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).

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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.

Sun Wukong and the Three Heavenly Calamities

Last updated: 09/10/2018

In chapter two, Master Subhuti warns Sun Wukong that he must protect himself from Three Calamities (sanzai lihai, 三災利害) sent by heaven to punish him for achieving immortality and defying his fate (fig. 1). These punishments come every half millenia in the form of destructive elements:

Though your appearance will be preserved and your age lengthened, after five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of thunder [lei zai, 雷災] to strike you. Hence you must be intelligent and wise enough to avoid it ahead of time. If you can escape it, your age will indeed equal that of Heaven; if not, your life will thus be finished. After another five hundred years Heaven will send down the calamity of fire [huo zai, 火災] to burn you. The fire is neither natural nor common fire; its name is the Fire of Yin [yin huo, 陰火], and it arises from within the soles of your feet to reach even the cavity of your heart, reducing your entrails to ashes and your limbs to utter ruin. The arduous labor of a millennium will then have been made completely superfluous. After another five hundred years the calamity of wind [feng zai, 風災] will be sent to blow at you. It is not the wind from the north, south, east, or west; nor is it one of the winds of four seasons; nor is it the wind of flowers, willows, pines, and bamboos. It is called the Mighty Wind [bi feng, 贔風], and it enters from the top of the skull into the body, passes through the midriff, and penetrates the nine apertures. [1] The bones and the flesh will be dissolved and the body itself will disintegrate. You must therefore avoid all three calamities (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 121-122).

These calamities are important because Monkey subsequently learns the 72 transformations in order to escape punishment by hiding under any one of a myriad number of disguises. Therefore, exploring the origins of the three calamities has merit.

Monkey learning from master - Elements (small)

Fig. 1 – Master Subhuti tells Sun about the Three Calamities (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.

The novel likely borrows from a Buddhist cosmological concept called the Three Calamities (sanzai, 三災). We first need some background before continuing. 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). The Three Calamities are responsible for the destruction of each Mahakalpa.

Kloetzli (1983) describes the cyclical destruction of each Mahakalpa by an element:

The destructions are of three kinds: those by fire, those by water and those by wind. […] The destructions succeed one another in the following sequence: seven by fire followed by a destruction by water. This cycle of eight destructions is repeated a total of seven times. This is then followed by seven more destructions by fire, followed by a final by wind. Thus there are 7 x 8 or 56 destructions by fire; 7 by water and a final 64th by wind [fig. 2] (p. 75).

Therefore, the Three Calamities from Journey to the West follow a similar cycle of destructive elements appearing at set time intervals: lightning, fire, and wind every 500 years in place of fire, water, and wind at the end of every Mahakalpa. And instead of destroying the universe, the elements are sent to kill those who have achieved immortality.

X57p0473_01 - small

Fig. 2 – A chart mapping the cyclical destructions by fire, water, and wind. A larger version is available on the CBETA page.

The earliest mention of Buddhism’s Three Calamities in Chinese writing that I know of appears in scroll one of the Pearl Forest of the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin, 法苑珠林), a Chinese Buddhist encyclopedia published in 688. So there was plenty of time between this work and the publishing of Journey to the West in 1592.

I was interested to learn that Monkey’s calamities made their way into modern Wuxia (武俠, “Martial hero”) literature. For example, the author of the Immortal Mountain wordpress writes:

Heavenly Tribulation (天劫 tiānjié) (重劫 zhòngjié) – in some novels, a trial encountered by cultivators at key points in their cultivation, which they must resist and ultimately transcend. Because immortal cultivation (generally) goes against the Will of Heaven, the Heavens will send down tribulations to oppress high-level cultivators who make progress towards Immortality, often right when they enter a new cultivation stage. This typically takes the form of a lightning storm, with extraordinarily powerful bolts of lightning raining down from the Heavens to strike at the cultivator (source).

The trial by lightning is exactly like the calamity of thunder mentioned by Master Subhuti.


Update: 09/10/2018

The Wuxia/Xianxia (仙侠, “Immortal hero”) literature translator Deathblade (twitter) was kind enough to direct me to an example of a tribulation from a popular Chinese television show. The time-stamped scene involves a 20,000-year-old child immortal experiencing a trial by lightning. The heavenly bolts tear at his clothing and draw blood, but he survives the ordeal.

Deathblade also directed me to an example from an online Xianxia novel called I shall Seal the Heavens (Wo yu feng tian, 我欲封天). Chapter 385(!) describes how the anti-hero Meng Hao (孟浩) uses a sentient heavenly treasure to protect himself from powerful bolts of lightning, which instead seek out and kill nearby spiritual cultivators on the cusp of immortality:

The Heavenly Tribulation boomed as one lightning bolt after another shot down onto Meng Hao, who held the meat jelly upraised in his hand to defend himself. The lightning would subsequently disperse into the area around him. Any nearby Cultivators would let out bloodcurdling screams. Soon, the air filled with the sounds of cursing and reviling.

Meng Hao didn’t care. This was something he had learned from Patriarch Reliance. When you con someone and then end up getting cursed by them, you must maintain your cool. It was really a realm unto itself.

Throughout the years, Meng Hao had conned many people, and had refined that skill to the very pinnacle. Therefore, he continued to redirect the descending lightning to the various Cultivators in the three thousand kilometer region.

Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a lake of lightning, along with plaintive cursing. What he left behind was scorched corpses.

To the Cultivators here, it was nothing but a massacre, a slaughter in which no one could do anything to fight back. They couldn’t attack him, nor could they flee as… they were horrified to discover that Meng Hao’ speed was incredible, even if he was being struck by lightning!

(read more here)

The character uses trickery to protect himself from the bolts just like Monkey intended to do with his transformations.

It should be noted that Sun never has to protect himself from lightning because he was trapped under Five Elements mountain upon the 500th anniversary of his immortality (he lived to be roughly 400 prior to taking up spiritual cultivation). And he achieves Buddhahood prior to reaching the 1,000th year of his immortality, so he never has to guard against subsequent calamities.

Notes

1) The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus.

Sources

Kloetzli, R. (1983). Buddhist cosmology: From single world system to pure land : science and theology in the images of motion and light. Oxford: Motilal Books.

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

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

The Origin of Monkey’s Punishment in Laozi’s Furnace

The beginning of chapter seven sees Sun Wukong transported to the realm above to be executed for his rebellion against the primacy of heaven. However, his immortal body proves impervious to blades, fire, and lightning. Laozi theorizes Monkey’s extreme invulnerability is the result of having consumed large quantities of immortal peaches, wine, and elixir that were later refined in his stomach into “a solid single mass”. The Daoist god goes onto to suggest that the demon be subjected to his Brazier of Eight Trigrams (Bagua lu, 八卦爐) in order to separate the elixir and make his subsequently weakened body susceptible to death:

Arriving at the Tushita Palace, Laozi loosened the ropes on the Great Sage, pulled out the weapon from his breastbone, and pushed him into the [brazier]. He then ordered the Daoist who watched over the brazier and the page boy in charge of the fire to blow up a strong flame for the smelting process. The brazier, you see, was of eight compartments corresponding to the eight trigrams of Qian [☰/乾], Kan [☵/坎], Gen [☶/艮], Zhen [☳/震], Xun [☴/巽], Li [☲/離], Kun [☷/坤], and Dui [☱/兌]. [1] The Great Sage crawled into the space beneath the compartment that corresponded to the Xun trigram. Now Xun symbolizes wind; where there is wind, there is no fire. However, wind could churn up smoke, which at that moment reddened his eyes, giving them a permanently inflamed condition. Hence they were sometimes called Fiery Eyes and Diamond Pupils (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189).

Laozi checks the furnace forty-nine days later expecting ashes, but is surprised when Sun Wukong emerges and kicks over the mystical oven (fig. 1). This episode has two likely sources.

fgrcf7

Fig. 1 – Monkey knocking over Laozi’s furnace (larger version).

I. The Story

The first source is The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the earliest edition of Journey to the West published during the 13th-century. The 17th chapter describes the trials of Daffy (Chi na, 癡那), a merchant’s son, at the hands of his evil stepmother Meng (孟). She resents the boy because he stands to inherit all of his father’s wealth, leaving her son with nothing. So she and her handmaiden try to kill the heir by respectively boiling the child in a pot, ripping out his tongue, starving him, and finally pushing him into a river, but each time he is magically saved by heaven. For instance, after four days boiling in the pot, Daffy emerges unscathed and claims:

[T]he iron caldron changed into a lily pad on which I sat, surrounded by the cool waters of a pond. I could sleep or just sit there. It was very comfortable (Wivell, 1994, p. 1203).

Mair (1987) notes the story of a youth being tortured by his stepmother is based on a Dunhuang transformation text with two versions dated 946 and 949, respectively (p. 43). The text focuses on the trials of the future Emperor Shun. [1] The boiling episode does not, however, appear in the story.

II. Laughing at the Dao

The second source is Laughing at the Dao (Xiaodao lun, 笑道論, 570), an anti-Daoist polemic written as part of a court debate between Buddhist and Daoist representatives vying for state sponsorship. One section recounts Laozi’s rebirth in the mortal world and his later attempt to convert a King in India:

He [Laozi] had (long) hairs on the temples and his head was hoary; his body was sixteen feet tall; he wore a heavenly cap and held a metal staff. He took Yin Xi with him to convert the barbarians. (Once arrived in India) he withdrew to the Shouyang 首陽 mountains, covered by a purple cloud. The barbarian king suspected him of sorcery (妖). He (attempted) to boil him in a cauldron, but (the water) did not grow hot … [2]

I find this source particularly amusing because the high god of Daoism is in essence subjected to the same punishment as the one he suggests for Sun Wukong.

III. The Furnace in Daoist Alchemy

The furnace has two meanings in Daoist alchemy. The first refers to the physical vessel and stove (dinglu, 鼎爐) combo used in External alchemy (waidan, 外丹) to smelt the elixir of immortality (fig. 2). Kim (2008) describes the various parts and models of this contraption:

The reaction vessel has fire around it (when it is placed inside the heating apparatus), under it (when it is placed over the heating apparatus), or above it (when it is entirely covered by ashes inside the heating apparatus). It may contain an inner reaction-case in which the ingredients are placed. In a more complex model, a “water-vessel” containing water and a “fire-vessel” containing the ingredients can be assembled, the former above and the latter below or vice versa. The vessel must be hermetically closed and should not bear any openings or cracks.

The heating apparatus has fire within it and is often placed over a platform or “altar” (tan 壇). The openings on the wall sides allow air to circulate, while those on the top serve to settle the reaction vessel or to emit flame and smoke. One of the main functions of the heating apparatus is to control the intensity and duration of the heat. (pp. 360-361)

Fig. 2 – An ornate wooden replica dinglu reminiscent of the metal type used in external alchemy (larger version). Fig. 3 – An early 17th-century woodblock print depicting a lidless ding vessel in the lower torso of a Daoist practitioner (larger version).

The concept of consuming alchemically derived elixirs is first mentioned in Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantie tun, 鹽鐵論, c. 60 BCE). Later, the Token for the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes (Zhouyi cantong qi, 周易參同契, c. 2nd-century CE) standardized the use of toxic materials, such as lead and mercury, for making said elixir, and this idea remained entrenched until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Pregadio, 2008, pp. 1002-1003). External alchemy was eventually superseded in popularity by Internal alchemy (neidan, 内丹) from the Tang onward and was still popular during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when the final version of Journey to the West was published.

The second meaning is the human body as a metaphor for the furnace (i.e., internal alchemy). The Token for the Agreement of the Three, the aforementioned Daoist text, considers “the 5 organs, 12 vessels, 24 vertebrae, and 360 joints … all part of this body dinglu” (Wang, 2012, p. 192). The corporal furnace, the ingredients (yao, 藥), and the firing time (huohou, 火候) combine to make the “three essentials” (sanyao, 三要) of internal alchemy (Robinet, 2008). The ingredients are yin and yang energy and the firing time is the measured absorption of said energies and the time at which this activity is partaken (Wang, 2012, pp. 192-193). The methods that Sun Wukong use to achieve immortality stand as perfect examples of this process. For instance, he performs breathing exercises after midnight and before noon (in the period of “living qi”) to absorb yang energy. This energy is then purified and circulated throughout his body to power the formation of his immortal spirit.

IV. Conclusion

Monkey’s time in Laozi’s furnace likely borrows from two sources, the story of a child magically surviving boiling in The Story, the 13th-century precursor of Journey to the West, and the story of Laozi magically surviving boiling from Laughing at the Dao, an anti-Daoist polemic of the 6th-century. The latter is humorous as it shows Monkey’s punishment is a recapitulation of the high god’s punishment. Journey to the West presents two forms of alchemy; the concept of Laozi’s furnace refers to “external” alchemy and harkens back to Han Dynasty China when alchemists used such furnaces to fire toxic mercury and lead in an attempt to produce an elixir of immortality; Sun Wukong’s use of breathing exercises and qi circulation is a prime example of “internal” alchemy in which the body is used as the furnace to fire the immortal elixir. External alchemy fell out of favor during the Tang and was superseded by Internal alchemy from then on into the Ming when Journey to the West was published. Therefore, the novel portrays the high god of Daoism as a proponent of the dated external school, while earthly immortals like Monkey are portrayed as proponents of the then current internal school.

Sun Wukong fears the more powerful of his earthly counterparts, [3] while he gives Laozi little to no respect. For example, when Monkey first escapes from the furnace, “Laozi rushed up to clutch at him, only to be greeted by such a violent shove that he fell head over heels while the Great Sage escaped” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 189). This could have been meant as a statement declaring the superiority of the internal over the external.

Notes:

1) For a complete translation, see Bodman (1994).
2) See Zürcher & Teiser (2007) pp. 299-300 and p. 431 n. 53.
3) One example is his teacher Subhuti.

Sources:

Bodman, R. W. (1994). The transformation text on the boy Shun’s extreme filial piety. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp. 1128-1134). New York: Columbia University Press.

Kim, D. (2008). Dinglu: I. Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 360-361). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Mair, V. H. (1987). Parallels between some Tun-Huang manuscripts and the 17th chapter of the Kozanji Journey to the West. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 3, 41-53.

Pregadio, F. (2008). Waidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 1002-1005). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Robinet, I. (2008). Dinglu: II. Neidan In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 1 (pp. 361-362). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Wang, R. (2012). Yinyang: The way of heaven and earth in Chinese thought and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Zürcher, E., & Teiser, S. F. (2007). The Buddhist conquest of China: The spread and adaptation of Buddhism in early medieval China. Leiden: Brill.

The Connection Between Monkey’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy

Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:

[…]
All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these lest there be a leak. Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive
[…]
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will! (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Click the image to open in full size.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy path-
ways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right)
A daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers
(larger version). Photos from Kohn (2008).

 

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180)(fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Although dogmatic internal alchemy emerged during the Song, various facets of the practice, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi” (before noon and after midnight). [1] This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84). [2] So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.

Notes:

1) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I’ve changed the quote because this is most likely an error. See below.
2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is a transcription error in the original text.

Sources:

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese healing exercises: The tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

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

The Location of Monkey’s Home and the Origin of His Daoist Master

1) Despite being associated with China, did you know that Sun Wukong does not come from the Middle Kingdom? His home, Flower Fruit Mountain, is described in the first chapter as being located in a vast ocean “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). The cosmic geography of Indian Buddhism places this continent, along with the Western Godaniya (Aparagodaniya) continent, the Northern Uttarakuru continent, and the Southern Jambudvipa continent, around the four respective cardinal directions of Mt. Sumeru, a giant mountain that serves as the axis mundi of the cosmos and the abode of assorted gods and sages (Robert & David, 2013, p. 869)(fig. 1). While said geography traditionally associates Southern Jambudvipa with India (i.e. the known world to the ancient people of South Asia) (Robert & David, 2013, p. 377), the novel places the “Land of the East” within the continent and associates India with Western Godaniya (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 204-205). Most importantly, when Monkey goes in search of a Daoist master, he sails from Eastern Purvavideha to Southern Jambudvipa (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 108).

I suggest the author supplanted the traditional geography because Jambudvipa is associated with the “known world” (in this case China) and India is located to the west of the Middle Kingdom, which explains why South Asia is placed in Western Godaniya.

2) Did you know Sun studies Daoism in India? Failing to find a master to teach him how to prolong his life, Monkey sails further onto the Western Godaniya continent where he discovers the sage Subhuti (須菩提). Upon meeting the primate, the immortal asks him, “[H]ow is it that you mention the East Purvavideha Continent? Separating that place and mine are two great oceans and the entire region of the Southern Jambudvipa Continent. How could you possibly get here?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 114). Sun then tells him of his decade long search across the world. Placing the immortal in India leads me to my next point.

#14 - Monkey's Home and Subhuti

Fig. 1 – A diagram of sacred Buddhist geography (adapted from Robert & David, 2013, p. xxix) (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of Subhuti from a woodblock frontispiece appearing in an 868 CE copy of the Diamond Sutra (larger version). This document is the oldest known dated printed book in the world (full woodblock). 

 

3) Did you know Subhuti is based on a similarly named disciple of the Gautama Buddha? The historical Subhuti (fig. 2) was considered the most accomplished of the Buddha’s students in meditating on the concept of “loving-kindness” (Pali: Metta; Sanskrit: Maitri), or wishing for the happiness of others (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 518 and 861-862). The sage was also known for contemplating emptiness, a subject with many textual interpretations ranging from ridding oneself of sexual desires to “the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence” (Robert & David, 2013, pp. 872). Shao (2006) suggests the Daoist master was named after the Buddhist sage “to evoke a scriptural tradition that identifies Subhūti as the Buddhist at his best, one having the spiritual and intuitive approximation to “emptiness” (sunyatā) that the Chan Buddhists value tremendously” (p. 723). He continues:

Is it then possible that what the novelist tried to highlight with Subhūti’s name was his reputation as the epitome of emptiness? We can certainly find ample textual evidence to support this line of thinking. Although Monkey’s Taoist realization is worthy of heaven, his Buddhist given name Wukong, or Awaken to Emptiness, obviously represents Subhūti’s Buddhist heritage, for the name is exactly what distinguishes Subhūti in the Buddhist tradition. What gives proof of the power and vitality of this bequest is the fact that “emptiness” constitutes the core of Monkey’s religious being (p. 724).

Sources:

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

Shao, P. (2006). “Huineng, Subhūti, and Monkey’s Religion in Xiyou ji,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65 (No. 4), pp. 713-740

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

“That Piece of Rare Magic Iron”: The Literary and Religious Origins of the Monkey King’s Staff

Sun Wukong (孫悟空), the Monkey King, is one of the most enduring characters of East Asian literature and folklore. Much ink has been spilled in the analysis of the novel in which he appears, the highly popular Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classic Journey to the West (西游記, Xiyouji) (1592). For instance, Anthony C. Yu’s updated translation includes an almost 100 page introduction highlighting the historical background and religious and literary influences of the novel.[1] The origins of Monkey has also been discussed at great length.[2] However, no scholars have attempted to trace the origins of his magical iron staff, the most recognizable part of his iconography. In this paper, I propose that the weapon is an amalgam of ringed staves carried by religious monks and iron staves carried by martial monks. Both are featured in Chinese fiction and religious-inspired martial arts legends. My hope is that this information will be both useful to researchers and interesting to fans of Ol’ Monkey.

Click the image to open in full size.

A 19th-century woodblock print of Sun Wukong and his staff.

 

1. Literary description

The staff first appears in the third chapter when Monkey goes to the underwater kingdom of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, looking for a magic weapon to match his supernatural strength and martial skill. When all of the traditional magic weapons—a scimitar, a fork, and a halberd weighing thousands of pounds each—fail to meet his standards, the dragon queen suggests to her husband that they give Sun “that piece of rare magic iron” taking up space in their treasury. She claims that the ancient shaft had started producing heavenly light days prior and proposes that the monkey is fated to own it. The novel never explains how the pillar was made, only that it was originally used by Yu the Great (大禹), a semi-historical Chinese emperor, to measure the depths of the world flood during times immemorial.[3]

The staff is initially described as a pillar of black iron twenty feet in height and the width of a barrel. It is only when Monkey lifts it and suggests that a smaller size would be more manageable that the staff complies with his wishes and shrinks. This is when Sun sees that the weapon is banded with a gold ring on each end, as well as the inscription along the body reading: “The Compliant Golden-Hooped Rod. Weight: thirteen thousand five hundred [catties]” (如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤).[4] The inscription indicates that the staff follows the commands of its owner, shrinking or growing to their whim, and that it is immensely heavy, weighing 17,550 lbs.[5] One particular passage from the novel best summarizes the abilities of Monkey’s staff:

[Sun Wukong] held the treasure [the staff] in his hands and called out, “Smaller, smaller, smaller!” and at once it shrank to the size of a tiny embroidery needle, small enough to be hidden inside the ear. Awestruck, the monkeys cried, “Great King! Take it out and play with it some more.” The Monkey King took it out from his ear and placed it on his palm. “Bigger, bigger, bigger!” he shouted, and again it grew to the thickness of a barrel and more than twenty feet long. He became so delighted playing with it that he jumped onto the bridge and walked out of the cave. Grasping the treasure in his hands, he began to perform the magic of cosmic imitation. He bent over and cried, “Grow!” and at once grew to be ten thousand feet tall, 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 staff in his hands was of such a size that its top reached the thirty-third heaven and its bottom the eighteenth layer of Hell. Tigers, leopards, wolves, and crawling creatures, all of the monsters of the mountain and the demon kings of the seventy-two caves, were so terrified that they kowtowed and paid homage to the Monkey King in fear and trembling. Presently he revoked his magical appearance and changed the treasure back into a tiny embroidery needle stored in his ear.[6]

Sun later uses this powerful weapon in his war against heaven when they don’t recognize him as a full-fledged god. He is so powerful that the Jade Emperor (玉皇帝) of heaven has to ask the Buddha to intervene. After being imprisoned beneath a mountain range for 500 years, Monkey is eventually released and takes the tonsure as a Buddhist monk. He is charged with the protection of the monk Xuanzang (玄奘) on a journey to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from India. He uses his staff to battle all sorts of monsters, spirits, and rogue gods along the way.

Click the image to open in full size.

A ringed monk’s staff (khakkhara).

 

1.1 Literary antecedent

The earliest depiction of the staff appears in the oldest edition of Journey to the WestThe Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang, Procures the Scriptures (大唐三藏取经诗话, Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua), published during the late Song Dynasty (960-1279).[7] In the second chapter, Sun takes Xuanzang to heaven to meet Vaisravana, the Mahabrahma Deva.[8] After the monk impresses the heavenly retinue with his lecture on the Lotus Sutra, Monkey is given a cap of invisibility, an alms bowl, and a golden ringed monk’s staff (khakkhara) as magical weapons against the evils they will face on their journey to India. Sun later uses the staff in a battle with a white-clad woman who transforms into a tiger demon. He changes the staff into a titanic red-haired, blue-skinned yaksha with a club, showing that the predecessor of the Compliant Rod has more magical abilities in comparison.[9]

A weapon that predicts the Compliant Rod is mentioned early on in The Story. Monkey describes how the Queen Mother of the West (西王母), a demon-like goddess originally worshiped in ancient China, had him flogged with an “iron cudgel” (鐵棒) for stealing ten peaches from her heavenly orchard. He later borrows the cudgel to use in tandem with the monk’s staff to punish nine dragons.[10] The golden rings (金环, Jinhuan) on the monk’s staff most likely influenced the golden hoops (金箍, jingu) on the weapon from the Ming version.[11] Therefore, both staffs from the Song version were combined to create the Compliant Rod.

1.2 Origin

Many scholars believe that Sun Wukong was influenced by the monkey god Hanuman from the Indian epic the Ramayana (3rd-century BCE). The two have many textual similarities,[12] but weapons are not among them. Despite his traditional iconography, the Ramayana doesn’t mention Hanuman wielding a mace. His later association with this weapon may have been influenced by two sources. First, the novel portrays him as using his great strength to wield heavy objects, both natural and man-made, as blunt weapons.[13] Second, he was closely associated with yaksha demons in other great Hindu classics like the Mahabharata (3rd-century BCE). Early Buddhist sutras mention yakshas wielding maces.[14] One such individual is the Yaksha King Kubera-turned-Buddhist deity Vaisravana, who later makes appearances in the The Story and Journey to the West.[15] The mace was a fixture of Hanuman’s iconography by at least the 12th-century since dynastic coins from this time feature him holding the weapon.[16] However, the association between the two surely took place well before this if the iconography was common enough to stamp on coins. Yet, I am not inclined to speculate that stories of his mace eventually made it to China. Monkey’s weapon may have just been influenced by Buddhist yakshas as well.

As previously mentioned, Sun becomes a Buddhist monk after being released from imprisonment. Meir Shahar explains that the staff was the emblem of the monk. It was a part of the eighteen items that Indian Buddhist monastic law required that they carry with them on the road.[17] In China, there were two different kinds of monks (with some overlap), the lesser known martial type charged with protecting the religious community (sangha) and the more widely known religious type living in cloisters and proselytizing on the road. Both groups carried different kinds of staves. The martial monks wielded the wooden or iron kind. The former was chosen for its diminished capacity to kill unlike edged weapons,[18] while the latter was used for killing during times of war.[19] The religious monks carried the aforementioned ringed kind.

Click the image to open in full size.

The 1517 Shaolin stele featuring Vajrapani.

 

The martial monks of the Shaolin Monastery, for example, are famous for their skill with the staff. It’s interesting to note that they venerate the yaksha-turned-Buddhist protector deity Vajrapani as the progenitor of their staff method. A stele erected in 1517 tells the story of how the deity, disguised as a lowly kitchen worker, grew to titanic proportions and wielded a fire poker as a makeshift staff to defend the monastery against rebels during the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).[20] Buddhist iconography traditionally depicts Vajrapani wielding a mace in defense of the Buddha and his teachings (the dharma). [21] The Shaolin monks may have changed his mace to a staff because this was the blunt weapon with which they wielded in defense of the religious community and, by extension, the Buddha and his Word,[22] as well as in defense of China against rebels and foreign invaders. Shahar suggests that “martial deities such as Vajrapani exonerated the monks from their responsibility for the creation of military techniques.” He continues, “In this respect their legends could be read as Buddhist apologies for the monastic exercise of violence.”[23] Therefore, I suggest that Monkey’s iron staff from the The Story is based on the staves used by martial monks. After all, Sun is a Buddhist warrior just like the monks of Shaolin, and he uses his iron staff to meter out punishment and death just like Vajrapani and his mace.[24]

The ringed staves were known as “xi staves” (錫杖; Sk: khakkhara), which early medieval Chinese documents describe as being decorated with six to twelve metal rings. These rings were designed to make a clanging noise (錫, xi) to not only scare away any poisonous animals on the road, but also to alert possible donors to the monk’s presence. Noted Buddhist personages and deities were often portrayed as having the same ringed staff and alms bowl given to Monkey in The Story.[25] For instance, a popular story circulating during the Song involves Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana), a close disciple of the Buddha, using the magic power of the aforementioned objects to free his deceased mother from the torments of the underworld.[26]

2. Conclusion

The Compliant Rod from Journey to the West is based on two staves from an earlier Song-era edition of the story. The first is a golden ringed monk’s staff given to Monkey by the deva Vaisravana (among other objects) as a magical weapon to protect the monk Xuanzang. The second is an iron staff procured by Monkey from the Queen Mother of the West in order to punish nine dragons. The former is based on ringed staves historically carried by religious monks while proselytizing on the road. The ringed staff is among the magic items used by Buddhist personages and deities in Song-era stories. The latter is based on wooden and iron staves historically used by martial monks to defend both the Buddhist community and China from rebels and foreign invaders. Martial monks, such as those from Shaolin, attributed their staff skills to mace-wielding yaksha demons-turned-Buddhist protector deities as way of excusing their use of violence. Likewise, Monkey’s use of violence is excused because he wields his staff in protection of his master Xuanzang. In the end, both staves were combined in the Ming version. The golden rings of the ringed staff were transposed onto the iron staff. The Compliant Rod therefore inhabits the worlds of heaven and hell, religion and combat, salvation and punishment.

The staff influenced the weapon used by the humanoid alien Son Goku (himself based on Sun Wukong),[27] the main character of the Dragon Ball franchise. It is named Nyoi Bo, the Japanese transliteration of Ruyi bang (如意棒, Compliant Rod), and is commonly called “Power Pole” in English language media.[28] The staff is given to him as a child by his grandfather Gohan, a human who adopts and teaches him martial arts.[29]


Update: 06-4-14

I was mistaken when I stated that the novel doesn’t explain how the staff was made. The 75th chapter has a long poem describing the history of the weapon. The first few lines read:

The rod of steel nine cyclic times refined
Was forged in the stove by Laozi himself.
King Yu took it, named it “Treasure Divine,”
To fix the Eight Rivers and Four Seas’ depth.
In it were spread out tracks of planets and stars,
Its two ends were clamped in pieces of gold.
Its dense patterns would frighten gods and ghosts;
On it dragon and phoenix scripts were drawn.
Its name was one Rod of Numinous Yang,
Stored deep in the sea, hardly seen by men
[…].[30]

However, instead of reflecting the actual history of the staff (within the novel’s fictional universe), I think this is an example of how character’s boast about their weapons in a bid to “one-up” their opponents. It’s like saying, “My weapon is more prestigious than yours, so you have no chance of beating me.”

I wrote a sister blog to this entry a few days ago that describes additional influences of the staff. It can be read here:

https://journeytothewestresearch.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/a-historical-source-for-monkeys-staff/


Update: 12-30-14

I just posted the third and final installment of my investigation on the history of Monkey’s staff. It can be read here.

https://journeytothewestresearch.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/deciphering-the-inscription-on-monkeys-staff/


Update: 09-10-16

I noted in a previous entry (06-4-14) that a poem in the 75th chapter states the staff was created by Laozi in his oven. A later poem in the 88th chapter notes that it was made by Yu the Great:

An iron rod forged at Creation’s dawn
By Great Yu himself, the god-man of old.
The depths of all oceans, rivers, and lakes,
Were fathomed and fixed by this very rod.
Having board through mountains and conquered floods,
It stayed in East Ocean and ruled the seas,
[…][31]

_______________________________________

Notes

[1] Wu Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1) (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1-96.
[2] See, for instance, Ibid, 8-15 and the sources therein.
[3] Yu the Great is believed to have ruled during the 22nd century BCE. The novel, however, does not follow a historical chronology. Yu is just portrayed as inhabiting a mystical time in the distant past.
[4] Wu and Yu, The Journey to the West, 135. Anthony Yu’s original translation uses the word “pounds.” However, Chinese versions of the novel use jin (斤), known in English as “catty.” Catty and pound are two different measures of weight, the former being heavier than the latter. Therefore, the English text has been altered to show this.
[5] The catty during the Ming Dynasty when the novel was compiled equaled 590 grams (Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press, 2004), 491 n. 133).
[6] Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 93.
[7] This is also known as the “Kōzanji Version” (高山寺) because a 17th-century document mentioning the work was discovered in a Japanese temple of that name (Victor H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1181).
[8] These are actually two different deities, but the Chinese author of the tale seems to have confused them (Ibid, 1182 n. 4 and 1183 n. 6.)
[9] Dudbridge, The Hsi-Yu Chi, 32 and 35.
[10] Ibid, 37-38.
[11] Ibid, 38. For a comparison between the Chinese names of the Song and Ming weapons, see Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 107-108.
[12] These similarities include being monkey protagonists and having births associated with wind, episodes of upsetting cosmic order in their youths, and comparable powers of transformation and flight. Bits and pieces of the Ramayana arrived in China in the form of Buddhist sutras from the north via the Silk Road and word of mouth from Southeast Asian merchants via the southern sea route. It then mixed with indigenous Chinese stories concerning water spirits and ape demons to influence the creation of Sun Wukong. For more details, see Hera S. Walker, “Indigenous or Foreign? A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong”, Sino-Platonic Papers 81 (September 1998): 1-110, accessed February 20, 2014, http://sino-platonic.org/complete/sp…sun_wukong.pdf.
[13] Philip Lutgendorf, Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 41 n. 9.
[14] Ibid, 41-42.
[15] He appears as the heavenly general Li Jing (李靖) in the Ming version.
[16] Ibid, 61.
[17] Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 102.
[18] Ibid, 101.
[19] Shahar mentions a Shaolin monk who used his iron staff to kill the wife of a rebel during the Ming dynasty (Ibid, 69).
[20] Ibid, 83-85.
[21] Ibid, 37. For a story of Vajrapani defending the Buddha, see Vessantara, Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities (Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998), 162.
[22] The Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma are known as the “Three Jewels of Buddhism.”
[23] Ibid, 91.
[24] For instance, one story tells how Vajrapani kills a Hindu deity in order to revive him as a Buddhist deity. This is connected to the concept of skill in means in which an evil being is killed in order to save them from karmic punishment in the next life (Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael K. Jerryson, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 55).
[25] Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, 103.
[26] Dudbridge, The Hsy-Yu Chi, 32 n. 6. For a full version of the story, see Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 1093-1127.
[27] Mark I. West, The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 203.
[28] Brian Camp and Julie Davis Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces (Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2007), 112.
[29] Akira Toriyama and Gerard Jones, Dragon Ball (Vol. 2) (San Francisco, Calif: Viz LLC, 2003), 4.
[30] Wu and Yu, Journey to the West (Vol. 3), 375.
[31] Ibid (Vol. 4), 201.

Bibliography

Camp, Brian, and Julie Davis. Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

Dudbridge, Glen. The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970

Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven (Conn.): Yale university press, 2004

Juergensmeyer, Mark, Margo Kitts, and Michael K. Jerryson. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Lutgendorf, Philip. Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mair, Victor H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994

Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

Toriyama, Akira, and Gerard Jones. Dragon Ball (Vol. 2). San Francisco, Calif: Viz LLC, 2003.

Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998.

Walker, Hera S. “Indigenous or Foreign? A Look at the Origins of the Monkey Hero Sun Wukong.” Sino-Platonic Papers 81 (September 1998): 1-110. Accessed February 20, 2014. http://sino-platonic.org/complete/sp…sun_wukong.pdf.

West, Mark I. The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Wu, Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

The Story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

One of the most famous primate characters in world literature appears in the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE). The story follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (孫悟空, a.k.a. “Monkey”) (fig. 1), an immortal rhesus macaque demon, who gains extraordinary power from long years of spiritual cultivation and rebels against the primacy of heaven. Like Loki in Norse mythology and Lucifer in Judeo-Christian mythology, this trickster god falls from grace when a supreme deity, in this case the Buddha, banishes him to an earthly prison below. But unlike his western counterparts, the monkey repents, becoming a Buddhist monk and agreeing to use his abilities to protect a priest on his journey to collect sutras from India. What follows is a concise overview of Monkey’s story. It will primarily focus on the first seven of the novel’s one hundred chapters, but chapters eight through one hundred will be briefly touched upon, along with a lesser-known literary sequel to Journey to the West.

In the beginning, the mystical energies of heaven and earth and the light of the sun and moon come together to impregnate a boulder high atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), which lies in a vast ocean near the Aolai Country (Aolai guo, 傲來國) of the Eastern Pūrvavideha continent (Dongshengshen zhou, 東勝神洲). The stone gestates for countless ages until the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), when it hatches an egg that is eroded by the elements into a simian shape. The Stone Monkey (Shihou, 石猴) awakens and crawls around, before bowing to the four cardinal directions as light bursts forth from his eyes. The light is so bright that it reaches heaven, alarming the August Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝) and his celestial retinue. The light soon subsides, however, once he ingests food for the first time.

The Stone Monkey happens upon other primates on the island and becomes their king when he proves himself in a test of bravery by blindly leaping through a waterfall and discovering a long-forgotten immortal’s cave. He rules the mountain for nearly four centuries before the fear of death finally creeps in. One of his primate advisers notes that only Daoist immortals and Buddhist saints can avoid death, and so he suggests the king find a transcendent to teach him the secrets of eternal life. Monkey sets sail on a makeshift raft and explores the world for ten years, adopting human dress and language along way. His quest takes him to the Western Aparagodāniya continent where he is finally accepted as a student by the immortal Subhuti (Xuputi, 须菩提). He is given the religious name Sun Wukong, meaning “monkey awakened to emptiness.” The immortal teaches him the seventy-two methods of heavenly transformation, or endless ways of changing his shape and size; cloud somersaulting, a type of flying that allows him to travel 108,000 li with a single leap; all manner of magical spells to command gods and spirits; traditional medicine; armed and unarmed martial arts; and, most importantly, an internal breathing method that results in his immortality. He is later disowned by the sage for selfishly showing off his new found magical skills to his less accomplished classmates.

Sun eventually returns to his island home and faces a demon whom had taken control of it during his prolonged absence. After killing the monster, he realizes that he needs a weapon to match his celestial power, and so his adviser suggests that he go to the undersea palace of Ao Guang (敖廣), the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, to find such a weapon. There, he tries out several weapons weighing thousands of pounds, but each one is too light. He finally settles on a massive nine ton iron pillar that was originally used by Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a mythical king of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), to measure the depths of the fabled world flood. Named the “As-You-Wish Gold-Banded Cudgel” (Ruyi jingu bang, 如意金箍棒), the iron responds to Sun’s touch and follows his command to shrink or grow to his whim—as small as a needle or as tall as the sky—thus signifying that this weapon was fated to be his. In addition to the staff, Monkey bullies the Dragon King’s royal brothers into giving him a magical suit of armor.

Shortly after returning home to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, he shows off his new weapon by turning into a frightful cosmic giant and commanding the staff to grow, with the top touching the highest heaven and the bottom the lowest hell. This display of power prompts demon kings of the seventy-two caves to submit to his rule and host a drunken party in his honor. Soon after falling asleep, Sun’s soul is dragged to the Chinese underworld of Diyu (地獄) in chains. There he learns that, according to the Ledgers of Life and Death, it is his time to die. This greatly enrages Monkey for he is no longer subject to the laws of heaven since he had achieved immortality. He plucks the iron cudgel from his ear (where he keeps it the size of a needle) and begins to display his martial prowess. This so scares the denizens of hell that King Yama (Yanluo wang, 閻羅王), ruler of the underworld, begs him to halt his immortal rage. Sun orders the ledger containing his information to be brought out and he promptly crosses out his name with ink, as well as the names of all monkeys on earth, thus making them immortal too. He wakes up in the mortal world when his soul returns to his body.

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Fig. 1 – A modern depiction of Sun Wukong (by the author) (larger version).

Both the Eastern Dragon King and King Yama submit memorials to heaven concerning Sun’s misconduct. But the court adviser, an embodiment of the planet Venus, convinces the August Jade Emperor to give Sun the menial position of “Keeper of the Heavenly Horses” (Bimawen, 避馬瘟) in order to avoid further conflict. Monkey accepts and steadfastly performs his duties, that is until learns from an assistant that he is not a full-fledged god but a glorified stable boy. He immediately storms out of the heavenly gates and returns home to proclaim himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) in rebellion. Heaven mobilizes an army of powerful demon hunters, including the Heavenly King Li Jing (Li Jing tianwang, 李靖天王) and his son, the child god Prince Nezha (哪吒), but they all fall to Monkey’s magical and martial might. The embodiment of the planet Venus once again steps in to convince the August Jade Emperor to acquiesce to Monkey’s wishes, thereby granting him the empty title of Great Sage Equaling Heaven and even promoting him to be the “Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves”.

Sun tours the heavenly orchard housing the magical peaches that ripen every few thousand years. The sweet aroma of his charge is too much for him to resist, and so he eats all but the youngest life-prolonging fruits. His theft is soon discovered when fairy attendants of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母), an ancient primordial goddess, arrive to pick the choicest specimens for her long-awaited immortal peach banquet. It is from these fairies that Monkey learns he has not been invited due to his rough nature. Enraged, Sun then incapacitates the fair maidens with magic and crashes the party before the guests arrive. He eats all of the celestial food and drinks all of the immortal wine, and then drunkenly stumbles into the laboratory of Laozi (老子), the supreme god of Daoism. There, he gobbles up the deity’s alchemically-derived pills of immortality, thus increasing his level of invincibility.

Sun returns home once again to await the coming storm of heavenly forces. Tired of the demon’s antics, the August Jade Emperor calls up the 100,000 strong heavenly army and the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist gods to deal with him. Monkey uses his magic to take on three heads and six arms and multiplies his iron cudgel to meet the onslaught. Once again, the heavenly army is no match for him. However, he soon loses his nerve when his monkey children are captured in great heavenly nets. He flees with Lord Erlang (Erlang shen, 二郎神), a master of magic and the nephew of the August Jade Emperor, taking chase. The two battle through countless animal transformations, each trying to one-up the other. Monkey is finally captured when Laozi drops a magical diamond bracelet on his head, incapacitating him long enough for Erlang’s celestial hound to bite hold of his leg.

Sun is taken to heaven to be executed for his crimes, but fire, lightning, and edged weapons have no effect on his invincible body. Laozi then suggests that they put him inside of the deity’s mystical eight trigrams furnace to reduce the demon into ashes. They check the furnace forty-nine days later expecting to see his charred remains; however, Monkey jumps out unscathed, and not only that, the intense flames refined his pupils the color of gold, giving them the power to see for hundreds of miles and to recognize the dark auras of demons in disguise. He overturns the furnace and begins to cause havoc in heaven with his iron cudgel. The monkey’s anger cannot be contained, and so the August Jade Emperor beseeches the Buddha (Rulai, 如来) in the Western Paradise to intervene. The “Enlightened One” appears and makes Sun a wager that, if he can jump out of his hand, the macaque will become the new ruler of heaven. Monkey agrees to the wager and jumps into his palm. With one tremendous leap, Sun speeds towards the reaches of heaven, clouds whizzing by him in a blur of colors as he travels across the sky. He lands before five great pillars, thinking them to be the edge of the cosmos. He tags one of the pillars with his name and urinates at the base of another in order to prove that he had been there. Upon returning, he demands that the Buddha live up to his end of the bargain. Yet the Buddha explains that he had used his infinite powers to cloud Sun’s mind, tricking him into thinking he had left, when he actually stayed in his hand the entire time. But before Monkey can do anything, the Buddha overturns his hand, pushing it out the gates of heaven, and slamming it onto earth, transforming it into the Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山). There, Sun is imprisoned for his crimes against heaven.

Fig. 2 – (Left) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong”, October 10, 1889 (larger version). Fig 3. – (Right) Son Goku (孫悟空) from the Dragonball Franchise (larger version).

Chapters thirteen to one hundred tell how five hundred years later Sun is released during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to help escort the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzang, 三藏) (whose early story is told in chapters eight to twelve)), a disciple of the Buddha in a previous life, on a quest to retrieve salvation-bestowing scriptures from India. The Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) gives the monk a golden headband (jingu quan, 金箍圈) as a means to reign in Monkey’s unruly nature. It tightens around Sun’s head whenever a magic formula is recited, causing him great pain. In addition, Guanyin gives Monkey three magic hairs on the back of his neck that can transform into anything he desires to aid in his protection of the monk. Along the way, the two meet other monsters-turned-disciples—Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), the lecherous pig demon, Sha Wujing (沙悟净), the complacent water demon, and the White Dragon Horse (Bailongma, 白龍馬), a royal serpent transformed into an equine—who agree to aid in the monk’s defense. Monkey battles all sorts of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gods along the way. In the end, he is granted Buddhahood and given the title of the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Dou zhanzheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) for protecting Tripitaka over the long journey.

A continuation of the novel called A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西游补, 1640) takes place between chapters 61 and 62 of the original. In the story, the Monkey King wanders from one adventure to the next, using a magic tower of mirrors and a Jade doorway to travel to different points in time. In the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE), he disguises himself as Consort Yu in order to locate a magic weapon needed for his quest to India. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), he serves in place of King Yama as the judge of Hell. After returning to the Tang Dynasty, he finds that his master Tripitaka has taken a wife and become a general charged with wiping out the physical manifestation of desire (desire being a major theme running through the novelette). Monkey goes on to take part in a great war between all the kingdoms of the world, during which time he faces one of his own sons in battle. In the end, he discovers an unforeseen danger that threatens Tripitaka’s life.

Stories about Sun Wukong have enthralled people the world over for centuries. His adventures first became popular via oral folktale performances during the Song Dynasty. These eventually coalesced into the earliest known version of the novel, The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), published during the 13th-century. Since the anonymous publishing of the complete novel in the 16th-century, Monkey has appeared in numerous paintings, poems, books, operatic stage plays, and films (both live action and animated). He was sometimes “channeled”, along with other martial spirits, by citizen soldiers of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). There is also a monkey-based martial art named in his honor. It is interesting to note that there are some people in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore who worship him as a patron deity. Thus, Sun became so popular that he jumped from the pages of fiction to take his place on the family altar.

Copies of The Story were discovered in Japan among a 17th-century catalog of books in the Kozanji Temple (高山寺, Ch: Gaoshan si). No copies are known to exist in China, which suggests this version came to the island many centuries ago. The complete Ming edition of the novel came to Japan in the late 18th-century, where it was translated in bits and pieces over the course of some seventy years. However, Monkey did not become immensely popular until the first complete translation of the novel was published in four parts between 1806 and 1839. The last part was illustrated with woodblocks by Taito II (fl. 1810-1853), a noted student of famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849). Other Japanese artists, such as Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) and Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) (fig. 2), produced beautiful full color woodblock prints of Sun.

Like in China, Monkey has been adapted in all kinds of Japanese media. By far, his most famous adaptation is the manga and anime character Son Goku (孫悟空) (fig. 3) from the Dragon Ball (Jp:ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qi longzhu, 七龍珠) franchise (1984-present). Like Sun, Goku has a monkey tail, knows martial arts, fights with a magic staff, and rides on a cloud. His early adventures in Dragon Ball (manga: 1984-1995; anime: 1986-1989) see him traveling the world in search of seven wish-granting “dragon balls”, while also perfecting his fighting abilities and participating in a world martial arts tournament. Several of the supporting characters, such as Oolong (ウーロン), a lecherous anthropomorphic pig who can change his shape, a nod to Zhu Bajie, were directly influenced by the novel. Dragon Ball Z (manga: 1988-1995; anime: 1989-1996), a continuation of the comic book and animated TV show, follows Goku as an adult and reveals that he is actually a humanoid alien sent as a child to destroy Earth. He arrived in a spherical spaceship that recalls the stone egg from which Sun Wukong was formed. But instead of destroying the planet, he becomes its stalwart protector and faces extraterrestrial menaces from beyond the stars. Goku’s adventures have continued in the sequels Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997), Dragon Ball Super (2015-2018), and Super Dragon Ball Heroes (2018-present).