The Deeper Meaning of Kung Fu Panda 3 (aka How to Attain Enlightenment)

Welcome to my Deeper Meaning of Movies review of Kung Fu Panda 3. If you haven’t watched or listened to my first two Kung Fu Panda videos or podcasts, I highly recommend that you do so.

I also suggest that you check out my last Hero’s Journey episode about the Refusal of Return. Kung Fu Panda 3 is all about this Return stage of the Hero’s Journey and some of the references and terminology talked about in that last podcast may be helpful.

Because, the fact is, we simply don’t see this part of the story very often. If at all.

Now, I enjoy movies and I’ve seen quite a few, but I’m definitely not a cinephile. Maybe there are movies out there that portray this Return stage of the Hero’s Journey, but I think I can confidently say that there are very, very few of them because Kung Fu Panda 3 is the only one that I’m personally aware of.

Because in this third installment of the Kung Fu Panda movies, we come to the fruition of Po’s Hero’s Journey – the real reason he was sent on his quest (which began when he was a baby). It is time for Po to bring the “bliss” of Kung Fu to the pandas and for Po to reach his greatest potential and become his Highest Self.

Oh, and for Po to avoid becoming a Cult leader.


Hello, Spiritual Seekers, and welcome to part 3 of our deep dive into the Kung Fu Panda movies as presented by me, Mark, the host and creator of Think Spiritual Podcasts.

This has been an epic adventure and I’ve really enjoyed watching these movies multiple times and I’ve enjoyed writing the scripts. However, for some strange reason it has taken me awhile to get to writing and recording this third breakdown of the Kung Fu Panda franchise.

I’m not entirely certain why. I’ve had all the ideas swirling around in my brain for quite a while. I think I know what I want to say, yet something keeps holding me back from the writing and producing process for this one.

Perhaps I’m reluctant to finish it. I certainly have plans for more Hero’s Journey and Deeper Meaning of Movies episodes and some of those will be more trilogies, but there is something about finishing this one that makes me a little sad.

We are all so often in such a hurry to complete our journeys that we forget how much we’ll miss it when it’s over.

Even though the journey isn’t over. When one journey ends, a new one begins.

And that is what Kung Fu Panda 3 is as well: the full fruition of Po’s and Master Shifu’s Hero’s Journeys and the beginnings of new journeys for them and other characters.

So, let’s begin this final deep dive into a Kung Fu Panda film…for now, that is. Who knows what the future holds?

One thing I’ve noticed with Kung Fu Panda 3 is that it is not quite as packed-full with symbolism as Kung Fu Panda 2 was. The villain in the second movie, Shen, was so complex and Po’s own transformation was so complex that it created a large amount of interwoven concepts.

We don’t have that problem with Kung Fu Panda 3. In this case it’s actually a good thing that the characters are a little less well-developed and…uh…3-dimensional –  even though it’s a 3D animated film.

Okay, nevermind that. For this episode, I’m not really going to follow the plot of Kung Fu Panda 3 in a linear fashion. I’ll meander a fair bit and try to tie together all the primary lessons that this movie has for us.

However, I will start at the very beginning:

In the opening scene, we get to see Master Oogway in the Spirit World. It’s actually pretty important that we see Oogway first in this movie and I’ll eventually explain why.

What we get next is an immediate introduction to our new villain, Kai: a mad bull with an immense taste for power and revenge. In one sense he’s a stronger blend of Tai Lung and Shen. He wants to attain ultimate power by literally sucking the life force or chi out of every living Kung Fu master.

Kai takes Oogway’s chi which then gives him the power to return to the mortal world.

Meanwhile, at the Jade Palace, Master Shifu is giving Po a new task: it is time for the Dragon Warrior to begin the Path of the Teacher.

And this is something that Po doesn’t want to do because Po knows that he doesn’t know it all.

He knows who he is as the Dragon Warrior, but he doesn’t know who he is as a teacher.

It’s the position we’ll all be put in at one point or another. If you’re good at something, you will eventually be required to teach it.


So that you can learn even more about yourself and the subject you’re teaching. It’s time to stretch. It’s time to grow.

And it’s the same for Po in this third movie. He has to take this Path of the Teacher or what is really the beginnings of the Return stage of his Hero’s Journey.

Po is always pretty good at learning new lessons. Once he understands something he is very teachable if not outright able to learn something intuitively.

So, he’s pretty upset to learn that he is not immediately a good teacher.

In fact, he’s so upset that he runs back to what is comfortable and familiar: home.

How many of us have done that before? Something happens that is so new and makes us so uncomfortable and we just want to run back to our oldest and most comfortable habits – whether they’re good for us or not.

In Po’s case, he goes back to Mr. Ping’s noodle restaurant where he can essentially just be a kid again instead of carrying the weight and responsibility of being the Dragon Warrior.

And this is where, shall we say, the Universe intervenes and sends Po on his Return Journey to the “Normal World”…even though from a story-telling standpoint it’s a new “Special World” designed for this third movie.

But in terms of Po’s personal Hero’s Journey, this is his Return to the world of the panda’s.

Bear with me here.

Po is a panda and he was born in a panda village, but Po, as a baby, was unwillingly and unwittingly torn away from that panda village and thrust upon a Hero’s Journey.

For Po, that beginning became the buried trauma that we saw him come to atonement with in Kung Fu Panda 2.

But before that could happen, Po had to grow into the Hero. In Kung Fu Panda 1, we saw him learn Kung Fu and become the Hero that saved the Valley of Peace.

And now, in Kung Fu Panda 3, Po’s birth father has found him and Po has to return to the pandas.

And Po has to bring the bliss of Kung Fu to the pandas as well.

And why is that?

Well, it goes back to that first scene where we saw Master Oogway in the Spirit World. Master Oogway is the “Highest Self” – he is the pillar and pinnacle that all Kung Fu Masters look up to.

The Kung Fu Panda trilogy and especially Kung Fu Panda 3 is ultimately about the path to becoming that Highest Self and to personal enlightenment.

“Enlightenment” is a pretty broad term and means a lot of different things, but it’s the best word to use to describe what happens to Po near the end of this third film.

Does Po become enlightened? Does he become his Highest Self?

Uh, yeah, he certainly does.

Let’s go back to the very first scene in Kung Fu Panda 1 – Po’s dream where he is a Kung Fu Master. Look at his clothing.

Now look at his clothing when he masters chi and becomes his Highest Self in Kung Fu Panda 3. They are the same.

All along Po knew who he was at his Highest Self. Okay, his Highest Self wasn’t as cool and tough or as badass as he wanted to be – and trust me, we’re all in that same position. There is no way I’ll ever be as cool or as tough as I would like to be.

But at his very core, Po knew exactly who he was all along. He simply had to take the journey to unlock his fullest potential…just as we all do.

Also, check out this scene:

See that? Po tells Oogway, “You’re all enlightened and stuff” and Oogway gives him a knowing look and Po gets a weird look on his face and says, “Oh!”

And then this scene as well:

Po comes back to the Mortal World and for one brief moment, his friends and family all see him as a bright and shining enlightened being.

And then he’s suddenly just Po again and flung unceremoniously to the ground.

That’s what enlightenment is like, folks. I’m quite certain that the Buddha had moments exactly like that.

Enlightenment is moments of pure bliss and clarity followed by the mundane tasks of paying bills and perhaps even moments of falling back into old, unhealthy habits.

And this is why Po was sent on his Hero’s Journey and what it was that he had to bring back to the pandas: the lost knowledge of their greatest potential. The ability to unlock the power of Chi that was already within them.

Po did this by teaching the pandas Kung Fu in a way that worked for them. Po taught by bringing out the best in each and every panda – just as Master Shifu had done for him.

Because Po could have gone a very different route with his teaching method. He could have become like Kai.

Kai is the arrogant teacher who believes that they know it all. Yes, they may have been enlightened, they may have found bliss, but now they think they have The Answer and they will destroy every other “Master” in their path in their attempts to “prove them all wrong”.

He’s a cult-leader – a megalomaniac obsessed with his own power and his own way. Perhaps dogmatist is the best word to use for him.

Master Shifu could have taken that same path with Po. He could have told Po that he has to teach exactly as Shifu or Oogway has taught.

However, Master Shifu has learned much throughout these movies as well. As I’ve stated often – these movies can be viewed as his own internal, personal journey.

So, Shifu has already told Po that he doesn’t want Po to be Shifu – or Oogway – he wants Po to be Po.

And Po can’t turn the other pandas into himself, but he can teach them to be better and stronger versions of their Self.

This is why the pandas and Mr. Ping and Tigress are able to give Po their Chi while he is in the spirit realm: they have each become their own gurus.

This is where Kai goes wrong and this is where we can so easily go wrong.

Are we going to force our way of living upon others and continually insist it is the only way as Kai does by taking Chi to gain power?

Because if we do this, we have to ask ourselves a very important question: what if our one single way turns out to be the wrong one? What if something in our method and/or philosophy is shown to be incorrect?

Because if that happens, it will tear us apart and destroy every step we’ve taken on our Hero’s Journey.

In Kung Fu Panda 3 Kai is unmade when he realizes that he did not have all the answers after all. The new knowledge is too much to handle and obliterates all he had achieved.

The villains in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy all represent an alternate path that Po could have taken: paths and choices that we are also presented with throughout our lives.

Every one of us has three paths laid before us:

Are we going to seek outward power like Tai Lung?

Or will we look inward for that power like the Dragon Warrior?

Are we going to blame and destroy outside sources for our problems as Shen did?

Or are we going to dive deep into our Self and make peace with our inner pain and bring healing to our Self and others as Po did?

Are we going to keep insisting that our way is the only way, as Kai did, or are we going to raise others up to reach their highest potential even if we don’t understand their ways?

Because if we choose – and that is always the most important word, Dear Listeners – if we choose that path of inward power and if we choose the path of inner peace and healing and if we choose to raise others up to find their own path and to be their own gurus…

…if we do all of that, we are going to radiate our Chi out into the world just as Po and the entire Valley of Peace does at the end of Kung Fu Panda 3.

That scene right there. See that? See how the Chi, the life-force, moves from the Valley of Peace out to the rest of China?

That right there is the change in your Self that becomes the change in your World. That is what I’m talking about every time I say “Change your Self, Change your World”.

When you take the steps to change your Self, when you become the Hero of your own life; when you find your bliss and make the effort to bring that bliss to others: the change, the transformation, the knowledge, the peace, the power, the enlightenment you have achieved will flow out from you to others and from those others it will flow out to the rest of the world.

And there we have it, Dear Listeners, my interpretation of the extremely profound film, Kung Fu Panda 3 which, sadly, brings me to the end of this Kung Fu Panda series, which, happily, will send me off in a new direction.

There are some rumours that the Kung Fu Panda franchise could be extended to six movies and if that ever happens, then perhaps I will be covering those someday as well.

Thank you very much for listening or watching today. Please like, share, comment, criticize, and  subscribe.

Every small way you can support this podcast helps me become a better teacher day by day.

I have been your host, Mark. This has been the final installment of a deep-dive into the Kung Fu Panda movie franchise.

And I know that if you eventually find your bliss and teach it to others in a way that allows them to find their own bliss, that you will have changed your Self into your Highest Self and that you will radiate great change out into 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.

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