The Buddhist Heart of Star Wars
by Frederick Brenion
Dont you love a good story? I grew up hearing them when I was little. Many days were usually brought to a close with a story at bedtime. My vacation times and weekends were filled with the reading of stories. As an adult I continue to enjoy stories, whether as book, television, or movie, whether presented on stage or in song. I believe I can say that my life has been formed and directed by stories. It is where I first found wisdom, learned knowledge, and received guidance on the storied path of life and love. Some stories were fictional. Some actually happened. And of course, we talk and share about ourselves in the form of stories. Indeed gossiping is often our chief form of story telling activity. And we constantly revise our stories to reflect what we want to believe about ourselves. Above all it is stories that form the guts and sinews of our religions, our mythologies, our ethnic, and our national identities. It is particularly those stories that express our "ultimate concerns" that move us at the deepest levels, and make us do either the most wonderful or the most horrific things. Whatever stories we have encountered we are all fascinated by them. We love to share them, participate in them in our imaginations and dreams. They help give form to our experiences, collectively and individually.
During the 1970s many of us shared in an incredible story called "Star Wars: A New Hope." It was a rollicking adventure of good versus evil, with excitement and explosions galore. We met a beautiful princess, a scoundrel with a fast ship, and the greatest of all bad guys: Darth Vader who had killed Lukes father. We saw ourselves in a young farm hand, Luke Skywalker, and learnt about the Jedi and the Force, and if we could but trust The Force we could do anything. We had a good teacher to guide us too, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And we all wanted a light saber, fight the good fight, and win! We wanted to be Jedi Knights and have the Force flow through us. It was fun. It was a touch of life we only dreamed about. What more could we ask?
We did ask, and we got a sequel: "The Empire Strikes Back." And the sequel transformed the story. It grew up. Yes there were still the excitements, explosions, and an incredible chase through the asteroids. Love was awakened between Princess Leia and Han Solo, but the lovers were separated when Han Solo was encased in carbonite and shipped off to Jabba the Hutt. We saw briefly the Emperor, more evil than Vader, but we saw, also briefly, the back of Vaders head. We knew that whatever monster Vader might be, this man had suffered, and suffered deeply. There is a hint too that there is more behind Vaders mask when the Emperor asks that "the son of Skywalker" must be destroyed and Vader calmly suggests that instead he be turned to the "Dark Side." Luke, the center focus of the Emperors and Vaders machinations, goes to find more Jedi training and meets the greatest of all teachers in the form of Yoda. We marveled at the Zen like teachings that Yoda gave, "Do, dont try!" We learn more of the Force. That "Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are wenot this crude matter. You must feel the force around you, here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere." And we shuddered at the foreboding encounter in the cave where Luke fights an image of Vader and finds its his own face behind the mask, the inner darkness of himself that he must learn to conquer. When the real encounter arrives at last we were all riveted and horrified when Vader slices Lukes hand off with his Light Saber, and then the gasp that went from one end of the theater to the other as Vader told Luke the truth, that he was Lukes father. Evil was not just a cardboard character; it was our source, our origin. And in the midst of pain and anguish Vader tempts Luke to join him and together to overthrow the emperor and rule the galaxy. Luke, in complete despair, rejects Vader and casts himself away, where he is soon rescued by his friends, but groaning to the spirit of Obi-Wan "Why?"
It is in the third movie, "Return of the Jedi," that all the big questions are answered and the final crisis is set up. Yes, Luke is indeed the son of Vader. Yes, Obi-Wan and Yoda did not fully tell Luke the truth, but truth is a "point of view," and everything depends on ones point of view. A disturbing thing for people who like their truths simple and absolute. And from Obi-Wans and Yodas point of view, if the galaxy is to be saved Luke must confront and kill his father.
This is the most extraordinary part of the story. The two teachers that Luke trusts have both deceived and lied to him, though Yoda may well have given him a hint at the encounter in the cave scence when Luke saw his own face behind Vaders mask. Luke has been set up to do what they couldnt do. To save all Luke must commit what is considered to be one of the highest sins of humanity, to kill ones father. The crime of Oedipus writ large upon the Galaxy. Indeed, one must wonder if they would have kept secret Lukes real relationship with Leia and add the possibility of incest to Lukes path. But when he learns that the "Other" that Yoda mentioned in "Empire," is his sister, Lukes deepening insight enlightens him that it is Princess Leia, and accepts his true relationship towards her as her brother.
This is Lukes problem. His fathers solution is for Luke to help kill the Emperor and join him in ruling the galaxy. Yodas and Obi-Wans solution is for Luke to kill his father and destroy the Emperor. Eventually at the time of the final fight, the Emperor will urge Luke to kill his father and take his place at the Emperors side. Either way Luke must kill. Either way he will be in darkness, as a young Dark Lord of the Sith, or as a killer of his father. Luke however has a different plan, born of his deepest insight. He will not kill his father but seek to save him. He knows that he can do this. He senses that there is still good in Vader. There is a spark of goodness that can be fanned back towards the light. Obi-Wan rejects this plan; Vader can never be turned. Those who embrace the Dark Side are forever lost. There is no redemption for such. Lukes plan must end in failure. It is remarkable that Obi-Wans views are like those who opposed the teaching in the Tannisho that Amidas merciful vow is much more for the evil person. And so Luke leaves to face his final crisis. His teachers are left in sadness at the coming triumph of Darkness, all their hopes destroyed. Yet one can begin to see that their hopes were born in a falsehood which has darkness at the heart of it. They talk of "trusting" the Force, yet they cannot trust that Luke may himself be guided by the Force in his decision.
This blindness of Yoda and Obi-Wan can already be seen underway in the new film trilogy that George Lucas is producing, chronicling the downfall of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. In "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones," we see unrest among some of the Jedi, including Obi-Wans own teacher Qui-Gon Jinn. We see the Jedi unable to realize the growing presence of evil in the person of Senator Palpatine, who is advising them to his own purposes. The Jedi has become pretty much an arm of the government, much like many religious organizations throughout history. They may have redeemed Anakin from slavery on Tatooine, yet they leave his mother, and slavery intact on that world, and thus sew a seed that will erupt in Anakins growing anger and anguish. One of the telling moments in "Clones" is when it is revealed that Anakin is troubled by dreams of his mother. Obi-Wan, dismisses them as just dreamsa very un-Jedi response! It is this dismissal by Obi-Wan that is to spell tragedy for Anakin later. Puzzlement too is created by the mysterious way in which a Jedi apparently ordered the creation of a clone army. Yet instead of investigating further the strangeness of this, we see Yoda taking possession of it and leading the attack against the droid forces. Blindness is definitely a growing trait of the once-great Jedi, and they blindly dig the grave that will later bury them.
Here we must now pause and ask what has all this to do with Buddhism? How does the Star Wars series explicate Buddhist teachings particularly as represented in the Pure Land path?
From the beginning it has been noticed that Lucas presentation of the Force and of the Jedi bear remarkable similarities to eastern religious teachings, particularly Buddhism. Lucas, in numerous interviews, has acknowledged as much. At first the movie references were mild, and more to help the plot along, but it is when we first meet Yoda that we are struck by the similarities between him and the examples and teachings of many Zen-masters. Later in "Phantom Menace" we meet Padme Amidala, whose name, Padme, is that of "Lotus" from the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum," and Amidala, a feminine form for the Buddha Amida, the central figure in Pure Land beliefs, who will be the love interest for Anakin Skywalker, and the future mother of Leia and Luke. But it is in "Attack of the Clones" that we receive the strongest signal yet of the centrality of Buddhist thought in the Jedi. In a discussion Padme asks Anakin if Jedi are even allowed to "love," because already Anakin is presenting his feelings towards her. He says: "Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedis life, so you might say were encouraged to love." Even though this was presented briefly in the film, we see laid out the drama that will unfold for Anakin Skywalker. It is attachment that will bring about Anakins downfall. In a Time magazine interview Lucas himself says: "He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He cant let go of his mother; he cant let go of his girlfriend. He cant let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when youre greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear youre going to lose things, that youre not going to have the power you need." Whatever the cost will be, Anakin will have his way. In the Buddhist program getting rid of attachments is of tremendous importance. It is our attachments that blind and hobble us. Much of Buddhist practice is devoted to discovering our attachments and getting rid of them. But of even more importance, and really forming the basis or ability for ridding oneself of attachments is that of compassion. It is, as Anakin said, "central to a Jedis life." And it is central to that of the Bodhisattva life, and the life of a Buddha. Of course, for Anakin, he is more interested in the amorous side of Love, and that will certainly lead him to develop more of the attachments that such love will bring, as opposed to the deeper aspects of self-giving and self-sacrifice that compassionate love brings. It is of course not necessarily wrong that Anakin loves Amidala. Marriage is not wrong for a Buddhist, even if most schools of Buddhism prefers the monastic state to the lay. One could draw interesting parallels between Anakin and Shinran Shonin, whose marriage, as a Buddhist priest, caused consternation in the orders of his time. One can easily predict that Anakins and Padmes marriage will also create discord for the Jedi. As an aside I would predict that it will be the reactions of the Jedi that may well force Anakin towards the Dark Side.
It is the key role of Compassion however that provides the resolution to the Star Wars series and brings about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. And it is here that we must look clearly at the teachings of Jodo Shinshu as the logical working out of this central theme of Star Wars.
In Jodo Shinshu thought much is made of what is called "Tariki" or "Other Power", as opposed to "Jiriki""Self Power." Jiriki is a "striving for enlightenment through our contrivance." We do it ourselves, by our own means, for our own purposes. It is the "Self," and our attachment towards that "Self" that makes Jiriki an impossible means of achieving enlightenment. It is like pulling oneself up by ones own bootstraps. Much Buddhist teachings can be seen as pointing the way towards this and gaining that "Aha!" moment, as in Zen, where one finally "gets it." But it is hard to do, and for most of us, it is near impossible. Thus the way of "Tariki""Other Power." It is relying on "grace," the primal vow of Amida, to carry us through. In fact Amida has already brought us through. Tariki tells us that "the way" has already been accomplished. One is already enlightened, its just that you dont know it yet. It is fully trusting in Tariki, or if you will, fully trusting in the Force, that brings about the victory. It is letting go of the contrivances of the self , the Other Power flowing through us that is the life of Jodo Shinshu, and if you will, "Jedi Shinshu," for it is complete surrender to the Force that is the true pure essence of the Jedi. And that surrender is supremely expressed as compassion. Compassion is the key to Jodo and the key to being Jedi.
What is compassion? It is not just having feelings of sympathy, it is literary to be there completely with another. It is to be there "with passion." It is to be totally involved. It is to empty oneself and be filled with the other, so that it is only the other in you. It is to know and feel as the other knows and feels. Full compassion has no self in it. It is this emptying of oneself that is the heart of the core Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata. Sunyata properly speaking is better translated as self-emptying as opposed to the traditional "emptiness." It is the Love at its greatest and deepest.
In the Star War universe the master of Jiriki is the Emperor with Darth Vader his apprentice. For the Emperor, it is all the Self. The whole galaxy bent to his will and service. Nothing flows out of the Emperor, all must flow to him and him alone. He cannot love, he can show no compassion to all.
In the Star Wars universe, who is the master, if that can ever be the right word, of Tariki? It is not Yoda and Obi-Wan. From the Jodo Shinshu perspective Yoda and Obi-Wan, indeed the Jedi Order itself is what one would call the "Mixed School" approach, the use of "Self and Other." The Jedi know enough to "trust" the Force, but they also want to direct and control it as well. Each Jedi must make his own light saber as a sign of his mastery of the Force. The Jedi channels and uses the Force, albeit for "good." The Jedi can do great things, and in the Jodo Shinshu perspective one can possibly achieve enlightenment in the "Way of the Sages," but it is fraught with difficulty, and the ever presence of the Self can bring corruption and disaster. Again I shall go out on a limb and suggest that the "unbalance" felt by the Jedi in the Force may well have been their own doing. For it is by mixing Tariki with Jiriki that the flow of the Force which is Compassion is blocked and they are blinded to the evil close to them. I suspect that it will be the Jedi who will drive Anakin into embracing the Dark Side as he struggles to find balance. Only the next movie will answer this.
So where do we find Tariki in Star Wars? It is found by Luke, but only at great cost and realization to himself at the supreme point of crisis.
To see this let us return to the final fight at the end of "Return of the Jedi." Luke has turned himself into the Emperors forces in order to save his friends from discovery on the moon of Endor. He meets Vader and acknowledges his father, but tells Vader that it is Anakin he senses. Vader tells him he is wrong, Anakin is dead inside and Luke will serve the Emperor. But even then we later see Vader turn away for a moment and the signs of conflict are now brewing in him. In the presence of the Emperor the battle is soon prepared. The Emperor taunts Luke, showing him the hopelessness of his situation. The rebels will soon be doomed, Lukes friends will be doomed, and it is time to submit. He taunts Luke to give in to his inner anger, and Luke almost slips, but holds back. Luke still struggles with Jiriki within. He engages soon in light saber battle with his father, and yet struggles to hold back. The Emperor gleefully cajoles him to give into the Dark Side. Vader too entreats him. Luke hides himself into the shadows, refusing to fight and Vader goes in looking after him, probing him. Through a slip of the mind the secret of Lukes sister is revealed to Vader, and with the realization that if Luke wont be turned to the Dark then the sister could does Evil see the completion of its triumph, and Luke must now act against his father. And herein lies the beginning of Evils unmaking brought about by Evil itself, for Luke fights not out of anger and hate of his father, but fights out of love for his sister. This is the beginning of Lukes Tariki. He fights out of compassion for Leia. Vader receives the full brunt of Lukes Force and is driven down, until finally Luke cuts off Vaders sword hand and a new deeper truth is revealed to Luke. For his fathers hand is mechanical as his own is. He is indeed his fathers son. He is at the same point is father was so long ago. He is no different, no better, and no worst, he is just his fathers son. No hate, no anger, he is where his father is, the "where" that is the necessary condition for compassion to arise, for Tariki to flow, binding and connecting all life together, the Force. The Emperor has lost, Luke is a Jedi now, like his father before him. With that he casts away his Light Saber, the symbol of former Jedi mixed practice, and stands now erect before the Emperor, all Luke has, or now needs, is compassion on his side. He has spared his father, he will not, cannot hate anymore.
Jiriki in the presence of Tariki can only do one thing, and that is what the Emperor does. The fullness of the Darkness that the Emperor has become is unleashed on Luke and there is nothing Luke can do to defend himself. For to defend is an act of the Self and Luke has moved beyond it. Vader, like a wounded dog, moves to his masters side and gazes at the scene. He looks to his master, he looks to the son, and the conflict within him reaches its height. Luke has opened a door for him. Luke saw good in him, even as he was going to threaten Lukes sister. Luke was about to kill Vader, and yet held back, and accepted his father. Luke is all that Anakin might have been, which is all that any father can hope for in their son. And so it is that Anakins redemption is brought about, by the opening up of compassion within him. It is enough Tariki now for Anakin to do what Yoda and Obi-Wan couldnt do and would have had Luke to do in the wrong way. Anakin, no longer Vader, picks up the Emperor and casts him down to his destruction. In the aftermath of the battle, Anakin asks Luke to remove his mask so he can see his son with his own eyes at last. Luke wants to save his dying father, but his father tells Luke, "You have already saved me." It is when full compassion flows between two people that love is present, the true Force that binds all together. The old prophecy is fulfilled and balance brought to the Force, for there is balance now between father and son. The only response to compassion is compassion. Love to love. Tariki to Tariki.
And the end of the matter is this: At the final scene Luke has already committed his fathers body to the flames, and as he watches he sees Yoda, Obi-Wan, and yes, his father, Anakin, bathed in Light and Life. Now he can join the celebration.
Namu Amida Butsu,
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