A Realistic Retelling of Journey to the West?

Last updated: 10-10-2022

I was recently asked about the existence of a realistic retelling of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) that follows the adventures of the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664). To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist, but this is something I’ve thought about to some extent. In this article, I would like to discuss what a realistic journey might be like.

1. Literature vs History

There are some important distinctions that first need to be made between the literary and historical stories before we can speculate about our version.

1.1. Literature

  1. The story is set in a syncretic Buddho-Daoist universe modeled on Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography. This flat world-disc features four cardinal continents (of various shapes) floating in a great ocean around the four faces of Mt. Sumeru (see section 1, #1 here). The Daoist heaven sits atop this mountain, taking the place of the “Heaven of the Thirty-Three” from the original Buddhist structure. China is located in the Southernmost continent (the original structure, however, associated this with India). India and the Buddha’s paradise are moved to the Westernmost continent (since it is West of China in OUR world).
  2. The literary Xuanzang (fig. 1) is the final reincarnation of “Master Golden Cicada” (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the fictional second disciple of the Buddha who was exiled to China for ten lifetimes as punishment for being inattentive during a heavenly lecture.
  3. His father, Prefect Chen (陳), is murdered by a bandit, who takes his government post and pregnant wife for his own. Chen’s son is born in Jiangzhou (Jiangxi) sometime after, forcing his mother to float the baby down the river in a basket (à la Moses) in order to save his life. He is found and raised by the old abbot of a Buddhist temple. Eighteen years later, after receiving his ordination, the monk Xuanzang is reunited with his mother and magically-revived father, and the bandit-turned-official is arrested and executed (ch. 9).
  4. He leaves China in 640 with the blessing of the Tang emperor (ch. 13) and returns in 654 (ch. 100). [1]
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission is to obtain the correct scriptures needed to perform a grand mass to release untold souls from suffering in hell (see note #1 here).
  6. He is portrayed as a proponent of the Chan (禪; Sk: Dhyāna) school of Buddhism.
  7. Xuanzang is an extremely whiny character modeled after a Confucian official who is blindly loyal to the throne, extolls virtues of propriety, and complains about everything. He is depicted as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist scripture, but he doesn’t always understand the underlying meaning, something that Monkey sometimes explains to him (see note #8 here).
  8. He initially leaves with a few human disciples, who are eventually eaten (ch. 13), and takes on the monstrous disciples Sun Wukong (ch. 13), Zhu Bajie (ch. 19), and Sha Wujing (ch. 22) along the way.
  9. These latter disciples aren’t “Chinese”. They come from different countries among said continents. For example, Monkey’s Flower Fruit Mountain is an island located to the east of the Easternmost continent (refer back to here).
  10. Xuanzang spends all of his time traveling or trying to escape from a monster or spirit who has kidnapped him. No time is spent studying languages or scripture.
  11. All of the kingdoms encountered conveniently speak (and to some extent dress) like the Chinese.
  12. The group receives the scriptures directly from the Buddha in the Western Paradise of India and are magically transported back to China.
  13. After performing the grand mass, Xuanzang and his disciples are magically returned to the Western Paradise, where they receive an elevation in spiritual rank (ch. 100) (Wu & Yu, 2012).

Fig. 1 – A print of the literary Xuanzang from a Qing-era edition of Journey to the West (larger version). Originally found on Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 – An anonymous 14th-century Japanese painting of the historical Xuanzang on the road to India (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

1.2. History

  1. The real Xuanzang (fig. 2) obviously existed in OUR world, the Earth.
  2. He was born in Luoyang (Henan) to the aristocratic Chen (陳) family, the youngest of four boys.
  3. He followed in his oldest brothers footsteps by becoming a monk at eleven, receiving full ordination at twenty.
  4. He left China illegally in 629 and returned a celebrity in 645.
  5. The expressed purpose of his mission was to obtain scriptures that resolved contradictions in and expanded the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
  6. He initially traveled by himself within China, but later joined caravans in Central Asia and India, even having his own royal escorts at different times.
  7. He was exposed to different cultures, languages, and religions, the latter including Zoroastrianism and Vedism (early Hinduism).
  8. He was a proponent of the Yogācāra (Sk: “Yoga practice”; Ch: Weishi zong, 唯識宗, “Consciousness Only”) school of Buddhism.
  9. He was super brave and intelligent, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhist and even Vedic literature. Apart from Buddhist schooling in his youth, much of this knowledge was gained during prolonged study abroad.
  10. He faced many problems on the trip back to China, even losing some of his hard-won scriptures in a fording accident.
  11. Xuanzang returned home with hundreds of scriptures, over one hundred Buddha relics, and tens of statues. He spent the remainder of his life translating texts, while also battling his celebrity. He died at the age of 61 (Brose, 2021).

2. Speculation

This is not meant to be exhaustive since trying to adapt every character and event from the novel would make it much too long. The point is to give the reader a basic understanding of what Xuanzang’s historical journey was like.

Everything prior to his birth would be nearly the same, including the monk’s previous incarnations and Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing’s respective early lives and punishments. But since the story will take place on Earth, the location of literary events will have to be placed in a real world context. For example, Monkey would have to be born on an island east of China. Japan is certainly an interesting option, with Mt. Fuji (Fujisan, 富士山) being a good candidate for his birthplace. Taiwan’s Mt. Jade (Yushan, 玉山) is another. This would REALLY piss off the PRC. Fun fact: Taiwan is known for its “Rock Macaques” (fig. 3). This is a fitting name considering that Sun is born from stone.

Fig. 3 – A Taiwanese Rock Macaque (larger version). Originally found here.

Placing Monkey’s past in a real world context opens the door to interesting possibilities in this adaptation. The novel describes him studying Buddho-Daoist arts under the Patriarch Subodhi in the Westernmost continent (i.e. India). But since Daoism didn’t exist in ancient India, he would have likely learned Hindo-Buddhist spiritual cultivation techniques and philosophy, thereby becoming a competent (albeit short-tempered and naughty) rishi. Therefore, he would know how to read and speak the Pali/Sanskrit language of the different Buddhist and Vedic texts that Xuanzang would come to study. One implication is that Sun would be able to help his master if any language or philosophical barriers popped up. This means that his assistance would indirectly contribute to Xuanzang’s later translation of Buddhist scriptures in China!

2.1. Traveling to and Life in India

Xuanzang’s initial request to leave China was denied by the Tang court of Emperor Taizong. Undeterred, the monk traveled in secret towards the northwestern reaches of the empire in 629, eventually learning from a sympathetic official that he was to be arrested if caught (Brose, 2021, p. 16). He would likely have come across Monkey just prior to leaving China. Remember that chapter 13 also refers to Five Elements Mountain as the “Mountain of Two Frontiers” (Liangjie shan, 兩界山), the eastern half belonging to the Middle Kingdom and the western half belonging to Turkic peoples (Dada, 韃靼; a.k.a. “Tartars“) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 305). The Heavenly Mountain (Tianshan, 天山) (fig. 4) would therefore be a good spot for the trickster god’s earth prison as it stretches from Northwestern China into Central Asia.

Communication between master and disciple wouldn’t be an issue since Monkey would have likely picked up some Chinese during his early life and rebellion. The other disciples would be added at different spots along the route through Central Asia (see 10-10-22 update below). But since Zhu and Sha have memories of their previous lives, they too would likely know Chinese.

Fig. 4 – The Heavenly Mountains (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

Xuanzang’s Central Asian route took him through Sūyāb (Kyrgyzstan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the Kunduz River valley (Afghanistan), and then Balkh (Afghanistan). Here, the monk stopped for a month to study Sanskrit literature under Prajñākara, before both of them left to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains. After Bamiyan (Afghanistan), both of them attended the required three-month “Rainy Retreat” at a Buddhist monastery in Kapisā (Afghanistan). This was a time of intense study (Brose, 2021, pp. 23-28). Xuanzang likely attended the three-month retreat every year of his journey, making this aspect of the historical story a major divergence from the novel. This means that, unless the various monsters or spirits tried attacking him in monasteries, his disciples would only see action during the time (days or weeks) that it took the group to travel to a new location.

Since the story is set in the real world, Daoism’s influence would fade as the group traveled westward. This then begs the question: If Sun Wukong requires divine assistance to help identify or defeat a powerful foe in, say, Central Asia, would he zip back to the Daoist heaven in China, or would he simply consult the local foreign gods and spirits? The former possibility would allow us to stick closer to the novel, but the latter would be far more interesting. The Iranic, Judeo-Christian, or Greek gods in that area might be willing to help thanks to the Buddha’s request. I could see this leading to some comical inter-faith drama: 

Foreign god: “Monkey Man, you have no power over us in this region!”

Sun Wukong: “Oh, really? Let me introduce you to my two friends [holds up fists], RIGHT and LEFT!”

But this might make the story a little too complex. And since Buddhism was present throughout Central Asia at one point or another, it would make more sense for Monkey to call on Buddhist deities for help. Either way, the story would have to be changed to accommodate gods and spirits outside of Daoism.

Prajñākara stayed in Kapisā, while Xuanzang headed for northern India. His travels took him through Nagarahāra (Afghanistan), Gandhāra (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Swat Valley (Pakistan), Taxila (Pakistan), and Kashmir (India). He studied in the latter city for two years, while a team of twenty royally-appointed scribes copied extensive scriptures for him. For the next three years after this, he traveled through Cīnabhukti, Jālandhara, Śrughna, Matipura, and Kānyakubja, staying for a month or as long as a year in certain places to study with specialists in Buddhist and Vedic literature. Xuanzang later sailed down the Ganges River, where, according to legend, his priceless collection of Buddhist scriptures and imagery attracted the attention of Hindu pirates. When captured, he sunk into deep meditation while awaiting a sacrificial death by fire, but a strong, supernatural wind began throwing the world into chaos. Thinking that the attempted murder of the monk displeased their goddess Durga, the pirates begged for his forgiveness (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-35). This seems like a perfect demonstration of Sun Wukong’s powers. He would use this trick in place of outright murdering the bandits in order to avoid punishment via the golden headband.

Xuanzang traveled through areas of India where Buddhist institutions once flourished but had fallen into decay, some places being taken over by Hindu and Jain ascetics who practiced extreme forms of austerities. During this time, he also went about visiting all of the famous locations associated with the historical Buddha’s life but was dismayed to see some of those in ruins and/or abandoned. These included the garden where the Enlightened one was born (Lumbini, Nepal) (fig. 5), his father’s palace (Kapilavastu), where he lived as an adult (Jetavana), and the forest where he died (Kuśinagara). Xuanzang took the declining state of Indian Buddhism as proof that his time was the Latter Day of the Dharma (Brose, 2021, pp. 30-32 and 35-38). This surely strengthened his resolve to learn all he could and take back as many scriptures as possible to China in order to ensure that the religion continued to thrive there. His monstrous disciples would be the ones to tote this huge collection in place of human laborers.

Fig. 5 – A 2nd to 3rd-century Gandharan stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth from his mother’s side in Lumbini (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.

The idea of monsters and spirits attacking the monk while he visits these once flourishing but now dilapidated Buddhist sites is somewhat comical. I think that the evil would live in the various ruins or in the forests and hills around said locations. This would mean that demonic mountain strongholds from the novel would be a rarity in this retelling.

Thankfully, though, Xuanzang was able to visit two places associated with the Buddha’s life that still flourished, namely the park where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath) and the area where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayā). The monk was later invited to a grand Buddhist complex in Nālandā, where he became a disciple of Śīlabhadra, a learned master of the Yogācāra school. He studied in Nālandā for five years, receiving a special status that freed him from community duties so he could focus on his studies (Brose, 2021, pp. 37-45). After a failed trip to Sri Lanka, Xuanzang traveled around southern India and eventually studied for two years in Parvata. After returning to Nālandā and learning from various local masters for a few months, he studied for two years with Jayasena, a very knowledgeable lay disciple of Śīlabhadra (Brose, 2021, pp. 50-53).

The total of Xuanzang’s time spent studying in Nālandā and Parvata alone adds up to an astounding nine years. That is an awfully long time for Sun, Zhu, and Sha to see no action. Perhaps they too would live the life of monks and possibly resume their spiritual cultivation in order to better themselves. They could even help teach the clerics at the various institutions how to protect themselves, much like the famous Shaolin Monks (fig. 6). This might replace the episode in chapter 88 in which Monkey and his religious brothers accept three Indian princes as students. Sun could instead give a chosen cadre of monks super strength and divine longevity in a similar fashion.

Fig. 6 – A group of Shaolin monks practicing martial arts (larger version). Originally found here.

Xuanzang’s final year in India was apparently an eventful one. Apart from saving Nālandā from destruction by accepting a tyrannical king’s invitation to visit, he evidently took part in a number of life or death religious debates against Brahmins and Mainstream Buddhists. However, there is no evidence that the grandest of these ever took place. It might even be a later embellishment by Xuanzang’s disciple (Brose, 2021, pp. 53-60). Therefore, I think it should be left out of the retelling.

2.2. Return to and Life in China

I’m going to skip over the events just prior to Xuanzang leaving India, as well as the various trials and tribulations that he faced along the road to China. His disciples would certainly continue protecting him from any evil that still wished to capture the monk. This means that the various episodes could be spread out to the return journey as well.

Instead, I’d like to briefly discuss Xuanzang’s life after returning to the Middle Kingdom. Despite his illegal departure, the monk was welcomed home in 645 with open arms and became an instant celebrity. Emperor Taizong shortly thereafter asked him to compose an account of his travels, [2] the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Datang xiyou ji, 大唐西域記), which was finished in 646. The year before, he and a team of experts from all around the empire began translating the scriptures, but fame, official duties, and later unwanted changes to group members by the proceeding Emperor Gaozong hindered the project over the years. The monk was expected to entertain aristocratic guests and donors, and he often traveled to perform the ordination of hundreds of monks at newly built monasteries. This took a toll on his body, which was apparently plagued by a chronic illness that affected his heart and bones. Wishing to escape his celebrity and return to more steady translation work, he requested and failed many times over the years to be relocated to more remote institutions. Instead, he was forced to stick close to the Tang capital, where, years later, he was lucky to escape political upheaval in the court that saw some of his official friends exiled or even executed. Apart from this, Xuanzang was forced to defend himself against critiques on two fronts. On one side were Daoists who disliked his fame and railed against the foreign nature of Buddhism (Daoism was after all the state religion at that time). And on the other, some Buddhists heavily criticized his translation method, as well as his Yogācāra philosophy, which differed from other Mahāyāna teachings. At the end of his life, the poor monk injured his leg in an accident and was bedridden for two months before dying at the age of 61 in 664. His death was apparently followed by miraculous lights in the sky. [3]

Now, I can already hear some of my readers asking: What happened to his disciples? Does everyone still achieve an elevation in spiritual rank? Monkey and his religious brothers would have left by this time. Whereas the pilgrim’s meet the Buddha face to face in India at the end of the novel, he would instead manifest before them (or at least jointly in their dreams) after they successfully transported the scriptures to China. This is when he would offer them their respective promotions, Monkey becoming a Buddha, Sha Wujing an arhat, and Zhu an altar cleaner. They would thereafter leave to enjoy their divine lives in the Western Paradise. However, I think Xuanzang would postpone his enlightenment until he finished translating the scriptures. Monkey might even visit his former master in his dreams and encourage him to continue his work even when he is old and sick. The many hardships that the monk faces towards the end of his life would therefore make his final ascension all the more bittersweet.

I’m interested to hear reader’s ideas on where they might insert famous episodes into this more realistic setting. Please let me know in the comments below or in an email (see the “contact” button above).


Update: 10-10-22

It turns out that Sha Wujing would be the first disciple recruited on the road to India in our more realistic retelling. As I show in this article, his antecedent appears in various retellings of Xuanzang’s journey as a stern, encouraging spirit or even a heaven-sent protector.

The monk’s embellished biography notes that, while traveling west of the Jade Gate, he chose to bypass various watchtowers on his illegal journey by trekking though the 800 li Gashun Gobi desert (Mohe yanqi, 莫賀延磧). But after only 100 li, Xuanzang lost his surplus of water when the heavy bag slipped from his hands. He went without drink for four days, all the while chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara (i.e. Guanyin) for deliverance, as well as the Heart Sutra to keep demons at bay (Huili & Li, 1995, pp. 26-27). On the early morning of the fifth day, a divine mist lulled him to sleep, where

[He] dreamed that he saw a giant deity several tens of feet tall, holding a [halberd] and a flag in his hands. The deity said to him, “Why are you sleeping here instead of forging ahead?” (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

即於睡中夢一大神長數丈,執戟麾曰:「何不強行,而更臥也!」

After waking up and mounting his horse, it veered in a different direction than Xuanzang intended and arrived at a much needed oasis, which was apparently provided by the bodhisattva (Huili & Li, 1995, p. 28).

However, a Tang-era Japanese source appearing in a work of the 11th-century states that the “Spirit of the Deep Sands” (Shensha shen, 深沙神) physically interacted with Xuanzang, calling himself the monk’s “guardian spirit” and even providing him with food and water (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). The same source also states that he had previously appeared before the earlier monk Faxian (法顯, 337-422) in a ghastly, demonic form (fig. 7):

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Fig. 7 – A 13th or 14th-century Japanese carving of the Spirit of the Deep Sands (larger version).

The spirit’s great height influenced Sha’s whopping twelve Chinese foot (zhang er丈二; 12.6 feet / 3.84 m) frame (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 2, p. 51), his necklace of heads was the model for our hero’s necklace of skulls (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 230), and the “Moving Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) of his harsh desert home served as the basis for Wujing’s “Flowing-Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河) (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 421).

I would like to combine details from the Chinese and Japanese sources, making the Spirit of the Deep Sands a physical being, and instead of the pearly thread-wrapped wooden staff wielded by Sha in the novel (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 428), the deity would use the aforementioned halberd. I’d also borrow from the novel, having him exiled to earth for an offense in heaven, but in place of the Flowing-Sands River, be banished to the desert to await the coming of Xuanzang (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, p. 210).

Another interesting change that just occurred to me would be to completely reverse the order of Xuanzang’s disciples. Even though the literary monk happens upon them in the order of Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, Guanyin first recruits them in the order of Sha, Zhu, and Sun (Wu & Yu 2012, vol. 1, pp. 207-216). Making Monkey the lowest-ranking, yet most powerful religious brother would lead to some funny situations. Sha and Zhu might try to order him around at first, but they would soon learn not to test the powerful monkey rishi’s patience. I can see them begging him to intervene when they can’t defeat a given evil.

Perhaps Zhu would be recruited in Central Asia, while Monkey might be discovered under a mountain closer to India. What say you?

Note:

1) The novel adds four more fictional years to a historical reign period (see section 1 here).

2) The Emperor’s true purpose in asking for the travelogue was to gain information pertinent to military campaigns against Turkic forces west of China (Brose, 2021, pp. 75-76).

3) See chapter 3 in Brose (2021).

Source:

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Huili, & Li, R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and research.

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

What is the Oldest Known Media of Sun Wukong the Monkey King?

Many people assume that Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the immortal monkey hero from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter), is the inspired creation of Chinese author Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩, d. 1582). However, the character is known to predate the standard edition of the novel by several centuries. In this article, I’d like to highlight the oldest known media referencing or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者). I will discuss a eulogy from an early-12th-century tale and a mid-13th-century set of poems, as well as Buddhist cave art in northern China and a stone pagoda carving from the south, which range from the late-11th to late-13th-centuries. I ultimately suggest that the character appeared around circa 1000 based on his connection to oral literature.

1. Northern China

1.1. Oldest known reference

The character is mentioned in a eulogy from a tale in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, d. after 1230) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). The story follows Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains the ability to read and predict the future after eating a magic peach bestowed by an immortal. He is later asked to write a eulogy (zan, 讚) in honor of a temple’s newly built revolving sutra case. It reads:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (puṇyakṣetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duḥkha-sāgara),
the Monkey-disciple [1] presses on,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyāya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting, sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Isobe, 1977, as cited in Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

無上雄文貝葉鮮,幾生三藏往西天。行行字字為珍寶,句句言言是福田。苦海波中猴行復;沈毛江上馬馳前。長沙過了金沙難;望岸還知到岸緣。夜叉歡喜隨心答;菩薩精虔合掌傳。半千六十餘函在,功德難量熟處圓。

The tribute references elements that would later appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話, c. late-13th-century), the earliest printed edition of the JTTW story cycle comprising a seventeen-chapter storytelling prompt. These include Xuanzang’s quest to India over several lifetimes, the Monkey Pilgrim coming to his rescue, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance.

Japanese scholar Isobe Akira dates the tale of Zhang the Sage to the late-Northern or early-Southern Song (circa 1127) based on the mention of certain historical figures therein (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

1.2. Oldest known depictions

The oldest depictions of the Monkey Pilgrim and his master appear in a genre of Silk Road Buddhist cave art representing the adoration of the reclining “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin)” (Shuiyue Guanyin, 水月觀音). [2] Different grottoes depict them as small details to the left or right of the much larger Bodhisattva. The pilgrims are always depicted alongside a horse, which is sometimes ladened with sutras.

Wei and Zhang (2019) provide many examples of early art depicting Xuanzang on his quest. Some show him alone, while others portray him with a disciple. This latter figure ranges from human to the Monkey Pilgrim. The problem here is deciding when the first ends and the second begins. Some depictions are heavily degraded, making them ambiguous enough to be either. A prime example comes from Zhao’an Grotto cave no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) at Ansai District, Yan’an Province, China (Yan’an Ansai Zhao’an di 3 ku, 延安安塞招安第3窟) (fig. 1). The rock carving features two sets of figures at the base, two to the left of the Bodhisattva and three to the right. I’d like to begin with the latter. The first of the three figures has what Wei and Zhang (2019) call a “monkey[-like] form” (houxing, 猴形) (fig. 2) (p. 13). But I have three problems with this being a depiction of the Monkey Pilgrim. One, while vaguely simian, the figure is too degraded to be sure. Two, it makes no sense for Monkey to be the first figure when other examples show Xuanzang in the lead. And three, there is no sutra horse. Conversely, the two figures to the left feature a monk standing in the front with elbows bent as if his hands (which are missing) are pressed in prayer. And behind him is a faceless disciple tending to the horse. Their right arm is bent at the elbow and angled to where their fist might have original been positioned at the chest. Everything else from the left side of the chest up is missing, however (fig. 3).

Fig. 1 (left) – The complete “Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara” carving from Zhao’an Grotto no. 3 (c. 1094-1102) (larger version). Fig. 2 (middle) – Detail of the three degraded figures to the right (larger version).  Fig. 3 (right) – Detail of the two figures to the left (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 12-13.

But this side of the carving shares similarities with three late-Xixia dynasty (late-12th or early-13th-century) murals. The first appears in Yulin Cave no. 2 (Yulin di 2 ku, 榆林第2窟) in Gansu Province. The Monkey Pilgrim is seemingly saluting with his right hand and holding the horse reins with his left fist at the chest. This might explain the disciple’s bent elbow in figure three. Xuanzang is shown with hands clasped in prayer similar to the monk from figure three. Both are depicted facing left and standing at the bank of a river separating them from Avalokiteśvara (fig. 4 & 5) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35).

Fig. 4 (top) – The complete late-Xixia Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Yulin Cave no. 2 (larger version). Fig. 5 (bottom) – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, p. 35.

The second appears in Yulin Cave no. 3 (Yulin di 3 ku, 榆林第3窟). Xuanzang is again worshiping from a riverbank, but this time he is facing right and the subject of adoration is Samantabhadra (fig. 6). We see that the disciple is far more monkey-like in appearance, complete with furry arms. He stands next to the sutra horse with hands clasped in prayer (fig. 7) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 36).

Fig. 6 – An almost complete version of the late-Xixia Yulin Cave no. 3 mural (larger version). Fig. 7 – Detail of the pilgrims (larger version). Images found randomly on the internet.

The third appears in Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (Dong qianfo dong di 2 ku, 東千佛洞第2窟) in Gansu. It contains iconography similar to Yulin Cave no. 2, complete with the Monkey Pilgrim standing next to a horse in a matching “salute and fist over chest” pose (fig. 8-11) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-40). It’s interesting to note that this is one of the oldest depictions of Monkey with his famous golden headband.

Fig. 8 (top left) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 9 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 38-39. Fig. 10 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet. Fig. 11 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 39-40.

Additionally, there are two other examples with varying degrees of similarity. The first also comes from the late-Xixia Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2. Master and disciple are again worshiping the Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara at a river bank (fig. 12 & 13), but the Monkey Pilgrim instead holds his staff at the ready like a soldier (fig. 14 & 15).

Fig. 12 (top left) – The second complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara mural from Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave no. 2 (late-Xixia) (larger version). Fig. 13 (top right) – An easier to see line drawing of the scene (larger version). Fig. 14 – Detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Fig. 15 – A line drawing of master and disciple (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 40-42.

The second is the earlier Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) at Hejiagou District, Yichuan County, Shaanxi (Yichuan Hejiaguo Foye dong shiku, 宜川賀家溝佛爺洞石窟), which is similar yet different from the above examples. It’s similar in that the master and disciple are again worshiping from the river bank (fig. 16). The Monkey Pilgrim is also depicted with the “salute and fist over chest” posture. And it’s different in that Xuanzang is shown in the lead kowtowing to the Bodhisattva, while a third degraded figure loiters behind the sutra horse (fig. 17) (Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18).

Fig. 16 (top) – The complete Moon in the Water Avalokiteśvara carving from the Buddha Cave Grotto (c. 1103-1104) (larger version). Fig. 17 (bottom) – A detail of Xuanzang and the Monkey Pilgrim (larger version). Images from Wei & Zhang, 2019, pp. 17-18.

There are enough similarities shared between the art of Zhao’an Grotto, Yulin Cave, Eastern Thousand Buddha Cave, and Buddha Cave Grotto to suggest that the disciple from figure three “could” be the Monkey Pilgrim. That’s as far as I’m willing to go without more information.

3. Southern China

3.1. Oldest known reference

Writing in the 1250s, the Song poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269) mentioned our hero twice in his work. The first reads:

From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra),
Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian [大顛].
To fetch scriptures (it was necessary to) trouble [the Monkey Pilgrim].
In composing verse (the Buddhists?) do not rival
He A’shi [鶴阿師] (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 45-46). [3]

The poem is openly critical of Buddhism, [4] showing that the Monkey Pilgrim was so common at this time that he was used in political satire.

And the second uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old’s failing appearance. It reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河], Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than [the Monkey Pilgrim],
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46).

This shows that even by the mid-13th-century, the character’s ugly features were already well-known. This is mirrored in his monstrous description from the 1592 edition.

3.2. Oldest known depiction

The Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺; est. 686) in the southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian is home to two 13th-century stone pagodas covered in 80 life-size relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures. The Monkey Pilgrim (fig. 18) figures among them and is located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. This structure was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), dating the carving to around the same time period as the late-Xixia cave murals along the Silk Road in northern China. This gives us incite into how people of different regions viewed the primate hero.

Fig. 18 – The Kaiyuan Temple stone pagoda carving of the Monkey Pilgrim (1237) (larger version). Image found randomly on the internet.

Three things are immediately apparent. One, the pagoda carving gives precedence to the Monkey Pilgrim, with his entire body taking up most of the available space. Xuanzang, who is normally in the lead position, is instead given a tiny corner above his disciple’s left shoulder. He is shown ascending into the heavens on a divine cloud. Two, Monkey is wearing a double “curlicue-style” headband, the motif being associated with protector deities in religious art of this time. And three, he wields a broadsword with a lick of heavenly flame instead of a staff (refer back to fig. 14 & 15). I’ve theorized in this article that (among other indicators) the combination of the headband, the heavenly blade, and Xuanzang’s ascent to paradise designates the Monkey Pilgrim as a protector deity who removes obstacles to enlightenment. If true, his southern persona was elevated in importance from a mere body guard and horse groom (like in northern art) to a hand of the Buddha.

This elevation may have something to do with the fact that the Monkey King’s cult began in Fujian. While concrete references to his worship date to the 17th-century (see section III here), this carving may be an indicator that he was revered at an earlier time. The area is known to have worshiped monkeys as far back as the Tang period (see the material below fig. 3 here, as well as the 08-17-2019 update).

Before continuing, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned poet Liu Kezhuang was a native of Putian (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), which neighbors Quanzhou. This means that his unflattering mental image of the Monkey Pilgrim was likely influenced by the Kaiyuan pagoda carving.

4. First appearance? 

To my knowledge, these are the oldest known forms of media mentioning or depicting Sun Wukong’s antecedent, but they certainly aren’t the first. We will never conclusively find his “first” appearance. This is not only because a lot of physical media has been lost to the ravages of time, but also because the Monkey Pilgrim was a product of oral storytelling. He was likely given life in urban storytelling stalls (fig. 19 & 20) and nourished by amateur retellings of his adventures at home. Such tales would have predated any artistic depictions or written references. It’s important to remember that oral literature is intangible and ultimately leaves no trace (that is unless it was written down like the 13th-century version). [5]

The fact that Zhang the Sage’s eulogy (section 1.1) is just a vague list of events suggests that the original storyteller knew his audience was already intimately familiar with the tale and therefore didn’t need more exposition. This further suggests that the JTTW story cycle had already been circulating for some time prior to circa 1127 (as dated by Isobe Akira). The earliest examples of cave art push the Monkey Pilgrim’s existence back to the earliest years of the 12th-century and possibly even to the late-11th-century. Therefore, we can safely conclude that he dates to at least some time in the 11th-century. And since it can take generations for a story to become engrained in the public psyche, the Monkey Pilgrim might even date to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). This is why I usually cite circa 1000 as a general time frame for the hero’s appearance.

Fig. 19 (top) – Detail of an urban storytelling (jie, ; lit: “explanation”) stall from the famed 12th-century painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (larger version). Fig. 20 (bottom) – A detail of the detail showing a close up of the people intently listening to the storyteller (larger version). The images are screenshots taken from this digital version of the painting on Wikimedia. A big thank you to Borrdahl (2002) for pointing out the storytelling stall.

5. Conclusion

[UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

Notes:

1) The eulogy writes “Monkey Pilgrim” as Hou xingfu (猴行復) instead of the more familiar Hou xingzhe (猴行者).

2) Buswell & Lopez (2014) explain:

The name of this bodhisattva derives from this image’s most characteristic feature: a luminous disk that encircles the bodhisattva and evokes both a nimbus and a full moon, effectively suggesting its power to dispel the darkness of the night. Another connotation is indicated in texts such as the [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra], where the term “moon in the water” connotes that all phenomena are like reflections of the moon on the surface of the water, thereby signifying insubstantiality and impermanence (pp. 813-814).

3) Source altered slightly. I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

4) It openly mocks Buddhist philosophy as shallow (“From one stroke of the brush it was possible to learn the sense of the Śūraṅgama (sūtra)). And it references historical tensions between Buddhism and Confucianism by mentioning the monk Dadian (大顛, 732-824) (“Yet three letters accompanied the presentation of a robe to Dadian”). The Buddhist master was an acquaintance of the Confucian official Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824), who had been exiled to southern China for writing a memorial reprimanding the Tang emperor for patronizing Buddhism. Dudgbridge (1970) believes that the reference to the Monkey Pilgrim “ridicules the degrading of [Xuanzang’s] great mission to the west into a story in which the traveller depends on the support of a fantastic monkey” (p. 46).

5) See, for example, the introduction in Dudbridge (1970).

Sources:

Borrdahl, V. (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Co.

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

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The Twin Pagodas of Zayton: A Study of the Later Buddhist Sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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

Wei, W., & Zhang, L. (2019). Xiyouji bihua yu Xuanzang qujing tuxiang [Journey to the West Wall Murals: Images of Xuanzang Procuring the Scriptures]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House.

Does the Buddha Lie in Journey to the West?

I was recently directed to an online Chinese article by Ye Zhiqiu (叶之秋) (n.d.) in which they claim that the Buddha makes “four grand, overarching lies” (sige mitian dahuang, 四個彌天大謊) throughout the course of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, “JTTW” hereafter). They believe this is because the literary version of the Enlightened One is a master strategist who uses lies in a calculated attempt to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. This is admittedly a fascinating idea but one that falls apart under careful analysis. Ye (n.d.) displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. In this article, I will show that there are far more plausible reasons for the Buddha’s statements than lying.

I. First Lie

The Buddha states the following about the novel’s Hindo-Buddhist cosmos (ch. 8), which features four island-like continents floating in a great sea around a cosmic mountain (fig. 1) (see the 06-25-22 update in section 1.2 here for a slightly more detailed explanation):

I have watched the Four Great Continents, and the morality of their inhabitants varies from place to place. Those living on the East Pūrvavideha revere Heaven and Earth, and they are straightforward and peaceful. Those on the North Uttarakuru, though they love to destroy life, do so out of the necessity of making a livelihood. Moreover, they are rather dull of mind and lethargic in spirit, and they are not likely to do much harm. Those of our West Aparagodānīya are neither covetous nor prone to kill; they control their humor and temper their spirit. There is, to be sure, no illuminate of the first order, but everyone is certain to attain longevity. Those who reside in the South Jambūdvīpa, however, are prone to practice lechery and delight in evildoing, indulging in much slaughter and strife. Indeed, they are all caught in the treacherous field of tongue and mouth, in the wicked sea of slander and malice. However, I have three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 204-205).

我觀四大部洲,眾生善惡,各方不一:東勝神洲者,敬天禮地,心爽氣平;北俱盧洲者,雖好殺生,只因糊口,性拙情疏,無多作踐;我西牛賀洲者,不貪不殺,養氣潛靈,雖無上真,人人固壽;但那南贍部洲者,貪淫樂禍,多殺多爭,正所謂口舌兇場,是非惡海。我今有三藏真經,可以勸人為善。

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Enlightened One is lying because most of the monsters show up not in the supposedly evil continent of South Jambūdvīpa (the Land of the East, i.e. China) but in the Buddha’s home of West Aparagodānīya (India). They even provide a long list of monsters encountered there. Also, the writer theorizes that the planned scripture pilgrimage is just a ploy to spread the Buddha’s influence to the Land of the East, making him the ruler of two of four continents. The implication here is that he is slowly chipping away at the Jade Emperor’s domain.

However, the Buddha was likely referring to the people in those particular continents and not the monsters. And most importantly, his words appear to mirror the views of foreign Buddhist monks. When the historical monk Xuanzang (玄奘; 602-664), on whom Tripitaka is based, planned to return home from India, his friends tried dissuading him by describing China in similarly negative terms. Brose (2021) comments:

For many of the monks he had befriended, the decision was hard to fathom. “India is the birthplace of the Buddha,” they reminded him. “Although the Great Sage is gone, his traces remain. To travel around and venerate them is enough to make one’s life content. Why would you want to give this up after having come here? China is a barbarian land where people are neglected, and the Dharma is despised. That is why no buddhas have ever been born there. The people have narrow aspirations and deep impurities, so sages do not go there. The air is cold and the land is dangerous. How can you think of returning there?” Xuanzang reportedly responded by quoting an exchange from the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, where the noble layman Vimalakīrti asks Śāriputra, “Why does the sun come to Jambudvīpa?” The answer: “To illuminate it and eliminate the darkness.” If Xuanzang remained in India, the true Dharma might never be known in China (pp. 61-62).

Additionally, Xuanzang is known to have left China illegally when he first began his journey. Brose (2021) explains:

Xuanzang almost didn’t make it to India. Before setting out on his pilgrimage, his initial request for a travel permit was denied by the [Tang] court and, after traveling over five hundred miles from the capital to the westernmost Chinese city of Liangzhou, the local governor ordered him to turn back. Hiding during the day and traveling at night, Xuanzang quietly continued on to the desert outpost of Guazhou. There, he learned that the court had issued a warrant for his arrest. The local prefect, it turned out, was a pious Buddhist and urged Xuanzang to leave quickly… (p. 16).

Conversely, the monk in JTTW is portrayed as a loyal Confucian-type person. Therefore, in order to frame Tripitaka as a faithful, law-abiding citizen of China, the novel had to provide a reason for his pilgrimage, one that the Tang emperor would give his blessing to. [1]

Fig. 1 – A diagram of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk.

II. Second Lie

During Sun Wukong’s battle with the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 58) (fig. 2), the Buddha reveals the doppelganger’s true identity, noting that he and Monkey are two of four celestial primates (hunshi sihou, 混世四猴, lit: “four monkeys of havoc”) with amazing abilities:

“The first,” said Tathāgata [the Buddha], “is the Stone Monkey of Numinous Wisdom, [2] who

Knows transformations,
Recognizes the seasons,
Discerns the advantages of earth,
And is able to alter the course of planets and stars.

The second is the Red-Buttocked Horse Monkey, who

Has knowledge of yin and yang,
Understands human affairs,
Is adept in its daily life
And able to avoid death and lengthen its life.

The third is the Tongbi Gibbon, who can

Seize the sun and the moon,
Shorten a thousand mountains,
Distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious,
And manipulate planets and stars.

The fourth is the Six-Eared Macaque who has

A sensitive ear,
Discernment of fundamental principles,
Knowledge of past and future,
And comprehension of all things.

These four kinds of monkeys are not classified in the ten categories [of life], nor are they contained in the names between Heaven and Earth. As I see the matter, that specious Wukong must be a six-eared macaque, for even if this monkey stands in one place, he can possess the knowledge of events a thousand miles away and whatever a man may say in that distance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 115).

如來道:「第一是靈明石猴,通變化,識天時,知地利,移星換斗;第二是赤尻馬猴,曉陰陽,會人事,善出入,避死延生;第三是通臂猿猴,拿日月,縮千山,辨休咎,乾坤摩弄;第四是六耳獼猴,善聆音,能察理,知前後,萬物皆明。此四猴者,不入十類之種,不達兩間之名。我觀假悟空乃六耳獼猴也。此猴若立一處,能知千里外之事;凡人說話,亦能知之。

Ye (n.d.) claims the Buddha concocted the list of supernatural primates in order to hide the fact that Six Ears was an aspect of the Monkey King’s mind. They reason that the falsehood was used to avoid offending the Daoist hierarchy who couldn’t figure out the doppelganger’s true identity.

I think the author’s issue here is that the Daoist gods considered Six Ears a real figure, while the Buddha knew him to be an aspect of Sun’s mind. Something being real and illusory at the same time may seem like a big contradiction, but it’s not in the JTTW cosmos. Campany (1985) explains that, as physical threats, the monsters enable Monkey and his religious brothers to build Buddhist merit (zhenguo, 正果; lit: “right fruit”) by fighting them. At the same time, being illusory aspects of the mind, the monsters help the pilgrims, especially Tripitaka, to understand that reality is empty (kong, 空). This is something that Wukong (悟空, “Aware of Emptiness”) reminds his master of throughout the journey.

Ye (n.d.) also points out that the listed powers of the Horse Monkey and Tongbi Gibbon don’t appear to be true, for they (under the guise of the commanders Ma and Liu and Beng and Ba – see section 2 here) are supposedly killed by Erlang’s forces in chapter six. They claim this proves that the two supernatural primates don’t actually exist. However, two things need to be said. One, the aforementioned underlings appear alive and well in chapter 28 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 32), meaning that they were not killed. And two, an irregularity in the story does not equate to a lie. The author hasn’t even come close to offering conclusive evidence of intent. Instead, I suggest that this is just an inconsistency born from the novel’s origin as individual oral tales that were eventually compiled, expanded, and published in book form. See, for instance, the 13th-century version of the story cycle. Therefore, irregularities are bound to pop up throughout the narrative.

But even if this lie was somehow true, how exactly does it further the Buddha’s supposed plan to take power from the Jade Emperor?

Fig. 2 – The Great Sage and Six Ears battle in the Western Paradise (larger version). Artist unknown.

III. Third Lie

After the Buddha learns that the holy beasts of two bodhisattvas have escaped their respective mountain paradises and become man-eating demons on earth (ch. 77) (fig. 3), he has the following conversation with his disciples:

[…] Tathāgata left the lotus throne and went out of the monastery gate with the rest of the buddhas. There they saw Ānanda and Kāśyapa leading Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra [3] on their way to the monastery also.

As the two bodhisattvas bowed to him, Tathagata asked, “How long have your beasts of burden been gone from your mountains?” “Seven days,” replied Mañjuśrī. “Seven days in the mountain,” said Tathāgata, “are equivalent to several thousand years on earth. I wonder how many lives they have taken down there. You must follow me quickly if we are to retrieve them.” With one bodhisattva standing on each side of him, the Buddha and his followers rose into the air (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 29-30).

如來即下蓮臺,同諸佛眾,徑出山門。又見阿儺、迦葉引文殊、普賢來見,二菩薩對佛禮拜。如來道:「菩薩之獸,下山多少時了?」文殊道:「七日了。」如來道:「山中方七日,世上幾千年。不知在那廂傷了多少生靈,快隨我收他去。」二菩薩相隨左右,同眾飛空。

Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is lying about the corresponding time on earth in order to mask his guilt over not intervening sooner. As evidence, they cite the fact that the novel states “one day in heaven is equal to one year on Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 150 and 167). However, this could just be one of the aforementioned inconsistencies. One oral tradition may have said one day equals one year, while another said it equals one thousand years, and then both of these made it into the novel. But there is a more likely answer (see below).

They also claim that the respective Bodhisattvas’ mountain paradises are on earth, meaning they would be subject to the same time as the mortal world. This carries the implication that the beasts were eating people for at least a few hundred years and none of the Buddhist deities did anything to stop them. But the author clearly doesn’t understand earthly paradises like Mañjuśrī’s Mount Wutai (Wutai shan, 五臺山; lit: “Five Terrace/Platform Mountain”), which they mention by name in the article. Chou (2018) notes that a “central paradox of Mount Wutai” is that it is “both an earthly place and a Buddhist paradise (pure land)” (p. 142). Kōtatsu (Kōtatsu & Otowa, 1996) explains that Pure Lands (Jingtu, 净土) are “world[s] of another dimension” that are “temporally different from this one” (p. 45). Therefore, it seems more likely that the Enlightened One was referring to the time difference between Buddhist mountain paradises and the mortal realm. This is distinct from the Daoist heaven, which is expressly associated with the “one heavenly day = one earthly year” time dilation.

Additionally, Ye (n.d.) claims that Mañjuśrī is lying about the length of time his beast was absent because of a similar bout of guilt. It’s strange, though, that the writer’s answer for everything is “such and such Buddhist figure is being dishonest”. I’d be interested to read some of their other work to see if there’s a pattern of deconstructing Buddhism. JTTW clearly treats the religion with reverence, placing the Buddha and his disciples at the top of the novel’s cosmic hierarchy. Therefore, selectively interpreting details to support some agenda against Buddhism wouldn’t reflect positively on the author or their writing.

And again, I have to ask: How would this lie further the Buddha’s supposed plans?

Fig. 3 – Sun Wukong and his religious brothers battling the bird, elephant, and lion demons from Lion-Camel Cave (larger version). Artist unknown. Image found here. The elephant and lion are the missing holy beasts who became monsters on earth.

IV. Fourth Lie

After the Buddha captures the Great Peng (ch. 77) (fig. 4), the bird demon submits to Buddhism but stubbornly refuses to stop eating meat. The Enlightened One thinks for a moment and then offers him the following solution:

“In the four great continents of my domain,” said Tathāgata, “there are countless worshippers. I shall ask those who wish to do good to sacrifice first to your mouth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 31).

我管四大部洲,無數眾生瞻仰,凡做好事,我教他先祭汝口。

Ye (n.d.) believes that the Buddha is deceptively bragging here in order to placate the uber powerful monster. At the same time, his statement about having dominance over the four continents is thought to be a lie since the Jade Emperor is the stated ruler of the cosmos. They reason that it’s evidence of the Enlightened One wanting to govern all four continents. But it’s important to remember that, as mentioned above, the novel takes place in a world modeled after Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which Ye (n.d.) is fully aware of. The Daoist bureaucracy of JTTW is therefore a syncretic veil that has been draped over a pre-existing Buddhist structure. In the original system, the world is overseen by the Devarāja Śakra (Sk: Śakro devānāṃ indraḥ; Ch: Dishi, 帝釋) from the heaven of the thirty-three gods atop Mount Sumeru (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 739-740 and 921-922). (Interestingly, the novel hints that the Daoist bureaucracy is located in this very same heaven – see the material above figure two here). But despite the gods’ divine lifespans, as inhabitants of the Realm of Desire, they are still subject to death and therefore susceptible to the Wheel of Reincarnation (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 230-233). Only the Buddha can help such beings escape from the endless rounds of rebirth by leading them to enlightenment. He does this within the confines of his own domain or “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹). Buswell and Lopez (2014) explain:

[W]hen a buddha achieves enlightenment, a “container” or “inanimate” world is produced in the form of a field where the buddha leads beings to enlightenment. The inhabitant of that world is the buddha endowed with all the [qualities of an Enlightened One]. Buddha-fields occur in various levels of purification, broadly divided between pure and impure. Impure buddha-fields are synonymous with a world system (cakravāḍa), the infinite number of “world discs” in Buddhist cosmology that constitutes the universe; here, ordinary sentient beings (including animals, ghosts, and hell beings) dwell, subject to the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Each Cakravāḍa is the domain of a specific buddha, who achieves enlightenment in that world system and works there toward the liberation of all sentient beings… (p. 153).

Therefore, the JTTW cosmos is the Enlightened One’s Buddha-Field. But Ye (n.d.) appears to be aware of this fact (at least on some level), for they write: “The truth of the matter is that the Buddha is the lord of all sentient beings in the Buddhist schools of the four continents” (Zhenshi qingkuang shi, Rulai shi si dabu zhou fopai zhongsheng zhi zhu, 真實情況是,如來是四大部洲佛派眾生之主). So why would the writer still claim that the Buddha’s statement is a lie when they know it isn’t? This is a prime example of the author selectively interpreting facts.

Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of the Great Peng trapped above the Buddha’s head (larger version). Artist unknown.

V. Conclusion

Ye (n.d.) claims that the Buddha is a master strategist who makes “four grand, overarching lies” in a bid to usurp power from the Jade Emperor, ruler of the cosmos. But the writer demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel’s history and religious influences. Worse still, they appear to selectively interpret details to suit a possible agenda against Buddhism. I show that the supposed falsehoods are instead likely based on the viewpoints of historical foreign monks, are inconsistencies within the JTTW narrative, reference Buddhist views of time, and reflect the Buddhist world system.

Notes:

1) The ruler’s decision to allow said pilgrimage is associated with a subplot in chapters 11 and 12 where he learns of countless orphaned souls in the underworld and searches for a monk to release them from their torments via a grand Buddhist ceremony. Tripitaka is chosen to lead the ceremony but is later convinced by the Bodhisattva Guanyin to halt the ritual until he has retrieved more appropriate scriptures from India.

2) Source altered slightly.

3) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) originally translates Puxian (普賢) as “Viśvabhadra” (vol. 4, pp. 29). I’ve changed it to “Samantabhadra” as this appears to be a more well-known version of the Bodhisattva’s name.

Sources:

Brose, B. (2021). Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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

Campany, R. (1985). Demons, Gods, and Pilgrims: The Demonology of the Hsi-yu Chi. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), 7(1/2), 95-115. doi:10.2307/495195.

Chou, W. (2018). Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Kōtatsu, F., & Otowa, R. (1996). The Origin of the Pure Land. The Eastern Buddhist, 29(1), 33–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44362148.

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

Ye, Z. (n.d.). Rulai fo sa de sige mitian dahuang [The Four Grand, Overarching Lies Cast by the Buddha]. Sohu. https://web.archive.org/web/20220731055723/https://m.sohu.com/n/474302290/.

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.

Archive #35 – The Tang Monk Tripitaka as a Confucian in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2022

I’ve already posted three entries on the Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang). The first discusses his former incarnation as Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple; the second discusses how chapter nine of the current one hundred chapter edition of Journey to the West did not appear in the original version published in 1592; and the third discusses the connection between his exile from heaven to ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophy.  Here, I’d like present information that describes the monk’s characterization throughout the story. I’m quoting several pages from Yu’s (2008) paper “The Formation of Fiction in the ‘Journey to the West’“. He shows that, instead of a being a model Buddhist, the literary monk is cast as a Confucian.

I. Relevant pages

However that kind of textual contradiction is to be resolved, what no reader of the full-length novel can fail to notice is how deeply in Xuanzang’s consciousness is imprinted the magnitude of the imperial favor and charge bestowed on him. The historical pilgrim’s dedication to visit the Western region was motivated by the quest for doctrinal clarification (Fashizhuan 法師傳 I: “The Master of the Law … thus vowed to tour the region of the West so as to inquire about the perplexities (of his faith) 法師 … 乃誓遊西方以問所惑”), and this commitment would make him risk even death for defying “the laws of the state 國法” (Xingzhuang 行狀). In sharp contrast, the fictive priest, when promoted to be the emperor’s bond-brother for the willingness to serve as the scripture-seeker, said to his ruler: “Your Majesty, what ability and what virtue does your poor monk possess that he should merit such affection from your Heavenly Grace? I shall not spare myself in this journey, but I shall proceed with all diligence until I reach the Western Heaven. If I did not attain my goal, or the true scriptures, I would not dare return to our land even if I were to die. May I fall into eternal perdition in Hell. 陛下, 貧僧有何德何能, 敢蒙天恩眷顧如此? 我這一去, 定要捐軀努力, 直至西天; 如不到西天, 不得真經, 即死也不敢回國, 永墮沉淪地獄.” 

Whereas the historical pilgrim, upon his successful return to China with scriptures, felt compelled to seek imperial pardon for “braving to transgress the authoritative statutes and departing for India on one’s own authority 冒越憲章私往天竺” through both written memorial and direct oral petition (Fashizhuan 6), the fictive priest would be welcomed by a faithful and expectant ruler who had even built a Scripture-Anticipation Tower 望經樓 to wait anxiously for his envoy for eleven more years (chapter 100). This portrait of the pilgrimage’s imperial sponsorship, intervention (most notably in the travel rescript bearing the imperial seal administered by the emperor himself), and reception helps explain why the fictive priest would consider his religious mission to be, in fact, his obligated service to his lord and state, and that the mission’s success must enact not merely the fulfilment of a vow to Buddha but equally one to a human emperor. As the lead-in poem that inaugurates the priest’s formal journey at the beginning of chapter 13 puts it: “The rich Tang ruler issued a decree/Deputing Xuanzang to seek the source of Zen 大有唐王降敕封/欽差玄奘問禪宗.”

The fact that the fictive pilgrim was sent on his way by the highest human authority with tokens of imperial favor thus also changes fundamentally Xuanzang’s identity and its mode of disclosure. In sharp contrast to the historical figure who, deciding to defy the court’s proscription to travel in the western regions, “dared not show himself in public but rested during the day and journeyed only at night 不敢公出, 乃畫伏夜行” (Fashizhuan 1), the novelistic Xuanzang had no difficulty or hesitation in telling the first stranger he met that he was an imperial envoy sent by the Tang emperor to seek scriptures from Buddha in the Western Heaven. The words, uttered by both master and disciples, would become a formulaic announcement throughout the priest’s journey to every conceivable audience – whether divine, demonic or human – much as the imperial travel rescript authorizing his undertaking would be signed and stamped with royal seals of all the states and kingdoms the pilgrims visited, and from where they had gained permitted passage (chapter 100). The “Shengjiao xu 聖教序 (Preface to the Holy Religion”) bestowed by the historical Taizong on the repatriated Xuanzang, transcribed nearly verbatim in chapter 100 of the novel, had declared unambiguously that the journey was the monk’s solitary expedition 承危達邁, 策杖孤征. In this ex post facto encomium bequeathed to a cleric newly pardoned for a seventeen-year-old crime against the state, not even the emperor could claim credit for authorizing or assisting the project in any manner. On the other hand, the invented rescript, in poignant irony, would not allow the readers to forget for one minute that imperial charge and enablement were as needed as the assistance of the gods.

Throughout the novel’s lengthy course, therefore, there are quite a few examples in which Xuanzang frets about his inability to fulfill the decreed wish of his human lord 旨意 as much as the dreaded failure to reach and see Buddha. Fearing contracted illness might prove fatal during the episode of the Sea-Pacifying Monastery in chapter 81, a tearful Tripitaka would write a poem that he wants Monkey to take back to the Tang court, to inform his Sage Lord 聖君 of his precarious health and request another pilgrim be sent instead. Captured by a leopard monster in chapter 85, Tripitaka explains to a fellow prisoner that “If I lose my life here, would that not have dashed the expectation of the emperor and the high hopes of his ministers? 今若喪命, 可不盼殺那君王, 辜負那臣子?” When told by his interlocutor, a stereotypical wood-cutter who is the sole supporter of an old widowed mother (compare with the one who spoke to Monkey in chapter 1), the priest breaks into loud wailing, crying:

How pitiful! How pitiful! 可憐 可憐
If even a rustic has longings for his kin, Has not this poor priest chanted sūtras in vain?
To serve the ruler or to serve one’s parents follows the same
principle. You live by the kindness of your parents, and I live by the kindness of my ruler. 山人尚有思親意, 空教貧僧會念經, 事君事親, 皆同一理, 你為親恩, 我爲君恩.

Tripitaka’s emotional outburst not only places his sentiments squarely within the most familiar discourse of historical Confucian teachings, but also echoes his parting address to his monastic community at the Temple of Great Blessings 洪福寺 on the eve of his journey: “I have already made a great vow and a profound promise, that if I do not acquire the true scriptures, I shall fall into eternal perdition in Hell. Since I have received such grace and favor from the king, I have no alternative but to requite my country to the limit of loyalty. 我已發了弘誓大願, 不取真經, 永墮沉淪地獄, 大底是受王恩寵, 不得不盡忠以報國耳.” That remark, in turn, even more pointedly repeats a similar confession spoken by the Xuanzang of the twenty-four-act zaju: “Honored viewers, attend to the single statement by this lowly monk: a subject must reach the limit of loyalty, much as son must reach the limit of filial piety. There is no other means of requital than the perfection of both loyalty and filial piety. 眾官, 聽小僧一句言語: 為臣盡忠, 為子盡孝, 忠孝兩全, 餘無所報.” Words such as these may seem hackneyed and platitudinous to modern ears, to say the least, but this portrait of the novelistic Xuanzang cannot be ignored. Built consistently on the tradition of antecedent legend, but with important innovative additions apparently supplied by the Shidetang author, his characterization seems to fit precisely the mold of a stereotype – the traditional Confucian scholar-official.

If the full-length novel seems to indicate a presumption of the Three-Religions-in-One ideology 三教歸一 (or, 三教合一) for both its content and context, who among the five fictive pilgrims is more appropriate than the human monk to live to the limits of political loyalism and filial piety, especially when all four of the other disciples have only such tenuous relations to human culture and lineage? The historical Xuanzang was unquestionably a hero of religion, aptly turning his back on family and court in his youth to face appalling dangers with nary a regret, and without doubt a master of literary Sinitic and of scriptural styles shaped by difficult encounters with Indic languages. His biography, compiled by two disciples and touched with hagiography, duly recorded serial visitations to various states of Central Asia and India beset by encounters with gods and demons, physical perils and privations, triumphal religious proselytism, and royal hospitality in many locales. Nonetheless, could a faithful replica of this character who began his famed journey as a treasonous subject be expected to amuse and entertain in the popular imagination? The novelistic figure, by contrast, is timid, ethically fastidious, occasionally dogmatic and heedful of slander, and prone to partiality – mundane traits not uncommon to other male leads typed in Ming drama or vernacular fiction. Most interestingly, although this pilgrim, consistent with his vocational vow of celibacy, may display intractable resistance to sexual temptations in all circumstances (chapters 24, 54-55, 82-83), he is also so fond of poetry that he would discuss poetics with tree monsters (chapter 64) and compose quatrains in a region near India (chapter 94). Perhaps in parody of filial piety blended with the religious notion of reverting to the source and origin 反本還原 extolled in both Daoism and Buddhism, the narrative shows him to be so attached to his mother (when he is not thinking about the emperor) that an ordeal is almost conveniently structured right in his path nearing its goal that would reenact the fated marriage of his parents – the chance selection of the father by the mother’s thrown embroidered ball (chapters 93-95). In this episode on the Kingdom of India, where to the Tang Monk’s chauvinistic eyes the clothing, utensils, manner of speech, and behavior of the people completely resemble those of the Great Tang, the pilgrim’s persistent invocation of maternal experience also justly invites Monkey’s teasing about his master’s “longing for the past 慕古之意.” Is not such a person, dwelling in the religiously syncretic world of the full-length novel, a fit representative of Confucianism, at least as known and imagined by the vast populace? (Yu, 2008, pp. 22-26).

Disclaimer:

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.

II. My thoughts

So having read the above, we know that the change from the heroic historical monk to the cowardly literary figure was likely done for entertainment purposes, as well as to interject a bit of Confucianism in honor of syncretic Ming philosophy. But I can’t help but think that this was also meant to fuel the constant bickering between Tripitaka and Sun Wukong. After all, Confucianism and Buddhism were bitter enemies throughout the centuries. While Confucianism also critiqued Daoism, Buddhism was an easier target due to (among other objections) its foreign origins. [1] Ming-era scholar Wang Shouren (王守仁, 1472-1529), for instance, faulted the religion for “ignoring canonical human relations, abandoning affairs and things [of the world] …, and fostering selfishness and self-benefit” (Wang, 1992, as cited in Yu, 2012, p. 72). In addition, the Monkey King is often cast as the voice of reason, while the monk remains blind to reality (a prime example being the white bone spirit episode). This dynamic may have been intended to lampoon Confucianism. If true, this would mean the author-compiler, be it Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩, c. 1500-1582) or some other scholar-official, was likely poking fun at himself and those in his social circle.


Update: 04-29-22

Here’s a great example of Monkey being the voice of reason by chastising the monk for being too worldly:

 Pilgrim said, “Old Master, you have forgotten the one about ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind: Those of us who have left the family should see no form with our eyes, should hear no sound with our ears, should smell no smell with our noses, should taste no taste with our tongues; our bodies should have no knowledge of heat or cold, and our minds should gather no vain thoughts. This is called the extermination of the Six Robbers. But look at you now! Though you may be on your way to seek scriptures, your mind is full of vain thoughts: fearing the demons you are unwilling to risk your life; desiring vegetarian food you arouse your tongue; loving fragrance and sweetness you provoke your nose; listening to sounds you disturb your ears; looking at things and events you fix your eyes. You have, in sum, assembled all the Six Robbers together. How could you possibly get to the Western Heaven to see Buddha?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 254).

Note:

1) For a detailed discussion of all the various points raised by Confucians against Buddhism, please see Langlais (1972).

Sources:

Langlais, J. M. (1972). Early Neo-Confucian Criticism of Chinese Buddhism [Unpublished master’s dissertation, McMaster University]. Retrieved from https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/9287/1/fulltext.pdf

Yu, A. C. (2008). The Formation of Fiction in the “Journey to the West.” Asia Major21(1), 15-44.

Yu, A. C. (2012). Introduction. In C. Wu and A. C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (pp. 1-100). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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