In the much anticipated final two episodes of Puella Magica Madoka Magica, the tragic timelines of the magical girls finally come to an end. On Walpurgisnacht, Madoka contracts Kyubey, and wishes to, with her own hands, erase all witches from existence before they are even born. With the miracle, she becomes a goddess-like existence —a force of nature outside our universe— who bends the known laws of the world across all times and timelines.
The parallels to Buddhist teachings are fascinating. In addition to the surface visual symbolisms and karmic language, the story embodies some very core ideas of Buddhism.
In Buddhism’s world view, life is driven by karma. In the truest sense of the idea, karma is simply any action that has a consequence. It is particularly interesting the language used in scriptures to describe karma:
According to the seed that’s sown,
So is the fruit you reap therefrom,
Doer of good will gather good,
Doer of evil, evil reaps,
Down is the seed and thou shalt taste the fruit thereof.
— Samyutta Nikāya (Buddhist scripture)
Of course, there is the sense that good seeds will bear good fruits, and vice versa. This imagery of karmic seeds reminds of grief seeds in Madoka. In fact, Kyubey has used karma specifically to describe magical girls. When Madoka wishes for her miracle, Kyubey refers to the cycle of hope and despair, magical girls and witches, as the law of karma. However, bear in mind though that karma itself is an amoral* concept, much like incubators.
Rebirth, Samsāra, and Suffering
Embedded within this idea is a sense of inevitability. An action -or in some cases, an idea- will grow to affect all futures in a never ending cycle of karma: action leads to consequence leads to action leads to consequence. Desire driven magical girls will eventually become witches. There seems to be no escape from cause and effect.
However, the wonderful complexities of Buddhism also integrates free will into this seemingly fatalistic world view:
If anyone says that a man or woman must reap in this life according to his present deeds, in that case there is no religious life, nor is an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow. But if anyone says that what a man or woman reaps in this and future lives accords with his or her deeds present and past, in that case there is a religious life, and an opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of a sorrow.
— Anguttara Nikaya (Buddhist scripture)
The importance of rebirth to the Buddhist world view is clear. In Buddhist doctrine, rebirth is closely tied to Samsāra, which describes the cycle of endless suffering (dukkha), perpetual wandering, and transmigration. Because of desires and dissatisfaction, all sentient beings continuously go through conception, death, and rebirth. We, or rather our consciousness, are forever trapped in this wheel until the accumulation of our karma lives out its consequences. Sound familiar?
Further, an ignorance concerning suffering, its origins, and its cessation leads to volitional actions (karma), which gives rise to consciousness and cognitive awareness. It is this consciousness that drives rebirths. Only by enlightenment can one break the cycles and enter nirvana. Here is the interesting tie to Madoka. The difference between the last timeline and all previous ones is that Homura reveals the truth about “past” timelines. This is quite an enlightening experience for Madoka indeed, and one about her own “Samsāra” nonetheless. It seems only natural that Madoka would later reach nirvana.
Part of enlightenment is also embodying non-duality and understanding the fallacy of dual natures. In a sense, this is realized by Madoka after she changes karmic laws. The duality of hope and despair, magical girls and witches no longer exists. As a force of nature outside karmic laws, she has reached nirvana and full understanding of the nondual views of self and world.
Nirvana is the end state of having broken free from Samsāra. The mind is without attachments, identity, and boundaries. Naturally, without any of those, the liberated one has no more desires, and thus no more sufferings, and consequently, produces no new karma. Moreover, even though nirvana describes the cessation of the stream of consciousness that ties together rebirths, it is also a higher level of awareness. It is nothingness, the end of the world. Indeed, this seems to describe Madoka’s final goddess presence upon becoming the embodiment of hope.
To dig into Madoka’s spiritual ascension even deeper, let us examine the definition of nirvana. Nir-vana. Nir means to leave, be without, or be free of. Vana defines several natures, including the path of rebirth, forest, weaving, and stench. Therefore, nirvana is the state of being away from the path of rebirth permanently, as Madoka’s final change is the end of her timeline.
Nirvana is also often symbolized by the the extinguishing of the dense forests of three fires of lust, malice, and delusion.
It is being free from the knot of cause and effect, of the stench of karma.
Let us stretch the parallels one step further. Before nirvana, all consciousness are born, die, and reborn as beings in the six domains of the Desire realm: God realm, Asura realm, Human realm, Animal realm, Preta realm, and Hell realm. This is the wheel of life, the place where Samsāra occurs.
It is surprisingly neat how the characters in Madoka Magica fit into these realms. For example, the deva that occupy the blissful God realm are way more powerful than beings in all other realms. Among their powers include a sort of telepathy and illusion construction. Moreover, one particular class of deva are passionless and sexless. Indeed, this seems a bit reminiscent of Kyubey.
In assuming magical girls to be the demigods that occupy Asura, we would find equally convincing parallels. The Asura are beings more powerful than humans. They are often characterized by jealousy and desire. The Asura are reborn into this realm because of good intentions that had bad results. This very aptly describes Sayaka and other magical girls.
Perhaps the most interesting character of this exercise would be Madoka of the Human realm. Of all the domains, a rebirth in the Human realm has the highest potential of reaching enlightenment. Indeed, this is the samsaric realm in which humans can directly achieve nirvana either in a future rebirth or even this present, as Madoka has done.
(Added 4/25/11 — Drawn mostly from 2DT’s comment and my reply below)
Bodhisattva are enlightenment-beings on the path to Buddhahood and nirvana that have either reached enlightenment or are destined for enlightenment. They stay within the universe because of a desire to save people.
Quoted from my comment reply below:
Madoka most resembles a Bodhisattva right after her wish was granted. I believe that is when she becomes an enlightenment-being, someone who has been enlightened or is bound for enlightenment. As she flies around to all the magical girls and purify their gems, she is like the Bodhisattva. She will soon escape from Samsara but is staying around for just for a few more moments to save people.
I would argue further that when she finally disappear — when she sheds any form — and becomes simply a force of nature, that’s the Madoka version of attaining nirvana, and reaching Buddhahood.
2DT points suggests lovely the Bodhisattva parallels in a comment below:
A certain story goes that a girl was about to reach nirvana and leave the cycle of existence. But just short of the last step, she looked back and saw the suffering of mankind, and it moved her so deeply that she decided to postpone enlightenment until she freed everyone on earth. She became Kannon, the first bodhisattva and the Goddess of Mercy.
There are other bodhisattvas as well. One, Maitreya, is only a prophecy: He’s supposed to teach the perfected dharma in a future age. But his enlightenment transcends linear time and reverberates even here, in the past.
— 2DT (2D-Teleidoscope)
Other Visual Symbolisms
Buddhism pervades Madoka Magica not just in its themes and concepts, but in the visual symbolisms as well. There is a clear parallel between seeds and gems. The karmic seeds and the fruition of consequences (vipāka) are oft visually represented as grief seeds and the organic components of witches.
Another interesting visual is the use of dissipating flames. As explained earlier, one part of the definition of nirvana (also the ending of suffering) is the extinguishing of the flames ignorance. In fact, nirvana literally means snuffed out. When Madoka ascends to her new form, she “snuffs out” the various grief seeds.
Perhaps the most outstanding symbol for me is the white elephant. When Walpurgisnacht first arrives, Homura —the girl who “births” the Madoka in this current timeline— is first greeted by an elephant. The Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born for the last time as Siddhartha. Legend says that on the night Siddhartha was conceived, his mother dreamt of an elephant as well.
And, like the Buddha, Madoka eventually reaches nirvana, a deathless existence outside of karmic laws.
Goddess, I love this anime!
- Buddhist principles mostly drawn from ideas accepted by both major branches, Theravada and Mahayana. The post focuses more on Buddhist world views and philosophies instead of the religion’s theistic aspects. In fact, Buddhism is often seen as a nontheistic religion because of its rejection of a prime mover.
- Karma, nirvana, suffering, and other concepts simplified because interpretations of these terms can go on for pages. For example, I called karma “amoral” although it does deal with the moral sphere, because of various complicating reasons. I go into further detail in a comment below.
- Goddess in the Buddhist sense has a much different meaning from that of monotheistic and even polytheistic religions. The use of the term in this post is mostly rhetorical.
- Terms and ideas in this post are from a Buddhist perspective. Other religions, most notably Hinduism, may have similar ideas, but are often quite different in some key points.
- There are plenty of references to other religion as well, including a painting of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam. I do believe though that the nontheistic take on Madoka’s final change (her existence outside the timelines is explained as a fundamental part of the new universe) is more in line with the Buddhist world view. Of course, that is not to say the story does not parallel the doctrines of other religions. After all, it is surprising how similar many religions are to each other.
- It is fun to go back and read past speculations on this series.
- Comments below note some interesting counterpoints that I address.
- Ryan A. gives a fascinating, well written quick read on Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.
- I cried so hard at the end…