Sun Wukong’s Strength-Bestowing Ritual

In chapter 88, the pilgrims arrive in the lower Indian prefecture of Jade Flower District (Yuhua xian, 玉華縣), which strikes Tripitaka as a spitting image of the Tang Chinese capital of Chang’an. There, the disciples’ monstrous appearance rouses the local ruler’s three sons to action, respectively wielding two staves and a battle rake against what they think are demons come to harm their father. However, they soon learn Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are celestial warriors possessing magical versions of their mere earthly arms. The three princes are later accepted as disciples, the oldest wanting to learn Monkey’s techniques and the second and third oldest wanting to learn from Pigsy and Sandy in turn. But when they fail to lift the monks’ celestial weapons, Monkey performs an arcane ritual in which he bestows each prince with superhuman strength and durability:

In a secluded room behind the Gauze-Drying Pavilion, Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper. Then he asked the three princes to prostrate themselves inside the diagram and, with eyes closed, exercise the utmost concentration. Behind them he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes. Then he transmitted secret oral formulas to them so that each of the princes received the strength of a thousand arms. He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases, as if they themselves were carrying out the technique for shedding the mortal embryo and changing the bones. Only when the circulation of the vital force had gone through all the circuits of their bodies (modeled on planetary movements) did the young princes regain consciousness. When they jumped to their feet and gave their own faces a wipe, they felt more energetic than ever. Each of them, in fact, had become so sturdy in his bones and so strong in his ligaments that the eldest prince could handle the golden-hooped rod, the second prince could wield the nine-pronged muckrake, and the third prince could lift the fiend-routing staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 202-203).

There is a lot of information to unpack, so I’ll go through the important parts line by line.

1. “Pilgrim traced out on the ground a diagram of the Big Dipper.”

The Big Dipper (gang dou, 罡斗), also known as the Northern Dipper (beidou, 北斗), is a pattern of seven stars associated with the constellation Ursa Major (fig. 1). Daoism considers the pole star of this constellation to be the center of the cosmos through which imminates “primordial breath” (generative qi), which has long been deified as the great god Taiyi. The constellation is associated with a Daoist ritual known as Bugang (步綱/罡, “Walking the Guideline”) in which a practitioner paces the stellar pattern with their feet on the ground. This ritual dance is synonymous with the much older shamanistic Yubu (禹步, “Paces of Yu”) used by ancient Sage Kings to conquer primordial chaos by pacing the stars and planets into motion, thereby directing the seasons and passage of time. The ritual involved pacing an inwardly spiraling circular pattern while dragging one foot behind the other in imitation of the limp adopted by Yu the Great after over-exerting himself quelling the fabled World Flood (fig. 2). Later Daoists viewed Yubu as a means of gaining immortality because the limping-style three pace pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [1] But, most importantly, by the Tang and Song dynasties, bugang served the purpose of purifying the area before an altar, ensuring the liturgy to follow takes place in a consecrated space. In fact, some sources interchange the characters for Bugang with the homonyms 布剛, meaning “distributing strength”, which denotes the demonifugic properties of the dance (Andersen, 1989). Therefore, Monkey draws the Big Dipper talisman on the ground in order to create a sacred space free of any negative influences.

big dipper anf yu pace

Fig. 1 – The location of the Big Dipper in relation to the Ursa Major constellation (larger version). Originally from this Futurism article. Fig. 2 – A diagram showing the inwardly spiraling pattern of Yubu (top) and the dipper pattern of Bugang (bottom) (larger version). Take note of the spiral’s limping-style three pace structure. Originally found on this wordpress article.  

2. “Then he himself recited in silence the true sayings of realized immortality and intoned the words of Dharani…”

The “true sayings” (zhenyan, 真言) is the Chinese term for Mantra, meaning “spell” or “magical formula”. A mantra is “a syllable or series of syllables that may or may not have semantic meaning, most often in a form of Sanskrit, the contemplation or recitation of which is thought to be efficacious” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 529). The most famous mantra is of course Om Mani Padme Hum, the very same six-syllable prayer that was used to weigh down the mountain holding Monkey prisoner for rebelling against heaven.

The “true sayings” is often used as an abbreviation for Dharani (tuoluoni/zongchi, 陀羅尼/總持), a Sanskrit term meaning “mnemonic device” (fig. 3). Like mantras, dharani are comprised of syllables, but these instead serve to remind practitioners of broader concepts, for example a single syllable representing the first letter of a much longer phrase. There exists four types of dharani said to be used by Bodhisattvas to achieve enlightenment: 1) those used for teaching interpretations of Buddhist law; 2) those used for understanding the exact meaning of important words; 3) those used for casting spells; and 4) those used for spiritual endurance in the face of suffering (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 241-242). The third type, which concerns us, falls under a category of sutra recitation called Paritta (minghu/minghu jing, 明護/明護經), which is Pali for “protection”. The historical Buddha is known to have delivered paritta verses, including those for “protection from evil spirits, the assurance of good fortune, exorcism, curing serious illness, and even safe childbirth” (Robert & David, 2013, p. 630).

In both cases zhenyan/mantra and dharani refer to magical formulas of sorts and were no doubt chosen because they gave the ritual an heir of arcane authenticity. Additionally, I suggest the use of dharani may have also been chosen to denote a spell of protection, as in Sun wanted to protect the princes during the transformation of their bodies.


Fig. 3 – A Dharani print from the late Tang Dynasty. Original from Wikicommons.

3. “…as he blew divine breaths into their visceral cavities. Their primordial spirits were thus restored to their original abodes.”

Journey to the West translator Anthony C. Yu notes this section “is an abbreviated or paraphrastic account, in fact, of the neidan (internal or physiological alchemy process)” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 396, n. 8). Monkey already went through this process in chapter two when he practiced a series of breathing and energy circulation exercises that resulted in his immortality. Therefore, he uses his own hardwon “divine breath” or “immortal energy” (xianqi, 仙氣) to fortify the princes’ bodies by drastically speeding up the years-long process of internal cultivation to only a matter of minutes. Monkey’s breath bolsters their own energy, helping them to achieve “primordial spirits” (yuanshen, 元神), a term commonly associated with Buddhahood or enlightenment. In Daoism, the term is synonymous with the attainment of immortality via the formation of a “Sacred Embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎) (fig. 4), which is forged from spiritual energies over long years of self-cultivation (Darga, 2008).

baby belly

Fig. 4 – The Sacred Embryo is sometimes depicted as a baby (or in this case a Buddha) on a practitioner’s stomach (larger version). Found on this blog.

4. “He next helped them to circulate and build up the fire phases…”

The fire phases (huohou, 火候) comprise the process of circulating spiritual energy throughout the body at prescribed times (fig. 5). Monica Esposito (2008) writes there are three phases in total, making up two distinct periods of activity and rest:

The first is a phase of “yangization” in which Yang augments and Yin decreases. This is described as a warlike or martial period, corresponding to the advancement of a light called Martial Fire (wuhuo 武火) or Yang Fire (yanghuo 陽火) that purifies by burning and eliminates defiled elements to release the Original Yang and increase it. At the cosmic level, the beginning of this phase is symbolized by the winter solstice (zi 子) and by the hexagram fu 復 ䷗ (Return, no. 24), which indicates the return of Yang. This is followed by a phase of balance, a time of rest called muyu ([沐浴] ablutions). At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the spring and autumn equinoxes and by the hexagrams dazhuang 大壯 ䷡ (Great Strength, no. 34) and guan 觀 ䷓ (Contemplation, no. 20). The third stage is a phase of “yinization” in which Yin augments and Yang decreases. This period, called Civil Fire (wenhuo 文火) or Yin Fire (yinfu 陰符), corresponds to a decrease of the light. The adept achieves the alchemical work spontaneously and without any effort or voluntary intervention; water descends to moisten, fertilize, and temper fire. At the cosmic level, this phase is symbolized by the summer solstice (wu 午) and by the hexagram gou 姤 ䷫ (Encounter, no. 44) (p. 531).

Mastering the complicated chronological rhythm of this process is considered the best kept secret of internal alchemy (Esposito, 2008). Therefore, Monkey navigates this temporal maze for the princes, ensuring the spiritual energy that he has helped them cultivate ebbs and flows when prescribed. Once again we see Sun has sped up a lengthy process to only a few minutes.

Fire phases

Fig. 5 – A chart showing the fire phases, the 12 phases of the moon, and the corresponding hexagrams (larger version). From Kim, 2008, p. 528.


This fascinating strength-bestowing ritual draws on multiple aspects of Buddho-Daoist ceremony and internal alchemy. First, Sun chooses a secluded room where he traces a diagram of the Big Dipper on the floor in order to consecrate the space. Second, he recites magical spells likely intended to protect the princes during their bodily transformation. Third, Monkey uses his own divine breath to ignite their spiritual energy, manually fanning the flames to higher levels of spiritual attainment. Finally, he controls the ebb and flow of the resulting energy throughout their bodies according to a prescribed chronological rhythm. In all, Sun shortens a years-long process to only a few minutes.

Despite the ritual’s relationship to internal cultivation and the attainment of immortality, the process only bestows the princes with new, adamantine bodies capable of superhuman strength. They in essence become the fantasy equivalent of today’s comic book superheroes. The princes gaining power from a divine being is similar to the concept of “Divine Empowerment” from DC Comics. A good example is Captain Marvel (fig. 6), a child-turned-adult who receives super strength (among other powers) from a battery of Western gods through the medium of a divine wizard.


Fig. 6 – Billy Batson transforming into the superhero Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam (larger version). Originally found on this Comic Vine article.


1) Andersen (2008) notes the three paces are similar to those used by Vedic priests:

It would appear, in other words, that even in this early period the Paces of Yu constituted a close parallel to the three Strides Viṣṇu in early Vedic mythology, which are thought to have taken the god through the three levels of the cosmos (thereby establishing the universe), and which indeed, just like the Paces of Yu in Taoist ritual, are known to have been imitated by Vedic priests as they approached the altar—and in the same form as the Paces of Yu, that is, dragging one foot after the other (pp. 238-239).


Andersen, P. (1989). The Practice of Bugang. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 5. Numéro spécial Etudes taoïstes II / Special Issue on Taoist Studies II en l’honneur de Maxime Kaltenmark. pp. 15-53.

Andersen, P. (2008). Bugang In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 237-240). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Darga, M. (2008). Shengtai In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 883-884). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Esposito, M. (2008). Huohou: 2. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 530-532). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Kim, D. (2008). Houhou: 1. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 526-530). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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


Master Subhuti’s Curriculum II: Immortal Warriors and Shaolin Monks – Some fun Fanfiction Speculation

As noted in part one, the immortal sage Subhuti teaches Sun Wukong Chan (Zen) and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine. But why would a Daoist monk need to know how to wield weapons and fight in battle formations? In this piece I would like to speculate that the Sage’s school is a training ground for an immortal monastic army! I am by no means suggesting there is actual textual support for my conjecture. This is purely a fun exercise, fodder for fanfiction, if you will. I plan to supplement what we already know from the novel with historical information about monastic armies in China, particularly focusing on the warrior monks of the famed Shaolin monastery (Shaolinsi, 少林寺) (fig. 1).

Shaolin front gate

Fig. 1 – The front gate of Shaolin (larger version).

I. The Evolution of Shaolin’s Monastic Army: A Brief Survey

Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Shaolin monastery was built on Song Mountain, a mountain range located in Henan Province, China (fig. 2). It became the home of Chan Buddhism and a center for Buddhist learning, even attracting the likes of Xuanzang (on whom Tripitaka is based), whose request to move there in 645 was denied by the Tang Emperor Taizong (Shahar, 2008, p. 17). Despite being a school of higher religious learning, the monastery later came to be associated with elite warriors. The term “Warrior Monk” seems like an oxymoron considering Buddhism is generally considered a religion of peace. However, evidence suggests the monks may have first taken up arms to protect their property, for monasteries were often lavishly decorated and laden with treasures from rich donors, making them prime targets for bandits (Shahar, 2008, p. 18). For example, one of Shaolin’s worst bandit raids took place in 1356 when Red Turban rebels attacked, “peeling off the gold coating of the Buddha images and breaking the statues in search of hidden treasures”, eventually destroying part of the complex (Shahar, 2008, p. 85).

Shaolin map

Fig. 2 – A map showing the location of Shaolin and the nearby town of Dengfeng in northern Henan (larger version). The ancient Sui and Tang capital of Luoyang is visible to the left, while the modern day capital of Zhengzhou is visible to the right. Henan shares a border with the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong to the north. Adapted from Shahar, 2008, p. 10. By the author.

The first documented case of Shaolin monks protecting their monastery took place in 610 when they repelled a bandit attack that saw many of their stupas burnt. Their combat experience would come in handy years later when, in 621, the monks aided Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the newly formed Tang Dynasty, by assaulting a stronghold and capturing the nephew of Wang Shichong, a former general of the defunct Sui Dynasty and the founder of a competing dynasty. Wang had captured valuable farmland belonging to Shaolin and established the stronghold there because it was located in a valley through which passed the strategically important route to the Sui capital of Luoyang. The monks’ intervention was not a display of loyalty to the fledgling Tang but solely a move to regain control of their property, a political gamble that paid off and benefited the monastery for centuries (Shahar, 2008, pp. 25-27). Three of the monks who took part in the battle were awarded titles by Li. One in particular was given the high military rank of Generalissimo (Da Jiangjun, 大將軍) (Shahar, 2008, p. 31). This wasn’t the last time Shaolin soldier monks came to the aid of the Chinese empire.

By the late Ming Dynasty Shaolin was famed far and wide for their mastery of the staff, their method appearing in various military encyclopedias. The interest in their martial prowess was likely spurred by news of their military victories during the 1550s against the Wokou (倭寇, “Dwarf/Japanese pirates”), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits who plagued China’s eastern and southeastern coasts (fig. 3). The Ming’s hereditary army was all but useless at this time, forcing local governments to rely more on prefectural level troops (xiang bing, 廂兵), including contingents of Buddhist warrior monks from different monasteries (Shahar, 2008, p. 68). Monks from Shaolin and sister temples were mobilized in the spring of 1553 and fought the pirates a total of four times through the autumn of 1555. Shahar (2008) explains:

The monks scored their biggest victory in the Wengjiagang battle. On July 21, 1553, 120 fighting monks defeated a group of pirates, chasing the survivors for ten days along the twenty-mile route southward to Wangjiazhuang (on the Jiaxing Prefecture coast). There, on July 31, the very last bandit was disposed of. All in all, more than a hundred pirates perished, whereas the monks suffered four casualties only. Indeed, the monks took pity on no one in this battle, one employing his iron staff to kill an escaping pirate’s wife (p. 69).

It’s interesting to note that the head priest who led the monastic army in their victory over the Wokou was himself from Shaolin and was documented to have single-handedly defeated eight armed monks from a neighboring temple who challenged his position (Shahar, 2008, pp. 69-70).

Wokou pirates vs ming

Fig. 3 – Detail from a Ming painting depicting soldiers fighting the Wokou (larger version). More information about the scroll can be seen here.

In a chapter titled “The Monastic Armies’ First Victory” (Seng bing shou jie ji, 僧兵首捷記, 1568), the geographer Zheng Ruoceng extolled Shaolin’s skill and called for their regular use, along with other holy warriors from sister temples, in combat:

In today’s martial arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu’s excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners, studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the “Yang Family Spear” (Yangjia qiang), which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks’] recruitment it will win every battle (Shahar, 2008, p. 70).

The warrior monks were just one type of disciple at Shaolin. For example, modern Shaolin has four types: 1) ordained monks; 2) ordained martial arts monks who often leave to open their own schools around the monastery or abroad; 3) non-ordained martial arts performers (a.k.a. “fake monks”); and 4) lay disciples. Only the first type strictly adheres to Buddhist deity laws. The martial type are historically known for eating meat and drinking alcohol, associating the former with physical strength and fighting ability. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, such monks lived in subsidiary shrines (fangtou, 房頭) away from the monastery proper or lived an itinerant lifestyle (Shahar, 2008, pp. 46-51). Therefore, the warrior monks who bloodied their hands during wartime and regularly ate meat lived away from the devout, vegetarian body within the main monastery. Their unruly nature was for the most part accepted because of the protection they provided.

II. Speculation

Now the fun begins! Here I would like to take what we know about the novel (part I) and the above information to speculate on the martial history of Subhuti’s school.

Like Shaolin, Subhuti’s school is located in the mountains and most likely houses great heavenly treasures, the likes of which might be sought after by demon kings. Conflict with these demons would naturally necessitate the immortal monks take up arms in defense of their school. Continued conflict would allow them to hone their skills until their services might be called upon by one of two celestial factions vying for control of heaven during times immemorial, much like Li Shimin’s struggle against Wang Shichong. Chinese mythology is full of numerous baddies threatening the primacy of heaven. One in particular is the headless deity Xingtian (刑天) (fig. 4) from the Classic of Mountains and Seas (c. 4th–1st century BCE):

Xingtian and the Supreme God Di came to this place and struggled against each other for ultimate power. The Supreme God cut off Xingtian’s head and buried him at Eternally Auspicious Mountain. Xiangtian’s nipples then transformed into eyes, and his navel became a mouth. He performs a dance with an ax and shield (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).

Xingtian was originally a retainer of the Flame emperor, who lost his bid for power against the Yellow Emperor. Xingtian then continued his master’s war, even refusing to die after being beheaded (Strassberg, 2002, p. 171).


Fig. 4 – A modern depiction of Xingtian (larger version). Artist unknown.

The deity’s sustained, obsessive defiance, illustrated by his war dance, could serve as an ever present threat working in the shadows, waiting and plotting. Perhaps untold millennia after his first defeat Xingtian amasses a huge army that attacks the celestial realm via the Tianhe (天河, “Heavenly River), or the Milky Way, much like the Wokou attacked the Chinese coast by sea. The Yellow emperor then calls up Master Subhuti’s immortal warriors to help neutralize the threat, emerging victorious and winning the admiration of deities throughout the cosmos like their Shaolin counterparts.

So where does Sun Wukong fit in to this fanciful yarn? As an ordained-martial monk, Monkey would regularly train in weapons and fight in the monastic army, possibly rising through the ranks due to his supernatural talent and becoming a general who leads an assault against Xingtian’s forces. (Perhaps he would even have to defend his position against older, jealous immortals, much like the aforementioned Shaolin monk during the Ming.) Sun’s time in the monastic army would explain why, as noted in part I, the young immortal knows how to train his monkey children to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat. Only a person who studied military classics and had prior experience with leading troops would have such knowledge.

This in turn would explain why Subhuti expels Monkey and warns him to never reveal the sage had been his teacher. Sun Wukong is a powerful immortal and seasoned fighter with vast magical powers. Combine that with little impulse control and you’ve got the makings of a demon. Heaven discovering that Subhuti had trained the very demon who came to rebel against it would stain the sage’s name and the achievements of his school.

I would love to see someone use this information to write a prequel set during Sun Wukong’s time in Subhuti’s monastery.


Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Strassberg, Richard (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the west: Volumes 1-4. Chicago: 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.

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 (Robert & David, 2013, 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.

Monkey Buddha Has Awakened - small

Fig. 2 – The Buddha has Awakened (larger version). By the author.


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.

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

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

Master Subhuti’s Curriculum

Last updated: 11/27/2018

This entry will explore the curriculum that Sun Wukong follows while studying under the immortal sage Master Subhuti in India. Monkey stays in the immortal’s monastery for a total of ten years, the first seven living as a junior Daoist monk and the last three as a close disciple of Subhuti. Apart from menial tasks like fetching firewood and water, tending the garden, and cleaning the monastery grounds, Monkey first receives lessons on human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and minor ritual procedures like incense burning. These are taught to him by his senior religious brothers, thereby freeing up the Sage to teach higher level lessons on philosophy, internal alchemy, magic, and other skills to his more advanced students.

I should point out that Sun’s greatest asset during his training appears to be a supernatural mental acuity. Upon becoming Subhuti’s close disciple, Monkey rapidly masters skills that even his more senior religious brothers cannot grasp. The novel therefore refers to our hero as “someone who, knowing one thing, could understand a hundred” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 122). Monkey’s intellect allows him to outsmart many opponents and bypass many obstacles during his later adventures.

I. Overtly stated

These subjects are overtly mentioned in chapter two.

1) Chinese Philosophy – One poem best describes the philosophical lessons taught by Subhuti:

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, vol. 1, p. 122).

This poem is a prime example of the Ming syncretic philosophy of the Three Teachings (Sanjiao, 三教): Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. “The doctrine of the three vehicles” could refer to the three main branches of Buddhism, namely Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, but could also be referring to the Three Teachings (the same as the “Three Parties” mentioned further down the poem). “The yak-tail waved slowly and spouted elegance” refers to the bingfu (秉拂), or “to take hold of the whisk”, a metonym for a sermon by a learned Chan (Zen) master conducted from a high chair. The phrase derives from the fly whisk (Sk: vālavyajana; Ch: fuzi, 拂子; Jp: hossu, 払子), a symbol of religious authority held in hand during a lesson (Robert & David, 2013, p. 120). “His thunderous voice moved e’en the Ninth Heaven” refers to the Nine Heavens (jiutian, 九天) of Daoism (Pregadio, 2008, pp. 593-594). And of course the poem goes onto mention Subhuti lecturing on both Chan and the Dao, thereby identifying him as a teacher of unparalleled knowledge.

An immortal lecturing on Buddhism may come as a surprise to some readers. However, it should be remembered that Subhuti is based on one of the Buddha’s historical disciples.

Sun Wukong and Subhuti

Sun Wukong and Master Subhuti. Take note of the fly whisk in the sage’s hands. Photomanipulation by the author (larger version). The original photo of the monk can be found on this blog about the fly whisk.

2) The Secret of Immortality – As I’ve explained in this article, Sun achieves immortality via breathing exercises designed to absorb yang energy during prescribed times (after midnight and before noon), the retention of chaste semen and transformation into qi energy, and the purification and circulation of the resulting spiritual energy throughout his body. While these practices are traditionally associated in Daoist internal alchemy with the formation of an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.

Immortal Awakened

Monkey achieves immortality. Photomanipulation by the author (larger version).

3) The 72 Heavenly Transformations – This series of oral formulas allows Wukong to change his physical appearance into anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. Subhuti teaches this skill to Monkey with the expressed purpose of escaping three heaven-sent calamities meant to destroy immortals for defying their fate. Despite the intended use, this skill becomes one of his greatest strengths.

Because of Monkey’s mental acuity he is able to instantly remember all of the oral formulas imparted to him and, after some practice, he quickly masters the transformations.

Sun’s heated battle of transformations with the god Erlang. From the 1965 animated classic Havoc in Heaven.

4) Cloud-Somersaulting – The combination of a hand mudra and an oral formula allows Monkey to rise above the ground and travel at immense speed by somersaulting from cloud to cloud, each leap being 108,000 li, or 33,554 miles (54,000 km) long.

This skill is mastered in a single night.


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

II. Implied

Sun Wukong’s tutelage in these subjects are never stated but are understood to have taken place.

5) General Daoist Magic –  This skill allows him to call forth gods and spirits, grow or shrink to any size, part fire and water, create an impassable barrier, conger a wind storm, cast illusions, freeze someone in place, unlock any lock, give human disciples superhuman strength, etc.

What’s interesting is that, during his training, Monkey expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests simply because the skill won’t result in his immortality. Instead, after achieving eternal life, Sun is just so powerful he can command the very gods themselves to do his bidding. His lack of ritual knowledge is highlighted in chapter 45 when he agrees to engage in a rain-making competition with an animal spirit disguised as a Daoist priest. The spirit relies on an established liturgy involving a ritual sword and tablet, as well as the burning of a written note. This elaborate ritual initiates a bureaucratic chain in which the request is sent to heaven, the Jade Emperor agrees to the appeal, and then heavenly officials, namely the gods of wind, clouds, lightning, and rain, are dispatched to fulfill the application. But Monkey rises into the clouds above to bully the respective deities into helping him instead, noting: “I don’t know how to burn charms, issue summons, or strike any tablet. So all of you must play along with me” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).

Likewise, Monkey is so powerful that he can bring the dead back to life by simply fetching a person’s soul from the underworld (like he does for an elderly benefactor in chapter 97).

123 magic

Sun casting a magic spell. Drawing by Poppindollars on deviantart (larger version).

6) The Art of War – I’m including military and civilian martial arts in this section as both are related.

Weaponry – After returning home in chapter 3, the young immortal teaches his children how to wield a plethora of weapons, including swords, spears, axes, bows and arrows, etc. Of course, he shortly thereafter acquires his magic staff, the weapon most commonly associated with him. Monkey’s skill with the staff is so great, in fact, that his supernatural technique is likened in chapter 33 to two of the Seven Military Classics of China.

Monkey’s broad knowledge of weapons implies that he learns the famous “Eighteen Martial Arts” (Shiba ban wuyi, 十八般武藝). A vague list of these war implements first appeared during the Song Dynasty, but a later definitive list became “a standard shorthand for complete martial arts knowledge” in Yuan-period stage plays (Lorge, 2012, p. 146). One version of the list appearing in the great Chinese classic The Water Margin (c. 1400) includes everything from chains, clubs, and whips to axes, halberds, and even early firearms (Lorge, 2012, p. 147). Variations on the eighteen weapons remained a staple of Chinese stage plays, oral literature, and written fiction. Therefore, it’s no wonder a great warrior like Monkey would come to be associated with the mastery of so many weapons.


Monkey assaults heavenly forces with his magic staff. Drawing by JeremyBLZ on deviantart (larger version).

Military Maneuvers – Monkey goes onto train his children how to march, go on patrol, follow orders directed by flags and battle drums, and advance and retreat, turning the tangled mass of monkeys into an elite army.

Sun’s children engaging in mock battles during their training. From Havoc in Heaven. 

Boxing – Sun displays a mastery of unarmed boxing in chapters one and 50, the former against a demon who takes over his mountain home in his absence and the latter against a Rhinoceros demon who steals his staff. Both chapters describe Monkey using techniques akin to short fist, a style known for quick, compact punches. Learning this close range style may be out of necessity, though, considering Sun is so short (he’s less than 4ft (122cm) tall).

In his wonderful book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Prof. Meir Shahar of Tel Aviv University shows Shaolin kungfu developed during the Ming-Qing transition from a synthesis of Daoist gymnastics (stretching and breathing exercises), religious rituals, and fist techniques. This new form of spiritual cultivation ushered in the era of so-called “internal martial arts“, Taiji boxing being the most famous among them.

Interestingly, some of the real world techniques used by Monkey and his opponent in chapter 50 appear in Taiji boxing.

Journey to the West (1592) was published during the late Ming when this synthesis was in full swing. Therefore, Sun’s study of martial arts in a religious institution is an accurate snapshot of one facet of 16th-century monastic life.


Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).

7) Chinese Medicine – This skill is displayed only once in the novel. In chapter 69, Monkey works to diagnose the long standing malady of a foreign emperor. But due to the immortal’s monstrous appearance, he is forced to analyze the ruler from afar, using three magic hairs-turned-golden strings to measure the vibrations of the pulse from three locations of each forearm. Sun deduces the illness is caused by fear and anxiety over the loss of the monarch’s queen, who had been kidnapped by a demon. Monkey then concocts three pills from a collection of herbs and administers the elixir with liquid. The medicine causes the emperor to pass an obstruction in his bowls, thus restoring the natural qi flow in his body and curing him of his sickness.

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

TCM hand chart

The spots analyzed during pulse diagnosis.

III. Conclusion 

Monkey stays in Subhuti’s monastery for a total of ten years, the first seven living as a junior Daoist monk and the last three as a close disciple of Subhuti. During his time as a junior monk, he learns human language and etiquette, calligraphy, scripture reading, and incense burning. These foundational skills are taught to him by his senior religious brothers. During his time with Subhuti, Sun learns Chan and Daoist philosophy; the secret of immortality; the 72 heavenly transformations; cloud-somersaulting; general Daoist magic; military arts like troop maneuvering, weapons, and boxing; and medicine.

The skills learned by Sun are varied, straddling the religious, the literary, and the martial. Therefore, Monkey is a perfect example of what Deng Mingdao (1990) calls the “Scholar Warrior”:

Skill is the essence of the Scholar Warrior. Such a person strives to develop a wide variety of talents to a degree greater than even a specialist in a particular field. Poet and boxer. Doctor and swordsman. Musician and knight. The Scholar Warrior uses each part of his or her overall ability to keep the whole in balance, and to attain the equilibrium for following the Tao. Uncertainty of the future inspires no fear: whatever happens, the Scholar Warrior has the confidence to face it (p. 10).

Update: 11/27/2018

I’ve written a continuation of this article where I use the above info to speculate Sun Wukong is a warrior monk in Master Subhuti’s immortal monastic army. It’s good fodder for fanfiction. I even suggest a mythological baddie for the warrior monks to fight, the headless deity Xingtian.


Deng, M. D. (1990). Scholar warrior: An introduction to the Tao in everyday life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Lorge, P. A. (2012). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pregadio, F. (2008). Jiutian 九天 Nine Heavens In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 593-594). London [u.a.: Routledge].

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

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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

Journey to the West and World History

Did you know Journey to the West (1592) was published the same year that Shakespeare‘s Richard III was first performed? Here is a list of other 16th-century world events that took place before and slightly after the novel was published. The chosen source is Eurocentric, but I think this serves to contrast the hyper distillation of Chinese history and culture presented in the book. This list is by no means exhaustive.

c. 1500 – The Incan citadel Machu Picchu is constructed

The first watches are made in Nuremberg

1501Michelangelo begins to carve his David

1503Leonardo da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa

1507 – A circulating pamphlet suggests the New World should be named “America” after the explorer and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci

1508 – Michelangelo begins work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

1510Henry VIII becomes king of England

1517Martin Luther nails his Protestant 95 Theses to the church doors

1519 – Portuguese explorer Magellan sets out to circumnavigate the globe

The Spanish conquistador Cortes lands in Mexico

1520 – Europe’s printing presses fuel a pamphlet war arguing for and against the Reformation

1526 – The Mughal empire is founded in India

1533 – Spanish Conquistadors sack the Incan city of Cuzco

1536Wales becomes a principality of England

1539 – The Great Bible, the first authorized English translation of the bible, commissioned by Henry VIII, is published

1540 – Spanish explorer Vasquez de Coronado penetrates America looking for fabled cities of gold

1543 – Polish scientist Copernicus suggests the Earth orbits around the sun

The first Europeans are blown ashore to Japan

Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius publishes his treatise on human anatomy

1549Brazil becomes a Portuguese province

c. 1550 – The Portuguese begin shipping West African slaves all across the Atlantic

1553 – “Bloody Mary” the first ascends the English throne

1564 – The birth of Shakespeare

Gabriele Fallopia invents the condom

1569 – The first map with the Mercator projection is published

1574 – The Ottoman Empire takes control of Northern Africa.

1576 – Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe builds the Uraniborg, the world’s leading observatory

1582 – The Gregorian calendar is introduced

1583 – The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrives in China and begins his study of Chinese culture

1585Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, becomes the first English colony of America

1586Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded for plotting to usurp the English throne by assassinating Queen Elizabeth I

1587Virginia Dare is the first child of English descent to be born in America

1588 – The English fleet destroys the Spanish Armada

1592 – Shakespeare’s Richard III is performed on stage


1595 – Matteo Ricci introduces the writings of Confucius to the Western world

1597Dafne, the first opera, is performed in Venice

1599 – The Globe theater, home to many Shakespearean productions, is built

1600William Gilbert concludes the earth is magnetic and coins the term “magnetic pole”

Gilbert coins the term “Electricity”

Journey to the West seemingly takes place in a timeless, magical land full of gods, immortals, demons, and ghosts, yet it was published during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe. One should remember that the novel was not a contemporary masterpiece born from the mind of a singular talented author but a product of oral storytelling stretching back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and possibly even before. These oral tales were built upon and adapted over the centuries, eventually starting to solidify into accepted episodes by at least the 15th-century. While Wu Cheng’en is widely considered the author, scholars remain divided on the issue. I instead prefer to use the word “compiler” since that is a more accurate description of the book’s construction from existing material.


The Story of the Original Golden Headband in the Great Sage Treasure Temple, Kowloon, Hong Kong

I recently attended the birthday of Sun Wukong on September 25th (the 16th day of the 8th lunar month) in Kowloon, Hong Kong (I’ll write more about this later). While the festivities took place at an alternate location with a secondary altar, I later visited the main altar in the Great Sage Treasure Temple (Dasheng bao miao, 大聖寶廟) on the Po Tat Estate. The altar stage includes a large gilded statue of Wukong, flanked on either side by those of his religious brothers Sha Wujing and Zhu Bajie. Strangely enough, a glass box is conspicuously placed in front of the Monkey King’s visage (fig. 1). Inside is a rusted metal band held together with a single chain link (fig. 2). An accompanying text panel labels it the “Golden Headband” (Jingang gu, 金剛箍) and claims the piece to be the original band worn by the Great Sage during his adventures. This same text is echoed in the Kowloon Great Sage Buddha Hall: Special Inaugural Ceremony Issue of the Sixteenth Year Council Association (Jiulong Dasheng Fo tang: Di shiliu jie lishi hui jiu shi dianli tekan, 九龍大聖佛堂: 第十六屆理事會就識典禮特刊) (2014), a booklet handed out during this year’s festivities. [1]


Fig. 1 – The glass box is visible between the food offerings and the Great Sage’s statue (larger version). Photo by the author.

From Childhood, I believe that everyone has read the story of the golden headband from Journey to the West. Everyone is familiar with the tale. A few decades later [after the events took place], some Buddhists were invited to a Buddhist statue workshop in Shanwei [City, Guangdong Province, China] to see if the Buddha statue they ordered was finished. But when they saw the statue they found it full of flaws. Suddenly, one among them spoke up and said it wasn’t made well enough. The Buddhist statue workshop master asked not to be chastised and said he instead wanted to give them a treasure. They asked him what it was. When he handed it to them they saw it was the Great Sage Buddha’s [original] golden headband.

People say that when Sun Wukong would not accept the Buddhist teachings, Guanyin put the band on his head. Sun Wukong ran side to side while yelling, trying to take it off and throw it far away to some unknown place [but couldn’t].

Many years later, maybe until ten years ago, a virtuous man purchased a sandalwood tree in order to build a Great Sage Buddha statue. He gave it to a Buddhist statue workshop master, who started to saw the tree but soon discovered the golden headband inside and decided to keep it for himself. Two years later, he decided to return it so everyone could behold this sacred treasure. Today, we asked the Buddhist workshop master to make a glass box to display the band in the Great Sage Temple for everyone to worship (p. 45). [2]


Fig. 2 – The glass box with the headband. The accompanying text panel can be seen in the back (larger version). Photo by the author.

Chapter 100 of the original novel describes the headband disappearing once Monkey internalizes self-restraint and becomes a Buddha (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 383). The ultimate fate of the band is never commented on thereafter. The above story presents a continuation of the tale, thereby linking the Great Sage Treasure Temple with the original events of the novel. The band is lost and discovered twice over the centuries, eventually coming to rest in Hong Kong.

Similarities with Shaolin art

The displayed headband appears to be quite old given the level of rust damage. In addition, the style is different than any band I’ve written about before. That being said, the style is somewhat similar to a 17th-century mural from the famed Shaolin Monastery. The mural depicts a muscular luohan wielding a staff and standing next to a ferocious tiger (possibly the Tiger-Taming Luohan). His crown is adorned with a headband held together by a single chain link (fig. 3) similar to our aforementioned band. I am by no means claiming a connection to Shaolin, but it shows there may have been some style of linked headband associated with protector deities in late dynastic China.

17th-Century Shaolin Fresco

Fig. 3 – The 17th-century Shaolin mural (larger version). Take note of the linked headband. From Shahar, 2008, p. 90.


1) The presented folk story is as told by the Kowloon Great Sage Buddha Hall First Vice-Chairperson Qian Peiqun (錢佩群).

2) Thank you to Kelly Black Lin for helping me with the translation.


Kowloon Great Sage Buddha hall: Special inaugural ceremony issue of the sixteenth year Council association (2014, Sept. 9). Published by the Hong Kong Shanwei General Commerce Association Limited.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin monastery: History, religion, and the Chinese martial arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 4. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Sun Wukong’s Hellish Punishment

At the end of chapter seven, the Monkey King is crushed under Five Elements Mountain for 500 years as punishment for attempting to usurp the throne of heaven. I’ve previously written that this sentence is based on Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasty tales of the Sage King and demigod Yu the Great subduing an aquatic monkey demon under a mountain. Sun Wukong’s time pinned by the mountain has been portrayed numerous times in movies and television. But modern media often forgets that this was only part of his punishment, the other half being a hellish diet:

Moved by compassion, he [the Buddha] recited a divine spell and called together a local spirit and the Fearless Guards of Five Quarters to stand watch over the Five-Phases Mountain [fig. 1]. They were told to feed the prisoner [Monkey] with iron pellets [tie wanzi, 鐵丸子] when he was hungry and to give him melted copper [ronghua de tong zhi, 溶化的銅汁] to drink when he was thirsty. When the time of his chastisement was fulfilled, they were told, someone would be coming to deliver him (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 199).

Monkey imprisoned, Son Goku (1939) - small

Fig. 1 – One of the guards charged with watching over Monkey (larger version). From the children’s book Son Goku (1939).

The Origin

This punishment comes directly from Buddhist doctrine describing the torture of sinners in hell (Sk: Naraka; Ch: Diyu, 地獄). For example, the Dirghagama (Ch: Chang Ahun Jing, 長阿含經; “The Collection of Long Scriptures”), which survived thanks to a Chinese translation from the original Sanskrit in 413 CE (Robert & David, 2013, p. 246), describes two realms in hell in which the damned are fed such a horrific diet:

[…] Terrified they run out, seeking safety and refuge, but they arrive at the Hell of Hunger [Ji, 飢].

The wardens come to ask them: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are hungry”. The wardens then seize them and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with iron hooks the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open; they put iron pellets into them [fig. 2]. The pellets burn their lips and tongues, from the throats down to their stomachs. The pellets penetrate through the sinners; there is nothing but burning. The horrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since their punishment is not yet completed, the sinners do not perish. After having suffered for a long time, they leave the Hell of Hunger. Frightened they run away, looking for relief and safety, until they arrive to the Hell of Thirst [Ke, 渴].

The wardens come to them and ask: “Since you came here, what do you want?” They answer: “We are thirsty.” The wardens thereupon seize the sinners and throw them on burning iron. They are caused to stretch and spread out their bodies; with hot iron hooks, the wardens hook the sinners’ mouths and force them open. They pour down molten copper [fig. 3]. It burns their mouth, lips and tongue; from their throats it reaches their stomachs. It penetrates down and goes through them; there is nothing but burning. The terrible, fatal, and bitter suffering makes the sinners shriek and moan. Since the remaining transgressions have not yet been atoned, they do not perish. After having been subjected to this punishment for a long time, they leave the Hell of Thirst (Howard, 1986, p. 131).

Soul being forced to eat iron pellets

Fig. 2 – A damned soul being force-fed red hot iron pellets (larger version); Fig. 3 – Souls being forced to drink molten copper (larger version). Images from the 20th-century.

The same source explains the hells of hunger and thirst are the respective fourth and fifth of sixteen minor hells (xiao yu, 小獄) making up one of the eight greater purgatories (Da diyu, 大地獄) called the hell of Consciousness (xiang, 想). Sinners reborn into this labyrinth of pain are full of anger and lash out at each other with scythe-like claws and swords and daggers. They remain conscious through endless rounds of dismemberment and resurrection via a magical wind. They then wander into each successive minor hell, enduring everything from grinding by hot millstones to their flesh and bones being shattered by blistering cold. Again, each sinner remains conscious and resurrects between each purgatory (Howard, 1986, pp. 129-134).

Another name for the greater hell of Consciousness is the Sanskrit term Samjiva (Ch: deng huo, 等活), meaning “revival” or “repetition”. These might refer to the cyclical resurrection of the sinner, or to their karmic punishment mirroring what they did to others in life (Robert & David, 2013, p. 754).

It should be noted that, unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, rebirth in the Buddhist hell is not forever. For some it may last eons, but the torture serves to cleanse the spirit of past sins gained in life. Once the karmic debt has been repaid, the soul will be reborn into one of the other six realms of existence (hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, asura, and deva). Sometimes souls have to work their way back up to human status if they have particularly heavy karmic baggage.

Monkey’s punishment is essentially hell on earth. The Five Elements mountain pins him down so the chosen guards can torture him with hot iron pellets and molten copper just like those in the subterranean hells of hunger and thirst. He is not capable of dying, so his immortality serves a similar function to the magic wind that continually resurrects the damned. The finite length of his sentence (500 years) is similar to the way a soul will only stay in the hell realm until they have repaid their karmic debt. And Tripitaka delivering him from his torments is like a soul being reborn into a new life. After all, Monkey’s life drastically changes after his release; he goes from being a rebellious, power-hungry demon, to a Buddhist monk devoted to the protection of his master.

Other Damned Celestials

Sun Wukong is not the only celestial to be damned to drink molten copper. Readers may be surprised to learn that this same heavenly punishment also afflicts King Yama (Yanluo Wang, 閻羅王), the greatest of the Ten Judges of Hell. The aforementioned Dirghagama reads:

Buddha said to the bhiksus: “South of Jambudvipa, in the interior of the great Diamond Mountain, lies the palace of King Yama. The realm he governs extends for six thousand yojanas in both directions. His city has seven rows of ramparts, with seven nets and seven rows of trees … Day and night, three times a day, a huge copper cauldron automatically places itself in front of him. If the huge cauldron emerges in the interior of the palace, the king, upon seeing it, rushes out of the palace stricken by horror and fright. But then, if the cauldron emerges outside the palace, the king, upon seeing it, reenters the palace stricken by horror and fright. Giant hell wardens grab King Yama and have him lie down on hot irons. With iron hooks, they split his mouth open and force molten copper down. It burns his lips and tongue; from the throat, it reaches his stomach. It spreads down below and passes through [his body] so that no place is left unburnt. The punishment continues [in this fashion] until its completion. Afterwards, King Yama returns to seek amusement with all his ladies. Many great state[s]men, who possessed riches, are also punished in this way” (Howard, 1986, p. 141).

So Yama inhabits an odd position where he is both a member of the heavenly hierarchy working to judge the fate of the dead and a damned soul repaying a karmic debt through torture.


Howard, A. F. (1986). The imagery of the Cosmological Buddha. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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

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