"I don't seek to know all the answers but to understand the questions'," David Carridine recited to me several years ago when I visited his home in Los Angeles for a book interview, "doesn't that just about say it all?"
Carridine was walking down memory lane gleefully sharing with me one of his most favorite lines as Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine from the philosophically esoteric and highly introspective ABC TV program Kung Fu, which first aired Feb 22nd, 1972, a day that changed my life and subliminally millions of lives across America and the world.
For mainstream audiences in the West, it was their first introduction to Shaolin kung fu in the most positive way imaginable, the true epitome of a martial artist where one traditionally trains not to fight and learns to heal rather than hurt. The philosophy that Carradine embraced was in direct contrast to the rising popularity of kung fu films that hit the American shores around the same time as the Kung Fu pilot.
"From that perspective, it was important to show the true way of the Shaolin and kung fu, so the show created a balance between the violent kung fu films and the peaceful calm of Caine," Carradine explained. "It was about the whole yin-yang balance."
Set in the 1870s, the Western frontier, Kung Fu follows the path of the half-Chinese, half-American, Shaolin kung fu priest Caine from Song Shan Shaolin Temple, on the lam for killing the Emperor's nephew, and finds himself in America searching for his half brother Danny Caine while dealing with racism, American bounty hunters and Chinese assassins.
Historically, Ching Emperor Yong Zheng burned down Song Shan Temple in 1736.
As fate would have it, Carradine starred alongside Gordon Liu Chia-hui in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films (2003-2004).
Liu is the most recognized actor to portray a Shaolin priest in Asia and much to his nature as a martial artist, he acknowledges America's most famous Shaolin priest actor, Carradine. Liu has heartfelt joy for people like Carradine for what they have done for martial arts and martial arts cinema.
"I was impressed that David was going to be in this film (Kill Bill)," Liu told me prior to my interview with Carradine, "I made it a point that when we were on location together to pull him aside at the Temple to tell him how much I admired his TV show Kung Fu. "That series was a very important part of people in the West's understanding of kung fu and Carradine played the role of what I think a Shaolin Priest truly was."
Shaolin martial arts began in 520 AD when Buddhist monk Ta Mo arrived at Song Shan who spent nine years developing exercises to physically and mentally strengthen the Shaolin monks by creating the 18 Buddhist Fists, an art of self defense that by the 1600s evolved in the famous Five Animal Styles of Shaolin.
Carradine was well aware of Shaolin martial arts history and was particularly keen on qi (chi) and the practice of qi gong (Chinese breathing exercises dating back to at least 3000 BC), which is why in 2003 he made the videotape Chi Energy Workout.
He enthusiastically showed me his tapes telling me the importance of qigong in one's health and that he was very proud to have made it.
"Most people didn't know much about qi back then and its health benefits," he pointed out, "and since the Shaolin practiced it, I wanted to learn and then spread the word about it."
Placing the tape down he noticed my changed demeanor smiled and asked what was on my mind.
When Kung Fu first aired, my doctor had just told me that I would be dead in five years due to the debilitating effects of cystic fibrosis. At the time, I was taking 30 pills a day, while undergoing two hours of daily therapy. I wound up in the hospital every three months.
Inspired by Carradine's Caine and Bruce Lee's Big Boss(1972), it started me down the path of martial arts, a path that led me to Taiwan to learn qigong.
Five months after learning qigong-and to this day-I have been off all medications and therapies. In 1986 I walked 3000 miles across America to show that my health improvement was not superficial.
After telling Carradine that I had waited 35 years to share this story with him, his eyes twinkled with a tear. He thanked me, we hugged and I drove home not knowing that I would never see him again. The 72-year old Carradine was found dead Thursday in Thailand at the luxury Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel.
As Carradine's Caine would reflect upon death, "Each end brings a new beginning." Life is not always about what a man leaves behind but what a man leaves for the future.
By Dr. Craig D. Reid