert & David, 2013, p. 432). The Monkey Pilgrim’s staff is based on that carried by Mulian. Here is the section of The Story in which Monkey receives his holy treasures from heaven:

The Dharma Master [Tripitaka] and Monkey Pilgrim approached the Devaraja and begged for his help. The Devaraja granted them a cap of invisibility, a golden-ringed staff, and a begging bowl. After accepting these three boons, the Dharma Master said farewell, then turned to the Monkey Pilgrim and asked: “How can we get back to the mortal world?” Pilgrim replied: “Before the Dharma Master speaks of returning to the world below, he had better ask the Devaraja how we can save ourselves from the monsters and disasters which lie ahead of us.” The Dharma Master returned to Mahabrahma and asked as Monkey had suggested. The Devaraja responded: “When you meet calamity, point toward the Heavenly Palace from afar and shout ‘Devaraja’ once, and you will be saved.” The Dharma Master accepted his instructions and bowed farewell (Wivell, 1994, p. 1184).

Now compare that with this section of Mulian’s tale in which he receives the staff from the Buddha:

“How will I be able to see my dear mother again?”
The World-Honored called out to him, saying, “Mahamaudgalyayana!
Do not be so mournful that you cry yourself heartbroken;
The sins of the world are tied to those who commit them like a string,
They are not stuck on clay-fashion by anyone else.
Quickly I take my metal-ringed staff and give it to you.
It can repel the eight difficulties and the three disasters.
If only you remember diligently to recite my name,
The hells will certainly open up their doors for you” (Mair, 1994, p. 1111).

So both receive a heaven-sent magic staff with powers tied to the recitation of a Buddhist deity’s name. The power of the Buddha’s staff is best exemplified by two passages:

He [Mulian] wiped his tears in mid-air, and shook the metal-ringed staff,
Ghosts and spirits were mowed down on the spot like stalks of hemp.
Streams of cold sweat crisscrossed their bodies, dampening them like rain,
Dazed and unconscious, they groaned in self-pity;
They let go of the three-cornered clubs which were in their hands,
They threw far away the six-tined pitchforks which were on their shoulders (Mair, 1994, p. 1112).

With one shake of his staff, the bars and locks fell from the black walls,
On the second shake, the double leaves of the main gate [of hell] flew open (Mair, 1994, p. 1113).

Incidentally, the power of the staff to unlock the gates of hell likely influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon from the Ming Journey to the West to magically pick locks. An example of this appears in chapter twenty-five:

The doors are all locked. Where are we going to go?” “Watch my power!” said Pilgrim. He seized his golden-hooped rod and exercised the lock-opening magic; he pointed the rod at the door and all the locks fell down with a loud pop as the several doors immediately sprung open. “What talent!” said Eight Rules, laughing. “Even if a little smith were to use a lock pick, he wouldn’t be able to do this so nimbly.” Pilgrim said, “This door is nothing! Even the South Heaven Gate would immediately fly open if I pointed this at it!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 468-469)

II. The Alms Bowl

The bowl used by both the Monkey Pilgrim and Tripitaka is shown capable of extinguishing a great prairie fire and sucking up all the water of an ocean-like river (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1188 and 1190). Again, the basin is based on that carried by Mulian. But instead of receiving it from heaven, the saint first receives the bowl and a robe upon becoming a monk (refer back to the eighteen requirements of the monk mentioned above). After attaining supernatural power, he imbues the bowl with magic, allowing him to fly between the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld. One example reads:

Maudgalyayana awoke from abstract meditation,
Then swiftly exercised his supernatural power;
His coming was quick as a thunderclap,
His going seemed like a gust of wind.
[…]
With his supernatural power, he gained freedom,
So he hurled up his begging bowl and leaped into space;
Thereupon, instantaneously,
He ascended to the heavenly palace of Brahma (Mair, 1994, pp. 1097-1098).

It’s interesting that both he and the primate hero meet a deity with the name Brahma.

37e2fc9cebe000bb1c76c73e7ad2963a-d5oas0h

Fig. 3 – Monkey flying on his somersault cloud. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The Monkey Pilgrim is also able to travel between earth and heaven but at a much slower pace. However, this could be related to him transporting himself and six human monks at the same time (Wivell, 1994, pp. 1183). As Sun explains in the Ming Journey to the West, mortal bodies are heavy and therefore hard to transport by cloud (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436). Having said that, the great speed of Mulian’s travel recalls Sun’s somersault cloud (jindouyun, 筋斗雲) (fig. 3), which the young immortal masters in chapter two of the novel:

[Master Subhuti said,] “Make the magic sign, recite the spell, clench your fist tightly, shake your body, and when you jump up, one somersault will carry you one hundred and eight thousand miles.” … Wukong practiced ardently and mastered the technique of cloud-somersault. From then on, he had complete freedom, blissfully enjoying his state of long life (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 123).

I’d like to highlight that both passages mention Mulian and Sun Wukong gaining great freedom of travel. Monkey boasts about this skill several times throughout the novel. One example reads:

“You are fibbing again, Elder Brother!” said Eight Rules [Zhu Bajie]. “Six or seven thousand miles, how could you cover that distance so quickly?” “You have no idea,” said Pilgrim, “about the capacity of my cloud somersault, which with one leap can cover one hundred and eight thousand miles. For the six or seven thousand here, all I have to do is to nod my head and stretch my waist, and that’s a round trip already! … “My cloud-somersault is essentially like cloud-soaring,” said Pilgrim, “the only difference being that I can cover greater distances more rapidly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 436).

Mi Wen-K’ai suggests that the somersault cloud is based on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his ability to leap great distances (Mair, 1989, pp. 712-713). While certainly plausible, I think the information above suggests Mulian’s bowl is another possible influence.

III. Conclusion

It is clear that the Monkey Pilgrim serves the part of Mulian in The Story. Each is cast as a mythic figure with magic powers who freely visits the realm above, where they meet a deity with the name Brahma. Most importantly, they use a golden-ringed monk’s staff and alms bowl in their respective quests. The staves are received from a Buddhist deity and the power of each weapon is tied to the recitation of that god’s name. Each staff has its own magical abilities. Mulian’s staff can mow down evil spirits and unlock the gates of hell, while the Monkey Pilgrim’s can shoot destructive rays of light and transform into living beings. Furthermore, their bowls are also magic. Mulian’s basin aids in his travel between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Monkey’s bowl can extinguish fires and suck up large bodies of water. Their use of these holy instruments is different but the end result is the same: salvation is bestowed. Mulian’s mother is released from her karmic torments and the Monkey Pilgrim’s protection allows Tripitaka to bring salvation-bestowing sutras back to China.

Mulian’s influence reaches beyond The Story to the Ming Journey to the West. The golden-ringed monk’s staff later influenced Sun Wukong’s As-You-Wish Gold-banded Cudgel. The power of the saint’s staff to unlock the gates of hell may have influenced the ability of Sun’s weapon to magically pick locks. Additionally, the great speed at which Mulian travels on his magic bowl may have influenced Sun’s somersault cloud.


Update: 12/28/19

While I believe Mulian’s bowl influenced the somersault cloud, Shao (2006) notes the  108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km) covered by Monkey in a single leap is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. As the Chan patriarch explains in the Platform Sutra, “This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person” (Huineng & Cleary, 1998, p. 26, for example). Only those who achieve enlightenment can overcome these hindrances and arrive instantly in paradise. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping their instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years.


Update: 02/06/21

I have written an article that discusses the magic powers of the staff. These include the ability to shrink and grow, control the ocean, astral project and entangle with Monkey’s spirit, multiply endlessly, pick locks, and transform into various objects. It also has sentience to a certain degree.

https://journeytothewestresearch.com/2021/02/06/the-magic-powers-of-the-monkey-kings-iron-staff/

Sources:

Mair, V. H. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate In Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei:

Mair, V. H. (1994). Transformation text on Mahamaudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the underworld with pictures, one scroll, with preface In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1094-1127). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

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

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras In V. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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