Kung-Fu Panda 3, Identity, and the Not-Self

May 20, 2016

On my long flight to Indonesia I was watching the film Kung Fu Panda 3, which did a great job of keeping me entertained for a couple of hours. Like the previous films, it is a lighthearted take on kung-fu that nevertheless (generally) manages to seriously engage with the buddhist/taoist/confucian themes that are important in that culture. The format is that the eponymous panda has to master an esoteric kung-fu technique in order to defeat an evil demon and save everyone he cares about. His mastery is driven by a personal revelation which enables him to “level up” just in time to beat the demon.

In this third movie, the skill he has to master is the control of Chi - that mystical life-force energy. In itself, the concept of chi is an interesting thing. But what was especially interesting was that developing this skill was tied into his journey to identify as a Panda (remember he was brought up by an adopted parent, a Goose). So, as well as a battle of good and evil, the movie is also depicting a spiritual journey. In this journey, our panda seeks to answer the question, “Who Am I?”.

This seems like an important question - its something we’ve surely all asked ourselves. At least, I have asked myself this before many times. Usually when things aren’t going the way I want somehow. I think, “Who am I?”, “What is unique about me?”, “What do I bring to bear that no-one else does?”. There is some feeling that answering this question is fundamental to finding meaning in our lives. But this is one place where the film seems to stray from its Buddhist underpinnings.

According to the Buddhist teachings, the question “Who Am I?” seems to be actually quite unimportant. Unimportant in quite a profound way. The practitioner actually aims to disillusion himself from false perception of their own identity. He aims to recognize the transient nature of each aspect of our being and he seeks to dissolve the constructed separation between self and external world.

In response to the question “Who Am I?” I imagine the enlightened Zen master would say something like, “I am this bag of skin and bones”, “I am dust, and I am water”, or simply “I am not-self”. Of course, not being a Zen master, its hard to say for sure - the real response might be a whole lot subtler than that. Zen masters are after all notoriously unpredictable.

Recently, I’ve been watching an excellent Coursera course about the intersection between Buddhist practices and psychology. This course does a good job of explaining these topics (the “not-self”) from a secular perspective.

The Buddhist way might not meet the needs of the narrative arc so well. It would not be easy to show the process of disillusionment on screen or communicate its significance to the audience. So, even if transmitting Buddhist doctrine was a goal in the film’s creation, some things would need to be simplified. It is very interesting that simplification of the Buddhist way ends up contradicting the teachings on this question of identity.

This isn’t to say that our hero’s breakthrough is completely worthless. It has been suggested that the self, or identity, that we think about is a kind of Public Relations module we use to explain our actions. Although we aren’t always aware of all our motivations, this module can provide a simple story we can use to justify ourselves.

This self is very useful from a functional perspective. In order to relate to, bond with, and influence others we need this ability to introspect. It is our attachment to our idea of self that is problematic, not its existence in this more limited sense.

In the film, by proclaiming his identity as a Panda, our hero Po is able to lead the Panda village to fight well enough to achieve a victory of sorts. This works in terms of influence. He is one of the Pandas. They identify with him. He is able to bring out the other pandas’ strengths and make them believe in themselves. He is able to lead.

But in the spiritual sense, the notion of identity is less useful than the film would have us believe. So, I suggest Po’s actions in the film this would only lead to social cohesion and not a spiritual awakening.