The Alchemical Metaphor of Subhuti’s Mountain Home

The Monkey King’s quest for immortality spans some ten years, taking him passed two cosmic continents and two great oceans. After sailing to a continent in the west, our hero is directed to the abode of the Sage Subhuti, a place often translated as “The Mountain of Mind and Heart / Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山,斜月三星洞) (fig. 1) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 113, for example). This translation, however, glosses over deeper meanings associated with the original Chinese. The term lingtai (靈臺/台), literally “spirit platform/tower” or “numinous platform/tower”, was sometimes used in Daoist literature to refer to the “heart” or “mind” (xin, 心, “heart-mind” hereafter), the center of spiritual intellect. Going back centuries to the Zhuangzi (c. 3rd-century BCE), it was represented as something that had to be guarded against malevolent influences:

Utilize the bounty of things and let them nourish your body; withdraw into thoughtlessness and in this way give life to your mind; be reverent of what is within and extend this same reverence to others. If you do these things and yet are visited by ten thousand evils, then all are Heaven-sent and not the work of man. They should not be enough to destroy your composure; they must not be allowed to enter the Spirit Tower. The Spirit Tower has its guardian, but unless it understands who its guardian is, it cannot be guarded (Chuang & Watson, 1968, p. 194).

Subuti's cave, from Mr. Zhuo's literary criticism of Xiyouji - 2mall

Fig. 1 – Monkey kneeling before the entrance of Subhuti’s school asking to become a disciple (larger version). A detail from Mr. Li Zhuowu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West (late 16th-century).

The term fangcun (方寸), literally “square inch”, was also used historically to refer to the heart-mind. [1] But it’s important to note that Daoist alchemical literature sometimes uses the term to refer to the lowest cinnabar or elixir field located approximately “two inches below the navel, three inches within, where the mind is focused” (Saso, 1995, p. 128). For instance, the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing, 黃庭經, c. 4th-century), a treatise associated with the Highest Clarity tradition, recognizes three fields: brain (upper), heart (center), and belly (lower) (fig. 2), each one represented by a series of place names or an anthropomorphic persona (Saso, 1995, pp. 106-107). The scripture presents the lower field/square inch as the storehouse of vital spiritual energies, the synergy of which is thought to bolster the body and bring about immortality. A portion of the fifth stanza reads: “Inside the square inch, carefully cover and store qi. / Shen spirit and jing intuition returned there, though old, are made new / Through the dark palace make them flow, down to the lower realm. / Nourish your jade tree, now a youth again”. [2]

The scripture treats the central heart-mind field as the seat of the spirit (shen, 神), sometimes anthropomorphizing it as a red-robed man (Saso, 1995, p. 125, for example). But it also calls the field the spirit platform. A section of the sixth stanza reads: “The spirit platform meets heaven in the central field. / From square inch center, down to the [dark] gate, / The soul’s doorway to the Jade Chamber’s core is there”. [3] Saso (1995) explains the first line refers to the interaction between the heart-mind and the Dao, with the second and third referring to spiritual energies being directed into the lower field via a passage near the kidneys (p. 129). Despite the cryptic Daoist jargon, what’s important here is the link between the center field/spirit platform and the lower field/square inch. 

Given the information above, a better translation for Subhuti’s mountain might be the “Mountain of Spiritual Heart and Cinnabar Mind” or the “Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind” (or any combination of the two).

Daoist Dantian Chakras - small

Fig. 2 – An example of the upper, center, and lower cinnabar fields indicated by red dots (larger version).

I propose the name of Subhuti’s mountain home was specifically chosen by the author-compiler of the Journey to the West as a metaphor for the alchemical practices taught in the Scripture of the Yellow Court. This conclusion is supported by the mention of the scripture in the very first chapter of the novel. This happens when Monkey confuses a lowly woodcutter for an immortal just because the man was singing a Daoist song, one taught to him by Subhuti:

The Monkey King explained, “When I came just now to the forest’s edge, I heard you singing, ‘Those I meet, if not immortals, would be Daoists, seated quietly to expound the Yellow Court.’ The Yellow Court contains the perfected words of the Way and Virtue. What can you be but an immortal?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 111)

I find it interesting that Wukong touts the authority of the Scripture of the Yellow Court even before having begun his Daoist training. From where did he learn this? Could this be projection of the author-compiler?

heart calligraphy

Fig. 3 – The Chinese character for heart (xin). Original image found here.

Another aspect of Subhuti’s location that requires explanation is the cavern housing his temple, the “Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars” (xieyue sanxing dong, 斜月三星洞). The name is a literal description of the Chinese character for heart-mind (xin, 心). It looks just like a crescent moon surmounted by three stars (fig. 3). This means all three sections of the location name (spirit platform, square inch, cave name) are associated in some form with the heart-mind. The reason for this could be because Sun Wukong is an embodiment of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; / Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; / The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). Additionally, a poem in chapter seven reads: “An ape’s body of Dao weds the human mind. / Mind is a monkey—this meaning’s profound” (yuanhou dao ti renxin / xin ji yuanhou yisi shen, 猿猴道體配人心 / 心即猿猴意思深) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 190). Anthony Yu suggests this poem is related to the Buddha’s statement that Wukong is “only a monkey who happened to become a spirit, … merely a beast who has just attained human form in this incarnation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 70), thereby alluding to a Confucian hierarchical scale present in the novel where animals are able to attain human qualities through Daoist cultivation. So Monkey’s Daoist training under Subhuti allows him to wed his monkey form to the human heart-mind.

Notes:

1) In Buddhism, for example, the fourth Chan patriarch Daoxin is quoted as saying: “All schools of the Law find their way to the Square Inch; all rivers and sand of wonderful virtues come from the Source of the Mind (xinyuan 心源)” (Liu, 1994, p. 28).

2) See Saso, 1995, p. 127 for the full stanza and explanation. I have changed all quotes used from this source from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. I also slightly modified the translation.

3) See Saso, 1995, p. 129 for the full stanza and explanation. Again, I slightly modified the translation.

Sources:

Chuang, T., & Watson, B. (1968). The complete works of Chuang Tzu. Columbia University Press.

Liu, X. (1994). The odyssey of the Buddhist mind: The allegory of the later journey to the West. Lanham, Md: Univ. Press of America.

Saso, M. R. (1995). The Gold pavilion: Taoist ways to peace, healing, and long life. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

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

Story Idea: The Ape Immortals – The Origin of Sun Wukong

The following story sketch was originally posted on my external blog on the Historum website. The site recently switched to a new server but the blogs have yet to be migrated. I’m posting it here for posterity. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

As a lover of Chinese mythology and a former primatology major, I’ve always wanted to create my own primate-based character similar to Sun Wukong. I originally wanted him to be the son of Monkey or the son of one of his advisers or allies during his days as a demon. Either way, I thought he could train under Sun and gain similar powers. But then I decided that I wanted him to be a more civilized, yet more powerful version of the character; someone who is held in high regard by all beings of the six realms (demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and devas) of Buddhist cosmology, as well as the Buddha himself. After reading about the ancient Chinese view of the gibbon, [1] a small, long-armed, arboreal ape native to Asia (fig. 1), I thought the character could be an ape immortal. It was only recently that I decided to pair him with a female since gibbons generally mate for life.

gibbon-jump-sachin-rai

Fig. 1 – A gibbon soaring through the treetops. Photo by Sachin Rai. A larger version can be found here.

A rough sketch of the story is presented below. The tale is meant to be a standalone story, but it includes details that explain the origin of Monkey and how his life parallels his spiritual parentage. I’ve drawn upon traditional Chinese religious and vernacular texts for inspiration. The notes contain important information on the texts I used and why particular plot choices were made.

I. The Story

The Dao (道, the way) gives birth to the One (yiqi, 一氣, the first breath);
The One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang, 陰陽);
The Two gives birth to the Three (San qing, 三清, the Three Pure Ones);
The Three gives birth to the Ten Thousand Things.
The Ten Thousand Things carry the Yin and enfold the Yang;
Kneading gently, they create harmony. [2]

In the beginning of the universe, the Three Pure Ones, the manifestations of the Dao, use the vital energies of the cosmos to create heaven, earth, and all living things. Among the first to be created are two gibbons, a male and a female (fig. 2). They become the progenitors of all apes and monkeys, just like the phoenix and his mate, the next to be created, are the progenitors of all birds. Being embodiments of yin and yang sexual forces, the pair propagates quickly. They frolic with their children and the following generations through the mountain tops soaking up qi (氣), prolonging their lives for thousands upon thousands of years. And Like modern apes, the pair shows a propensity for observation, watching the cyclical movement of the stars and planets and becoming aware of the ebb and flow of qi, studying the energy and cultivating its mysteries over endless eons.

Mated Gibbons

Fig. 2 – A pair of mated gibbons. A larger version can be found here.

Once their family grows to titanic proportions, the gibbons wield their arcane knowledge to create an island home, raising up Flower-Fruit Mountain (Huaguo shan, 花果山) from the ocean. There, they construct the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞) from which they continue to plumb the depths of the Dao. [3] Their exploration takes them to the heights of the mountain where heaven meets earth, using the corresponding yin (earth/female) and yang (heaven/male) energy to fuel their reenactment of the creation of the cosmos through sexual union. By chance, these powerful, creative sexual energies are absorbed by a boulder atop the mountain. [4]

As mated gibbons often do, the pair sings the most beautiful duets that echo throughout time and space. [5] The power of their song continues to increase as their immortal lives extend through the ages. It becomes so powerful that the duet is capable of crumbling mountains, churning the oceans, and shaking the very firmament of heaven. In fact, their song inadvertently topples one of the mountain pillars supporting the sky, and so the devi Nuwa (女媧) is forced to mend the heavens with five magic stones. [6] The primordial devas and spirits fear what might happen if the couple continues, so they plead with the gibbons to separate in order to avoid destroying the cosmos. They promise to allow the pair to see one another at some fixed period of time in the distant future.

The immortal lovers reluctantly agree and isolate themselves to two separate holy mountains; [7] the male becomes known as the “Eastern Ape Immortal” (東猿仙) and the “Ape Patriarch” (Yuan jiazhang, 猿家長), while the female becomes known as the “Western Ape Immortal” (Xi yuan xian, 西猿仙) and the “Ape Matriarch” (Yuan nu jiazhang, 猿女家長). The two are much sought after by animal, human, devil, and deva to teach them the essence of the Dao. Both become the religious teachers of countless beings, from the lowliest creature to the purest deva in the highest heaven. Former students include the Tathagata Buddha and the immortal Subhuti. [8]

The primordial devas are eventually superseded by deified humans after a great battle between the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. [9] The newly appointed August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and the rest of the heavenly retinue go about setting the cosmos into order. The promise made by the primordial devas is lost to time.

It is during the interim when the previously mentioned boulder, having been nourished by the light of the sun and moon for centuries, births a stone embryo that is eroded by the elements into a stone monkey. He becomes the king of the monkeys on Flower-Fruit Mountain by rediscovering the Water Curtain Cave that the previous generations of his kin had forgotten long after the Ape Immortals went into exile. The monkey eventually trains under Subhuti, receiving the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空, Monkey Awakened to Vacuity) (fig. 3), and achieving great magical powers with which he later uses to rebel against heaven for not recognizing him as a full-fledged god. After being imprisoned by the Buddha for 500 years, Sun redeems himself by escorting the monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) to India, and for this he is rewarded with Buddhahood, becoming the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛).

n8mflz

Fig. 3 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (larger version). A photomanipulation by the author.

After the fixed period of time has elapsed, the primordial gibbons request to leave their individual exile. The August Jade Emperor, however, refuses due to the potential for danger. Angered because heaven went back on its word, the immortal lovers leave their exile anyway, and so all of the devas, spirits, and devils struggle to keep them apart. This is an impossible task given that the two are among the highest immortals. A great battle ensues in which the pair uses their knowledge of the Dao to put the celestial army into disarray. For instance, the Ape Patriarch is a master of transformations; he grows to titanic proportions, multiplies his long arms, and captures the most powerful Daoist and Buddhist deities in his vice-like hands. The Ape Matriarch is a mistress of illusions; she clouds the minds of the soldiers, making them think they are fighting her when they are really fighting each other. [10] In addition, their individual songs have grown in power, now capable of destroying anything by separating the yin and yang forces therein (fig. 4).

Gibbon yawning

Fig. 4 – A gibbon yawning. Imagine powerful sound waves emanating from its mouth. A larger version can be found here.

The August Jade Emperor begs the Buddha to intervene like he had done for the rebelling Sun Wukong in the past. But considering that heaven went back on its word and the ape immortals are both friends and former teachers of the Enlightened One, the Tathagata sends their spiritual son, the Victorious Fighting Buddha, to ask them to pacify their rage instead of using trickery to halt the onslaught. [11] After a brief reunion, the pair acquiesces, and all three travel by cloud to the Buddha’s abode on Vulture Peak (Lingjiu shan, 靈鷲山) to discuss the matter. The immortal lovers opine the great injustice done to them by the heavenly hierarchy. The Buddha knows their duet is part of their primordial animal nature and is the ultimate expression of their love, which reaches back to the very beginning of time. Unfortunately, he realizes that the power of their song could destroy the universe if allowed to take place.

After some thought, the Tathagata gives them a lesson on the cyclical dissolution of the cosmos: at the end of each Mahakalpa (Da jie, 大劫), the universe is destroyed by a different element. There are fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and one by wind. The latter is the most powerful, destroying all earthly and heavenly realms below the pure realm inhabited by the Buddha and his retinue. The Tathagata then suggests a compromise in which the couple can remain as his permanent guests of the Buddha realm, where they can frolic with the Victorious Fighting Buddha. This way the gibbons will be free to sing their melodious song without fear of negative effects. And when the end of the sixty-fourth Mahakalpa comes to a close, their song will serve the function of the wind element to bring about the dissolution of the universe to make way for the new one. [12]

II. Background notes

1) The Chinese viewed the gibbon (Yuan, 猿) as symbolic of Confucian gentlemen and Daoist immortals. Their long arms were thought to be evidence of their expertise in soaking up qi. This resulted in long lives and occult powers (Geissmann, 2008).

2) This is based on chapter 42 of the Daodejing (道德經), the premiere holy text of Daoism. The original passage has been interpreted differently by different scholars. I’m using the interpretation presented in Laozi and Wilson, 2012, p. 197. The cited text, however, makes no mention of the Three Pure Ones. This is based on later Daoist texts and folk views on the supreme immortals. See Stevens, 1997, pp. 68-70.

3) JTTW never explains where the magical cave came from. This is my attempt to give it an origin story.

4) JTTW states the following about the boulder: “Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration it became pregnant with a divine embryo” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation for Monkey’s birth. Why would the rock produce a simian character? This is why I wrote that the Ape Immortals make love atop of the mountain, thereby impregnating the boulder with powerful, creative energies. In Daoist sexual practices, earth and heaven are often euphemisms for the feminine and masculine sexual energies of yin and yang (Wile, 1992, pp. 11-12 and 28-29). Therefore, what I have proposed is simply a difference in semantics.

5) Gibbon duets have an ethereal quality. Those wishing to listen to some can do so here and here (make sure your volume is not too high). It’s interesting to note that gibbons can naturally perform what takes professional opera singers years of dedicated practice to achieve (Lougheed, 2014).

6) The original mythology has the pillar being fallen by a water demon. I guess an explanation could be included somewhere that the original reason for the disaster, the gibbon song, was forgotten to time and confused with a different incident.

7) I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey’s imprisonment and the pair’s exile, both of which are connected to mountains.

8) The Buddha’s tutelage under the gibbons happens in the distant past when he is still a Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven. I listed Subhuti because I wanted there to be a further link between Monkey and the Ape Immortals. Therefore, the skills of Sun Wukong’s spiritual parents are transmitted to him by their former student.

9) This is based on the events in the 16th-century Chinese classic Fengshen Yanyi (封神演義), or Investiture of the Gods. In the story, chaos in heaven causes many gods to be reborn on earth as various heroes of the competing Shang and Zhou Dynasties. The King of Zhou wins the conflict and his strategist, an apprentice of the supreme immortal Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊), one of the Three Pure Ones, uses a magic list to deify the souls of those who died in battle. Thus, heaven is repopulated once more (Stevens, 1997, p. 60).

10) The strengths of each correspond to the skills passed on to the Buddha and the immortal Subhuti. Again, I wanted there to be a parallel between Monkey and his spiritual parents. The pair rebels like he did, but they do so because of injustice, not pride. However, I must say that lofty immortals would have surely evolved passed such earthly “wants and needs” (e.g. lust and anger). Daoist literature and vernacular Chinese fiction often describes immortals as being celibate. But the immortal love of the couple may transcend what might be expected of human-based immortals. That’s why I present them as living embodiments of yin and yang. Wile (1992) states: “The early [Daoist] texts are marked by the existential loneliness of yin and yang for each other, and their union consummates a cosmic synergy” (p. 29).

11) An example of trickery would be the way that the Buddha uses illusion to make Monkey think that he has left his palm in the seventh chapter of JTTW.

12) Buddhism recognizes a measurement of time called a Kalpa (jie, 劫), which can be many millions or even billions of years long depending on the tradition. Said traditions recognize between four and eighty kalpas (Robert & David, 2013, p. 409). The total of these respective ranges make up a Mahakalpa (dajie, 大劫), which is divided into four periods of nothingness, creation, subsistence, and finally destruction, each period being between one and twenty kalpas long (Robert & David, 2013, p. 496). For more information on the cyclical destruction of the universe by fire, water, and wind, see my article here.

Bibliography

Geissmann, T. (2008). Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context. Gibbon Journal, 4, pp. 1-38. Received from http://www.gibbonconservation.org/07_publications/journal/gibbon_journal_4.pdf

Laozi, & Wilson, W. S. (2012). Tao te ching: An all-new translation. Boston & London: Shambhala

Lougheed, K. (2012, August 23). Helium reveals gibbon’s soprano skill. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from https://www.nature.com/news/helium-reveals-gibbon-s-soprano-skill-1.11257

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

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

Wile, D. (1992). Art of the bedchamber: The Chinese sexual yoga classics including women’s solo meditation texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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