The first words that come to mind when describing Dragon Ball Z may be cartoon, anime or a television show for young nerdy boys. But spiritual author Derek Padula suggests you think again.
Padula, 30, author of “Dragon Ball Z ‘It’s Over 9,000!’ When Worldviews Collide,” is the first and currently only person to explore Buddhist and Daoist philosophies imbued in the plots of the popular Japanese anime series.
In the TV show, which first aired in the U.S. in the late 1990s, average people can transform into invincible warriors. Every time the characters overcome an enemy, they become stronger. Padula’s book explores how two of the main characters, Goku and Vegeta, become more and more powerful after each conflict. It’s a major Dragon Ball theme and its origins trace back to Buddhism. Padula makes that connection by exploring the common themes between the popular TV show and “Journey to the West,” a classic Chinese legend about a monk and his three protectors who travelled to India to bring Buddhist scriptures to China while overcoming endless hardships along the way.
“Dragon Ball Z speaks to an inherent part of our nature, our human condition,” Padula says. “It’s a positive message that says you can tap into your hidden potential. You can be better than who you are right now and rise to great heights if you learn how and have the will to persevere.”
Earlier this year, Padula gave up his comfortable life as a web developer career at Caplinked in Los Angeles and moved to New York to devote his time to researching the philosophical ideas in Dragon Ball Z. Padula occasionally works as a freelance journalist, but dedicates the majority of his time to understanding the deeper implications within DBZ, which he believes can enrich the lives of the show’s millions of worldwide fans.
In high school, Padula says that Dragon Ball Z helped him battle depression. At the age of 14, Padula picked up a knife to end his life, but says he changed his mind when he thought of DBZ’s main character Goku, whose principal trait is endurance.
“I suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. But martial arts has an inherent aspect of personal improvement that helped me get through that,” he says. “He [Goku] is always getting beat up, but he still perseveres with an iron will that allows him to overcome any challenge. He is essentially the Japanese version of Superman.”
The series inspired Padula to take martial arts classes in high school, which led to his interest in Tai Chi and Qigong. After high school, Padula majored in East Asian studies at Western Michigan University, and minored in Chinese. He went on to study martial arts with Shaolin monks in China for four months. In 2003, Padula had a particularly memorable encounter in China with Falun Gong practitioners.
Falun Gong is a spiritual meditation practice based on traditional Chinese philosophies that centers on the meaning of truth, compassion and tolerance. Padula was moved by the fact that there were still people practicing Falun Gong in China even though the practice has been banned since 1999, when the discipline started attracting millions of practitioners. He says he met members who have had their private parts shocked by electric batons in jail, as punishment for holding a banner that said “truth, compassion, and tolerance” at Tiananmen Square. He also met practitioners who have had secret police officers barge into their homes as they were meditating. He saw that despite the constant danger of impending torture, practitioners held onto their spiritual conviction.
“I realized there’s a lot more to this spiritual practice than just meditation,” Padula says. “It’s about improving yourself and abiding by principles in your life, and there’s a similar idea in Dragon Ball Z.”
As Padula took up Falun Gong and continued to watch the show, he began to see more and more parallels between Dragon Ball Z’s plot and the teachings of ancient Chinese philosophies that focus on endurance and self-improvement.
Padula decided to write down the connections that he saw. In 2012, he published “Dragon Ball Z ‘It’s Over 9,000!’ When Worldviews Collide.” It sold 1,500 copies. A year later, the book was translated into Spanish and the Polish translation is currently in progress.
Padula is now working on his second book, and a blog called The Dao of Dragon Ball.
But not everyone is a fan of Padula’s work.
Last May, a Facebook page called “Todos Contra Derek Padula” – Spanish for “All Against Derek Padula” – emerged online. The page claims that Padula is “destroying the series” and it has seven Facebook Likes, two of which are from Padula and his brother Darin Padula. The creator of the page declined to be interviewed by the Free Press.
“I just laugh at it,” Padula says about the Facebook page. “I’m one of the most pro-Dragon Ball Z people out there. To say that I’m destroying it is very strange.”