By Alex Chong Do Thompson
I recently started watching an anime on Netflix called, One Punch Man.
The main character is an unemployed yuppie named Saitama, who decides one day that he’s going to become a super hero. He takes on the name One Punch Man because he defeats all of his opponents with just one punch!
I should stop here and note that the series is supposed to be a parody. It makes fun of manga that take themselves too seriously with convoluted backstories, stylized heroes and over the top fight scenes. In contrast, Saitama’s story is the opposite of all that. His backstory is that he became a hero because he was bored, and his fight scenes are more comical than epic. They generally involve him either making jokes or staring off into space before something finally motivates him to deliver his signature “one punch.”
So what does any of this have to do with enlightenment?
Well, Saitama has a disciple named Genos. Genos is a cyborg who hits all of the check marks for a would-be anime super hero. His attacks all have cool names, his backstory is appropriately tragic, and he monologues like no other. However, none of this stops him from getting his butt kicked on a semi-regular basis in the show. One day, Saitama saves Genos’ life, and in typical anime fashion, he responds by pledging his life to Saitama in the hopes that he will learn how to become stronger. And that’s where things get interesting because the secret to One Punch Man’s strength isn’t actually a secret. In fact, he tell’s Genos right up front that he got his powers by doing the following every day for three years:
- Run 6 miles
- 100 squats
- 100 push-ups
- 100 sit-ups
- Never use the heat or air conditioning
That’s it. Follow these five steps, and you can be a superhero. Sadly, no one believes Saitama when he tells them his secret. They all either think that he’s lying or that he truly doesn’t know how he got his powers. As a result, Genos follows him around like a puppy and takes notes on his every move in the hopes of figuring out the “true” secret to One Punch Man’s abilities. Meanwhile, Saitama questions what else he should tell his disciple because he’s already told him everything he needs to know. When Buddha spoke to his students about enlightenment, I imagine it was a lot like Saitama talking to Genos about super powers.
That is to say, the secret to Buddha’s enlightenment was never a secret. In fact, he revealed exactly how his “super power” worked right out of the gate when he spoke to the ascetics in Deer Park. The secret sauce to his awakening consisted of the following:
- The world is full of suffering
- Suffering is caused by desire
- The way to end suffering is to end desire
- The way to end desire is the eightfold path
That’s it. Learn to embody these four noble truths and you will realize enlightenment. So why is it so hard? Why are we still trying to figure out this Buddhism thing 2,500 later? I think the show offers an answer to that. Genos has a ton of respect for his teacher’s power level, so I don’t think he doubts the teachings or the truth of Saitama’s words. Rather, I think he appreciates the power, but he doesn’t like the method of achieving it. Why would he want to do 100 push-ups a day when he can just get new cyborg arms attached? Why would he want to vanquish his foes with a single punch when he can use a plasma cannon. Granted, his plasma cannon isn’t nearly as strong as Saitama’s punch, but it’s a freaking plasma cannon.
And so it is with us. We understand exactly what we need to do, but part of us still hopes that there’s another way. We want enlightenment, but not at the cost of our desire. We want peace, but not at the cost of our dreams. In other words, we want Buddha’s awakening, but we don’t want to walk Buddha’s path.
As a result, we follow our teachers in the hope that they’ll reveal an easier method. Meanwhile, our teachers scramble to find new ways to tell us the same thing that Buddhist teachers have been saying for 2,500 years. The whole thing is almost a parody in and of itself. We keep trying to find the “plasma cannon” path to enlightenment even as our teachers tell us that the “one punch” method will do just fine.
That being said, I think the message will get through eventually. It’ll just take a few more episodes.
Editor: Dana Gornall