Tuesday, July 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Kung Fu and Spiritual Ground of the Martial Arts

Kung Fu and Spiritual Ground of the Martial Arts
Olav Bryant Smith
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

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 open-armed 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.


The key to its effectiveness, and the depth of the series, is its use of flashbacks from the late nineteenth-century Old West (California) setting that the adult Caine finds himself thrown into, to his earlier life in the Shaolin (Buddhist) Temple in Hunan Province in the southwest of China. From start to finish, we are gently introduced to the way a Zen Buddhist monk would incorporate his meditation and training into his daily life in the Western world. As we quickly learn to identify with this lonely figure thrust into a strange and often unfriendly land–and many of us, of course, often feel this way–we begin to meditate with Caine on these ways of integrating a spiritual understanding and awareness of reality with our daily activities.

The first frames of the film show the adult Caine walking across a desert in California, barefoot. The flashbacks show him as a boy standing outside of the Shaolin Temple, hoping to gain admission for training as a monk. The boy stands in the profane world of everyday life with a yearning for instruction in the sacred realm of the temple. He thirsts for a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries–not to escape this world, but to find ways of applying this deeper understanding to life.

As Caine stands outside the temple, it is sometimes raining, but the boy endures. This is then contrasted with walking across the vast expanse of the hot, dry desert as the images switches back and forth between his childhood in China and adulthood in California. Even before his official training, there is something in the boy that the monks are looking for. The Buddha calls it Right Intention. It is having one’s heart in the right place. 

Caine demonstrates sincerity and single-mindedness of purpose. He shows that he will genuinely appreciate the gift of training if he is accepted. We see some other young boys, however, who had been standing at the front door with Caine, giving up. They step off to the side and begin to play games. The monks inside, who are secretly keeping an eye out to see who really wants to get in, notice the distracted boys. The monk at the door comes outside and tells the boys, “Please go home.” They had not exhibited the character to gain admittance. Once inside, this character of Right Intention will be needed to advance further in spiritual training. This early determination, which we see by observing the adult Caine walking barefoot through the great expanse of the desert, has deepened into an almost superhuman ability to endure hardship in pursuit of an enlightened goal.

Several of the boys are admitted for an audience with the temple’s headmaster, or sifu. We see that early character-training, often through religious guidance, does matter in children’s lives. All of the boys are polite. They sit before the monk. They are served tea. The monk indicates through gesture that they may drink. And most of them do so. They’re hungry. They’re thirsty. They’ve waited a long time to get inside from the elements at this point. Of all the boys, Caine alone does not drink the tea, because the master had not begun to drink his. Because of this, Caine is allowed to stay for training, and the other boys are sent home. The master inquires where the boy has learned such good manners, prized perhaps more in Confucian cultures than others. Caine says that he learned from his grandfather.

In traditional cultures, the relationship between grandparents and young children is crucial to the development of children’s understanding of the world and their characters. Parents are often busy with maintaining their households. In fact, in India, where these relationships are clearly defined, the parents are said to be “householders.” The youngest children spend much of their time with their grandparents, who by then, are in the retirement phase of their lives. In the West, where children often never really get to know their grandparents well, much that is vital to the continuation of a civilization has been lost.

Generational bonding and unity is part of the glue that holds cultures together. And as Herman Daly wrote in his article “The Renewal of Ignorance,” in the December issue of Empirical, every generation of elders must decide what is most important to pass on to young people. Equally, every generation of young people decide what is most important to make the effort to learn. This transmission of wisdom and knowledge from one generation to the next goes through this double filter. We are always one step away, Daly warns us, from losing the basis of our culture and civilization. 

It is a precarious business, and there is no guarantee of continual progress.


When Caine arrives at a town in California, if you are able to watch these frames in slow-motion, you will see that the director arranges for Caine’s image to immediately merge together with an elder Chinese man named Han Fei. Not only will their paths intersect in the way we usually think of this, but this also illustrates the interconnectedness of all beings. They have not met yet, but they live in a world of continual mutual influence. As the English poet John Donne understood, “No man is an island/Entire of itself.” We are all parts of a greater whole, interconnected.

Thirsty, Caine approaches a saloon. Again, if you are paying close attention, you will see him peek into the saloon through a side window first. He does not walk blindly into this new situation. He practices Right Awareness, and looks to see what he’s getting himself into as best he can. Inside, he asks for a drink of water and adds some minerals to it that he has carried with him in a small pouch. The bartender inquires where he has come from, but scoffs when told that he has just walked across the desert. “Liar!” he retorts and laughs. He doesn’t understand the disciplined and simple life that the monk has been trained to sustain. He doesn’t realize the inner resources that Caine has developed over time before arriving there.

Han Fei, having seen Caine enter the bar, is alarmed. He does not know Caine, but he empathizes with him (a trait emphasized by Confucius) and has compassion for him (a trait emphasized by the Buddha). Han Fei knows that someone who is Chinese will not be welcome in this saloon, so he sticks his head just inside the door to warn Caine, but is rudely told to leave at once by the barroom bully. Having gotten rid of Han Fei, this stout, bigoted ruffian takes notice of Caine, and though he is only half-Chinese, decides Caine must leave as well.

He attempts to remove Caine by force, and fails. But we do not witness the typical barroom brawl here. Caine uses his highly developed martial arts skills to side-step and neutralize every attempt to remove him. It is clear that he could inflict severe damage on the bully, but he does not. He applies the great guiding principle of every spiritually grounded martial art–to restore order with the least amount of force necessary. For the aim in spiritually grounded martial arts is purely defensive. The ethically superior martial artist does not seek to show off his abilities, but rather uses them modestly and only when needed. The great founder of the martial art Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, insisted that his training was really “the art of peace.”

Having gotten his drink of water, and countered the effort to remove him forcibly, Caine then goes on his way peacefully. Han Fei greets him outside, and is thrilled, saying that he’s heard of advanced skills like this before, but has never seen them in practice. Caine is not full of himself. He is humble and honors the older man, who had risked his safety to warn him. Each has his own role to play. They enjoy mutual respect immediately. And each has something to give to the other. Saying that he is in need of work, Han Fei arranges for Caine to go to work, as so many Chinese and Sikh workers did at that time, on a railroad line laying ties.


Caine climbs onto the back of a horse-drawn wagon, about to embark on a new chapter of his life. Immediately, we see a flashback to the Shaolin Temple, where Caine had experienced new beginnings before as a boy. There, his head was shaved.

This is somewhat like baptism in Christianity.

It symbolizes a previous life that is shed and left behind. It symbolizes cleanliness and simplicity in the new life. And it symbolizes a commitment to the new beginning being embarked upon.

We observe Caine doing chores around the temple–tasks like sweeping the steps of sand and snow in different seasons. We also see him scrubbing the floors. These are more than necessary jobs to help the temple community to continue to function. These become for the monks an active meditation.

There are various kinds of meditation.

One can meditate with the chanting of a mantra. There are recitations of sacred writings in passage meditations. Many kinds of meditation begin with the most basic of all–a sitting meditation. In a sitting meditation, one learns through various techniques to still the mind and find the sacred center within.

For some, such as Zen Buddhists, the emphasis is placed on this sitting meditation.

In an active meditation, one attempts to take what one finds in the sitting meditation, and apply it to our work in the world. Perhaps the most well-known of the active meditations in the Western world is hatha yoga, which comes from India. Another, which I have practiced for many years, is the latihan kejiwaan of Subud. But an active meditation, if it comes from the right place within us, can take place in any activity that we do, such as these basic chores of a monk at the monastery.

Ideally, according to the teaching of Right Livelihood, one should be able to operate from one’s compassionate, creative center in our work in the world. We should endeavor to spread our peace and love to the world around us through our activities. At the railroad camp where Caine begins to work as an adult, we are shown a conflict arising in a simple morality play between a good-hearted geologist and the camp’s supervisor. 

The geologist predicted that the railroad workers were likely to hit pockets of an explosive gas if they continued on the path they were going. The supervisor understood what was being said, but did not allow the facts to get in the way of his goal. He pointed out that it would take too much time and cost too much money to change the route of the railroad, and it was his job to see the rail through. The lives of the workers were not a major concern for the supervisor.

Today, in the United States, we have reached a crossroad in our attitude toward labor. After a nearly century of progress, those gains have been scaled back. Instead of aiming for an ideal relationship between employers and employees, we sometimes seem to be racing toward the lowest common denominator by pitting our workers in competition against the most poorly treated workers around the world.

As we watch the immigrant laborers in Kung Fu laying ties for the railroad, we should remember the value of labor, which we cannot do without. There are class systems around the world that are quite oppressive with regard to labor. In India, for instance, those in the lowest class have been called “outcastes” because they’re seen as so low that they exist outside of the caste system. Where others saw only worthless “untouchables,” the Mahatma (great soul) Mohandas K. Gandhi saw “Harijan” (children of God). In the United States, generations of Africans were forcibly put on ships and imported like objects into this country to serve tyrannical masters. A war between North and South had to be fought largely to assure the liberty of our African-American brothers and sisters. We should look to this history and remember the often thin lines that run between marginally subsistence wages and slavery. And we should ask ourselves if we really want to support a system that depends on such slavery or quasi-slavery.


This was the situation that Caine was thrown into when he joined the crew of railroad workers. The camp was at a crisis point. They were cold. They were not fed well. And their lives were in danger. The workers were looking for leadership. One of Caine’s fellow laborers, Fong, ridiculed him for keeping silent. He was looking for Caine to step forward with his observations, if not a plan for action. And he didn’t know if he could trust someone so quiet.

But Caine responded to this criticism by saying that “If one’s words are not better than silence, one should keep silent.” This is in keeping with the Buddha’s teaching on Right Speech. The foundation of Buddhist ethics is the restraint from harming others. With regard to one’s work, one should do work that is helpful to others, and certainly not work that is harmful. The same principle should be applied to speech–to do some good with our words, or to remain silent.

Caine was also practicing the principle of Right Awareness here. He had to observe the situation at the camp carefully before taking action. This point will come up again, soon, when Fong presses him again for action.

Soon after this, Caine is recognized and honored as the Shaolin monk that he is when a wagon load of supplies comes into the camp. As one crate begins to fall from the wagon, Caine reached up to catch it, thus exposing the tiger and the dragon branded into his forearms. The tiger, symbol of the powers of the earth, and the dragon, symbol of the powers of the sky, were the signs of completed training at the Shaolin monastery. His fellow workers bowed with reverence at the discovery of this identity. A man of special gifts was in their midst.

As we see Caine pondering his position in this difficult and frightening situation at the railroad camp, it is not coincidental, I think, that we are then taken through another flashback to the heart of his training at the Shaolin Temple. More than anyone else at the Shaolin Temple, Caine was influenced by the blind Master Po. At first, Caine is inclined to dismiss Master Po as a simple, blind old man. But on their first encounter, Po hands Caine a broom and tells the young boy to attack him with it. Caine is reluctant, but the old man insists. 

Time and again, Caine rushes Master Po with the broom, only to be thwarted with deft movements. With a new-found admiration and feeling for Master Po, Caine comments that “Of all things, to live in darkness must be the worst.” Master Po smiles and brushes this sympathy aside, saying “Fear is the greatest darkness.” Several years later, we would see for the first time Yoda, in a similar role, telling the apprentice Luke Skywalker that “Fear is the path to the dark side.”

Master Po had smiled because he knew that he had not only overcome the lesser darkness of blindness, but the greater darkness of fear. And he invited Caine to follow him on a journey that starts with a quiet and humble awareness of everything that was going on in and around him. This, to me, is the spirit of radical empiricism.

“Never assume,” said Master Po, “that because a man has no eyes he cannot see.” Such an idea is shocking to the ordinary empiricist, for whom visual affirmation means so much. Master Po then directed Caine’s awareness. “Close your eyes,” he commanded. “What do you hear?”

Caine obeys. “I hear the water. I hear the birds.”

“Do you hear your own heartbeat?” Po asks.

“No,” admits the boy.

“Do you hear the grasshopper at your feet?” asks Po.

Caine opens his eyes and sees the grasshopper there. Amazed, he asks, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”

Po responds: “Young man, how is it that you do not?”

It is clearly implied here, though, that there is something more going on that extraordinarily acute hearing. The suggestion is that Master Po’s awareness has grown to such heights that he has developed a kind of “sixth sense.” We see this clearly in another scene where Caine as a boy is introduced to the practice of walking on rice paper. He is told that if he can learn to walk across it without tearing it, then his approach cannot be heard. So, when Caine as a young man finally accomplishes this feat, he goes to Master Po to test his skill. 

Master Po is aware of Caine’s approach anyway.

To many in the West, such phenomena are mere fairy tales. But as skeptical an observer as Jean Paul Sartre pointed to the truth of such awareness in human beings. He pointed to the phenomenon of what he referred to as “The Look.” We’ve all had experiences of sitting somewhere and having the “feeling” that someone is looking at us. We turn to see if it is true, and sure enough, someone had been looking at us–“burning,” as some say, “a hole in the back of my head.”

This awareness of connectedness to the world around us comes through careful phenomenological observation made acute through meditative practice. Again, such phenomenological observation allows us greater awareness of the paradoxes of time. 

A monk asks Caine at one point how long he’d been at the temple. The quick reply was “a long time,” for surely it seemed such to the young monk. But asked again how long, the boy thought about it. “Not long,” was the second response. The elder monk was pleased, and said, “Soon you will learn.” How is that he could have been there both a short time and a long time?

What does this mean?

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, says that he knows what time is until someone asks him. Then he wonders if time really exists at all. For the past is no more, the future is not yet, and the present would be eternal if it did not slip into the past where it is also no more. Augustine concludes that if the present and future really exist, they exist in the tri-fold present where we experience a past-present and a future-present.

Again, this is a gift of careful observation.

We begin to glimpse in these observations a steady march of temporal transitioning from one present duration to another–or, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, a transition from one actual occasion of experience to another.


After observation, comes action. And with action comes decisions of import that we do not always get right. In many cases, we’re not even sure ourselves whether we have done the right thing. Life is teaching us many lessons at once.

In one of the more straightforwardly philosophical moments in the film, Han Fei and Caine discuss the seeming paradox between destiny and free will. Are our actions determined by our destiny, or are we free to act as we please? Han Fei’s conclusion, though he admits that he doesn’t know how it works, is that both are at play and that they somehow go together.

In Alfred North Whitehead’s process system of metaphysics, we are guided by an ideal at each moment of our lives, and our decisions are influenced by the weight of all the decisions we and others have made in the past. But in the end, we still have a choice to make between a range of options, including our felt perception of the given ideal for that circumstance. After our decisions are made, we inevitably find ourselves comparing what we have done with our awareness of that ideal.

It turns out that Caine had not simply come to America out of curiosity. He was fleeing the wrath of the Emperor of China for having killed his nephew. Joining Master Po on the road to the Forbidden City, the old master was fatally shot by the Emperor’s nephew. Caine, seeking to stop the violence, killed the imperial nephew with the throw of a spear. Dying, Master Po, told Caine that he was like a son to him, handed over his pouch with his few possessions, and instructed Caine to leave the country.

Fong heard through the grapevine of an imperial search in America for a Shaolin monk for murder. There is a price on Caine’s head. One of the other Chinese laborers in the camp, who has sold out as a spy, or informant, to management, overhears this and takes this new information to the supervisor of the camp. In exchange for this information, he is given a little warm, nutritious food. Abraham Maslow wrote about a hierarchy of needs. When human beings do not have their basic survival needs met, it is much more unlikely that they will seek to develop their higher human capacities, including their spiritual life. So, the Chinese government is informed from afar, and we realize that it’s only a matter of time before Caine is confronted by their representatives.

In this way, the web of life is spun. Many people acting for different reasons with different goals. The effects of their actions overlap, and people are hurt along the way. It is not always immediately clear as people do what they think is best for themselves, their families, their friends, and their countries, what is right and what is wrong.

Having seen too many of his fellow workers die, Fong understandably becomes frustrated and wants to take action quickly before any others die. He is ready to use violent means to take the camp away from the camp management. Caine, partly because he knows that management has the means to put down such a rebellion, urges Fong to remain calm, but he fails. Fong is now hot-headed, and the supervisor’s men shoot Fong after he takes but one step in their direction. The other men are obviously angered by this killing. But Caine urges restraint. They must wait for another time, and not rush to their deaths unwisely and needlessly.

Caine’s willingness to wait for action also reveals a trust in the way of nature. There is an old saying that “good things come to one who waits.” Such a belief implies implicit faith that the universe is good, and that with time, even the most evil things must fall before the forces of good. This type of crisis is what Caine had been trained to deal with. He was taught to avoid conflicts like these when possible. But when unavoidable, they have to be dealt with in the right way.

Three great spiritual philosophers taught of the importance of the middle way in governing our actions. Both Confucius and the Buddha taught of middle way ethical theories. Aristotle, who referred to his own middle way theory as the golden mean, used the virtue of courage as his primary example. In most situations, it is possible to either do too much of something or too little. The real key is to learn to get it just right–in the middle. Most of us, he taught, shy away from something that is frightening. To the extreme, this is called cowardice. In overcoming this tendency toward cowardice, it’s possible to overcompensate and rush into confrontation with something that is frightening. This is often called rashness. Fong, in this scene, acted rashly. He got himself killed needlessly.

True courage involves the wisdom of holding one’s center in the midst of something frightening. This is why Hemingway identified courage as “grace under pressure.” Caine also had been taught to recognize the difference between a subtle strength, energy, or life force called chi, and the more obvious, gross strength of the physical body. The latter depends on youth and muscle mass, and fades in old age. The former can be carefully refined and developed throughout one’s life. The acute awareness that comes through meditation increases one’s ability to develop the use of this subtle energy. In turn, one’s awareness is increased through attunement to this subtle energy. Caine’s actions would have to be guided by careful attunement with this chi, or what in Star Wars became popularly identified (just a few years later) as the force. This often involves an appropriate channeling of energies. You learn not to confront an aggressive force head-on, but to redirect those energies and thereby neutralize their destructiveness. Nature is full of such lessons, and the careful observation of nature can be the best classroom.


I wish I could say that after watching this series, one could clearly see when self-defense is appropriate and when it is not. Alas, it is as muddled for us as it is for the characters. Caine defends himself in the end against the Shaolin monk turned bounty-hunter who is sent after Caine by the Emperor. Caine emerges victorious, but says “there is no honor in the taking of a human life.” We do find ourselves in conflict in the world. 

Sometimes it is unavoidable.

And sometimes we are right, but at other times, we are wrong. It is a murky business filled with pain and danger. At least we can see in “Kung Fu” that Caine is saddened by the web of conflict that he finds himself in. He does not revel in it. And perhaps that is the best lesson to be taken away about the violence. Yes, people step on each other’s toes in this world. Yes, people get into conflicts. But the proper and wisest attitude to have toward these conflicts is to avoid them when possible, to redirect aggressive energies in ways that neutralize their damaging effects, and only use as much force as is necessary to restore harmony to the situation. Our judgments may not always be accurate, and we may not achieve the ideal we were aiming for, but we will minimize the damage when acting on these principles.

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