Wednesday, January 9, 2013

January Excerpt: Kung Fu and the Spiritual Ground of the Martial Arts by Olav Bryant Smith

Kung Fu and the Spiritual Ground of the Martial Arts
Olav Bryant Smith
Shaolin Temple, China
PHOTO: Lboogiepeace

When I was little, one of my many heroes was Bruce Lee. Not the version of Bruce Lee who the world primarily thinks of now, having become popular with films like Fists of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon in the ‘70s, but the earlier version–the Bruce Lee who played Kato, the sidekick of The Green Hornet in the ‘60s television series. The series, like its sister-series Batman, was a little comicbookish in retrospect, to be sure. But for a 7 to 8-year-old boy, this just made it better. The thing is that Bruce Lee, the actor and martial arts expert, brought something of the spiritual foundations of the martial arts even to that role. The Green Hornet may have been meant to be the primary hero of the series, but it was Kato who captured my imagination. The mysteries of eastern spirituality informed my growth from then on.

Another of my heroes was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., who changed his named to Muhammad Ali in the midst of “float(ing) like a butterfly,” and “sting(ing) like a bee.” Ali not only was a great athlete, certainly in the conversation on the finest boxers who ever lived, but he was centered in a spirituality and a political awareness that elevated him from the sports pages to the front pages of the major newspapers. I meditated on the movements of Ali–without realizing it was a meditation. I immersed myself in the feeling of what it was like to be centered in devotion to God while sharpening my body, mind, and spirit to defend my faith against all comers. He influenced me to investigate and to think kindly of Islam, long before the American relationship with Islam became so tainted by wars in the Middle East and terrorist attacks. There does not need to be endless antagonism between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–“the people of the Book” as they are collectively called in Islam. But that is the stuff of another essay.

So, with these influences running deep in my life, I was primed for an openarmed reception of the series Kung Fu when it came to television in 1972, one year after Lee’s Fists of Fury had made such an impact. The series was directed by Jerry Thorpe, and written by Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander. The main character, a half-American, half-Chinese man named Kwai Chang Caine was played by David Carradine, the son of the legendary actor John Carradine.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met spiritually oriented people around my age who were greatly influenced by Kung Fu. Like another highly influential television series, Star Trek, it only survived for a few years. But in those few years, it managed to do something so special that its positive karmic affect continues to work its magic in the lives and creative imaginations of many who were fortunate enough to watch it. So let’s take a peek back at what was so magical about this humble film.

If you would like to read more of this article in Empirical, the January issue is now available at your local bookstore and online at our website.


  1. I too was captivated by David Carradine's subtle and gentle power while I was growing up in the 1970's. Normally we think of power and subtlety as contradictory, but Kwai Chang showed us that seeming opposites are part of a larger whole. I use some of the episodes in teaching ethics and philosophy. E.g., "Alethea" (meaning "truth") co-starring 10-year old Jodie Foster as Alethea Ingram, is one episode that students really love. Caine imparts a crucial lesson to Alethea about telling the truth. Great stuff. Thanks Olav. Aloha!

  2. Fantastic! Have you gotten your copy yet? When you've read the whole thing, I'd love to hear what you have to say. Thanks.

  3. Very nice article, Olav. I appreciate that you brought Sartre, Aristotle, Skywalker, Yoda, Subud, Augustine, the Buddha, Maslow, etc., all together.

    You mentioned several items of the eightfold path, but when you discussed meditation you didn't mention Right Meditation. Maybe because it's too complex to bring in?

    Nice how you followed through the KF pilot and picked up all those elements along the way. Especially if one knows the story line of the pilot, this is quite instructive. The bar scene in the beginning is one of my favorites; I've posted it a few times on FB. He deliberately holds so much potential power in check, while he remains balanced and drinks his water. This had a profound effect on me as an 11 and 12 year old.

    Regarding the quote about how long YKCC had been with the temple, I take that differently. When (master Khan?) said "Soon you will learn," I wonder if this means he's dissatisfied with YKCC's answer? The first answer is his true answer, but after he thinks about what he 'should' say, he says "Not long." Khan was hoping for something like, "A long time in that I have learned much, yet a short time also." He was looking for more balance and completeness, even at that young age.

    One of my favorite quotes from the episode is Caine saying, "I seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions."

    Thank-you for this article, it's done a lot for me.

    Aloha, Aliman

    1. Thank you so much for writing, Aliman. I still don't see that scene about time the same way, but I'll be thinking about it. Interesting point about 'right meditation.' So glad you enjoy this topic as much as I do.