Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Buddha
by Jason Thompson, Jan 27th 2011
Episode XXXIX: Buddha
"Who do you think are the greatest characters in history? The greatest character of all time is Jesus Christ, and the second is the Devil. The third? Buddha."
Buddhism is one of the major religions of Japan, as well as a onetime winner of the Shaman King Tournament, if you believe Hiroyuki Takei. Shintoism and Buddhism are intricately combined in Japanese culture, each supporting a wealth of festivals and folklore and mythology and practices, and Buddhism itself is a big tent; Japanese Buddhism is very different from Tibetan Buddhism and so on. Unlike Shinto practitioners, who don't really convert people, some Buddhists (and sects of Buddhists) are very eager to spread the message. Mitsutoshi Furuya's Basic Buddhism Through Comics is the Buddhist equivalent of a Chick tract, teaching you how you can solve all of life's problems by understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
Other Buddhist mangaka, however, are more subtle in their message, such as Osamu Tezuka, whose shonen manga Buddha ran from 1972 to 1983. Buddha tells the life of Buddha, and the core teachings of Buddhism, as an adventure story. (The title is even spelled "Buddha" in phonetic katakana rather than more formal kanji butsu.) And while not all Buddhists like comics—one blogger commenting on Tetsu Sawai's The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography was so offended by the idea of the Dalai Lama's life in comic form that they suggested the book was a Chinese plot to trivialize Buddhism—Tezuka has no problem with trying to impart serious religion in comics form alongside romance and fight scenes. (Not to mention Tezuka's usual slapstick comedy and meta-humor; naked kids run around everywhere, people break the fourth wall, and in one panel E.T., Yoda and Cherry from Urusei Yatsura make cameos in a crowd of monks.) If, as some mangaka say, good manga is always about strong characters, then Buddha is about the life of the man known as Siddharta Buddha, and the world in which he lived.
But like all Tezuka epics, it has a little bit of everything; spanning 8 volumes and approximately 80 years, it takes many detours on the road to enlightenment. The Buddha isn't even born until the end of volume one, and before he shows up, Tezuka introduces us to India in the 6th century BC, a land of warring kingdoms, famine and plague. (The Vertical edition of the manga includes a helpful map.) The queen of the small kingdom of Kapilavastu is pregnant, and as the birth of the child draws near, strange portents and miracles occur. When Siddharta the future Buddha ("enlightened one") is born, light shines from the heavens, and all the animals gather around to pay him homage. Meanwhile, out in the rest of the world, the warring kingdom of Kosala threatens trouble for Kapilavastu, and ordinary people are caught in the violence. Tragedy is everywhere, as if to demonstrate the Buddhist teaching that life is suffering.
Amid all this desperation, Siddharta is raised in a bubble of privilege. As a young man, he is sickly and weak, unfulfilled by a meaningless life of banquets and parties and dancing girls, He plays a few pranks to sate his boredom, but mostly, he asks questions. "Why do humans suffer? Why do they live?" he wonders. "When we die, what happens?" His schoolteachers are unable to satisfy his curiosity, but then he meets a mysterious old guru who gives him some better answers. "Insects, birds, beasts, trees and grass, all living things die. You think only a fellow human could teach you about life and death? Why not try asking a bird or a beast?"
Soon, Siddharta starts remembering (or telepathically sharing) other lives, experiencing the lives of animals from birth to death. The scenes of reincarnation and transmigration are very similar to the ones in Tezuka's Phoenix. Gradually Siddharta realizes that all lives are equal, and that animals, plants and human beings are all part of the same tapestry of life. He meets and befriends Tatta, a carefree bandit whose power to possess animals makes him a living proof of this truth. (It's also just a cool power for a manga character.) Naradatta, a traveling monk, learns the sanctity of life in an even more shocking manner: for sacrificing the lives of many animals in order to save a friend, he is cursed to live like an animal, walking on all fours, losing human language and living in a cave. Naradatta's fate isn't such a bad thing; in Tezuka's anthromorphic universe (the man has always been popular among furries, after all), even the fiercest tiger or crocodile is drawn in a Disney-like, lovable style. In contrast to someone like Hayao Miyazaki, who in Princess Mononoke depicts nature as threatening and mysterious, Tezuka has a sentimentalized view of nature in which animals are just like human beings, only more altruistic. ("In nature, humans and beasts, even snakes, are all kin. Helping each other is the law of the living.") Like Disney's The Lion King, it's all about the Circle of Life, but this message actually fits fairly well with the teachings of Buddhism (and Jainism), a religion that encourages vegetarianism and, in some cases, even teaches practitioners to watch where they step so they don't accidentally squash bugs.
Siddharta sneaks out of the palace so that Tatta can show him more of the world. "Once you're dead, that's it. Point its, enjoy life while you can!" says Tatta. They go on a journey downriver, where they are survive an attack by bandits and run into all sorts of strange characters. They also see nature itself. Tezuka's drawings of nature are one of the real pleasures of Buddha; as the characters travel through mountains, jungles and swamps, the pages open up to immerse us in huge, lavish drawings of landscapes. If Buddhist teachings are about appreciating the interconnectedness of the world, it's good that the world looks so beautiful. Among these awesome landscapes wander Tezuka's cartoony, caricatural characters. While he's on the road, Siddharta falls in love with Migaila, a rough-around-the-edges bandit, but his father is horrified when he finds out, since Migaila is a member of the slave caste. "If men an women got together just because they liked each other, we would be no better than beasts!" says Siddharta's father. "What makes human beings special is the sanctity of class!" His father forbids Siddharta to marry Migaila, and sets him up to marry a more suitable woman, a princess. Siddharta rebels.
One of the reasons Buddhism first gained traction as a religion was that, unlike Hinduism, it has no caste system, and Tezuka explores this in detail. Many subplots in Buddha involve prejudice by the upper class, the Brahmins, against the lower classes, the slave Shudras and the even lowlier Pariahs (a term this translation uses instead of Chandala or the old offensive term 'untouchable'). "Brahmin! The very name was an emblem of invincible power in Indian society for centuries," writes Tezuka. "Underneath them the Brahmin created classes like 'warrior,' 'commoner,' and 'slave,' introducing discrimination among fellow humans. The hardship they created for Indian people endures even today." Japan, too, once had a caste system of sorts, and the burakumin were once looked down upon for doing lowly jobs such as butchering and leatherworking. (These jobs are dishonorable, according to some interpretations of Buddhism, because they involve killing animals—the idea being that it's a little bit of a sin for you to eat meat, but the poor sap who sells you the meat is really the one to blame.) To modern minds, the caste system is obviously bad, and in story terms, it provides many plot hooks about prejudice and the cruelty of society. Siddharta abhors caste discrimination, for personal as well as religious reasons, but even some of his most trusted monks slip into prejudice at times. (Interestingly, despite the caste thing, Hinduism gradually underwent a renaissance in India over the last 2000 years while Buddhism declined in popularity. In Hindu mythology Buddha is explained away as being a trickster avatar of the god Vishnu, sent to test humans' faith by spreading false teachings!)
Unable to be with the woman he loves, Siddharta abandons his arranged marriage and throws away his whole life up to that point. After seeing the famous Four Sights of Siddharta - a sick man, a dead man, a withered old man and a monk - he realizes the inevitability of sickness, age, death and other bad stuff, so he shaves his head, leaves his family and becomes a wandering monk. Dhepa, an ascetic, tells Siddharta that the path of enlightenment comes through harsh ordeals and the scourging of the flesh. ("Suffering is the path to salvation! Punish your flesh and your spirit becomes purer!") For years Siddharta torments himself. He throws himself into a thornbush over and over. He starves himself away to a skeleton. He eats dung, lies next to corpses and lets vultures peck at him. But eventually he begins to question this shonen manga-esque religious training, and decides that extreme self-punishment is just a form of narcissism, not a way to find truth. Leaving Dhepa, Siddharta goes and sits under a tree and thinks.
And then, enlightenment comes. The old guru who has been advising Siddharta all along appears before him and reveals that he is actually the god Brahma. Siddharta has a vision of life, and realizes the truth: desire causes suffering, and the only way to escape this world's cruelty is to have no desires. "The heart of man is always burning for what it desires! His pursuits bring tears, anger and worry. Empty your thoughts and forget even yourself! Forget everything! Then your doubts and worries will disappear!" Siddharta becomes the Buddha, and goes forth to spread his message, to heal the suffering of all living things. He debates priests, heals the sick and confronts the wicked. He preaches to both humans and animals. He gathers disciples, first a few, then hundreds and thousands.
So far, this is basically the historical (or mythological) story of Buddhism, but Tezuka makes it so much more. As always, his greatest strength is his characters. Tezuka never writes the kind of two-dimensional static characters who always walk around surrounded by their special personal aura, always in the same mood, unaffected by everything around them. Tezuka's characters change; they grow; the good sometimes turn evil and the evil turn good. They are the wheels which turn his complex plots. In addition to Tatta and Migaila, there's Yatala, a 20-foot-tall giant, was born a slave and hates the caste system. Assaji, who starts out as a little snot-nosed kid tagging after Siddharta wanting to become a monk, develops the power to predict the future and becomes an almost divine figure. The noble King Bimbisara asks Assaji to predict his future, and when Assaji says that he will be killed at the hands of his loving son, he and we wait fearfully to see if and how the prophecy will come true. Devadatta, according to Buddhist mythology, was a corrupt monk who betrayed Buddha…but only Tezuka would decide that Devadatta was originally a wild boy raised by wolves, and was later adopted by a money-hungry old woman who noticed his pretty face and sent him out in drag to rob a john!
Sudatta, a rich man, wants to give money to Buddha but only for selfish reasons. ("I want to become a patron of the arts! I want to go down in history as the most generous sponsor of all things cultural!") Bandaka, an arrogant warrior and archer, seems to be simply obsessed with violence and power, but in the end we see he has a sad, human side as well. Another villain, Ananda, is possessed by a demon, who grants him the power of immortality so that he can kill Buddha. (Ananda's powers, like Buddha's and Tatta's, are partially explained away as the result of psychic abilities; at one point Brahma actually tells Buddha that he's psychic, and Tezuka seems to mean it when he writes "Since ancient times, people considered holy have been thought to possess the power of psychokinesis to some degree. The Buddha too would have had this talent." Maybe it's because psychic manga was so popular in the '70s.)
Among this cast of fools and schemers, lovers and haters, Tezuka treats Buddha himself with reverence, whether from personal faith or the desire not to offend his readers. Buddha does have his bad moments—the way he abandons his wife and child to become a monk, like some sadhus still do in India today, is a tragic moment in the tale—but he doesn't err too greatly and he isn't subjected to too much slapstick comedy. After he achieves enlightenment and grows older, his appearance changes, becoming less like a typical big-eyed Tezuka hero and more like the standard, statue-like depiction of Buddha. But he's still a human with human emotions deep down; as we know from Hikaru Nakamura's Saint Young Men, one of the appeals of Buddhism, like Christianity, is that it's not just a set of teachings, it's the story of a person. (Indeed, as many people have pointed out, Jesus and Buddhism have a lot in common on the surface; they're both messiahs with supernatural abilities, who decide to use their powers to help people rather than for worldly power, they both have a tempter figure and a Judas figure, etc.) Still, the stories of the many other characters add uncertainty, since many readers know how the story of Buddha ends, but they don't necessarily know what will happen to characters like Visakha, the woman who falls in love with Siddharta and tries to distract him from the monk's chaste path. (Buddha takes in some female disciples, but as is typical for Tezuka, most of the women are either villains or sex/love objects; the comic is crowded with bare-breasted or just-barely-sari-wearing beauties.)
I'm not an expert on Buddhism, knowing what I know only from Herman Hesse's Siddharta and a few books on comparative religions. From the perspective of a nonbeliever like myself, it can sometimes seem like a depressing religion; after all, one of the core teachings is that life is suffering ("Kill or be killed! That's the world! That's life!" says Devadatta), and that Nirvana isn't heaven or paradise but nonexistence, an end to it all. Or is it? There are many variants of Buddhism, and Tezuka seems to throw out the idea that 'death is nothingness' early on. Instead of an incomprehensible oblivion, Tezuka gives us images of the cosmic beauty and joy of being one with all living things. Life can be better, Tezuka seems to be saying, if we love others and sacrifice ourselves for the common good, like the rabbit who throws itself into the fire to feed a holy man at the start of the story. Buddha prevents his disciples from committing violence under any circumstances, causing him to clash with some of his followers, like Tatta, who wants revenge against the Kosalan empire for killing his mother when he was young. We must be compassionate even to our enemies, Buddha says; to succumb to anger and desire will set the whole world aflame. Maybe literally; Tezuka illustrates these fearful thoughts with images of nuclear war, a timely message for the early '80s when the manga was made.
But what if we're compassionate to someone and they're still a jerk? The thing that bugged me about Mitsutoshi Furuya's blandly optimistic Basic Buddhism Through Comics is that it depicts Buddhism as solving everything, not just cosmically but in the sense of immediate day-to-day results. According to Furuya, if you discover Buddhism and act compassionate towards others, all the annoying people in your life will be so touched by your self-sacrifice that they'll also magically convert to Buddhism and turn nice too. Since this is obviously wishful thinking, and even cheapens the idea that "good deeds are their own reward," it seems like a poor advertisement for a religion, whereas when religions promise cool stuff after death at least you can't disprove it. (Of course, bold claims aren't unique to Furuya or to Buddhism.) Indeed, the idea that Buddhism makes people accept their suffering, rather than rebelling and possibly even taking up arms in pursuit of justice, has been used as a criticism against Buddhism. Prince Ashoka, who conquered most of India in the Mauryan Dynasty around 250 BC, strongly encouraged Buddhism among his subjects, apparently having converted to Buddhism due to guilt over the bloodshed of his conquests…but a cynic might wonder if his sudden desire to make his subjects into pacifists might have been motivated partly by a desire to prevent anyone from rebelling and keep his new kingdom together.
This problem of evil and suffering - of enlightenment vs. social justice, of Nirvana vs. the world we live in - comes to a head towards the end of Buddha, when Buddha ends up back in his homeland of Kapilavastu, where his own karma awaits him. He finds that, while he was away, his homeland has been conquered and his parents and countrymen enslaved by a cruel Kosalan prince. The prince lets Buddha speak to the assembled slaves, secretly hoping that Buddha will cause an uprising so that he will have an excuse to slaughter them all. Instead, Buddha turns the question back on the prince, forcing the prince to look inside his own heart: isn't he suffering from the guilt for his evil deeds? How could the Buddha hate the prince, when the prince is truly only worthy of pity?
To his tremendous credit, Tezuka manages to make these questions, and other philosophical debates in Buddha, seem believable. To write something like "Buddha was enlightened" is easy; to SHOW that enlightenment through dialogue and action, instead of having the other characters just stand around saying "Gosh, Buddha is awesome!" is hard. Yet Tezuka pulls it off. His Buddha is both wise and human, sometimes wracked with doubt even towards the end of his story, but in the end, a shining example of the right path. Viewed without religious context, Buddha is one of Tezuka's best works; since its basic outline is constrained by the known facts about Buddha's life, it doesn't spin out of control as much as some of his other ones. Viewed in religious context, it manages to deliver a Buddhist message in the best way, through a good story. If there's anything better than a great manga, it's a great manga with a point of view.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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