The Deeper Meaning of Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Will the real Kung Fu Panda please stand up?

Alright, it’s time. I’m finally doing it.

For the past couple of years there have been three trilogies of movies that I’ve been wanting to tackle on this podcast:

The Matrix

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Series

Kung Fu Panda

It’s a lot of movie watching, a lot of analysis and a lot of writing.

It’s time to man up and do it.

So, here we go with the manliest of the bunch: Kung Fu Panda.


Hello Spiritual Seekers and welcome to a brand new episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.

As always I’m your host, Mark, and today I’m finally tackling a trio of movies that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long, long time: Kung Fu Panda 1, 2 and 3.

Honestly, I love Kung Fu Panda.

Po, the protagonist, is one of my favourite heroes. As far as I’ve been able to tell, thus far, Po is one of the only Heroes in any set of movies that makes it all the way around the wheel of the Hero’s Journey and actually begins his Mentor’s Journey.

Oh, wait. Lightning McQueen began his Mentor’s Journey as well.

Okay, well, what I said still applies and Po is my favourite of those two Heroes and I think Po makes it further into his Mentor’s Journey. Maybe. Watching and writing about these movies is teaching me a lot about being a teacher and how this fits within our own Hero’s Journeys.

Anyway, these Kung Fu Panda movies also highly represent what I have adopted for my tagline for this podcast: Change Your Self. Change Your World. As we make our way through each of these Kung Fu Panda movies, I’ll point out to you how Po changes the world around him by changing himself first.

As we begin, I am once again going to encourage you to envision that this movie is happening inside of you. That you are the Hero. So, I want you to see yourself as…

…Master Shifu.

Wait. What?

Ha! Gotcha there, didn’t I?

But, hey, it’s true.

There are two ways of viewing Kung Fu Panda. Yes, Po absolutely is the protagonist and the Hero. Yes, this movie is the beginning of Po’s Hero’s Journey.

But Kung Fu Panda – and parts of Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3 –  is Master Shifu’s story.

He is a red panda after all.

Hopefully Film Theorists doesn’t work this one out before I’m done with it. Nothing on Kung Fu Panda in their list of videos yet. *Whew*

So, view yourself as either Po or as Master Shifu and I’ll explain the alternate points-of-view as we go through the film.

Kung Fu Panda begins with Po having a dream about being a Kung Fu master. However, he wakes up to his same-old, day to day life, his Normal Existence or Normal World, in his father’s noodle restaurant.

Po’s father, Mr. Ping, a goose, asks Po what he dreamed about.

Spoiler alert: [whispered…loudly] Po’s adopted! We’re not supposed to know this until the second movie!

Anyway, Po’s Call to Adventure, his desire, his bliss is to learn Kung Fu, but he seems to be embarrassed about this desire or he thinks it’s impossible.

Honestly, I think Po feels that he’s not worthy. More on that possibility a little later.

So, Po tells his father that he had dreamed about noodles and Mr. Ping takes this as a sign that Po is ready to know the secret ingredient of the Secret Ingredient Soup and to fulfill his destiny and take over the restaurant.

We also find out that Mr. Ping, when he was “young and crazy” had once wanted to run away from the noodle restaurant and make tofu, but he didn’t because he felt it was a stupid dream.

Keep that tofu dream in mind for Kung Fu Panda 2.

And do you see the lessons, good for children and adults, already being stacked up here?

I’m always telling you, Dear Listeners, to pay attention to these animated films. There are more layers of truth in a lot of these than most live-action movies contain.

In the next scene we are transported to the Jade Palace, or the Special World in Hero’s Journey terms, and here we are introduced to Master Shifu and old Master Oogway. We can deduce pretty quickly that Shifu is gruff, impatient, intolerant, worrisome and that something gnaws at him constantly.

Keep that in mind as well.

Master Oogway tells Shifu that he has had a vision that Tai Lung will escape from prison and that it is time to find the one who will become the Dragon Warrior.

The Dragon Warrior is said to obtain his power by reading from the Dragon Scroll and it is this scroll that Tai Lung, a violent and power-hungry snow leopard, seeks to obtain.

Shifu demands that word be sent to double the prison guards and weapons and make sure Tai Lung will not escape. A goose flies off with this message as Master Oogway states that “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”

This is the primary setup for the movie: Tai Lung, the Villain, and Po, the Hero must eventually face off. This is a concept that I have seen often, but I don’t think I have voiced it on the podcast yet: when the Hero is called, the Villain is often released.

These are Yin and Yang archetypes within us. We desire to be the Hero, but we have to acknowledge that we often have the impulses of the Villain as well.

Now, back to Kung Fu Panda.

Master Oogway announces the ceremony to select the Dragon Warrior and posters are put up all over the Valley of Peace. Po sees a poster and dashes out to get to the Jade Palace, but he is a fat panda and stairs are his nemesis…and there are many, many, many stairs leading to the Jade Palace.

So, Po arrives late and the doors are closed to him.

Remember this: the doors are closed to Po. I’ll come back to this point a little later.

Through a series of slapstick events, Po eventually makes his way up and over the wall and into the Jade Palace. He knocks himself out and when he comes to, Master Oogway is pointing at him.

Po has been chosen as the Dragon Warrior.

Master Shifu is furious about this and vows that he will make the panda quit by the next morning.

Meanwhile, the messenger goose arrives at the prison where Tai Lung is kept in chains.

And, of course, Tai Lung escapes because of a single feather dropped by that messenger goose.

Just as Master Oogway had foretold.

So, should Master Oogway have said anything at all to Master Shifu about Tai Lung escaping? Did Master Oogway start the entire chain of events?

Again, keep that in mind as well.

Back at the Jade Palace, Po’s training has begun and Master Shifu and the Furious Five discover that Po actually knows no Kung Fu at all.

Discouraged and feeling out of his element, Po goes and finds something to eat and Master Oogway finds him and what Oogway says to Po essentially boils down to, “Tomorrow is a new day.”

The next morning, Master Shifu thinks Po has quit and gone home, but he hasn’t. He got up early and attempted to train on his own…to mildly disastrous results, but at least he tried.

So, now Master Shifu really tries to get Po to quit by basically beating him senseless throughout the day.

However, Po refuses to quit. He keeps taking the beatings and keeps coming back for more. It pretty much seems like Shifu and the Furious Five cannot harm Po at all.

This at least earns Po a modicum of respect from the Furious Five. As Mantis is giving Po some acupuncture therapy to treat his wounds, Tigress relates to Po the story of Tai Lung.

It turns out that baby Tai Lung was left on the doorstep of the Jade Palace and Master Shifu took him in. Shifu trained Tai Lung and treated him as his own son. He was so proud of him and his accomplishments.

They both wished for Tai Lung to become the Dragon Warrior, but when Master Oogway refused him the Dragon Scroll, Tai Lung tried to take it by force.

He laid waste to the Valley of Peace and Master Shifu couldn’t fight him because he loved Tai Lung too much. Master Oogway incapacitated Tai Lung and locked him in prison thereafter.

And Master Shifu has not been at peace ever since.

Master Shifu will never attain the inner peace that he so desperately seeks until Tai Lung is destroyed.

At this point, Shifu gets the news that Tai Lung has escaped from prison and he runs to tell Master Oogway and to ask Oogway what they should do.

Oogway tells Shifu that he must believe that Po, the Dragon Warrior, can stop Tai Lung. He tells Shifu to let go of the illusion of control – that neither Po nor Shifu will fulfill their destiny until Shifu does so.

And with that, Oogway says that his time has come and he disappears in a cloud of peach blossoms leaving Shifu alone.

Alright now, I finally have enough pieces here to put together some of the picture that I am trying to create for you. Hero’s Journey and Archetype time, Dear Listeners!

Remember how I said that Po doesn’t feel like he is worthy?

Remember how Master Shifu is gruff, impatient, intolerant, worrisome and that something gnaws at him constantly?

Remember that I said that the Hero and the Villain can often be released or called at the same time?

Remember how the doors to the Jade Palace were closed to Po?

Remember Shifu’s vow to make Po quit?

Remember how I mentioned that it was really Master Oogway that began this whole chain of events by mentioning his vision that Tai Lung would return?

And now Master Oogway leaves Master Shifu – just as all good gurus must do. If Oogway stayed, Shifu and Po would rely on him to fix their problems once again, instead of learning the lessons life has for them.

So, Shifu must train Po on his own.

Po. The very one Shifu despises as being weak and ineffectual and who couldn’t possibly be the Dragon Warrior.

Just like we despise the supposedly weak and ineffectual parts of our Self when our Pride and Arrogance, our desire for Power or maybe even our Addictions rise to the surface of our being.

Kung Fu Panda is the completion of Master Shifu’s Personal Hero’s Journey.

It was Master Shifu who desired the power of the Dragon Scroll. His Pride and Arrogance and Lust for Power, or shall we say, his Programmed or False Ego, Tai Lung, was shut away by his Inner Wisdom, Master Oogway.

Remember that I’ve often said that our Ego is our protection device? It should protect us from the outside world and it should protect the outside world from us.

This is why Tai Lung has to be “imprisoned” and why the Furious Five have replaced him: they are a more complex and well-developed Ego.

But trying to always hold a part of yourself at bay is difficult for even a short time and impossible for any great length of time.

This is why Master Shifu needs Hope. He has virtually given up on Hope. Hope is weak and ineffectual.

Po is Master Shifu’s inner Hero.

Po is Hope. Po is also Fun, Laughter, Light-Heartedness, Joy. Po is Master Shifu’s Vulnerability and Sense of Humour.

Are you picking up what I’m laying down here? Have I convinced you?

How about we finish off the film to gather a few more examples?

First of all, the Furious Five leave the Jade Palace to attempt to stop Tai Lung from reaching the Valley of Peace.

While they are off on that mission, Master Shifu takes Po to the Pool of Sacred Tears – the birthplace of Kung Fu.

This place is Master Shifu’s deep inner consciousness. Don’t believe me? Think about it this way:

How long did the Furious Five and Tai Lung fight for?

How long did it take Po to learn Kung Fu?

The fact is, we don’t know, because there is no time within your deep inner consciousness, within your mind.

Why do you think you feel embarrassed or bad about something that you did 1 year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago?

Why do people in their 80s still feel like they are the same person as they were in their 20s or 30s or 40s?

The Mind, your consciousness, does not age. Yes, it grows in complexity and it learns and changes, but it does not age. All times are now to the Mind. Which is true, all times are now, but we have a hard time convincing our physical mind of that.

In terms of the movie, as I said, this sacred place is Master Shifu’s inner consciousness. It’s the depths of his soul. It is here where Shifu teaches his Inner Hero the ways of Kung Fu.

One of the best moments is the fight scene between Master Shifu and Po over the last dumpling at the 57 minute point of the film. It’s a highly significant moment for both characters. It’s in this moment, while training Po that Shifu finds his Joy in teaching once again and where Po finds his bliss in Kung Fu.

Thus, Po is now ready to read the Dragon Scroll and become the Dragon Warrior.

But, what happens? The scroll is blank. It says nothing and the hopes and dreams of all are dashed.

The Furious Five and Po run to help the people of the village to evacuate the area.

Shifu stays in the Jade Palace to face Tai Lung.

During the evacuation, Po is very downcast and depressed and as he helps his father abandon their old restaurant, Mr. Ping reveals to Po the secret ingredient of his Secret Ingredient soup.

And the secret ingredient is…nothing.

There is no secret ingredient. To make something special you just have to believe that it’s special.

And with that Apotheosis moment, Po looks at the Dragon Scroll once again.

The scroll isn’t blank. It’s a mirror.

The answer to all of our problems, my Dear Heroes, has been in front of every single one of us our entire life.

Po understands all this in a flash and he runs back to the Jade Palace to face Tai Lung.

Meanwhile, Shifu and Tai Lung have been fighting an extremely significant battle. Pay attention to the words and language used and I’m certain you’ll be able to decipher how Tai Lung is Shifu’s false Ego: the Ego that is more or less forced on us by society.

Even look at how Tai Lung appears before Shifu. One moment he is not there, the next he is. He was always there. He never truly left.

But now is the time for that False Ego to be destroyed and Shifu cannot do it on his own, but the Hero, Po, comes to his rescue.

Po and Tai Lung fight for control of the Dragon Scroll and Tai Lung eventually gains it. He opens it, revelling in the power he believes he will find within it.

He is dismayed by only seeing his reflection and even when Po reveals the Truth to him, he still doesn’t understand. Tai Lung can’t understand the concept of finding power within himself as he is always looking for an outside source of power.

Tai Lung doesn’t understand that he could have been the Dragon Warrior all along. The quest is inward, not outward.

Po defeats Tai Lung, the people return to the village. The Furious Five bow to Po and honour him with the title of Master.

Po then remembers Master Shifu was injured and he runs back to the Jade Palace.

Shifu is surprised and happy to see that Po survived. He states that he has brought peace to the valley and, with the False Ego defeated, Shifu is finally at peace with himself.

See? I told you that Master Shifu was the Kung Fu Panda!

And there we have it, Dear Listeners. My interpretation of this highly significant and deeply powerful spiritual movie, Kung Fu Panda. I really hope you join me for the next episode where we will further explore Po’s Hero’s Journey and Mr. Ping’s dream of making tofu in Kung Fu Panda 2.

If you haven’t seen any of these movies yet, please embrace your inner child and go and watch them.

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My own inner panda would like to buy some ingredients for bean buns.

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I have been your host, Mark. This has been a look at the Deeper Meaning of Kung Fu Panda and I will leave you with one final message for today:

You are the secret ingredient.

You are the Hero.

You have all the weapons you need within you.

Now go and be the goddamn Dragon Warrior of you own life so you can change your Self and ultimately change your world.

You have all the weapons and knowledge you need within you. I will see you on the next episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts. Hiiii-ya!

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