by Althea Matteson
Avatar Aang is a spiritual hero that accomplishes his noble duties through the application of Buddhist culture. The television series applies many concepts of Buddhist doctrine through Aang being a vegetarian monk who has a strict moral code. Avatar Aang is depicted as a spiritual hero because he helps spread hope to other citizens, experiences a sense of enlightenment through meditation, and only harms his opponents as a last resort. Additionally, his Buddhist influences stimulate Aang’s connection to the natural and spiritual world. Aang is humanized in his ability to be severely harmed by other people. He is portrayed as a divine being because he has the ability to bend or manipulate the elements of air, water, earth, and fire to undertake enemy forces. His cultural practices are what allow him to be successful during his final battle with Firelord Ozai. As a result of this important battle, he is able to fulfill his purpose of bringing balance to the world and develops into a realized Avatar.
Aang’s voyage is a coming of age story that takes place in a mythic and spiritual world, in which a percentage of the population have the ability to bend the elements of their land. Only the Avatar has the ability to bend the four elements. For centuries, the Avatar upheld his or her duties in delivering balance by being re-embodied through the cycle of the four nations. Throughout the television series, the Fire Nation seeks control over all of the nations, but has to destroy the Avatar in order to be all-powerful. In a novelization of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the author describes Aang’s great power in disclosing that, “only the Avatar, master of all four elements and the bridge to the spirit world, could stop the ruthless firebenders” (Teitelbaum 4). Under the belief that they have destroyed the Avatar, the Fire Nation begins to slowly overthrow the other nations. For one hundred years, Aang and his flying bison are trapped in a circular-shaped portion of ice. Aang is the last airbender. His venture begins when Water Tribe members, Katara and her brother, Sokka, discover Aang trapped within the ice. Throughout his expedition, Aang must master bending all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from ruling all nations of the world.
The creators of the series, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, are two American writers that wanted to design a plot that contained Buddhist philosophy, which appealed to an audience in their formative years. Aang becomes an important character to teenagers by encouraging them to make light of negative situations and to not use physical violence when facing an opponent. In a contextual analysis of the creation of the plot, an enthusiast of the series stated, “the style and content of Avatar is heavily influenced by Asian cultures” (Calhoun). The construction of visual representations such as clothing, architecture, and use of martial arts are centralized by Asian inspiration. The use of the humorous word choices, bright colors and designs, make the series more appealing to the youth. In an in interview, Michael, one of the creators of the television series, stated, “Even though we had more serious episodes or moments, we always tried to temper them with lighter moments” (London and Hamessley).
As part of his transcendent journey, Aang stops in various villages to spread hope to the troubled people affected by his hundred-year absence. Providing optimism is a valuable attribute Aang possesses as a spiritual hero because it can increase someone’s morale, thus motivating that person to hold a strong position against unjust actions. The Avatar’s disappearance created an opportunity for the Fire Nation to use excessive force and overthrow small villages. Without the Avatar’s protection, these villages were easily conquered and quickly lost their courage to fight back. Initially, in season one, episode six, Aang travels to these communities to restore their courage to fight back the Fire Nation and reclaim their territory. In an Earth Kingdom village, he finds that the earth benders could not use their special power and were not able to fight back because they lost hope for the Avatar’s return. Aang provides words of encouragement in telling the people of their significant history and importance. Aang says to the Earth Kingdom villagers, “You are powerful, amazing people. You don’t need to live like this. The ground is an extension of who you are” (Teitelbaum 43). The individuals of the Earth Kingdom village are thrilled by his presence and begin to regain their confidence. Hopefulness and faith is what Aang needed to provide to the burdened people to encourage a change within them. He begins to offer hope and inspire the villagers to take back their land. Aang’s presence renewed the fighting spirit they once had.
In the Buddhist culture, Buddha began his journey towards enlightenment by spreading his religious teachings to various cities of the world. Through his teachings, he became more renowned because those he reached out to gained a spiritual understanding of the world. “The Buddha is often depicted holding audiences in the course of which he gives teachings, answers questions, and engages in debate with people from all walks of life” (Keown 27). Aang’s initial journey is inspired by Buddha’s journey to spread knowledge and restore faith to various people. Aang restores hope and confidence of the oppressed individuals. At this point, Aang has not completely brought balance to the world. However, initial changes begin in having the troubled people believe that they are no longer inferior, but equal to the people of the Fire Nation.
Through meditation, Aang inherits a sense of enlightenment, which contributes to his ability to find a solution for defeating his adversaries. Meditation further connects him to his spirituality in traveling to another world. During meditation, he is in an altered state of consciousness and is able to both receive a great amount of strength and seek advice from previous Avatars. In comparison to Buddha, while he was meditating, “he acquired the power to look back through his previous existences, recalling them in full detail” (Keown 24). In Buddhism, meditation can cause a person to go into a stage of enlightenment. “The importance of meditation in Buddhism can be appreciated by recalling that it was while meditating that the Buddha gained enlightenment” (Keown 84). In the television series, the stage of enlightenment is displayed when Aang goes into the Avatar state. While in the Avatar state, he is granted all of the knowledge and abilities of previous Avatars. It is this unique capability that allows him to receive help from the spiritual world in search of a solution to complex problems. This distinctive skill is what separates him from the rest of society in seeking guidance from wiser beings. He applies his newly gathered intelligence in providing aid to society.
Even though Aang is perceived as having a great power, he is humanized in possessing human qualities of being able to be injured by his opponents. Throughout the series, he still possesses human attributes, one of which is the ability to be harmed by others. The Avatar is depicted as more divine than the rest of the population by the capability to bend all four elements. This significant skill is used to bring balance to the world and maintain order. Aang is anthropomorphized in his ability to be slain while in the Avatar State. Even though he can be mortally wounded whether he is in the Avatar State or not, if slaughtered while in the Avatar State, the reincarnation cycle will cease. The Avatar will no longer be born to the other nations. The ability to perish is a significant trait that Aang has in common with every human. Additionally, he requires the help of his friends to keep himself from danger. Aang appears as less than heroic during his duel with the Fire Nation Princess Azula. In “The Awakening,” Azula is successful in her attempt to take over the most prominent Earth Nation territory, the city of Ba Sing Se. Aang takes on Azula and her brother, Zuko, in hopes of stopping the coup against the Earth Kingdom. Aang and Azula begin an intense battle in order for him to stop her evil plan. Before Aang can completely enter the Avatar state, Azula strikes him with her fire bending. Before he could complete his transformation into the Avatar State, he is struck with a bolt of lightning through his back and is severely injured. Azula was hoping to end the cycle of the Avatar by killing Aang while he was in the Avatar State. Iroh provides a distraction for Azula, allowing Katara to aid Aang to safety. Suffering from this detrimental wound makes it necessary for a period of convalescence.
In Aang’s perspective, hiding is viewed as a sign of both weakness and shamefulness. After Aang awakens from his long rest, he and his friends come in contact with a Fire Nation ship. Instead of helping with the small fight, he must sit back and watch since he is not completely recovered from his recent battle. While recuperating from his problematic battle with Azula, he shows his anger in not being able to fight in saying, “I hate not being able to do anything” (“The Awakening”). He expresses his feelings aggressively to reveal his frustration with not being able to help his friends face the Fire Nation. In this moment, he is vulnerable to any further attack and must recover to prepare for his final battle with the Firelord. Usually, Aang instinctively performs heroic duties for the good of the people. His selfless acts were proven to be helpful in preventing the Fire Nation from taking over particular cities. He feels useless in helping out his friends fight against the enemy. This moment does not depict Aang as a powerful superhero simply due to the fact that he is not yet a fully realized Avatar and has not reached his full potential. Even though Aang is not able to help his friends out in that moment, he displays other acts of spiritual and moral courage in defeating the Fire Nation. His acts of spiritual and moral courage involve his struggle with the decision to not cause physical harm to Firelord Ozai.
Through upholding his personal beliefs, Aang’s strong perspective of not inflicting harm on the Firelord allows him to find an alternative method to bringing balance to the world and being successful in his final battle. He is faced with a difficult decision by being forced to take away another individual’s life. Literature on Buddhism asserts, “The cornerstone of Buddhist ethics is its belief in the inviolability of life” (Keown 100). Refraining from taking another life is a Buddhist virtue that allows them to show compassion for other living beings. Aang struggles with finding a way to fight against the Firelord without causing physical violence. The novel explains, “The monks who raised him had taught Aang that all life was precious and that the great power he commanded should only be used defensively” (Teitelbaum 104). Katara, Sokka, and Zuko, his new ally, tell Aang that there is no other way to defeat the Firelord and that the only way to be successful in this final battle is to kill him. Even through meditation, his past lives encourage him to do the same.
Towards the end of the series, Aang separates himself from his friends to seek a solution to defeating the Firelord. Aang’s disappearance places him in contact with a giant lion sea turtle that offers spiritual advice in regards to bending the elements. His time with the giant lion sea turtle is proven to be helpful because he applies it during the final battle with Firelord Ozai. During this battle, there are a couple of occasions in which Aang is the dominating figure. However, he does not take advantage of the opportunities. For Aang, Buddhist principles take priority over having physical supremacy. He would rather defeat his opponent in a nonviolent way. When he has the chance to get close enough to the Firelord, Aang places his hand on Ozai’s forehead and reaches into his spirit. Aang removes the energy within his opponent and takes away his fire bending abilities, eternally. In that moment, Aang says to the Firelord, “I took away your fire bending. You can’t use it to hurt or threaten anyone else ever again” (“Sozin’s Comet Part 4: Avatar Aang). To the Avatar, physical violence is used only as a last resort and only if necessary. This view of use of substantial aggression only when needed is a widespread practice in the Buddhist doctrine. Removing Ozai’s ability to fire bend was a beneficial substitute because Aang continued to follow through in his belief to not impose bodily harm on others.
There are various events in which Aang is shown as a spiritual hero. His previous adventures and cultural practices are what make him a fully realized Avatar. Aang’s belief of nonviolence can be viewed as its own strength through his ability to defeat the most feared and powerful person in the world by keeping him alive. The use of spirituality through Buddhism is a proven power for the Avatar because, in addition to being physically powerful, he must have a spiritual connection within himself in order to become a master in his abilities. His spiritual hero qualities are similar to that of Buddha because he restores hope, uses meditation as a way towards enlightenment, and he is a monk that practices nonviolence. His Buddhist qualities are important because his spiritual beliefs are what caused him to seek an alternative method to defeating his adversary and bringing balance to the world.
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