The Philosophy of Dragon Ball – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Buddhist Philosophy in Dragon Ball.
Written by: Myles McDonough
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Jacob Salamon & Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Dragon Ball – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here and today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite anime with an uncomfortable amount of underage crotch-fondling… Akira Toriyama’s enduring and much-beloved, Dragon Ball. While Dragon Ball may appear to be little more than a run-of-the-mill adventure show for kids, the series and its spinoffs actually have roots in some pretty hefty philosophical material. Many fans are aware that, in creating the earliest episodes of Dragon Ball, Toriyama drew inspiration from a five-hundred-year-old Chinese classic, Journey to the West. The superficial similarities are easy to spot – both feature a group of four adventurers in search of powerful magical objects, among them a monkey-like creature with a magic staff, a horny piggish-looking fellow, et cetera. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that Dragon Ball, much like Journey to the West, can be read as an explicitly Buddhist allegory. Indeed, – a show that many of us watched in our underwear on Saturday mornings while wolfing down Cookie Crisp – offers a surprising take on fundamental elements of Buddhist doctrine. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Dragon Ball.
(Note for the die-hard fans keeping score at home: since a full discussion of the extended Dragon Ball universe would take quite a while, today we’ll focus mainly on those episodes of the original anime most heavily influenced by Journey to the West – the thirteen episodes comprising the Emperor Pilaf saga.)
But first, a quick refresher. Dragon Ball follows Goku, a young boy with a monkey tail and superhuman strength, and Bulma, a girl who plans to collect the Dragon Balls in order to wish for a new boyfriend. Along the way, they team up with Oolong, a shape-shifting pig, and Yamcha, a desert-dwelling bandit with a crippling fear of women. They are in a race against time to collect all seven Dragon Balls before the evil Emperor Pilaf can snag them for himself. At the last moment, when Pilaf has gathered all of the Dragon Balls and is about to wish for world domination, Oolong saves the day by sabotaging his wish: “I want to have the world-” “-the world’s most comfortable pair of ultra soft UNDERWEAR!!!”
Remember that face, boys and girls. This moment will be an important part of our discussion later on. REMEMBER IT. Journey to the West follows Tripitika, a Buddhist monk, and his three disciples, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy, on their quest to locate and bring back sacred Buddhist scrolls to the Chinese court. When the pilgrims arrive at the Buddha’s paradise, the scrolls they receive turn out to be completely blank. While Journey to the West involves characters searching for a magical object, there’s more to it than your basic (annoying) fetch quest. The novel is often read as a Buddhist allegory, one concerned with spiritual enlightenment. The characters move from a place of ignorance to one of insight as they get closer to their destination. Surprisingly enough, the same applies to Dragon Ball. Both Dragon Ball and Journey to the West have their philosophical grounding in ‘Mahayana’ Buddhism. To vastly oversimplify, the Mahayana approach to Buddhism is distinguished from the earlier ‘Theravada’ school by its emphasis on the collective enlightenment of all sentient beings in the universe, rather than that of any one individual. Accordingly, Dragon Ball puts a premium on acts of ‘compassion,’ and on the growth of the group as a whole. When the heroes of Dragon Ball put others first, they advance in their quest. When they act selfishly and refuse to see things from others’ points of view, their progress is delayed. In the second episode, Goku and Bulma encounter a beached Turtle who explains that he is lost. While Goku wants to put their journey on hold in order to help the turtle, Bulma wants to get right back to her quest to find the Dragon Balls.
However, Goku’s act of compassion unexpectedly turns out to be the most direct route to the next Dragon Ball. Enter Master Roshi, hermit and pervert extraordinaire. Roshi is grateful to Goku for returning the turtle to the sea, and gives Goku his iconic Flying Nimbus cloud as a reward. He also happens to own a Dragon Ball, which he is willing to give to Bulma in exchange for…well. It’s a weird show, guys. The ethical implications of trading peep shows for magical jewelry aside, the fact remains that Bulma and Goku find the Dragon Ball because Goku is willing to delay his own gratification in order to help out a fellow being in need. Now that I think about it, as the series goes on, Goku spends a lot of time dragging around his useless childhood friends while doing all the work – lookin’ at you, Krillin. If that ain’t compassion, I’m not sure what is. This correlation between ethical behavior and speed of progress is lifted straight from Journey to the West, in which a lack of compassion on the part of the pilgrims causes delays that can only be resolved through compassion and understanding. Monkey often gets in fights with monsters, only to realize that those monsters were supposed to help him. Both Pigsy and Sandy start out as foes, only to eventually become allies. This goes part of the way toward explaining early Dragon Ball’s unexpected attitude toward violence.
For a franchise that would eventually go on to feature scenes such as this. This. This. This. And this. Dragon Ball, in its earliest episodes, has a surprising lack of violence. Like Journey to the West, the show is preoccupied with a particular Buddhist conception of nonviolence. Violence is not universally wrong so much as it is cumbersome – to some degree, it does get in the way of insight. Conversely, compassion facilitates spiritual progress. This understanding of ‘violence as roadblock’ is most clearly displayed with the Ox King. When the group first meets the Ox King, Goku tries to beat him up in order to clear the pathway up Fire Mountain and take his Dragon Ball. The enormous man barely feels Goku’s attacks. For the duration of this fight, everyone involved is stuck in an unproductive, pointless cycle that gets the pilgrims nowhere. It is only when Goku and the Ox King begin to understand each other’s needs through conversation that the team gets any closer to their goal. Compassion and understanding, rather than violence, lead to the trade that eventually nets the team another Dragon Ball. Which is all well and good when you’re dealing with a scary but ultimately harmless threat like the Ox King. But how should our heroes approach a threat that can’t be reasoned with? According to writer Paul R. Fleischman, the Buddhist approach to nonviolence makes room for this kind of scenario: “permitting someone else to perpetrate harm without consequences is not nonviolence”. Defending innocent lives with violent means is hardly ideal, but it is preferable to rigid pacifism. In the last few episodes of the Emperor Pilaf saga, the team is confronted with an existential threats when Goku turns into a giant ape at the sight of the full moon and threatens to eat Bulma. So Yamcha, Puar, and Oolong cut off Goku’s tail to save Bulma and stop Goku from doing something he would later regret. Their limited use of violence prevents worse violence down the road. This way, at least, nobody dies. This more nuanced understanding of violence would pop up in Toriyama’s later work as well. Listen to Goku’s description of himself in response to Frieza’s question, “What are you?”
Unlike the various villains that maim and murder throughout the series, Goku commits violent acts to preserve peace. Perhaps most interesting is how Dragon Ball handles the Buddhist concept of ’emptiness,’ the idea that things in themselves have no inherent or fixed essence. Early on, Toriyama asks us to consider this concept in relation to the Dragon Balls: “These gems can be used for great things. And not so great.” From the start, the series points out that the Dragon Balls are neither inherently good, bad, or anything in between – they are simply a store of potential energy used to fulfil wishes. Even so, the heroes revere them as a life-changing miracle. Their disposition towards the Dragon Balls mirrors the pilgrims’ attitude toward the sacred scrolls in Journey to the West. When the Buddha’s assistants actually give them scrolls that are BLANK, they are more than a little pissed off. But they shouldn’t be. Scholar Andrew Hui argues that “[t]he blankness of the scrolls is a material manifestation of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, a sign pointing to the […] nature of ultimate reality” (Hui 3). The Buddha himself explains to the pilgrims that “As a matter of fact, it is such blank scrolls as these that are the true scriptures” (Cheng-en, Wu). By undercutting their expectations, the Buddha provides the pilgrims with a profound lesson about the nature of reality, namely that it’s empty of any inherent essence. In this way, the prank actually advances their spiritual progress. A similar bait-and-switch occurs in Dragon Ball. Remember Oolong’s panty wish? By ruining Pilaf’s wish, Oolong undercuts the heroes’ expectations, turning something as momentous as the summoning of the Eternal Dragon into a joke. While the Dragon Balls have provided Oolong with a pair of panties, they haven’t changed anyone’s life in any meaningful way. Which is not to say the journey was for nothing. Far from it. In both the show and the novel, the revelation of the quest’s inherent emptiness serves as the catalyst for growth beyond what the characters expected.
In the final chapters of Journey to the West, the pilgrims are made into high ranking members of the Buddha’s paradise, while the heroes of Dragon Ball gain insight into the true scope of their various problems, which turn out to be not as terrible or permanent as they’d thought. Bulma and Yamcha had planned to use the Dragon Balls to find a boyfriend and cure social anxiety, respectively. But After Oolong pulls his stunt, they realize the solution to their mutual problem has been in front of them the whole time. They agree to get together on the spot. Bulma lets go of her need for perfection, and Yamcha lets go of his fear. Even Oolong, who we first meet kidnapping young girls to staff his would-be harem, has learned to find happiness in thinking about others besides himself. When asked whether he will accompany Yamcha and Bulma to the city, he says: “Oh well, I guess I’ll go. You guys need me.”
So – turtles, flashing, panties, and more. All in all, a pretty weird way of getting a religious message across. But, that’s kind of the point. Mahayana Buddhism, with its emphasis on teaching and collective enlightenment, is big into the concept of ‘skillful means,’ or the guiding of sentient beings toward enlightenment according to their current abilities – in other words, meeting people where they’re at. One way to meet people where they’re at is to dispense with dry lecturing and tell them a damn good story, and that’s exactly what Dragon Ball and Journey to the West do. With engaging plotlines, creative characters, and writing that is alternately tense and hilarious, Dragon Ball successfully weaves Buddhist morals into a story that people love to come back to again and again.