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Kingdom Hearts and its ties to Buddhism



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Guernsey

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I had heard once that Kingdom Hearts contains a lot of Buddhist themes that are present in the story. My question is: What are those Buddhist themes? And how do they influence the story of Kingdom Hearts?
 

Idreamaboutcats

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I had heard once that Kingdom Hearts contains a lot of Buddhist themes that are present in the story. My question is: What are those Buddhist themes? And how do they influence the story of Kingdom Hearts?
I’ve never heard that before. The game has Catholic themes. It also has Shinto themes. I guess if there’s anything close to Buddhist themes, it would be…Kingdom Hearts? It’s the thing where all the people’s humanity comes from, and their knowledge, so it’s like a kiddie version of the akashic records?
 

AR829038

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I had heard once that Kingdom Hearts contains a lot of Buddhist themes that are present in the story. My question is: What are those Buddhist themes? And how do they influence the story of Kingdom Hearts?
This is my first time hearing that. To be honest, I really don't see the connection. Are you sure you aren't thinking of Final Fantasy X? Because that game drew heavy inspiration from Buddhist ideas and culture.
Kingdom Hearts is defined by a dichotomic philosophy—the counterbalance between light and darkness, which respectively represent every positive and every negative physical, spiritual, and emotional force in the universe. If one were to draw comparisons between that cosmology and any real-world religion, it would have to be Zoroastrianism, which effectively espouses the exact same idea. The Zoroastrians believe that the cosmos is comprised of two perennially opposed forces of light and darkness, or good and evil, with the former ruled over by the deity known as Ahura Mazda, the embodient of truth, order, and harmony, against the evil deity Ahriman representing falsehood, chaos, and disorder. In the Zoroastrian cosmology, everything in the universe—every physical feature, as well as every non-physical element of existence (mental, emotional, spiritual, conceptual, etc.) is a product of these two primary conflicting forces. Mountains, for instance, were seen as the jagged results of cosmic friction between the forces of Ahriman and Ahura Mazda.
As for Buddhism, I'm not sure I could draw many parallels to Kingdom Hearts. There's imagery that speaks of Catholic influence, such as the stained glass Stations of Awakening, but those influences seem to me to be more purely aesthetic than philosophical. The only major inspiration I could think of is to draw a comparison between that aforementioned dichotomic light-darkness cosmic order and the Eastern concepts of yin and yang, which are similar in essence though superficially different from the Zoroastrian cosmological order. That might be what you're thinking of. However, yin and yang are concepts more associated with Taoist and Chinese mythology rather than Buddhism (I don't know much about Shinto, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had something similar). The cosmology of Buddhism rather takes after Hindu beliefs, which has a much more hierarchical celestial structure as opposed to a dichotomic one, but I won't get too deep into that. Philosophically, I don't see any connection, as Buddhism is all about spiritual detachment and enlightenment, whereas Kingdom Hearts is all about establishing attachments with other people.
I think if you stretched your imagination and knew enough about Buddhism, you could probably find some comparisons to draw, but on the whole, I really don't see much Buddhist philosophy or culture represented in a series like Kingdom Hearts. Final Fantasy has tons of it (especially the later games in the series [FFVI and beyond]), but KH definitely rings more yin-yang to me. Well, actually, it rings much more like Star Wars, but Star Wars in turn drew its mythology from Taoism, so there you go.
 

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I’m far from an authority on the subject, but I’ve made this case several times before. As far as its apparent symbolism goes, KH typically doesn’t draw from Buddhist imagery but there are undoubtedly connecting themes in their metaphysics (though this is often true when comparing most spiritual traditions in their more esoteric forms - what Aldous Huxley calls the “perennial philosophy”). It is also worth caveating this with the understanding that even amongst the more mystical/esoteric forms of Buddhism (that is, not the dogma/traditions-dominant mainstream religion that you find, for instance, organizing society in Southeast Asia), there is a pretty vast diversity - the symbolism/imagery found in Tibetan Buddhism is extremely different from that found in Zen, and the philosophy underpinning Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana “schools” of thought are different in some respects; for example, Theravada - which places greater emphasis on the ascetic idea of transcending “lesser” material (dark) reality toward Nirvana (light) has perhaps more in common with the Zoroastrian idea (referenced above) or Gnostic idea of light vs darkness. Mahanaya and Vajrayana by contrast incorporate more of the yin-yang approach of balance and non-dualism. In its earlier days (especially KH1), the series definitely played more explicitly with dualistic (Gnostic/Zoroastrian/“Christian”) ideas, though I do believe it’s moved in a direction more associated with the mystery/esoteric traditions - 6 examples that come to mind off the top of my head:
  1. the notion of Nothingness as possible salvation for the Nobodies (Days/KH2/the end of Re:Coded - invoking the basic Buddhist/Vedanta (Hindhu) ideal of “Nirvana” - blowing out the candle, or even the idea of the “Ain Soph” in both Jewish and Western Esoteric Qabalah, and certainly the idea of “Emptiness” in Zen Buddhism),
  2. dreams as parallel to/informing “reality” (very prominent theme of Tibetan Buddhism e.g. Tibetan Book of the Dead; also reminiscent of astral exploration/means of spiritual development in many Western magickal/Theurgical traditions, as well as the associated psychoanalytical approach of Carl Jung);
  3. the explicit idea that everything potentially has a heart, especially when it makes connections with others (an essentially pantheistic, animistic idea - very present in Shinto and some shamanistic traditions, and certainly in part held over in the syncretic influence of some of those more indigenous traditions on Buddhist imagery across the board (whether Tibetan, Indonesian, or Japanese);
  4. as we are now learning, KH’s metaphysics of the afterlife, which is very much NOT typical of the Abrahamic/Christian religions’ simple dualism. Instead, the afterlife in the series appears to have much more in common with Eastern and even Neopagan ideas which emphasize the spirit’s journey, after the physical body dies, through various astral realms (also connected with dreams - again, a major emphasis in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), and the tether to the material world being the essential sense of self (the “Heart”) as the identify/ego-self/personal history of the individual’s life (through the *chain of memories,* as it were, of a person’s life, or the strength of their Will/attachment to things and people) - the latter is actually very explicitly referenced in the Final World, with this idea that the various nameless stars are still in between life and death (again, a very Tibetan Buddhist idea, though by no means limited to Buddhism) because of their strong memories. Same idea, again, with Kairi being Sora’s tether to the Realm of Light. And again, in a sense, with the Lingering Will being essentially the animated, subsisting life force of Terra’s willpower/tether to the material reality, even though he himself has fallen into the “abyss.” Also, it could be argued that the notion of reincarnation can in some way also be found here - as one life “goes to sleep,” its essence re-awakens in a new form: Ventus —> Sora —> Roxas, for example. “Birth by sleep,” indeed! Further - in the Tibetan BotD, the realms after death (leading, potentially, to re-birth) are called the “Bardos”, starting from the “Clear Light of Ultimate Reality” (Kingdom Hearts, anyone? Unknowable, essential reality that transcends the cycle of life and death), to the Bardos of illusion, including one in which the Lord of Death appears to remorselessly drag the soul deeper into “the darkness” from which the soul is reincarnated - uncanny similarity to the Lich in KH3 ushering Sora to the abyss...
  5. this overarching sense of the afterlife as consisting of numerous layers and liminal realms between life and death also relates to the broader “perennial philosophy,” again dominant in mystical Buddhism, which is that the nature of “reality” as we know and understand it is, essentially, illusory (“Maya,” which means illusion in some Hindhu/Buddhist traditions). Some contemporary philosophers (and physicists!!) have gone so far as to extrapolate this idea to virtual realities/notions of “reality as hologram,” whether meant literally or metaphorically. More recently (I’d say as of Re:Coded onward) the series has had a heavy slathering of these ideas laid on, and it’s becoming more and more apparent/heavy with the new saga - e.g. Sora waking up in the “astral” world to find himself in a completely different *reality* (which is, presumably, either more or less “real”) in the world of Yozora; and also, the Union X/MoM/etc plot points are really playing around with this idea of multiple realities (worldlines?), or meta-realities (the “Book” projecting smaller micro-realities or datascapes), though it’s not yet clear where this will ultimately lead;
  6. finally, *cyclical time* is also now becoming a major feature of more recent KH lore, which significantly leans more toward Eastern philosophical systems than traditional Western ones. We now have explicit, canonical lore (from the MoM’s mouth) that the world has undergone multiple cycles of Keyblade Wars which *end the world* (in darkness), which is then presumably reborn/rebuilt from a “precious light” (quoting MX from BBS). At this point it is not at all far-fetched to start drawing direct parallels to Buddhist ideas such as Samsara - the eternal cycle/wheel of time - or even Hindhu myths upon which much of Buddhism is based, such as the famous depiction of the god Vishnu sleeping upon the eternal waters (the “abyss”, anyone?) from whose navel the creator god Brahma periodically emerges from a lotus flower to create the universe, then goes back to sleep. Granted, it should be emphasized that these cyclical depiction of time, life/death, light/darkness (also found in the yin-yang, of course), are by no means exclusive to Buddhism and go as far back as primitive planting societies before cities were even being built.
I’m a total geek for this stuff so I hope I’ve contributed positively in some way to the discussion!
 
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Soldier

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I’ve never heard that before. The game has Catholic themes. It also has Shinto themes. I guess if there’s anything close to Buddhist themes, it would be…Kingdom Hearts? It’s the thing where all the people’s humanity comes from, and their knowledge, so it’s like a kiddie version of the akashic records?
Fun fact: the Bookmaster heartless in KH 2 can drop it's book as a shield for goofy, it is called the Akashic record!
 
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