Not long ago, Nick Calibey at A Rather Silly Blog posted a two-part response in the ongoing Madoka and Jesus as Saviors discussion. While the posts that started the discussion at Alex’s Ashita no Anime blog were written from an atheist/agnostic perspective, Nick attempted to show the themes of Madoka Magica from a Buddhist perspective, then compare them with his own Christian beliefs. I would like to offer some of my own musings on the issue, presented as a response to Nick’s claims. My upbringing and theoretical background are purely Christian (Roman Catholic, to be precise), but I consider myself a practicing Buddhist. My comments will therefore be the reverse of Nick’s – with the Christian constructs based on a more technical understanding, and the Buddhist elements coming from personal experience.
Nicks’s posts can be found here and here. As both are very long and detailed, I will offer a summary of the point discussed before offering my thoughts on it. I will strive to offer as fair a summary of the points as my understanding of Nick’s post allows (and inevitably fail to do him justice), so you may read through his posts first, or go straight to my response, as you see fit.
Nick: Madoka herself is not the locus of salvation. Madoka’s own transformation is because of the karmic power of the universe, something that while humans interact with, ultimately lays external to them, and as such it is that karmic power that is the actual saving factor and not Madoka. Unbeknownst to her, Madoka had to wait for karmic time lines to build up in order for her transformation to occur since it is karma and not herself that is the locus of salvation.
As a side note, I cannot exactly agree with Nick’s notion that karma is external to the being it belongs to. Enlightenment signifies the individual cessation of karma, and the Buddhist endgame equivalent to the Christian Judgment Day is the universal cessation of karma, neither of which would be possible if karma were external to the beings of this world. To begin with, if we assume karma to be an external force, it necessarily follows that it holds little bearing on achieving enlightenment, as most variants of Buddhist thought hold that external factors are illusionary, and the way to enlightenment is through dispelling that illusion. Thankfully, this point is not actually that important for analyzing Madoka, so there is no need to argue this.
The reason why Nick thinks that Madoka needed to wait for karmic lines to build up is that he equates her wish and ascension/transformation with her act of salvation. This does not, however, make much sense from a Buddhist perspective. We may of course choose to view Madoka’s wish as the moment where she makes her Bodhisattva vows. We may see her ascension as the point where Madoka leaves behind the mortal part of her journey and gains eternity. Viewed like that, the event is certainly not without meaning to many Buddhist interpretations of the story. But if we are truly concerned with a Buddhist interpretation, then the crux of salvation must be enlightenment.
Enlightenment cannot be granted by space squirrels (we are already born with the potential to reach enlightenment). Enlightenment is not concerned with power levels. Enlightenment is seeing things for what they are by conquering one’s attachments and aversions. Madoka was technically capable of achieving enlightenment in each and every timeline, as was every other creature existing in those timelines.
What was it then, that caused a change profound enough for Madoka to succeed in the last timeline, when she failed in every other? Certainly it was not the fact of her karmic burden and the potential power of her wish increasing – Madoka learns of her potential mid-series, long before she becomes capable of making her ultimate wish. In fact, Madoka’s impulse upon learning of the potential of her wish is to undo Sayaka’s transformation into a magical girl – a wish which would have surely ended in despair for everyone involved. No, the reason for Madoka’s change had to come later, and trying to grasp it means creating a new interpretation of the entire show for every answer proposed. Let me discuss just one possible answer.
From the beginning of the series, we can see that Madoka holds a deep love for others. As she gets dragged into mortal peril again and again throughout the story, the only thing that allows Madoka to overcome her natural fear of death is her dedication and loyalty to her friends. Multiple times, Madoka is ready to sacrifice her happy and stable life and become a magical girl to help out the other girls – a decision always prevented by Homura in the nick of time. The flashbacks of the original timeline show that Madoka’s love reaches even further, as she immediately extends a helping hand to the stranger-in-need Homura, and takes on the responsibility of a magical girl to save the life of the cat Amy. A deep love and compassion for all beings is one of the ideals often associated with those who achieved enlightenment, yet the Madoka of previous timelines always ended up a step short of reaching salvation. The reason for that is simple. That Madoka loved all those around her, but she did not yet love herself.
Throughout the show, basically any comment Madoka makes about herself is full of self-deprecation. She says she is clumsy, stupid and has no redeeming qualities. Upon seeing the flashback episodes, many people were shocked – how did the cheerful and confident Madoka from the past timeline turn into the frightened little girl we see in the final timeline? But it is not to be underestimated how world-changing the experience of becoming a magical girl was to Madoka – in saving Amy, Homura and the people of Mitakihara, Madoka received undeniable proof of her worth for the first time in her life. This new awareness turned Madoka into who would become Homura’s savior. But from a Buddhist perspective, there is a tragic element to the hero Madoka born that way – she chooses to sacrifice her safety for others not only because she sees how precious their lives are, but also because she considers the risk to her own life a cheap price in comparison. She gains confidence in herself when fighting as a magical girl, but that confidence is largely dependent on the new powers and abilities she gained. Even as she grows as a person, the magical girl Madoka is still limited by her aversion towards herself and her new attachment to power.
Nick thinks that Madoka became ready for her act of salvation because she had stacked up enough timeline power. I believe that Madoka became ready the moment that Homura, always bearing her burdens in silence, broke down before Madoka in a display of emotion so raw that it could not be doubted. Before the impending Walpurgisnacht, facing a battle which could only end in failure, Homura states that she will go and fight and lose everything if it means saving Madoka, because it is Madoka alone that is worth the whole world to her. And it is not the cool and powerful Madoka affirmed this way, it is the clueless and ditzy middle school girl who is powerless to help her friends. Through this display of pure love and devotion, Madoka is forced to consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, her own existence is equally as precious as the lives of others. Madoka gains the confidence she had in some of the previous timelines, but does so without becoming a magical girl. Sacrifice and power are no longer necessary for her to establish her self-worth, and Madoka is finally awake.
Countless times in the previous timelines, Madoka had been badgered into selling her soul cheap. But Homura teaches Madoka that her life is worth the world, and when Madoka next offers up her earthly existence, she will ask for the world in return.
The time-altering, dimension-smashing and world-rewriting fireworks Madoka shows us are impressive, but not key to her nature as an enlightened being. The fact she can formulate a karma-destroying wish in the first place is enough to show that she had fully awakened to her Buddha nature before making that wish. Madoka merely used the Magical Girl System in the most beneficial and efficient way possible – just like a farmer uses his plough to ready the field.
Christian readers might be puzzled – if I claim Madoka’s transformation was not key to her act of salvation, what would she have done if she had achieved enlightenment before a world-changing wish was within her grasp? Simply enough, she would never become a magical girl. She would go on living, saving people in the little ways that all of us can. And one day, she would die like everyone else. This is the humble Buddhist savior, working not with divine power and miracles, but with what she has at hand.
(Further reading: The Buddha and Miraculous Power)
Other points might be discussed in future posts, if time allows.