Charlottesville: the framing of debate

All this debate violence vs. non-violence against the neo-Nazis is a FRAME that distracts from the actual issues here. Should we allow these protests by neo-Nazis to take place at all? Our beloved First Amendment is being put to the test. We wouldn’t need counter-protests and the glory of the moment and all this call out culture if the courts did their job and didn’t allow ARMED groups to show up in our towns and cause trouble. I went to UVA- they should never have been allowed on the grounds of the campus. They didn’t even follow their routine for where they should’ve been. As soon as they saw guns, they should’ve shut the whole thing down. Instead of calling people who stayed home, how about calling out the police and the courts??? Now even the ACLU has refused to support armed hate groups.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy

The popularity of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the young adult action show on Nickelodeon, seems to rest in its action packed plot, the war of the Fire Nation against the other nations and the wicked cool element “bending” powers of the characters. However, Avatar also actively incorporates elements of Eastern philosophy for extra emotional impact, giving the show a more mature feel than an average cartoon. I find that adding elements of Eastern religion into a popular children’s TV show without perpetuating stereotypes or misreadings is a very positive development. Eastern religion is never explicitly mentioned, given that the show takes place in an alternate universe, but certain parallels definitely stand out. I will try to relate certain elements in the show to concepts and teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, including the concept of an Avatar itself, which I believe exists in both Buddhism and Hinduism. I think the show is a fun vehicle for explaining concepts related to Buddhism that are difficult to grasp for Western people. Its definitely one of my favorites and really resonated with me, in part because of those Buddhist themes.

To begin with, Aang is a member of the Air Nation, a nation of self-sustaining monks who live in a mystical ancient temple complex along with their flying sky bison. This image of an ancient land of harmony has a lot in common with the myth of Shambala, a valley said to exist in a remote region of Tibet, where everyone lives in harmony in a perfect religious society and the lifespan of the people is much longer than humans if not infinite. The Air Nation definitely reminds me of Shambala, probably because the monks in the show are definitely based on Tibetan monks. The colors of their clothing are even the same (red and gold). Aang, the main character, has a teacher who is the closest thing he has to a father, an old monk named Gyatso. This proves that the the creators of the show took inspiration from Tibetan sources: Gyatso means “Ocean” in Tibetan, and is the last name of the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The Air Nation monks are depicted throughout flashbacks to Aang’s past, before he was frozen in ice for 100 years, as Aang’s family and role models. They are clearly modeled on real Buddhist monastic communities of Tibetan origin, and their typical Buddhist ideals of compassion and even vegetarianism are depicted as cherished aspects of Aang’s heritage.

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Tibetan monks in traditional red and yellow robes

Throughout the series, there are specific references and themes related to Buddhist philosophy and teachings. This is deliberate on the part of the creators, because some of the morals conveyed in the show, such as the preciousness and value of all life, form the backbone of the story arc. This is highlighted especially by the EPIC finale of the show, in which Aang faces the Fire Lord Ozai, ruler of the Fire Nation, after Sozen’s comet gives him enormous power, enough to wipe out the world and start anew. While the plot of world destruction may not be that original, Aang’s response to the threat certainly is. The plot revolves around how Aang should defeat the Fire Lord and still retain his moral duty to never take a life, instilled in him by his monastic teachings. This is a serious dilemma for him, despite what all his friends say, because for Aang, even though this man clearly deserves to die, it is “not for him to decide” as Gandalf might say. Eventually, Aang channels his spiritual powers and in the final exciting battle, manages to take away Sozen’s firebending powers and subdue him without killing him. This is a clear message by the creators of the show that even someone as despicable as Ozai would still be spiritually wrong to destroy. This parallels the Buddhist and Hindu ideal of ahimsa, or nonviolence. As Lord Buddha said, ““Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself”. Indeed, Buddha himself encouraged vegetarianism, although it is said that a monk should not refuse to eat anything that is offered to him while begging, except if the meat has been killed specifically for him.

The main character Aang himself is a reincarnating hero or World Savior called the Avatar. An avatar is another word for a manifestation of a deity, more commonly used to describe manifestations of Hindu gods like Vishnu (Krishna was an avatar of Vishnu) but also could be used to describe manifestations of Buddhist deities such as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (in this sense, the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso is an avatar of Avalokiteshvara). The avatar concept in the show, used as a spiritual hero who comes back to help sentient beings in every lifetime, is clearly modeled on two Buddhist phenomenon, that of the bodhisattva or Enlightening Hero and the phenomenon of the tulku. A bodhisattva is one of the primary things that distinguishes the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) strand of Buddhism. In Mahayana teachings, there is not only Buddha Shakyamuni who taught the original teachings at Deer Park and under the Bodhi tree, but also countless bodhisattva-mahasattvas (Great enlightening beings) who purposefully reincarnate for the sake of all beings. This desire to purposefully reenter the cycle of rebirth and death (the thing you are supposed to get out of in the first place in Buddhism) is what distinguishes the Mahayana path, because it represents the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of all living beings. It is ultimate compassion embodied in the form of a great being, and this intention to become a bodhisattva is one of the highest teachings of Mahayana. In that sense, the Avatar is clearly a powerful bodhisattva.

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Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion

A tulku is a kind of Tibetan version of a bodhisattva, a reincarnation of a master that is recognized at an early age given rights as a high lama. This recognition usually happens by presenting the child with a series of tasks like recognizing possessions held by the previous incarnation, something famously done while trying to find the Dalai Lama (as depicted in movies like Seven Years in Tibet). I believe there was a scene in the Avatar show where Aang does exactly this process of recognizing the possessions of his last incarnation.

However, one of the main teachings in Buddhism is how to get out of the cycle of rebirth, or samsara. The way to get out of samsara is to renounce all worldly things and stop the cycle of negative emotions such as ignorance and desire itself. Samsara may not be alluded to in the show, but rebirth is definitely part of the universe of Avatar. However, one of the other themes Avatar the Last Airbender deals with is the theme of renunciation or the typical Buddhist concept of getting rid of all desire. In a pivotal episode of the show (episode 19 of Book Two: “The Guru”) Aang realizes that the only way to achieve his full potential and activate his Avatar powers is to completely renounce worldly life (i.e not fall in love with Katara). In a typically paradoxical Buddhist response, Aang decides to renounce renunciation and give up his desire to achieve full Avatar powers. This is something that may come as a shock for some people, because if Avatar is supposed to be true to Buddhism, then maybe this could be seen as some sort of Western depreciation of Buddhism. This is entirely not the case, for there are many examples of great masters, especially in the Zen tradition, but also in the Tibetan tradition, taking a wife and living as a lay person- in other words, giving up the desire to live in peace and solitude and accept the problems that come with worldly life. Maybe the historical Buddha may have disagreed with this approach, but in Mahayana it is definitely possible, depending on the karma and needs of particular beings, to be a great bodhisattva and be anyone at all, whether a fisherman, a beggar, a farmer, or even a prostitute. In Aang’s case, his full potential was clearly enhanced by his love and care shown by his girlfriend Katara. In Buddhism, this is obviously the highest thing of all, for as Buddha Shakyamuni said (Dhammapada verse 5) “Hatred will never cease by hatred, hatred will cease by love, this is an eternal rule”. In fact, becoming a bodhisattva is often depicted in scriptures as renouncing solitude in order to help other sentient beings, something Aang does when he decides to save Katara instead of pursue his spiritual aspirations.

The title of the episode where Aang realizes that he should give up full renunciation is aptly titled “The Guru”. Aang flies to the air temple and finds a yogi named Pathik who becomes his guru, which simply means teacher in Sanskrit (in Tibetan: lama). The guru is an important concept in Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, because in Tibetan Buddhism true enlightenment in one lifetime can only be achieved by reliance on a guru. Aang’s guru then begins teaching him the secrets of advanced yoga, which pertains to opening what are known as chakras. Chakras are an element of bodily yoga in Tantric Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism. Chakra means wheel, and there are variously 5, 7, or more wheels located in the central column of the body that control various channels or winds. The manipulation of these chakras in advanced yogic practices open the doors to complete enlightenment and involve the subtle manipulation of psychosomatic states. However, this practice is characterized as extremely dangerous, just as Aang’s is when he realizes he could lose his Avatar powers forever when going into the Avatar state (depicted as an advanced meditation state).

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Traditional Tibetan depiction of chakras or the subtle body

In short, while Avatar: The Last Airbender does not explicity endorse Eastern religion, it incorporates its heart and message, which is one of finding peace amidst turmoil and of adopting nonviolence. While the show may have violence, it does not endorse violence but rather always depicts its impact on real people. One episode I feel portrays this message well is Book 1, Episode 10 “Jet”. In this episode, Aang and his friends come across a gang of young outlaw children, a group of “Lost Boys” who have a “take no prisoners” approach to fighting the Fire Nation. The leader of the gang, Jet, lost his parents to the Fire Nation, and his subsequent rage makes him have no sympathy even for Fire Nation citizens. At the close of the episode, Aang and his friends have to stop Jet from destroying an earth nation town by flood because he wants to rid the valley of invading Fire Nation. This episode not only portrays how war can drive good people to do terrible things (and thus is a good example of how karma works) but also shows how the Avatar should react: that killing is never justified, let alone the killing of innocents for a “higher purpose”.

That ends my take on how Avatar the Last Airbender relates to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, hope you enjoyed it!