Also known as ブッダ (Buda)
Considered one of Tezuka's last major works, Buddha was originally serialized from September 1972 to December 1983. Published by Ushio Shuppan Co., it began publication in Friends of Hope (希望の友), however the title was subsequently changed to Shōnen World (少年ワールド) and then ultimately Comic Tom (コミックトム) over the course of its run in an attempt to change the overall image of the magazine.
What it's about
Although Buddha ultimately tells the epic story of Siddhartha Gautama, the man destined to become the Buddha, the story actually begins with Naradatta, a monk from the upper Brahmin caste looking for someone who will become an enlightened Buddha. Along the way, his story becomes entangled with Tatta, a child-thief from the lowest Pariah caste who is able to possess the bodies of animals, and Chapra, a young boy from the lowly Shudra slave caste who escapes his fate by saving the life of a well-known Kosalan general and being adopted as his son.
It is into this world of injustice, where society is ruled by a rigid and unforgiving caste system, that a very special little baby is born - Siddhartha Gautama. Growing up in Kapilavastu, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, the first son of King Suddhodana, the leader of the Shakya people, wants for nothing. Yet, despite a veritable legion of tutors, servants and entertainers seeing to his every need, Siddhartha is a sickly child who sleeps often and is generally quite apathetic about his life of privilege. However, when he crosses paths with Tatta, all that begins to change.
The pariah boy who can posses animals talks Siddhartha into seeing the world beyond the palace walls, and takes him on a literally life-changing adventure. Already unhappy with the perceived injustice of the caste system, Siddhartha is soon forced to confront the human realities of age, disease, and death. The experience sees him reject his arranged marriage to a young princess named Yashodhara, and sets him on the path to spirituality. And so, at the age of 29, Siddhartha decides to become a monk, cuts his hair and sets off into the wild - leaving his wife and young child behind.
Along the way, Siddhartha teams up with Dhepa, a monk who has burned out his own eye, and Assaji, a well-meaning but hapless child. At first Siddhartha attempts to follow Dhepa's generally-accepted teachings - that holiness can only be achieved through dangerous torturous personal ordeals. As such, he subjects himself to several self-damaging "trials" in the sacred Forest of Uruvela, many of which very nearly cost him his life. As luck would have it though, he's continually rescued by passersby and these acts of kindness influence him more than the rigid teachings of his fellow monks.
And so, while meditating under a Pippala tree, Siddhartha finally gains the enlightenment he has been seeking. Renamed as the Buddha, he begins to teach others about this new path to enlightenment.
What you should know
Buddha (1972-83) is often compared to another of Tezuka's sweeping epics, Phoenix (1967-88), and while both explore many of Tezuka's favourite themes such as the cycles of life and death, they also share another link. In 1972, with the demise of Mushi Productions' flagship anthology magazine, COM, Phoenix (1967-88) was left without a home. As such, Ushio Shuppan Co. suggested to Tezuka that he continue the publication of Phoenix (1967-88) in their magazine, Friends of Hope (希望の友). Unfortunately, since Friends of Hope (希望の友) was primarily a boys' magazine targeting a much younger audience than COM, Tezuka decided against it. However, instead, Tezuka suggested a different a biographical series on the historical figure of Siddhartha.
Of course, never one to let facts (or the absence of them) get in the way of telling a good story, Tezuka decided create a semi-fictionalized biography of the Buddha - one that didn't simply focus on Siddhartha's spiritual journey towards enlightenment. Instead, Tezuka crafted an tale that relies heavily on action to move the plot along (not something normally associated with long stretches of self-reflective meditation), and one that relies on a large cast of characters, some only interacting indirectly with the main protagonist.
Also, given the fact that Tezuka is best described as a Humanist, rather than a Buddhist, many of the views presented lean in that direction. While the teachings may not adhere strictly to Buddhist doctrine, Tezuka's central message that "all life is sacred" comes shinning through. Through this, Tezuka is able to explore the injustice wrought by the caste system and the inhumane treatment of people in a land plagued by constant drought, famine and warfare.
Where you can get it
Luckily, for English-speaking fans, Buddha was published by Vertical Inc. in 2003. Originally released as a set of eight hardcover volumes, this edition featured award-winning cover designs by Chip Kidd, which, when complete, shows three images of the Buddha along the spine - something that looks fabulous when lined up on a bookshelf. After the original hardcover editions were out of print, Vertical Inc. republished Buddha in a very nice softcover, eight volume, trade paperback edition.