Archive #15 – Sun Wukong and Chinese Medicine

In my previous article, I noted medicine was among the skills acquired by Monkey while training under the Buddho-Daoist sage, Master Subhuti. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long-standing malady of the Scarlet-Purple Kingdom emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, Sun is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. He deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a secret recipe and administers the elixir with dragon king saliva. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowels, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

Monkey analyzes the Emperor's Pulse (from Mr. Li Zhouwu's Lit. Criticism) - small

Fig. 1 – Monkey uses golden threads to analyze the emperor’s pulse (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

I. Analyzing the pulse

We were telling you about the Great Sage Sun, who went with the palace attendant to the interior division of the royal palace. He stood still only after he had reached the door of the royal bedchamber. Then he told the attendant to take the three golden threads inside along with the instruction: “Ask one of the palace ladies or eunuchs to tie these three threads to the inch, the pass, and the foot sections of His Majesty’s left hand where the radial pulse are felt. Then pass the other ends of the threads out to me through the window shutters” [fig. 1].

The attendant followed his instruction. The king was asked to sit up on the dragon bed, while the three sections of his pulse were tied by the golden threads, and their other ends were then passed out to Pilgrim. Using the thumb and the index finger of his right hand to pick up one of the threads, Pilgrim first examined the pulse of the inch section; next, he used his middle finger and his thumb to pick up the second thread and examine the pulse of the pass section; finally, he used the thumb and his fourth finger to pick up the third thread and examine the pulse of the foot section.

Thereafter Pilgrim made his own breathing regular and proceeded to determine which of the Four Heteropathic Pneumatics, the Five Stases, the Seven External Images of the Pulse, the Eight Internal Images of the Pulse, and the Nine Pulse Indications were present. [1] His pressure on the threads went from light to medium to heavy, and from heavy to medium to light, until he could clearly perceive whether the condition of the patient was repletion or depletion of energy and its cause. Then he made the request that the threads be untied from the king’s left wrist and be attached as before to the positions on his right wrist. Using now the fingers on his left hand, he then examined the pulse on the right wrist section by section. When he had completed his examination, he shook his body once and retrieved his hairs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 270).

Baring the strings, Monkey’s method of reading the pulse aligns with real Chinese medicinal practice. The area of the forearm analyzed by traditional Chinese doctors is known as Cunkou (寸口, the “inch opening”), and this is broken up into the three spots Cun (寸, “inch”), Guan (關, “pass”), and Chi (尺, “foot”) (fig. 2). The mirrored spots on each arm are believed to correspond to specific internal organs. For example, the Cun spot (nearest the wrist) on the right hand corresponds to the lung, while that of the left hand corresponds to the heart (Liao, 2011, pp. 55-56). Therefore, analyzing the pulse at these spots is believed to reveal the health of the corresponding organs.

TCM hand chart

Fig. 2 – The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis. Picture originally found here.

II. The Elixir of Black Gold and its historical origins

Wukong selects his ingredients from among 808 requested substances in order to keep the recipe a secret from the foreign kingdom’s doctors. It is made from an ounce of powderizedahuang (大黃), which is said to “loosen phlegm and facilitate respiration [and] sweep out the chill and heat congealed in one’s stomach” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 273-274); an ounce of shelled, powerderized badou (巴豆), which is said to “break up congestion and drain the intestines [and] take care of swellings at the heart and dropsy in the abdomen (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); half a flask of “‘Hundred-Grass Frost” (baicao shuang, 百草霜), or frying pan soot, which is said to “soothe a hundred ailments” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274); and half a flask of dragon (horse) urine, which is said to “cure any kind of disease a human may have when it is ingested” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 274). The resulting paste is rolled into three pills and presented to the emperor as the “Elixir of Black Gold” (Wujin dan, 烏金丹) (video 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 276).

Video 1 – Episode 20 of the 1986 Journey to the West series portrays this story. See minute 19:19 for the preparation of the Elixir of Black Gold.

Andrew Schonebaum’s (2016) fascinating book Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China explains the historical significance of the real world ingredients used in this elixir. He introduces the first two ingredients to us by way of their anthropomorphization as Badou Dahuang, the ruler of the fictional Hujiao (胡椒, black pepper) kingdom from the vernacular novel Annals of Herbs and Trees (Caomu chunqiu yanyi, 草木春秋演義, c. 17th/18th-century), a work that gives human form to Chinese medicines, pitting armies of mortal, immortal, and demonic characters/remedies against one another. Badou is depicted as having the mandate of heaven (the right to rule) in his own country but wanting to invade the Han empire. This dual nature can be explained by the properties of the ingredients making up his name. Schonebaum (2016) writes:

[B]adou (croton) and dahuang (rhubarb), are two of the most common drugs in Chinese medicine. Badou is toxic and a strong purgative, and it was used to treat stagnation in the viscera and bowels, as well as to facilitate urination, eliminate malignant flesh, and purge vicious agents such as invading ghosts or worms. Dahuang is nontoxic and is sometimes referred to by the name “military general” because “the drug pushes away the old and brings in the new, like a military general putting down a riot and bringing peace” (pp. 99-100).

Regarding the “Elixir of Black Gold,” Schonebaum (2016) explains “black gold” was the name of a common prescription and that badou and dahuang were part of its core, while other ingredients could be replaced with those of similar properties:

One commentator had never heard of this medicine, saying that it had a strange name, but this only reveals his own highbrow background (or general ignorance), since “black gold” was the name of various prescriptions common among hereditary doctors. In fact, it was mentioned in the Systematic Materia Medica repeatedly, and Xu Dachun recommends it in Medical Cases of Huixi, so it was not exclusively the purview of nonelite healers.

“Black gold pills” (wujin wan) was a name and a concoction similar to “elixir surpassing [the value of] gold” (shengjin dan) and “black spirit pills” (heishen wan). All of them were core formulas that could be modified in their effects by ingesting them with different liquids. These “black gold” medicines, along with the likes of “the prescription offering Guanyin’s all-encompassing help” (Guanyin puji fang) and “pills prepared with old ink” (gumo wan), treated a wide variety of ailments (in one medical manuscript, twenty-nine, forty, and seventy-one ailments, respectively), and were extremely common formula in the Qing. The “black gold” formulas had at their core the drugs dahuang and badou. One medical manuscript from the Republican period states in its introduction, “Black gold powder [wujin san] cures all ailments, just as the wind bends the grasses. Other names [of this prescription] are ‘pine smoke elixir’ [songyan dan] and ‘black spirit pills’ [heishen wan]. It cures thousands of illnesses, just as the sun melts the frost.”

Black gold pills (wan), powder (san), paste (gao), and elixir (dan) were commonly employed to cure gynecological issues. A prescription named “black gold powder” was first recorded in the Song work A Spring of Recipes in the Magic Park (Lingyuan fangquan) and was followed by references in the Southern Song prescription collection “Complete Collection of Effective Prescriptions for Women” (Furen daquan liangfang, 1237), Formulas for Universal Benefit (Puji fang, 1390), and other works. Over the centuries, numerous formulas, each with different ingredients, became known under the names “black gold powder,” “black gold pills,” and “black gold elixir.” The three designations of this formula result from the use of pitch (mo), a vernacular name for which is the “black gold” of these prescriptions.

Monkey’s prescription reflects a historical reality, namely that the advent of the imperial pharmacy (huimin yaoju) in the Song required doctors who had previously relied on simple medicines with one or two ingredients to employ formulas with numerous substances whose composition followed theories of systematic correspondences. From this conflict between empirical and theory-based recipes arose a new type of prescription eventually consisting of a nuclear formula that could be adapted to the requirements of a given patient’s disease by omitting or adding individual constituents in accordance with his pathological condition. Monkey is preparing simple, trusted medicine at the core, namely badou and dahuang, and adding to it many exotic, unobtainable ingredients (pp. 103-104).

As noted above, black gold medicines were sometimes used to treat gynecological issues. This makes Monkey’s prescription all the more comical as he had partly attributed the foreign emperor’s ails to a “cessation of the menses” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 271), obviously a woman’s problem. Schonebaum (2016) comments: “To understand this aspect of the carnivalesque comedy, or to realize that it was a mistake in the incorporation of medical materials into the novel, readers would have had to be quite familiar with medicine, at least enough to know that the medicine Monkey is preparing is consistent with his diagnosis” (p. 104). 

III. Archive link

Chapter three of Novel Medicine (2016) is archived here.

Click to access novel-medicine-healing-literature-and-popular-knowledge-in-early-modern-china-chapter-3-contains-jttw-ch.-68-69-material.pdf

Disclaimer

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

Notes:

1) Anthony C. Yu provides explanations for these terms in the end notes of his wonderful translation. See Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 448-449, notes 3-7.

Sources:

Liao, Y. (2011). Traditional Chinese medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schonebaum, A. (2016). Novel medicine: Healing, literature, and popular knowledge in early modern China. Seattle : University of Washington Press

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Volume 3. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Alchemical Metaphor of Subhuti’s Mountain Home

The Monkey King’s quest for immortality spans some ten years, taking him passed two cosmic continents and two great oceans. After sailing to a continent in the west, our hero is directed to the abode of the Sage Subhuti, a place often translated as “The Mountain of Mind and Heart / Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山,斜月三星洞) (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 113, for example). This translation, however, glosses over deeper meanings associated with the original Chinese. The term lingtai (靈臺/台), literally “spirit platform/tower” or “numinous platform/tower”, was sometimes used in Daoist literature to refer to the “heart” or “mind” (xin, 心, “heart-mind” hereafter), the center of spiritual intellect. Going back centuries to the Zhuangzi (c. 3rd-century BCE), it was represented as something that had to be guarded against malevolent influences:

Utilize the bounty of things and let them nourish your body; withdraw into thoughtlessness and in this way give life to your mind; be reverent of what is within and extend this same reverence to others. If you do these things and yet are visited by ten thousand evils, then all are Heaven-sent and not the work of man. They should not be enough to destroy your composure; they must not be allowed to enter the Spirit Tower. The Spirit Tower has its guardian, but unless it understands who its guardian is, it cannot be guarded (Chuang & Watson, 1968, p. 194).

Subuti's cave, from Mr. Zhuo's literary criticism of Xiyouji - 2mall

Fig. 1 – Monkey kneeling before the entrance of Subhuti’s school asking to become a disciple (larger version). A detail from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

The term fangcun (方寸), literally “square inch”, was also used historically to refer to the heart-mind. [1] But it’s important to note that Daoist alchemical literature sometimes uses the term to refer to the lowest cinnabar or elixir field located approximately “two inches below the navel, three inches within, where the mind is focused” (Saso, 1995, p. 128). For instance, the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing, 黃庭經, c. 4th-century), a treatise associated with the Highest Clarity tradition, recognizes three fields: brain (upper), heart (center), and belly (lower) (fig. 2), each one represented by a series of place names or an anthropomorphic persona (Saso, 1995, pp. 106-107). The scripture presents the lower field/square inch as the storehouse of vital spiritual energies, the synergy of which is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. A portion of the fifth stanza reads: “Inside the square inch, carefully cover and store qi. / Shen spirit and jing intuition returned there, though old, are made new / Through the dark palace make them flow, down to the lower realm. / Nourish your jade tree, now a youth again”. [2]

The scripture treats the central heart-mind field as the seat of the spirit (shen, 神), sometimes anthropomorphizing it as a red-robed man (Saso, 1995, p. 125, for example). But it also calls the field the spirit platform. A section of the sixth stanza reads: “The spirit platform meets heaven in the central field. / From square inch center, down to the [dark] gate, / The soul’s doorway to the Jade Chamber’s core is there”. [3] Saso (1995) explains the first line refers to the interaction between the heart-mind and the Dao, with the second and third referring to spiritual energies being directed into the lower field via a passage near the kidneys (p. 129). Despite the cryptic Daoist jargon, what’s important here is the link between the center field/spirit platform and the lower field/square inch. 

Given the information above, a better translation for Subhuti’s mountain might be the “Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Cinnabar Mind” or the “Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind” (or any combination of the two).

Daoist Dantian Chakras - small

Fig. 2 – An example of the upper, center, and lower cinnabar fields indicated by red dots (larger version).

I propose the name of Subhuti’s mountain home was specifically chosen by the author-compiler of the Journey to the West as a metaphor for the alchemical practices taught in the Scripture of the Yellow Court. This conclusion is supported by the mention of the scripture in the very first chapter of the novel. This happens when Monkey confuses a lowly woodcutter for an immortal just because the man was singing a Daoist song, one taught to him by Subhuti:

The Monkey King explained, “When I came just now to the forest’s edge, I heard you singing, ‘Those I meet, if not immortals, would be Daoists, seated quietly to expound the Yellow Court.’ The Yellow Court contains the perfected words of the Way and Virtue. What can you be but an immortal?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 111)

I find it interesting that Wukong touts the authority of the Scripture of the Yellow Court even before having begun his Daoist training. From where did he learn this? Could this be projection of the author-compiler?

heart calligraphy

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for heart (xin). Original image found here.

Another aspect of Subhuti’s location that requires explanation is the cavern housing his temple, the “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (xieyue sanxing dong, 斜月三星洞). The name is a literal description of the Chinese character for heart-mind (xin, 心). It looks just like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars (fig. 3). This means all three sections of the location name (spirit platform, square inch, cave name) are associated in some form with the heart-mind. The reason for this could be because, in the Ming Journey to the West, Wukong represents the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include 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”). Additionally, 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). [4]

I’m not sure when Sun was first associated with this concept, but Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave (Dong qianfo dong, 東千佛洞) number two in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province contains a Western Xia wall painting of the Monkey Pilgrim wearing a golden headband (fig. 4). I show in this article that the band is based on a historical Esoteric Buddhist ritual fillet associated with the Akshobhya Buddha, who is known for his vow to attain Buddhahood through moralistic practices. Therefore, the ritual band most likely served as a physical reminder of right speech and action, making the band from the mural a symbol for the taming of the Monkey Mind. If this is the case, Wukong has represented the Monkey Mind since at least the 11th-century when the mural was painted.

Fig. 4 – Detail of the Monkey Pilgrim’s fillet from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (c. 11th-cent.) (larger version). Image enhanced slightly for clarity. See here for a larger detail showing both Monkey and Tripitaka. 

Allusions to the Mind Monkey appear in the ancient Pali Buddhist canon, but its earliest known occurrences in Chinese sources appear among the translations of the monk Kumarajiva (Jiumoluoshi, 鳩摩羅什, d. 413). For instance, his translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra reads: “Since the mind of one difficult to convert is like an ape [yuanhou, 猨猴], govern his mind by using certain methods and it can then be broken in” (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 168). This shows the concept was present in China for over a millennia prior to the Ming Journey to the West.

Notes:

1) In Buddhism, for example, the fourth Chan patriarch Daoxin is quoted as saying: “All schools of the Law find their way to the Square Inch; all rivers and sand of wonderful virtues come from the Source of the Mind (xinyuan 心源)” (Liu, 1994, p. 28).

2) See Saso, 1995, p. 127 for the full stanza and explanation. I have changed all quotes used from this source from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. I also slightly modified the translation.

3) See Saso, 1995, p. 129 for the full stanza and explanation. Again, I slightly modified the translation.

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

Sources:

Chuang, T., & Watson, B. (1968). The complete works of Chuang Tzu. Columbia University Press.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: Univ. Press of America.

Saso, M. R. (1995). The Gold pavilion: Taoist ways to peace, healing, and long life. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

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

Archive #12 – Huineng, Subhuti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji” (2006)

I present an archived copy of Ping Shao’s (2006) wonderful paper exploring the origin of Sun Wukong’s characterization and how it effects his story cycle. [1] Shao presents a three-fold objective: first, highlight Daoist and Buddhist concepts in chapters one and two that have previously been overlooked or not given enough weight, showing that they serve a function and are not just expendable story elements; second, provide a unified religious vision based on the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of the Daoist southern lineage patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, 987?–1082); and 3) demonstrate that Zhang’s philosophy dictates the course of Sun’s story cycle from unruly immortal to enlightened Buddha. 

Shao (2006) suggests Monkey’s portrayal in the first two chapters is influenced by the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638–713), founder of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Buddhism. [2] For example, Sun’s quick-wittedness, demonstrated by his deciphering of his teacher, Subhuti’s, chastisement for refusing to learn certain Daoist skills in chapter two as secret code to receive a private lesson at night, [3] is based on a similar episode involving Huineng and the previous patriarch Hongren. Additionally, Monkey’s 108,000 li (33,554 mi/54,000 km)-spanning somersault cloud (fig. 1) is based on the symbolic distance said by Huineng to separate the Buddha’s paradise from the world of man. [4] Only those who achieve enlightenment can arrive instantly. This is symbolized in the novel by Monkey zipping there instantly on his cloud, whereas Tripitaka must travel thousands of miles over many years. Shao provides further examples, but I feel these suffice.

37e2fc9cebe000bb1c76c73e7ad2963a-d5oas0h

Monkey flying on clouds. Drawing by Funzee on deviantart (larger version).

The unified religious vision is demonstrated by Sun Wukong’s name, which contains both Daoist and Buddhist elements. When broken into its individual components, the surname Sun (孫) refers to an immortality spirit embryo brought about via Daoist cultivation exercises. The given name Wukong (悟空) refers to a vacuous state of mind needed for attaining Buddha-nature. Here, Shao (2006) notes the literary Subhuti is based on a historical disciple of the Buddha who was known for meditating on emptiness and having a superior grasp of the Enlightened One’s teachings. In later chapters, Sun himself shows a grasp of scripture far surpassing even that of Tripitaka. Therefore, an additional influence on Monkey was likely the historical monk. Shao (2006) contextualizes this information by comparing it to Zhang Boduan’s Buddho-Daoist philosophy. Zhang believed Daoists must first attain the elixir (i.e. a method increasing one’s lifespan) and then attain Buddha-nature to truly become an enlightened transcendent. Conversely, he warned Buddhists that achieving Buddha-Nature alone wouldn’t help them escape the wheel of reincarnation. 

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – Sun Wukong becoming a Buddha (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

Shao (2006) illustrates how Zhang’s views are played out in the novel. Sun achieves immortality and is even invited to heaven like the hagiographies of famous transcendents, but his unruly nature symbolizes his lack of true spiritual attainment, causing him to wage war against the realm above. He remains a “deviant” or “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙) until the journey proper, the tribulations serving to temper his mind. Moreover, when the pilgrims arrive in the Buddha’s paradise, they must first pass through a Daoist temple (referring again to Zhang’s philosophy). In the end, Sun is bestowed Buddhahood (fig. 2)—thereby Buddha-nature—completing the second step of Zhang’s two-part path to true transcendence.

Archive link

https://journeytothewestresearch.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/huineng-subhuti-and-monkeys-religion-in-xiyouji.pdf

Disclaimer

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

Notes

1) The paper is copied almost verbatim from chapter three of Shao’s doctoral thesis Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (1997). I am currently reading this and may add an update later.

2) In this article, I discuss how the “Monkey Pilgrim”, Sun Wukong’s precursor from Song Dynasty material, is based on the monk Mulian (Sk. Maudgalyayana), another of the Buddha’s disciples. 

[3] The particular passage reads:

When the Patriarch heard this, he uttered a cry and jumped down from the high platform. He pointed the ruler he held in his hands at Wukong and said to him: “What a mischievous monkey you are! You won’t learn this and you won’t learn that! Just what is it that you are waiting for?” Moving forward, he hit Wukong three times on the head. Then he folded his arms behind his back and walked inside, closing the main doors behind him and leaving the congregation stranded outside […] But Wukong was not angered in the least and only replied with a broad grin. For the Monkey King, in fact, had already solved secretly, as it were, the riddle in the pot; he therefore did not quarrel with the other people but patiently held his tongue. He reasoned that the master, by hitting him three times, was telling him to prepare himself for the third watch; and by folding his arms behind his back, walking inside, and closing the main doors, was telling him to enter by the back door so that he might receive instruction in secret (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 118-119).

4) Huineng explains in the Platform Sutra:

This number refers to the ten evils and eight wrongs in one’s person […] Now I urge you, good friends, to first get rid of the ten evils; that is the equivalent of traveling ten [thousand li]. 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).

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.

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

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

Sun Wukong and the Three Heavenly Calamities

Last updated: 04/02/2021

In chapter two, Master Subhuti warns Sun Wukong that he must protect himself from Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) sent by heaven to punish him for achieving immortality and defying his fate (fig. 1). These punishments come every half millenia in the form of destructive elements:

Though your appearance will be preserved and your age lengthened, after five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of thunder [lei zai, 雷災] to strike you. Hence you must be intelligent and wise enough to avoid it ahead of time. If you can escape it, your age will indeed equal that of Heaven; if not, your life will thus be finished. After another five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of fire [huo zai, 火災] to burn you. The fire is neither natural nor common fire; its name is the Fire of Yin [yin huo, 陰火], and it arises from within the soles of your feet to reach even the cavity of your heart, reducing your entrails to ashes and your limbs to utter ruin. The arduous labor of a millennium will then have been made completely superfluous. After another five hundred years the calamity of wind [feng zai, 風災] will be sent to blow at you. It is not the wind from the north, south, east, or west; nor is it one of the winds of four seasons; nor is it the wind of flowers, willows, pines, and bamboos. It is called the Mighty Wind [bi feng, 贔風], and it enters from the top of the skull into the body, passes through the midriff, and penetrates the nine apertures. [1] The bones and the flesh will be dissolved and the body itself will disintegrate. You must therefore avoid all three calamities (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 121-122).

These calamities are important because Monkey subsequently learns the 72 transformations in order to escape punishment by hiding under any one of a myriad number of disguises. Therefore, exploring the origins of the three calamities has merit.

Monkey learning from master - Elements (small)

Fig. 1 – Master Subhuti tells Sun about the Three Calamities (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

The novel likely borrows from a Buddhist cosmological concept called the Three Calamities (sanzai, 三災). We first need some background before continuing. Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). The Three Calamities are responsible for the destruction of each Mahakalpa.

Kloetzli (1983) describes the cyclical destruction of each Mahakalpa by an element:

The destructions are of three kinds: those by fire, those by water and those by wind. […] The destructions succeed one another in the following sequence: seven by fire followed by a destruction by water. This cycle of eight destructions is repeated a total of seven times. This is then followed by seven more destructions by fire, followed by a final by wind. Thus there are 7 x 8 or 56 destructions by fire; 7 by water and a final 64th by wind [fig. 2] (p. 75).

Therefore, the Three Calamities from Journey to the West follow a similar cycle of destructive elements appearing at set time intervals: lightning, fire, and wind every 500 years in place of fire, water, and wind at the end of every Mahakalpa. And instead of destroying the universe, the elements are sent to kill those who have achieved immortality.

X57p0473_01 - small

Fig. 2 – A chart mapping the cyclical destructions by fire, water, and wind. A larger version is available on the CBETA page.

The earliest mention of Buddhism’s Three Calamities in Chinese writing that I know of appears in scroll one of the Pearl Forest of the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin, 法苑珠林), a Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia published in 688. So there was plenty of time between this work and the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592.

I was interested to learn that Monkey’s calamities made their way into modern Wuxia (武俠, “Martial hero”) literature. For example, the author of the Immortal Mountain wordpress writes:

Heavenly Tribulation (天劫 tiānjié) (重劫 zhòngjié) – in some novels, a trial encountered by cultivators at key points in their cultivation, which they must resist and ultimately transcend. Because immortal cultivation (generally) goes against the Will of Heaven, the Heavens will send down tribulations to oppress high-level cultivators who make progress towards Immortality, often right when they enter a new cultivation stage. This typically takes the form of a lightning storm, with extraordinarily powerful bolts of lightning raining down from the Heavens to strike at the cultivator (source).

The trial by lightning is exactly like the calamity of thunder mentioned by Master Subhuti.


Update: 09/10/2018

The Wuxia/Xianxia (仙侠, “Immortal hero”) literature translator Deathblade (twitter) was kind enough to direct me to an example of a tribulation from a popular Chinese television show . The scene (video 1) involves a 20,000-year-old child immortal experiencing a trial by lightning. The heavenly bolts tear at his clothing and draw blood, but he survives the ordeal.

Video 1 – Start watching from minute 13:08.

Deathblade also directed me to an example from an online Xianxia novel called I shall Seal the Heavens (Wo yu feng tian, 我欲封天). Chapter 385(!) describes how the anti-hero Meng Hao (孟浩) uses a sentient heavenly treasure to protect himself from powerful bolts of lightning, which instead seek out and kill nearby spiritual cultivators on the cusp of immortality:

The Heavenly Tribulation boomed as one lightning bolt after another shot down onto Meng Hao, who held the meat jelly upraised in his hand to defend himself. The lightning would subsequently disperse into the area around him. Any nearby Cultivators would let out bloodcurdling screams. Soon, the air filled with the sounds of cursing and reviling.

Meng Hao didn’t care. This was something he had learned from Patriarch Reliance. When you con someone and then end up getting cursed by them, you must maintain your cool. It was really a realm unto itself.

Throughout the years, Meng Hao had conned many people, and had refined that skill to the very pinnacle. Therefore, he continued to redirect the descending lightning to the various Cultivators in the three thousand kilometer region.

Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a lake of lightning, along with plaintive cursing. What he left behind was scorched corpses.

To the Cultivators here, it was nothing but a massacre, a slaughter in which no one could do anything to fight back. They couldn’t attack him, nor could they flee as… they were horrified to discover that Meng Hao’ speed was incredible, even if he was being struck by lightning!

(read more here)

The character uses trickery to protect himself from the bolts just like Monkey intended to do with his transformations.


Update: 04/02/2021

As I explained above, Wukong learns the 72 transformations in order to escape the heaven-sent punishments of thunder, fire, and wind. Monkey attains eternal life around his 342nd year when his soul is taken to Hell. He is immortal for over 160 years [2] at the time he’s imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. This means his 500th year of immortality, the year that the calamity of thunder would be scheduled to strike him, takes place during his imprisonment under the celestial mountain. But this is never described in the story. I assume this is just one of many inconsistencies born from oral storytelling. Although, one could argue that, within the fictional universe, the thunder calamity was voided since Wukong was undergoing punishment at the behest of the Buddha.

Notes:

1) The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus.

2) Wukong serves in heaven twice: first “for more than ten years” and second “for over a century” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 166). Then he is punished to 49 days in Laozi’s furnace (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative revels “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). So this means his turn in the furnace lasts close to fifty years.

Sources:

Kloetzli, R. (1983). Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land: Science and Theology in the Images of Motion and Light. Oxford: Motilal Books.

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

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

The Connection Between Monkey’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy

Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:

This bold, secret saying that’s wondrous and true:
Spare, nurse nature and life—there’s nothing else.
All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these securely lest there be a leak.
Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive.
Hold fast oral formulas so useful and keen
To purge concupiscence, to reach pure cool;
To pure cool
Where the light is bright.
You’ll face the elixir platform, enjoying the moon.
The moon holds the jade rabbit, the sun, the crow;
The tortoise and snake are now tightly entwined.
Tightly entwined,
Nature and life are strong.
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage 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 (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy pathways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right) A Daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers (larger version). Photos from Kohn (2008).

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180) (fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Various facets of the aforementioned Song-era practices, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi” (before noon and after midnight). [1] This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84). [2] So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.

Notes:

1) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I’ve changed the quote because this is most likely an error. See below.

2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is a transcription error in the original text.

Sources:

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

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