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!

 

 

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25 thoughts on “Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy

  1. Interesting.

    Choosing to come back on purpose. There’s a lot of questions that can come up about that choosing.

    But so far as communication:
    Is communication between enlightened and unenlightened states possible?

    If they are, then why does not everyone choose enlightenment?

    Ive been pondering how the modern state Is the enlightened state, and what occurs when ‘everyone’ is enlightened.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So the best way I can answer this is in the context of Buddhist philosophy. If Zizek a remark about this, to problematize it, he is correct in doing so, it seems strange that a Buddha would come back at all and not just “stay in nirvana”. This would take awhile to completely answer, but here’s the thing- Buddha actually contemplated just staying in his enlightened state and not teaching. He thought after he achieved enlightenment- “whats the point? No one is going to understand me at all. I should remain silent, what I have found cannot be taught”. But his compassion for beings was too strong and he did it anyway.

      There are perhaps different ways of answering your question depending on the school of Buddhism you are talking about. But I see it like this- a bodhisattva purposefully comes back to the world of samsara, even though as you said samsara and sentient beings are illusions, because relatively their suffering is real. Its kind of a paradox- sentient beings don’t know that their suffering is illusory, so they need to be taught that. SO as a Tibetan master said- “even though your View should be higher than the sky, your actions should be finer than flour”. With perfect knowledge, a Buddha can remain in the world and not be tainted by it. From a Mahayana perspective, samsara and nirvana are one in the same…

      Also, in Buddhism, in certain texts, it says that when all beings are enlightened, the job of all bodhisattvas is done, and everything returns to the ground of perfection and emptiness (the Dharmakaya). This is all relates to complex Buddhist doctrine of the “three bodies of a Buddha”. Basically, a Buddha can compassionately manifest into the world while still remaining in his “Buddha body”

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      1. Here’s is definitely an exercise in understanding, concept, existence, and all those things.

        I think I was reading on wiki or something about hammer some website, how the purpose of such a person is to shock people out of their sleep.

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      2. I have difficulty with the contradiction involved with enlightenment having anything to do with imposing some sort of discipline upon sum sort of conceptual being.

        I tend to think that these conceptual in positions are yet for their lessons and how that particular approach is incorrect for the understanding that it is trying to convey.

        One OfZizeks questions also confronts this seeming contradiction: are we dealing here with actual true essences of universal substance and or non-substance? Or are we dealing with merely conceptual frames that the human being manifests as a sort of universal biological entity? Is for example the seven fold path A manner to transcend actual physical world Lee essential truth? Or is this path Marilia kind of strategy of dealing with living life?

        Does the practice of say yoga really get a person in touch with some essential nature of the universe?

        Is in lighten meant actually some sort of essential universal attainment where the person actually essentially transcends this human frame of existing in the world?

        Or is enlightenment merely a particular type of creating context and meaning that is really just coincidental to a semantic frame that already exists within those type of people?

        Kind of on a sidenote:
        My question is always been if there is a happy pass, so to speak, if there is a way to avoid for example sadness and anger depression anxiety hatred and violence, then why wouldn’t I do that?

        If I had a choice between living a life where I’m pissed off all the time having anxiety over things having insecurities and stuff like that, and being content and happy and all those things we consider good, why would I not choose to be happy all the time?

        Now I know there is the kind of thing like hey you can’t have happiness without sadness, or the default of conceptual failure that says oh it’s just a matter of learning how to deal with these necessary contingencies that happens in every life.

        So then I would refrain Buddhism and say oh well then this Buddhist thing has to do really with just negotiating these things in life they’re going to happen anyways.

        So then in what way am I making some sort of choice for example to take the seven fold path?

        If there are these people that have achieved enlightenment such that they are communicating to us some sort of path to enlightenment, then what sort of choice does anyone have either to return from enlightenment or to choose the seven fold path in order to attain enlightenment?

        I tend to consider that just the plane ability to bring up questions in this way shows that enlightenment really means nothing, and that the sages I really not helping us or helping me, there really totally an entirely helping themselves, except so much and someone doesn’t bring these types of questions into the conceptionally equation.

        OK I’ll shut up now. Lol.

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      3. … oh. That’s what brings me to say that I think everyone that exist in our modern times is enlightened, because the very term means next to nothing. And this is a symptom of our times that ideologies politics exit stench your questions are really grounded in nothing, at least today

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      4. Well, its complicated. I don’t really care about that because what we wrote and taught was so good. Some people justify it by saying “Trungpa was in the crazy wisdom tradition” which means that he had a more Zen-like approach. He never claimed to be a monastic, first of all, he was a lay person, Nyingma school has a lot of lay people. So that’s a common misconception people have, because all Buddhist teachers are supposed to be monks with no flaws or desires. But in tantra its different, its all about working with your desires. Disciples of Trungpa would probably say something like “he only appeared drunk, he was lucid the whole time”. I think the big takeaway from Trungpa is he kind of liberalized the Tibetan tradition, opened the ground for exploration of other Western philosophies and such with Buddhism. He was also an excellent artist, his English was quite good, and through it all he never became like a charlatan. There’s this one dialogue he has with like Krishnamurti where Krishnamurti goes on and on about religion and Trungpa just has this calm center, completely at peace. Its really interesting, he was an intellectual, but managed to be intellectual about getting beyond thought. Pretty profound really. Id recommend his book “True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art”

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  2. So a few thoughts on your questions. First of all, there’s a book by a Buddhist master named Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, called “Not for Happiness”. A lot of people think that Buddhism is about achieving happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth!! It’s not about your own personal happiness at all- that is the path of “personal liberation” as they say, which isn’t achieving full enlightenment. Its about achieving a higher view and compassion toward all living beings. Very Zizekian in that respect- if I don’t want to enjoy, I don’t have to.

    The problem with stopping suffering is that people are literally addicted to suffering. This is another way Buddhism is like Lacan in a way. They are addicted to their own momentary pleasures and therefore to suffering. So sometimes people are presented with a way out, and they don’t take it, they “aren’t ready to receive”

    As to whether its a transcendental thing or just a way to be a better human being, that’s for you to decide.

    I think in a lot of ways people like Zizek are profound on some levels, but need to delve deeper into Eastern insights. There’s more there than meets the eye. Also, I may have committed some sort of cardinal sin. Here’s why compassion doesn’t conflict with reality not having inherent existence:

    “(11) Teaching voidness to those whose minds are untrained

    The primary objects of this downfall are persons with the bodhichitta motivation who are not yet ready to understand voidness. Such persons would become confused or frightened by this teaching and consequently abandon the bodhisattva path for the path of personal liberation. This can happen as a result of thinking that if all phenomena are devoid of inherent, findable existence, then no one exists, so why bother working to benefit anyone else? This action also includes teaching voidness to anyone who would misunderstand it and therefore forsake the Dharma completely, for example by thinking that Buddhism teaches that nothing exists and is therefore sheer nonsense. Without extrasensory perception, it is difficult to know whether others’ minds are sufficiently trained so that they will not misconstrue the teachings on the voidness of all phenomena. Therefore, it is important to lead others to these teachings through explanations of graduated levels of complexity, and periodically to check their understanding.”

    Basically, emptiness/shunyata does not mean nothing exists. This is repeated AD NAUSEUM in the texts, and the fact that Zizek doesn’t know that clearly reveals he hasn’t really done extensive Buddhist philosophy research

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    1. I have never met a person knowledgable in Buddhist – Hindu teachings/words/terms who had the time or patience to want to inform me. Thank you.

      For quite some time I have intuitively known that Budd-Hind must have addressed these aspects/features/knowledge that I have come upon; I knew they must and I know they must but I have not had the path to investigate. It is enough that I knew and know and that at some points there will be junctures for such conveyances.

      This must be one of those times.

      Again. Thank you so much. I had only a hunch.

      There is only the Way. (Isn’t that Taoism? The Way) onward.

      At some point I will write a sort of ‘philosophical translation’ of East-west thought. But I have known that I would need someone who could tell me how it is, because there are just too many texts, too many terms and interrelations of terms – I could spend a life time probably attempting to study it and I would only get half way. Someone native to the thought would have to help me.

      For right now I am laying the Western groundwork.

      *

      Are you a political scientist?

      I get the feeling you are more into politics. You said you went to a political conference.

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      1. Yeah no problem! I’ve read a lot of Buddhists texts as that’s my thing (not very knowledgeable about Hinduism). So any other discussions you’d like to have would be appreciated too. Yeah a philosophical translation from East-West would be a great (and lengthy) project. Very difficult. I’d say a good jumping off point though is just the concept of emptiness and Indian philosophers who wrote the most about it- Nagarjuna, but also just the scriptures themselves like the Heart Sutra.
        I’m an anthropologist, but I’m super into politics:) Politics is related to what I focus on and study, which is stuff related to the environment. But that stuff gets boring, so I tend to write about politics and religion on here

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      1. I think so too. There is definitely more than meets the eye when he talks about Buddhism and ideology, and his critiques. But when he talks about emptiness, its complicated. If I could debate him, I would probably say something like “emptiness isn’t as nihilistic as you think” but then he would probably push back with the thing about Zen and the samurai and how they get into a religious state of mind to kill…idk

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  3. I have a BA in cultural Anthro from UC Santa Cruz.

    And I took a bunch of philosophy courses to but it didn’t work out that I had a minor in philosophy or religious studies or anything.

    But you may be interested in my book “the moment of decisive significance: a heresy”. If only as a kind of anthropological approach to religious texts and then that even coupled with your kind of Buddhist philosophy, say, and even so much as it only from political aspects.

    And actually I don’t know how much time free time you have or even interest, but I did five revisions on my self published. book, and I still found there were errors formatting and typo. So I just kind of gave up for a little while on editing it. Lol. But at some point I’m going to reapproach the book and do something with it and make sure it’s perfect and then maybe re-print it as a trade paper.

    because I basically had no input on how to structure my book now a couple years later upon reflecting I feel that I could approach it in a different way.
    only a small number people have read it and they like it and understand it but i’m going to clean it up and just make it more presentable and then maybe one day actually kind of maybe market it somehow I don’t now. 😄

    I don’t know if you would be interested in reading the book but maybe also giving me some input on it, maybe both from a content standpoint but then also from my logistical standpoint of just how I am presenting it.

    But I understand you’re probably very busy and it’s OK if you don’t have the time or interest ; it’s totally cool.

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    1. Yeah definitely! Send me it through email- I might not have as much time as I would like this year, this year I have to complete my masters, but it would be a nice thing to do in my spare time. My email is sra3fk@virginia.edu. I got my bachelors from University of Virginia. I promise not to steal your ideas or anything:)

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      1. Thanks so much for at least the intention. It’s just about 400 Pgs I’m in no hurry. Though. As you might have surmised.

        I’ll send it over soon.

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    2. I’m currently working on a REALLY rough draft for a fiction book, maybe I’ll put up some excerpts on the blog. Its like a sci-fi/Buddhist philosophy epic. In the earliest stages, but its a nice idea. But yeah I have some experience peer editing and such, its an enjoyable thing for me really

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      1. When you got it going. Il totally proof it for you .scifi Buddhist fiction. I can dig it 😁

        I’ll send a PDF. And even if you gave me only some feed back on presentation. It would be great.

        Or you could just let me know stuff. As you come across it.

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