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.

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

From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. A past example can be seen here. Regular articles will resume after this entry.

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

Shaolin front gate

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

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

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

Shaolin map

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

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

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

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

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

Wokou pirates vs ming

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

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

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

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

II. Speculation

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

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

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

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

Xingtian

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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