Hey there, welcome back! Today we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite Saturday morning Grandpa…or I guess Uncle would be more accurate…that’s right..we’re finally going to dive into the Sagely Wisdom of Uncle Iroh and the immense spiritual knowledge that he teaches the main characters….and us in the process…so sit back, grab a Tsungi horn, heat some Jasmine Tea, and one more thing before we get started, on the subject of Wisdom — we do a live event every full moon, every month called the Wisdom Moons. The next one is coming up soon! Use the link below to see how you can join our live event. I hope to see you there!
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, Iroh is the oldest main character that we follow actively through the series…. and is pretty much your Lao Tzu or Mystical Buddha kind of guy. He was a general of the Fire Nation and one of its greatest warriors, having the title “The Dragon of the West,” laying siege to the Earth Capital, but retired after his son Lu Ten was killed in action, and he became disillusioned with the war effort. When we first meet him though, Iroh is introduced as the uncle of Zuko, and acts as a father figure to him, as well as a moral compass, giving him great advice -which Zuko often ignores…..and accompanies him on his hunt for the Avatar, slowly teaching him to accept his true nature and become more in balance with himself.
Despite his fire nation origin, though.. he’s not a bad guy…in fact, he’s probably one of the beating moral hearts of the show, who -in stark contrast to Zuko, is easygoing, friendly, and dryly good-humored….let’s face it, aside from Sokka, he’s probably at the top of the list for most peoples favorite characters growing up. Exceptionally… when I’m old and grey, I want to be just like Iroh… and Gandalf… and Dumbledoor anyways right from episode 1, we see Iroh’s greatest virtue and wisdom…patience. Iroh doesn’t have it easy on the show, for, in the beginning, Zuko treats him pretty poorly, ignoring his advice and shouting at him a fair bit. Yet Iroh is there for him, no matter what, as he understands the importance of family and being there for the people who matter, undoubtedly coming from his son’s loss.
As the series progressed and he got more screen time, we started to see his actions’ real wisdom, but season 1 set his groundwork up as embodying patience, serenity, and mindfulness. Unlike most of the fire nation, he’s a man who sees beauty in the most superficial aspects of life, treating his self-imposed exile almost like an extended vacation to see the world. As Colin Mchannan points out…Iroh is a great man, sure, but what makes him truly wise and believable is his journey. He didn’t start as a mystical Buddha with life all figured out. He was broken….having lost the thing that mattered most to him -his child, and it defined him. The best part, though, and the ultimate lesson, is that Iroh let it define him in the best way. He could have been bitter and angry, but he instead chose to live the remainder of his life to the fullest in an attempt to avoid the mistakes and regrets from his earlier life….
In fact, in “Tales of Ba Sing Se” (one of the best episodes ever…), it’s suggested in that section where he sings Little Soldier Boy that some of that great optimism and generosity that he’s known so well for are a form of post-traumatic growth coming from the loss of his son. Like the waterbenders, he embraces the concept of flow and learns to move with the tide of life rather than stay stagnant and bitter.
Speaking of Waterbenders, this brings us to some of his best attributes that countless people have learned from…..his quotes…of everything, he’s probably best known for his words of wisdom as he freely advises most of the characters throughout the series. One passage, in particular, is often brought up as one of his best. When teaching Zuko in season 2 about lightning bending, Iroh explains that “It’s important to draw wisdom from many places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” Adhering to this philosophy eventually led him to develop a lightning bending -a technique never before seen, by studying the push and pull of water bending. Equally, he tries to convince Zuko that understanding Earth bending is just as important when he’s fire turning to develop a real understanding of the element…which amazingly, Zuko then carries on to Aang during his training later on..
One of the best parts of Season 3 is when we learn that Iroh lied about killing the last Dragon to protect the ancient Dragon Masters Ren and Shaw, and even be their student. Through his compassion, he drove his firebending powers from vitality, heart, and life force rather than from rage as most of his contemporary firebenders did, thereby gaining a power none of them had.
For us, wisdom is essentially the same when applied to any aspect of life. Suppose you learn about something from only one source. In that case, you’ll pick up all the biases and influences from that source and never form your own opinion…but if instead, you look in different places for the inherent wisdom, you’ll end up a much more whole and balanced individual. I think Iroh’s insight here stems from his understanding of the four nations as balancers of each other. See, his nature and the course of his life have brought him to a philosophy that embraces peacefulness, harmony, and mutual understanding rather than conflict….but what’s more, it seems like he would much rather see the four nations live in mutual peace as opposed to single fire nation rule, as each one brings something unique to the table
While people often compare him to a Budhha like figure, I think a much better comparison is Budhai, the Chinese monk who’s often depicted as the fat or laughing Buddha, rather than Sidhurtta himself. Ironically, despite his carefree and detached attitude, he is something of a hedonist in his old age. He likes subtle pleasures, fancy tea, and seems to focus his life much more on relaxation and fun than he does on helping Zuko find Aang or engage in his nation’s nationalistic war. He often flirts with loads of girls in the series and is called handsome a couple of times! And he loves it….maybe he watched our recent episode on materialism and took it to heart…. Or maybe it’s a natural result of his earlier years conquesting, his soul is liberated from war, and all he wants now is to be jolly.
Ironically though, despite his focus on pleasure and relaxation, he does remark in season 1 that “the best tea tastes delicious whether it comes in a porcelain pot or a tin cup,” implying that it’s what’s nurtured inside that truly matters…..but he does accidentally poison himself with a flower in that episode too…sooo…you win some and lose some I guess.
The point is, like the kids of Avatar, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and takes the time to take “moments of quiet” in the face of a decision…..I was joking last time about him being a big kid. Still, the more I look at him, he kind of is…..and it’s excellent…while many of the series’ notable characters were maturing throughout the show. Of course, there’s the 14-year-old warlord to boot, Iroh was already a “changed man” who already suffered tremendous loss and “matured” through that it…reminding us that “Failure is simply a chance to start over anew, this time only wiser.” Even when opening his tea shop, he points out that “There’s nothing wrong with a life of peace and prosperity,” advising Zuko to abandon his quest for honor….but even then, he never forces him because it has to be Zuko’s decision to understand that on his own
Speaking of starting things, remember earlier how we explained that Iroh liked to draw wisdom from all the elements rather than just fire? A couple of fans have pointed out that his attitude towards tea is the perfect example of this. While Iroh’s love of tea is often played for laughs, there’s an underlying meaning and purpose -and to some extent, lesson, behind his passion for jasmine and ginseng tea that’s not often talked about.
To make an outstanding cuppa tea, all four of the bending elements are required. You need clay for the teapots and cups or the leaves from the ground, the water for the substance, Fire to heat the Tea, and the air to blow on the hot tea to cool it so you can drink it (even if you leave it out to cool naturally, it would get cold and taste worse). If you take one element out, the tea is either impossible to make or worse without it.. Iroh knew this, just as he knew that the only way to defeat the Fire Nation was for all four elements to work together. When on the boat to Ba Sing Se, Iroh gets a cold cup of tea and heats it with fire breath to the perfect temperature -all the while accidentally revealing to Jet that he’s a fire bender…
Iroh learned several things by watching other bending tribes. He knew that understanding others was the only way to be whole. Tea, then, is a physical manifestation of these teachings. On the surface, Iroh’s love of tea could be viewed as nothing more than a simple character trait, but it also serves as a representation of his spirituality and calming nature. In the context of achieving harmony and balance among the four nations, it’s a lesson on the value of tolerance, balance, and listening that Uncle Iroh passed on to Zuko. And while this theory is just Reddit headcanon, it’s a deep and meaningful way to look at Iroh’s love of tea in a new light….he didn’t enjoy any old cup, only one that was truly and fully balanced with all the elements working together in unison
But the beautiful thing about Iroh is that he also can stand for the intensity of the fiery element and knows precisely how and when to use it. He rarely exhibits such power; one example is when he yells at Zuko under Lake Laogai.
Play clip: It’s time for you to look inward and start asking yourself the big question: who are you, and what do YOU want?!
And that’s when he’s delivering compassionate wisdom with intensity! He also liberates all of Ba Sing Se at the very end of the series, after a getting ripped in jail montage, and shows exactly why they called him the Dragon of the West.
All in all, Iroh’s philosophy of flow is undoubtedly inspired by Taoist values and helps to bring profound spiritual wisdom to a younger audience. If you haven’t seen it yet, I would recommend wholeheartedly going and checking out the series…even just for him alone….I could have written this entire video made up of just his quotes, and it would be equally as great…so I think Iroh is a modern-day ascended master. Even his bending forms are influenced by Southern Shaolin, Dragon, and Form-intention styles of Kung-Fu, all of which match his personality pretty well.
Interestingly, Kaci Ferrell pointed out in reviews that after the season 2 episode of Legend of Korra where Iroh appeared to her in the spirit world, Korra became a much more likable character with the fans because she took Iroh’s wisdom on board…..even in death he’s bringing the fandom together!
So with that, thanks so much for watching! We’ll leave a link to some of Iroh’s best quotes and snippets of wisdom below so you can check them out, but otherwise, totally go and watch ATLA cause there’s so much more wisdom hidden inside it…and always remember, above all else…….that being sick of tea is like being sick of breathing. Toodles!
The Lost Scrolls: Fire, page 159 of The Lost Scrolls Collection.
Director: Ethan Spaulding; Writer: Elizabeth Welch Ehasz (April 7, 2006). “Return to Omashu.” Avatar: The Last Airbender. Season 2. Episode 3
Ferrell, Kaci (November 9, 2013). “The Legend of Korra season 2 episode 10 review: A New Spiritual Age”. Den of Geek.
McMahon, Colin (March 28, 2014). “The Wisdom to Be Learned from Uncle Iroh.” The Red Rings of Redemption.
Director: Giancarlo Volpe; Writers: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko (2006–09–15). “The Drill.” Avatar: The Last Airbender. Season 2. Episode 13. Nickelodeon.