I find it interesting that Zaheer’s detachment from worldly desires seems more like a way for him to escape suffering than an actual sacrifice.
He couldn’t give up his desire for P’li when she was alive because he actually wanted to remain attached to her. But, as soon as she died and that attachment felt painful rather than pleasurable, he gave it up without hesitation.
That kind of seems like a jerk move to me (though I suspect P’li herself wouldn’t mind).
This is actually something that’s sorta perturbed me about both ATLA and TLOK, that it kinda (probably unintentionally) misrepresents the idea of “detachment” (in the Buddhist sense) as being equivalent to apathy and/or not caring/loving people; the way detachment has been discussed both with Aang and Zaheer makes it out to seem that becoming detached means no longer holding/experiencing love for people. When the reality (from my limited understanding) is that detachment in Buddhism means that one stills feels compassion and love for people and the world but through an unbiased and not obsessive lens.
I think it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with characters who don’t always understand the concepts, because a lot of what you’re seeing could just be the result of Aang and Zaheer not really knowing what they’re talking about.
With Aang, his interpretation of Guru Pathik’s teachings was very much the interpretation of a twelve-year-old boy who was in love and didn’t know the difference between that and unbiased compassion. His frustration at the apparent inconsistency between the Air Chakra and the final chakra strongly implied that he was missing something, and his attempt to open his final chakra ended up resulting in tragedy, which probably wouldn’t have happened if he were meant to have done it right.
With Zaheer, his interpretation of Guru Laghima’s teachings was very much the interpretation of a zealot who saw those teachings as justification for whatever he wanted to do anyway. It’s plausible that detaching himself from concern for others was not what Laghima intended, but functioned as a dark workaround for someone like Zaheer who could actually pull it off.
The most questionable thing said by a character who actually knew what she was talking about was Yangchen’s speech to Aang about why the Avatar can never truly detach themselves:
Many great and wise Air Nomads have detached themselves and achieved spiritual enlightenment, but the Avatar can never do it, because your sole duty is to the world. Here is my wisdom for you: Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs, and do whatever it takes to protect the world.
That doesn’t necessarily imply that detachment equals apathy, though — she might just be talking about the Avatar’s need to reincarnate and remain part of the world.
I always interpreted the detachment that Aang had to undergo meaning not “do not love”, but “do not allow that love to cloud your judgement”. As the Avatar, Aang has to be able to put the needs of the world above the needs of those individuals that he loves (which might be reflected in the favouritism that affected his relationships with his children—I’m sure Aang loved them all, but for the sake of maintaining balance in the world, training Tenzin to continue the Air nation was paramount.) Aang does challenge that ideal in The Promise, in his conflict with Roku over whether it’s better for the world to just kill Zuko and end Sozin’s line or if Aang can afford to take the risk of having faith in him. Ultimately, Aang’s faith is rewarded, but another war nearly breaks out in the process because of it.
Basically, it might not be so much as a case of not having feelings for others but learning to manage those emotions (The way and reasons that Aang bails on his training with Guru Pathik are a blatant shout-out to Luke leaving Yoday at the end of Empire Strikes Back, and one of the Jedi philosophies that he was rebelling against was the idea of having no attachments. We all know how well that philosophy worked out for the Jedi…)
I agree with the interpretation that Zaheer hasn’t learned to detach himself—he’s actively rejecting attachment as soon as it starts to hurt. He’s suppressing his emotions, not managing them, and they get out of control again as a result at the end of his battle with Korra. (His learning to fly might not have anything to do with being “detached” or not—Tenzin refers to the ability as a legend, meaning probably nobody except Zaheer believed it to be possible. Zaheer could only access the ability because he didn’t consider it impossible, and understanding of it came to him at a moment of great need, like airbending did to Korra and Bumi, Metalbending to Toph and Lavabending to Bolin.) As others have pointed out, Zaheer doesn’t abandon “all earthly desire”—he still has a powerful desire to kill Korra.
Aang’s just a child, and goodness knows it takes most of us a lot longer than twelve years to get a handle on our own emotions. Zaheer is a pretentious bampot.
(Source: rabalogy, via jerk-bending)