The first time the importance of the White Lotus is hinted to viewers of Avatar: The Last Airbender is in Book 1, Episode 9: “The Waterbending Scroll”. True the subtlety that the series did so well, this foreshadowing has nothing to do with the current activities of our main heroes and takes place as part of, what appears to be, a rather silly B-plot involving season 1’s primary antagonists. Iroh, the now-retired Fire Nation general and Prince Zuko’s uncle, who can be impractical at times, but who is actually a very wise man, orders their ship to switch directions, taking himself, and his nephew Zuko, off the trail of their ultimate goal of capturing the Avatar. Why? Because he has misplaced his White Lotus Tile and his very anxious to replace it; so much so that when Zuko asks him if their change in course has anything to do with finding the Avatar, Iroh replies that replacing his missing Pai Sho tile is “even more urgent”. Why would a man like Iroh waste his time taking a detour for something so seemingly small during an important mission? Well, because, to him, it is that important. However, it is only in Book 2 episode 11: “The Desert” that we find out why, when Iroh uses the white lotus tile and the particular Pai Sho strategy that uses it, to identify himself as a member of a secret society we later find out is known as The Order of the White Lotus; which is described as an ancient group that transcends the divisions of the four nations and values philosophy, beauty, and truth. (Book 3, Episode 19: The Old Masters) Known Members of the Order of the White Lotus and how we know:
Pakku - participates in liberating Ba Sing Se
King Bumi - participates in liberating Ba Sing Se
Piandao - gives Sokka a White Lotus tile
Iroh - seeks out fellow members of the order for help
JeongJeong - participates in liberating Ba Sing Se
Gyatso (formerly, deceased) - is seen using the White Lotus pai sho strategy when playing with Aang in a flashback in Book 1 Episode 12: The Storm
The Order of the White Lotus remains a mysterious organization throughout the show. We instinctively trust the Order of the White Lotus more and more as time goes on, as the show establishes a pattern of the most trustworthy adult characters in the show being associated with it, not much about their origins or history is revealed to the viewer, but perhaps, real-world history can provide some insight. A similar, real-life organization known as The White Lotus Society or “Bai Lian Jiao” in Chinese, was founded in the mid-12 century in China. It was originally a Buddhist sect which believed in and rigorously practiced the 5 precepts of discipline, a basic, but important code of ethics for Buddhist laity down to the modern era, especially those of the Mahāyāna tradition. They are: To refrain from killing other living beings To refrain from stealing To refrain from sexual misconduct To refrain from lying and intoxication As a religious organization, the White Lotus Society believed that the Buddha would descend from heaven as a messianic figure and save humanity. They also believed that they could bring about that event, by putting an end to Mongol rule in China. It was out of this belief, that the Red Turbans, the Society’s military arm was born. The Red Turbans were the main force behind the aptly named, “Red Turban Rebellion” which took place from 1351-1368 AD and did, in fact, succeed in bringing an end to the Mongols’ rule over China, thus ushering in the Ming Dynasty. Here’s where the parallels between the historical White Lotus Society and the fictional Order of the White Lotus go from interesting to downright spooky for Avatar fans. The Red Turban Rebellion was led by Zhu Yuanzhang, who began as a peasant who was taken in by Buddhist Monks, who were members of the White Lotus Society, after his family was left destitute by the death of his father, after all, at least the monastery provided him with food and shelter. After leading the Red Turbans and seizing control of Nanjing, he declared himself the new Emperor and spent the remainder of his life working to re-establish native Chinese culture while also allowing the economy and the arts to progress and flourish. This mirrors both Aang and Zuko’s actions both during and after the series. Aang, like Yanzhang, was raised by monks (at least of whom was likely a member of the Order of the White Lotus) and was the one who actually defeated Ozai. After Ozai’s defeat, Zuko ascends to the throne and spends a lot of time during his reign trying to restore what the Fire Nation was like before his great-grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, turned it into the cruel and militaristic empire it became, while also trying to restore the Fire Nation’s relationship with the other nations. I began my research into the White Lotus Society expecting to find a small and mostly inconsequential tidbit, instead, I found an incredible wealth of historical parallels to the world, characters, and plot of Avatar the Last Airbender. I don’t know for sure if these parallels were purposeful, or if Mike and Bryan knew about this when they were developing Avatar The Last Airbender, but there are enough parallels here to make me suspect the White Lotus Society, at the very least, was the inspiration for The Order of the White Lotus. What do you guys think?