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

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

Last Updated: 05-24-2022

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

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

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

I. The story so far

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

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

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

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

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

II. Additions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Why he is really kicked out

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

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

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

IV. My thoughts

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


Update: 05-16-22

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

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


Update: 05-20-22

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

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


Update: 05-24-22

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

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

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

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

Notes:

1) I quote the scene of his expulsion below:

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

Dragon Ball and Journey to the West

Last updated: 03-20-2022

It recently occurred to me that I’ve referenced the Dragon Ball franchise in several blog articles. So I’ve taken the opportunity to gather everything into one spot, including information that I haven’t previously mentioned. This is meant to be a very basic introduction and not an exhaustive analysis. My current interest here is in modern adaptations of Journey to the West. Those interested in a broader discussion on the influences of Dragon Ball should consult the work of Derek Padula.

I. Son Goku

The name of the series protagonist, Son Goku (孫悟空), is a Japanese transliteration of Sun Wukong, meaning “Monkey Aware of Emptiness“, an allusion to Buddhist enlightenment. While referencing Rhesus macaques and “grandsons”, the surname Sun (孫), is also a veiled symbol for the development of an immortal spirit in Taoist elixir arts. Therefore, the name Son Goku straddles both Buddhism and Taoism.

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Goku’s monkey tailflying nimbus cloud, and extending power pole are all based on the respective trait, skill, and weapon of the Monkey King. The latter’s skill is called the “Cloud Somersault” (jindou yun, 筋斗雲), which can travel 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), or one and one-third the circumference of Earth, in a single leap. Sun’s staff, the “‘As-You-Will‘ Gold-Banded Cudgel”, weighs a whopping 17,560 lbs (7,965 kg) and (among other abilities) can magically grow as big or shrink as small as the immortal desires.

WarhammerCommunity on Twitter: "Teclis unleashes more of the Lumineth  Realm-lords to shine a light upon the Mortal Realms. See all of today's big  reveals here: https://t.co/kZkMGHtSwu #WarhammerCommunity  https://t.co/SSl2h2Ksz3" / Twitter

Goku’s proficiency in boxing has a fun connection to Sun Wukong. Series creator Akira Toriyama partly based the Saiyan’s fighting style on the Wing Chun techniques used by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in their respective films. This style falls under the umbrella term “Short Fist” (Duan quan, 短拳), a school of martial arts with a low stance and quick, compact punches. Journey to the West states that this very style is the Monkey King’s preferred fighting technique! He uses Short Fist a few times in the novel.

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The spherical spaceship that baby Goku crash lands on Earth in from DBZ is a clever nod to the magic stone that Sun Wukong is born from in the beginning of the novel.

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Goku’s Ozaro (大猿) form, or his ability to change into a titanic “great ape” during a full moon, is largely based on the Monkey King’s cosmic transformation. The novel calls this magical skill the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and Sun uses it to grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall during battles with powerful opponents. This is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han dynasty concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.

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While I don’t have confirmation from Toriyama, Goku’s “Instant Transmission” skill might be based on the aforementioned cloud somersault. This is because Chinese Buddhist literature mentions the world of man is separated from the Buddha’s paradise by 108,000 li (the distance covered by the cloud), and the only way to instantly bypass all of the hardships in-between is achieving enlightenment. Hence the cloud somersault is symbolic of instant travel.

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II. Other characters

Goku’s early quest to find the dragon balls along with Bulma, the shape-shifting pig Oolong, and the desert bandit Yamcha is based on the “journey” of Journey to the West. The Monkey King, along with the pig spirit Zhu Bajie and the sand spirit Sha Wujing, guards a monk traveling to India to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from the Buddha. Not surprisingly, other DB/DBZ characters come from the Chinese novel. The Ox-King and Chi-Chi are respectively based on the Bull Demon King and his wife, Princess Iron FanTien Shinhan is based on Erlang, the only god to truly defeat Sun Wukong, which is why Tien is such a threat to young Goku.

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Goku’s martial arts teacher, Master Roshi, is based on the Buddho-Taoist Sage Subodhi who teaches Sun Wukong magic and the secret of immortality. Subodhi is based on Subhuti, a historical disciple of the Buddha. This is hilarious when you think about how much of a pervert Roshi is.

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The antagonist Broly wears a shock collar and mind-controlling headband in various DB media. These are based on the Monkey King’s “Golden Fillet” (jing gu quan, 金箍圈), which represses his unruly nature by painfully constricting around his head when a magic spell is chanted. It’s interesting to note that this fillet is based on a historical ritual headband worn by ancient Indian Buddhist yogins as a physical reminder of self-restraint.

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III. Miscellaneous

The senzu (仙豆, “immortal bean”) used by Goku and other Z fighters to replenish their strength from prolonged training or battle are based on immortality-bestowing elixir pills that Sun Wukong eats while drunkenly stumbling through the laboratory of the Taoist high god Laozi. Once eaten, the pills immediately counteract the effects of the heavenly wine.

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Update: 03-20-22

I recently remembered that I’ve also referenced the origin of the spikey hair in esoteric Buddhist art. On 02-14-2019 I posted on twitter saying: “Goku’s spiked hair is based on esoteric guardian deities. For ex., here is Tianpeng, the former incarnation of Oolong’s precursor Zhu Bajie.”

Story Idea: The Reason for Sun Wukong’s Rebellion

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins. 

During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數). [1] It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:

The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).

They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)

Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).

Fig. 1 – The “72 Killer Deities” (Qi shi er Shashen, 七十二煞神) folk print from the Anne S. Goodrich Collection (larger version).

In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.

Notes:

1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).

Sources:

Doré, H., & Kennelly, M. (1916). Researches into Chinese superstitions: Vol. 3 – Superstitious practices. Shanghai: T’usewei Printing Press. Retrieved from https://ia800709.us.archive.org/2/items/researchesintoch03dor/researchesintoch03dor.pdf

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

Pas, J. F., & Leung, M. K. (1998). Historical Dictionary of Taoism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Shi, N., Luo, G., & Shapiro, S. (1993). Outlaws of the Marsh. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Parallels Between the Monkey King and the Buddha

Last updated: 06-18-2022

I’ve previously written about the similarities between Sun Wukong and the Water Margin bandit Wu Song. In this article, I would like to explore the similarities shared by the Monkey King and the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Ch: Xidaduo Qiaodamo, 悉達多 喬達摩). I know readers are now collectively scratching their heads in confusion and asking, “How in the world are a 6th- to 5th-century BCE Indian philosopher and an immortal monkey spirit from Ming-era Chinese literature similar?” It’s true that the particulars of their stories are different, but I will show that Wukong and the Buddha follow a similar trajectory in their early lives. Both experience a supernatural birth, produce a radiant splendor upon emerging from the womb, spend early years as royalty, feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life, set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death, and, finally, achieve this goal through spiritual practices. These similarities suggest that the author-compiler of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) may have borrowed from the Buddha’s story to make Sun Wukong’s early life more familiar to readers.

For details about the Awakened One’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fo suoxing za, 佛所行讚, 2nd-century), a full-length biographical poem that survives thanks to its translation into Chinese from the original Sanskrit (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 150). Information about Monkey will of course come from the standard 1592 edition of the novel.

The Parallels

1. Supernatural birth

On the day of his birth, the bodhisattva’s mother, Queen Maya, feels the urge to go to the garden of Lumbini. There, following the tradition of sage-kings, the young prince Siddhartha is born from her right side (fig. 1):

Whilst she (thus) religiously observed the rules of a pure discipline, Bodhisattva was born from her right side, (come) to deliver the world, constrained by great pity, without causing his mother pain or anguish. / As king Yu-liu [Aurva] was born from the thigh, as king Pi-t’au [Pruthu] was born from the hand, as king Man-to [Mandhatri] was born from the top of the head, as king Kia-k’ha [Kakshivat] was born from the arm-pit, / So also was Bodhisattva on the day of his birth produced from the right side… (Beal, 1883, pp. 2-3).

Chapter one of Journey to the West describes how an immortal stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) splits open and gives birth to a stone egg, which is transformed into a stone monkey (shi hou, 石猴) by the elements (fig. 2):

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open [benglie, 迸裂], giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101) (emphasis mine).

As I’ve previously written, Wukong’s birth is likely based on the sage-king Yu the Great (大禹) and his son Qi (啟, “open”) of Xia, who are stated in various sources to have been born from stone. For example, one 4th-century tale states Yu’s pregnant wife transformed into stone out of shame for having seen her husband’s shamanic metamorphosis into a bear. Yu ordered the stone to release his son, and it split open to give birth to Qi (Birrell, 1999, p. 123). The emphasis on the stone splitting open is related to ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth, [1] much like the Buddha is born from Queen Maya’s side. For instance, the Genealogical Annals of the Emperors and Kings (Diwang shiji, 帝王世紀, 3rd -century) writes:

“While traveling up in the mountains she [Yu’s mother] saw a falling star piercing the Mao region (of the sky). Then in a dream, she received and felt it, so upon swallowing a divine pearl and Job’s Tears, her chest split open and she gave birth to Yu at Stone Knob” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101).

While Yu’s mother is not a stone in this case, his birth is effected by a pearl (a type of stone) and happens in a place named after stone. Such tales establish a link between split births and split stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth category.

Fig. 1 – A stone carving depicting the birth of Siddhartha from Queen Maya’s side (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century) (larger version on Wikipedia). Fig. 2 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article.

2. Radiant splendor

Upon his birth, the Buddha is said to have “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” (fig. 3) (Beal, 1883, p. 3). The source continues to describe this light, as well as the Bodhisattva’s first few moments outside the womb:

His body, nevertheless, was effulgent with light, and like the sun which eclipses the shining of the lamp, so the true gold-like beauty of the Bodhisattva shone forth and was diffused everywhere. / Upright and firm and unconfused in mind, he deliberately took seven steps, the soles of his feet resting evenly upon the ground as he went, his footmarks remained bright as seven stars. / Moving like the lion, king of beasts, and looking earnestly towards the four quarters, penetrating to the centre the principles of truth, he spake thus…” (Beal, 1883, pp. 4-5).

The historical Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based) notes in his travelogue that the Buddha even walks towards the cardinal directions: “After he had been born the Bodhisattva walked seven steps unaided to each of the four quarters … [u]nder each step a large lotus flower sprang up from the earth” (Xuanzang, 1996/2016, p. 158).

Wukong too produces a great light in every direction: “Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar” (fig. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Therefore, both shine their lights in the four cardinal directions.

Fig. 3 – Baby Buddha producing a radiant splendor upon his birth (larger version). Artist unknown. Found on this article. Fig. 4 – Bright beams of light shine from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939). 

3. Royal years

Prince Siddhartha (fig. 5) is born into the royal Shakya clan ruled by his father, King Suddhodana (Beal, 1883, p. 1). Shortly after his son’s birth, the king is told by two sages that the new heir is fated to be either a universal monarch or a cosmic sage (Beal, 1883, pp. 8-18). Suddhodana attempts to defy the latter fate by surrounding his son with royal luxury and even finding him a wife with which to have his own son:

‘My son, the prince, having a son born to him, / ‘The affairs of the empire will be handed down in succession, and there will be no end to its righteous government; the prince having begotten a son, will love his son as I love him, / ‘And no longer think about leaving his home as an ascetic, but devote himself to the practice of virtue […] Would that this might lead my son (he prayed) to love his child and not forsake his home; the kings of all countries, whose sons have not yet grown up, / Have prevented them exercising authority in the empire, in order to give their minds relaxation, and for this purpose have provided them with worldly indulgences, so that they may perpetuate the royal seed; / So now the king, having begotten a royal son, indulged him in every sort of pleasure; desiring that he might enjoy these worldly delights, and not wish to wander from his home in search of wisdom (Beal, 1883, pp. 28 and 29).

Following his birth, the stone monkey 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 the “Cave Heaven of Water-Curtain Cave” (Shuiliandong dongtian, 水簾洞洞天), 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. 6]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).

The prince is born into a royal clan and yet never rules, while Wukong achieves kinghood through a test of bravery and leads his tribe for over three hundred years (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105). Siddhartha’s lack of authority is of course due to his father’s wish that he indulge in worldly pleasures and forget about leaving to become a sage. But birth tales (Sk: jataka) of the Buddha’s past lives do include several incarnations as rulers, even as a monkey king!

Fig. 5 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 6 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

4. Shock at impermanence

One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his sheltered life. Not wanting his son to see anything unpleasant, King Suddhodana has the path cleared of the old, sick, and poor and decorated with beautiful canopies, banners, and curtains (Beal, 1883, pp. 30-32). But a deva raja intervenes to initiate the first of the “four signs” (Sk: caturnimitta; Ch: sixiang, 四相; i.e. old age, sickness, death, and monasticism) to cause the future Buddha to pursue a spiritual path that will ultimately lead to his enlightenment (fig. 7) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 171-172). The deva raja transforms into an extremely elderly man, and upon seeing the sight, Siddhartha is shaken when his chariot driver reveals that he too will suffer this fate:

The prince greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, ‘Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?’ / The charioteer again replied and said, ‘Your highness also inherits this lot, as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance: / ‘The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot’. Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, / Broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood up right. / Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle; so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed (Beal, 1883, p. 33).

After seeing the sign of sickness (Beal, 1883, pp. 34-35), the prince witnesses the sign of death:

(Once more) he asked, ‘What is this they carry? With streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.’ / And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, ‘This is a “dead man,” all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; / ‘His spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, / ‘Now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch (tomb).’ The prince hearing the name of death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, / He asked, ‘Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?’ Replying thus he said, ‘All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; / ‘The strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay (and die).’ The prince now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, / With bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, ‘Oh worldly men! How fatally deluded! Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; / ‘The heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not “all is vanishing!” (Beal, 1883, pp. 36-37).

After the Monkey King rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for more than three centuries, he tells his children:

Though we are not subject to the laws of man today, nor need we be threatened by the rule of any bird or beast, old age and physical decay in the future will disclose the secret sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld. If we die, shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the Heavenly beings? (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 106).

The “shock” felt by Prince Siddhartha and the Monkey King upon realizing the impermanence of life is known in Buddhism as Samvega (Ch: yanli, 厭離) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, n.d.). It’s interesting that Siddhartha is led to the reality of impermanence, while Monkey comes to the conclusion by himself. This is no doubt due to the differences in their lives. King Suddhodana ensures that his son lives a protected life, one free from the woes of the outside world, by surrounding him with luxury and young, beautiful palace attendants. However, Monkey rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for over three hundred years, no doubt witnessing the decline and death of many of his companions, as well as the waning of his own youth. After all, the thought of impermanence would weigh heavy on anyone nearing the end of their life. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, when his soul is taken to hell in chapter three, Monkey learns from the ledgers of life and death that he was fated to die at 342 years old (fig. 8) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).

Fig. 7 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 8 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

5. Quest to overcome impermanence

Siddhartha is wracked by constant, obsessive thoughts on the dangers of old age, sickness, and death. After venturing out once more and witnessing poor farmers toiling away in the fields, he proclaims on the spot that he will find some way to oppose life’s suffering. At that exact moment, a deva affects the fourth sign by transforming into a monk (sk: bhikshu), who tells the prince:

Depressed and sad at [the] thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue, but everywhere I find old age, disease, and death, all (things) hasten to decay and there is no permanency; / ‘Therefore I search for the happiness of some thing that decays not, that never perishes, that never knows beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty, / ‘The happiness of one who finds repose alone in solitude, in some unfrequented dell, free from molestation, all thoughts about the world destroyed, dwelling in some lonely hermitage…’ (Beal, 1883, pp. 49-50).

This influences Siddhartha to forsake his royal life to become an ascetic and search for a means of escape from the evils of old age, sickness, and death. Cutting off his topknot, thus severing his royal ties, the future Buddha sets out into the world (Beal, 1883, p. 68). Siddhartha travels the land studying meditation (Sk: dhyana; Ch: chan, 禪) under various sages, pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood for years, and even practicing severe austerities that result in the emaciation of his body (fig. 9). But he eventually forsakes these extreme practices, recovering his bodily strength and vowing to achieve perfect enlightenment via meditation beneath a banyan tree (Beal, 1883, pp. 131-147).

When the Monkey King opines the injustice of impermanence, one of his advisors tells him that only three beings live beyond the reach of Yama:

There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages [shensheng, 神聖]; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).  

Monkey then pledges to find these great men and women and learn their secret means of escape from Yama’s grasp:

“Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the corners of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).

He sets sail in a makeshift raft and wonders the world for more than ten years, searching the towns and cities of the Jambudvipa continent before sailing to the Western Aparagodaniya continent. There, he is directed to the Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山, 斜月三星洞), an immortal hermitage lorded over by the great Buddho-Daoist Sage Subodhi (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 10). The sage accepts him as a student and gives him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or “Monkey Awakened to the Void” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 108-115).

Both tales show that Siddhartha and Monkey set out on their respective quests thanks to outside influences. The devas intervene numerous times to guide the future Buddha’s path to enlightenment, [2] proving that the heavenly realm has a vested interest in his fate. Wukong’s journey is instead influenced by the words of his mortal advisor. In this case, the gods have no interest in the fate of such “creatures from the world below” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). This of course changes once Monkey starts causing havoc throughout the cosmos.

Fig. 9 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 10 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

6. Achieving a means of escape

The heavenly demon Mara (Mo, 魔) fears that Siddhartha will achieve enlightenment and help mankind break free from his domain, the illusionary world of Samsara, and so he leads a monstrous army against the great rishi. But the army is rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality (Beal, 1883, pp. 147-156). [3] Continuing his meditation further, the rishi perceives his myriad past lives, as well as the karmic punishment of those who covet or perform bad deeds, being tortured in hell or reborn into lower levels of existence, respectively. He then comprehends that suffering arises from clinging, clinging from desire, desire from sensation, sensation from contact, contact from the six senses, and the senses from consciousness. Finally, Siddhartha comes to the realization that breaking each link (e.g. cessation of clinging will end suffering) will stop old age, sickness, and death and ultimately destroy the endless chain of rebirths (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Having achieved perfect enlightenment (fig. 11),

the Buddha then devised for the world’s benefit the eightfold path, right sight, and so on, the only true path for the world to tread. / Thus did he complete the end (destruction) of ‘self,’ as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge; / He finished thus the first great lesson (paramartha); entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared; light coming on, perfectly silent, all at rest, / He reached at last the exhaustless source of truth (dharma); lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth (Beal, 1883, p. 163).

Journey to the West chapter two tells how Wukong serves as a junior monk for seven years before Subodhi takes him as a close disciple. One night, the sage recites him a poem full of flowery esoteric imagery revealing the secret to Daoist immortality and Buddhahood is the cultivation of chaste semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spiritual energy (shen, 神). The poem has a profound effect on Monkey, for the novel states: “At that moment, the very origin was disclosed to Wukong, whose mind became spiritualized as blessedness came to him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120). Following Subodhi’s instructions, Monkey performs breathing exercises after midnight (zi, 子) and before noon (wu, 午), resulting in immortality after three years of dedicated practice (fig. 12). [4] I should note that the book borrows from real Daoist practices but leaves much of the process up to the reader’s imagination. As I explain here, historical methods combined the aforementioned breathing exercises with the circulation of chaste semen and spiritual energy to create a spirit embryo (shengtai, 聖胎), or an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell. But in the case of the novel, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.

Interestingly, the title of chapter two also refers to Monkey overcoming Mara. It reads: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li / Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title freely associates Buddhist and Daoist concepts, such as Mara and the primal spirit. This synthesis is explained by Darga (2008):

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

The Buddha’s biography goes on for pages about deep philosophical concepts on the self, suffering, and reality, showing that the means of his liberation was of the utmost importance. By contrast, as noted above, Journey to the West leaves little space for Wukong’s method of immortality. In fact, the hard won moment that he breaks free of Yama’s grasp is not even mentioned in the novel! [5] So the author-compiler no doubt felt Monkey’s subsequent adventures were far more important. This is understandable considering that, in material as far back as the Song dynasty, Monkey is already an ancient immortal at the beginning of the story.

[Note: See the update below for a seventh parallel.]

Fig. 11 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 12 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

A borrowed story?

So did the author-compiler (AC) of Journey to the West base Monkey’s early life on the Buddha’s story? The many similarities discussed above are very suggestive, but if only there was documented evidence of borrowing from other Buddhist personages. And that’s exactly what is found in chapter two. Shao (2006) explains that Wukong’s spiritual intelligence is based on the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638-713):

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

[…]

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

Therefore, if the AC borrowed from the life of Huineng, a Buddhist patriarch, then he certainly could have borrowed from the life of the Buddha. I suggest this was done to make Wukong’s early life more familiar to the reader. 

Conclusion

Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share six similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mother in the same fashion as ancient Chinese sage-kings. Siddhartha emerges from the side of Queen Maya and Wukong forms from a stone egg birthed by a split rock. Second, they produce a radiant splendor upon their birth. Siddhartha’s body shines as he looks or walks to the four quarters, while beams shoot from Sun’s eyes as he bows to the four quarters. Third, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Fourth, they feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life. Siddhartha is exposed to the evils of old age, sickness, and death via the “four signs” initiated by heaven. Wukong instead comprehends the fearsome hand of Yama through his observation of time. Fifth, they set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death. The prince travels the land studying meditation and pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood. Monkey searches the world for over a decade before he is taken in by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi. Sixth, they achieve their goal through spiritual practices. Siddhartha defeats Mara and achieves perfect enlightenment via intense meditation. Wukong breaks free from Yama/Mara and achieves immortality via Daoist elixir arts. And since the AC borrowed from the life of the Sixth Chan patriarch Huineng, he likely modeled the Monkey King’s early life on the Buddha to make his story more familiar.


Update: 06-12-22

I’ve noticed another parallel while reading two modern biographies of the Buddha. 

7. Prodigies 

The Prince is said to have had a great aptitude for learning in his youth: “And now he was brought to learn the useful arts, when lo! once instructed (at one hearing) he surpassed his teachers” (Beal, 1883, p. 24). [6] Wukong has the same talent. When Subodhi teaches him the method for the 72 Transformations, he masters them very quickly:

[T]his Monkey King was someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred! He immediately learned the oral formulas and, after working at them and practicing them himself, he mastered all seventy-two transformations (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 122). 


Update: 06-18-22

I’ve written an article that lists a number of surprising parallels shared by Monkey and the Greco-Roman hero Heracles (see section 2).

Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Notes:

1) See Cook and Luo (2017) chapter five for more examples of split-births.

2) Other than the “Four Signs”, another example of the devas intervening in Siddhartha’s life takes place shortly after he forsakes the extreme austerities that emaciate his body. He bathes in a holy river but can’t leave the water due to weakness from malnourishment. That’s when a deva pushes down a tree branch, allowing Siddhartha to pull himself to safety (Beal, 1883, p. 144).

3) For example, one passage reads: “Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, p. 153).

4) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi [子, midnight] and after the hour of Wu [午, noon]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). However, this is likely a transcription error as Daoist sources cite the opposite, after midnight and before noon (Kohn, 2008, p. 84, for example). Therefore, I have corrected the information.

5) The moment that Monkey achieves immortality is only alluded to in passing:

Suddenly he [Subodhi] asked, “Where’s Wukong?” Wukong drew near and knelt down. “Your pupil’s here,” he said. “What sort of art have you been practicing lately?” the Patriarch asked. “Recently,” Wukong said, “your pupil has begun to apprehend the nature of all things and my foundational knowledge has become firmly established.” “If you have penetrated to the dharma nature to apprehend the origin,” said the Patriarch, “you have, in fact, entered into the divine substance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121).

6) Nakamura (2000) offers an extremely wordy translation of the above sentence: “When he had passed beyond childhood, he in due time received the initiation ceremony. He mastered in only a few days the various sciences suitable to his standing that [ordinary people] took many years to learn” (p. 90).

Sources:

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

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Cook, C. A., & Luo, X. (2017). Birth in Ancient China: A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cowell, E. B. (Ed.) (1895). The Jātaka, or stories of the Buddhas former births: Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/cu31924072231073/page/n249/mode/2up

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

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

Nakamura, H. (2000). Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts (G. Sekimori, Trans.). Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co.

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.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (n.d.). Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada. Retrieved from https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/NobleStrategy/Section0004.html.

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

Xuanzang (2016). The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions (2nd ed., R. Li, trans.). California: BDK AMerica, Inc. (Original work published 1996)

When was the Monkey King Born?

Last updated: 04-02-2021

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Past examples can be seen herehere, and here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

I was recently contacted by someone writing a Journey to the West fanfiction and asked when the Monkey King was born from stone. I have therefore decided to write an entry for those interested in the subject. I will start at the end of the novel and work my way backwards. The years presented are guesstimates and should not be taken as wholly accurate considering that the novel does not follow a strict historical timeline.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with his religious birthday, which is variously celebrated on the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 82), the twenty-third (Fuzhou) or twenty-fifth day (Putian) of the second lunar month in Fujian (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 1, pp. 288; Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example), and the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month (Taiwan) (see here).

Monkey’s birth from stone (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West (1950).

 

I. Chapter 100

Upon the pilgrims’ return to China from India, Tang Emperor Taizong tells Tripitaka: “We have caused you the trouble of taking a long journey. This is now the twenty-seventh year of the Zhenguan period!” (Wu & Yu, vol. 4, p. 374). It should be noted that this era historically lasted from 627 to 650 CE (Zhang, 2015, p. 49). So the novel dates their return to 654 CE, adding four fictional years to the reign period.

The historical Xuanzang returned in 645 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

II. Chapter 13/14

In chapter fourteen, Tripitaka releases Sun Wukong from under the Mountain of Two Frontiers (a.k.a. Five Elements Mountain) a short time after leaving the confines of the Chinese empire. But prior to taking Monkey as a disciple, he is briefly guarded by the hunter Liu Boqin on his trek westward. Liu tells Tripitaka the history of the area during their journey across the mountain: “A few years ago, I heard from my elders that during the time when Wang Mang usurped the throne of the Han emperor, this mountain fell from Heaven with a divine monkey clamped beneath it” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 306). [1] The former Han official Wang Mang historically ruled from 9 BCE–23 CE (Bielenstein, 1986). I will return to this point below.

Chapter thirteen states Tripitaka leaves from Chang’an “on the third day before the fifteenth of the ninth month in the thirteenth year of the period Zhenguan” (Wu & Yu, vol. 1, p. 293). This dates his departure to the year 640 CE.

The historical Xuanzang left China in 627 CE (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 1015).

III. Chapter 7/8

In the beginning of chapter eight, the Buddha says: “We do not know how much time has passed here since I subdued the wily monkey and pacified Heaven, but I suppose at least half a millennium has gone by in the worldly realm…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 203). But as noted above, Wukong is imprisoned during the reign of Wang Mang (r. 9 BCE–23 CE). Therefore, if he is discovered in 640 CE, this means Monkey’s imprisonment lasts anywhere from 617 to 649 years and not 500 as is commonly thought.

Prior to his wager with the Buddha in chapter seven, Wukong is placed into Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace. The novel reads: “Truly time passed swiftly, and the forty-ninth day arrived imperceptibly” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But the narrative previously revealed that “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, starting between 40–26 BCE.

IV. Chapter 5

Following Monkey’s initial rebellion and being granted the empty title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, he is appointed the guardian of the immortal peach groves. He later flees back to earth after eating the life-prolonging fruits and wreaking havoc on the Queen Mother’s peach banquet. Upon his return, his commanders ask him: “The Great Sage has been living for over a century in Heaven. May we ask what appointment he actually received?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 166) (emphasis mine). [2] This dates his ascension to heaven somewhere below the range of 140–126 BCE (150–136 BCE?). I Obviously can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

V. Chapter 3/4

After Wukong bullies the Eastern Dragon King and the Judges of Hell, Heaven appoints him the “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” in order to keep his unruly adventures in check. But upon learning that his position is the lowest in heaven, he returns home in rebellion. His children ask, “Having gone to the region above for more than ten years, you must be returning in success and glory” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150) (emphasis mine). [3] This dates his first ascension somewhere below the range 150–136 BCE (160–146 BCE?). Again, I can’t provide a more precise number given the vague language.

Shotaro_Honda_1939 - Hell (small)
Monkey strikes his name from the Book of Life and Death in Hell (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).

During his time in Hell, Monkey calls for the ledger containing his information. Under a heading marked “Soul 1350”, Wukong reads, “Heaven-born Stone Monkey. Age: three hundred and forty-two years. A good end” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140). [4] If we use 160–146 BCE as a conservative estimate for his first ascension, then this dates his birth to somewhere between 502–488 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE). I think 500 BCE is a nice round number.

This means that Sun Wukong is roughly 1,100-years-old when he attains Buddhahood at the end of the novel.


Update: 07-08-2020

The novel suggests a two hour window for the time of Wukong’s birth. This takes place in chapter 61 when Monkey is preparing to battle the Bull Demon King over the palm-leaf fan. Our hero recites an emboldening poem, to which Zhu Bajie replies:

Yes! Yes! Yes!
Go! Go! Go!
Who cares if the Bull King says yes or no!
Wood’s born at Boar,
the hog’s its proper mate,
Who’ll lead back the Bull to return to earth.
Monkey is the metal born under shen [申]:
Peaceful and docile, how harmonious!
Use the palm-leaf
As water’s sign.
When flames are extinct, Completion’s attained.
In hard work we persist both night and day
And rush, merit done, to Ullambana Feast (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 154). (emphasis mine)

The monkey is one of twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, each corresponding to an earthly branch, an elemental phase, and a time period. The monkey is born under the shen (申) branch, which is associated with metal and the hours 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM.


Update: 04-02-2021

As I explain in this article, Wukong learns the 72 transformations in order to escape a trio of heaven-sent punishments scheduled to kill him for defying his fate and achieving immortality. The calamities of thunder, fire, and wind respectively come every 500 years (after the initial attainment of eternal life) to kill Daoist cultivators. Monkey becomes an immortal around his 342nd year when his soul is taken to Hell. He is immortal for over 160 years [5] 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) I am indebted to Irwen Wong for bringing this passage to my attention.

2) Wukong, however, questions this estimate, saying: “I recall that it’s been but half a year…How can you talk of a century?’” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 167). But, earlier in the novel, a wise member of Monkey’s tribe points out that one’s view of time is skewed while inhabiting the celestial realm: “You are not aware of time and seasons when you are in Heaven” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). Add to this the established fact that one heavenly day equals one solar year. Therefore, the Great Sage’s recollection of the passage of time is unreliable.

3) Monkey also questions this estimate: “I have been away for only half a month…How can it be more than ten years” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 150). But, again, his recollections are not reliable. See note #2.

4) These include three years as Subodhi’s student (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 121), seven as a junior monk (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 117), and “more than ten years” searching the world for a master (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 114).

5) As previously mentioned, 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 heavenly days/49 solar years in Laozi’s furnace (see above).

Sources:

Bielenstein, H. (1986). Wang Mang, the Restoration of the Han Dynasty, and Later Han. In D. Twitchett and M. Loewe (Ed.). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220 (pp. 223-290). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

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

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual Alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A Survey of Village Temples and Ritual Activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social Life of the Chinese: With Some Account of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational, and Business Customs and Opinions. With Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau (vol. 1 and 2). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

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

Zhang, Q. (2015). An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Belgium: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.