Archive #34 – Understanding Reality: A Taoist Alchemical Classic

Last updated: 03-17-2022

The Wuzhi pian (悟真篇, “Writings on Understanding / Becoming Aware of Reality”, 1075) is a Song-era work of Buddho-Daoist philosophy by the Southern Quanzhen School Patriarch Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid to late-980s-1082) (fig. 1). Shao (1997) expertly shows that Zhang’s writing had a huge impact on the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) (see especially ch. 4). For example, the reason that the first half of Sun Wukong‘s story (ch. 1 to 7) is Taoist heavy (i.e. his quest for immortality and later ascension to heavenly rank) is because this follows the first part of Zhang’s philosophy, which is attaining the golden elixir (jindan, 金丹). And the reason the second half (ch. 14 to 100) is Buddhist heavy (i.e. building merit by protecting Tripitaka on the pilgrimage west and the rise to Buddhahood) is because the second part of Zhang’s philosophy involves attaining the Buddha-Mind. Combined, these achievements make someone a true transcendent, one free from the wheel of rebirth.

A line from the Wuzhi pian is a prime example of Zhang’s stance on those who strive only to attain the elixir: “A halo behind the head is still a phantom; / Even when clouds rise beneath your feet you are still not an immortal” (Zhang, Liu, & Cleary, 1987, p. 161). This explains why Monkey is banished from heaven and imprisoned under Five Elements Mountain. He has yet to attain the Buddha-Mind.

An even better example of this two-stage process among Zhang’s other works reads:

The elixir is the most precious treasure for the physical body.
When cultivated to perfection, the transformations are endless.
If one further explores the true meaning of the buddha-nature,
One is bound to attain the ineffable bliss of the birthless (Xue, 1977, as cited in Shao, 1997, pp. 99-100).

I’m archiving an English translation of the Wuzhi pian by Thomas Clearly, with explanations by the Qing-era Daoist scholar Liu Yiming (1734-1821).

Fig. 1 – A print of Zhang Boduan (a.k.a. Zhang Ziyang, 張紫陽) from the Ming-era Traces of Immortals and Buddhas (Xianfo jizong, 仙佛奇蹤) (larger version).

Archive link:

Click to access Chang-Po-Tuan_-Thomas-Cleary_-Liu-Yiming-Understanding-Reality-University-of-Hawaii-Press-1987.pdf


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

Update: 03-17-2022

Jeff Pepper, writer and publisher of Imagin8 Press, left an informative comment reminding me that Zhang actually appears in a later chapter of JTTW.

It’s worth noting that Zhang Boduan (also referred to as Zhang Ziyang and Great Heaven’s Immortal Purple Cloud) appears in Chapter 71 of JTW. Sun Wukong has just returned Lady Golden Sage Palace to her husband, the king of Scarlet Purple Kingdom. The king tries to embrace her but is painfully pricked by the poison thorns on her cloak. Zhang appears in the clouds, comes to earth, points his finger at the Lady, and her poison cloak disappears. He explains that he was the one who put the cloak on her in the first place, to protect her from her captor, the evil demon Jupiter’s Rival.


Zhang, B., Liu, Y., & Cleary, T. (1987). Understanding Reality: A Taoist Alchemical Classic. Honululu Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

Archive #13 – Huineng, Subhuti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji” (2006)

Last updated: 05-29-2022

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

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


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

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

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

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

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

Archive link:

Update: 11-28-21

Shao (2006) is taken almost verbatim from the author’s doctoral thesis, Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji. This dissertation is a gold mine of information, and Shao’s (1997) Daoist reading of the novel explains many facets of the story. He even shows that Monkey has many religious influences. For example, the summation of one section reads: “[The author] allowed him Huineng’s intuition, Subhuti’s objective, and Laozi’s immortal body” (Shao, 1997, p. 108).

Archive Link:

Click to access Monkey-and-the-Scriptural-Tradition-in-China.pdf


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

Update: 05-29-22

I’ve taken information from this page and combined it with other material to write the ultimate guide on the Patriarch Subodhi.

The Patriarch Subodhi: Sun Wukong’s First Master


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

2) The particular passage reads:

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

3) Huineng explains in the Platform Sutra:

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


Huineng, & Cleary, T. F. (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, grand master of Zen: With Hui-neng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala.

Shao, P. (2006). Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in “Xiyou ji”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 65(4), 713-740. Retrieved from

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

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

My Sun Wukong Art – “The Buddha has Awakened”

At the end of chapter 100, Tripitaka and his disciples are elevated in spiritual rank as a reward for their hardwon quest to retrieve scriptures from India. Pigsy becomes an altar cleaner, Sandy becomes a Luohan (Buddhist saint), and the priest and Sun both become Buddhas. This paragraph describes what the Buddha says to Monkey upon his ascension:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife” [Dou zhangsheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).


Despite this promotion, Sun still dreads the magic golden headband might be used on him. But he soon learns the heaven-sent punishment has disappeared once he became an enlightened being, denoting the internalization of self-restraint:

As the various Buddhas gave praise to the great dharma of Tathagata, Pilgrim Sun said also to the Tang Monk, “Master, I’ve become a Buddha now, just like you. It can’t be that I still must wear a golden fillet! And you wouldn’t want to clamp my head still by reciting that so-called Tight-Fillet Spell, would you? Recite the Loose-Fillet Spell quickly and get it off my head. I’m going to smash it to pieces, so that that so-called Bodhisattva can’t use it anymore to play tricks on other people.”

“Because you were difficult to control previously,” said the Tang Monk, “this method had to be used to restrain you. Now that you have become a Buddha, naturally it will be gone. How could it be still on your head? Try touching your head and see.” Pilgrim raised his hand and felt along his head, and indeed the fillet had vanished (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 382-383).



Fig. 1 – Wooden sculpture of the monk Baozhi, 12th-century, Saiho Temple, Kyoto, Japan (larger version). Image found here.

I’ve always wanted to create a piece of digital art portraying Monkey’s ascension and loss of his headband but never knew how to depict both events in the same picture. That is until a few days ago when I came across a beautiful 12th-century Japanese wooden sculpture of the Chan Buddhist monk Baozhi (Jp: Hoshi; K: Poji, 保志/寶志, 418–514) (fig. 1). The piece depicts “the monk’s face in supernatural corporeal transformation, splitting open to reveal the face of the numinous Eleven-Headed Kannon [Guanyin],” symbolizing his enlightenment (Levine, 2005, p. 72). I felt the statue was the best expression of enlightenment that I’ve ever seen. I later discovered the historical Baozhi was known for his ever youthful appearance, carrying a fanciful staff, and working magical miracles (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 98; Ebrey, 1993, pp. 100-102), much like our hero. I therefore knew this piece would be the model from which I’d create my art.

This is the final product created in Photoshop CS6 (fig. 2). The piece is comprised of 15 layers using eight different pictures. It took roughly two days working on and off during free time. The screaming face of the angry immortal splits open, giving way to the serene Buddha beneath. The sparks at the top represent the headband violently snapping open since it is no longer needed. Rays of spiritual light shine from the urna on Monkey’s forehead.

Fig. 2 – The Monkey Buddha has Awakened (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.


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

Ebrey, P. B. (1993). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd Ed. New York: Free Press.

Levine, G. P. A. (2005). Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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