When Buddhism and Mainstream Culture Don’t Get Along

The Last Airbender is a live action movie coming out on the weekend of July 4th based on a Nickelodean cartoons series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is being directed by M. Night Shyamalan and there is great controversy over various aspects of the film. I will be referring to the cartoon series as “Avatar”, not to be confused with James Cameron’s Avatar film.

I’ve blogged about Avatar before, noting how great it was to see a tv series geared towards children that featured a monk using Buddhist principles as the hero. Here is a very brief overview of what the tv series is about. Four Nations exist in a fantasy world – the Air, Fire, Water, and Earth nation. The Fire nation is waging war against the others, trying to take over the world they live in. They have successfully wiped out the Air Nation, composed mostly of monks, except for one child named Aang, who is the Avatar, or the one destined to save the universe. Certain people from each nation have the power to control their respective elements, hence, Aang is an airbender, or one who controls Air. Since Aang is the Avatar, is the only one with the skills to master all the elements and save the world from being destroyed by the Fire Nation. Aang been asleep for several years and has now reawakened to stop the Fire Nation.


Within the cartoon series, the Air Nation is heavily influenced by Buddhist culture and the main character Aang journeys through his mission of saving the world using Buddhist values and philosophy. Shyamalan recognizes the Buddhist culture in Avatar, noting that “I loved the characters in the story and I felt like I could be me inside this larger canvas of this very long-form movie […] Cultural differences at the center. It has Buddhism, Hinduism, things I’m interested in.”¹ Examples of Buddhist culture within Avatar are Buddhist attire (robes), meditation, reincarnation, nonviolence, and monk-hood. For more details of actual Buddhist concepts as part of the script, please see my previous Avatar blog post.

The Air Nation

While the controversy over Shymalan’s live action adaptation of the cartoon series mainly revolves around the whitewashing of the cast (for more information, please see Racebending), another interesting deviation from the cartoon series is Aang’s body tattoos. The tattoos is characteristic of the Air Nation people and in the cartoon series, it looks like this.

Aang's Tattoos
Aang's Tattoos from the back

However, the live action movie has chosen to change the look of the tattoos to this.

Aang's altered tattoos for the film

There is a notable difference in detail and shape, in that the live action movie has chosen to portray the tattoos to resemble Christian symbols. The tattoo is shaped much like a cross and it brings up the question of whether there is an attempt to dilute the Buddhist presence in the movie.

One might say that such a claim is too farfetched and that there is no need to make such a big fuss over such a small detail. Yet, there is reason to suspect that changing Aang’s tattoos has larger implications for how American media tends to portray its heroes. There have already been significant changes made in the making of the movie. First, the chosen cast does not physically represent the cast of the cartoon series (yellowface and whitewashing), which is important because this is one of the view cartoon series that features a full cast of characters that look Asian/Pacific Islander. Second, Shyamalan has chosen to remove the Chinese calligraphy that can be scene in the beginning segment of the cartoon series as well as on signs, books, and other items throughout the show. In a sense, there seems to be an attempt to take away the Eastern influences and replace them with more ambiguous imagery. While many people argue that Avatar is located in a fantasy world, I liken the show to Lord of the Rings, in which Middle Earth is a fantasy world but obviously influenced by European culture.

As more of the film is being gradually released (and eventually, Paramount plans to expand the movie to a trilogy), Aang’s tattoos may just be the beginning. Shyamalan’s decisions spark the question of whether it is okay for the one destined to be the world’s savior to resemble a Buddhist monk. I find it interesting that Shyamalan isn’t taking full advantage of Buddhism for his film. Buddhism is already openly used in mainstream American culture to sell and promote consumer items, whether related to Buddhism or not. While it is okay in much of mainstream advertising for Buddhism to make its appearance on lip balm health spas, and True Religion jeans, is it too much for an American audience to witness a Buddhist monk saving the world in Hollywood? Buddhism has certainly made its appearance in American films, but for a film originally targeted for young children, catered to envelop children in a fantasy world of friendship, development, and adventure, developed to match the popularity of Harry Potter, is Shyamalan afraid American audiences will not be willing to spend their bucks watching a monk save the world?

Even though altered adaptations in the film industry are fairly common, the movement against this film’s deviations is certainly a new and interesting phenomenon. Fans from all backgrounds have come together to speak against what they see as an unfaithful portrayal of the cartoon series they grown to love. Whether you find yourself judging the film from a cultural, racial, religious, or simply entertainment perspective, supporting or boycotting the movie, Avatar has been a pre-packaged opportunity for Hollywood to diversify film casting and feature aspects of Buddhism in an appropriate, meaningful context. While I won’t make definite judgments until I see the film, let’s just hope Shyamalan learns to take advantage of this opportunity to go beyond the precedents set in Hollywood.

“I’ve had enough movies now that I know that it’s really about the consistency and theintegrity of the work. There will be some that have huge successes box-office wise and some lesser, but the consistency of being honest to myself as an artist, the integrity is felt by the audience.

“You can feel it when somebody is chasing the audience or sold out in some way when they did something they didn’t 100-percent believe in.”
-M. Night Shyamalan, June 2008¹


Images from Racebending and Avatar Spirit.

17 Replies to “When Buddhism and Mainstream Culture Don’t Get Along”

  1. These are good questions and you’re definitely on to something with the tattoo. I really had high hopes for this film, but all these changes are disheartening! Let’s hope the whole is better than these parts.

  2. Thanks for commenting everyone.

    Rod, I love your blog! It focuses on the part of Buddhism that I am currently most interested in 🙂

    Claudia, I definitely agree. As you can probably tell, I am a huge fan and also had high hopes for the film. So far, the special effects make it look pretty neat but I hope flashy CGI effects doesn’t justify deviating from what made the cartoon series awesome.

  3. You brought up some really good points. Though I was/am not an avid Avatar fan, I did watch it occasionally and thought it was an interesting cartoon. I was pretty excited when I heard about the live action but sorely disappointed to find the ‘white-washed’ cast. It makes me feel that we, as a nation, have not come too far along from films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which I adore, but had Mickey Rooney playing a Asian man, and that saddens me.

  4. Meh – whitewashed . . . what a joke – it’s hollywood. Does that mean every character who voiced the cartoon had to be the race of the character?!? Nonsense.

    The best actors and actresses to fit the part in appearance, character, and ability get roles. To find a budhist 12 year old monk who knows martial arts, who is willing to “go hollywood” etc . . . would take an incredible amount of time . . . plus there are no guarantees . . . the same is true with the rest of the cast.

    As to the tatoos – it seems more of a natural and realistic expression of what the airbending tatoos would look like, rather than large solid racing stripes. Cartoons are 2D simple images. Creating realistic 3D images requires a little more thinking . . . btw, I see no cross whatsoever in the tatoo . . . I see the symbols of air from the series and a number of other marks that would indicate a person from the Southern Air Temple. A person with painted racing stripes would have looked so cheesy . . . I’m so glad they didn’t do it.

    1. “To find a budhist 12 year old monk who knows martial arts, who is willing to “go hollywood” etc . . . would take an incredible amount of time . . . plus there are no guarantees . . . the same is true with the rest of the cast.”

      Dude are you serious? find a 12 year old monk to go hollywood? hahah What a comedian. There are plenty of asian american 12 year old boy that can probably play that part.

      And yes i do see the cross. Open up your eyes.

      Two wrongs does not make it right

      As Two Wongs does not make it White!

  5. I agree that the actors portray sokka, katara, and zuko don’t look much like the animated versions, but Noah Ringer looks exactly like Aang.

    The whole race-bending controversy is extrapolating race from the clothes people wear. It doesn’t matter what race the character is, so long as the actor portraying them looks like them.

    Aang is pale, skinny, bald, with goofy ears and a slightly out of proportion head. Noah Ringer’s pale, skinny, bald, with goofy ears and a slightly out of proportion head.

  6. if you look at a lot of Thai tattoos for protection and spirituality there is actually a lot more relevance to look and design then to Christianity. it seems that there was an attempt to meld many different beliefs together but because of the dominance of Christianity the frist thing noticed was the cross due to the orentation of the design.

  7. Its so sad that Shyamalan would cast Indians as the bad guys and white people as the good guys. Also, Western Buddhists are so self-loathing …. like Barbara O’Brien who regularly trashes Buddhism and makes fun of the Dharma and yet gets to host the About Buddhism page. Buddhists in the West are a disgrace.

  8. I don’t think Shyamalan is trying to put christian symbols in there at all, he has a style and look of his own when it comes to his movies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending or criticizing him for his work, however if you look at all movies that were based off of games, anime, books, ect they all differ (usually greatly) from the original source. It all depends on the people in charge of the movie. Besides, the cross was originally a pagan symbol, and I don’t think the all seeing eye (top of the triangle in the middle of the cross) has ever really been considered christian, as a pagan with interests in religion and symbology (and not just the religious kind) these are things I have studied and experienced. Ithink he is just adding his touch to the movie since he couldn’t have one of his signature twist endings.
    As far as not finding a 10 year old monk to go Hollywood, look at Jet Li, he was found in a Shaolin temple…
    I also don’t believe he was trashing Indians, He merely used different races to express that the tribes were from different regions, he did nothing to express that Indians were the “bad guys”, if you have seen the movie he makes no mention of any real life country.
    To quote one of my favorite characters
    “Perhaps if humanity focused less on what separates us from one another and more on what we could learn from our differences, we would stop killing one another.”
    Dr Mallard (Ducky) NCIS.
    Just thought I’d throw in my two cents.

  9. THE LAST AIR BENDER MOVIE NOT THE SHOW FRIKIN SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  11. When Christianism started, it didn’t take long until it became “Judaism without Jewish people”.
    It’s some kind of weird religion parasite that can’t come up with their own religious philosophy, so they have to steal it from other people, from Pagans and Celts to Asians and Africans.
    American Protestantism wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t sucked from native Americans, and every other group of immigrants they absorbed in the name of “One Nation Under God”.

    I’m glad I didn’t watch this movie because it was awful.

  12. I believe that there wasn’t as much Buddhist influence in the movie as in the Show. I myself am a European decendant, but my religion is Buddhism. Personally, I think this takes away from the full affect of the movie. What person wouldn’t want to see a non-violent monk save the world? It’s something that makes it interesting, you know? A lot of people view Buddhism as a small religion with no value to people at all. If you think about it, did you ever notice how violent Christianity is? I am not saying anything bad about it, of course, but Buddhism helps to see the beautiful side to the world and to yourself. People need to see those things. Did you also know that Buddhist’s love everyone, even when they’re attempting to kill us Buddhists’? Anyways, I think America could use a bit of the Buddhist culture! -Rinzen(Hannah), 14, Ohio-

  13. I am a Buddhist in the west, of Mahayana tradition. You judge to harshly, no one people are completely bad, in fact all people were born good, joyful and innocent. All beings are Buddhas already that is why Buddha means awakened and not attained, because if you have a possibility and realise it then it is awakening. You cannot let a few rotten apples spoil the bunch as the wrongs of many people should not be attributed to them until all the people have wronged. Where has your understanding gone?

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