Yes, Grasshopper

We use the local library a lot. It is useful for incidental reading, occasional music and best of all, movies. It is a chance to get documentaries that I would otherwise not see on my own, movies that I would not rent from Netflix and the occasional old TV show. So it was a pleasant surprise to stumble onto the first season of my favorite early 70’s show, Kung Fu.

The show aired in 1972 and recounted the adventures of a half Chinese, Shao Lin priest who was branded an outlaw after he avenges (commits murder) the wrongful slaying of his beloved and blind master. As a result, he is forced to flee China to the American west where his skills are unique, to say the least. Most episodes were an illustration of racism. But it was the Buddhist wisdom that pervaded the show that gave it a unique angle. Never before, or since has a show had such esoteric leanings. As the monk makes his way across the old west he encounters tribal people, old chiefs, Chinese rail workers and a host of nasty white people who are ready to blame him for all of their ills.

“If a man dwells on the past, then he robs the present; but if a man ignores the past, he may rob the future. The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past.” — Master Po

This show had a big influence on me. It was a breakthrough for television show, a western no less, to take the focus off of violence, and let it rest on peaceful resolutions. Somehow I did not remember the tepidness of the fight scenes, but in reviewing, they were done in slow motion. Chang Kwai Caine hardly ever seems to hit his opponents, but quietly dispenses with them without much fanfare. It was rumored that Bruce Lee was penciled in for this part (as claimed by his widow, but not by the producers.) David Carradine brought a quiet gentleness to the character, who seems bewildered by the nearsighted concerns of the people he encounters. It is hard to imagine if Bruce Lee could have brought this kind of subtlety. It would have placed too much emphasis on the fighting, and not on the philosophy, which is the heart of the plot.

Throughout the show, Caine has flash backs to teaching moments as a young monk. It is here that many of the key bits of wisdom are imparted to him and to us. I remember very clearly (I was 16 or 17) the young Caine asked his master “What is truth?” to which the reply came “Truth is that which binds a man together.”

My son sat willingly beside me as I watched 3 of the episodes (one featured a very young Jodi Foster.) He loves martial arts films. He has become a big fan of Donny Yen, who I think may be the best since or even better than Bruce Lee. If you have a chance to see Ip Man, the fight scenes are stunning.

What was great about Kung Fu, is that at that time, martial arts was fairly unknown to us westerners. We associated cool fighting moves with it. But a deeper understanding of life, with meditation and contemplation, at its core, was truly new to us then. I may have already been predisposed to this type of thinking, but this came just at the right time in my life. A time where I was beginning to ask serious questions.

I have already put the two other disks on hold at the library. Soon, I can once again relive the whole saga.

“If you plant rice, rice will grow. If you plant fear, fear will grow.”—Caine

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