If you haven’t yet seen Puella Magi Madoka Magica / Mahou Shoujo Madoka Majika you should do so before reading this post or the posts I link to. Don’t let me spoil what is probably the best anime of the year.
Yi has written a very extensive post called Birth of a Goddess, Madoka’s Path to Nirvana – A Study of Buddhism. You might also find my general notes on Buddhism and anime helpful.
I have only a few minor points to add to Yi’s analysis. One concerns the symbolism of Homura. Her name means “blaze” or “flame”, which in Buddhist terms immediately suggest Acala (Fudou Myou-ou) the greatest of the Wisdom Kings, who is always depicted with a flaming aura. Wisdom Kings are spiritually advanced beings who have not fully attained enlightenment. Their attachments and aversions consist of a total devotion to the buddhas and bodhisattvas and a fierce enmity toward all forms of ignorance and delusion. Homura is notable for her unwavering devotion to Madoka (the future bodhisattva) and her fierce opposition to Kyuubee’s deceptions.
Yi and most of her commenters seem to feel that Madoka becomes a bodhisattva but then goes on to enter Nirvana and become a buddha. That doesn’t sound right to me. A bodhisattva is supposed to be an enlightened being who has the option of escaping Samsara (suffering) and entering Nirvana, but who makes a vow to remain in Samsara until all sentient beings can attain enlightenment. The bodhisattva voluntarily chooses to continue to suffer in order to help those left behind to escape from their suffering. (Being enlightened, the bodhisattva is motivated by boundless compassion, not attachments.)
Madoka is repeatedly described as becoming a “goddess.” In traditional Buddhist terms a “god” is an inhabitant of the realm of Deva (Heaven) which is still part of Samsara. Even the gods suffer. A bodhisattva can certainly take the form of a goddess, but a buddha is never described in such terms.
Incidentally the place full of stars and planets where Madoka has her final interview with Homura seems based on traditional Chinese descriptions of Heaven.
On her way to becoming a goddess Madoka meets with Mami and Kyouko in Mami’s apartment. These are the two magical girls who died without becoming witches. It is a common belief among East-Asian Buddhists that the spirits of the dead wander the Earth for 49 days before going on to their next life. Since only a couple of weeks have passed since their deaths their spirits are available to have tea and cake with Madoka, and to be reborn in her reconstructed world where they are presumably destined to have longer lives.
Some people have suggested that Walpurgisnacht was actually Homura as a witch, using her time-travel powers to come back and bedevil Homura and her friends on all time lines. (See the comments to Kurogane’s post.) I think this is probably correct. Note that Walpurgisnacht is suspended from a giant pair of gears, resembling the gears in Homura’s time-controlling shield.
Also note that when Madoka destroys the witches she approaches each witch, then confronts the original magical girl at the moment of her death, purifying her Soul Gem. When she approaches Walpurgisnacht the one she confronts is Homura. Due to the time travel aspect, Homura never actually became the witch, thus she survives the encounter.