Nickelodeon Featuring the Dharma

Okay, I admit the title of this post is not quite accurate. Actually, it should read “Nickelodeon Featuring the Avatar”.

Since 2005, Nickelodeon has featured an animated series called Avatar the Last Airbender, airing three seasons and winning an Emmy Award in American animated television series. Originally tageted twoards 6-11 year olds, this show has gained popularity among many outside the age bracket – including me. What I find most intriguing about Avatar is that it features a main character, a child monk named Aang, who adheres to Buddhist principles and even talks about basic Buddhist ideas such as forgiveness, nonviolence, and attachment. Though Nickelodeon never directly refers to Buddhism, the fact that one of the most popular and widely watched networks targeted towards children features a hero that succeeds in his journey based upon Buddhist concepts is amazing. I applaud Nickelodeon for producing this show and encourage anyone interested after reading this post to watch it for themselves. 

WARNING: this post MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS for those of you who have not watched all three seasons of Avatar.

 

Now for those of you who have never heard of this show, let me give you a brief summary of the story. It is set in an imaginary, Asian-based world divided among four kingdoms (Earth, Water, Air, Fire). In this world, there are people called “benders”, who can manipulate a certain element – thus, an “earth-bender” manipulates the earth. The story begins with the Fire nation at war, trying to destroy and take over all the other nations. So far, the Air nation (a society of peaceful monks) has been wiped out. Only the Avatar, who can control all four elements and thus is the most poweful bender, can stop the Fire nation and bring the world to peace. Knowing this, the Fire nation has set out to find the Avatar and destroy him. The last avatar came from the fire nation but has died; the next avatar is said to be reincarnated as a monk from the air nation. Therefore, they have wiped out the Air nation first (hence his title as the LAST airbender), but still have not found the new Avatar. This Avatar has been frozen in an iceberg, in an unconscious and inactive state for 100 years, until two kids from the Water nation find him. Thus the whole show is about the new Avatar’s journey to develop his bending powers and stop the Fire nation from destroying the world. If this was all too confusing for you, you can read another summary on its Wiki page.

So how does this have anything to do with the Dharma or Buddhism?

Well, the new Avatar, named Aang, is from the Air nation, which seems to be based off of the Buddhist Sangha. While Nickelodeon does not directly associate them with Buddhism in any way, the people of the Air nation are dressed in robes,  live among temples, practice meditation, and most importantly, many of the things Aang, the main character of this show, says are similar if not the same as the Dharma.

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In Season 3, Episode 16: The Southern Raiders, Katara, one of the two kids from the Water Nation that found Aang, is confronted with a chance to find the Fire Nation military officer that killed her mother. Throughout the show, she expresses hatred towards the Fire Nation for killing her mother and so she eagerly takes this opportunity to get revenge. I have provided the script to parts of the episode that I felt adhere to Buddhism. (Zuko – Fire nation prince who has agreed to help the Avatar defeat the Fire Lord, Sokka – Katara’a sister)

 

Aang: (Cut to Aang who is surprised) Oh. What’s going on‌
Katara: We’re going to find the man who took my Mother from me.

(Cut to a surprised Sokka as he lays the necklace aside and stands up.)

Zuko: (off screen) Sokka told me the story of what happened. I know who did it. And I know how to find him.
Aang: Umm… and what exactly do you think this would accomplish‌
Katara: (sighs and shakes her head) I knew you wouldn’t understand. (She begins to walk away)
Aang: (Cut to a close up of Katara as Aang and Sokka look on behind her) Wait, stop, I do understand. You’re feeling unbelievable pain and rage. How do you think I felt about the sandbenders when they stole Appa‌ How do you think I felt about the Fire Nation when I found out what happened to my people‌
Zuko: (off screen) She needs this, (everyone turn their eyes towards him) Aang. This is about getting closure and justice.
Aang: I don’t think so. I think it’s about getting revenge.
Katara: (off screen) Fine! (Cut to an angry and frustrated Katara) Maybe it is. Maybe that’s what I need. Maybe that’s what he deserves.
Aang: Katara, you sound like Jet.
Katara: (defensively) It’s not the same. Jet attacked the innocent. This man, he’s a monster.
Sokka: Katara, she was my Mother too. But I think Aang might be right.
Katara: Then you didn’t love her the way I did.
Sokka: (speechless) Katara…
Aang: The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed ratviper. While you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.
Zuko: That’s cute. But this isn’t air temple pre-school. It’s the real World.
Katara: (Camera zooms out to place Katara on screen) Now that I know he’s out there, now that I know we could find him, I feel like I have no choice.
Aang: Katara, you do have a choice. Forgiveness.
Zuko: That’s the same as doing nothing.
Aang: (shakes head) No it’s not. It’s easy to do nothing. (Camera slowly zooms in) But it’s hard to forgive.
Katara: (Cut to Katara who looks on darkly) It’s not just hard, it’s impossible.

At the end of the episode, they succeed in finding the Fire Nation officer who took away Katara’s mother. However, Katara cannot set herself to kill the officer and they return home.

Zuko: (off screen) You were right about what Katara needed. (Cut to Zuko and Aang who smiles) Violence wasn’t the answer.
Aang: It never is.

Zuko: Then I have a question for you. (He turns towards Aang and camera cuts to a close up of Zuko) What are you going to do when you face my Father‌

(Cut to Aang who is stunned at the question and looks to the side, unsure and confused. Fade to white.)

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In Season 3, Episode 18: The Phoenix King, Aang faces the dilemma of killing the Fire Lord while he and his friends are training. While his friends find it easy and obvious to kill the Fire Lord, Aang believes there has to be another way to stop the Fire Lord without killing him.

 

Zuko: Well that sweet little kid grew up to be a monster. And the worst Father in the history of Fathers.
Aang: But he is still a human being. (Everyone looks at him as the camera pans to Aang)
Zuko: You’re going to defend him‌
Aang: No, I agree with you. Fire Lord Ozai (stands up and faces the group) is a horrible person and the World will probably be better off without him. There’s gotta be another way.
Zuko: (off screen) Like what‌
Aang: (shrugs) I don’t know. Maybe (raises both arms as if he was holding a bowl) we can make some big pots of glue and then I can use gluebending to stick his arms and legs together so he can’t bend anymore.
Zuko: (sarcastically) Yeah. Then you can show him his baby pictures and all those happy memories (everyone starts to laugh and snicker) will make him good again.
Aang: (naively) Do you really think that would work‌
Zuko: (seriously and sternly) No!
Aang: (drops his head and sighs) This goes against (paces up and down, looking at his hands) everything I learned from the monks. I can’t just go around wiping out people I don’t like…
Sokka: Sure, you can. You’re the Avatar. If it’s in the name of keeping balance, (Aang balls up his fist as he struggles to contain his temper) I’m pretty sure the Universe will forgive you.
Aang: (Cut to Aang’s back as he rapidly turns around and bursts out) This isn’t a joke, Sokka! None of you understands the position I’m in!
Katara: Aang, we do understand. It’s just…
Aang: (rudely interrupts) Just what, Katara‌! What‌
Katara: (Cut back to Katara who is visibly annoyed) We’re trying to help.
Aang: (Cut back to Aang) Then when you (points at Katara) figure out a way for me (brings his hands back to his chest) to beat the Fire Lord without (makes a “no” gesture with his arm) taking his life, I love to hear it! (Raises his arms in exasperation and walks away.)
Katara: Aang, don’t walk away from this. (She begins to walk towards him as a hand touches her shoulder to stop her from doing so.)
Zuko: Let him go. He needs time to sort it out by himself.

 

By Season 3, Episode 21: Avatar Aang, he has defeated the Fire Lord without killing him by taking away his fire-bending powers. Aang has found a method of ahceiving his goal without sacrificing his morals and causing more suffering. (Ozai – the Fire Lord, Suki – one of Aang’s friends)

Sokka: You did it! You should have seen yourself, it was amazing! (He lifts his arms from both girls shoulders and stands on one leg, lifting his bandaged leg off the ground) You were all like, (he proceeds to make several punching gestures) “pshoom, pfoom, pfoom, phish, whoom”, and then the Fire Lord was all like, (he pretends to choke himself) “eugh, eh, eh, eh, eugh, aye”.

(Cut to Aang’s sideview as Suki carefully inspects Ozai who is slumped against a rock.)

Suki: So, did you… (points at Ozai) you know…finish the job‌
Ozai: (Cut to a close up of Ozai as he stirs angrily) I’m still alive.

(Suki draws herself back from the ex-Fire Lord. Cut to a slight overhead view of the pillar.)

Aang: I learned there was another way to defeat him and restore balance. I took his bending away.

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A live action movie based on Avatar animated series is under production to due to be released in theatres in Summer 2010. The movie will be directed by M. Night Shyamalan and so far Noah Ringer, Jackson Rathbone (Twilight), Nicola Peltz, and Jesse McCartney have been announced to be part of the cast. Oh dear.

I would like to thank AvatarSpirit.Net for providing screenshots and episode transcripts on their website.

9 comments

  1. Uku says:

    Avatar is awesome. I used to watch it with my kids. But now they don’t show it anymore in Finland’s telly so that’s it for now. No problemo, there are other tv-series too and other things to do. 🙂

  2. Mel says:

    I love this show. I’m Pagan and my oldest child as taken an interested in learning about different religions . This show is great for teaching the kids at their level more about other religious ideals IE Buddhism . I believe the child show learn about all the religions so he or she can understand more before they choose their own path.

  3. here says:

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  4. Kevin says:

    My kids and I worked our way through the Avatar series on DVD last year. We’ve all really enjoyed it. I explained the concept of reincarnation to my kids, and I assumed that buddhist influence was at work, although I’m utterly ignorent of Indian religious teachings.

    I recently stumbled across the “BUDDHA” graphic novel series by Osamu Tezuka, written back in the 80’s. In book4(?) the character who is to become the buddha shaves his head and behold! It is Aang! No question in my mind that the Avatar artists modeled Aang after Tezuka’s depiction of Siddhartha (Buddha).

    I’m inspired now to to learn more about buddhism, and I look forward to re-watching Avatar. Most episodes have implied moral messages and it will be ‘enlightening’ to make the connections with buddhist teachings.

    Today I noticed that Avatar’s Prince Zuko and BUDDHA’s Dhepa both have a burned eye, sport a shaved head, and sometimes act as nemesis to Aang/Buddha. Should make for interesting further reading.

    Thanks for the article.

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