How Can You Watch A Show About Buddhism?

I confess that I am a bit embarrassed to admit it, but the truth is that I watched the complete series of Avatar: The Last Airbender and loved it (thanks again Netflix). I always swore that I would never like anime and Asian-style cartoons. I have since learned that this is to my shame. But what I loved most about this particular cartoon was the gripping story and endearing characters. I loved watching the story of Aang unfold as he attempted to restore balance to the world.

At some point during the series, however, a thought arose in my mind: there are some Christians who would be ardently opposed to watching this cartoon because it is rooted in Asian religions. How could a Christian, and a pastor no less, justify watching a cartoon that is rooted in a falsehood? My answer: Good art helps us to understand better both the Biblical and un-Biblical aspects of our world and selves.

Even though The Last Airbender is rooted in Asian philosophies and religions it is not an exact model of one. It’s not strictly a Buddhist cartoon, though it clearly contains elements from Buddhism. It is a collection of elements and themes from various Asian religions and philosophies, but not one singular representation. But what’s most interesting for me is that in many cases the show reflects Christian concepts, particularly love and self-sacrifice.

Take for example Aang’s self-sacrifice. I recognize that love of thy  neighbor is not exactly isolated to the Christian religion, but in Buddhism, at least (and Aang, after all, is a Buddhist monk), the highest ideal is spiritual enlightenment. Spiritual enlightenment cannot be attained by killing another. Aang is instructed by previous Avatars that this is what he must do. He must forgo the attainment of Nirvana in order to save the world. It is a beautiful, if clearly nuanced, picture of the work of Christ.

All religions are not equal. I am distinctly orthodox on this point. There is only one way to heaven and only one name for salvation: Jesus Christ. Yet my appreciation of art is not limited to only those that blatantly represent this truth. I can enjoy all art that reflects the truths of Scripture, and I can still learn much about my world from those who disagree with my faith. And Avatar: The Last Airbender, Christian or not, is good art!

About Dave Dunham
  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    Maybe I’m crossing the line into heresy here (though I don’t think I am)…

    I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a problem of a Christian watching a show rooted in a falsehood. I would classify it more as a Christian watching a show rooted in a not-fully-revealed truth.

    I had a religion professor in college who was fond of saying that religions don’t last for thousands of years unless there’s at least some truth in them. Judaism is old, but Hinduism is older. Christianity is old, but Buddhism is older. I fully believe that there is at least some truth in these ancient religions, though not the full revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

    I can appreciate the beauty and wisdom and truth of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I do not place my belief or my faith in and of the Hindu gods, Buddha, or the Tao, but I can appreciate the truth that is revealed in them.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    I don’t think there’s any reason to be embarrassed about liking Avatar: The Last Airbender: it’s a fantastic show. I watched the entire series earlier this year and loved it (I’ve posted some thoughts of my own here).

    Personally, I never thought of the show as a “Buddhist cartoon” either. To me, such a term implies a show that attempts to preach and convert others to Buddhism, but the show rarely (if ever) stoops to proselytizing. As I wrote:

    …the Eastern concepts in the series are simply “there”, coloring and lending cohesiveness and consistency to its mythology. Or to put it another way, I’d never describe the series as an outreach tool for Buddhism — this is, by no means, some sort of animated Jack Chick tract. What’s more, there’s much in the series for Christians to agree with and even praise. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the need for grace and forgiveness, the effects of violence and the costly nature of seeking to understand and love one’s enemies are never shied away from, and the series displays a surprisingly nuanced view of humanity’s capacity for both good and evil.

    As much as I liked Aang, it was Zuko’s storyline that impressed me the most. I won’t spoil anything, but his arc was absolutely fascinating, and the best example of the series’ treatment of the struggle between good and evil that occurs within. In some ways, I’d argue that he was the series’ true hero, if not the titular one.

    Sidenote: I’d highly recommend checking out the movies of Hayao Miyazaki if you haven’t already: Avatar: The Last Airbender was almost certainly influenced by them. All of his movies are worth checking out, but Princess Mononoke might be a good place to start. It contains the same sort of epic world-building and Eastern-influenced mythology, as well as a nuanced exploration of human nature.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Zuko (at his sympathetic best): “That’s rough, guy.”

  • Elijah

    Hey, I’m buddhist. The show is honestly a balance between several eastern thought processes as well as western, and there’s tons of ethical dilemmas in there. Honestly the fire nation seems to me to represent progress. This progress ushers in great prosperity for it’s nation but destroys spirituality in a layman. Oh, and alot of us buddhists in western society cling closely to the words of Jesus. I don’t believe he’s the son of God (sorry I guess?), but definitely one of the greatest teachers ever.

  • Marceline

    Yeah, I’m also Buddhist, I’ve got lots of roots in deism though. I thought avatar was a beautiful interpretation of many eastern and some western cultures for an anime/cartoon. A lot of the Buddhist teacherings are of similar heart to Jesus, and also agree that this isn’t a conversion thing. I feel like it demonstrates positive ideas from many sources. I think it’s nice to have a show available to younger people that can give new perspectives, which this one does :)

  • Shawn

    I have to say, this does raise a good point about how the series has a few roots in Eastern spirituality and theology. Regardless, though, I think a Christian can benefit from this series. In the 2nd season, one Guru Pathik (who is probably one of my favorite characters simply because of his mannerisms) explains the Hindu concept of the “chakras,” which he explains as, and I paraphrase here, “conduits of metaphysical or biological energy within the body. While I know that The Holy Spirit is what guides us, the particular episode does highlight that we need to rid ourselves of 1) fear, 2)guilt at our past transgressions, 3) any refusal to accept the gifts God has given us, 4) grief, 5) falsehoods, 6) unclear concepts of the reality God has created, and 7) unwillingness to let go of worldly aspirations to pursue God’s desire for our lives, in order to better become who God has made us to be. He knows who we are fully, and so we must be willing to do what we have to to become as He desires. Only then will we be truly happy in Him. Or, as Pathik would say, “cosmic energy shall be fully reached within one’s self.” ;)

    Regardless, it is a grand series which anyone would benefit from!


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