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Sha Wujing in Xiyou yuanzhi (西遊原旨), published 1819.
|Vietnamese||Sa Ngộ Tịnh|
|RTGS||Sua Cheng (from a Teochew pronunciation of 沙僧 "Monk Sha")|
Shā Wùjìng is one of the three disciples of Xuánzàng. He appears as a character in the novel Journey to the West written by Wu Cheng'en in the Ming Dynasty, although versions of his character predate the Ming novel. In the novels, his background is the least developed of the pilgrims and he contributes the least to their efforts. He is called Sand or Sandy and is known as a "water buffalo" for his seemingly less developed intelligence in many English versions of the story.
His Buddhist name "Sha Wujing", given by Bodhisattva Guanyin, means "sand aware of purity". His name is translated into Korean as Sa Oh Jeong, into Japanese as Sa Gojō, into Sino-Vietnamese as Sa Ngộ Tịnh.
Like Zhu Bajie, Wujing was originally a general in Heaven, more specifically a Curtain-Lifting General (卷帘大将 juǎnlián dàjiàng). In a fit of rage, he destroyed a valuable vase. Other sources mention that he did this unintentionally, and in the Journey to the West series, it was an accident. Nevertheless, he was punished by the Jade Emperor, who had him struck 800 times with a rod and exiled to earth, where he was to be reincarnated as a terrible man-eating sand demon. There, he lived in the Liúshā-hé (流沙河, Lưu Sa Hà in Han-Vietnamese, "flowing-sand river", or "quicksand-river", modern name Kaidu River). Every day, seven flying swords sent from heaven would stab him in the chest before flying off as a punishment to him. As a result, he had to live in the river to avoid the punishment.
Wujing's appearance was rather grisly; he had a red beard and his head was partially bald; a necklace consisting of skulls made him even more terrible. He still carried the weapon he had in Heaven, a yuèyáchǎn, a double-headed staff with a crescent-moon (yuèyá) blade at one end and a spade (chǎn) at the other, with six xīzhàng rings in the shovel part to denote its religious association. There is an interesting story about the necklace of skulls: An earlier group of nine monks on a pilgrimage west to fetch the scriptures met their end at the hands of Wujing. Despite their pleas for mercy, he devoured them, sucked the marrow from their bones, and threw their skulls into the river. However, unlike his other victims whose bone sank to the river bottom, the skulls of the monks floated. This fascinated and delighted Wujing, who strung them on a rope and played with them whenever he was bored.
Later, Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and her disciple Prince Moksa came searching for powerful bodyguards in preparation of Xuanzang's journey west. She recruited Wujing in exchange for some relief from his suffering. She then converted him and gave him his current name, Shā Wùjìng. His surname Shā ("sand") was taken from his river-home, while his Buddhist name Wùjìng means "awakened to purity" or "aware of purity". Finally, he was instructed to wait for a monk who would call for him. When Wujing does meet Xuanzang, he was mistaken for an enemy and attacked by Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie. Guanyin was forced to intervene for the sake of the journey.
After everything was cleared up, Wujing became the third disciple of Xuanzang, who called him Shā-héshàng (沙和尚, i.e. the "sand priest"; a héshàng is a Buddhist monk or priest in charge of a temple; in Japanese, oshō). Now, he was clad in a Buddhist pilgrim's robe and his skull-necklace was turned into a monk's one. His appearance also changed; from now on he looked more like a human, yet still ugly. During the Journey to the West, his swimming ability was quite useful. He always carried a small gourd which he could turn into a huge one to cross rivers. Wujing was actually a kind-hearted and obedient person and was very loyal to his master, among the three he was likely the most polite and the most logical. At the journey's end, Buddha transformed him into an arhat or luohan known as the Golden-bodied Arhat (金身羅漢, Chinese: Jinshēn Luóhàn).
As the third disciple, even though his fighting skills are not as great as that of Wukong or Bajie, he is still a great warrior protecting Xuanzang and can use his intellect as well as his strength to beat the enemy. He knows only 18 forms of transformation and admits this as reported in the middle of the narrative.
Sha Wujing is the end result of embellishing a supernatural figure mentioned in Monk Hui Li's (慧立) 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang called Daciensi Sanzang Fashi Zhuan (大慈恩寺三藏法師傳, A Biography of the Tripitaka-master of the Great Ci'en Monastery). According to the text, Xuanzang spilled his surplus of water while in the deserts near Dunhuang. After several days without liquid, Xuanzang had a dream where a tall spirit wielding a halberd chastised him for sleeping on such an important journey to get scriptures from India. He immediately woke up and got on his horse, which took off in a different direction than what he wanted to go. They finally came to an oasis with green grass and fresh water.
The Tang Sanzang ji (唐三藏记, Record of the Tang Monk Tripitaka), a book of unknown date appearing in an 11th-century Japanese collection of tales known as Jōbodai shū (成菩堤集), states Xuanzang was magically provided food and drink by a Deva while in the "Flowing Sands" (liusha, 流沙) desert. The compiler of the Jōbodai shū explained: “This is the reason for the name Spirit of the Deep Sands (Shensha shen, 深沙神).” After performing a pilgrimage to China in 838-839, the Japanese Buddhist monk Jōgyō (常晓) wrote a report which mentions Xuanzang’s fabled exchange with the deity, as well as equates Shensha shen with King Vaisravana, one of the four cardinal protector gods of Buddhism. Therefore, the Tang Sanzang ji most likely hails from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Jōbodai shū also mentions the god manifested itself before the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (c. 4th century) during his pilgrimage to India. Shensha shen tells him: “I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…”
By the compiling of the “Kōzanji version” (高山记, 13th century), the earliest known edition of Journey to the West, Shensha shen was transformed into a blood thirsty demon who had continuously eaten Xuanzang’s past reincarnations. The demon tells him: “Slung here from my neck are the dry bones from when I twice before devoured you, monk!” Shensha Shen only helps him to pass over the deep sands with the aid of a magic golden bridge after Xuanzang threatens him with heavenly retribution.
As can be seen, the complete version of Journey to the West anonymously published in 1592 borrowed liberally from tales concerning Shensha shen. The character of Sha Wujing was given his monstrous appearance and dress. The skulls of the nine Buddhist monks hanging from his head recalls both the demon skulls worn by the spirit, and the skulls of Xuanzang's past incarnations worn by his wrathful counterpart from the Kōzanji version. His home of the "Flowing Sands River" (Liusha he 流沙河) is derived from the "Flowing Sands" desert inhabited by Shensha shen. Sha Wujing also aids Xuanzang pass over the Flowing Sands River by tying his nine skulls into a makeshift raft.
- Dudbridge, Glen. The Hsi-Yu Chi: A Study of Antecedents to the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970, pp. 18-19
- The original source says “Moving sands,” but I have changed the wording to conform with that commonly used in various English translations of the tale. “Moving Sands” (liusha, 流沙) was a common term for the desert area of the northwestern territories of China (Dudbridge, p. 19 n. 3).
- Dudbridge, p. 19
- Dudbridge, pp. 19-20
- Dudbridge, p. 20
- Dudbridge, pp. 20-21
- Yu, Anthony C. The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 440-441.
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