Why It’s The Perfect Zen Movie
The DreamWorks Movie kung fu panda came out in 2008 and was an instant hit, spawning an entire franchise of movies and TV shows, including a new show on Netflix. It was praised by critics at the time for being particularly colorful and fun, with great fight scenes and an engaging plot. And the movie was a recipe for success, with a hilarious and clever script by king of the hill writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, and an all-star cast including Jack Black as clumsy panda Po, James Hong as his goose father Mr. Ping, Dustin Hoffman as Professor Shifu, and the Furious Five – a martial arts group that included Crane (David Cross), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). Hans Zimmer wrote the score, traveling to China and familiarizing himself with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra so that he could feel the authenticity of the music. A review from Time magazine described the film as “a masterclass in crafty visual art and ultra-satisfying entertainment.”
kung fu panda was also very popular with audiences, becoming the highest-grossing non-Shrek film for DreamWorks at the time. It was also nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature. The plot follows Po, a chubby underdog who dreams of “legends full of legendary warriors whose exploits are the stuff of legends”. He aspires to be a skilled warrior, leading an adventurous life, rather than his current life working in his father’s noodle shop. He falls into a situation where he is proclaimed as the prophesied Dragon Warrior, who is destined to save their village from the return of the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), and the film moves through his struggles to learn martial arts. , overcoming his self-doubt and becoming his best self, eventually defeating Tai Lung.
This film has a lot of heart. It’s about believing in yourself and believing that things will work out. But beneath the film’s obvious message lies an underlying stream of thought inspired by Zen Buddhism. Zen was first developed in ancient China and was originally called Chan, and the film makes several different references to it. There’s a scene where Po interrupts Crane, for example, who was working on the calligraphy of the word “Chan”. And that’s not the only reference to Chinese philosophy and practice scattered throughout the film.
kung fu panda is notable in part because of his martial arts, which were highly regarded upon the film’s release, and demonstrate the greatest strengths of animation. The fight scenes are incredibly well done, with awesome and stylish animated choreography. Whether it’s Tai Lung battling the Furious Five or Po and his teacher Shifu dueling with chopsticks over a dumpling, the fight scenes are memorable and invoke the kind of fun, fantasy martial arts that make kung fu movies so enjoyable. Each of the Furious Five members draw inspiration from a different kung fu discipline – Tigress uses Tiger Claw Kung Fu; Crane uses Fujian White Crane Kung Fu; The monkey uses Monkey Kung Fu; Viper uses Snake Kung Fu; and Mantis uses the Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu. Even the evil Tai Lung uses Leopard Kung Fu. The freedom of animation allows these martial arts styles to be exaggerated to accommodate animals that also use them, such as Tigress growling or using her claws as she moves in actual Tiger Claw Kung Fu form.
It’s partly an ode to ’70s martial arts movies, which screenwriters Aibel and Berger likely grew up watching. The plot even somewhat mirrors the 1978 Jackie Chan film. Drunken Master (a.k.a Drunk monkey in tiger’s eye), about a sloth who undergoes intense training to become a great fighter. And many other Jackie Chan films reference the martial arts styles that inspired the Furious Five concept, such as Serpent and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Little Canton Tiger. But the Furious Five could be the direct descendants of Chang Cheh’s film five deadly venoms; the film’s five martial artists; The lizard, centipede, snake, scorpion, and toad all practice a different style of kung fu.
What many people may not know is that Zen is heavily influenced by martial arts. The founder of Zen, a legendary man named Bodhidharma, is also the founder of kung fu. According to Shaolin tradition, Bodhidharma visited the monks of the famous Shaolin Temple and criticized their poor physical form. So he taught them physical discipline in the form of kung fu and mental discipline in meditation. This isn’t the only wild and fantastical story about Bodhidharma, which may not have existed at all. But the legend persists and is closely linked to Zen Buddhism.
Master Oogway, the wise old turtle (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) who believed in Po from the start, is the best vehicle of wisdom in the film. Much of what he says may sound cliché, but often has ancient roots in Zen teachings, as well as other Chinese philosophies. For example, Master Shifu comes running to him with bad news. “Ah Shifu,” Oogway replies, “there is only news. There is no good or bad.” (Although after hearing the news, Oogway comically remarks, “That is bad news!”)
This is similar to an old Chinese tale usually called “The Story of the Chinese Farmer”. It’s about a farmer who one day loses a horse, and all the villagers notice how unfortunate it is. He only answers “Maybe”. The next day, the horse returns, bringing with it two other wild horses. The villagers proclaim good luck, but the farmer still only replies “Maybe”. The next day, her son breaks his leg trying to train one of the horses. And the next day, his son is exempted from being drafted for the war, because of the broken leg. The farmer never swings from his “Maybe” at every event. There is no good or bad news; there is only news – because who knows what may happen in the future?
Oogway also advises Shifu to let go of the illusion of control – which is similar to Zen and Taoist teachings. Shifu tries to argue that there are things you box control, but Oogway points out that a peach seed will always become a peach tree, and never anything else. He also told Shifu earlier in the movie, “Your mind is like this water, my friend. When it is agitated, it becomes difficult to see. But if you let it calm down, the answer becomes clear.” The wording of this echoes Bruce Lee’s famous quote “Be like water, my friend”. And it’s also very similar to the practice of Buddhist meditation. In some types of meditation, the goal is to reach a point of stillness in the mind, where there are no ripples of thought, judgment, or worry about the past or the future. There is only here and now, as Oogway points out in another scene. Shifu gazes into the calm water, but instead of focusing on wisdom and reflecting on himself, he sees the dragon scroll reflected in the water and believes this is the answer. But the scroll turns out to be empty – and that’s the most zen message in the whole film.
The secret ingredient is… nothing!
Throughout the film, Po’s father, Mr. Ping, talks about an old family soup recipe with a secret ingredient – it’s even called “secret ingredient soup”. He hints that Po is ready to one day learn what this secret is – until he finally tells her that it’s nothing. “Wait, wait,” Po said, “is that just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?” “It’s not necessary,” replies Mr. Ping. “To do something special, you just have to believe it’s special.”
This message returns with the Dragon Scroll, which Tai Lung escaped from prison to steal in order to become the ultimate martial arts master. Shifu gives the scroll to Po, telling him that after Po reads it, “Legend says you will be able to hear the flapping of a butterfly’s wing.” Po’s excitement and anticipation increase. “And see the light in the deepest cave,” Shifu continues. “You will feel the universe moving around you.” The Dragon Scroll is said to contain the ultimate secret to being the best martial arts warrior of all time – and when Po opens it, he finds it empty. No words. He sees only a faint image of his own reflection.
This is a very common Zen trick. Not only to play on expectations and then subvert them, but to reveal the secret behind the secret ingredient soup – that there was never a trick to begin with. There is no shortcut to enlightenment. And in fact, it is only the belief that enlightenment is special that makes it so. The ancient Chan (Zen) monks used this teaching as a magic trick, sometimes sending students chasing after their tails in search of a secret that did not exist. But many of them also pulled back the curtain, revealing there was no secret to getting started.
The most famous example of this in Zen Buddhism comes from Bodhidharma. In the very first koan of the Zen book The Blue Cliff Disc, Bodhidharma visits the Chinese Emperor Wu. The Emperor asked him, “What is the highest meaning of holy truths?” Bodhidharma famously replied, “Vast emptiness – nothing sacred.” Another famous teaching of Bodhidharma (which may not have been written by him) is:
A special transmission out of the scriptures
Not based on words and letters;
By pointing directly at [one’s] disturbs
It allows to see in [one’s own true] nature and [thus] achieve Buddhahood.
And these are not the only examples. The famous Chan master Zhaozhou (alias Joshu) was once asked if a dog had the nature of Buddha. He responded with the word “Mu”, which is a kind of negation that does not mean “No”, as much as it means “Not this” or nothingness. “Mu” has since become a famous koan and mental practice for Zen students to this day. There is also Chan Master Dongshan, who, about to leave his teacher Yunyan, said, “Later, if I am asked to describe your teachings, what should I tell people? Yunyan replied, “That’s just it.” It’s clear, simple, and right in front of us, thoughtful as the Dragon Scroll mirrors Po’s face on itself. There is nothing holy, nothing special, and the thing we are looking for is just this – we already have it.
Shifu is appalled at the emptiness of the scroll and orders the students to evacuate. He then faces Tai Lung alone and is ultimately defeated. But then Po appears and taunts Tai Lung with the coveted scroll. They fight for a while, until Tai Lung defeats Po and takes the scroll – opening it to find the same void. “It’s nothing!” he shouts furiously. “I didn’t understand at first either,” Po replies, standing up. “There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”
As the Time magazine reviewer said, “The film’s message—that strength and discipline cannot be taught, but must be discovered within—has a wise heart that matches the artistry of the film. It’s the secret ingredient of an animated feature. That and some sublime panda-monium kung-fury.”