Water, earth, fire, air. The Buddha taught these four classical elements to his followers as a foundation for mindfulness practice and a reminder of the interconnectedness of all beings. But if you list these four elements to a room of twenty-somethings, you’re more likely to prompt a recitation of the opening sequence of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar first premiered on Nickelodeon in 2005, and was added to Netflix in May—much to the delight of a generation of lifelong fans. The show’s popularity is evidenced by its record-breaking streak on Netflix’s “Top 10” most-watched list. Despite originally being targeted at a younger audience, the Emmy award-winning television series quickly attained cultish popularity among teenagers and adults for its unique blend of whimsy and wisdom. The New Yorker described it—in a review written a decade and a half after Avatar’s release—as “politically resonant” and “emotionally sophisticated.” Drawing inspiration from Buddhism and other Asian religions, Avatar also explores the thorny question of how to act on one’s spirituality and ethical convictions in situations that are not clear-cut.
The world of Avatar is one of magic, mysticism, martial arts, and made-up animals. But the youthful antics and flying bison are presented against a troubling backdrop. Set in an Asiatic world split into four nations, the series begins in the midst of an imperialist war launched by the Fire Nation against the nations of the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads. Throughout the show, benders from each nation, who can manipulate one of the corresponding elements of water, earth, fire, or air, must decide whether they will use their abilities to fight against, or for, tyrannical forces. The bending styles and traditions of the nations borrow heavily from various Eastern traditions, histories, and religions, with the Air Nation in particular resembling aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.
The series follows 12-year-old Aang, a peaceful airbender and the next reincarnation of the Avatar, who has the unique ability to control all four elements and is responsible for restoring balance to the world. Aang was brought up by monks in the Southern Air Temple, where all airbenders don robes of saffron orange and yellow, shave their heads, and live a vegetarian lifestyle based on principles of nonviolence. The names of Aang’s mentor, Gyatso, and Aang’s (future) airbender son, Tenzin, are nods to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
Like the Dalai Lama, the Avatar is thought to be reincarnated over many lifetimes. As a young child, Aang selected four relics from among thousands of toys, thereby confirming his identity as the reincarnation of the Avatar—a process resembling the one used to identify the Dalai Lama. Years later, upon learning his identity as the Avatar, Aang rejects his immense responsibility to the world and flees the temple. Aang’s struggle to accept his role as the Avatar recalls the debate among Buddhists over the extent to which monastics and practitioners should engage in worldly matters.
Since the show came to Netflix, many who grew up watching Avatar have nostalgically returned to it and now recognize complex themes of systemic injustice that they didn’t detect as children: the Fire Nation’s fascism and imperialism, the genocide of Aang’s people and his grief around the death of his culture (an apparent allusion to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution), and the Earth Kingdom’s extreme government surveillance and dissent-quelling police force. Just as some Buddhist leaders have been imploring people to challenge their own implicit racial biases and participation in systems of racism, the young Avatar’s efforts to expose abuses of power in the Earth Kingdom’s capital, Ba Sing Se, evoke Buddhism’s four noble truths: one must face the reality of suffering in order to work toward an end of suffering.
One viewer, 24-year-old Maggie Wolfe, told Tricycle that she hoped rewatching Avatar would provide a brief emotional escape from the coronavirus pandemic and America’s systemic racial and economic inequality, but instead, the show felt “painfully relevant.” Wolfe, a New York City resident, was reminded of how even the liberal-leaning city is reckoning with police brutality. She said, “The same problems exist here, because they’re so institutionalized. They exist everywhere.”
Another viewer, 23-year-old Jenny Lee, felt that Aang’s struggle to choose between violent and nonviolent means to restore balance between the four nations was pertinent to the current moment of civil unrest. “We can all live by the idea of nonviolence and respecting one another and caring for one another,” Lee said, “but at the end of the day, we have to retaliate against oppressive forces”—just as Aang must retaliate against Fire Lord Ozai, the show’s supervillain. Shortly before Aang’s epic battle with the Fire Lord, he connects to his past Avatar lives, hoping they can provide a solution that does not involve killing. Yet, each Avatar, including a past Air Nomad Avatar, urges Aang to stop the Fire Lord at whatever cost. Although Aang ultimately chooses to abstain from taking life in the pursuit of justice, Lee appreciated that the show does not present nonviolence as the only option, nor does it equate nonviolence with passivity.
Yet the beloved fantasy world of Avatar is not without its flaws. Although Avatar broke new ground in Western childrens’ media by centering Asian identities, the show’s creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, both of whom are white, have also drawn criticism for appropriating the Asian cultures that pervade the show’s lore, from the garb of the different nations to the names of its characters. Viewers have mixed opinions on the issue. The New York Times recently praised the series for creating a world “free of whiteness” while also “conscientiously navigating the tricky minefield of cultural appropriation.” Viewer Tsering Say disagreed, suggesting that the show’s “weird mismatch of indigenous and Asian cultures” does a disservice to the cultures they borrow from. Jenny Lee added: “Some of the plot lines and references to Asian histories pull inspiration from too many countries and blend them into one … Certain histories are too complicated to melt down into easy consumable media.”
While Avatar presents complex political and social issues that are rarely seen in children’s shows, it still follows the common trope that defeating a single evil villain will also defeat all evil forces, noted 23-year-old Tsering Say. Although Say enjoyed rewatching the show as an adult, she wished that it had focused less on individual culpability. Restoring balance in the world of Avatar is contingent on Aang’s defeating Fire Lord Ozai, but in our world, Say pointed out, the notion that simply opposing individual wrongdoing will bring an end to systemic injustice is as far-fetched as bending the elements with a wave of the hand.
The show is not all doom and gloom, however. Even with the responsibility of saving the world on his shoulders, Aang and his friends make sure they take time to play in rivers, gently tease each other, and rest atop their giant flying bison, Appa. They understand that, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Once we love and take care of ourselves, we can be much more helpful to others.” Perhaps most importantly, after months of social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic and watching corruption and police brutality go unpunished in the US, Avatar presents a world where justice prevails.
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