At a certain age, every weeknight my friends and I would huddle around the TV to watch a 20-minute episode of Dragonball Z on Cartoon Network. The show follows Goku and his friends as they train to become better martial artists and save the Earth from myriad alien and android threats. I don’t want to stretch this too far but I think there are definitely traces of Buddhist values to be found in the show’s themes. This would make sense when you consider that Buddhism reached Japan, the home of Dragonball Z, 1,000 years ago and has influenced its culture and martial arts. Like Star Wars, watching DBZ might have been a small factor that made the dharma seem familiar when I encountered it in my own life.
Firstly, there’s the importance of ethics. Goku’s rival, Vegeta, says that because Goku wants nothing he is like a mountain. That’s the source of his strength. He is always decent to people and never manipulative, or trying to get something for himself. He is content with his simple family life in the woods and his pursuit of martial arts training. He is pure of heart. Ethics is universally described as the foundation of Buddhist practice. Much emphasis is put on acting with ethical intentions, kind speech, and considerate actions. There’s also the second noble truth: the Buddha said that craving is the origin of suffering. Goku’s contentedness often stands in contrast to other characters’ lust for power.
Goku and Vegeta belong to an alien race of warriors known as the Saiyans. The Saiyans are in pursuit of a kind of transcendent state: Super Saiyan. This transformation is illustrated by the characters having golden hair and green eyes, and it marks a huge leap in their fighting strength. When Goku first ascends to this state, he identifies it with truth. Its treatment feels a bit like some of the experiences or states that are spoken about in Buddhism such as kenshō in Zen, or the jhanas in early Buddhism, or perhaps awakening itself. I think this transformation hints at a potential we can feel is there: the possibility of radical peace and inner strength. Interestingly, it is Goku’s love of his friend Krillin that provides the catalyst for his transformation and enables him to defeat the evil Frieza.
Like the jhanas and the stages of awakening in Buddhism, the state of Super Saiyan is progressive. It continues to deepen. The characters try different strategies to break through to the next level when the Earth is under threat from a stronger foe, Cell. When Vegeta and his son, Trunks, enter a training facility known as the hyperbolic time chamber, they strive with relentless intensity to reach the next level. This is a serious commitment: a single day outside the hyperbolic time chamber is experienced as a year by those inside it. Furthermore, the conditions inside the chamber become more challenging the further you travel from its doorway. Vegeta and Trunks push themselves to the limit. They become stronger but do not experience a paradigm shift into Super Saiyan 2.
Upon their turn inside the chamber, Goku and his son, Gohan, try a different approach. Rather than strive for peak effort, they relax and see if it’s possible to maintain the state of Super Saiyan 1 all the time. This approach works for them—and I can’t help but think about this in relationship to striving in meditation practice. We sometimes think that putting in a huge effort will make the difference but if this effort is unbalanced it is actually just a manifestation of craving. It’ll lead us in the wrong direction. Sometimes a different kind of effort is required: a gentle, persistent effort; an intelligent effort; a sensitised effort; a relaxed effort, an effort to relax. And some schools of Buddhism make a specific point of emphasising persistent everyday mindfulness over great feats of meditative prowess.
Finally, DBZ owes something to Indian cosmology with its otherworldly realms, demons, and gods. When Goku dies early in the Saiyan saga, he arrives at a processing station in the afterlife and meets King Yama. In Hinduism, Yama is the god of death. Happily, in DBZ, King Yama seems like an affable chap—if somewhat overburdened with admin—and he sends Goku to King Kai (whose name means “restoration” or “recovery” in Japanese) for training before returning to save the Earth, 20 minutes at a time.