Welcome back! In Part 1 of this series, I categorized several characters from the anime/manga series Naruto as representative of the naraka (hell), preta (“hungry ghost”), and animal realms of the Buddhist “desire world”. This week, I’ll discuss the deva (god), asura (demigod), and human realms, as well as wrap up with what I think this means for the series’ interpretation of release from the cycle of Samsara. Spoilers ahead!
The deva or god realm is the highest of the six realms. Devas live long lives of happiness and luxury, but strangely enough, it’s not the most desirable realm. Devas tend to get distracted by the pleasures that surround them, which causes them to forget to follow the path to enlightenment, and by the time their lives end, they’ve used up all their good karma and are reborn into a lower realm. Though they are called “gods”, this is just because they are the most powerful of all beings; they don’t often interfere in the affairs of lower realms because they’re too caught up in their pleasurable distractions. So a character who represented the deva realm would have to be very powerful, but also selfish, with little regard for the rest of the world. Who would that be in Naruto? Orochimaru!
Orochimaru is one of the most powerful characters in the series. And yet he doesn’t tend to take sides very often. An exception is his vengeful attack upon Konoha, but that went badly for him, and he hasn’t interfered in the ninja nations’ affairs ever since. He has stated that he doesn’t care how the war in the current arc turns out, though he’s decided to fight against Madara in order to prevent the eternal genjutsu that would entrap him as well. Orochimaru’s every motive is selfish, related to his own accumulation of power and his pursuit of immortality.
Lately, however, he’s expressed interest in “trying a new path” since his previous one didn’t work out so well for him. He’s fighting on the same side as our heroes, saving some of them (or at least making his underling Karin save them), and even playing a role in stopping an attack from Spiral Zetsu (but not before letting Spiral Zetsu do a lot of damage). He’s thus showing some evidence of change. It remains to be seen whether this is genuine or not, but at least he’s acting a bit more humane. This is a good thing, because the closer one gets to the human realm, the closer one gets to enlightenment.
Below the deva realm stands the asura or demigod realm, made up of beings who are more powerful than humans, but not as powerful as devas. Asuras are consumed by passions such as pride, power, jealousy, anger, and violence. They continually make war on the devas, but can never win. It’s easy to see how this isn’t a desirable realm to be reborn into, either. Achieving enlightenment from this realm is almost impossible.
So if Orochimaru is the deva realm, who is the jealous subordinate who can never be as powerful as he is? Well, Kabuto. Now, he doesn’t map perfectly onto this realm. While his life as an ANBU Root agent, a spy for various organizations, and Orochimaru’s right-hand man was certainly full of violence, he was usually cool in the face of it. He doesn’t savor it the way, for instance, Madara does. But his jealousy of Orochimaru and desire for more power becomes evident when, after Sasuke defeats Orochimaru, Kabuto absorbs Orochimaru’s DNA, and thus, his powers. He becomes determined to surpass his former master, and he gains powerup after powerup. Ultimately, though, he is utterly defeated by Itachi and Sasuke, two opponents who failed to completely defeat Orochimaru (even though they both thought they had). There was never any doubt that Kabuto was less powerful than Orochimaru. So the comparison stands.
He too is reforming, however. Itachi’s Izanami forced him to confront the reality of his identity. He has realized that he is not a power-hungry warhawk, but rather, a healer. In fact, he heals Sasuke and brings him back from the brink of death. So by getting in touch with his true self, Kabuto is giving up on the power that made him almost a “demigod”, and settling into a more human role.
And now we finally come to the human realm! The mingling of joy and sorrow in the human realm is what makes it so ripe for achieving enlightenment, because one is not overly distracted by either great pleasure as in the higher realms, or by great suffering as in the lower realms. The balance is just right; painful enough for humans to realize the need to escape suffering, but not so painful that they cannot study the Buddhist way in order to escape. So who in Naruto has experienced great suffering, but also great joy? Look no further than the title of the series, folks!
Unlike Obito, Naruto has not let the tragedies in his life bring him down. He has come to accept the ones he cannot change, such as the deaths of his parents, and continually pursues solutions to those misfortunes that he can fix, such as trying to bring Sasuke back to the village. Not only that, but he has become a leader in the ninja world, which is especially evident in the current world war arc, with possibly one (or two, or three) too many chapters devoted to the Ninja Alliance’s adoration of him. His ideals of peace and love, and his determination to change the very nature of the ninja way, from the very beginning of the series till now, all mark him as on the path to enlightenment. In fact, as a leader, he seems like a Buddha, destined to lead others along that path as well.
Fans of the series often complain that it’s too boring that all the villains in Naruto end up repenting and becoming good guys in the end. But I think it’s a very hopeful message. If even someone who has been mired in naraka for so long like Obito can turn himself around, then so can we! This reflects the Buddhist belief that the wheel of Samsara will continue turning until all beings have achieved enlightenment, no matter how many reincarnations it takes. So it’s not a cop-out, and it’s not necessarily bad characterization; it reflects a sincere belief.
“But hey!” you may be asking yourself. “Why haven’t you brought up the two biggest villains in the series, Madara and Kaguya?” In fact, Madara was defeated without repenting, breaking the pattern I’ve showcased here. Well, the reason for that is that Madara’s soul was already reborn in Sasuke, since they’re both reincarnations of the Sage’s eldest son, so Madara has missed his chance for nirvana this time around. I don’t think there was ever any chance that he would repent. And we simply don’t know about Kaguya yet. But these villains still fit very much into a Buddhist framing, as negative examples that pervert Buddhist values. Madara wants to use a giant illusion jutsu to release everyone from suffering and thus end war by giving everyone their desires in their own personal dream worlds. He fails to see that true overcoming of suffering requires work (from this perspective, the work of following the Buddhist path toward enlightenment), and can’t be achieved through a giant cheat code. If you just had what you wanted all the time, you’d be in a deva-like state, rather than in a state of nirvana, and we’ve already gone over how that can be a bad thing.
Kaguya, on the other hand, wants all things to be “one”, by which she means uniting all chakra in herself, and stripping autonomy from all humans by turning them into White-Zetsu soldiers who all follow only her will. In some branches of Buddhism, becoming “one” with the universal divine is supposed to be what happens to someone who has achieved enlightenment, after they die and are released from Samsara. But the “oneness” Kaguya promises is so very opposite the release from desire that is supposed to happen in Buddhist nirvana. Instead it would be the fulfillment of the most powerful selfish desire we’ve seen in the series so far, a desire so potent that it even manifested an entirely new being to bring it to fruition: Black Zetsu. Black Zetsu is like the Buddhist version of the tempter, Mara, who manipulates people into following their desires instead of the path to enlightenment. Black Zetsu exploited Indra, the slighted older brother of the Sage of the Six Paths, to desire revenge to such an extent that it became a defining characteristic of all of Indra’s descendents. This endless cycle of war and revenge even spiraled outward to the entire ninja world. And it all originated from Kaguya’s desire. Her “oneness” is clearly not the unity of Buddhist nirvana.
So we’ve seen how Naruto is promoting Buddhist values. And I think this was intentional; the mangaka is almost certainly familiar with Buddhism. This analysis has helped me realize just how much effort and thought went into a series that’s supposedly “just for kids”, all in order to portray the truly hopeful message that all beings can be released from the cycle of suffering.
I’d like to thank my friend, who chooses to be known only as “Darth Fatuus”, for the conversation that sparked the idea for this series of posts.