The wisdom of the Dharma is often found in the most unexpected places. The Dharma is truth; it is everything. It resides everywhere and nowhere. It is outside of the space-time continuum as it manifests itself into it.
Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed watching cartoons, it speaks to me from between the pixels of light emanating from the TV. Last night, it arranged these pixels into the final episode of the recently resurrected comic-dystopian animated serial Samurai Jack.
Jack is a skilled warrior who as a boy witnessed the subjugation of all life on Earth by the evil and powerful Aku. Since then, he has wandered alone through the burnt out landscapes of the planet, encountering mutant races and species along the way, on a mission to vanquish Aku and liberate all the beings of the world. Aku is aware of the threat and watches Jack’s every move from his omniscient position as Earth’s dark lord. Employing his shape-shifting powers, he morphs into gruesome creatures and armies of svelte black-clad ninjas in an effort to squelch Jack’s quest, but these efforts are always in vain and Jack soldiers on.
One of these evil-sexy, long-legged female spawn of Aku begins to develop a liking for Jack, despite the fact that she is of Aku and has been dispatched from his being for the specific purpose of killing the pesky Samurai. Little by little, this conflicted warrior named Ashi begins to understand that she is a victim of Aku’s dark heart and eventually joins forces with Jack in his quest to slay Aku. Naturally, the two intrepid warriors for goodness fall in love.
Aku is defeated in a final battle involving all of the touchingly brave and charmingly ridiculous lifeforms who lived as slaves in Aku’s dark kingdom. Then, in what at first seems to have all the makings of a typical happy ending, we see Jack and Ashi in Japan getting ready for a Buddhist wedding ceremony. But as the increasingly weak Ashi walks down the aisle in a Geisha-style dress, she collapses from exhaustion. Jack rushes to her side and she explains that since Aku is dead, so must she disappear into emptiness. Moments later, she dies in Jack’s arms.
The final scene shows Jack with his head hung low in mourning as he traverses the newly vibrant landscapes of Earth on horseback. He stops beneath a tree to meditate when a ladybug with Ashi’s compassionate eyes lands on his hand and with a tender gaze assures him everything is as it should be before alighting into the night. Jack smiles and the credits roll.
I believe that the brilliant artists behind this cartoon were illustrating the notion of Buddha Nature, the timeless and indestructible spark of perfect wisdom at the heart of all beings, even the most seemingly nefarious. Ashi symbolized Aku’s Buddha Nature. It was strong enough to overcome the extremes of evil and pride that expressed themselves as the warlord aspect of Aku and compassionate enough to sacrifice its ego-self for the good of all beings. As such, the biggest twist of the saga is that Aku defeated himself with his own Buddha Nature. Jack was just there to guide the process.
For anyone who wishes to get a feel for some of the more esoteric aspects of Eastern wisdom without consulting scores of often tedious metaphysical sutras, I can think of no better medium than Samurai Jack. Its alternating gorgeous and menacingly stark landscapes provide a stunningly meditative backdrop to the show’s clever take on good vs. evil. And in the end, it will leave you questioning those notions as well. Though Jack’s lifelong mission had been to kill Aku, he found that it wasn’t as simple as that when he encountered his adversary’s Buddha Nature in the form of Ashi. He killed Aku and fell in love with Ashi only to learn that both were none other than himself and he was none other than the ladybug that landed on his hand to bid him adieu. There is no light without darkness and no darkness without light.
In its first season on Cartoon Network back in 2001, Jack encounters his manifested ego-driven self in the form of Mad Jack:
Samurai Jack: What sorcery is this? Who are you?
Mad Jack: Don’t be such a fool! I’m you.
Samurai Jack: If you are me, then who am I?
Mad Jack: Oh! You’re so stupid. You are you also.
Nowhere in the works of Lao-Tsu, Chuang-Tzu, Padmasambhava or Longchenpa will you find more impeccable Dharma than that. It is pure wisdom masquerading as anime. On Cartoon Network, “the Tao that can’t be named” is named Samurai Jack.