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Zen Survivor

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"Endure. In enduring, grow strong."
Dak'kon, Planescape: Torment

A character who has been through utter hell, and came out sad, cynical, and Wise Beyond Their Years. Part of their wisdom is knowing that it is wasted on most people, so they don't go around babbling it to everybody. Instead, they wait until they see somebody who is worthy, and serve as the worthy one's Mentor.

Like an ancient Zen master, a Zen Survivor never gives straight advice. Instead they speak in odd riddles and hints, delighting in Cryptic Conversation. They also make bizarre demands, and do cruel, seemingly pointless things to their student. This is because (also like a Zen master) they have an Omniscient Morality License. They know not just the world but their student better than the student does — each of their cruel tests is designed to teach a lesson, and the lesson is always right.

Usually, the Zen Survivor does this because simply giving advice doesn't convince anybody, whereas odd tests do. If their student is too stubborn to believe them, the Zen Survivor will pretend to give in... and provide just enough rope for the student to hang themselves. Inevitably, the student will come crawling back.

Distinct from the All-Powerful Bystander in that they hold back knowledge, not talents or powers.

The Zen Survivor can also be evil and generally realize it themselves, but they justify their actions on the basis of ruthless pragmatism (often in the name of the greater good).


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Gordon Rosewater from The Big O is a low-key example: he built Paradigm City and retired to become a farmer, leaving it in the hands of his son (who has since become the Big Bad). Gordon is fully aware of how evil and stupid his son is, and gives Roger advice on how to deal with him — but always cryptically, so Roger can Figure It Out Himself and thus use it better. Gordon also knows the secret of the show's Ontological Mystery, but is just as cryptic about this.
  • In Bleach, Urahara's Training from Hell and tragic backstory seem to qualify him.
  • Gatomon from Digimon Adventure whose relentless torture by Myotismon made her wiser and stronger to the point that she naturally evolved into champion level.
  • Archer from Fate/stay night from his hellish past down to the twin-dao falchions he wields. He constantly gives Shirou 'advice' in the form of insults and degrading comments (and at least a few cryptic lines here and there), because as Shirou's future self, he knows exactly what Shirou needs to learn or do to improve himself, or at least how to avoid the path that Archer took.
  • Meta Knight from Kirby: Right Back at Ya! often acts this way to Fumu (and sometimes Kirby).
  • Neo Roanoke of Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny functions as an Evil Mentor to the three Extended, all while still projecting the Big Brother Mentor vibe that Mu la Flaga had in the last show for good reason. The results are not pretty.
    • Kira Yamato has also become one of these.
  • Monster has a nod to this trope with Wolf, Rosso, and even Bonaparta.
    • Runge gets in on the act as well.
  • Itachi Uchiha from Naruto fits this trope to a T. He's been through more hell than almost any other character in the series, and that's saying a lot. First he was caught in a war at the ripe old age of four, then he was forced to kill most of his clan, induce the hatred of the only family he had left, and leave the village and fend for himself among terrorists who alternately threatened him or outright tried to steal his body, all with his massive trauma totally untreated. To make matters worse, he had to pretend to be OK with this for eight years afterward, while trying to avoid killing the people who attacked him without realizing he was on their side. All in all, it's a wonder he even cares enough to bother giving people like Naruto and Sasuke warnings, cryptic advice, and bits of power in the form of transplanted eyeballs and force-fed crows.
  • Gendo Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion. A bitter, hardened genius who forces his son Shinji to go through hell 'for his own good' — and it's kept unclear until the very end whether it really is for Shinji's own good or just evil. It turns out it's just because he thinks he'd be a crappy dad.
  • "Dark Prince" Silver Rayleigh takes this role to Luffy in One Piece. He was the vice-captain of the Gold Roger Pirates, has been to the New World and back, and now spends his times at a bar, fairly annoyed by the new age of pirates coming and going. He takes a liking to Luffy, and after the Marineford War arc, takes two years to teach Luffy how to use Haki.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Homura Akemi has survived the horrors of magical girl life and has grown both strong and wise because of it. Her teaching is blunt and summed up in "Don't become a Magical Girl." No one listens.
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann with Lordgenome. The Anti-spirals almost, but not quite, fit as they foresee the hell down the road and stop themselves before reaching it. Then simply kill anyone who nears their road block. If only they were a bit less vague in their answers once they did talk...

    Comic Books 
  • Uncle Scrooge has gone through several levels of hell in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. He usually allows Donald Duck to get into trouble knowing the lessons will be worth it. "Someone's about to learn a lesson, lads." What's more, Donald and his nephews are worthy of Uncle Scrooge's wisdom and money... he'll just never tell them that.
  • High school outcast Shelley in The Underburbs.
  • V in V for Vendetta. Though not as much in the movie.

    Films — Animated 
  • In Kung Fu Panda 2, Master Shifu tells Po that some masters achieve inner peace through great pain and suffering. Played for Laughs as he then goes on to say that seeing Po's selection as the Dragon Warrior was that pain for himself.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid seems to be nothing more than an eccentric but Nice Guy neighbor. When Daniel asks him to teach him Karate, Mr. Miyagi seems to instead trick Daniel into doing household chores, cleaning the car, painting the house, etc. Daniel doubts Miyagi, but in a roundabout way he had been teaching Daniel the necessary muscle-memory for basic Karate moves. The trope comes in full force when his backstory is revealed: he fought in WWII, and while away his family died in an internment camp. Rather than rage or despair, he eventually comes out of it wiser and without carrying grudges or hate, allowing him to ignore attacks on his ego and pride, attacks that the violent, arrogant leader of rival Karate studio Cobra Kai is most certainly not immune to.
  • The version of Pei Mei seen in the Kill Bill movies fits this trope. He is pretty nasty and cruel but he's been isolated so long that he can at least value a little company so he takes students.
  • In The Mask of Zorro (1998), the original Zorro, Don Diego, plays this role.
  • Sue in The Rage: Carrie 2. She was one of the few survivors of Carrie's rampage in the original film, and is now a school psychiatrist. When she learns about Rachel's powers, she immediately steps in to try to help her, hoping to prevent her from going nuclear like Carrie did. She fails, and gets killed for her effort.
  • This is what Sidney Prescott becomes after surviving the horrors of the Scream movies, specially after the events of the second movie. Poor girl needs to catch a break.
  • Star Wars has both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Obi-Wan, in particular, shows a stark contrast from his sarcastic Cynical Mentor persona in the prequels to his wise, peaceful older self in the original trilogy.
  • Kevin Flynn in TRON: Legacy, as compared to the brash, headstrong person he was in the original.

  • Shogo Kawada from Battle Royale. He's the "winner" of the previous year's Program, and never really explained himself fully to his allies, even though he wound up doing almost all the work.
  • Christine Summerfield by the end of the Faction Paradox novel Dead Romance, which explains why she has been telling the story in the weird way she is.
  • The Victors of The Hunger Games, in a degree.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Lazarus Long is a Zen Survivor. Over two thousand years old, his utter hell has been watching the people he loves grow old and die while he lives on. He flat out tells Ira Weatheral that he doesn't give advice because people learn — if they learn at all — from experience.
  • Thorkell, the burnt-out Erling raider in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of the Sun. He's old, tired, estranged from his son, and all but ready to go. Yet despite this, he's oddly at peace with the world, figuring that whatever happens, happens, and spends most of the book as an odd sort of Mentor to Alun and Aethelbert, who desperately need the guidance.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angel: Wesley's new, grizzled look is a perfect fit for Los Angeles under permanent midnight. He gets even more philosophical when he's deep into the whiskey.
  • Babylon 5: Commander Jeffrey Sinclair is very much one of these as Entil'zha of the Rangers, playing the "never give a straight answer" part of the trope to the hilt.
    Marcus Cole: There was a saying on Minbar, anyone who wanted to get a straight answer out of Ranger One was to look at every reply in a mirror while hanging upside down from the ceiling.
    Captain Sheridan: Did it work?
    Marcus Cole: Oddly enough, yes! Or after a while you passed out and had a vision. Either way the result was pretty much the same.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Subverted Trope with the Watcher's Council, who do cruel, apparently stupid things "for the Slayer's own good" that turn out to be... just cruel and stupid; naturally, Buffy tells them off and mutinies.
  • Degrassi: The Next Generation:
    • Ellie Nash in her early appearances was a grim goth/punk who befriended fallen popular girl Ashley and taught her how to cope with life as an outcast. Ellie rarely spoke, and stood up to The Alpha Bitch by simply refusing to obey, without arguing. She would often follow Ashley while silently nodding or shaking her head. In one episode, Ashley tries to make up with her old friends but fails — and the camera panned out to reveal Ellie, who made a dry, almost Zen-like remark about the futility of popularity in school.
    • When Ellie evolved out of this part, other Degrassi characters took her place. At various points, Manny, Tracker, Ashley, Spinner, Jimmy, Paige, and Alex have all become a Zen Survivor (and ceased to be one after a few episodes).
  • Heroes: "Claude Rains": his training of Peter is brief, brutal, but very helpful (though he gets some things wrong), and he definitely fits the Backstory requirements.
  • Highlander: Methos is one of these, and much like the page quote his general attitude is summed up in a piece of advice to MacLeod; 'Live, grow stronger, fight another day'.
  • House: The title character is this to pretty much everyone in the show, but particularly to whoever is playing the Moral Guardian this season.
  • Life: Charlie Crews, the hero, a homicide detective wrongfully accused of murder but proven innocent after 12 years of hard time, is explicitly into Zen, although in his case somewhat twisted as he did go a bit nuts in the Big House.
  • Lost:
    • John Locke comes close to this trope. His life pre-island was phenomenally depressing, but on the island, he arguably has the most key moments of the main cast (he ranks at least third to Sayid and Sawyer), and even has a few bizarre tests to put other characters (and sometimes even himself) through. He's also got a strong cryptic streak.
    • Rose Nadler is incredibly calm after the initial crash, so much so that Jack worries she's in shock and isn't processing what happened. She insists that her husband, who was in a different part of the plane, has survived even when the rest of the group assume he's dead. Her faith turns out to be justified when Bernard turns up alive leading to a Big Damn Reunion when he makes it to the main camp.
  • Revolution: Rachel Matheson seems to be acting as this for Aaron Pittman. Her backstory is quite sad, and she is quite cryptic with just about everybody. She seems to be testing him to see how far he will go to achieve a goal.
  • Smallville: Lionel Luthor is this to his son, Lex Luthor. By screwing with Lex's head, Lionel hopes to turn his son into the man he always wanted him to be.
  • South of Nowhere: Ashley is a high school girl with negligent parents who had a miscarriage, lost her boyfriend, and came out as bisexual — all during the Backstory. She serves as a teacher and love interest to the heroine, teaching her about sexual orientation and what kind of people can be trusted. Ashley abuses her Omniscient Morality License to absurd levels — anything she does, no matter how callous, is always for the best.
  • True Detective: Matthew McConaughey's Detective Rustin Spencer "Rust" Cohle offers a solid example.

    Video Games 
  • Nessiah in Blaze Union. Jury's out on whether he's actually evil or just kind of messed up, but depending on the route he's either the team's mentor or the antagonist.
  • Zhi Wong in Dead Rising 3 seems like this, but he isn't. He acts like a calm, stereotypical old monk (in the middle of a Zombie Apocalypse, no less), but that's a pretense. He's really got a horrible temper and kills other survivors for disturbing his meditation. And his "wisdom" is all about lashing out in anger.
  • Final Fantasy X's Auron plays the obvious mentor in the game's tutorial, and after a temporary disappearance, joins the party after a crisis as a powerhouse fighter and the cryptic, all-knowing stoic. It's understandable why: after going through the grueling Summoner's Journey once, he underwent The Reveal that the entire religion was a hoax and had to witness his Summoner get murdered while his other Guardian was turned into the next beast to torment the universe. Oh, and Yunalesca kills him for good measure. He then is charged with living in Fake Zanarkand for a decade to tutor Jecht's son.
    • In perhaps his most triumphant example of this trope, Auron hides the critically-important fact that completing her pilgrimage will kill Yuna from Tidus until the most emotionally-traumatizing moment possible. This is very deliberate: Auron wants Tidus to be as shocked and disgusted by the revelation as possible, so that he'll be more motivated to try and find an alternative.
    • It's worth noting that just by going through the pilgrimage until you reunite with Auron will you understand why he's doesn't just tell them. Picture this: You and only you know your religion is crap but you're in a team full of people (sans Rikku, but even then she and by extension the Al Bhed doesn't really have an alternative to stopping anything) who know that Yevon and Sin is THE ONLY way of life in their world and trying to go against it will earn you disbelief and scorn, not to mention the Church likely to take an extensive interest in your head. Only by allowing the exposure of their hypocrisy in person would it allow the devoted such as Wakka and Lulu to really see what the score is; ostensibly, the same way he did himself. As he said earlier: "Had I told you, would it have stopped you?"
  • Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords could practically be this trope's patron saint. She's both a fallen Jedi and a fallen Sith and now occupies a strange middle road in the Force, dispensing her bitterly-earned wisdom to the main character.
  • Samara in Mass Effect 2, an asari Matriarch who is an ascetic warrior-monk hunting down a mass-murderer who is her daughter.
  • Snake of Metal Gear is generally aloof and cynical around his impromptu protege love interest throughout the course of the game. He gets some perspective on his life through the process, and becomes a mentor in the sequel.
  • In Planescape: Torment, one of the NPCs you can add to your party, Dak'kon, is a weathered old githzerai who follows a path of wisdom that relies on hidden truths and occasionally contradictory secrets. However, if the player character becomes intelligent and wise enough, he can turn it around and start teaching the Zen Survivor. Of course, given the player character's backstory, he could easily be something of a Zen Survivor, too... It turns out the path of wisdom he follows was made by you in the past, albeit only as a way to ensure Dak'kon's eternal loyalty towards you.
  • In Togainu no Chi, albeit less so in his own route.
  • Medivh from Warcraft, as of the third game. After being defeated in 1, he makes a Heel–Face Turn, and becomes a prophet, uniting the three living races (orcs, humans, night elves) against the Scourge. His role in World of Warcraft seems to be less prominent.
  • Marlowe in Visions & Voices.

  • From Girl Genius, Klaus Wulfenbach. Having to go through the pain of a world destroyed by pointless wars made him a bit more cynical. Surviving his lover and a few of his close friends also jaded him. In a slight subversion, he doesn't passively dole out advice. He uses his knowledge to seize and 'fix' the world. The motto on his empire's flag is "Don't make me come over there."

    Western Animation 
  • Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In his past, he was a famed general who lost his only son in a war, and subsequently lost his will to fight. He now serves as a mentor to his nephew, Zuko.
    • Also, Jeong Jeong, who is convinced that fire is a destructive force, to Aang, telling him to be prudent.