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 show 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 monks are shown throughout flashbacks to Aang’s past, before he was frozen in ice for 100 years, as Aang’s family and role models, and 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.
Throughout the series (I am too lazy to find particular episode numbers at the moment), 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, especially a human 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 is going to 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.
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 re-enter 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.
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, 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”.
That ends my take on how Avatar the Last Airbender relates to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, hope you enjoyed it!