The Monkey King’s Cosmic Body

Sun Wukong is known for his limitless shape-changing powers, capable of taking the form of anything from gods, monsters, and humans to animals, insects, and even inanimate objects like buildings. But his most powerful transformation, that of a cosmic giant, is displayed only three times in the novel. It is used mostly in defense against other powerful characters, namely the god Erlang and the Bull Demon King. In this paper I will introduce the ancient astral-geographical term used to describe this phenomenon, associate the transformation with a divine giant from Chinese mythology, and explore possible ties to Hindu mythology.

I. Episodes from the Novel

The first instance takes place in chapter three after Monkey returns from the Dragon King’s undersea palace with his new weapon. The form is used to show off his magical abilities for his children (fig. 1).

Grasping the treasure [iron staff] in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. Bending over, he cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be [one hundred] thousand feet tall, [1] with a head like the Tai Mountain and a chest like a rugged peak, eyes like lightning and a mouth like a blood bowl, and teeth like swords and halberds. The rod in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 138). (emphasis mine)

cosmic transformation

Fig. 1 – Monkey performs the cosmic transformation for his children (larger version). Original artist unknown. Found on this article.

The second takes place in chapter six during his battle with Erlang Shen. The form is used this time in response to the god’s own cosmic transformation.

The Immortal Master [Erlang] fought the Great Sage for more than three hundred rounds, but the result could still not be determined. The Immortal Master, therefore, summoned all of his magic powers; with a shake he made his body a hundred thousand feet tall. Holding with both hands the divine lance of three points and two blades like the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain, this green-faced, sabre-toothed figure with scarlet hair aimed a violent blow at the head of the Great Sage. But the Great Sage also exerted his magical power and changed himself into a figure having the features and height of Erlang. He wielded a compliant golden-hooped rod that resembled the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun to oppose the god Erlang (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 181).


Now we were telling you about the Immortal Master and the Great Sage, who had changed themselves into forms which imitated Heaven and Earth (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 182). (emphasis mine)

The third takes place in chapter sixty-one during Sun’s battle with the Bull Demon King (fig. 2). Again, the form is used in response to another powerful character’s transformation.

With a loud guffaw, the Bull King then revealed his original form of a gigantic white bull, with a head like a rugged mountain and eyes like bolts of lightning. The two horns were like two iron pagodas, and his teeth were like rows of sharp daggers. From head to toe, he measured more than ten thousand feet, while his height from hoof to neck was about eight [thousand]. [2]

“Wretched ape!” he roared at Pilgrim [Monkey]. “What will you do with me now?” Pilgrim also changed back to his true form; yanking out his golden-hooped rod, he bent his back and then straightened out, crying, “Grow!” At once he grew to a height of one hundred thousand feet, with a head like Mount Tai, eyes like the sun and moon, a mouth like a bloody pound, and teeth like doors (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 157).


[After Zhu Bajie returns from exterminating all of the demons in the Bull King’s cave] “You have achieved great merit, Worthy Brother,” said Pilgrim. “Congratulations! Old Monkey has waged in vain a contest of transformation with him [the Bull King], for I have not yet achieved victory. He finally changed into the biggest possible white bull, and I therefore assumed the appearance that imitated Heaven and Earth” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 158). (emphasis mine)

monkey vs bull king (cosmic transformations) - 1833

Fig. 2 – Monkey vs the Bull King, both in their cosmic transformations (larger version). An 1833 woodblock print by Yashima Gakutei. Photo by Prof. Vincent Durand-Dastès of the ‏National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. With permission. 

II. Ties to Ancient Chinese Astral-Geography and Mythology

The exact word used each time to describe Sun’s modus for attaining his cosmic form is Fatian Xiangdi (法天像地), or the “method of modeling Heaven on Earth”. This is actually related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The ancient Chinese viewed the heavens as a complex system of seven star units set in four cardinal sections, making up the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions, all of which enclosed and revolved around a central star ruled by one of two supreme gods, Shangdi or Taiyi. Known as the “Purple Palace Enclosure” (Ziweiyuan, 紫微垣), this bound star system was the heavenly abode from which the supreme god oversaw reality, while the surrounding stars represented his civil and military officials and even outlying areas, such as dwellings and a marketplace. The Chinese emperor, commonly called the Son of Heaven, was considered the earthly counterpart of the great god, serving as the mediator between the will of heaven and the needs of man. Therefore, architects often modeled imperial cities on these celestial patterns, placing the emperor at the center surrounded by outer layers of courts, residential quarters, markets, and streets (Chan, 2008, pp. 8-19).

The arcane-sounding Fatian Xiangdi term was no doubt chosen simply because Monkey’s magic body mirrors the vastness of the cosmos (both heaven and earth), not that it borrowed particular celestial patterns like earthly architects. Interestingly, though, legend states the ancient Yuan capital of Dadu was modeled on the magic body of the child god Prince Nezha, who also appears in Journey to the West. [3]

The novel likens aspects of Sun’s cosmic form to earthly features and celestial bodies. This resembles stories of the ancient god Pangu (盤古) (fig. 3), the first being born into primordial chaos who slaved to separate heaven from earth, cleaving one from the other and forcing them apart. Stevens (1997) writes this monumental task took its toll on the titan:

He died as the task was reaching a climax and his body became features of the Earth. His head became the mountains, his breath the wind and clouds; his voice became thunder, his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon, and his four limbs became the four quarters of the Earth. His blood ran as rivers, his veins and muscles were the strata of the rocks, and his flesh the soil. His skin sprouted and became vegetable patches, forests and paddy fields, while his bones and teeth became the minerals. His sweat became the rain and to complete creation humanity sprang from the parasites on his body (p. 54).

Monkey in a way becomes a living embodiment of the divine giant because he too is described as having a head like a mountain, eyes like the sun and moon, and a mouth like a large body of liquid, which also happens to be blood.

pangu cleaves heaven and earth - 2

Fig. 3 – A modern (metal?) relief simultaneously symbolizing Pangu’s separation of heaven and earth and the decay of his body into earthly features and celestial bodies (larger version). Take note of the eye-like sun. Found on this news article about the god.

Giant characters were obviously not a new concept to Chinese literature by the Ming. An earlier example comes to us from Master of the Law, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Chapter six sees Monkey transform his golden-ringed monk’s staff “into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189) (fig. 4). This line simultaneously predicts Sun’s goliath form and blunt weapon (that touches heaven and earth like the head and feet of the yaksha) and Erlang’s monstrous appearance (i.e. his green skin and red hair).

yaksha guardian, bangkok, thailand

Fig. 4 – A guardian yaksha statue, Bangkok, Thailand (larger version). Take note of the large stature, blue skin, and club. Found on this article.

III. Possible ties to Hindu Mythology

Yakşas or Yakshas (Ch: Yecha, 夜叉) appear in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist scriptures as the assistants or protectors of divine beings. They are possessed of great magical powers and can do anything from flying to shape-changing (Dalal, 2014, p. 470; Robert & David, 2013, p. 1018). These nature spirits are often depicted in early religious art as portly dwarves (fig. 5), an element of iconography that they share with Vamana, the fifth avatar of the supreme deva Vishnu. This connection is important because the avatar is celebrated for his ability to eclipse the universe. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu takes the form of the dwarf Brahmin when a benevolent asura named Mahabali wrestles control of the cosmos from the gods. Vamana visits the king during a great sacrifice, during which the asura grants gifts, and humbly requests only as much land as he can cover in three strides. But when his wish is granted, the deceptively small priest grows to cosmic proportions, “mightily waxing, swelling in every limb, with his first stride stepp[ing] beyond the sun and moon, with his second reach[ing] the limits of the universe, and with his third return[ing] to set his foot on the heard of the conquered foe” (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132). With his feat (pun intended), Vishnu regains control of heaven (step one) and earth (step two), while simultaneously banishing the asura to the underworld (step three) (Dalal, 2014, p. 442).

yakshas - sanchi stupa, western gateway, 1st c.

Fig. 5 – A detail of chubby Yakshas from the western gateway of Stupa 1 at Sanchi (1st-cent.) (larger version). Found on this article.

The noted art historian Heinrich Zimmer comments sculptures based on this story fall under a category of representationally kinetic art that he calls the “Phenomenon of Expanding Form”. One cited example is the Trivikrama Vishnu (lit: “three steps” Vishnu), a 6th-century Badami cave no. 2 relief (fig. 6) which presents a continuous narrative of the dwarf (fig. 7) growing to become the cosmic giant, the latter’s leg kicking high above his waist (fig. 8), symbolizing his mighty universe-spanning strides. Though the piece is carved in stone, the dynamic nature of the composition gives it a feeling of swelling energy (Zimmer & Campbell, 1992/1946, p. 132).

The carving portrays the cosmic giant holding all manner of weapons, including a club, a sword, a bow, and a chakram, all of which are attributes of Vishnu (Dalal, 2014, p. 460).

badami vamana carving (total for blog)

Fig. 6 – The Trivikrama Vishnu relief carving of Vamana’s story, Badami cave no. 2 (6th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 7 – A detail of the dwarf Brahmin holding a parasol (larger version). Fig. 8 – A detail of the cosmic giant holding celestial weapons and taking a supernaturally large stride (larger version). Adapted from this wikipedia image.

The close association of the Yaksha and Vamana with a short, chubby body and shape-changing powers no doubt influenced the former to take on the latter’s ability to grow to huge proportions. In addition, after being absorbed into Buddhism, Yakshas are portrayed in scripture as divine warriors wielding clubs in defense of the dharma. Two prominent examples are Kubera (a.k.a. Vaisravana) and Vajrapani, both of whom are touted as the yaksha commander (Lutgendorf, 2007, p. 42; Robert & David, 2013, pp. 449 and 955). This surely influenced the later Chinese image of yakshas as club-wielding titans, such as the cited example from Master of the Law. In turn, this and related material could have easily influenced the cosmic transformations of Monkey and other characters and their weapons from Journey to the West.

IV. Conclusion

The novel describes Monkey taking on a giant cosmic form in chapters three, six, and sixty-one, the first time showing off his magic powers to his children and the second and third in response to the respective titanic transformations of Erlang and the Bull King. The magical spell used to achieve this form, titled Fatian Xiangdi (the “Method of modeling Heaven on Earth”), is based on ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities. The idea of Sun’s body parts mirroring aspects of heaven and earth recalls the myth of the primordial god Pangu, whose body parts became the very building blocks of the cosmos after his death.

The cited episodes demonstrate that the characters involved transform both their bodies and weapons. Apart from being described as a 100,000-foot-tall juggernaut with a head like Mt. Tai, Monkey’s staff is said to inhabit the upper and lowermost reaches of the universe (“its top reached the thirty-third Heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell”) or that it resembles “the Heaven-supporting pillar on top of Mount Kunlun”. Likewise, Erlang’s three-pointed polearm is said to resemble “the peaks that cap the Hua Mountain”. Such transformations are predicted, for example, by an episode in the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West in which Sun changes a monk’s staff into a gigantic Yaksha wielding a club.

While Yakshas are portrayed in early South Asian religious art as chubby dwarves, they most likely gained the ability to grow to enormous sizes thanks to iconographic similarities to Vamana, the fifth avatar of Vishnu famed for traversing the cosmos in three mighty steps. One 6th-century stone carving of the story portrays the dwarf-turned-cosmic giant wielding all sorts of celestial weapons. Additionally, Buddhist scriptures would come to portray yakshas as club-wielding warriors. Therefore, we can see how Monkey’s cosmic transformation could have ultimately been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religious material.


1) Here, Anthony C. Yu’s English translation says Monkey grows to be “ten thousand feet tall”. However, the original Chinese source reads “萬丈” (wanzhang), wan meaning 10,000 and zhang being a measure designating ten Chinese feet (10,000 x 10 = 100,000). Therefore, I have changed the source to read “One hundred thousand feet”, much like Yu translates it in chapters six and sixty-one (see above).

2) Yu’s translation reads “eight hundred”. But, again, the original source is different. It reads “八百丈” (ba bai zhang), or 800 x 10 Chinese feet = 8,000. This makes more sense as he is said to be 10,000 feet long.

3) While the city is square, it has eleven gates, which legend states correspond to the three heads, six arms, and two legs of the god. For more information, see Chan, 2008.


Chan, H. (2008). Legends of the building of old Peking. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dalal, R. (2014). Hinduism: An alphabetical guide. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Lutgendorf, P. (2007). Hanuman’s tale: The messages of a divine monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Stevens, K. G. (1997). Chinese gods: the unseen world of spirits and demons. London: Collins & Brown.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Zimmer, H. R., & Campbell, J. (1992). Myths and symbols in Indian art and civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)


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.[1] 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 Big Dipper 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, three pace-style walking pattern symbolized the practitioner spanning the three realms of Earth, Man, and finally Heaven (this has an interesting Vedic correlation). [2] 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, three pace-style walking pattern. 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) The original Chinese says 萬千 (wanqian), which is a literary term for “tens of thousands” or “myriad”. Therefore, the translation should read “tens of thousands of arms”.

2) 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.

Sun Wukong’s Greatest Feat of Strength: An Allegory for Cultural or Religious Conflict?

Last updated: 08/10/2018

Now that I’ve written an entry debunking the idea that Sun Wukong’s staff anchored the Milky Way, I now want to write a piece about his greatest feat of strength in Journey to the West. This feat takes place in chapter 33 after Zhu Bajie has been captured by two demon brothers, Kings Goldhorn (Jinjiao Dawang, 金角大王) and Silverhorn (Yinjiao Dawang, 銀角大王). King Silverhorn, the younger of the two, then sets out to capture Tripitaka but is forced to resort to trickery when he learns the monk is protected by Sun Wukong. He transforms himself into an elderly Daoist laying by the roadside with a broken leg. The monk takes pity and forces Monkey to carry him on his back. However, the immortal sees through the disguise and plans to throw his charge off a cliff. But…

As the Great Sage was about to do this, the monster knew instantly of his plan. Knowing how to summon mountains, he resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey’s] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” Exerting his spirit even more, he recited another spell and sent up the Tai Mountain to press down on Pilgrim’s head. With this magic of the Tai Mountain Pressing the Head, the Great Sage was overpowered as his strength ebbed and his tendons turned numb; the weight was so great that the spirits of the Three Worms inside his body exploded and blood spurted from his seven apertures (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 2, pp. 108-109).

We see here Monkey is able to successfully carry the weight of both the Sumeru and Emei mountains, while running after his master “with the speed of a meteor”. That’s quite impressive, even if he is eventually crushed under the weight of a third mountain (fig. 1). Attention should be given to the particular mountains used in this episode. Let’s start with Sumeru since this is the first one mentioned.

1950s Illustrated Saiyuki - Detail of Monkey crushed under 3 mountains (small)

Fig. 1 – Monkey trapped under the three mountains as King Silverhorn abducts Tripitaka, the dragon horse, and Sha Wujing (larger version). From The Illustrated Journey to the West, a children’s book published in 1950.

Robert & David (2013) describe Mount Sumeru (Ximi shan, 須彌山; Miaogao shan, 妙高山) as:

The central axis of the universe in Buddhist cosmology; also known as Mount Meru. Mount Sumeru stands in the middle of the world as its axis and is eight leagues high …  The slopes of Sumeru are the abode of demigods, and its upper reaches are the heavens of the four heavenly kings. At the summit of the mountain is the heaven of the thirty-three, ruled by the king of the gods, Sakra. Above Mount Sumeru are located the remaining heavens of the sensuous realm [fig. 2] (p. 896).

A poem in chapter four of Journey to the West describes what Monkey sees when he first comes to live in heaven as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. A portion reads, “Thirty-three mansions were found up here, / With names like the Scattered Cloud, the Vaisravana, the Pancavidya, the Suyama, the Nirmanarati…” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 146). Translator Anthony C. Yu notes, “The verse here is alluding to the Indra heaven with it’s thirty-three summits (trāyastriṃśa) [fig. 2] and the six heavens of desire (devalokas)”, which are located atop Mount Sumeru (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 1, p. 510, n. 1). Therefore, the heaven described in the novel is located on the same cosmic mountain as that from Hindo-Buddhist cosmology, meaning Monkey successfully supports the axis of the universe on one shoulder.

Sumeru World System - Sideview small

Fig. 2 – Mount Sumeru indicated in gold. The location of the aforementioned 33 heavens/mansions are indicated in pink. A great cosmic ocean is indicated in blue (larger version). Adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxxii.

Mount Emei (Emei shan, 峨嵋山; 峨眉山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. It is considered extremely important as Chinese tradition believes, upon entering the Middle Kingdom from India, Buddhism spread from this very mountain during the eastern Han Dynasty and proliferated throughout China. The mountain is 10,167 feet high, making it over 3,000 feet taller than the other sacred Buddhist mountains. This place is believed to be the heavenly abode of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, making him the patron saint of Emei (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 282-283).

I want to reiterate the fact that both Sumeru and Emei are important to Buddhism. Not only does Monkey support the very axis of the Buddhist universe on one shoulder, he supports on the other the very mountain from which the religion is believed to have spread into China. I’m not sure if this was the author/compiler’s original intent, but it seems as if this feat of strength could be symbolism for Monkey literally “supporting” Buddhism by protecting his master on their journey to India. After all, the historical Xuanzang (玄奘, 602-664) on whom Tripitaka is based is considered to be one of, if not the, most prolific translators of Buddhist texts in the history of Chinese Buddhism (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 1015-1016).

I turn now to Mount Tai (Taishan, 泰山), the mountain that ultimately overwhelms Sun Wukong’s supernatural strength. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China, which differ from the four Buddhist counterparts mentioned above. Mount Tai was the epicenter of a state cult in Ancient China, one in which Sage-Kings and emperors of millennia past traveled there to perform sacrifices to heaven, thereby gaining the right to rule or attaining eternal life. An entry in the Classic of History (Shujing, 書經, 4th-c. BCE) suggests the practice goes all the way back to the Sage-King Shun (3rd millennia BCE) (Poo, 2011, pp. 20-21). Due to its great cultural and historical significance, the mountain came to be recognized as an adamantine monolith, the very name of which was used as a metaphor for something unfathomably heavy, whether it be a physical measure of weight or philosophical importance. For example, Warring States philosopher Mozi took part in a debate over the plausibility of his school of thought taking center stage in Chinese society. His opponent claimed, “As we see it, one can no more put it into practice than one can pick up Mount Tai and leap over a river with it!” Mozi highlighted the irrelevant nature of the metaphor by replying, “As for picking up Mount Tai and leaping over rivers with it, no one from ancient times to the present, from the beginning of humankind to now, has ever succeeded in doing that!” (Watson, 1999a, p. 71). Another example comes from the Han historian Sima Qian who wrote, “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai, or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it” (pp. 371-372). Therefore, the mountain represented the heaviest thing imaginable in Chinese culture. It’s no wonder then that not even Monkey could withstand its weight.

The idea of Mount Tai symbolizing a heavy object influenced the name of a 17th-century technique related to the development of Taiji boxing called “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai” (Taishan yading, 泰山壓頂) (fig. 3), which involved climbing onto an opponent (Henning, 2009, pp. 78 and 82). Incidentally, the name of this technique is also a common chinese saying referring to someone being under a lot of stress (Gao, Wang, & Weightman, 2012, p. 191).

Taishan yading - small

Fig. 3 – “Crush with the Weight of Mount Tai”. From Henning, 2009, p. 78 (larger version).

I find it interesting that, after easily bearing the weight of two Buddhist mountains, Mount Tai is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mount Tai represents native Chinese history and culture, while Sumeru and Emei represent Buddhism, a non-native religion from India. Therefore, this episode could be read as a struggle between the domestic and foreign aspects of Chinese culture. Considering the monsters are later revealed to be Daoist attendants of Laozi sent by heaven to test the resolve of the pilgrims (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145), it’s possible the conflict is between Daoism, a native Chinese religion, and Buddhism.

This is obviously not a perfect theory, though. For instance, Laozi reveals that it was actually the Bodhisattva Guanyin who requested the lads be sent (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 145). Does this explain why a Daoist spirit would summon two Buddhist mountains to crush Monkey? I’m interested in what others think.

11433390785_ab45584414_b - small

Fig. 4 – A modern painting of Hanuman lifting the mountain (larger version). All credit goes to the original artist S. Keerthi. 

Lastly, I would like to note Sun Wukong’s feat of lifting mountains recalls an episode in the Ramayana (4th-c. BCE) in which the monkey god Hanuman carries back a mountain laden with magical herbs to heal the wounds of his master‘s brother Lakshmana (fig. 4). Hanuman is the living embodiment of strength (shakti) in India (see for example Alter, 1992). Monkey is believed to be loosely based on Hanuman (Walker, 1998), so there could be a connection between both instances of mountain lifting.

Updated: 08/10/2018

Monkey’s feat appears to be based on a native Chinese story and not the Ramayana. This is first hinted at in chapter 33 when the demon exclaims the Great Sage “truly knows how to pole mountains [dan shan, 擔山]!” A poem spoken by Sun Wukong in chapter 67 confirms the connection:

Purvavideha was my ancestral home,
I did cultivation on Mount Flower-Fruit.
I bowed to the Patriarch of Heart and Mind
and perfected with him the martial arts.
I can tame dragons, stirring up the seas;
I can tote mountains to chase down the sun.
In binding fiends and demon’s I’m the best;
Moving stars and planets, I scare ghosts and gods.
Stealing from heav’n and Earth gives me great fame,
Of boundless change, Handsome Stone Monkey’s my name (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol 3, p. 243).

ae51f3deb48f8c545c9435e13c292df5e1fe7fbd - small

Fig. 5 – Erlang poling the mountains (larger version). Artist unknown.

“I can tote mountains to chase down the sun” (shan hui dan shan gan ri tou善會擔山趕日頭) is a clear allusion to the ancient tale “Erlang carries mountains to chase the suns” (Erlang dan shan gan taiyang, 二郎擔​​山趕太陽). The tale describes how the ancient earth was plagued by many suns that scorched the land, making it impossible for the people to grow anything. Vowing to end this plight, the hero Erlang shoulders two mountains hanging from a tree and, with the aid of magical shoes, chases down each sun [fig. 5], using the weight from both landmasses to overwhelm and crush the superfluous celestial bodies (担山赶太阳, n.d). Apart from the feat of lifting two mountains, Erlang’s fleet pursuit of each sun (gan taiyang, 趕太陽) foreshadows Monkey “giv[ing] chase to his master with the speed of a meteor” (fei xing lai gan shifu, 飛星來趕師父).

It’s interesting to note that “Erlang Carrying Mountains” (Erlang dan shan, 二郎擔山) is a common Shaolin stance, and a staff variant even appears in the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques (fig. 6). The staff obviously recalls the pole (or in this case tree) that Erlang uses to bear the weight of the mountains.

Erlang Mountain staff - small

Fig. 6 – The “Erlang Carrying Mountains” staff stance (larger version).


Alter, J. S., & OUP. (1992). The wrestler’s body: Identity and ideology in north India. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Gao, W., Wang, A., & Weightman, F. (2012). A handbook of Chinese cultural terms. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford On Demand Pub.

Henning, S. (2009). Taijiquan: Symbol of traditional Chinese martial arts culture. Journal of Chinese Martial Arts (1), pp. 76-83.

Poo, M. (2011). Preparation for the afterlife in ancient China In Olberding, A., & Ivanhoe, P. J. (Ed.) Mortality in traditional Chinese thought (pp. 13-36). Albany: State University of New York Press.

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

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, 1-117.

Watson, B. (1999a). Mozi: Utility, uniformity, and Universal Love In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 64-76). New York: Columbia University Press.

Watson, B. (1999b). The great Han historians In De Bary, W. T. & Bloom, I. (Ed.) Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 (pp. 367-374). New York: Columbia University Press.

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

担山赶太阳. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2018, from担山赶太阳

The Sun Wukong Stone Relief of Kaiyuan Temple

The southern Chinese seaport of Quanzhou in Fujian province is home to Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺), also known as the Purple Cloud Temple (Ziyun si, 紫雲寺), an ancient Buddhist complex originally built in 686. The temple is famous for its two stone pagodas, each of which is covered in 80 lifesize relief carvings of bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, protector deities, and various mythological creatures rendered in a rustic style influenced by the Northern Song Dynasty school of art (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, pp. 11-18). One figure of interest is a muscular, sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (fig. 1) located on the northeastern side of the western pagoda’s fourth story. Many scholars consider this to be an early depiction of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West (1592). The pagoda was erected in 1237 (Ecke & Demiéville, 1935, p. 91), so this depiction predates the ming novel by 355 years, making it an important source for analazying the early influences on the much beloved literary character. In this paper, I present past research on the relief, as well my own in which I suggest the iconography is based on ritual adornments mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, an Esoteric Buddhist text of the 8th-century.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small (with number)

Fig. 1 – The  Kaiyuan temple pagoda relief (larger version), Quanzhou, Fujian .

I. Previous research

The first detailed description of the relief appears in Ecke and Demiéville (1935).

A guardian with a monkey-head, holding with one hand a rosary which is hanging around his neck, and with the other a sword emitting a cloud from its tip. He wears a short tunic, travel-sandals, and a rope-belt from which are hanging a calabash and a scroll with the Chinese title of the Mahamayarividyārajñi [Fomu da kongque mingwang jing 佛母大孔雀明王經] (T982-985, a text which was used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases). [According to local tradition, it is] Sun Wu-k’ung the name of the monkey assistant (alias the Monkey attendant 猴行者, or the fair Monkey-king 美猴王, or the Great Saint Equal to Heaven 齊天大聖) of Hsüan-tsang [Xuanzang] in the JW-novel. In the upper right corner of the carving there is a small monk-figure with a halo, evidently Hsüan-tsang himself, appearing on a cloud, seemingly the same cloud as that which emanates from the monkey’s sword. In the version of the JW now extant, the monkey assistant’s weapon is not a sword, but an iron rod with two golden rings, which he can reduce, whenever he finds it convenient, into a needle and so keep inside his ear. Also, he wears a tiger-skin over the lower part of his body, a detail which does not agree with our carving (p. 35)

Glen Dudbridge (1970) compares Ecke and Demiéville’s analysis with the description of the Monkey Pilgrim (Hou xinzhe, 猴行者) from the Master of the Law, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West. Based on the differences, he suggests Northern and Southern China may have had separate Monkey story cycles.

[T]here is no sign there of the traveller’s garb in which the Zayton [2] figure is so meticulously clothed; the sword is also not mentioned, although the ‘iron rod with gold rings’ … has not yet assumed its full distinctive role; similarly, the tiger-skin robe, while not described in so many words, seems faintly anticipated in the episode [chapter six] in which Hou Hsing-che slays a tiger-demon, and certainly this standard attribute of demonic figures in Tantric iconography accords well with the description of the yakṣa in that same episode. [3] All this tends to suggest that the Zayton monkey-figure remains strangely distinct from that known to us in the literary sources … Certainly at this stage of their development, there seems to have been no obligation to uniformity in the enactment or representation of popular story cycles: the monkey seen, heard or read about by the northern public could well have differed from his southern counterpart (p. 49).

Writing in 1977, Journey to the West translator and scholar Anthony C. Yu highlighted a difference in opinion regarding the pious figure on the upper right of the piece.

Ōta Tatsuo 太田辰夫 and Torii Hisayasu 鳥居久靖, in “Kaisetsu 解説,” in Saiyuki, Chūgoku koten bungaku taikei, 31-32 (Tokyo 1971), 432, have challenged Ecke and Demiéville’s interpretation of the carving by pointing out that the figure at the upper righthand corner should be thought of simply as a figure of Buddha (not Hsüan-tsang), which Monkey will become by virtue of bringing back the scriptures. It may be added that Sun Wu-k’ung of the hundred chapter narrative did use a sword or scimitar 刀 (JW, chaps. 2 and 3) before he acquired his famous rod. [1] None of the scholars consulted here sees fit to discuss the significance of what seems to be a headband worn by the carved figure (Wu & Yu, 1977, p. 497 n. 23). 

Victor Mair (1989) focuses on the relief’s iconography and suggests the various elements might have ties to depictions of both the Buddhist protector deity Aṇḍīra and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman from the Ramayana (c. 4th-cent BCE).

The band on the Zayton monkey’s head is indeed very important. Surely it must represent what becomes the Tight-Fillet 緊箍 of the Ming JW, ch. 14. Regardless of the author’s (or his predecessors’) elaborate creative inventions surrounding this fillet in the tradition of the novel, we may ask whether it has any identifiable iconographical origins in art.

The Tight-Fillet recalls the band around the head of representations of Aṇḍīra, the simian guardian of Avalokiteśvara and Bhaișajyaguruvaidūryaprabhāṣa … As a typical specimen, we may take a statue [fig. 2] from the Kōfukuji in Nara. The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra has curious wing-like projections extending from the sides of the band around his head that remind us of Mercury in Western classical art. On the Zayton SWK [Sun Wukong], these symbols of swiftness have been displaced to the sides of the eyes. In either case, the wings remind us of H’s [Hanuman’s] descent from the god of the wind. Other similarities between the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra and the Zayton SWK include: identical earrings (these are key iconographical features of H in many Southeast Asian Rs [Ramayanas]), comparable tilt of the head (exaggerated with the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra) which seems to indicate enforced submission, long locks of hair flaring out behind the head, elongated monkey’s mouth, similar decorations on forearms and upper arm, etc. It is crucial to note that all of these features can be found in South Asian and Southeast Asian representations of H. For its photographic clarity, we may choose a scene from the Rāma reliefs in Panataran, Indonesia [fig. 3]. H’s forearms are bare in this particular representation, but in some Thai reliefs (at Wat Phra Jetubon in Bangkok), they resemble those of the Zayton SWK and the Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra. The discrepancies in the dress and ornamentation of the lower parts of the body may be attributed to culture and climate (pp. 699-700).

Kofukuji andira and Hanuman sculpture - small

Fig. 2 – The Kōfukuji Aṇḍīra wooden relief carving (c. 11th to 12th-cent.) (larger version), Nara, Japan. Fig. 3 – Hanuman (left) besting a demonic foe (right), from the Ramayana reliefs of the Panataran temple complex (c. 12th-cent.) (larger version), East Java, Indonesia. 

II. My findings

My opinion on the origins of the Kaiyuan relief’s iconography parts ways with Mair in some respects. For instance, upon close inspection of the Japanese Aṇḍīra carving, the band that he refers to appears to be the brim of a helmet, and the “symbols of swiftness” transferred to our relief are simply wrinkles on Monkey’s face. I do agree the Kaiyuan relief shares affinities with the cited image of Hanuman (e.g., the earrings and armbands). But again, here I part ways with Mair because I suggest the relief’s accoutrements were instead influenced by Esoteric Buddhism and not Hinduism. The similar imagery is no doubt due to a common cultural source.

Nearly every aspect of Sun Wukong’s attire can be found in a passage from the 8th-century esoteric text the Hevajra Tantra (Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經). It instructs yogins on how to adorn and dress themselves for worshipping Heruka (Xi lu jia, 呬嚕迦), a wrathful protector deity of Buddhism.

Sanskrit: bhavakena vidhartavyam karnayor divyakupdalam/ sirasi cakri dhartavya hastayo rucakadvayamkatyarp va mekhalam caiva padayor nupuran tatha/ bahumule ca keyuram gnvayam asthimalika/ paridhanam vyaghracarma bhaksanam dasardhamrtam

Translation: The practitioner should wear divine ear-rings, a circlet around the head, upon each wrist a bracelet, a girdle around his waist, anklets around the ankles, arm ornaments around the upper arms and a garland of bones around the neck. His dress must be of tiger skin and his food the Five Nectars (Farrow & Menon, 2001, pp. 61-62).

Earrings? Check! Circlet? Check! Bracelets, girdle, anklets, and arm ornaments? Check, check, check, and check! The only two aspects that are questionable are the bone necklace and the tigerskin. Rosaries are sometimes made from bone, which satisfies that requirement. As for the skin, while Ecke and Demiéville were quick to note its omission in their study, I think the appearance of so many elements from the passage suggests the tigerskin is present but the features may have just been eroded by time. The chevron shape visible below the girdle could be a skin apron. I’ve created a color version of the relief based on this information (fig. 4).

Kaiyuan Monkey - with color - 2 - small

Fig. 4 – My interpretation of the relief (larger version). A comparison of the original and new versions can be seen here.

As I explained in a previous article, the Hevajra Tantra was officially translated into Chinese in 1055 (no doubt arriving earlier than this), so the text was present in the middle kingdom for nearly 200 years prior to the creation of the relief.

What can these ritual elements tell us about Monkey’s depiction? Firstly, it should be noted that the esoteric deity Heruka and other such wrathful guardians, known as “Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles” (Sk: krodha-vighnantaka), are commonly portrayed wearing such items, leading to the scholar Van Kooij to comment, “Heruka is more or less a deified hypostasis of the … yogin himself” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 251). Second, these deities are often portrayed wielding weapons. For example, one source describes Vajrapani‘s wrathful form Trailokyavijaya “hold[ing] the vajra, ankusa-hook, sharp sword, pâsa-noose and other âyudha [weapons]” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 188). Sun Wukong too is depicted with a weapon, a sword with a lick of heavenly flame. Third, the flaming sutra tied to Monkey’s girdle was, as explained above, historically “used as a charm against all calamities, dangers, wounds, and diseases.” Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles are charged “with the destruction of barriers which prevent the experience of enlightenment” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 25). These include external threats like manifested demons and internal threats like demon-caused mental and bodily illness, the “three poisons”, and karmic debt (Linrothe, 1999, pp. 24-25). Therefore, the iconography presents Sun Wukong as a wrathful protector deity.

This then may lend support to Ecke and Demiéville’s original assertion that the pious figure floating in the clouds to the right of Monkey’s head is in fact Xuanzang. The Great Sage clears the path of manifested demons that obstruct the monk’s path to enlightenment, leading to his ascension into paradise (this happens in both the 13th-century version of the story and the final Ming novel).

III. Conclusion

The 13th-century Sun Wukong pagoda relief of the Kaiyuan Temple shares many similarities to ritual adornments mentioned in the esoteric Hevajra Tantra (8th-cent.), including earrings, the circlet, arm cuffs, a necklace, a girdle, wrist bangles, anklets, and possibly even a tiger skin. Esoteric protector deities are often portrayed with similar attire since they represent the very yogin ascetics who worship them. Monkey’s depiction with said attire suggests the artist who created the piece intended to present him as a powerful Buddhist guardian on par with Wrathful Destroyers of Obstacles like Heruka. The depicted sword and sutra, each shown with a lick of heavenly flame, no doubt represent the means by which the Great Sage protects his master Xuanzang (possibly the pious figure on the upper right corner of the relief).

While Monkey’s association with the fillet and the tiger skin carried over into the novel, other characters came to be associated with ritual adornments from the Hevajra Tantra. A prime example is Red Boy (Hong hai’er, 紅孩兒), son of the Bull Demon King and Lady Iron Fan. The Bodhisattva Guanyin forces the demon child to submit in chapter 42, after which she uses a magic treasure given to her by the Buddha to ensnare his extremities.

Dear Bodhisattva! She took the fillet and waved it at the wind once, crying, “Change!” It changed into five fillets, which she threw at the body of the boy, crying, “Hit!” One fillet enveloped the boy’s head, while the rest caught his two hands and two feet (Wu & Yu, 1977, vol. 2, p. 280).

Red Boy is the literary counterpart of the religious figure Sudhana (Sancai, 善財), whose spiritual journey is told in the Gandavyuha Sutra (Dafang guang fohuayan jing, 大方廣佛華嚴經, c. 3rd-cent.). The youth sets out on a quest towards enlightenment and trains under 52 different teachers, including Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara (the South Asian variant of Guanyin), Mañjuśrī, and Samantabhadra (Buswell & Lopez, 2013, p. 864). It’s no wonder then that the ascetic came to be associated with such ritual adornments. South and East Asian depictions of Sudhana/Sancai often portray him wearing bangles and anklets (fig. 5).

Sudhana - small

Fig. 5 – A modern day altar statue of Sudhana/Sancai (larger version). Notice the bangles and anklets.


1) Yu is referring to the fight between Sun wukong and a demon, during which time the monkey disarms him and uses the latter’s own sword against him.

2) The city of Quanzhou was known to both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta by the Arabic name Zayton or Zaiton (زيتون , the “City of Olives”).

3) Monkey transforms a ringed monk’s staff into a titanic yakṣa that crushes the aforementioned tiger demon with a club.


Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.

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

Ecke, G., & Demiéville, P. (1935). The twin pagodas of Zayton: A study of the later Buddhist sculpture in China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Farrow, G. W., & Menon, I. (2001). The concealed essence of the Hevajra Tantra: With the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

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.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (1977). The journey to the West. Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Archive #1 – Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate

I have finally tracked down a digital version of Victor Mair’s often quoted summary of the scholarly debate on the possible connection between Sun Wukong (fig. 1) and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (fig. 2). This paper is extremely hard to find, so I am archiving it here to aid both amateur and professional scholars who may not yet have access to it.

Sammy Torres Wukong - small

Fig. 1 – Sun Wukong from birth to the Great Sage. This marvelous sequential drawing is by Sammy Torres on twitter. The full drawing can be seen here.


The chief aim of this article is to restore the debate to its original scholarly intent, namely to determine whether H [Hanuman], the redoubtable simian devotee of Prince Rama in his quest to recover Sita from Lanka, had anything to do with the formation of the character of SWK [Sun Wukong], Tripitaka’s formidable Monkey-disciple during his pilgrimage to India to retrieve scriptures. This can only be achieved by remaining as impartial and objective as possible while presenting the pertinent evidence. A clinically dispassionate examination of the widely varying opinions of authorities concerning the apparent affinity between SWK and H is also required if the present impasse is to be broken. Hence, this article is necessarily as much an investigation of scholarly methods and attitudes as it is about the origins of SWK. Accordingly, it is divided into two main divisions, “Evidence” and “Authorities and Interpretations.” These are further subdivided into a number of sections, “Evidence” by geographical area and “Authorities and Interpretations” by a chronological listing of major participants in the debate.

Paper link

Fig. 2 – A religious portrait of Hanuman (larger version). Artist unknown.


This has been posted for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.


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.


How the Hindu Bird God Garuda Came to Appear in Journey to the West

Last updated: 04-29-2018

Heroes from Chinese military fiction are often cast as reincarnations of celestial beings. For instance, the famous patriot General Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103–1141) is portrayed as a reincarnation of the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda (Jialouluo, 伽樓羅; Jialiuluo, 伽留羅) in his folk biography The Story of Yue Fei (Shuo Yue quan zhuan, 說岳全傳, 1684). The bird, called the “Great Roc, the Golden-Winged King of Illumination” (Dapeng jinchi mingwang, 大鵬金翅明王), sits at the head of the Buddha’s throne in the Western Paradise. His fiery temper is aroused when a bat-spirit (the embodiment of the Aquarius constellation) passes gas during the Enlightened One’s sermon on the Lotus Sutra. He swoops down from the throne and snatches her up in his beak, killing her instantly. The Buddha admonishes the bird for his transgression of Buddhist law and exiles him to earth. His rebirth in the human world actually serves to counterbalance the actions of a nomadic antagonist, originally a dragon sent from the Eastern Heaven to punish China (Qian, 2016). This storyline was influenced by a previous work, Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592), which explains how Garuda came to hold such an important position above the Buddha.

Called the “Roc of Ten Thousand Cloudy Miles” (Yuncheng wanli peng, 雲程萬里鹏), [1] the bird is portrayed as a spiritual uncle of the Buddha and an ancient demon king with unequaled strength, speed, and powers of transformation (fig. 1). He wields two magic weapons, a halberd and a vase capable of trapping and killing even immortals. Garuda is so powerful, in fact, that not even Sun Wukong (孫悟空) is strong enough to pacify the beast. Therefore, the Buddha himself is forced to leave the Western Paradise to confront the demon headon. He casts the illusion of a bloody piece of meat above his head, and when the man-bird pounces on the bait, the Buddha takes away his ability to fly, thus trapping Garuda above his head in the demon’s original form as a golden-winged vulture (Dapeng jinchi diao, 大鵬金翅鵰) (fig. 2). After some struggle, the bird agrees to become a protector of Buddhist law (Sk: dharma; Ch: fa, 法). Thus, Chinese fiction portrays Garuda as a powerful demon king that submits to the Buddha and perches above his throne as a hot-tempered guardian deity. [2]

The fact that this literary motif appears in two famous Chinese classics points to some widely known religious concept circulating during the 16th– and 17th-centuries. In this paper I will trace the origins of the motif from ancient South Asian literature and religious architecture to Esoteric Buddhist art in East Asia. The path we walk is a complicated one spanning centuries, belief systems, and artistic mediums.

Gardua from both novels

Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of the Roc demon in his humanoid form (artist unknown) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A modern depiction of the roc trapped above the Buddha’s head (artist unknown) (larger version).

1. India – Where our search begins

1.1. Garuda’s appearance in ancient literature

The origin of the Chinese literary motif is over two thousand years old, first appearing in the 4th-century BCE Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The holy work states that Garuda is the son of the creator-sage Kashyapa and his second wife Vinata. After gestating in his egg for one thousand years, the bird bursts forth and his massive, fiery body grows to engulf the entire cosmos. His sun-like splendor is so bright that the devas mistake him for Agni, the god of holy fire. Garuda is forced to reduce his size and illumination when the devas ask him to do so out of fear. Falling prey to an ancient curse, his mother Vinata loses a bet and is enslaved by her sister Kadru, mother of the naga-serpents. Garuda agrees to steal the vessel containing the immortal elixir of amrita from the devas in order to secure his mother’s release. He uses his great strength and speed to defeat the celestial army and kill the serpents guarding the elixir, and he uses his powers of transformation to extinguish the fire surrounding the treasured substance and sneak past the magic discus charged with dismembering thieves. Upon his return trip, Garuda is halted by the supreme deva Vishnu who grants him the boon of immortality for partaking in such a difficult quest. In return, the bird grants him the boon of serving as the carrier of his celestial vehicle (vimana) and positions himself above Vishnu’s head atop the flagpole (dhvaja). Not long after, Indra, king of the devas, strikes the bird with a lightning bolt in an attempt to retrieve the amrita. The bird pays him respect by shedding a single feather and grants him the boon of eternal friendship. After learning the reason for the theft, the devaraja grants Garuda the boon of taking his enemies the nagas as his food. Both of them then orchestrate a plan in which the bird pays the amrita ransom to free his mother, but Indra takes the elixir away before the serpents can drink of it. Finally, Garuda slaughters all of the nagas (Ganguli, 2003, pp. 57-82).

It’s easy to discern several aspects from Chinese fiction in the ancient story: 1) a powerful golden bird with great strength, speed, and powers of transformation; 2) a vessel with magical properties; 3) conflict between the bird and heavenly forces; 4) his subjugation by a higher power; 5) his installment above a deva’s head; and 6) continued conflict between the bird and his serpent foes. This adds to existing literature showing that the Mahabharata influenced Journey to the West (Subbaraman, 2002).

1.2. Garuda’s appearance on religious architecture

Since the Mahabharata was published, Garuda has been depicted on a number of ritual flagpoles (dvaja) in India. The dvaja pillar “is placed opposite the entrance to the main shrine [of a Hindu temple], on axis with the central image…it is an object of great importance and worship” (Dallapiccola, 2002, p. 60). Adherents would have paid reverence to it before entering the temple. People affected by snake bites would often embrace these types of pillars because they believed Garuda’s powers over the nagas (and their serpentine kin) would neutralize the poison (Zimmer, 1946, p. 75). The oldest of the stone dvaja columns still standing is the Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE) erected by a Bactrian-Greek envoy and convert of that name in honor of Vishnu in Vidisha (fig. 3) (Walker, 1968, p. 246). The Garuda is no longer extant, having been eroded by time or destroyed by iconoclasts. It is considered the “first dated monument linked with Vishnu” (Elgood, 2000, p. 56). Clues to what the original capital may have looked like can be drawn from numismatic evidence. The golden dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375 CE) of the Gupta Empire, for example, features a Garuda dvaja (fig. 4) (Mookerji, 1973, p. 52). The capital is depicted as a bird, suggesting the eroded figure on the Heliodorus pillar may have originally taken such a form. This differs from later humanoid depictions of the god (see below).

pillar and coin

Fig. 3 – The Heliodorus pillar (2nd-cent. BCE), Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda capital is missing. Photo by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Fig. 4 – The gold dinar of King Samudra (r. 335-375) of the Gupta Empire (larger version). The Garuda dvaja can be seen to the left. Photo by the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA).

Garuda’s association with Buddhism seems to be quite old. His appearance on a number of standing gateways and carved cave temple entrances, collectively known as toranas, from the 1st-century BCE onward points to him being absorbed into the religion’s pantheon within a few centuries of the historical Buddha’s death. The oldest extant representation of Garuda appears on the eastern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 5) (Iyer, 1977, p. 52). Dated to the 1st-century BCE, the standing torana has three tiered architraves, the middle of which portrays a bodhi tree, an iconoclastic representation of the Buddha, flanked by real and mythical creatures paying homage to it. The far right side of this stone relief features Garuda standing next to a five-headed king of serpents (nagaraja) (fig. 6). The bird is depicted as a husky parrot with a delicate, forward curling crest, a thick beak, a pierced human ear, small flapping wings, and lacey tail plumage. The relationship between the two is amicable since it is a scene of religious reverence. This “Garuda and serpent” motif appears on the partial remains of a slightly younger stone architrave discovered in Kankali Tila at Mathura (Smith, 1969, p. 28). [3] The circa 1st-century BCE relief depicts him as a large bird of prey with similar iconography, including the curling crest, thick beak, and pierced human ear. But the tail plumage is far more flowery and ornate, indicating that the artist built off of the earlier example. Also, unlike the architrave from the Sanchi stupa, this piece portrays Garuda locked in a tense standoff with a three-headed nagaraja; the bird has a firm grasp of the hissing serpent with his beak, but the foe’s body is wrapped twice around the god’s neck and the tail is anchored at the base of a nearby tree (fig. 7) (Vogal, 1972, p. 172).

Stupa details

Fig. 5 – The reverse side of the East Torana of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (1st-cent. BCE), Madhya Pradesh, India (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif is visible on the right side of the central architrave. Fig. 6 – Detail of the Garuda and serpent motif (larger version). Photos by the The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art (HABRA), The Ohio State University. Fig. 7 – The partial architrave discovered in Kankali Tila (c. 1st-cent. BCE) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India (larger version). Drawing from Smith, 1969, p. 28 .

Later depictions of the motif anthropomorphize Garuda. For instance, he makes an appearance standing over the torana of the carved Bhuta Lena cave shrine number forty (c. 100 CE) in Junnar (fig. 8) (Qureshi, 2010, p. 315). He is coupled with a nagaraja at the apex of the arched doorway; the two are presented as peaceful humanoid companions wearing matching hats and clothing and standing in a similar pose. This could be related to a birth tale (jataka) in which the Buddha, in his previous life as a hermit, reconciles the hatred between Garuda and a naga by “rehears[ing] the blessings of loving kindness until they [are] both at one. Thenceforward they abode together happily in peace and harmony” (Vogal, 1972, p. 142).

Garuda and Nagaraja above the arch of the Chaitya hall (#40) at Maharashtra, stone, 2nd-3rd c

Fig. 8 – Garuda (left) and Nataraja (right) above the torana entrance of the Bhuta Lena cave shrine no. 40 (c. 100 CE) in Junnar, Maharashtra, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA.

Dhar (2009) notes that the standing gateway toranas were replaced in popularity by “the post, lintel, and eave-cornice (kapotapālikā) type entryways” sometime after the 2nd to 3rd-century CE (p. 16). She continues, “From the fifth century, such an entrance gateway became an integral part of temple doorframes…its posts served as pilaster-doorjambs (stamhaśākhās) and the eave-cornice integrated with the lintel” (p. 16). It was around this time that Hindus followed the example of their Buddhist neighbors and began to create carved religious structures (Dehejia, 1997, p. 124). Such temples were considered the home of a given deity when they left their heavenly abode (Dehejia, 1997, p. 141). As such, these temples were profusely decorated with images of the deva, including the entrance way, to aid in their worship. A related root word for torana “suggests its role as an architectural symbol of a rite of passage or liminality” (Dhar, 2009, p. 1). This means whoever steps into the world of the “other” does so under the watchful eye of the deity placed on the torana. In the case of temples devoted to Vishnu and lesser devas associated with him, the image is either Garuda by himself (being a symbol of the god) or bearing the deva on his back, a variation on his portrayal in the Mahabharata that came to dominate his traditional iconography (Zimmer, 1946, p. 76).

1.3. Appearance of the antagonistic Garuda and Serpents motif

Whether alone or coupled with Vishnu, the antagonistic version of the Garuda and serpents motif began to appear on Hindu toranas by at least the 7th to 8th-century. In fact, the only examples that I can find come from this time period. I have seen examples of the “Garuda and Vishnu” motif above entrance ways as late as the 11th-century, but these are missing the serpents. However, later Tibetan art featuring the serpent variation suggests there may be Indian examples that I am not aware of. The 7th-century example appears on the torana of the Gaudar Gudi Temple in Badami (Gupte, 1967, p. 54) (fig. 9). Garuda is portrayed in humanoid form wearing a hat and clothing similar to figure 8. He is squatting over the entrance while grasping the tails of naga-serpents flanking him on both sides. The first c. 700 example appears on the torana of the Durga (Fort) Temple in Aihole (fig. 10) (Tartakov, 1997, p. 192). He is depicted as a smiling human in an erect flying posture with his left leg tucked under his groin and his right trailing behind him. Just like the first piece, he is wearing similar attire and grasping the tails of nagas on his left and right sides. The second c. 700 example appears over the entranceway of the Rajivalocana Temple in Rajim (fig. 11) (Patel, 1992, p. 146). But this version has Garuda transporting a four armed Vishnu. The figure is again depicted in human form and grasping the tails of his serpentine foes.

Early examples

Fig. 9 – The Gaudar Gudi Temple Garuda with serpents (7th-cent.), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by AIIS. Fig. 10 – The Durga (Fort) Temple Garuda with serpents (c. 700), Aihole, Karnataka, India (larger version). Photo by ACSAA. Fig. 11 – The Rajivalocana Temple Garuda and Vishnu with serpents (c. 700), Rajim, Chhattisgarh, India (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

2. Cambodia – The motif achieves perfection

The torana spread to Southeast Asia by the late 6th– or early 7th-century. Next to India, Cambodia has the largest number of and most diverse toranas in all of Asia (Dhar, 2009, p. 214). In fact, I would dare say this is where the Garuda and serpents motif reached the point of perfection. Parul Pandya Dhar’s wonderful monograph The Torana in Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture (2009) features two beautiful examples from Buddhist temples carved in the unmistakable Khmer style. The first is an exquisitely crafted 9th-century entranceway from the Prasat Kok Po Temple in Siem Reap (pp. 222 and 228) (fig. 12 and 13). It portrays Garuda as a large, stout man-bird with pierced ears and wearing a Cambodian headdress and garment. He is standing on a pedestal and bearing a four-armed Vishnu on his back while grasping the flower garland-like tail of a three-headed nagaraja in each hand. The god is further flanked by two large creatures with gaping mouths known as “Faces of Glory” (Kīrtimukha). [4] Their arms interlock not only with the undulating serpents grasped by the man-bird, but two others located on the outermost left and right portion of the torana—the combination of arms and slithering serpentine bodies form a beautiful horizontal wave pattern with four crests. These larger nagarajas bear images of tiny Garudas standing on the back of their hoods. [5] The author notes that the “Kīrtimukha and makaras seen on Indian and Indonesian toranas are often replaced by the garuḍa-nāgas combination in Cambodia” (Dhar, 2009, p. 228). The second is a mid-10th-century entranceway from the Prasat thom Temple in Koh Ker (fig. 14 and 15). The depiction of Garuda is identical to the first example down to the clothing. But instead of bearing Vishnu and cooperating with the Kirtimukha to conquer nagas, he alone is grasping the long, flowery tails of his enemies who are positioned on pedestals at the same level as his own. Two small Buddhas use the bodies of the tightly drawn serpents as a place to meditate. Both nagarajas bear the Wheel of Buddhist Law (Dharmachakra) on their chests. The composition is therefore symbolic of Garuda and the nagas working together to literal “support” Buddhism.

Cambodian lintel with detail - 1

Fig. 12 – The Prasat Kok Po Temple lintel featuring the Garuda and Vishnu with serpents motif (9th-cent.), Siem Reap, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 13 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Prasat thom Temple lintel with the Garuda and serpents motif (mid-10th-cent.), Preah Vihear, Cambodia (larger version). Fig. 15 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons.

3. The motif spreads to East Asia

3.1. Tibet – The motif jumps from architecture to art

The Buddhist examples from Cambodia appear to have been influenced by depictions of the Garuda and serpents motif from Hindu temples. This is because they depict Hindu deities like Vishnu and portray the bird and naga as (symbolic) enemies. The same can be said for Buddhist art and architecture in East Asia. For instance, Heather Stoddard (1996) comments that the motif “is in fact present in all the main Tibetan [Buddhist] styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art” (p. 40). She continues, “The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (p. 40). (It’s obvious that Stoddard was unaware of the architectural origins of the motif at the time of her study.) One of the three pieces that she cites as examples is a 13th-century Nepalese painting of Ratnasambhava (Baosheng rulai, 寶生如來, fig. 16), one of the five Esoteric Buddhas (Stoddard, 1996, p. 42). The painting shows the Buddha sitting on a throne comprised of a lotus flower base and a backrest framed by all sorts of real and mythical creatures. The Garuda and serpents motif crowns the apex of the throne. Art historians call this an “enlightenment torana” or a “gate of glory” (Beer, 1999, p. 88; Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). It’s clear that Buddhist artists came to equate the torana with the fiery halo that signifies a deity’s enlightened or divine nature. Robert Beer (1999) believes that these enlightenment toranas could have appeared as early as the 4th-century, but that it became a common fixture in Buddhist art from the 8th to the 12th-century (p. 90). Two beautiful examples of an enlightenment torana from the mid-6th-century appear in the Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety in Mumbai (Malandra, 1993, p. 110). It depicts two Buddhas standing under their own gates of glory, complete with what appears to be licks of heavenly flame (fig. 17). Though missing the motif, these examples are nearly identical to later Tibetan art, suggesting, as mentioned above, that there could be later Indian examples featuring the Garuda and serpents motif that I am unaware of.

Nepalses Thangka with double gates of glory

Fig. 16 – Ratnasambhava, with Bodhisattvas (13th-cent.), Nepal (larger version). The Garuda and serpent motif can be seen at the apex of the throne. Photo by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 17 – Two Buddhas with enlightenment toranas, from Kanheri Temple Cave number ninety, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India (mid-6th-cent.) (larger version). Photo by the AIIS.

Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhist art featuring the motif doesn’t appear to predate the 11th-century, so this may have something to do with the second coming of Buddhism in Tibet. The religion became popular among the common folk during the 11th-century after lying dormant for nearly two hundred years. The Tibetan people embraced the Indian Buddhist faith and flocked to India in order to study in various monastic universities. Jan Casey Singer (1999) notes:

Within this international Buddhist community, the Tibetans stood apart by virtue of the particular zeal with which they sought to master the Indian Buddhist tradition. They had both the will and, since Tibet is relatively close to eastern India, the opportunity to observe closely and gradually absorbed the highly sophisticated traditions of Buddhism and Buddhist art that flourished in eastern India at this time” (p. 6).

Tibetans living and traveling in India no doubt came into contact with architecture featuring the Garuda and serpents motif. This is evidenced by their depiction of Garuda as a chubby man-bird (see fig. 22 below, for example). The Vishnudharmottara Purana (7th-century) contains a treatise on prescribed Hindu iconography that mentions the deity “should be made slightly pot-bellied and adorned by all ornaments” (Kramrisch, 1928, p. 80).

3.2. The fiery Garuda halo

Variations of the motif appeared as it spread eastward. For instance, an 11th-century wall mural of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani (Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩) in Kashmir features five colored Garudas flying about his flaming halo (fig. 18). Beer explains that these represent the five Buddhas or Buddhist families of Esoteric Buddhism. He adds: “a yellow garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicoloured for space” (Beer, 1999, p. 62). This variation changed as it rapidly spread into China. An 11th-century painting from the famous Mogao caves of Dunhuang depicts the Bodhisattva Hayagriva (Matou Guanyin, 馬頭觀音), the “Horse-Headed Guanyin,” with three (of five?) fiery Garudas comprising his halo (Fig. 19). This “Garuda aureola” reached its zenith in Japan. One beautiful 11th-century example shows the Esoteric Buddhist guardian deity Fudō Myōō (Budong mingwang, 不動明王) set against a Garuda halo. The five Garudas are portrayed as flaming roosters encircling the god (fig. 20) (Akiyama, 1961, pp. 53 and 57). Thus, Esoteric Buddhism was the catalyst for the spread of the Garuda aureola motif towards the east.

Tibet, China, Japan

Fig. 18 – Five colored Garudas in the aureola of the the Lha khang Soma Vajrapani (11th-cent.), Kashmir (larger version). Photo by HABRA. Fig. 19 – Hayagriva with flaming Garudas (11th-cent.), Dunhuang, Gansu, China (larver version). The simplistic Garudas are located to the respective left and right of a Face of Glory, as well as in between his legs. Photo by the Musée national des Arts asiatiques. Fig. 20 – The God Fudo-myoo (Acala) and Two Attendants (11th-cent.), Japan (larger version). Photo by the University of California, San Diego.

3.3. China – The Mongols welcome the motif

The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) were largely responsible for bringing the Garuda and serpents motif to China. They were ardent followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and so they invited Buddhist lamas to preach in the Middle Kingdom. The person who first introduced Tibetan Buddhist art to China was the Nepalese artist Anige (阿尼哥, 1245–1306). At the surprisingly young age of eighteen or nineteen years old, he arrived at the Mongol court in 1260 as the leader of twenty-four artisans. His most famous accomplishment is the White Pagoda of the Miaoying temple in Beijing (Stoddard, 2008, pp. 19-20). Anige is the father of a Tibetan Stylistic tradition that carried on long after his death.

For instance, the Mongols commissioned several stupa-arches to be constructed “on strategic roads leading to the capital [of Beijing]” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The only surviving example is the cloud platform of Juyong Pass (Juyong guan, 居庸關), a later addition to the Great Wall of China built in 1354. It originally supported three Buddhist stupas, but these disappeared within a century of their completion. Multilingual inscriptions on the arch indicate that it was built “in order to bring happiness to the people who pass under the stupa and receive thus the Buddha’s blessings” (Stoddard, 2008, p. 23). The apex of the arch contains the Garuda and serpents motif (fig. 21 and 22). The man-bird is depicted as a stout, pot-bellied figure with the face, wings, and talons of a raptor bird and the ears, arms, and torso of a human. He wears a jeweled crown and his body is decorated with serpents on his wrists, arms, and chest. Hierarchy in scale is employed to portray the humanoid naga-spirits as smaller in stature and importance. They are trying to run away from him, but their scaly heels are pierced by his talons.

Juyong pass with detail

Fig. 21 – The Gate of Glory from the Cloud Platform of Juyong Pass (1345), Beijing, China (larger version). Photo by Snuffy on Flicker. Fig. 22 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (photographer unknown) (larger version).

The motif continued to appear in Buddhist art into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the Chinese had overthrown the Mongols. This is because some Chinese rulers, such as the Yongle Emperor (永樂帝, r. 1402–1424), upheld the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Ming examples include a painting in the Sotheby’s collection dated to the 15th-century (fig. 23 and 24); a relief carving on a 15th-century pagoda at Zhenjue Temple (真覺寺) in Beijing (fig. 25 and 26); and a stone stele in the Freer Art Gallery collection dated to circa 1500 (fig. 27 and 28). All of these pieces depict a Buddhist deity sitting before an enlightenment torana lorded over by Garuda and his serpentine foes. What’s important here is that the variety of media suggests the motif became a standardized element of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist art at least a century prior to the publishing of Journey to the West (1592). The commonplace nature of the motif might then explain why it was included in the story. There are numerous occasions in the novel when the author/compiler provides folk origins for everyday concepts, such as why rings are put through the noses of buffalos. [6] So a bird attacking serpents above the head of the Buddha would certainly need a fanciful genesis story.

Ming examples

Fig. 23 – The Amitabha Buddha with an enlightenment torana (15th-cent.) (larger version). Fig. 24 – A detail of the Garuda and serpents motif (larger version). Photos by Sotheby’s. Fig. 25 – Zhenjue Temple relief carving (15th-cent.), Beijing, China (larger version). Fig. 26 – A detail of Garuda (larger version). Photos by Wikimedia commons. Fig. 27 – A stone stele of a Bodhisattva with an enlightenment torana (c. 1500) (larger version). Fig. 28 – A detail of the motif (larger version). Photos by the Freer Gallery of Art.

4. Garuda’s transformation from a god to a demon

The Ming dynasty examples suggest Garuda was considered a common element of the Buddha’s enlightenment torana. The bird god is in effect a guardian of the faith who watches over the world from an exalted position high atop the Buddha’s throne. So why then did the author/compiler of Journey to the West transform him into a monster who needed conquering? This obviously follows the novel’s theme of powerful demons, such as Sun Wukong, being subjugated and put to good use. This can be traced to the Thunder Ritual (Leifa, 雷法), a Daoist liturgy designed to subjugate powerful gods and demons to be wielded as weapons against evil forces. One such god is Sire Thunder (Leigong, 雷公), a native Chinese weather deity responsible for making dragons produce rain when needed. And since lightning is his weapon, he is also considered a heavenly executioner who kills mortals guilty of unpunished crimes. [7] The god was sometimes portrayed as a human, but it was around the Tang Dynasty (618–907) when he took on a bird-like appearance with a beak, wings, and talons. This avian transformation coincided with the appearance of Garuda and Esoteric Buddhism in China. Upon entering the Middle Kingdom, Garuda served many of the same functions as Sire Thunder. His power over dragons gave him control of rain and his fierce nature enabled him to be a heavenly executioner. Therefore, depictions of Sire Thunder came to absorb features of the bird god. Most importantly, Tang-era stories describe religious masters and certain brave individuals subjugating this demonic figure and using his powers for their own purposes. [8]

Artistic renderings of Sire Thunder after his metamorphosis are strikingly similar to Garuda. A prime example of this comes to us in the form of a 9th-century fresco from Xinjiang originally held in the Berlin Museum of Indian art. The piece depicts numerous beings paying homage to the Four Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) (fig. 29). The foreground depicts Sire Thunder caught in a hunter’s snare around his neck, while a hound bites at his leg. A larger figure, presumably a guardian deity of sorts, holds one of the god’s wrists and stands with a club held overhead ready to strike (fig. 30). This scene contrasts with the overall religious nature of the piece, giving the impression that this “demon” is being captured in the name of the heavenly kings. So here we have a bird monster being subjugated by Buddhist forces. Such art could have easily influenced Garuda’s depiction in Journey to the West.

Both hunting pics

Fig. 29 – A fresco showing the adoration of the Heavenly Kings (9th-cent.), Xinjiang, China (larger version). Fig. 30 – A detail of the subjugation of Sire Thunder (larger version).

5. Conclusion

A literary motif appearing in Journey to the West (1592) and The Story of Yue Fei (1684) depicts the Hindu-Buddhist bird deity Garuda as a demon-turned-Buddhist guardian who sits above the Buddha’s throne. This is based on the bird’s portrayal in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata (4th-century BCE), where he comes to sit above the deva Vishnu after taking part in a filial quest and agreeing to carry the god’s celestial vehicle (vimana). Beginning around the 2nd-century BCE, Garuda started appearing on Hindu and Buddhist architecture that depicted him on ritual flag poles and above torana doorways. A motif of Garuda gasping the tails of naga-serpents, his eternal foes from Hindu lore, appeared by at least the 7th-century and spread as far away as Cambodia by the 9th– or 10th-century. The motif was adopted by Tibetan Buddhist artists by the 11th-century and incorporated into wall murals, thus making the jump from architecture to paint. It never lost its association with architecture, however, since the torana came to be equated with the halo of Buddhist deities. This “enlightenment torana” or “gate of glory” became a common feature of Tibetan Buddhist art and even made its way to Japan. This feature was depicted as the backrest of a throne, hence the Chinese literary motif of Garuda sitting above the Buddha can be directly tied to this style of art. The Mongols were largely responsible for bringing the motif to China as they were adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. It continued into the Ming dynasty thanks to royal patronage of Esoteric Buddhism. The motif appeared in Ming religious architecture, paintings, and stele, making it commonplace enough for the author/compiler of Journey to the West to provide a folkloric explanation for the phenomenon. But the concept of a demonic bird being subjugated is most likely based on the Tang Dynasty Thunder Ritual and stories of Sire Thunder, a Daoist weather deity with bird-like features, being captured by mortals and compelled to use his powers in their service.

Update: 04-29-2018

Sire Thunder’s avian form has persisted to this day, having become his standard iconography. Here I present a late 19th to early 20th-century wooden altar statue depicting the deity with his counterpart the Mother of Lightening (Dianmu, 電母) (fig. 31). His similarities to Garuda are just as noticeable today.

20180428_171223 - small

Fig. 31 – Sire Thunder and the Mother of Lightning (19th to 20th-cent.), Taipei, Taiwan (larger version). In the author’s personal collection.

Sire Thunder actually appears with the Mother of Lightning (and other weather gods) in Journey to the West. Chapter 45 sees Monkey participating in a competition of transformations and ritual magic with three animal spirits disguised as Daoists. One competition involves making rain, during which time said gods appear. Although the spirit calling on the rain is powerful, Sun Wukong blocks his magic to make him look bad:

Becoming rather agitated, the Daoist loosened his hair, picked up his sword, and recited another spell as he burned a charm. Once more he brought down his tablet with a bang, and immediately the Heavenly Lord Deng arrived from the South Heaven Gate, trailed by the Squire of Thunder and the Mother of Lightning. When they saw Pilgrim [Sun Wukong] in midair, they saluted him, and he gave his explanation as before. “What powerful summons,” he said “brought you all here so quickly?” The Heavenly Lord said, “The proper magic of Five Thunder [Wulei fa, 五雷法] exercised by that Daoist was not faked.

He issued the summons and burned the document, which alerted the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor sent his decree to the residence of the Primordial Celestial Worthy of All-Pervading Thunderclap in the Ninefold Heaven. We in turn received his command to come here and assist with the rainmaking by providing thunder and lightning.” “In that case,” said Pilgrim, “just wait a moment. You can help old Monkey instead.” There was, therefore, neither the sound of thunder nor the flash of lightning (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 293).

The techniques used by the animal spirit for calling rain refers back to the aforementioned Thunder Ritual, where the powers of Sire Thunder are used in the service of another.


1) This name is a reference to the mythical Peng (鵬) bird mentioned in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi (莊子), a philosophical work of the 3rd-century BCE. The chapter details how the creature starts life as a small Kun (鯤) fish and changes into a bird of unfathomable size with wings that span the sky (Zhuangzi & Watson, 2003, pp. 23-24).

2) See Wu & Yu (2012) chapters 74 to 77.

3) The sources are actually conflicting on which relief is older. For instance, Iyer (1977) claims the first is the “earliest representation of garuda” (p. 52). On the contrary, Dhar (2009) lists the second as being from “c. second-first century BCE” (p. 10), which would make it older than the Sanchi example. I, however, believe the second is younger than the first because it is clearly an embellished version of the first.

4) Although some of its iconographical elements can be similar to the bird god, the Face of Glory shouldn’t be confused with Garuda because it represents the “monster of greed” (Beer, 1999, pp. 69-70). This is why it is constantly in the act of eating.

5) This recalls the story of Krishna defeating the serpent Kaliya by dancing on his head (Leeming, 2006, p. 232).

6) For example, in chapters 50 to 52, Laozi’s buffalo runs amuck on earth as a demon. The monster uses a diamond bracelet that he stole from his master to capture Monkey’s staff. The simian hero enlists the aid of the Daoist patriarch, who subjugates the beast and later puts the bracelet through its nose and uses a sash as a lead. The novel then explains: “Thus the custom of leading the buffalo with a ring in its nose was established, a custom in use even now” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 30).

7) People struck by lightning were thought to have been marked (scarred) with a sign of their guilt much like a convict in ancient China was tattooed (Meulenbeld, 2007).

8) See Meulenbeld (2007) chapter 4. See also section 6.4 for a discussion on Sun Wukong and his relationship to Sire Thunder and the Thunder Ritual.


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Iyer, K. B. (1977). Animals in Indian sculpture. Bombay: Taraporevala.

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Leeming, D. A. (2006). The Oxford companion to world mythology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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Flower Fruit Mountain as the Center of the Universe and the Source of Monkey’s Power

Did you know JTTW presents Flower Fruit Mountain as the center of the universe? The end of a poem describing the mountain states, “This is indeed the pillar of Heaven, where a hundred rivers meet—/The Earth’s great axis, in ten thousand kalpas unchanged” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). Eliade (1959) notes that “communication [between heaven, earth, and the underworld in world religions] is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth” (p. 36). Why is this important? Because the novel describes how Monkey was born from a stone that “had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of heaven and earth and by the essences of the sun and moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). As a pillar of heaven, the height of Flower Fruit Mountain positions the boulder where heaven meets earth, allowing there to be a passage of energies between the two plains of existence through the stone, like electricity through a fuse. This ultimately explains why Sun is so powerful.

Click the image to open in full size.
A complex diagram of Mount Sumeru and the associated heavens above and hells below it. If this portrayed Flower Fruit Mountain, Sun Wukong’s boulder would have been located where the summit meets the first heaven (larger version).


As described here, the author of JTTW supplanted traditional Buddhist geography by placing China in the Southern Jambudvipa Continent and moving India to Western Godinyia. So by making Flower Fruit Mountain the axis mundi, it supplants Mount Sumeru as the center of the cosmos (fig. 1). Admittedly, there is a discrepancy between the literary narrative and the religious cosmology since the book states Flower Fruit Mountain is located “at the border of the small Aolai Country [傲來國], which lies to the east of the East Purvavideha Continent [東勝神洲]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). By definition, the mountain can’t be in the center of the world if it’s located to the east of the easternmost continent. But discrepancies are bound to arise when you tell and augment a story cycle for hundreds of years. Flower Fruit Mountain is mentioned in the 13th-century precursor to the JTTW titled The Story of How the Monk Tripitaka of the Great Country of T’ang Brought Back the Sūtras (see Wivell, 1994).


Eliade, M. (1959). The Sacred and the profane: The nature of religion (W. R. Trask, Trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

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