Vegging Out with Kung Fu and Star Trek

By Richard Marranca

It was not long ago when being vegetarian was looked upon as eccentric or radical, but thanks to many cultural and spiritual changes, this is no longer the case. Humans always find new influences and evolve, and fortunately, some of the virtues stick.

For millennia, cultural heroes were hunters and warriors with giant egos — see Gilgamesh, Achilles, or the variations on the cowboy archetype. Of course, spiritual journeyers have always existed — and they popped out on television in the 1960s and 1970s in the guises of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) from Star Trek and Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) from Kung Fu. Nimoy and Carradine acted brilliantly, with strength and dignity, showing the nuances of these complex characters and humor, too.

Whatever promotes vegetarianism and consciousness is a good thing, and looking back, I was fortunate to have been influenced by these programs — the ideas rang true and showed brilliant alternatives to conventional living. They were part of the matrix of other revolutions at the same time, such as the interest in Asian philosophy, civil rights, women's rights, animal rights, the flowering of arts and music, environmentalism, global thinking, and space exploration.

Isn't it interesting that TV showcased two outsiders of mixed ethnic origins whose philosophy, way of being, and looks were exotic, even strange? After all, it wasn't Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, or Scotty who was vegetarian, nor was it likely that any of the cowboys or storekeepers on Caine's trail were refraining from meat. In fact, that's often how humans present utopian ideals; they exist in another era. There was once a time when people were virtuous, or there will be a time...

Let's take a look at these voyagers from the past and future — Caine from the 19th century and Spock from the 23rd century. Typical of mythic heroes, Caine was an orphan. His father had been an American sailor and his mother Chinese. During a fierce rain, young Caine sat outside the door of the Shaolin Monastery (in China) until the venerable ones let him in. Even then, he had courage and physical strength, and not all boys were accepted or later made it through the grueling asceticism.

The Shaolin acolytes and priests were experts in philosophy and mindfulness but also in the fighting art of kung fu. They were masters of chi, that pervasive energy that exists within and all around us. Chi represents the boundless, flowing universe. And Shaolin fighting skills were amazing; they had learned from great masters and from the animal kingdom (the praying mantis and other creatures) and could perform amazing feats of skill and strength.

Yet they were Buddhist vegetarians. Buddhism recognizes that all is suffering and that one must promote compassion and meditation to enter nirvana, a numinous and transcendent state of being. Buddhism recognizes the interdependence of all life forms. The first precept — "Do not kill" — is founded upon compassion and unity. According to Professor Sumalee Mahanarongchai of Thannasat University in Bangkok, "The existence of humans and animals is harmoniously based on causal law. In the far course of transmigration, there is not one living being that has never been our father, mother, sister, son, daughter, or any form of kinship in various degrees."

Vegetarianism was part of the Shaolin creed, their method of conscious living and denial of samsara, the whirlpool of society. Shaolin priests were aware of life on a small and large scale, realizing as such Buddhists do, that Indra's Net of Gems is full of reflections, that each is part of the whole, as each human, plant, or animal shares in nature's bounty — interdependence.

Reaching maturity, Caine passed all the tests of skill and knowledge and became one of the great monks of his monastery. Caine was ready to go forth into the world as a beacon of peace; that's what he learned from Master Po (Keye Luke) and others. But life often throws seemingly terrible things at good people.

It had been Master Po's lifelong desire to visit the Forbidden City during a special festival. So it was that, amidst a long line of pilgrims, Master Po and Caine met on the road. Everything was beautiful and timeless — master and disciple reunited. Suddenly, the emperor's nephew emerged on a litter. The guards shoved Master Po aside, but the blind master casually threw the guard. After all, bullies need an education, too.

Another guard threw a spear into Master Po's body. For once, Caine wasn't mindful and threw the spear into the emperor's nephew. Master Po forgave Caine for his trespass as his beloved mentor died in his arms. With a secret society and a variety of killers on his trail, Caine left China. He chose the American West because he also wanted to find his half-brother.

Each episode had action, nature, mystery, and a life lesson. In Cry of the Night Beast (1974), Caine stopped a hunter from killing a buffalo and her calf. (That was a normal occurrence in American history; the buffalo population plummeted from 200 million to just a few thousand.) Caine said that the purpose of the buffalo was "to grow, to live." In fact, Caine braved dangers and found milk to care for the calf when it strayed from its mother. He equated the birth of the buffalo's calf with that of the hunter's baby; the hunter had an opening of enlightenment and stopped his murder spree. The hunter even said he would become a farmer.

In another episode, Caine witnessed a bank robbery. The robbers shot at him, but he wouldn't pick up a gun to shoot back. Of course, later on, he knocked them out in his own way. At one point, he said to the sheriff's son (who was impressed with Caine's ability to shoot a bow) that he did not believe in harming animals and eating animal flesh. For Kwai Chang Caine, archery was a meditation; the archer became one with the target.

In the episode when Caine found his brother, he didn't want to ride a horse, even though others were pursuing them on horseback. He didn't want to burden the horse. He only got on the horse because his brother was in trouble and he didn't want them to become separated; even then, he apologized to the horse.

This was new for TV, and while many found it fascinating, I suspect that others found it a bit strange. Yet it had long-range influences on our culture. Viewers might have tuned in because Kung Fu featured the Old West and had its share of bars and dancing girls and cowboys and fist fights. However, along the way, they breathed in this new way of being that echoed back to Asia's axial age. Others were already living a similar path and found reflections of their own beliefs.

When I shared this essay, some friends talked about their enthusiasm for Kung Fu, Star Trek, and the subsequent Trek spin-offs. Several mentioned that Caine and Spock were heroes to them. One person also mentioned that, in an episode of The Next Generation, characters spoke of a cruel era when humans experimented on animals. The dream of axial age logic and compassion converged in the brilliance of Star Trek's Mr. Spock.

Although Star Trek hurls us into imagination and utopian possibility, the issues of life are analogous. The mind, with its fight-or-flight response, creates similar dramas and dilemmas whether on earth or in the far reaches of outer space. Science fiction (myth and science in fictional form) is an arena to explore new ideas and ways of being, such as time travel or universal peace.

The starship Enterprise had as its mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before, to seek out new civilizations." The colorful, multicultural, wise, and courageous crew helped others in both typical and strange ways — the hero's quest on a galactic scale. It's ironic that the crew (just like Caine) was peaceful but always found itself fighting out of dangerous situations. They contended with tribes as well as advanced civilizations and all kinds of menacing natural phenomena, from gangsters and Klingons and Romulins to deathly energy fields. This is because television needs drama even more than philosophy, but it's also reflective of human consciousness, so full of paradoxes, personae, threats, territoriality, shadows, and violence.

Spock was a science officer and second in command after Captain Kirk (William Shatner). He was a hybrid — his father was a Vulcan diplomat, and his mother was an emotional human — whose planet had turned to peace after millennia of violence. Vulcan, one can say, is the dream of earthlings — will we get there? Spock was extremely capable and logical, an ├╝berman. He was brilliant, with an encyclopedic mind, and many times saved the Enterprise from destruction. In fights he was unbeatable.

If Kirk could beat Spock at chess, it is only because sometimes illogic wins out. Spock could play music, and in one episode, he most closely identified with some 'hippies' looking for utopia, whereas the hippies referred to Kirk as "Herbert."

In the time-traveling episode All Our Yesterdays (1969), Spock, Kirk, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) visited a doomed planet named Sarpeidon. For everyone to escape, an old librarian assisted in transporting them to some period of history. The Atavachron sent Kirk to the 18th century, where he was accused of witchcraft, while Spock and McCoy vanished into an ice age. Returning to atavistic behavior, Spock soon fell in love with Zarabeth, a beautiful woman who had gotten on the bad side of her government and was sent into oblivion. Spock tasted meat and nearly killed McCoy. Soon, he realized things were wrong and looked for a way back. He even stated, "I've eaten meat and enjoyed it," in a disgusted way.

In another time-travel episode, The City on the Edge of Forever (1967), Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were sent into the 1930s by the Guardian of Forever. McCoy saved a woman named Edith Keeler (who ran a soup kitchen), which threw history out of kilter and would have allowed the Nazis to win World War II. Kirk and Spock must allow history to take its normal course. The complication was that Kirk has fallen in love with Edith. While Spock worked on a primitive computer to examine the permutations of history and to know what actions to take, Kirk went to the store and bought bologna and bread for himself and vegetables for Spock.

In other episodes and in subsequent movies, we saw more of Spock's peculiarities — he could put people to sleep with the Vulcan neck pinch; he could read minds by using the Vulcan Mind Meld. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, he saved Earth from destruction by melding with Gracie the whale (in San Francisco in 1986) and found out she was pregnant. He meditated, too. In some Star Trek movies, Spock became more spiritual and monkish, more like Kwai Chang Caine. I wonder if there is a message here, that all this technological wizardry will bring us back to where we began in the spiritual traditions.

These programs, based on wisdom and right action, influenced millions of viewers. We may not realize what was achieved because it was done with undeniable shrewdness. In fact, vegetarianism was something authentic and taken for granted; it was the right thing to do based on compassion and logic. The achievements of Caine and Spock were not for themselves but for others. True to their nature of the spiritual path, they did not look to the fruits of their labor. As if waves rolling from a tossed stone, wisdom reaches us — from long ago or from the musings on a shining future.

Richard Marranca had a Fulbright to teach American literature and culture at the University of Munich from 2002 to 2005. Presently he teaches and writes fiction, essays, and poetry.