The Zen Master and Dog: Symbolism of Edward Wong Hau

There is a Zen story of a monk who is traveling when he suddenly finds himself chased by a tiger. He reaches the edge of a cliff and sees a vine hanging down. He climbs down on it in hopes of escaping the tiger. Just then, another tiger appears below him.

The monk is pondering the situation when two mice show up and begin to gnaw at the vine which he is hanging from. He suddenly sees a berry on the vine, reaches out and plucks it. He eats the berry and it was the best berry he ever had. What’s the lesson? Live in the present moment. The two tigers represent the past and the future but neither is happening currently. But the pleasure of the berry is happening now and that enjoyable moment in the present is all that matters.

That’s Edward basically.

Edward Won Hau
Cowboy Bebop

The Inspirations for Edward

Watanabe, when asked about Ed’s gender has mentioned that it does not matter and she could possibly even be an alien. A lot of people take this as him just joking around but I don’t feel that’s the case. A lot of the stuff he says during these random snippets in interviews actually sounds pretty meaningful to me though I’m not denying that there are often instances when he is intentionally confusing or trolling. But in this case, I feel what he’s left unsaid is that who she is does not matter because it’s not who, but rather what she is that matters. In the same interview, he also says he wanted to create a character which surpasses humanity. So to me, Edward feels like both a character in the series and also an embodiment of a symbolism, and perhaps something of a lesson in Bebop. Like everything else, this is just my perspective so please take it as such. It doesn’t have to be necessarily true or accurate.

When we look at the philosophy of Bebop, it is actually quite advanced by any given standard. And this is not idle speculation because there are motifs clearly called out in the series which indicate to this. As much as the show is about the “cool” representations of heroes of the wild west, mafia movies, noir, and space sagas, it is also a study in deep spirituality.

In the first version of this, I missed covering Ed’s connection to Yoko Kanno (don’t ask how) and my friend pointed it out so going back to add it. Thank you to my reader Eddie for asking about the autism bit-I’ve elaborated that too now so hope this helps. As I write in a flow, there are a million thoughts in my head and I’m trying to reach the deeper layers so tend to sometimes miss out on the more commonly-known stuff which is equally important to getting a fuller picture. That is why I am super appreciative of someone who writes in because it helps me understand what I missed out. Therefore, adding the below.

Edward is based on Yoko Kanno (as we all know), an exceptionally talented musician who is responsible for Bebop’s music (and like a solid 50% of my music collection-she’s done a lot more beyond Bebop and it’s all amazing folks so do check it out if you haven’t). Her strange antics inspired Watanabe to create Ed in the first place. Based on what he has said in interviews, she would apparently do things like make strange faces or randomly take a nap during recording sessions. He designed Ed to therefore be like an out of control cat based on Kanno’s behaviour. An example of this is the below image, which is featured on one of Bebop’s soundtrack covers. This was created by Toshihiro Kawamoto on Kanno’s request to recreate her facial expression during one of their meetings. Just like Ed, Kanno was also a child prodigy.

The Character and the Symbolism

From my perspective, Edward essentially has two layers to her. She is a character in the series and she is also a metaphorical symbolism. As a character, she has all the traits of the genius on whom she was modeled and therefore exhibits a lot of similar eccentricity. There are multiple research papers on the connection between eccentricity and genius and the most famous poster-child for this was perhaps Albert Einstein, who is anyway paid a homage Bebop in the naming of Ein, Ed’s constant companion. Edward putting on socks in ‘Mushroom Samba’ and then taking them off is also very reminiscent of Einstein’s lifelong disdain for socks. Beyond this, I’ve also seen debates on whether Ed is autistic or not, fueled by her strange behavior. Can a genius also be autistic? Yes they can-the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. We know the source of her eccentricity is her genius but there is such a thing as autistic genius as well so perhaps she might be that. I’m no expert on this so can’t say anything conclusively but this is how I see it.

Many child prodigies and adult geniuses tend to behave in manners which may seem like insanity to the average human being but is actually resulting from their operating on a different plane than the rest of the populace, one which allows them to do things others simply cannot. In Kanno’s case, if you hear her music, she manages to easily jump around genres (the best example being Bebop itself) and create music in them as if she has spent her entire life mastering that particular genre. And that level of exceptional musical talent of hers is adapted to Edward in the form of exceptional talent as a hacker. On a side note, please look up Radio Free Mars on YouTube and hear her description-she and The Seatbelts are characters in the Bebop universe.

Edward also has a backstory in the novel ‘Code Memory’ written by Dai Sato, one of the writers of Bebop, which was only ever published in Japanese. In this story, she apparently starts out as a normal child ‘Francoise’ in the orphanage who finds the data store of the dead genius hacker Radical Edward, which transfers his personality and hacking skills into her, resulting in the Edward we know. So perhaps the original Radical Edward was an eccentric genius (possibly even an autistic genius) and those mannerisms are transferred to the child in a digital metempsychosis. Either way, the resulting personality becomes the character we see during the series.

The second layer of Edward is the metaphor I perceive within the show, and which this article explores. To me, she represents the act of ‘letting go’ of the past which everyone in Bebop, especially Jet, keeps going gung-ho about but never really manages to achieve. Being a prisoner to the past is a running theme in the show and Ed is the only character really who manages to never fall prey to it. I am not talking about “letting go” in the sense of staying hung up on the past for years and then going back to resolve it. I am talking about letting go of things real-time and living in the moment. To me, it seemed like a reminder of Zen monks and hence I have taken up that metaphor but honestly the idea of the “enlightened soul” capable of this behaviour is not specific to just Zen but exists across different Eastern theologies.

Significance of Edward being a Child

If Edward was to be modeled after an adult genius, she could have been an adult character in the series as well but to me, her being a child in the narrative plays the roles of both bringing out the softer sides of the crew members and also bringing into sharp relief how unforgiving the world they inhabit is. Her crew members care about her clearly but their lives do not allow them to give her the space to be a child and hence she gets pulled into the task of supporting them on bounties and often fending for herself. Her situation is very similar to that of children in our world who are homeless, born in abusive households, warzones etc. They learn to fend for themselves early, unable to have adults in their lives whom they can rely on, and often do not get the chance to be children.

She is also constant comic relief in the middle of a narrative which can get fairly dark at times. Her simplicity and innocence offset the dark and heavy lives of the adults. She acts very childlike but is also capable of extremely sophisticated feats. In the interactions with her, we see Jet generally take on the role of the admonishing but caring Dad, while Spike and Faye usually fall into the roles of elder siblings. Her presence also gives the crew the rounded appearance of a family, even if a disjointed one.

Having said that, taking Ed 100% as a representation of a real child within Bebop is not really advisable-in fact, it’s not advisable to take any of the characters at 100% face value because, like I’ve stated here, they seem to sometimes be operating as individuals and at other times, or even simultaneously, be operating from the space of metaphorical representation as well. So you may need to know what is them being a character in the series and what is them being something more than that. Also, it’s a TV show and not a doctrine for how to live your life so watch it as that and let it go.

Eastern Philosophies and the “Enlightened Soul”

Before going deeper into this, we do need to understand how these Eastern philosophies operate. When we think of religion or theology, we generally think of a strict set of doctrines judging us between heaven and hell, warring parties trying to take over each other in spreading what they believe in the world. Eastern theosophical traditions are quite the opposite. They believe rather in singular unifying forces which connect all beings. The ultimate goal of life is to focus on self-realization/enlightenment of the soul to transcend beyond this world. The moment you get involved in building material possessions and conquests here, you’ve lost the plot. These would be philosophies like Buddhism, Daoism, Vedic traditions, Confucianism etc. If you read the histories of these philosophies or old texts around them, they will often co-exist rather harmoniously, exchanging knowledge across borders of nations and religions in the ultimate search for the truth. They still influence the geographies where they originated to varying extents, though many of these nations have changed drastically since their inception.

In Zen, the ultimate step for a soul is enlightenment. Enlightenment does not mean that one leaves the body and ascends to another plane of existence-it simply means an internal realisation of the Truth, of one’s real self as pure consciousness, one with the universe, much more beyond just the body. Once you reach that state, the events of this world are like a game and don’t really matter, don’t really impact you. You are protected by the larger consciousness/ energy/divine self which composes the entire universe. Explaining it in the space of this one essay will require a lot but there are videos and literature available on the internet which you can refer to understand it. Now, I am not saying that the series expressly states Edward is an enlightened soul but the way it depicts her is very reminiscent of the state an enlightened individual exists in and this is what drives the metaphor for me.

For instance, Edward referring to herself in the third person is very similar to Buddhist and Taoist masters who may do the same in stories and fables, indicating their detachment from the identity of just the body. They often act eccentric and conduct themselves in a childlike, guileless manner while also being extremely evolved and intelligent beings.

Transcending the Past

During Toys in the Attic, a highly symbolic episode within the show in my view, Edward is depicted just casually eating the blob which has brought down her entire crew and it has no impact on her. Since I take that blob to be representative of Spike’s past, this indicates to me that she is beyond the influence of past and future and that’s why I believe that Ed may be a representation of the Zen Master or just the general “realised soul” of Eastern Philosophies, who has transcended beyond the drama of the world, who exists on this plane but is not impacted by its events any longer. There is a moral fable of a Zen master and his dog in Zen Buddhism which is very reminiscent of the tiny Edward and her dog and that’s why I picked this motif.

During the course of the series as well, Edward remains untouched by the drama of Spike’s past even when she is part of the crew as it unfolds during Jupiter Jazz. To me, her exit at the end is not just about her being safe from being impacted by his past-she may not necessarily have been, just as the others got roped in but were eventually safe-but about taking the journey she needs to take as a child to figure out what is best for her. Each one of the Bebop crew members confront their pasts in their own ways and Edward needs to do the same. When I speak about her absence in the Toys in the Attic article, it is more to draw a parallel to her absence in both scenarios, not necessarily implying that she needs to be absent to protect her. An “enlightened soul” is protected by their oneness with the universe and that’s what helps them transcend this world.

The story of Bebop deals heavily with themes around the past and the present. All of its adult main characters are encumbered by their pasts, prisoners to them, and it shapes up who they are. Many of the people they meet along the way are in similar places and the journeys of losing the battle to or coming to terms with the past are drawn in great density. None of this gets them anywhere because where they are actually supposed to go to get true resolution from their troubles is something they are not even trying for. Bebop runs several tracks and symbolisms simultaneously and this is an ultimate one running underneath it all.

Edward is the contrast and exception to all this. Zen Buddhism, of which Bonsai are also a part, has at its heart the teaching of living in the present moment, neither holding on to the past, nor worrying about the future. It’s called mindfulness and is essentially the path to enlightenment. The Zen form of meditation involves just doing nothing, making no effort, having no expectation, not even toward achieving enlightenment. The moment you are currently in is all you have, all you can influence. You cannot change the past, you cannot control the future beyond the actions you do in the present moment. So, living in the present is the supreme state of existence. When you live in the present, you are free. Ed is never seen thinking of the past or worrying about the future and this is the contrast Edward presents against the other characters in the series. She is already in the ultimate enlightened state which can set all of them free from their troubles, but which they are not really equipped to achieve right now and are not even aspiring for. Their own lives and petty drama keep them too busy and encumbered.

While yes, Edward is a child so she is not likely to take things as seriously as the others, but she is still depicted as thirteen, an age when most children have entered their angsty teenage. The character was originally going to be a boy but was changed to a girl later to balance out the gender ratio in the crew. But even as a boy, Ed would still be Ed.

Edward wong hau
Cowboy Bebop

In Mish Mash Blues Ed states that she has had no suffering and, even if she did, she has forgotten about it. This is the crux to her happiness. Nothing ever bothers Ed because the core spiritual philosophies influencing Bebop , Zen, Budhism, Taoism, Bushido, all teach you to go with the flow, let go of things no longer relevant, that death is nothing to be feared, life is fleeting, and detachment from the material world is key. Spike tries to live by these but Ed embodies them. By the time the series ends, Spike has begun a journey of moving away from escaping his karma to facing up to it, but he is still very far from this ultimate state. Saying his soul has ascended to heaven and achieved Nirvana at this point simply because he killed a rival or avenged a lover is somewhat simplistic.

Ed is shown living like a monk, with barely any possessions, sleeping anywhere, surviving without guns or any other protection in an extremely dangerous world. She can easily do things which others cannot even begin to fathom. She displays zero fear or dramatic emotion at any point and is always happy, carefree. She may get upset at losing a game of chess but it’s limited to those few moments and then she is back to happy. When Jet informs her he may not be coming back, it’s ok with her (from the perspective of the symbolism-I’ve stated elsewhere that this is not the kind of thing you should say to a kid and I stand by it). When she meets the father who abandoned her seven years ago, she has already forgiven him and meets him with the same joy she would have if he had never forgotten about her. He leaves without her and she is confused but we don’t see her moping over it. Faye tells her she needs to go after him, so she does.

Edward and her Father

Edward’s father Appledelhi, when he eventually does make an appearance, is shown to be a similar creature though he seems a less evolved soul than Ed herself. Monks in Zen Buddhism use paradoxes to train their minds for enlightenment. In the story of the Zen Master and the Dog, there is one disciple who keeps questioning these paradoxes and seems stuck in them. The Master tells this disciple to focus on seeking the truth and not get stuck in the words of other humans i.e. the paradoxes, futilely searching for the truth among them when actually it lies beyond them. The paradoxes are a means to an end, not the end themselves and he is missing out on the truth by focusing on them.

To me, Appledelhi’s futile journey to map out a constantly-changing planet is no different from the Buddhist disciple in this story. He does not know why he is doing it and it keeps him from what he should actually be focusing on i.e. being a father to his child or living a better life. He claims that making the maps will bring peace and happiness but in truth the maps are a means to an end, and what he is doing is getting stuck on the means, not even questioning if they are actually leading him to the end goal he desires. Watanabe has mentioned in an interview, that Appledelhi is a man who thinks big, beyond what others may focus on, but to me he is still a misguided man.

But he is still shown to be a bit more evolved than the Bebop crew. Appledelhi’s reaction to seeing Ed is again not one of remorse or drama but just happiness at finding her with no baggage of the past, and he seems also to live a much simpler life than our crew. He may not have reached enlightenment but he is at-least on the path to it, making efforts toward it, his map-making being a more positive path with the intent to help others, aimed at seeking peace and happiness, unlike our crew who largely focus on themselves and their own little worlds, just dealing with their pasts and struggle, with peace and happiness not even a goal. So he falls somewhere in the middle of the steeped-in-this-world Spike and the evolved Edward. And that is perhaps the reason his fight with Spike is shown to go the way it does.

The scene with Appledelhi and Spike seems to me the reverse of the scene with Spike and Rocco. Here, Spike is the one posturing and trying too hard while Appledelhi simply stands in one place and brushes him off. Both Ed and Appledelhi seem empty in a positive way, living in the present, and that’s the ground they meet on again. They both easily transcend the world which they live in. While to us, it seems like both are insane, in truth they are both much more free than our protagonists.

The teachings which Ed seems to represent are never considered easy to follow but Zen believes they are the path to true happiness and freedom. You really can’t help what happens beyond a certain point. You can’t go back and change what is over. If you hold on to your suffering, it shapes you in your present and stays with you in the future. You stay encumbered in an illusory world, waste time which could be spent seeking true enlightenment. If you let everything go, you are free.

Note: I do want to cover Ed’s exit but separately in another context and hence have not gone into detail on that. I did get quite a few questions on that so will talk about it in another piece where it holds more relevance.

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11 thoughts on “The Zen Master and Dog: Symbolism of Edward Wong Hau”

  1. As impressed as I was with that analysis of Episode 5, this one blew me away. How would you ever make that connection? Now that you have I can see all the parallels exactly like you point them out. I read up a bit on Zen while reading this and yeah she’s a Zen Master. Absolutely.

    1. See even when I first watched it years ago, the idea that Ed is some sort of spiritual parallel was there. It’s just how they show her. If you read the old Chinese/Japanese fables they’ll have these characters in them who will remind you of some things she does. Of course I’m assuming that she’s modeled on the Zen master and Dog but she’s definitely modeled partially after Zen masters at least…or some other spiritual creatures. But definitely seems modeled after the enlightened soul.

  2. Alright I am prepared to become a broken record but I’m gonna say it anyway, I’m absolutely floored at the thoughtfulness and knowledge presented in your analysis’s. My approach to reading these is very much from the mind of a fiction writer, and I don’t have a broad spirituality/ philosophy knowledge, so seeing these contexts presented really feels like opening a door and seeing a hallway of more new and exciting doors, it’s really phenomenal. Especially the story of the zen master and then comparing Ed’s father to the disciple, it makes so much sense.

    Spike tries to live by these but Ed embodies them. <<< I had a question prepared and you answered it mid- analysis lol. When I write I lean into personality types and trends and this is always something that's prickled in the back of my mind, that Spike and Ed both have 'present-centered' personality types, and when you brought that up it instantly sparked the 'but Spike tends towards the present!' question. This comparison was this big 'OH' moment for me and it got me a little giddy, I won't lie 😀

    Faye in her emotional state feels Ed belongs with her father but in truth Ed belongs anywhere and everywhere. <<< Another giddy moment, I LOVE the way you put this. And it's so true! It's such a fundamental part of not only Ed's character but her purpose in the story is that she belongs anywhere, because wherever she is is wherever she needs to be.

    In my current writing I've been exploring what conflicts each member would struggle with (Street Beat is all about tackling that) and I had a bit of a struggle figuring out Ed's and finding something that felt natural. I'm still working on it of course and there's always room to grow but this whole analysis has definitely encouraged me not necessarily to rethink the plan, but give it a bit of simmering time. Thanks for such a thoughtful analysis!

    (One last thought that may lead somewhere but I'm not sure; thinking of the squad and their relationships to the past:
    Spike- Reliving
    Faye- Retrieving
    Jet- Resolving
    Ed- Releasing
    These are their processes within the show and I'm sure I've got more in-depth thoughts on what this all means but for now I just think that's neat :D)

    1. Ooh I like those classifications of their pasts. Curious why you went with Reliving for Spike and Releasing for Ed. Like I’d want to understand that a bit better. On conflict, I’m sure you’ll come up with something amazing but I always feel there is a lot of potential in Ed’s search for a father who is unfit for her versus realising how much of a father Jet is to her but I guess that might not fit exactly for your context. But I’d love to see that explored somewhere. The metaphor of Ed is of course just one aspect of her and as a character within the show there is a lot more to her. Like the question of how did she deal with being abandoned at such a young age, how did she learn hacking? Is she just happy or is there something she’s suppressing? If we switch the lens away from the “spiritual” parallel there can be a lot of scope for psychoanalysis there.

  3. Damn I feel like I’m on the spotlight with my name being mentioned. 🙂 This is a test post by the way just to make sure that’s not going to get eaten up. But I figure that since you rewrote this maaaybe I might be able to get away with posting again on here.

    1. Ahhh success it worked! Anyway, I was going to reply back again telling you that I’m not sure if it was necessary to do a whole rewrite but reading through this again, I can understand why you felt that way.

      I guess the only reason why I brought up the autism angle with Ed is no joke but when I was younger, I was diagnosed with ASD (and I go by the name Ed sometimes xD) but aside from me being kind of socially awkward sometimes around people, it’s really not like one might see stereotypically speaking. Not saying that as a jab with people who fit that “stereotype”, I just manage to handle it a lot better, and it isn’t a huge identity in my opinion.

      So, when rewatching this show again and knowing some quirks you can find on someone with autism, like the back-and-forth rocking, the strange behaviors, and the fact she’s a genius, yeah, she is absolutely a female version of Einstein who was probably on the spectrum as well. Hopefully she won’t create something akin to an antimatter bomb like how Einstein was in the development of atomic weaponry. (Or she could be employed as a hacker for the North Korean regime lol, okay leaving all my edgy jokes aside, you get the point)

      I didn’t expect I would be on the spotlight when you rewrote this post on the Zen Master. It was just a little comment that I wanted to make because I thought it was interesting that people on both Reddit and on Tumblr had pointed this out before. Of course, as you said in your more recent post, Ed like anything in Bebop is not one thing. She might be on the spectrum as others had pointed out, or she might not be and that’s just how she is because everyone is different.

      1. Hey! Don’t worry about it. If you feel awkward about it I can remove your name. But the rewrite wasn’t just because of you. I received follow up queries on this from a bunch of people including some IRL folks so figured I’ll just update it with all the different answers I ended up giving. 🙂 And I have a background in psychology so trust me I understand how ambiguous things like autism and any other disorders can be and how much they vary between individuals in how they manifest. 🙂

  4. Nah you don’t have to delete my name; I’m only kidding around. It really doesn’t bother me. It’s just my interpretation of how I view Ed and based on my own observations of her relooking at the series again.

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